Review – The Comedy Crate presents Edinburgh Previews with Ryan Mold and Josh Pugh at the Albion Brewery, Northampton, 22nd May 2022

Comedy CrateIt’s back to the cosy and welcoming surroundings of the Albion Brewery for some Edinburgh Preview shows courtesy of The Comedy Crate, and a double bill featuring Josh Pugh and Ryan Mold. These shows are, by their very nature, work in progress, so they will always be a little rough around the edges. The comics are there to make you laugh, but at the same time, you’re there to let them know what’s funny and what isn’t! It’s a two-way street.

First up was Ryan Mold, with his WIP Generation Gap show. This is taken from the Edinburgh Fringe website and describes his show better than I can: “In the mid-80s, at 6 months old, my grandparents become my legal guardians. They showered me with love, but being guided through life by two 70-year-olds with simply no understanding of modern living was a mixture of confusion and embarrassment. I was having to take advice, navigate school and grow into a man from a generation who are clearly not up to date with the 90s trends of the internet, fashion and modern cooking. If I was ever to have a girlfriend, my grandparents’ thrifty car choice, mannerisms and “alternative solutions” would certainly not help!”

Ryan MoldIt’s a great idea for a show and Ryan shares a number of his childhood memories; the bizarre, the disastrous, and the hilarious. Effortlessly affable, he sets up a strong and confident rapport with the audience and it was a very enjoyable set. The structure of the show is absolutely in place; all that’s needed now is to bring in a few more recognisable and relatable experiences that make the audience react “yes! Absolutely!” This is quite a personal show, and you get the feeling that Ryan is sharing some very private moments, so the authenticity of his material is totally bang on. Work in progress indeed, but I’m sure the finished product will be a success. If you’re in Edinburgh over the summer, the show will be at Just the Tonic at the Mash House every day from 4th to 28th August except 15th.

After the interval, we welcomed Josh Pugh, with his show, Sausage, Egg, Josh Pugh, Chips and Beans. Again, here’s the description from the Edinburgh Fringe website: “English Comedian of the Year winner and star of Comedy Central Live and Dave’s Hypothetical. Tour support for Joe Lycett and ‘almost certain future star’ (Chortle.co.uk), Josh takes us through the past two years of his life, trying to have a baby and accidently losing Captain Tom’s birthday cards in his own unique and hilarious style. Amassing over three million views on his Twitter videos and regularly headlining the biggest clubs in the country Josh is ready to f*ck shit up this Fringe (as a friend).”

Josh PughWhilst I can’t comment on his ability to fulfil that latter promise, this work in progress show is already in very good shape and only needs a few very remote tweakings to become oven-ready, as the Prime Minister would have it. It’s a great title, which gives way to his first excellent joke, but doesn’t have any relationship with the content of the set, which takes the slow progress from Josh and Mrs Pugh’s initial desire to have a baby, through the rigours of set-time sex and the ignominies of IVF, to a final happy ending. Wrapped around this tale are several other excellent comedy gems, including the way he expresses how Covid is still “a thing”, but perhaps not quite what it was; and the conjecture of the people in the hospital meeting room next door to the room where he is engaged on producing his perfectly respectable official sperm deposit. You also wouldn’t employ him in a post office sorting room! Josh has terrific delivery and energy, and I’m sure his Edinburgh show will be a scream. He will be on at Monkey Barrel Comedy every day from 3rd to 28th August except 15th and 16th.

More Edinburgh previews on the way from the Comedy Crate, including two full-day line-ups and many other splendid comedy stars. All the details are here.

Review – Henry VI Rebellion/Wars of the Roses, RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 19th May 2022

Rebellion and Wars of the RosesLate to the party for these two History plays which opened in April whilst we were gallivanting on holiday around Scotland, but very happy to have caught up with them now. You might not recall Shakespeare writing plays called Rebellion or Wars of the Roses; that’s because they are, in fact, distillations from the great man’s Henry VI Parts Two and Three, which I was fascinated to discover were written before Henry VI Part One according to the programme, so presumably Part One is an early example of a prequel.

The Cast of RebellionPicture the scene: Young and easily manipulated, Henry VI has married Margaret of Anjou. At the wedding breakfast, he’s chuffed that he’s got the girl; she’s even more chuffed that she’s got the country. But when Uncle Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester, reads the marriage treaty, he falters and can’t believe what he’s reading. It’s like the Northern Ireland Protocol but even harder to swallow. The concessions the King has made are worse than expected but Henry defends them as robust and oven-ready. Hang on, am I confusing this with News at Ten?

Arthur HughesAs a result all sorts of machinations get underway to make a play for kingship. Enemies are got out of the way (normally fatally), the crown gets passed from pillar to post; there’s even an uprising from the masses under Jack Cade. The Duke of York is the chief pretender; his three sons support his claim, although not consistently, and, by the end of the second play, (spoiler alert) young Richard Plantagenet, who would become king twelve years later, confronts the weak and mentally disturbed King Henry, and despatches him with a very vindictive knifing. Looking ahead, the RSC’s next production will be Richard III, with a continuation of the same actors in the roles that appear in both plays; I’m loving the continuity.

Oliver Alvin-Wilson and castBut that’s a matter for later in the summer. Owen Horsley’s magnificent double-production is slick, smart, haunting, and riveting. The biggest design idea, for want of a better word, is to have a roaming camera that creates a huge projection on the backdrop that closes in on the faces of the protagonists at telling moments. It’s a risky practice, but it works brilliantly, especially if you are seated in the front section of the audience, so you see it head on, as we did for Rebellion. Seated on the side, as we were for Wars of the Roses, the projection is a little harder to make out, and the camera operators on stage are a little more noticeable. Nevertheless, it’s a master stroke. It works particularly well when the camera is on the actors off-stage, such as when it follows Cade and his entourage encircling the building – very conspiratorial and alarming!

