Review – Comedy Crate at V&B, Northampton, 5th December 2023

Comedy CrateThe Comedy Crate took over the upstairs room at V&Bs yesterday for another cracking night of comedy in one of Northampton’s most upmarket venues! The layout and seating had improved from the last show back in October and the town’s comedy fans enjoyed a veritable feast of hilarity from start to finish with four cracking acts all on top form.

Pete TeckmanOur host, as in October, was local lad Pete Teckman, a jovial japester with an easy style, and a nice way of getting comedy gold from the audience, which this time included my father-in-law, Lord Prosecco, explaining the secret of his youth much to the embarrassment of Mrs Chrisparkle and myself. Pete got to know the marital ins and outs of a few of the punters, and I loved his unique take on connubial Wordle.

Michelle ShaughnessyOur first act, and new to us, was Michelle Shaughnessy, a smart talking cookie from Toronto, coping with a long-distance relationship, and offering brilliant observations about stalking her husband and some blistering couple of lines about landing strip lady gardens. At some point during her routine she twigged that the average age of the V&B audience definitely falls on the mature side, and she nicely tweaked her material to suit us. Confident, ascerbic and very funny, she was a great start to the evening.

Kent CameronNext up, and also new to us, was Kent Cameron, a massive scary deep-voiced pale Scottish ginger, who’s obviously as soft as cottage cheese, and he plays on that juxtaposition between appearance and content absolutely beautifully. He sets up a brilliant rapport with the crowd and we all loved him. He has terrific material – which sounds like it should be challenging but is truly good-natured – about his acromegaly, a form of gigantism. And he finished his set with one of the funniest sequences of stand-up I’ve ever heard, his account of being on the receiving end of a colonoscopy – something that the average age of the audience meant we all knew a lot about. A fantastic new find.

Roger MonkhouseOur headliner, and someone we’ve seen many times, was the irrepressible Roger Monkhouse, with his superbly structured comedy of middle-aged ennui, disdain of young people (not many of those in last night!) and delightfully unreasonable anger at the world in general. A self-confessed 58-year-old, his set was full of hilarious observations, framed by his wonderfully self-deprecating comic persona, and all beautifully delivered. He had us all in the palm of his hand – even if most of us were thinking he was a trifle on the young side.

One of those excellent comedy nights when everyone was a winner. The Comedy Crate return to V&B next year, but meanwhile I’m looking forward to their next show at the Charles Bradlaugh on 14th December!

The Points of View Challenge – Patricia, Edith and Arnold – Dylan Thomas

Dylan ThomasDylan Marlais Thomas (1914 – 1953)

Welsh poet and writer of short stories and screenplays.

Patricia, Edith and Arnold, first published in the collection Portrait of the Artist as a Young Dog in 1940.

Available to read online here.

This is the first of eight stories in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Biography, or Anonymous Narration – Single Character Point of View. From their introduction: “The authors of the next stories do not refer to themselves or tell us how they know what they know. But, of course, there is no narrative without a narrator. True, he does not identify himself, but the materials, the way they are put together, and the choice of words are all his.”

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!

Patricia, Edith and Arnold


Portrait of the Artist as a Young DogOur narrator is fully preoccupied with the playing and games of a young boy, backing his invisible engine into the coal hole, saluting a fireman, being King of the Castle; whereas the boy is occupied with the secret conversations between Patricia, who is looking after him, and Edith, the maid who lives next door. They’re both anxiously planning about how to meet Arnold. Arnold is a young man who has been stringing them both along, seeing Edith on Fridays and Patricia on Wednesdays, writing them both love letters without having any idea that they knew of each other’s existence.

They take the boy to the park – it’s snowing and he’s excited to make a snowman. He’s also quietly curious about meeting Arnold. And while the two women confront the man about his duplicity, the boy runs around teasing, playing and calling out names. Much to Edith’s remorse, Patricia forces Arnold to confirm that it’s she whom he really likes. But when the boy later realises he has left his cap behind, he quietly discovers Arnold reading Edith’s letters, turning them over in his hands; he doesn’t see the boy, and the boy doesn’t tell Patricia what he saw.

This is a subtle, introverted little tale, where the substance of what actually goes on is related to the reader at a tangent to the boy’s games. He doesn’t fully appreciate the truth behind the meeting between Arnold and the two women, and he doesn’t understand why it appears to have such a profound effect on them. It’s just one of those little moments in childhood when you get swept up in an adult activity that you know is important and significant, without having the experience or insight to grasp it fully.

Delicately written and occasionally deliberately obscure, it’s a curious, satisfying read about a domestic, romantic crisis seen through the opaque understanding of the boy. Perhaps it’s even more curious that Dylan chose to not to have the boy narrate the story himself; the presence of the unnamed narrator adds a further dimension of distancing from the nub of the action.

The next story in the anthology is the second to be classified by Moffett and McElheny as Biography, or Anonymous Narration – Single Character Point of View, Horses – One Dash by Stephen Crane.

Review – The Box of Delights, RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 20th November 2023

Box of DelightsThere’s no escaping it – Christmas is coming. The streets of Stratford-upon-Avon are glittering with sparkly lights, snowflakes are projected onto the side of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, and, inside, the RSC’s Christmas production of John Masefield’s much loved children’s book, The Box of Delights, adapted by Piers Torday, is well underway. I say “much loved”; I believe that to be the case, but the book never crossed my path during my childhood or indeed the intervening years. So I went to this production without a preconceived notion of what my ideal Box of Delights would look like.

