Review – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Holst’s The Planets, Jack Liebeck, Derngate, Northampton, 28th November

RPO Planets ConcertAnd so the new Royal Philharmonic Subscription series starts again with a jolly programme of Elgar’s Cockaigne Overture, Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor and Holst’s Planets Suite. They know what they’re doing, these programmers – this ultra-appealing programme meant there was barely a spare seat in the house.

Andrew Litton Andrew Litton was our conductor; he has a very formal appearance in full frock coat and very tidy hair. He looks like a man who is very comfortable with the number of pies he has eaten – quite a few, but not all of them. His style is not over-demonstrative although he does get a bit carried away at the most vigorous moments.

In the past I’ve always found the Cockaigne Overture goes on a bit, but this time it sounded fresh as a daisy, colourfully illustrating all those London characters with spark and shazam.

This was a mere “amuse bouche” before Jack Liebeck’s solo in the Mendelssohn. I am new to the music of Mr Liebeck. He is thirty years old and his sister went to school with my cousin’s daughter. When he was a boy he was really into his football. Jack LiebeckThat’s not the Jack Liebeck who takes centre stage with his violin though. I was both extremely impressed and somewhat disappointed by his performance. Extremely impressive was the actual sound he got out of the instrument. Rarely will you hear a violin sound so pure, so clean, so accurate. If his violin were a singer, it would be a choirboy whose voice is yet to break. It’s quite exquisite. However on the downside, I found it just a trifle cold, passionless, reserved. You don’t get any extra appreciation of the music by watching his facial expressions. He’s kind of the opposite of this lady.

But I am not quibbling because the sound was super.

After the interval we had the old warhorse that is Holst’s The Planets. We all know this piece like the back of our collective hands, don’t we. There’ll be no surprises here then. WRONG! I’ve never heard Mars played with such thrilling attack. It crashed and clashed on the stage, stabbed and shook, looked you right in the eyes and defied you not to be carried away. And thus the standard for the rest of the evening was set.

Venus sounded absolutely beautiful, Mercury was proper ethereal, Jupiter every inch the chart topping magnificent thing it is; Saturn was bold and brave, Uranus vivid and jokey and Neptune reflective and disconcerting. I have to say though that there was a hugely discordant wrong note played in my favourite passage of Uranus (no smutty jokes please) and it sounded horrendous to my ears, but I forgave them because the rest of the show was so splendid. Just as Holst would have liked, they bussed the Ladies of the London Symphony Chorus up to Northampton so that they could go “la la la” at the end of Neptune backstage, with no trace of where the voices were coming from. Spooky, effective, fantastic.

You spoil us, Mr Ambassador.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Derngate, Northampton, 26th November

Angie McEvoySo for the second time, the Screaming Blue Murder was held on a Friday and there was barely a seat available. And what a terrific line up it was, probably the most consistently funny show of all of these we have seen.

Our compere (presumably last minute as not as billed online) was in fact a commere, Angie McEvoy. This gave the whole evening a distinct flavour of its own. Her style is rather quiet and laid back, whereas all the other acts were hi-energy fast and furious types, so it made for a good contrast. She did some great gags, including making up to the 18 year old boy in the front row and suggesting he took her up to her bedroom where she would give his room such a tidy. Halfway through the evening she got a major heckle which she handled brilliantly.

Chris MartinFirst act was Chris Martin, who we have seen before. I remembered some of his routine but not all, and I’m sure he did a lot of new stuff. Very funny, the kind of guy you easily identify with, very confident, made it look effortless.

Nick Doody Second was Nick Doody who I think was my favourite of the night, I loved his routines about not having children, or maybe you would if you could give them back no strings attached within three years; his humour completely struck a chord with me and I loved it.

Simon FoxLast was Simon Fox, who played more of a persona but was still excellent, involving balloons and the banjo but still being really funny. He must have run through the best part of 500 jokes in forty minutes.

One more of these shows before Christmas, looking forward to it!

Review – Calendar Girls, Derngate, Northampton, 17th November 2010

Calendar GirlsWell I must confess that I am behind with writing a few blog posts, for two reasons.

Firstly – I’ve not been well. No it’s true, and man that I am, it’s kind of taken its toll on me. Sniffles developed into a nasty cough, which became a chest infection, and I’m still on antibiotics. It’s been hard sleeping because of night-time coughing. But I am getting better honest. I’m not properly better yet, mind. But getting there.

The second reason is that we saw Calendar Girls on 17th November and frankly it didn’t inspire me to write anything.

We saw the original production in Chichester four or so years ago and absolutely loved it. I was convinced at the time that it made a much better play than film, and that it triumphantly called the shots dealing with emotion and humour. A star studded cast carried it off magnificently. We had Patricia Hodge, Lynda Bellingham, Sian Phillips, all fresh with the piece and giving it all it deserved.

