Review – Richard Alston Dance Company, Wednesday 24th March, Derngate, Northampton

Richard Alston Dance CompanySeeing the Richard Alston Dance Company on their annual tour has become a regular treat for us. Over the years we have seen dance companies come and go, some have a brief spell of brilliance in the limelight and then fade, others plod away worthily but unremarkably trying to carve out a reputation in the world of performing arts. But Richard Alston’s company has remained one of the very few where you can always rely on a high standard of performance and choreography. I think only NDT2 from the Netherlands and Mark Morris from the US are comparable.

And, I’m delighted to say, that situation continues to apply. It was a terrifically entertaining programme, structured perfectly, (cheery start; complex middle bit; even cheerier conclusion) and delighting the smallish but appreciative audience. First up, we had “To Dance and Skylark” – the title comes from a ship’s captain’s order to his crew to take some exercise – and it’s a great opener; lively, bright, fluid of movement, engaging – all those elements you need to start the evening. Performed to a couple of the Brandenburg Concertos, so you’ve got that interesting mix of baroque and modern.

Richard Alston Middle section was “Light Flooding into Darkened Rooms” – this is the complex, slightly inaccessible and challenging piece of the programme – basically a pas de deux where the dancers move in and out of light boxes suggestive of sunlight piercing old window frames, to live performance of melodic Spanish guitar and then discordant mandolin. Strongly performed, demanding your attention, slightly over long for my liking, but then I am getting old.

Martin LawranceFinally we had “Overdrive”, one of those sparky, lively, electronic musicked, athletic pieces that really gets your adrenalin going and makes you want to jump up and join them. Alston at his absolute best.

The dancers were great; Martin Lawrance has been their star dancer for some time now and always takes complete control of the stage. He is mesmeric. Anneli BinderI see he is now the company’s Rehearsal Director, and indeed he choreographed To Dance and Skylark. I’m sure he is going to have a great future in dance. The other dancers all worked together splendidly (I particularly liked Anneli Binder for her grace and presence) – although one dancer did I feel slightly “overdance” – he pulled your eye away from the group as his reach and gestures exceeded those of the others, a bit like Cassie in “A Chorus Line” “bopping the hip”. Still, a most minor quibble.

A few years ago I emailed the company after seeing them at the Wycombe Swan on tiptop form and said how much I enjoyed the show. The company manager replied saying he would make sure Richard knew of my comments. I was really chuffed at that.

Total recommendation.

Review – Catch-up blog for the Derngate

I’ve managed to get really behind with feeding back about all the shows we’ve seen recently. So I’m going to do a right rush job here, with apologies to anyone who’s remotely interested.
Jimmy Carr
Saw Jimmy Carr on Sunday 6th March at the Derngate. I had been really looking forward to that one as I’d never seen him live before and he has a reputation for being a pretty strong act.

We enjoyed it but with reservations. He did a couple of sequences where the jokes followed the format of a lecture, with powerpoint type illustrations. These illustrations were rather crude and had the effect of limiting the joke, confining it to just how the illustration looked. With no illustration, it would have played on one’s imagination more, which would have been funnier.

Another point – and I am no prude – BUT… At one point (actually with one of those illustrations) he condemns Jim Davidson as being a racist comedian – and I have no problem with that condemnation. But on the other hand, during the course of the evening I think he told about 12 jokes that were basically about men raping women. Not sex – sex is funny. Rape isn’t funny. I think it’s a bit hypocritical to complain about one form of abuse and then make fun of another. Call me old-fashioned.

Anyway, entertaining thought the evening was, I didn’t think he got the rapturous reception from the audience that I expected. Sally Ann HaywardOne guy from the circle turned on him and said he was boring. I had some sympathy.

Thursday 11th March, another Screaming Blue Murder, at the Underground. Three comics – Sally Ann Heyward, John Gordillo and Noel James. We liked them all. John GordilloCan’t go into too much detail about their routines as, frankly, I have largely forgotten them. But it was a good night as always. Noel JamesWe’re not seeing the next Screaming Blue Murder, there’s just too much going on at the moment to fit it in. Shame. Hopefully there’ll be another season later in the year.

Thursday 18th March saw the Lyric Hammersmith’s production of Filter Company’s Three Sisters by Chekhov. I love a bit of Chekhov, me. I would think of myself as being a bit of a purist when it comes to this. I know you can successfully push and pull Shakespeare around by modernising productions and it still works. Would it work with Chekhov? I had my doubts.