Kay HarkerKay Harker (funny name for a boy?) is entrusted with this magical box that can basically allow him to do anything. Time travel, flight, shrinking – you name it, the box can do it. Unsurprisingly there are villains out there who would do anything to get their hands on it. But Kay is not the kind of lad to let them get away with anything so unscrupulous as box theft. Cue a lot of sinister looking and sounding baddies wreaking havoc with the great and the good of Tatchester, leading to the big question: will Kay be able to save Christmas? (Spoiler – yes, he does.)

CastI get the feeling that criticising the book and the tale told within it would be committing a cardinal sin – like picking a fight with Moses because you weren’t happy with all ten commandments. It has such a high reputation that you’re on a losing streak if you don’t appreciate it. I have to say that for me personally the story and structure weren’t really my cup of tea; but I know I am in a minority.

PhoenixSo what kind of box of delights is it? It’s a fair mix of scrummy caramels and hazelnut whirls but also with a few uneaten strawberry cremes left behind when the rest of the box has long been scoffed. Production-wise, it’s got a lot going for it. Ben McQuigg and his merry band play Ed Lewis’ score with affection and crispness, contributing significantly towards creating a Christmas vibe. Tom Piper’s set is one of the busiest you’ll ever see on stage, with more nooks and crannies than you can shake a stick at. But it works very well to emphasise the magical elements of the story, with unexpected hideaways for scrobbled individuals (see the show and you’ll understand), and it blends with Prema Mehta’s lighting perfectly, as mood after mood is innovatively suggested against the architectural or domestic backdrop.

BarneyAll the puppetry is excellent, including a very ethereal and proud phoenix; but Barney takes the biscuit for endearing puppet doggies. Accompanied by Rhiannon Skerritt, Barney is perhaps the most lifelike dog (who isn’t really a dog) I’ve ever seen on stage. Not overplayed, not stupidly exhibitionist, but just a lovely, cuddly, friendly dog whom you want to take home with you. He really should have his own TikTok account.

ColeMy main problem with the show was that I found it surprisingly hard to follow. It’s rather stodgy and heavy going at times and the use of English and the accents employed are often stilted and tiresome. Many of the characters are the most exhaustingly posh specimens to be found on a stage, and I did wonder quite how relatable they, and their story, are to modern day audiences. If only the Five Go Mad in Dorset team had seen this first, they would have had a field day! The second act drove the story along a little more clearly but even then, it still got bogged down at times.

PouncerThat said, Stephen Boxer is very impressive as Cole Hawlings/Grandad, full of kindly care and wise words, and a splendid stubborn resistance against the baddies. Nia Gwynne makes for a lively and sparky Pouncer the thieving “Witch”, Callum Balmforth a suitably heroic Kay and Jack Humphrey a delightfully self-aware silly ass of a Peter. There’s excellent support throughout the cast including Timothy Speyer’s nicely pompous Bishop, Melody Brown’s over-enthusiastic Mayor, and Tom Kanji’s snidely sneering Charles.

KidsIf 1930s children’s nostalgia is your thing, then all your wants will be met. It’s a highly competent production and full of Masefieldesque charm; it would have been nice if it had all been just a little more fun.


Production photos by Manuel Harlan

3-starsThree-sy Does It!

Review – British Comedian of the Year Semi Final, The Comedy Crate at the Charles Bradlaugh, Northampton, 19th November 2023

Comedy CrateOnce again the Comedy Crate put the laugh into Bradlaugh with another fun-filled evening of top quality comedy. And once again they host a round in the British Comedian of the Year – progressing from a heat last year to a semifinal this year – next year, surely, they’ve got to host the Final! There’s always a great vibe at the Bradlaugh for Comedy Crate nights, but for this show there was a tangible sense of occasion too; everyone was really up for a great night of comedy – and the eight contestant comedians rose to the challenge.

Jake SteersOur host, new to us, as were all but one of the acts, was Jake Steers, Hemel Hempstead’s finest export, and he had plenty to contend with; second-row Lee sending him a series of curveballs and the accountants’ night out in the front row not being the easiest bunch from whom to coax comedy gold. He explained the set up would be three comics then an interval, then another three, and an interval, and finally the last two comics and the voting. We could all download a QR code which would take us to an online voting form, where we could select our favourite two performers. Northampton’s comedy scene is nothing if not high tech.

Currer BallThe winner receives the numerically palindromic sum of £10,001, which I note hasn’t gone up with inflation. If I were this year’s winner, I’d complain. Each contestant gets approximately ten minutes to deliver their best short sharp routine, and despite the lineup being a little short on diversity (eight white men, but that’s no one’s fault) the variety of material and styles was truly impressive.

Dean-CoughlinFirst up – and in a change to the advertised billing – was Currer Ball, a genial Glaswegian with a likeable personality and a confident manner, who based his routine on his girlfriend who doesn’t exist, and on the consequences of playing games, including an agonising round of Twister. Very good delivery, although some of his material didn’t quite land properly. Act Number 2 was Dean Coughlin, a Liverpudlian with a deceptively laid-back manner and presentation, who had the audience in fits of laughter many times during his short set, with a combination of excellent material and spot-on delivery. michael_shafarAct 3 was Michael Shafar, who has a more sophisticated and cosmopolitan air to him, and whose set revolved around his survival from testicular cancer and being Jewish. Some fairly hard-hitting jokes there, and you have to be right on top of your material to get away with holocaust humour, but he went down well with the audience and nailed most of it.