Al MaxwellAll the usual aspects of the production are done superbly, as you would expect with the RSC. Hannah Clark’s costumes, Simon Spencer’s lighting, Steven Atkinson’s warlike sound effects (I bet they make you jump) are all first rate. Sometimes I find the live music in such productions a little intrusive, but in this case it’s just perfect, performed live by six great musicians to Paul Englishby’s compositions. And – something you can’t always say with modern day Shakespeare – it’s strangely comforting to see a production that hasn’t been reset in a different time or location from what Will originally planned.

Mark QuartleyThe cast are superb throughout. Central to the whole six hours is Mark Quartley as Henry, portrayed as a man who’s never at ease. A man who never wanted to be king, but longed to be a subject, this Henry is slow to react to victory, cautious in the face of adversity, prone to depression and looks to his Bible for support. Minnie Gale’s brilliant Margaret is a perfect opposite to him; demonstrative, sarcastic, not remotely reticent about showing her sexual preference for the Duke of Suffolk, to the extent that she cradles the latter’s disembodied head after it has been sliced off by a very upbeat band of pirates. Henry’s passive acceptance that his Queen is mourning the death of Suffolk more than might seem appropriate works well as a sign that he’s got bigger things to worry about. It’s worth noting that you’ll never see a larger collection of disembodied heads on stage than you do with these two plays. Kudos to the props department for making them look so like the equivalent actors. It made me wonder if they have a whole second selection of heads for when understudies are performing.

Richard Cant and Lucy BenjaminThe vast supporting cast is full of excellent performances too. It’s great to see Paola Dionisotti with the RSC again and her performance as Winchester in Rebellion is a pure joy, as she carefully enunciates every word he says to the fullest richness of expression; not a syllable is wasted. Oliver Alvin-Wilson is an imposing York, Ben Hall a sneaky Suffolk, Nicholas Karimi a forceful Warwick, and Minnie GaleArthur Hughes a manipulative and snide Richard. There’s brilliant support (amongst others) from Richard Cant, Lucy Benjamin, Daniel Ward and Peter Moreton. Among the minor roles, Aaron Sidwell stands out as a charismatically terrifying Jack Cade, an alarming combination of Pol Pot, Arthur Scargill and Edward Scissorhands. But everyone is on top form, and the big scenes of battle impress you with their power and their sheer drama.

Minnie Gale and Ben HallIt’s a very intense production; we saw both halves on the same day, but I would recommend seeing them over two separate days, just to catch your breath. If there is a problem with it all, it’s that you can see one too many battle scene. I guess the only person to blame there is Shakespeare. But with so many alarums and excursions, there’s only so much warring one person can take before the appreciation of it all starts to shut up shop.

You haven’t got long to catch up with these plays; Rebellion runs in repertory until 28th May; Wars of the Roses until 4th June. Definitely worth it though!

Production photos by Ellie Kurttz

Five Alive, let Theatre Thrive!

Review – Balletboyz, Deluxe, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th May 2022

DeluxeSometimes, gentle reader, you come away from an evening of contemporary dance and think wtf was that, and sometimes you come away with a spring in your step and a desperate desire to be forty years younger and four hundred times as sprightly. I’m delighted to say that the Balletboyz’ Deluxe falls into the latter category. An evening of exciting, stimulating, beautiful dance, with some incredibly expressive and gifted dancers, fantastic lighting, brilliant costumes and two riveting musical soundtracks to back it up.

BB BradleyOf course, I should have been writing this review about two years ago, but something happened in the meantime that stopped the original scheduled tour of Deluxe. What was it now? Oh yes, the pandy. But you can’t keep artistic spirit down for long, and Deluxe has bounced back, with an almost completely new cast – the Balletboyz of two years ago were disbanded, sadly – and has been touring the country since March, with just one more date after their Northampton visit.

RippleDeluxe is structured in two parts. The first half comprises of Ripple, choreographed by Xie Xin, and is preceded by a video where she teaches the dance to members of the (original) group and explains the difficulty of creating work for an all-male group. I don’t normally appreciate explanatory media too much, I think a dance ought to stand by its own presentation, without any further explanation. And this video didn’t do much to change that opinion.

BBHowever, once it gets started you’re immediately gripped by it. I loved its depiction of the flow of movement, the ripples that can be gentle or like a giant wave. The dancers connect and separate, and come together without touching, like they are practising reiki on each other. It reflects harmony and disturbance, survival of the individual and in groups, all to Jiang Shaofeng’s superb soundtrack of discordant and disrupted strings and harsh clashing percussion. It’s mesmerising.

BB Bradley 2The second part is Bradley 4:18, choreographed by Maxine Doyle, inspired by the poetry and song of Kae Tempest. The title doesn’t refer to a missing book of the Bible, rather it’s what happens to a certain chap named Bradley at 4:18 in the morning. This is also preceded by a video – a slightly more helpful one (although, personally, I’d prefer this information to be in the programme, rather than a video which has the potential to alienate a viewer who just wants to see dance.) Six dancers take on different aspects of Bradley, at first separately, later weaving in and out of each other to show the various contradictions and behavioural patterns that go to make up one man. Bradley is a party animal, a schoolboy bully, a vulnerable team member, a drunken sloth; aggressive, big-headed, pained and lost. It’s a very clever idea and the dance pretty much nails all these individual characteristics.

BradleyIf you’re looking for any particular story-telling that links the two pieces, I think you’ll be disappointed. They are simply both examples of the BBoyz’ amazing ability to convey varying emotions and all styles of dance. The dancers themselves are a hugely talented bunch, extraordinarily gifted and immensely likeable and watchable. I was especially impressed with their brilliantly synchronised sequences – every dancer performing the same move at precisely the same time, no one was a nanosecond off; incredible.

