Review – Spamalot, Derngate, Northampton, September 29th – Stick with the Quest!

When we saw Talent at the Menier last autumn, we really hated it. And that was because I quickly realised that it was only fun if it was performed by Victoria Wood and Julie Walters. Anyone else stepping into their parts, no matter how good they were, just didn’t cut it. And I seriously wondered if Spamalot would suffer in the same way. Could the Pythons be replaced?

Yes they can!

Marcus BrigstockeTo be fair, one Python remains, Eric Idle in the role of video-wall-God, turning crotchety in His old age at the obsequiousness of mankind in its attitude to Him. But Marcus Brigstocke is perfect casting as King Arthur – tall, majestic (to an extent), looking down on ordinary humans with the natural loftiness of royalty. He is also a wonderful corpser to the delight of the audience. Todd Carty is also very entertaining as the long-suffering and largely invisible Patsy, the King’s backpacker, horse and general dogsbody. Todd CartyHayley Tamaddon was a surprise as the Lady of the Lake, as I have only seen her in Dancing on Ice (where she was jolly good it must be said), and I originally booked hoping to see Jodie Prenger in the role (but alas she had previous commitments for the Northampton week). Ms Tamaddon looks and sings beautifully and brings out all the comedy in the role.

Graham MacDuff There isn’t a weak spot in the cast at all, and of the noble Knights that support the king, I particularly enjoyed the wry performance of Graham MacDuff as Sir Lancelot (and also the French Taunter and the Knight of Ni), partly I think because his appearance reminded me of Derren Brown, and you don’t think of him as being a Knight of the Round Table.

Hayley Tamaddon Stick with the Quest, because the first half did for me get a little bogged down in following the film of MP & the HG. I’ve not watched that film for over twenty years but I still found myself able to recite half the script before the interval. So it didn’t quite work for me, not because comparisons are odious, but simply because I knew what they were going to say. In the second half however, it becomes much more of its own show, with the wonderful “You Won’t Succeed in Showbiz” as Sir Robin advises on how to mount a musical that would satisfy even the most pernickety of Northampton critics; and The Diva’s Lament where the Lady of the Lake rues her own lack of a role.

Suffice to say, they find the Grail in the most unlikely of places, and everyone ends up happy ever after.

It’s a jolly good production, and everyone seemed to go home content. In fact the lady to my left guffawed so much that I thought she was watching another show. Few things are that funny!

Review – The Big Fellah, Out of Joint, Royal & Derngate Northampton, 7th September

Big FellahIt’s not often that I’m motivated to react this quickly in the blog to something I’ve seen. Normally I wait a few days, let it cogitate and lie fallow. But my brain is bubbling over as a result of this play to the extent that, in the words of Cat Stevens, I can’t keep it in, I gotta let it out.

1972. An IRA cell in New York. Huge funds are being successfully raised at classy dinner events. A safe house is established. The Big Fellah is in charge, although only carrying out orders from afar. There are already loyal workers to the cause; a new man is recruited. It’s really easy to say too much about the plot and I won’t do so, because I want every one of you to go and see it for yourselves over the next few months in Northampton, Bury St Edmunds, Lyric Hammersmith, Oxford, Southampton, York and Birmingham. Suffice it to say, the story develops over thirty or so years and works its way through to a thoroughly believable conclusion.

The first thing that struck me about this play was the power of its writing. Here you have some characters that, if you read about them in the newspaper, you would probably be pleased if they got their come-uppance. Richard Bean brings them to life with apparently effortless ease. They are totally credible, realistic, and above all ordinary people like you and me. So when something devastating happens to a couple of them, you really feel it. I was almost in tears just before the interval. And like ordinary people, they are also, at times, very very funny. The first ten minutes after the interval was one of the funniest sequences I’ve seen between two male characters since early Stoppard. Yet when this sequence ends, it ends with some shivering onstage violence – physical, mental, and threatened. A big man humbled and degraded. It quite took my breath away.

I don’t normally do “post show talks” but this time both Mrs Chrisparkle and I thought it would be complementary to the play. This is partly because she didn’t “get” the end. I did. She feels it’s a flaw in the production that she didn’t get it. She thinks I got it because I looked at the dates. Shan’t say any more, nuff said. The author Richard Bean explained his motivation for writing the play, and I don’t think on reflection he actually achieved what he set out to do, but in fact probably wrote something else much more significant. I know I run the risk of not making any sense if you haven’t seen the play. Go and see it to discover it for yourself.