Mike CoxAct 4, and the only comedian we had seen before, was Mike Cox, who delivered a great, confident set about his domestic relationships; some fairly familiar subject matter but spun in a completely different direction which was absolutely brilliant. Stephen CooksonAct 5 was Stephen Cookson, a slightly more mature kind of guy who has a stock of one-liners and tends towards the absurd. He has a very warm approach to the audience though, and the one-liners that worked were fantastic. We won’t mention the ones that didn’t. Fred FerencziAct 6 was Fred Ferenczi, a quietly spoken, dour chap whose humour is based on the difference between the persona he presents and his subject matter. He laments that he is from Aylesbury and slags it off mercilessly. It makes a change from comedians coming to Northampton and slagging our town off. However, I lived in and around Aylesbury for decades and it really isn’t that bad.

Garrie GrubbAct 7 was Garrie Grubb who has an excellent presence but never quite hit his stride; and when he suggested that some of the audience might be homophobic that was a bit of a turn-off for all of us. Northampton audiences are all sorts of things but homophobic is not one of them. Our final act was Dane Buckley, a fascinating mix of Indian, Irish and gay, with a sprightly delivery and some excellent and inventive material, including possibly the best joke of the night involving his coming out to his Indian grandmother.

Dane BuckleyWe had five minutes to vote and the runner-up was Dean Coughlin and the winner Mike Cox. It was a fabulously entertaining evening and the audience clearly loved every minute of it. Good luck for Messrs Cox and Coughlin for the rest of the competition and commiserations to everyone else. Normally if you were to see a mixed bill of eight comedians you might expect to see at least one dud amongst them – but not last night. The standard was very high. If I were to choose a third placed comic it would be Dane Buckley – I think he was unlucky to have such high quality competition.

Our next Comedy Crate gig will be back at V&B’s bar on Tuesday 5th December. Should be another great night!

Review – Do I Love You? John Godber Company at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 14th November 2023

Do I Love YouJohn Godber’s Do I Love You?, currently touring until early next year, is primarily a love letter to Northern Soul. Confession time: I don’t know much (anything, really) about Northern Soul. I can’t say it ever permeated to the Chiltern village where I was brought up. I knew Skiing in the Snow by Wigan’s Ovation and Footsee by Wigan’s Chosen Few, but that’s it; unless you count The Goodies’ Black Pudding Bertha (she’s the queen of Northern Soul) – but I don’t think you can. It’s a musical subculture that is clearly deeply loved, and maybe its general secretiveness is a major part of its appeal. Certainly, the very full audience at the Royal last night was packed with Northern Soul admirers who swung along to the various tracks that are scattered through the show.

DILYIt’s a deceptively simple play; three twenty-somethings who all grew up together in Hull find their chosen career paths halted by Covid and end up all working at the same fast food drive-through. Sally and Kyle have been besties since playschool, and Nat joined them not much later. One night, they chanced upon a club – the Beachcomber – Cleethorpes for an all-nighter of Northern Soul music, only £3 to get in, where they were amazed to find they were the youngest people there. In a beautiful realisation of the arrogance of youth, they ask themselves how the heck did all these old people learn these dance routines? Their aim is to take their Northern Soul dance act to the Tower Ballroom Blackpool, but only if Sally thinks they’re good enough; it’s as though she’s her own Craig Revel-Horwood. I had no idea that Northern Soul had its own dance style by the way, apparently a kind of sliding gliding that relies on talc and balance.

DILYAt the interval, I was feeling this was a modest, underachieving little play. It has a very in-house feel about it, being the John Godber Company production of a John Godber play, directed by John Godber and with John Godber’s daughter among the cast of three. Rather than using a Paul Mathew style pantechnicon, you can imagine them transporting the set and props from venue to venue using a local man with a van. There was no programme – at least not at last night’s performance – so I can’t name and shame whoever was responsible for the totally inadequate lighting, with members of the cast performing in shadow during some scenes.

I was also underwhelmed by the script which I found repetitive, rather dull and lacking that usual John Godber wit. There should be a legal limit on the number of times the phrase do you want fries with that can be repeated in a play. Yes, we get the drift that it’s designed to show that their jobs were repetitive and dull but is it fair to subject the audience to the same level of repetition with such diligence?!

DILYHowever, the scene just before the interval started to show some promise. Our trio have discovered the Cleethorpes club and have felt its vigour and emotion coursing through their veins for the first time. And it was also the first time that the characters truly came to life. And after the interval, the drive and power of the play continued to burst through the writing. Despite the rather heavy-handed speech by an old-timer (67 years old) at the club about the tradition, heritage, and true meaning of Northern Soul, you begin to realise that this is a celebration of the purity of one’s art. Sally is caught up in an artistic stasis – she can’t dance to it, she can’t sing along, all she can do is watch in awe at the effect the music has on her and others. She realises this thing is bigger than any of them.