RipplerIt was over ten years ago that I first spotted the young Liam Riddick at the Royal and Derngate in a programme by the Richard Alston Dance Company and I predicted he would become the Next Big Thing – and I was right. Tonight I saw another dancer who caught my eye with his extraordinarily versatility, sense of fun and expressiveness, and unbelievable agility – Seirian Griffiths. Mark my words, he will be huge in the dance world over the next few years. Balletboyz DeluxeI was also really impressed with Kai Tomioka, whose interpretation of Bradley ranged from the aggressive to the wheedling – I shall look forward to seeing him in new work in the future. But, of course, all the Boyz are amazingly talented and turn in a great show.

Sadly, Deluxe has only one more night on its tour, in Yeovil on 19th May. But the Balletboyz are back with a bounce, and with this current cast of dancers, the future looks very bright.

Production photos by George Piper (who, if you know your Balletboyz history, doesn’t actually exist)

Five Alive, Let Dance Thrive! (Almost removed a star for the unnecessary videos, but that felt petty)

Review – Upfront Comedy Slam, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 8th May 2022

John SimmitI was shocked, I tell you, shocked, to discover that it’s been over four years since we last attended an Upfront Comedy gig at the Royal and Derngate. These shows are simply great fun – two acts before the interval and another two after, all hosted by DJ and ex-Dipsy Teletubby John Simmit. John got us all relaxed and in the mood for a good night out, but it was clear he wasn’t going to put up with any Will Smith/Chris Rock nonsense from the audience. He’s from Handsworth and you don’t do that kind of thing with someone from Handsworth without deeply regretting it afterwards. He also shared his recent discovery about why white guys dance the way they do and why black guys do it their way, and – choreographically at least – how ne’er the twain shall meet!

Javier JarquinOur first act, and someone we’ve seen many times and always enjoy, was Javier Jarquin, a Kiwi with Latin American/Chinese parentage, so there’s a conundrum if the Home Office want to send him home. Full of energy and attack, he has some truly fascinating material about the difference between it and that, and Mrs Chrisparkle particularly enjoyed his observations about how men just walk around the house pointlessly because, apparently, I do that (It isn’t pointless when I do it, just saying.) He always strikes up a great rapport with the audience and he got the show off to a terrific start.

shaziaNext up was that expert wise Brummie, Shazia Mirza, offering her wry observations on women’s position in society and the media, which included picking on good-hearted Chris in the front row, whom she named Bob, as representative of all elderly white men (he’s only 63) and why, basically, he has to be eradicated. She takes no prisoners with her tough talking satire, but brings you along with her argument in a way that makes you see subjects differently. To do that, and to be funny at the same time, is an absolute gift. However, when she was recounting a story about being on a Celebrity survival show with Bear Grylls, a rather extraordinary thing happened. I’m not sure why – a carelessly expressed phrase, or a mistimed facial expression, but she said or did something that absolutely killed the energy in the room. She worked really hard to get it back – but never quite made it. One of those strange things that sometimes happens with live comedy, even with experienced and fantastic comics like Ms Mirza.

Ms MoRealAfter the interval, our next act was someone new to us, Ms Mo’Real, or, as her parents think of her, Muriel. She complains about the wasters that share her flat and don’t contribute to the rent and bills – and there’s a great punchline to that setup. She looks twenty years younger than she is, and uses that to some great comedic effect too. Her very warm and kindly stage presence helps her killer lines to hit home very effectively. And Mrs C loved her sparkly socks. A very enjoyable act whom we’d love to see again.

Aurie StylaHeadlining the evening was Internet sensation (is that still an appropriate description?) Aurie Styla, whose personality bursts off the stage with enormous energy and fun. No longer content to live in a tiny London flat he’s moved to the Bedfordshire countryside where he has several rooms in a big house and a whole new rustic lifestyle that he’s coming to terms with. Fabulous interaction with the audience, his infectious humour fills the theatre with pure joy. A brilliant way to end the evening.

There’s promise of another Upfront Comedy offering in October – I shall keep a watch on the schedules!

Review – The Osmonds, A New Musical, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 4th May 2022

The Osmonds musicalIt wasn’t cool to like The Osmonds when I was growing up – not if you were a boy. And whilst I could recognise their style and panache, their talent and their commitment to hard work, I did find the majority of their songs insufferably slushy. They were at their best when they went rocky; Crazy Horses remains an iconic track of the 70s to this day. My own personal favourite was Goin’ Home – and I’m pleased to say it gets an airing in The Osmonds A New Musical, because when we saw the Real Osmonds (well, Jay, Merrill and Jimmy at any rate) at the Royal and Derngate a little over ten years ago it only got a shortened, perfunctory performance. My other favourite Osmonds rocky track is I Can’t Stop; that didn’t get a play in either show.

Jay leads the castBut it’s hard to underestimate how huge they were; and many of the crowd in last night’s audience were clearly teenyboppers of old, prepared to throw themselves into every routine. There’ll always be a space for something Osmondy on a stage for many years to come; and this new musical, penned by Julian Bigg and Shaun Kerrison after an original story by group member and middle brother Jay, isn’t a bad vehicle for bringing their old songs back and reviewing their career.