Three Sisters To be honest, the main problem I had with this is that it wasn’t quite avant garde enough to be a really modern production, nor was it classically purist enough for it to be, well, classic. One of the company’s trademarks is that they amplify sound where you don’t expect it. And this can be very effective. I liked very much their amplifying the whispering conversation between Andrey and Natasha at the end of the first scene. At another point, they amplified the sound of a kettle boiling. I found it quite riveting. That was when Mrs Chrisparkle started to nod off.

The cast were excellent, and the mishmash of accents added to the modernity of the thing; the Royal’s stage was used extremely well; and it went down well with the audience. The production seemed to dwell on the relationships and love stories (such as they are) in the plot, and not so much on the elusive dream of “getting back to Moscow”. Not quite sure I liked that emphasis. Anyway, the answer is that Chekhov does stand a bit of updating, but I would like to have seen it push the boundaries even more. And I’m a purist. I surprise myself saying that.

Monday 22nd March, the first night locally of Clive Mantle’s performance as Tommy Cooper in “Jus Like That”. I am in total awe of Mr Mantle’s hard work. It’s a huge tour, often staying just one night in a theatre before moving off the next day to some distant venue, etc and etc.

Just Like ThatI had the pleasure of seeing Tommy Cooper at the Palladium when I was ten years old. Dad took me to see “To See Such Fun”, one of those reviews they used to have that just lasted a week. The line up was Tommy Cooper, Clive Dunn, Anita Harris and Russ Conway. I loved it. I got to meet Tommy Cooper briefly in one of the cafes opposite the Palladium before the show started and got his autograph. He was very nice to me. Happy memories.

The problem with Jus’ Like That is an obvious one. Tommy Cooper had his own magic (literally) and Clive Mantle isn’t Tommy Cooper. Tommy Cooper is dead. So this production really is in many respects trying to fulfil an impossible dream. His is a good portrayal of TC, he has the height for it but not quite the bulk, his face is not quite as alcohol and cigar-affected as TC’s and the very pale makeup he wore actually looked a bit creepy to me. (My memory is that TC had quite a ruddy complexion?) The voice is good, the enthusiasm is good, and the script is sometimes word for word what you remember from watching TC on TV in his comedy programmes; but the play itself (especially in the first half, which is basically watching a Tommy Cooper show) relies heavily on the audience loving it from the beginning, and there are some pauses where we obviously should have been continuing to laugh, and we weren’t. It almost required a warm-up act. As it was a Monday, we only had small Sauvignon Blancs to start, rather than the large ones, and we weren’t quite warmed sufficiently.

Clive MantleI found the second half much more interesting, where you see TC backstage, coping with stardom, alcohol, physical ageing; and this is where Clive Mantle comes into his own, as you feel like this is the real thing. Then there is more TC performance stuff, including his final routine – I remember watching it on Live at Her Majesty’s on TV, must be about thirty years ago now – and this is performed to great effect.

I’d definitely recommend it – and Clive Mantle’s performance is outstanding in many respects. But he’s not the real Tommy Cooper, and thus you come away from the theatre slightly more rueful than buzzed with hilarity. Not because of the show, but because he’s no longer with us.

Oh, and it also has the lovely Carla Mendonca, who I saw in Daisy Pulls It Off about 100 years ago.

Your Country Needs You, Friday 12th March, BBC 1

Pete Waterman If you’re not a Eurovision fan you maybe won’t understand the intense feeling of excitement and expectation when it comes to choosing your country’s Song For Europe. Last year UK fans were spiralled into another stratosphere with the extra effort that the BBC put in (in other words, they made a bit of an effort for the first time in years), and thus this year our expectations have been high.

Then they announced it would be Pete Waterman masterminding the process (not Gary Barlow, shame) but still there were high hopes as we re-evaluated all the SAW hits of the past 100 years.

Alexander RybakThen in the run up to the contest, I began to smell a rat. Confirmation of the date of the show was being withheld by the BBC, even though Alexander Rybak had told everyone he would be there on 12th March weeks before. Confirmation of how the voting process would work was also not forthcoming. Information about how you would get tickets was on the quiet side. I remember seeing the Making Your Mind Up shows in 2005 and 2006 and we had our tickets in the post I’m sure two weeks before the event. Two weeks before this show and we had barely registered our interests with SRO Audiences. (I’m really not fussed by all this out-sourcing. Call me old-fashioned.) This all made me think that they really weren’t quite on the ball this year.