DILYThe play also takes on other social issues; not only the devastation caused by Covid, but the general austerity and lack of opportunity in the north that determines one’s complete lifetime. It highlights a problem that’s rarely considered – what happens when a younger person lives with an older person as their carer, and then they die. In an affluent society that means they inherit the property. But in Sally’s world that renders you homeless.

DILYThe three likeable young actors are all superb in their roles and work together as a brilliant ensemble. Chloe Mcdonald accurately portrays Nat, that character who is the third member of a group of three, knowing she can never quite achieve the same bond as the other two. Emilio Encinoso-Gil has an excellent sense for the comedy in some of the best lines as wannabe musical theatre performer Kyle, whose lofty ambitions led to two years dressed as a crocodile. But it is Martha Godber’s Sally who is the lynchpin, and through whom we see the progress of the trio; funny, bossy, caring but also at times completely unreasonable, she gives a terrific performance of a very credible and well-rounded personality.

DILYI was at times reminded of the Victoria Wood sketch where Jim Broadbent is the long-suffering playwright who lives and breathes the pain and misery of the north and is motivated to create his epics to reflect the douleur of the dockers, the railway workers and the steel workers – but lives comfortably in Chiswick. I’m not saying Mr Godber is that person, but the play does have a huge I love the north and all its pain atmosphere about it. Its romanticised and sentimental view of the affection for Northern Soul and its roots is both its strength and its weakness. Mrs Chrisparkle thought they missed a trick by not including a whippet. Clearly she has no heart.

The Northampton audience – mainly made up of people of a certain age who could easily have been at that Cleethorpes club – absolutely loved it. If you’re an aficionado of Northern Soul, you will too. As for the rest of us, there is plenty to admire, but also a little to be cynical about.

Production photos by Ian Hodgson3-starsThree-sy Does It!

Review – Close Up, The Twiggy Musical, Menier Chocolate Factory, London, 22nd October 2023

Close UpI was having second thoughts about seeing this show because the opening a few weeks ago was greeted with a swathe of very iffy reviews. But I can never resist a Menier Sunday matinee, no matter what the show is; and all I can say is, gentle reader, never trust a critic. They (and I include my humble self here) don’t know what they’re talking about. Close Up – The Twiggy Musical is a complete winner from start to finish. In fact it’s rare to find a production that’s outstanding in virtually every department.

TwiggyFor the youngsters among you, Twiggy was the affectionate nickname given to the young (very young, as it turns out) Lesley Hornby back in the mid 1960s, a naïve girl from Neasden who was catapulted to stardom through a modelling career that has certainly lingered over the decades, as has the affection the British public have for this true sixties icon. Ben Elton’s book and lyrics take the form of a kind of a musical docudrama, with Twiggy herself (as performed by Elena Skye) narrating the story of her life,Cast all pleasingly punctuated by vignettes with her parents, Norman and Nell, her best friends Cindy, Sally and Kay, and the major influences on her life, including manager/lover Justin de Villeneuve and first husband Michael Witney. All this is set alongside a musical kaleidoscope of memorable 60s and 70s hits, played by Stuart Morley’s terrific band, and performed with gusto and emotion from the brilliant ensemble cast.

TwiggyIt’s full of funny asides, with loads of nicely judged interaction with the audience so that the fourth wall is in a virtual state of ruins. Elton’s script depicts Twiggy as her own worst enemy; for example, when everyone tells her that she should do X she always does Y (they told me I should leave him, so what did I do? I married him!) Whilst never shying away from the grim reality that frequently lurks barely beneath the surface – underage sex, mental health issues, business disasters, etc – the characters always remain positive and optimistic, always see the best in a situation, and always look to learn from harsh experience to make things better in the future. This helps towards creating a truly feelgood show, full of humour, emotion and life events that we can all recognise.

BabiesAll the creative team make massive contributions to the success of the show. Timothy Bird’s set is beautifully simple, with just a projection screen at the back of the stage and a white roll of film running out from it across the floor. Tim Blazdell’s video design utilises that screen and the back projection wall to terrific effect with contemporary images and films. Philip Gladwell’s lighting design is 100% fab, with psychedelic flashes and moods in all the colours of the swinging sixties, and Jonathan Lipman’s costumes are absolutely spot on in reflecting the daring styles, lurid colour combinations, outlandish fabrics and so on that made the 60s so special. Jacob Fearey’s stunning choreography is full of carefree abandon, love of life, and truly feeling the groove; the ensemble dancers fill the relatively small stage of the Menier with an overwhelming sense of exhilaration and fun.

TwiggyThe whole show revolves around Elena Skye’s performance as Twiggy. She completely looks the part, she has an engagingly honest relationship with the audience, and gives an excellent sense of a character who is frequently out of her depth, anxiously biting her lip, but always willing to give-it-a-go. She was by far the best thing about last year’s touring production of We Will Rock You and, if anything, she is even better in Close Up.