Donny and Andy WilliamsThe show is at its best when confronting the divisions between the family members and revealing the strictures that father George’s parenting inflicted on the young boys. The Osmonds themselves are portrayed both as adults – during the main years of their chart success – but also as children, taking their first steps on the Andy Williams Show, submitting to and/or bristling under the military discipline installed in them by George. Mother Olive is a kindly, comforting figure, but has no authority over her husband. Telling moments from their childhoods are re-enacted with the adult actor and child actor side by side, effectively emphasising how what happens in childhood sticks with you all through your life. At one point, Jay refers to the family as the Mormon von Trapps – a good line; it made me think that a lot of their later problems might have been solved if only Olive had sewn them play clothes from some old curtains.

All the OsmondsThe conflicts that arose from Donny and Marie’s separate successful career are also nicely observed; I enjoyed the four brothers’ bored and uninterested recording of the backing vocals to Donny and Marie’s Morning Side of the Mountain as a very nice encapsulation of what must have felt like a huge reduction in their influence and stake in the group. Alan and Merrill’s ambitious business venture to run their own studio is shown in its ascendance but more interestingly when it collapses. There are petty arguments stemming from Alan’s ruthless running of the group – a trait inherited from his father, from Merrill’s not being allowed to marry, and the mental stresses it caused him, and from Jay’s perception that no one listened to him. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that, given the pressures they must have had from being at the top of their performing tree, they didn’t argue more.

Trying a new styleThe scenes and the songs run in a chronological sequence (apart from The Proud One appearing too early and Crazy Horses too late) and are linked by an additional thread, that of Number One Fan Wendy from Manchester, who continues to send Jay fan mail throughout the years, never knowing if he saw her letters. She has an undiminishable love for Jay from afar; that special, unaccountable, irrational love that only a deep deep fan can have. Wendy’s dream to meet the great man finally comes true in a rather charming scene; I’ve no idea if this is truth, fiction, or if Wendy is simply symbolic of thousands of other girls who spilled their teenage angsts to their heroes. It would be rather rewarding if it were 100% true.

In full flowLucy Osborne’s set is bright, relatively simple and functional; her costume designs are excellent, from the classic barbershop outfits of the young boys, through the glam rock shirts and the subtle colour co-ordination of the brothers’ performing clothes – Alan is always basically in blue, Jay in Green, etc – including their latter-day (no pun intended) drift towards country music. Bill Deamer’s choreography accurately reflects the synchronised flamboyance of the group’s original moves, and on the whole the group and the band make a pretty good stab at recreating the definitive Osmond sound.

Jamming TogetherAlex Lodge takes the central role of Jay and conveys his essential wholesome kindness and likeability, occasionally tending towards an overly cutesy and trying “niceness” that may well be an accurate portrayal of the real Jay. Ryan Anderson’s Merrill is a good portrayal of a decent man pushed to the edge by circumstance and frustration; I thought the show could have made more of his clear mental distress, but it didn’t choose to take that route. For our performance Alex Cardall played Alan, and he nailed that “older sibling” natural authority and tendency towards bossiness. Danny Nattrass is solid as the relatively uninteresting Wayne, and Tristan Whincup was our understudy in the role of Donny; good in the singing department, but I felt he sometimes looked lost in the choreography.

The KidsCharlie Allen gives a very good performance as the unyielding, monolithic George, never betraying the smallest degree of warmth; and Nicola Bryan is the perfect antidote as Olive, a soothing source of kindness who, no matter what she might privately think, knows her place is to back up anything her husband says. I really liked Georgia Lennon as Marie – her performance of Paper Roses was probably the best rendition of any of the songs in the show. It’s a song I always hated as a teenager, seeing it as the epitome of drippiness; but Ms Lennon made me see it in a different light. Great work! And then we had our supporting cast of child Osmonds, who were all terrific, with excellent interaction with the adult actors and brilliant harmonies together.

MarieSo there were many good elements to the show, but, for some reason, a lot of it left me rather cold. Many of the song performances felt a little underwhelming; that said, Let Me In built to great finale to Act One, and they absolutely nailed Crazy Horses at Curtain Call. But even my favourite, Goin’ Home, felt slightly underpowered. Some of the characterisations felt a little threadbare. Comparisons are odious, but this is no Sunny Afternoon. It lacks an essential power and spark that should be driving through the whole show; instead it moves at a sedate pace, never quite reaching top gear. But it’s genuinely not a bad night out, and if you’re inclined towards a bit of clean-living Osmond nostalgia, the show should prompt some good memories. It’s on at the Royal and Derngate until Saturday 7th, and then continues its tour of the UK all the way through to December.

Production photos by Pamela Raith

3-starsThree-sy does it!

Review – Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends, Sondheim Theatre, London, 3rd May 2022

Old FriendsStephen Sondheim may have left this earth last November, but once you let him into your heart and your life, he never goes away. My first exposure to his work was when I got to see Side by Side by Sondheim at Wyndham’s Theatre in April 1977. Even though I was only 17 years and 1 day old, I was blown away by his wit and insight – let alone those melodies. When I first started seeing the young Miss Duncansby, I recorded the double album onto cassette for her (it’s something we used to do in those days, ask your parents) and I reckon that shared admiration for the great man went some way towards sealing our relationship.

Sondheim TheatreT S Eliot’s Prufrock measured out his life by coffee spoons. Mrs Chrisparkle and I have measured out our years with Sondheim lyrics – and I bet we’re not alone. Rarely a day goes by when one of life’s situations isn’t best expressed by a line from one of his songs. And there were plenty of those brilliant lines on offer in Tuesday night’s Sondheim’s Old Friends gala at the appropriately renamed Sondheim Theatre (normally I dislike the practice of renaming theatres, but in this case I’ll make an exception). Ostensibly it was in aid of the Stephen Sondheim Foundation; in essence it was an excuse for some of the world’s best Sondheim practitioners to come together for one huge celebration of his output.