Calendar Girls cast Four years on and I felt it was a very different offering. Most noticeable was how incredibly slow the whole thing is to start – frankly the first half hour or so is pretty boring. The scene where they have the photoshoot is still hilarious. And I did like the portrayal of John’s declining health. It was sensitively and elegantly done. But really – the majority of the rest of it was uninspiring. I fear Lynda Bellingham may be just too stale with the play now – we thought she was rather shouty. June Watson as the older lady Jessie had a confidence with the material that was rather winning. But on the whole it all lacked spark. Even the final scene where they walk through the field of sunflowers struck me a heavily laden rather than the charmingly moving scene I remember in Chichester. I should say that there were a few understudies performing the night we saw it, so maybe they were under-rehearsed or somehow the balances were upset, but to be honest I don’t think that would be the reason for my feeling of underwhelmingness.

It packs houses though – the week in Northampton was more or less a sellout. But I didn’t feel it got a sellout response from the audience. Politely appreciative maybe.

I don’t think I shall want to see it again.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Derngate, Northampton, November 12th

Stan StanleySo for the first time the Screaming Blue Murder night was held on a Friday instead of a Thursday. A positive trend I think, as the club was full, and we arrived a little late so that we had no alternative but to sit in the front row and cope with the interaction with the comics! Actually it wasn’t too bad, as we had our friend Jürgen with us and he gladly played the role of “Comedy German”, taking some of the heat off us.

Michael Legge Another difference was that we had a different compere for a change. Stan Stanley, very entertaining, not so much a compere more of an additional act, which was fine; some good observations and excellent physical comedy, and much as I like Dan Evans our usual host, it was good to get a whole new bunch of material to link the acts.

First was Michael Legge. Engaging, fast material, thought provoking, and very funny. Involved me (a bit) in the act but it wasn’t at all hostile, so I felt very comfortable joining in. I’d happily see his act again.

Anthony King Next was Anthony King. This guy reminded us of a friend of ours, and his deadpan style added to that! He often corpsed through his deadpan stuff and that was actually very endearing and funny. He had some clever musical material but not all of it worked. It was during the course of his act that some people at the back of the hall started to make up their own jokes which must have been very irritating for the people surrounding them. Fortunately Stan Stanley told them to shut up before the final act!

Earl Okin Finally we had Earl Okin. Another funny musical act, that traded on his being an unusual sex symbol, much of which was excellent and carried us along with him.

The whole thing worked very well because of the larger audience, so I hope they keep up the Friday nights. This was definitely one of their better shows.

Review – A Number, and Primadoona, Menier Chocolate Factory, October 31st

A NumberA Number is the first play by Caryl Churchill that I have actually seen in a theatre. I have read several others but never before witnessed the words coming to life in front of an audience. And her words are fascinating. A Number is a 50 minute one-act play with two actors in constant conversation, and the structure of her writing is based on that ability of people to keep a conversation lively whilst rarely finishing a sentence. This means you have to keep close attention to what’s going on. I can see a link to Pinter, who was also adept at conversational plays, but with Pinter the pauses gave you time to take it in. There aren’t many opportunities to sit and reflect in this play.

Timothy WestAnd I think that’s one of the problems. Without the ability to reflect on what’s going on you end up somewhere in the range between “not quite sure what happened there” and “what on earth was all that about”. In our post show discussion, Mrs Chrisparkle and I differed on at least two aspects of what actually happened in the story, let alone any philosophical interpretations one might apply to it.

Skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know the story – or at least the story as far as I understand it. Son finds out that he is not unique genetically as there are “a number” of people who were cloned from the same cells at or around the time of his birth. The extent to which Father is complicit in this is one area in which Mrs C and I differ. Son (let’s call him Son A) doesn’t cope with this very well and visits Son B and puts the frighteners on him. Eventually Son A kills Son B. Father and Son C meet – it is revealed that Son B killed himself. (Another area in which Mrs C and I disagree). Son C is well balanced, unlike Son A. Any further dramatic tension comes from how you think the characters react to the situation in which they find themselves.

Samuel West And that’s the second problem. Delightfully, (at first sight) the Menier has restructured itself so as to present this play in the round (well in the square really). The trouble with our seats (A1 & A2 bought on the first day available) was that they were directly behind the armchair on which one of the two characters is often seated. That meant that for many of the conversations we could not see the reaction of the character facing away from us. Despite being so close to the stage it was a real distancing effect. It may be that others got more from the production because of its staging but, I have to say, we got less. I think it would have worked better on a traditional platform stage at one end of the room.

It goes without saying that real life father and son Timothy and Samuel West gave excellent performances and that the play is definitely thought provoking. But in the end I think it promised more than it delivered.

Doon MacKichanSo on reflection it was a great relief that we also decided to book to see Doon MacKichan’s one-woman-show Primadoona 90 minutes later. This apparently has gone down a storm in Edinburgh earlier this year and is an hour’s tour-de-force encapsulating Doon’s life from award-winning tv comedienne to divorcee and mother of a very sick child. Her comic timing is immaculate; her story is moving and hilarious. We came away from the day feeling that she had got to the heart of the human condition much more directly than Caryl Churchill.