Norman and NellThere are also tremendous performances from Steven Serlin and Hannah-Jane Fox as her parents. Both are blessed with invigorating and expressive voices; Mr Serlin imbues Norman with true warmth and kindness throughout, and comes across as a Dad in a Million. He’s also a devil with those marvellous impersonations of 60s and 70s interviewers! Ms Fox conveys Nell’s sadness and frustration with her own mental health but also overflows with pride and shows how superbly she would encourage her daughter always to be the best she can. Aoife Dunne gives a hilarious performance as Twiggy’s occasionally foul-mouthed friend Cindy, whilst Beth Devine is also impressive as the ever-supportive Sally, Twiggy and Michaeland Lauren Azania AJ King-Yombo excels as her friend Kay, with a beautiful ability to cut the cr*p and tell harsh truths where necessary. Darren Day uses his terrific voice to great effect as Michael Witney, with very moving renditions of Without You and The Air That I Breathe – his Jekyll and Hyde transformations between sober Michael and drunk Michael work very well, and I almost – not quite, but almost – felt a drop of moistness in my eye during his final scene.

Justin de VilleneuveStealing every scene he is in is a tremendously funny and quirky performance by Matt Corner as Twiggy’s Svengali (they hated that word) Justin de Villeneuve. Taking the Mickey out of the character even before he’s on stage, Mr Corner gives him boundless arrogance and endless shiftiness; a brilliant portrayal of someone who blagged their way to success and had absolutely no qualms about creaming the top off other people’s achievements whilst all his own sparkle was a mere façade. Sally, Twiggy and CindySuperb.

The show runs at the Menier until 18th November, but there’s barely a ticket to be had; all I can suggest is that you keep an eye out for returns. Surely this must have a life afterwards! A show that sends you out of the theatre bristling with energy and that sense of privilege that you’ve seen something incredible.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Five Alive, let Theatre Thrive!

Review – Cowbois, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 24th October 2023

CowboisYou could almost taste the anticipatory buzz in the foyers at Stratford yesterday for the press night for Cowbois – Charlie Josephine’s rollicking queer Western, as the RSC has it. I’m not sure what John Wayne would make of it, but the first night audience loved it. Not unlike untitled f*ck m*ss s**gon play currently at the Young Vic, it’s exhilarating to see an established, familiar genre of entertainment – whether it be musicals set in South-East Asia, or Westerns set in the Wild West – turned on their heads so you can see them from a different perspective. And Cowbois certainly does that.

WesternThe plot could be taken from any Western story. The women of this obscure little town have been left behind by their men, out hunting gold. It’s been a year or more, they’ve not heard from them; they’re probably dead. All the women have to sustain them is their faith, their school teaching, their running the saloon, and a drunken sheriff. There’s a bounty on the head of one Jack Cannon, one half of the Cannon brothers, the slickest gunslingers in the West. The other half, Harry, is now dead and buried at the hands of Tommy, leader of Tommy’s Toothless Boys, whom Harry hired to hold up stagecoaches so that he and Jack could relieve them of $200,000 worth of gold coins. But Jack, being one of those slickest gunslingers, took out seven of the Toothless Boys – by which I mean shot them, not wined and dined them – and now everyone is seeking both revenge and cash. So when Jack wanders into town, the women are unsurprisingly all a-quiver. I hope you’re keeping up here.

Kid and castHowever, it doesn’t matter if you don’t grasp the plot – that really isn’t what the play is about. Never has that old saying to assume makes an ass out of u and me proved more appropriate. In the first act of the play, Charlie Josephine creates an environment where apparently cis straight women feel safe to give way to their inner selves; by falling in love with a trans man, or by starting to trans to a man themselves. Even the sheriff allows a new aspect of his personality to come to the fore. There is a beautiful, life-affirming moment when the Kid – farmer Mary’s son – meets someone he has always known as a woman but is now dressed as a man and with a male identity, and merely says “oh, ok” in complete unprejudiced acceptance. It gets a massive roar of approval and applause from the audience. Everyone is comfortable with their new outlook or identity – what could possibly go wrong?

The menWhat goes wrong is the return of their husbands in the second act. They’re still alive, against all odds, and when they turn up at the saloon to find a queer party going on, it’s no surprise that they’re taken aback. Seeking to return to the relationships they left, their only options are to either dominate and cow the women back to their previous suppressed lives, or to accept the new order. Jack quickly absents themself from the situation – again no surprise. But how is all this going to get resolved, and what happens when bandit Charley Parkhurst arrives, also looking for Jack, and Tommy and the Toothless Boys also show up? In the words of Harry Hill, there’s only one way to resolve this – fight!

Lillian and JackThe set-up, dialogue and unpredictable plot development in the first act are all outstanding. Charlie Josephine has created terrific characters, well-drawn, full of their own funny idiosyncrasies, and beautifully reflecting the staleness of lonely life in the town. There’s absolutely no reason, for example, why the conversations about the way Miss Lillian eats her breakfast grits should be so funny – but it is. And when Jack Cannon arrives on the scene, all eyes are upon them as – in my humble opinion – they are one of the most charismatic and spellbinding characters to appear on a stage for a very long time.

BathtubThe one downfall of the play is that the second act cannot live up to the high expectations set by the first. Primarily, Jack is absent for much of the act and the audience really misses them. And sadly, I can’t help but feel the writer missed a trick by making all the men either violent bullies or plain thick. Their toxic masculinity comes across as a blunt tool when all the other characters have such nuance. Whilst the wives all go on substantial personal journeys, the men remain static; what a hoot it would have been to have had a Brokeback Mountain moment in there too. But I guess that was not a priority for the writer – after all, it has been done before. But the trans element of Cowbois is what sets this play apart from pretty much any other play I’ve come across – and that’s a superb achievement.