The director, Max Stafford-Clark, was also at the post show talk, and I was fascinated to see and hear him in real life, being this Colossus of avant-garde theatre since the 1970s. In answer to a question about how he generally directed the play, he explained that they went the Full Stanislavsky Monty. The cast did workshops, improvisations, motivational scenes, went back into the characters’ pasts, played around with the text, and loads of really interesting stuff. They gave us some examples by doing a couple of short scenes from the play differently, and they were very revealing. Rory KeenanAnd boy did this approach to the text pay dividends, because this cast were as ensemble a bunch as you could possibly witness, every word being intelligently, thoughtfully and often hilariously delivered. I’m not going to single out anyone for a special praise. Oh well maybe I will – Rory Keenan as his namesake Ruairi was for me the complete highlight, although maybe that’s because Richard Bean gave his character the best lines.

Mrs Chrisparkle was slightly concerned about the accents of some of the cast. The magic of the theatre wiped that away for me, if there were any dubious accents I didn’t notice them. But she’s normally right on this kind of thing.

Only now, almost twelve hours after seeing it, did an extra aspect to the denouement occur to me – that the last person to die (we suppose) in this story would have been thought of as a hero pretty much universally. Terrorism – what goes around, comes around.

If I did stars, this would be a Five. Carlsberg don’t do plays, but if they did….

Review – Tell Me On A Sunday, Royal & Derngate, Northampton, 31st August

Tell Me on a SundayAll I knew of this show was “Tell me on a Sunday”, “Take that look off your face” and the fact that it was the first part of a two-part show “Song and Dance” where the second half was Wayne Sleep dancing to Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Variations.

So I wasn’t surprised when the bar wasn’t accepting interval orders, and indeed we were back home and tucked up with a cuppa tea 90 minutes after the show started. It is a bit odd to have something so short as your evening’s entertainment (although we’ve seen shorter – some dance stuff, and Arturo Brachetti did a show at the Oxford Playhouse that started at 8pm and we were all going home at 8.40pm).

So to sustain the night the show really has to pack a punch. And I reckon that in about 2 weeks it will be fully packing. I was very impressed with its wit – it’s cleverly put together, with intelligent lyrics, nice funny bits, and seriously emotional moments too. It all makes for a very intense evening. It’s a show that demands a lot of concentration, which is possibly why we slept like babies afterwards. Nevertheless one does feel just a bit under-served when the show finishes so early. Like theatrical nouvelle cuisine.

Claire Sweeney It’s a “big ask” for Claire Sweeney to carry off this show. She has a charming stage presence, and got all the humour out of her Scouse emails to her Mum back home; she also has a terrific voice and sings extremely well (a couple of exceptions, see below). I did feel though that on its second night it was still a little under-rehearsed. There is an awful lot of prop handling and costume changes whilst “the girl” is singing. There was a frightening moment when she wrestled with her suitcase and the damn thing just wasn’t going to open – and it did JUST in time; she also walked into the kitchen stool, clothes dropped off the screen, and so on. There are a lot of props on this rather small stage. This kind of made me nervous.

And another thing – there were a few times when I couldn’t actually work out the words, mainly when she was singing in the lower register, from my vantage point of Row C of the Stalls. This was particularly a problem for me in the song “Take that look off your face”, where I thought she rather overacted the emotion and meaning, to the detriment of the singing. However, immediately afterwards she sang “Tell me on a Sunday” and it was absolutely magnificent. Sometimes we felt (Mrs Chrisparkle and I were in agreement here) that the band were a bit too loud for the singing – almost as though they knew they had a few good tunes coming up, and were going to give it everything they had. Oh and one more thing – there is a new song at the end, which I think is totally redundant – a musical “underlining” of what went before. I feel the reprise of “Take that look” is the right place for the show to end though, the new song “Dreams Never Run on Time” is a bit of an anti-climax.

So all in all a slightly mixed reception on my part – however, the audience loved it and gave Claire Sweeney a very warm reaction. It’s on for a week here and is more or less completely sold out, so they must be doing something right. I’d definitely recommend it though. It’s got a 12 week tour coming up, and going to lots of venues, sometimes for just one or two nights. It’s going to be gruelling. I hope Claire Sweeney’s fitness levels are high.