Stephen SondheimIt’s so easy to go over the top with one’s appreciation of a great show, and words like amazing and incredible get bandied about in descriptions when what you really mean is very good, but it doesn’t sound exciting enough. However, I genuinely can’t think of the right superlatives to describe this show. It was sublime, it was thrilling, it was a constant source of delight. Not only that, it was way, way more slick than I had expected; a veritable gaudete of all the emotions that his works convey. Nothing that’s grim, nothing that’s Greek; just pure enjoyment from start to finish.

Running orderDevised and produced by Cameron Mackintosh, staged by Matthew Bourne and Maria Friedman, and choreographed by Stephen Mear; adding Sondheim’s songs to that mix, it was always going to be outstanding. The first thing that hit you was how tremendous Alfonso Casado Trigo’s 26 piece orchestra was – a classy, rich, full-bodied sound that blazed into every nook and cranny of the theatre. The programme gave us the running order of songs – forty in all – but not who would be performing them, so there was a continuous buzz about who to expect on stage next. Some of the combinations of song and singer were predictable; others were a delightful revelation.

Before Curtain upSome of the stars had roars of welcome from the moment they set foot on the stage. Julia McKenzie stopped the show within a second or two of its starting; still an amazing voice, still a wonderfully subtle sense of humour. Red Riding Hood turned around to reveal she was Bernadette Peters – cue a lengthy appreciation. A light shone on Dame Judi Dench and she didn’t get the chance to start singing for ages, waiting for the cheering to die down. I can’t describe each of these forty performances, although each stands out as a beacon of brilliance; I can only share with you some of my personal favourites.

intervalRob Brydon and Haydn Gwynne gave us The Little Things You Do Together with an immaculate mix of comedy and musicality. Anna-Jane Casey, Janie Dee and Josefina Gabrielle were a perfect goofy trio for You Could Drive a Person Crazy. Bernadette Peters delivered a spine-tingling Children Will Listen. Janie Dee, Julian Ovenden, Michael D Xavier and the West End All Stars showed what a brilliantly clever multi-layered piece A Weekend in The Country is. There were sobs all over the house for Judi Dench’s heart-wrenching Send in the Clowns. Michael Ball and Maria Friedman mined all the comedy out of The Worst Pies in London and A Little Priest. Haydn Gwynne took our breath away with The Ladies Who Lunch.

Curtain Call 1After the interval, Julia McKenzie, Gary Wilmot, Rosalie Craig and many more delivered a hilarious version of Broadway Baby where competitive auditionees try to outdo each other. Sian Phillips unexpectedly joined Rob Brydon, Damien Lewis and Julian Ovenden for the last verse of Everybody Ought to Have a Maid. Petula Clark gave us a resilient and determined I’m Still Here (including a brilliant throwaway line at one of the song’s more obscure references – “Google it!”) Michael Ball’s deliciously vindictive Could I Leave You? Janie Dee’s cutely innocent The Boy From… Bernadette Peters’ awe-inspiring Losing My Mind. Imelda Staunton’s legendary outstanding Everything’s Coming Up Roses. And so very much more…

Curtain Call 2The audience was as star-studded as the cast, but I only witnessed one truly stagey moment. On my way to the bar at the interval, I was caught between Cameron Mackintosh on my left and Christopher Biggins, resplendent in white scarf, on my right; Mr B called out to Mr M Darling it’s just marvellous, and Mr M beamed a suitably chuffed smile in response. But he was absolutely right! It was indeed marvellous. I can’t see how they could ever recreate this experience again in the same way, but the montage of songs worked brilliantly, and could pack a West End theatre every night as a revue in its own right.

I’m still buzzing from it all; the thrill of that experience will take a long time to calm down. Hopefully the relay into the Prince Edward Theatre will also be used as a recording for TV broadcast, because this is a celebration that should be relived for many years. That’s it. I’m out of superlatives!

Five Alive Let Theatre Thrive!

Review – Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club, Playhouse Theatre, London, 27th April 2022

Kit Kat ClubTalk about a sensory overload! Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club is one of the most ambitious theatrical projects I’ve ever encountered, aiming to achieve so much and very nearly nailing it all. At first, we weren’t going to go. I knew that if I saw it, but wasn’t seated at one of the exclusive front row tables costing £Blimey O’Riley, I’d feel as though I was missing out on the full experience. And two lots of £Blimey O’Rileys is an unjustifiably awful lot of coin. However, a friend went and sat in those very same seats and was overwhelmed by it, and told us we had to go. So, grabbing those mammoth prices by the throat, we went as my birthday treat. Oh, thanks. Yes, 21 again, thank you for asking.

Let’s go back to basics. If anyone ever dares tell you that musical theatre is mere froth and cannot say anything deep and meaningful, point them in the direction of Cabaret and tell them to shut it. The product of a distillation from Christopher Isherwood’s original 1939 book Goodbye to Berlin, through its adaptation by John van Druten into the play I am a Camera, and finally to Kander and Ebb’s 1966 stage musical, it’s also fifty years (gasp!) since the iconic film version came out. American Cliff Bradshaw arrives in Berlin to gain inspiration to write. He’s quickly beguiled by Sally Bowles, singer at the Kit Kat Club, and their unorthodox relationship plays out against the rise of Nazism; the songs and routines performed at the club reflect the growing tensions in society. Landlady Fräulein Schneider is courted by widower fruitmonger Herr Schultz; he is Jewish, but optimistic. The audience has the dubious investment of dramatic irony, knowing the fate that will befall the characters within the next ten years although the characters themselves don’t. It still has the power to shock, to horrify, and to make you look away; it’s also still supremely entertaining, delightfully funny, and proves itself remarkably resilient to new presentations and interpretations.