Vinnie HeavenGrace Smart has designed an elegant, simple set, with the saloon bar towards the back of the stage, and a nicely hidden sunken bath towards the front, of which Jack and Lillian will – shall we say – take advantage. The costumes are excellent throughout; she has given Jack a few suitably eye-catching outfits, and the sheriff’s second act hat is a work of amazing millinery civil engineering. There’s some entertaining semi-country music from the small band of four musicians nestling stage right; and co-directors Charlie Josephine and Sean Holmes make maximum use of the theatre’s non-stage spaces for the shootout climax – even if it does go on a bit too long.

LJ Parkinson and castVinnie Heaven’s performance as Jack is a marvel. Cheeky, charismatic, and hugely likeable – not bad going for someone who’s only recently killed seven men. No wonder all the townswomen go weak at the knees. From the moment Jack arrives on stage you know that they’re in charge. But they’re not just a brash Lord Flashheart type, their performance is subtle, charming, brimming with both confidence and vulnerability. A terrific performance. Sophie Melville is also excellent as Miss Lillian, saloon landlady and Jack’s new love. As with most of the female roles, she particularly shines in the first act, with comic authority and conviction. I loved her double act with Emma Pallant’s deeply religious Sally Ann, disapproving of everything from sexual attraction to shooting to save your life. There’s a stonkingly fun performance from LJ Parkinson as nonbinary bandit Charley Parkhurst, cavorting around the stage with dangerous devilment. Lee Braithwaite’s transformation from Lucy to Lou is touchingly done, and, in our performance last night, the surprisingly mature and endearing Alastair Ngwenya smashed it as the Kid, as young people would say.

Quentin Letts won’t like it, but if you suspect you might, I reckon you’ll love it. It’s not perfect, but then it’s about people, and people aren’t perfect. Recommended!

Production photos by Henri T

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – untitled f*ck m*ss s**gon play, Young Vic, London, 21st October 2023

Fuck Miss Saigon PlayDid you know how tanks got their name? You know, those big military vehicles that flatten everything in their path? That kind of tank. Well, whilst they were being originally designed, the developers had to keep the whole process a secret. So when someone asked them once what they were developing, someone said oh, er, yes, er… it’s a tank, picking the first, generally nebulous concept word out of the blue. And the name simply stuck. Do you know how untitled f*ck m*ss s**gon play got its name? Writer Kimber Lee had no name for it whilst she was originally creating it, and when someone asked her what she was writing, she said oh, er, yes, er… it’s untitled – but its f*ck miss Saigon! And she realised no other name would have the same kind of energy for what she was writing, so that name also simply stuck.

Mei MacMeet Kim. She has a dream; she wants to create a rice delivery service – Rice Now. She wants to marry Goro the fishmonger’s son. He believes in her dream; he wants to create a side dish to go with it – Rice Now, Fish Later. But also meet Rosie, Kim’s mother. She too has a dream – to get the hell out of the sh*thole (her description) in which they live, by marrying Kim off to some American and happily espousing the American Dream ever after. Fortunately for Rosie, meet Clark. He’s handsome, hench, a HIIT specialist, but primarily American. Rosie leaps at her chance and inveigles him into their humble home, he falls instantly in love with the beautiful Kim, and the next day, like a typical man, he’s off. Kim assumes they are married – there was a kind of a marriage ceremony that he didn’t even notice – but when he returns, he’s with his wife (gasp!) and they take Kim’s baby away from her (double gasp!!) to give him a life in the good old US of A.

Mei MacI’m not really spoiling the plot for you; the first part of Kimber Lee’s excellent play sets Kim in a Groundhog Day scenario of reliving life in Madama Butterfly, or South Pacific, or the dreaded Miss Saigon. There’s even a bit of M*A*S*H* and The World of Suzie Wong chucked in too. Kim is given the job of representing the all-encompassing southeast Asian female in Western culture throughout the 20th century. And it’s a hard lot: wooed, impregnated, abandoned, rejected. No wonder as the play proceeds Kim gets progressively more furious and frustrated. But time moves on, and Kim is now living in New York City, married to Clark; her brother Afi is engaged to the beautiful Evelyn, and their mother has prepared a swish, middle-class celebratory dinner party. And now it’s Kim’s turn to reject the accepted norms of society.

Mei Mac and Lourdes FaberesThe play is terrifically ambitious, taking the rise out of racial stereotypes but also taking the real lived experiences of those people deadly seriously too. At times – especially in the first part – it can be ecstatically funny. At others, it’s agonisingly painful. You can feel the writer developing her characters from their stock standard historical roots into believable modern people of today. It’s almost as though we’re discovering it all new, just as the writer and her characters are also discovering it – that lovely feeling when both the audience and the writer see the light at the same time. The play truly merits its unorthodox, inventive, haphazard title, its asterisks casting a fake veneer of politeness as a 21st century nod to decency.

Mei Mac and Tom Weston-JonesDirector Roy Alexander Weise has given this fascinating play a grand staging. The Young Vic splendidly configurated in the round, the huge empty central stage has more than enough space to suggest all manner of Asian and American homes, although it’s perhaps at its most evocative when as bare as possible. Loren Elstein’s costumes brilliantly reflect the traditional styles of Asia, the modern elegance of urban family living, as well as recreating the costumes of those well-known musicals.