Much to my dismay, we were unsuccessful in getting tickets. Even people I didn’t know were Eurovision fans who live in the same town as me got tickets. I resorted to sulking. Mrs Chrisparkle thought it was an unattractive trait. She was right. I decided to meet up with an old pal for lunch on Friday and therefore ruled going to London out of my options. Instead we sat in front of the TV with a rather cheap bottle of vintage cava and some olives. And then the car crash came on.

Graham NortonIt looked ok on tv but the sound was appalling. I was sure that at least the first two acts couldn’t have sung that badly but that the “levels” were wrong. And Graham Norton has his autocue failure. I guess that can happen any time but here it just added to that feeling of total lack of preparation. Then in the “second round” Esma forgot her lines. And said “Sorry”. So although she had made a complete mess of it, at least she was still polite.

Josh DubovieWe voted for her anyway. Not because she was a dependable singer. But because she was the only one who had any real attack to her performance. Josh was/is a much better singer but he looked a bit lost on the stage. I hereby want to wish Josh all the success in the world and the very best of luck for Oslo; and I hope he takes full advantage of any offers of improving his stage presence. Acting classes; dance classes. It will all help.

Mike Stock has said that the song will get a major upgrade. Good. It needs to go from cargo class to balcony suite.

So on the whole I’m glad we didn’t get tickets. I’ve heard some pretty appalling things from some people who went as to how they were treated. Bullying staff; queueing outside after you’ve had to surrender your coats; they all add up to a lack of respect for the individual punter. I have a friend who cannot stand for any length of time, and the tickets say “standing only”. Well that’s discriminatory. They don’t even do that at football anymore.

My friend questioned this and the tickets people confirmed that of course they wouldn’t discriminate against her and that seating would be provided. And indeed it was. An uncomfortable plastic chair set at the back of beyond from where she couldn’t see a thing. And she would also have been miles from anyone else had it not been for a couple of friends staying beside her – with the result that they didn’t see anything either. So the BBC complied with the letter of the law but the spirit of the law went out the studio window. The whole idea of attending is to be part of the audience, to share the camaraderie, not to be plonked as far out of sight as possible. Come on BBC, this is not playing fair! In previous years I know that everyone other than 22 year old blonde girls were sent to the remoter parts of the studio despite their being early in the queue to get in. It just offends my sense of natural justice. Did you know that 22 year old blonde girls constitute a remarkably small part of the average Eurovision demographic?

So I’m afraid this year the BBC does not get a big round of applause from me for this show. I have high hopes for next year. There’s not a lot further for it to plummet.

Review – My Zinc Bed, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, Tuesday 2nd March

My Zinc BedI always think of David Hare as being a pretty bloody magnificent playwright. But then I also think of him as being a writer from the 70s and 80s when I was really “into” studying drama. Slag, Knuckle, Fanshen, Licking Hitler, Teeth ‘n’ Smiles, Plenty and A Map of the World. All wonderful, riveting, enlightening, revealing plays.

David Hare My Zinc Bed, I understand, was originally written in 2000 and received rather poor reviews. For this production I believe David Hare has done a partial rewrite. All I can say is that the 2000 version must have been desperately dull if this new production is an improvement.

It’s not a bad night out at the theatre by any means. The play is full of clever observations, tackling serious questions, and with interesting characters. It is, though, one of those occasions where the sum of its parts far exceeds the whole. The story is that of Paul, a reforming alcoholic, and his encounter with Victor, a charismatic celebrity businessman and his wife Elsa. Victor challenges Paul on his reliance on Alcoholics Anonymous, which goads Paul into annoyance but allows the chink in his armour which lets in alcohol to reappear. Victor and Elsa down delicious looking Margaritas in front of Paul; and I won’t tell you the rest of the story in case you see it. Paul and Elsa also have a bit of a “thing” – although it’s hardly an affair. Her reason for being attracted to Paul is one of the most interesting revelations of the play. Suffice it to say, it’s not his good looks, job, money or sexual prowess that does it.

My main problem with this play is that it’s really static. I always like to emerge from a work of art of any sort different from how I went into it; and that applies to the characters too. Paul is a reforming alcoholic at the beginning of the play; and at the end he hasn’t changed. Victor’s and Elsa’s marriage changes, but even then you don’t see it happen – it’s something Paul merely mentions in passing to the audience at the end.