Playhouse TheatreThe production has been veiled in secrecy, in, I presume, an attempt to maintain the mystique of the Kit Kat Club. Until the last couple of weeks, there have been no photographs of any sort – not even promotionally pasted outside the theatre. There is now a video trailer online giving you some idea of what to expect, but it doesn’t reveal much. What happens in the Kit Kat Club stays in the Kit Kat Club; to the extent that they insist you put a sticker over the camera lens on your phone on the way in. I must say, it made me feel as though I was being treated as less than an adult. I wouldn’t have taken any photos anyway I gently complained as I complied. You’re one of the few, replied the attendant. I am a Camera, but we’re definitely not.

This show tries to do two things: a) present a spectacular, bar-raising production of one of the greatest musicals of all time and b) frame it within an experience that includes food and drink, backstage pre-entertainment, and a transformation of the Playhouse into a genuine Kit Kat Club environment. It achieves a) fantastically well and has a good stab at b) whilst forgetting the practicalities of being a theatregoer, with the result that there is an element of endurance test about it. And I can’t believe the Emcee would be happy with that. Leave your troubles outside, he insists, in the famous opening song; in here, life is beautiful.

Let’s come to that later. There’s so much about this production that enthrals you. Rebecca Frecknall’s new production comes to life as a theatre-in-the-round extravaganza, using a relatively small circular revolving stage that itself reveals endless surprises throughout the show. The cast spill out into the table area of the audience so that the edge of the acting area is blurred; at one stage during Two Ladies, a Cabaret boy and girl were performing unspeakable rumpy-pumpy nudged up against my left thigh. The staging calls for very expressive, inventive and carefully controlled choreography, and Julia Cheng has done a marvellous job creating the perfect moves for the confined space – absolutely thrilling.

Fra Fee in CabaretAfter the first five minutes you also realise the quality of the singing voices – everyone blends and harmonises superbly; and with the intimacy of the presentation, the amazing clarity of sound doesn’t need that much artificial enhancement. It’s easy to forget how stage amplification can really distort voices, but here the music is just stunning. Even the orchestra is beautiful. Well, they sound it at any rate. And then there are the costumes! Emcee and the boys and girls wear a range of outrageous outfits, suggesting all manners of sexual self-expression, frequently topped off with a cheeky party hat. The respectable clothing of the more reserved characters, like Fräulein Schneider, Herr Schultz, and even Cliff Bradshaw, stand out in sharp contrast with the gaudy self-indulgence of the Kit Kat Coterie.

The show is studded with thrilling moments. The versatility of the revolving stage. The unique interaction between audience and cast that the intimate staging offers. Sexual tension invested in a pineapple. The shock comedy of the gorilla. Masturbation over Mein Kampf. The symbolic moment when Emcee smashes the glass in the traditional Jewish marriage good luck gesture. Perhaps the most extraordinary moment is when Sally Bowles delivers the big number Cabaret at the end of the show. As when Imelda Staunton tore up the rule book with her performance of Everything’s Coming up Roses in Gypsy, Amy Lennox’s rendition of this familiar song takes your breath away with its anger, its pain, its frustration, and its cruelty. You’ll never think of this song in the same way again.

Sally BowlesAs you might expect, the performances are outstanding. The above-mentioned Ms Lennox steals the show with her totally credible portrayal of Sally Bowles as a worn out trouper who slept her way to prominence. Her singing and stage presence are absolutely superb. Vivien Parry and Eliot Levey make a truly charming older couple, tentatively finding love against the odds. Omar Baroud’s Cliff is a kindly, benign presence, who takes everything in his stride including his bisexuality. Anna Jane Casey is a constant joy as Fräulein Kost, forever smuggling men out of her digs and incurring Fräulein Schneider’s disapproval. And the ensemble, who perform as the Cabaret Girls and Boys, are simply stunning. A veritable hotch-potch of shapes and sizes, genders and guises. You can’t pick out any particular actor but they all really make the show.

Omar Baroud in CabaretFra Fee has the biggest job of all, having to take over from Eddie Redmayne who, by all accounts, was just incredible as the Emcee, insinuating himself around the stage, an unsettling and unmissable presence. Mr F is also blessed with an amazing stage presence, and he works his facial expressions and vocal tics brilliantly into the role; and of course he can carry off all the Emcee’s fantastic songs with supreme theatricality. He’s a deceptively playful Emcee, grinning maniacally at us all, which makes the shock of the horror that’s barely concealed beneath the surface, even more terrifying.

So, as a show it’s sensational, no question. But what about as an experience for the audience – particularly those who forked out a genuine fortune to sit at a cabaret table? This is where it’s not quite so sensational. There’s no doubt that you get a truly amazing intimate experience, right up close to the action, constant eye contact and other interaction with all the ensemble. But there are practicalities too. The downside of theatre in the round is that there will always be times when the actors face away from you. It’s particularly galling when, for the ultimate moment of the show, the finale of the song Cabaret, all we could see was Ms Lennox’s back.

When you arrive, via the stage door basement, your route takes you past some informal entertainment – a band playing at the Red Bar, and some dancers at the Gold Bar, but there’s no real direction as to what you should be doing, where you should be going, and how long you should be lingering in one place, which detracted from the enjoyment of these additional entertainments. I wonder what happens when it’s pouring with rain outside? There’s no cloakroom provision, and even on a pleasant evening like last Wednesday, there was nowhere for us to put our jackets apart from wedged between our legs on the floor. You can’t hang them over the backrest of your chair because the table behind is wedged up against it. If you had wet coats or umbrellas, you’d have a serious practical problem.

