Review – Jack and the Beanstalk, Derngate, Northampton, 23rd December

Jack and the BeanstalkThis is a toughie. I can’t decide whether to tell you all the bad things about it and then praise it, like Craig Revel Horwood on a happy day; or tell you all the good things about it and then move into grumpy mode later.

Hilary O'Neil It’s going to be the latter. Mainly because I look back at last night’s panto with affection. Firstly, there are some excellently dynamic and active performances. Hilary O’Neil as Fairy Cobblers is the spark that illuminates the entire show. Every time she appears with a wave of her wand she does a different impersonation, and they’re really really good, and really really funny. Cheryl Cole, Catherine Tate characters, Jungle celebrities, unnervingly accurate. She worked hard all night and it was appreciated; and she clearly changed her script a bit and made Gavin Woods (as Fleshcreep) corpse, which was delightful.

Adam Stafford Also marvellous was Adam Stafford as Dame Trot. A perfect panto dame, OTT costumes, lightly lewd conversation, super facial expressions, kept it moving fast, ridiculous but endearing.

Nick Weir I’d also give a big HIYA SIMON (as I’m now a member of Simon’s gang) to Nick Weir as Simple Simon Trot, who delivered his role with bags of energy, and really came into his own at the end with the traditional scene of getting four kids up on stage to play musical instruments – the kids were terrific and his interaction with them funny and inventive.

In fact, that’s the key word – energy. Bags of it from those performers, also the singers and dancers, and from the orchestra…but sadly, I have to say, I didn’t see much in the way of energy from Ray Quinn as Jack. He’s clearly a likeable guy, and is amusingly diminutive as the brave lad going to fight the giant; and the opening conversation of him doing the “alright, calm down” Scouse routine was nicely done – and I liked very much “Fee Fi Fo Fum, I smell the blood of a Liverpudlian” which I hadn’t heard before… Ray Quinn We know he’s a good dancer from his Dancing on Ice days, and he’s played the lead role in Grease, so he ought to be pretty dynamic on the stage, but to me he was just static. There’s an early song-and-dance number (Ain’t that a Kick in the Head) in the show when he is coming to terms with his newly found love for Princess Apricot Crumble (nice) with the backing dancers all smartly decked up and it should be Vegas-y or Rat-Packy with Ray in the centre of the chorus line all doing the high kicks – but his just weren’t high. They were limp, like he was delicately playing football with a three-year-old. Maybe he wasn’t well. Maybe he couldn’t be arsed. But it looked wrong. The marriage of Jack and the Princess was the centrepiece of the curtain call but it almost made the applause stop. Was that because of the lack of energy? I don’t know. But I felt rather embarrassed by that.

Other things that didn’t work – a brief “Oh no it isn’t” conversation between the Dame and Fleshcreep was no more than a private interchange that didn’t involve the audience, so it had finished before it had begun; that bloody Churchill dog that gets into every pantomime now should be shot; the underused and therefore pointless appearance of Moosterious (if you live outside Northampton this will mean nothing to you); Jack’s “fight” against the giant was the lamest thing I’ve seen on a stage since… well since Ripley and Ricky went out to sea.

I wouldn’t want to put you off going. It’s a good panto. I enjoyed it. I’ve reflected on it and smiled a lot. And it was very funny when the Pantomime Cow dropped her payslip – no idea if that was deliberate or not but it worked! There were lots of good lines, nice song-and-dancing, endearing characters, cute kids, terrific impersonations, but for me the overwhelming feeling at the end was of being rather underwhelmed. A bit like a whirlpool – really busy and lively at the outer edges but its centre is somewhere you’d really rather not be.

Review – The Invisible Man, Menier Chocolate Factory, December 5th

Invisible ManI’d seen and read a few reviews of this show in advance of seeing it, and they either loathed it or liked it begrudgingly, so I was a bit wary of the experience we were about to endure.

Let’s set the scene. Row A of the Menier. They couldn’t have positioned those seats lower to the floor. Really difficult to get in and out of the seats. You had to stretch your legs out to get any purchase. I was expecting a geisha to serve tea any minute. Also a bit on the side. Not too bad for our seats but the guys to our left must really have seen nothing more than a cardboard proscenium arch.

Gary Wilmot Anyway we are in a 1904 Music Hall and welcomed by the lively and opinionated MC; and because we remember Leonard Sachs so well, we knew how to react and join in with all the big words. The cast do an opening number (just as they do after the interval) and it’s all very jolly and “knowing winky”. Then we get into the main story, courtesy of an introduction from the Everyman character of Thomas Marvel (Gary Wilmot) and the show gets played out. I’m not sure the main story was really integrated with this Music Hall framework. It worked well enough, but almost by accident, I felt.

Maria Friedman Most of the first half felt frenetic, without any firm structure. The last scene in particular felt very long; there was a lot of physical business that they clearly wanted to get in, and it just felt a bit too…too. It was much improved after the interval when the freneticism somehow felt more engaging; and by the end I was well happy with the show.

Christopher Godwin Gary Wilmot is such a top performer, it was slightly odd to see him in a show where he had no song-and-dance to do. But he creates a super warm link with the audience in this intimate space and is a joy to watch. Underused too in that respect is Maria Friedman with only a little song-and-dance; bossing her way through the show as the dominating pub landlady and also being a joy. Underused in a different way is John Gordon Sinclair as Mr Invisible as he normally has marvellously expressive facial gestures which in this show you don’t get to see! Teddy Kempner Add to this great supportive performances from Christopher Godwin (Ayckbournian stalwart) and Teddy Kempner (I saw him as Snoopy about 100 years ago) which keep the show going at a great pace and I thought Natalie Casey as the moaning maid Millie was actually quite brilliant.

Natalie Casey Plus you also have a nice selection of magic tricks and effects. From our side Row A vantage point we could see how a few of them worked (for example pouring the wine into the glass in the air, and the floating handkerchief). Others were still totally baffling, and extremely effective.

So basically it’s an enjoyable romp. Nothing that’s grim, nothing that’s Greek. Pure entertainment. Occasionally you could let your mind wander and then return a minute or so later and it wouldn’t be a problem. A very nice way to spend a Sunday afternoon.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Derngate, Northampton, December 3rd

Dave ThompsonWe knew this was a sellout because the day before Mrs Chrisparkle’s parents went to book their tickets, but were turned away in disappointment. Shame, as it was another excellent night, although not without its downside, which came chiefly in the guise of the first comic of the night, Dave Thompson. He wasn’t entirely bad; he had a few good lines, but generally speaking his act was (imho) very slow and very tasteless. We’re not a very sophisticated audience in Northampton but nor are we intolerant, so all the stuff about waving a limp wrist and saying “just moved to Brighton, does is show?” gets met with a stony silence. He just didn’t connect.

Meryl O'Rourke Anyway on to much brighter things with Meryl O’Rourke our second act who was frankly hilarious. Fast, on the ball, good interactions, dealt with potentially difficult front row extremely well, delightfully rude. Lots of good stuff here.

Alan Francis Final act was Alan Francis, a slower more thoughtful style, and with some political stuff that often doesn’t work well here but it succeeded with him. Nicely self-deprecating. This photograph of him must be very old indeed though.

Dan Evans was back compering and on excellent form. Looking forward to the new year’s season and I hope they keep with the Friday night dates, as you get many more people and the atmosphere is much buzzier.