I enjoyed very much the moment when Paul confesses what it is about Elsa that arouses him – the sound of her sexy stockings. For me this worked brilliantly, as she had just crossed her legs and I got a bit of a frisson – and that was when Paul spoke about it. A direct hit on my theatre radar!!

Robert Gwilym Robert Gwilym had all the charisma for the part of Victor but I was quite surprised, I felt he garbled a few of the speeches. He seemed to lose some syllables on some words occasionally and sometimes I didn’t quite catch what he said, even though I was in Row B of the Stalls. Leanne BestLeanne Best had a good mix of sensuous and reserved and tackled the role well; but Jamie Parker playing Paul has the best role and took it by the horns. I was completely won over by his dishevelled discomfort and his living death by alcohol particularly in the second act was moving and convincing. As an aside, I didn’t like the way the positioning of the furniture meant that Leanne Best had to take her curtain call partly obscured. Just looked very wrong to me.

Jamie ParkerThe set is rather mystifying; empty tables to the side of the stage that never come into the action are suddenly laden with bottles and glasses in the second act. It’s an “active background” – which is in good keeping with the rest of the play, but “active background” isn’t very dramatic.

Victor says that you only get to know what life is all about when you’re lying on your zinc bed (or dead). In a sense you only get to understand what this play is all about when one of the characters meets their end (at the end). But the main feeling of the whole experience is that it’s undramatic and not terribly rewarding.

Review – Honest, The Mail Coach pub, Derngate, Northampton, Saturday 27th February.

HonestA young man, Dave – a bit like you or me (perhaps a bit younger than me!) – finished work, in the pub, downing a pint, possibly not his first of the evening, probably not his last of the evening, reflects on his work – he’s not happy there. He’s obviously got a lot to get off his chest; and the trouble is, he finds it very difficult not to be totally honest.

That can get you into all sorts of problems, when you’re talking to a boss you don’t respect; a colleague you despise; even your nephew who can’t draw for toffee. Still, during the course of one significant evening that he recollects, he learns how to tell a lie – and I *think* he feels the better for it, even if the person he tells it to also finds it difficult not to be honest. And at the end of the evening, he’s off, no goodbyes, into the night. He doesn’t know how we have reacted to him.

This young man has many layers of anxiety. He always notices anything that’s different from him. So he will always mention if one of the characters he’s talking about is black, or Muslim, say; I don’t think he’s in any way prejudiced, I just think he’s caught up with the minutiae of anything that’s not him. He’s definitely not a mixer, much more of a loner; socially rather inept, but knowing it – for example, there was a very entertaining segment about whether or not some girl would find his too-much-alcohol-induced vomit a turn on. He has a level of despair about his life that is quite touching. Many times he can’t quite finish his sentences – and it’s not the booze that prevents him, he’s just run out of emotional juice.

He is, however, prejudiced against those he feels have an unfair advantage over him – people with a private education, for example. He has a scene where he imagines a classroom in a public school where the teacher is telling the children that they are the advantaged, the blessed, and that they will rise and shine above all the nonentities who don’t go to a public school. I really wanted to get out of my seat at that point and put him right, as I went to such a school and that was something they would never ever have said!!

Mail Coach DC Moore’s one man 45 minute play is a mini nugget of theatrical tension. Held in the back bar at the Mail Coach pub in Northampton, we other drinkers watch him as his tale unfolds. It’s very conversational. You’re very close, physically, to him, as you would be if you were in a pub listening to a bloke talk. As indeed you are; but it is still a play, which at times can be alarmingly easy to forget. Thus it raises interesting questions about the difference between what is and what seems.

One aspect in which for me it didn’t quite work was that as it was so very very nearly real, I wanted to join in the conversation. Indeed at one point I said out loud “yes…” in response to one of his points, forgetting that it was a play. But the fact that you can’t talk back to him does make it slightly more artifice than reality and slightly one-sided, as he gets to do all the talking.

Thomas Morrison Another aspect is that it was 6.30pm on a Saturday. Our man was I think at about 9.30pm on a weeknight. He’d had a few; we were on our first. There’s an imbalance there; but he talks as though we are his equals in “being out late at the pub” terms. It would have been fascinating if they had been able to do it “twice nightly”, say 6.30 and 9.00 – to see if the 9pm show had a more reckless feel to it. But I digress. Even if it were just an exercise in staging a play in a different environment, it would still work; but moreover it is tightly written, beautifully acted by Thomas Morrison, intimate, sensitive, revelatory, and dare I say it, very honest.