Rochelle RoseIt’s superbly well acted throughout; Kimber Lee has given brilliant dialogue to each of her characters and the actors rise to the challenge of delivering it beautifully. A unifying thread throughout the play’s disparate structure is Rochelle Rose’s narrator, an elegant, dynamic, and humorous presence delivering a commentary on proceedings from the side – in fact from all parts of the auditorium, she’s very much on the move the whole time – including becoming a wisecracking but also embarrassed guest at the engagement party. Ms Rose is great in this role – authoritative yet confiding, and hugely watchable throughout. Tom Weston-Jones is excellent as Clark, tentatively mumbling loving words to Kim in an obscure language that includes words like origami, Toshiba and edamame, a terrific device by Ms Lee to show the linguistic disrespect of the west for the east.

Jennifer KirbyJennifer Kirby is also excellent at Clark’s wife and Afi’s fiancée, making the most of a fantastic sequence where Evelyn patronises Kim heavily but unwittingly, explaining how she knows the pain she’s going through, dripping with white middle class privilege with every sentence she utters. Jeff D’Sangalang gives us a delightfully earnest and kind Goro, and an up-and-coming ambitious Afi. Lourdes Faberes plays the “Asian musicals mother” roles with a blend of faithfulness to the originals but also a knowing wit, and is later transformed into the elegant dinner party hostess. But Mei Mac really steals the show as Kim, in all her incarnations and situations. With a beautiful feel for both the comedy and the sorrow of the character, it’s a terrific performance and one that lingers long in the mind after the show.

Jeff D'SangalangBold, innovative, unique. Yes, there are a few times when the energy sags a little, and the unavoidable repetition of the plot device to make its point may prove slightly frustrating for some. But I absolutely loved this play and its ambition. Congratulations to all, and hopefully it will have a life after the Young Vic run ends on 4th November.

Production photos by The Other Richard

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – Operation Mincemeat, Fortune Theatre, London, 21st October 2023

Operation MincemeatHere’s the first of three shows we saw over the weekend. Of those, one I had very high hopes for, the next I was expecting to be ok and the third I was worried about because of iffy reviews. However, never trust other people’s reviews (and that includes my own) – because the show I thought I’d enjoy best I enjoyed least, and vice versa.

Firstly though, what a delight to be able to return to the Fortune Theatre after decades of its hosting The Woman in Black. Not that that wasn’t a good use of its facilities, but, I mean, 34 years? Come on!! I’d forgotten its charming intimacy, its lopsided central aisle, its surprisingly plain interior and its elegant, daring and mildly saucy safety curtain. Next year the theatre will celebrate its 100th birthday; may I be among the first to congratulate it on still looking so young.

OM1Operation Mincemeat (the musical) is based on Operation Mincemeat (the wartime operation), which also gave rise to Operation Mincemeat (the film). One of the masterminds of the operation, Ewan Montagu, wrote an account of it as The Man Who Never Was, which led to the film, The Man Who Never Was. You would have thought that with all this history, dramatisation, adaptation and so forth that I would have heard about it. But neither Mrs Chrisparkle nor I had a clue about what to expect. And, on reflection, it would have been useful to have had some prior knowledge about the operation and what it entailed; may I suggest that a potted history about this 1943 deception ploy would have been a jolly useful thing to put in the programme.

OM2David Cumming, Felix Hagan, Natasha Hodgson and Zoe Roberts’ musical has been five years in the development, and has grown through a number of fringey productions to be quite the smash hit in the West End – and I can only applaud them for that achievement. However, despite its popularity, and with almost record-breaking numbers of extensions in a very short time, it clearly is very popular, I found it very hard to warm to or relate to this show. I really, really wanted to love it – but its charms just passed me by.

OM3Three members of that creative team are also in the cast; and I can’t help but wonder if might be one of the problems. I constantly got a sense of self-indulgence with the show; a, dare I say it, smugness about its approach. A couple of the performancers scream Look at me, aren’t I funny through everything they do, and I confess the show largely got on my nerves. Imagine if MI5 had been taken over by the Monty Python team; not so much the Ministry of Silly Walks, but certainly the Ministry of Silly Voices. Lacking proper characterisations, this MI5 is staffed by pantomime caricatures instead, and every opportunity to go over-the-top is taken. Natasha Hodgson’s Montagu, for example, adopts a gruff, knowing voice as she/he kicks back her/his chair and growls at the audience who go mad with appreciation in response. David Cumming’s Cholmondeley is a wet-behind-the-ears silly arse straight out of Jeeves and Wooster.  

OM4Whilst it aspires to Hamilton levels of verbal dexterity, it sadly lacks any of that production’s audio clarity. I could tell that there was a lot of comical content in the lyrics, but the shouty freneticism of much of the delivery just left me frustrated at not getting more out of it. It needs more light and shade, more changes of pace, more moments of reflection and the chance for the audience to get their thoughts together. It’s also slightly off-putting when an audience is full of returning fans, who know the show intimately, and constantly tell the new people they’ve brought along isn’t it brilliant. The show is by far at its best in its few moments of quieter emotion; the voices of Jak Malone in the role of Hester and Clarie Marie Hall as Jean shine through. That said, the opening number in the second act, Das Übermensch, a stunning imagining of German Nazis performing a showstopper, is a hilarious highlight.