PhoneToilet provision is poor, with very long queues; they’re gender neutral, which I guess is in keeping with the production, but women lining up in the same small space behind men using urinals is comfortable for no one. The meal is tasty and nutritious, but small; it takes no effort or gluttony to finish all three courses in under ten minutes. The champagne, at least, is excellent, but the £12 glass of Riesling at the interval was dismal. And £15 for a programme is outrageous. And that sticker on the phone – well, look what it did to Mrs Chrisparkle’s mobile – basically the cover is ruined.

Nevertheless, it’s a sensational, thrilling production and we loved every minute of it!

Production photos by Marc BrennerFive Alive, Let Theatre Thrive!

Review – Omid Djalili, The Good Times Tour, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 23rd April 2022

Omid Djalili Good TimesIt’s always a delight to be back at the Royal and Derngate, this time for a top quality night of comedy starring one of my favourite comedians, Omid Djalili. We’ve seen him do stand-up twice before, and he’s always cracking good value; although he’s probably never had a finer moment on stage than his Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof – but that’s another story.

Boothby GraffoeBut first, support act Boothby Graffoe. I knew we had seen Mr Graffoe before but couldn’t remember when – and a quick check back revealed that it was when he supported Omid Djalili on his Iranalamadingdong tour in 2015. The two obviously work well together! Mr G has a very laid back style and a misleadingly unassuming stage persona. You’d think that in his youth he would have been ferociously hippy-like. He uses his musical props in more inventively than just as instruments; and his act his based on comedy songs that reveal some of the darker aspects of human nature. I say songs – really, for the most part, they’re musical fragments, but they do the job. Clearly no friend of Boris Johnson, so that’s fine by me. And his lullaby is like no other; it has to be seen to be believed. All new material, and some killer punchlines; we won’t be joining him in the hotel later.

Omid DjaliliOn to Mr Djalili, who’s still larger than life and a bundle of energy, and supremely likeable on stage. We’ve all learned a lot over the past six or so years, and you can see it in Mr D’s delivery. Indeed, the show is a celebration of the fact that we all survived, we’re all here and we’re all out for a good time (hence the title of the show). He was never a cruel comic – far from it – but today he seems warmer and mellower; everything he says comes from a kind place. Much of his always excellent material comes from the association between accents and offence; a difficult line to tread because Mr D is great at accents and impersonations, and he opens up a whole new line of satire with his vocal impressions of one famous person in the guise of another – I’ll say no more.

Omid Djalili 2Technically, the show has an impressive structure involving clever interactions with a multimedia screen, and there’s a beautiful callback with an audience member in the front row, whose name and place of residence had been earlier identified by Mr Graffoe. I always knew comedians talk to each other in the interval! There’s a genuinely moving but also hilarious homage to the late Sean Lock; and an investigation into the wit and wisdom of West Ham United football fans. When he asked if there were any Happy Hammers in the audience, I should have confessed that they are indeed my team, but I chickened out. My bad.

Omid DjaliliMr D still packs the show with his recognisable trademarks: the ghastly but riveting Middle Eastern dad-dancing, irresistible stories that play on racial stereotypes, throwaway gags that take the mickey out of himself and us. And, on a personal note, I loved the fact that one of his jokes involved Stewart Lee getting a two-star review for his show, because that’s exactly what I gave him! Omid Djalili continues to take his Good Times Show on tour around the country (and Austria?!) throughout the rest of the year and indeed has a couple of weeks at the Edinburgh Fringe in August. Hugely funny and highly recommended!

Review – Comedy Crate at a Secret Venue, Northampton, 27th March 2022

Comedy CrateA Secret Venue, how exciting! We didn’t find out where it was until a couple of days before and I’m afraid I still can’t tell you where it was held, or else I’d have to kill you. On second thoughts, I don’t think it was that hush-hush. It was at the Albion Brewery in Kingswell Street, an attractive, atmospheric place, with excellent sightlines, proper chairs and a well-stocked bar. An excellent addition to Northampton’s comedy venues!

Jamie AllertonOur MC for the evening was Jamie Allerton, whom we saw hosting a Comedy Crate gig in the garden of the Black Prince, Northampton, last September. He’s a bright spark, a powerhouse of joie de vivre, who makes the evening go with a swing. He has a terrific rapport with the audience, getting to know us all, putting us at our ease, but with some surprisingly unexpected questions posed to us too! When he discovered that two members of the audience, with no association with each other, both worked with autistic adults, his questions to work out who was best at their job was inspired! A great host with huge energy.

SlimOur first act was someone new to us, Slim. I reckon that’s a nickname. That’s not to say he isn’t slim, but it’s just that I can’t visualise it on a birth certificate! He has some nice material about hating school plays – I’m sure he’s not alone there – and also his occasionally vengeful life as a London bus driver. I particularly enjoyed his sequence about imagining a Jamaican war correspondent. He has a warm, approachable style and very enjoyable material, and was a very good start to the evening.

Alexandra HaddowNext up was another new name to us, Alexandra Haddow, a native of Corby, now in exile in London. Lively and instantly hilarious, she has a lot of near-the-knuckle humour that she pitches perfectly. It’s a lovely idea to imagine if the kind of questions a woman faces when getting a coil fitted were also posed to a man getting Viagra. We loved her stuff about dating conspiracy theorists (having only endured the wayward beliefs of a similarly-minded taxi driver the previous day) and the problems of having to share a bed with your dad. Smart, likeable and extremely funny, we’d love to see her again.

Mark SimmonsHeadline act was the brilliant Mark Simmons, whom we’ve seen a few times before and he always hits the ground running with his wonderful throwaway style. You always get multiple jokes per minute with Mark, whether they be gently surreal, painfully punful or totally outrageous. He must have the quickest of brains to bring in so many inventive brilliant lines based on what he sees and hears in the audience. On top form as usual, and a superb way to end the show.

Plenty more Comedy Crate gigs in the offing; check their website for more details!