I think I simply have a different sense of humour from that required to enjoy this show, and I fully recognise that it’s me who’s missing out. My guess is that this show is going to continue at the Fortune for quite some time yet – maybe not a Woman in Black degree of longevity, but I’m sure the investors will be very happy indeed.

Production photos by Matt Crockett

3-starsThree-sy Does It!

Almost a Review – The Inquiry, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 14th October 2023

The InquiryWhy almost a review? Well, I saw The Inquiry on its second preview last Saturday night, and usually you can tell when a preview show is pretty much already “there” in terms of having a finalised script, settled staging, confident performances, and sure-footed direction. Last month, we saw the second preview of Never Have I Ever at the same theatre, and, although I had my reservations about the play and its content, there was no denying the fluidity and confidence of the performers and production.

CastHowever, I really did not get that vibe from last Saturday’s performance. Writer Harry Davies – investigations correspondent at The Guardian – watched the show a few seats from us with his pen and pad in hand and a worried look on his face. Fine, reputable actors fluffed their way through scenes with a faltering hold on the script and an uncertainty that you would never associate with them. All of this suggested to me that there had been a flurry of re-writes and they were still coming to terms with them. Press Night was due to take place on Tuesday 17th, but a little online research suggests that it was cancelled, and checking the Chichester Theatre website today the next scheduled performance is the matinee on Saturday 21st. They haven’t even released any production photos, only the rehearsal pics. It doesn’t sound very  promising, does it? Let’s hope that most of the issues that were evident on the 14th will have been resolved by then.

CastSo, to review a preview, or not to review a preview? That is the question. Normally, if that’s the only way I can get to see a play that I want to catch, and provided it’s clear that it is indeed a preview performance that is being reviewed, so one should always make concessions to the fact that it might not yet be tip-top, I don’t see why not. And after all, it was a public, paying performance. So please bear in mind, the production that resurfaces on Saturday may well be a million miles from what I saw last Saturday. In fact, I rather hope it is. As a result, I don’t think it’s fair to give this show a star rating at the moment.

Deborah FindlayThe basis of the play is reasonably straightforward. Thrusting young MP and newly Lord Chancellor, the Right Honourable Arthur Gill is the subject of an inquiry into his dealings with Eastern Water, who appear to have had the unfortunate problem of poisoning their customers with contaminated water supplies. The subject is nothing if not topical. Leading the inquiry is Lady Justice Deborah Wingate, assisted by Jonathan Hayden KC. Gill himself receives advice from a trusted old friend, Lord Patrick Thorncliffe KC. Gill is hotly tipped to become the next party leader, and therefore the next PM. Still, things are looking bad with the inquiry, so it’s time to start playing dirty. Scandals, leaks, and lies abound – and will Lady Wingate ever be able to finalise her inquiry?

John HeffernanIt’s a riveting situation. However, as performed on last Saturday night, it’s not a riveting play. In fact, I always got the sense that there was another play taking place in parallel, that we never get to see, and which sounds a lot more interesting than the one we’re watching. That may be because, whilst it’s called The Inquiry, we never get to observe that inquiry in action. All we see are the background negotiations, plans and rectum-protectum operations. I longed for a courtroom scene to inject a bit of true drama into the proceedings – alas, it wasn’t to be.

Malcolm SinclairIt feels as though the characters are all engaged in pussyfooting around the main meat of the issue, rather than tackling the important subject of people dying from their water supply. That’s because it’s seen from their perspective, rather than from Eastern Water’s and Gills’ victims’ angle. And, to be fair, I don’t think that’s what Harry Davies is attempting to achieve with this play. However, quite what it is he is trying to do also isn’t clear. Additionally, most of the characters are unlikeable; this has the unfortunate side effect of not making you care one way or the other about their fate. And I don’t think I’m giving any games away by adding that – certainly as it was written and performed on Saturday night – the inquiry won’t result in any long term change.

Nicholas RoweMax Jones has created a very antiseptic governmental office for most of the scenes; the boxes of inquiry documents that surround the stage suggest a monument of paperwork that has to be painstakingly gone through – but there’s hardly a box file on stage which implies the opposite, so that design element felt self-contradictory. Mr Jones does however give us Lady Wingate’s charmingly verdant garden terrace as a blaze of colour and calm, and as a beautiful retreat from the stark reality of governmental business.

Macy NymanJohn Heffernan is superb as Gill; a naturally smug politician treading carefully around the pitfalls of his somewhat vivid and busy sexual younger days, and happy to parry-riposte whenever he can to try to regain the upper hand. There’s also a terrific performance from the always reliable Malcolm Sinclair as his advisor Thorncliffe, as slimy and sleazy as they come, marvellously manipulative and condescending. Scenes between those actors are electric with tension. Shazia NichollsHowever, as at Saturday, the other actors still had some ground to make up, shall we say; but fingers crossed that they come through exactly as you would expect when it reopens.

One is used to seeing comedians perform Work in Progress shows, where they chuck new material at an audience to see what lands and what doesn’t. Saturday’s performance almost felt like the theatrical equivalent. As this is only almost a review, of a second night preview, it needs a whole lot of work to bring it up to scratch. But that’s the thing about theatre – miracles do happen.

Rehearsal photos by Manuel Harlan