Review – Fatal Attraction, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 29th March 2022

Fatal AttractionI’m sure you’ll remember the original 1987 film Fatal Attraction, that rather over-sensational movie that was a must-see at the time, and which introduced us to the concept of the bunny boiler. James Dearden has adapted his own screenplay into this stage version, that was originally produced at the Theatre Royal Haymarket back in 2014. Reviews of this current production have varied between the ecstatic and the disastrous, so I was fascinated to see how it played out for myself!

Susie Amy and Oliver FarnworthThe play has a different ending from the film; apparently, this ending was Dearden’s original draft, but pre-release market research showed that moviegoers wanted a more gutsy and vengeful ending. This version makes the characters’ motivations and responsibilities more of a grey area; and in fact Mrs Chrisparkle and I are still discussing it the next day, which must be a sign of a thought-provoking production! And, despite a few clunky aspects, we both found this play engrossing, entertaining and totally credible; we really rather liked it.

Louise Redknapp and Oliver FarnworthBut I’m starting at the end, rather than the beginning, which doesn’t make sense. In case you didn’t know, in a nutshell: happily married Dan has a fling with editor Alex, whilst his wife Beth and daughter Ellen are out of town for the weekend. While they’re out of town, he rather goes to town, one might say. But when Alex turns out to be the clingy type who can’t accept being a one night stand, things start to get hot under the collar for Dan – and indeed his whole family. Initially he tries to balance keeping the secret from his wife and managing Alex’s expectations, but her resentment at not getting his full attention turns into something far more menacing and dangerous. And then she announces she is pregnant…

Susie AmyBut what this production shows is that describing Alex as clingy is probably a misrepresentation of her truth. There are scenes of self-harm – and it’s important that theatregoers know this in advance – that leave you in no doubt that she is severely mentally disturbed. This may, in part, be due to the difficult miscarriage she says she suffered. Whatever the cause, her mental instability becomes the root of her manipulation, obsession and vengefulness. Where Dan has simply taken advantage of a random encounter and turned it into a sexual liaison, just another notch on the bedpost perhaps, you sense that he has unwittingly provided Alex with the promise of what she sees is a better life, and a reason for existence; clearly her high-flying editorship isn’t enough to satisfy all her needs. As her obsession with him becomes deeper and deeper, its manifestation becomes impossible to ignore; a fatal attraction indeed.

Susie Amy and Oliver FarnworthThere’s also a surprise coda ending, which I couldn’t possibly tell you about because then it wouldn’t be a surprise! However, suffice to say that it addresses Dan’s laments of constantly making wrong decisions after wrong decisions, in a J B Priestley, Dangerous Corner style. The whole play lasts with you long after curtain down, as you ask yourself a series of what ifs; and you realise there’s never a definitive answer.

Great setMorgan Large’s set comes as a shock when you first see it, all grey geometric shapes and abstract surfaces; isn’t this play set in domestic locations? But when excellent screen projections unexpectedly appear on the set, displaying phone conversations, the New York cityscape and much more besides, you realise it’s a brilliantly devised set. Paul Englishby’s incidental music is incredibly effective at heightening the tension; normally I would find so much music distracting, but in this case it becomes a vital ingredient of the storytelling.

Oliver FarnworthOliver Farnworth, as Dan, is on stage most of the time; it’s a very demanding role, commenting on his own actions in regular asides to the audience, as well as actually enacting them. He absolutely looks the part, but occasionally it feels a little as though he’s reciting the lines rather than believing in them, and I felt he lacked a little light and shade in his delivery. But it’s a powerful and clear performance and you certainly heard every word.

Louise RedknappUnlike Louise Redknapp as Beth, who sounded a little under-amplified and occasionally you had to strain to catch everything she says. Beth is a relatively bland character for the first three quarters of the play, and it’s not until the end that she’s really given her chance to show what she’s made of. Unfortunately, I felt her important scenes lacked some emotion, and I didn’t entirely believe her fury and exasperation at what her husband has done.

Susie AmySusie Amy, however, nails the character of Alex to a T. Sensual, obsessive, manipulative, disturbed – and dangerously unpredictable. She absolutely captures the character’s multi-layers, with her tragic self-harm and manic revenge, cheerfully observing how much she’s terrifying Dan. Ms Amy fills the character with great depth and understanding, and she’s far from the one dimensional characterisation that it could be. A really strong and riveting performance.

Oliver FarnworthAmong the supporting cast, I really enjoyed John Macaulay as the laddish Jimmy, and Tony Glasgow as the no-nonsense detective O’Rourke. Anita Booth is also excellent as Beth’s mother Joan; I liked how she has a resemblance to Hilary Clinton, which puts a new perspective on Dan’s assertion that he did not have a relationship with that woman.

Susie Amy and Oliver FarnworthSome things about the production simply don’t work. Beth and Dan’s offstage daughter is voiced by Charlotte Holden, who not only sounds at least ten years older than the eight years old that Ellen’s meant to be, but the recorded nature of her voice just sounds false in comparison with the live voices on stage. Some of the stage combat comes across as a little cumbersome, and the unavoidable blacked-out stage clearing that occurs immediately after Thumper is fricasséed is a big faff that completely destroys the tension created by the scene.

Susie Amy and Oliver FarnworthDespite these quibbles, this production offers way more than you might have expected. Most of the action is met with complete silence from the audience, but it’s not a negative silence, it’s an engrossed, concentrating, appreciative silence. It holds your attention throughout; and if you think you understand the motivations of the characters from your memories of the film, this production will make you think again. After its week in Northampton, it continues its tour to Aylesbury, Glasgow, Cambridge and York. Definitely worth catching!

Production photos by Tristram Kenton

4-starsFour they’re jolly good fellows!