Eurovision 2011 – Semi Final One

So having whetted your appetite (hopefully) with some gems that didn’t make it, let’s take a look at the songs on offer in Semi Final One which will take place on May 10th. I’m going to take them in order of appearance. Range of odds courtesy of as at 30th March; some very wide ranges which just goes to show how difficult it can be to predict!

Poland – Jestem – Magdalena Tul

PolandLet’s start with a difficult one then. On the Yahoo group where I contribute and/or lurk, depending on my mood, when this song was announced there was much whooping and delight. And I think it’s perfectly all right. It’s one of those songs which is very hard to remember a few minutes after you’ve heard it, which is not an advantage when you’re performing first. It’s extremely nice, and not at all offensive. Possibly a bit repetitive. I can’t really sell it to you any more. 20-1 to 66-1

Norway – Haba Haba – Stella Mwangi

NorwayThe Lion King mixed with a little Coco-Dance gives us this first ever Swahili chorus in Eurovision. Stella’s hugely popular back home and for a while at least kept Lady Gaga off the Number one slot on the I-Tunes chart with this happy sound. The trouble with it, as Mrs Chrisparkle will testify, is whilst the chorus is an escapist chant of charming nonsense, the verse seems to be a bit uncomfortable in Stella’s range and she sounds a bit off-key and strained. I still like it lots. 6-1 to 14-1

Albania – Aurela Gace – Feel the Passion

Albania I’m not normally a fan of Albania’s songs, finding them a bit shouty and over dramatic. This is possibly one of their better efforts, being slightly less shouty and over dramatic than usual. But not much. To commend it, it’s quite a strong tune, but I could probably do with a little less of Aurela’s passion, if I’m honest. They choose the Albanian song at the Festival i Kenges, which always sounds to me like a convention for building site equipment fans. 50-1 to 150-1

Armenia – Emmy – Boom Boom

ArmeniaNot the Boom Boom of Basil Brush, nor of Mabel (Denmark 1978) but a pop-lite offering from Emmy who came second to Eva Rivas in Armenia’s national final last year. You think you’re going to like this at first, but then a couple of Boom Boom Chucka Chuckas later and you’re reaching for the eject button. Its contribution to the philosophic search for the understanding of true love is gossamer thin. Even the Armenians don’t like this. 25-1 to 150-1

Turkey -Yüksek Sadakat – Live It Up

TurkeyRegrettably not the “Live it up” from 1980s Aussie group Mental as Anything, but scoopings off the cutting floor of The Kinks’ “All Day and All of the Night”. It’s not bad, but it should be a bit more purposeful than it is. If they have a strong live act on the Düsseldorf stage and with complimentary lighting and staging it could do pretty well. 18-1 to 80-1

Serbia – Nina – Čaroban

SerbiaA full-on 60s pastiche presentation of this song at the Serbian national final certainly helped this otherwise slightly heavy-handed pop song. Disappointingly, Čaroban doesn’t seem to be about a trip by charabanc but some guy she thinks is “magical”. A good performance of this and I’m sure it will get through to the final. 40-1 to 100-1

Russia – Alex Sparrow – Get You

RussiaAlexey Vorobyov has been anglicised into the chirpier sounding Alex Sparrow to sing this undemanding piece of pop. Its writers include the team behind Lady Gaga’s Poker Face. It’s perfectly nice but terribly simple and shallow. I want it go somewhere else but it never gets there. By this stage of the evening we really need something earth-shattering to give the evening a boot up the backside. 10-1 to 22-1

Switzerland – Anna Rossinelli – In Love for a While

Switzerland And this isn’t it. If Russia’s song is perfectly nice, this is “incredibly pleasant”. It’s so laid back it almost falls over. Initially you think this is another song that will move onto a higher plane about one minute in, but I’m afraid it stays in the departure lounge. Given Switzerland’s lack of neighbourly voters, I don’t think we’ll be seeing it on Saturday night. 25-1 to 100-1

Georgia – Eldrine – One More Day

GeorgiaA more contemporary sound from Georgia and my favourite entry of theirs to date, although I realise not many people agree with me. I hope it gets through to Saturday night, but I think it’s borderline. 33-1 to 100-1

Finland – Paradise Oskar – Da Da Dam

FinlandWell now, here’s a thing. A little song with a guy on a guitar singing about a cute kid who gets angsted by his teacher talking about “the world’s going to end”. I can’t decide whether this is a charmingly innocent song with a valuable ecological message, or whether it’s nauseating drivel. “Peter is smart, he knows his European countries by heart” makes Mrs Chrisparkle want to puke. Paradise Oskar’s name comes from a children’s book, his real name is Axel Ehnström, and he wrote Da da dam himself. I have a sneaking suspicion that the chorus of “da da dam, da da dam, da da da da da da da da da” could be a bit lyrically challenged for the good burghers of Europe. 14-1 to 50-1

Malta – Glen Vella – One Life

Malta25 songs in Malta were whittled down over two nights and Glen Vella was the last man standing. I don’t think it’s the strongest song but he always puts in an infectious enthusiastic performance and if it gets through to Saturday night it will probably be due to his charisma (not to mention colour sense). 66-1 to 400-1

San Marino – Senit – Stand By

San MarinoSan Marino returns with Senit, whose voice reminds me of Sporty Spice Mel C. It’s a rather lovely heartfelt ballad and I admit I’m hooked on it. There probably aren’t many Eurovision artists of Eritrean heritage, so I expect that’s a first. Sadly I think it’s unlikely to trouble the televoters too much on Saturday if it gets there. 80-1 to 300-1

Croatia – Daria Kinzer – Celebrate

CroatiaFrom “Lahor” to “Break a Leg” and now “Celebrate”, this tune gets stronger (the composer wrote the theme to the Croatian version of “Big Brother”) but the lyrics get weaker. Daria Kinzer’s a great singer though and this stands out as being one of the better entries in this Semi. There’s something of the early Celine Dion to her looks, and I expect this to be there on Saturday. 50-1 to 250-1

Iceland – Sjonni’s Friends – Coming Home

IcelandSurely when the televoters of Europe hear the story of Sjonni Brink’s death shortly before he was due to perform this song in the Icelandic National Final, there’s going to be a wave of sympathetic phone calls heading for Reykjavik. We will of course never know if this song would have beaten other strong contenders if he hadn’t died. It is, in any event, an upbeat, happy singalong song, with a nice arrangement and confident vocals and I think it will do surprisingly well. 20-1 to 200-1

Hungary – Wolf Kati – What about my dreams

HungaryNot sure if she’s decided to be Wolf Kati or Kati Wolf, but this is Hungary’s strongest song since their debut entry. She’s a statuesque lady with a great voice and I’m sure it will do very well. Not much more to say really. 14-1 to 20-1

Portugal – Homens da luta – Luta e alegria

PortugalThe Portuguese protest song, much criticised for its rowdy style, rather rude performers and general all round thuggishness. Additionally it prevented some rather more genteel and entertaining songs from winning. But you know, in my heart of hearts, I like this. It has a very infectious tune, and the whole performance is reminiscent of a bunch of down-on-heels singing together to keep their spirits up, a kind of Portuguese Jarrow march. It hasn’t a hope in hell, especially if the EU bail Portugal out with cash some time before May 10th. 80-1 to 500-1

Lithuania – Evelina Saŝenko – C’est ma vie

LithuaniaA big ballad that sounds like it should be from a cheesy Disney production and is unfortunately the ultimate in snoozefest. 100-1 to 200-1

Azerbaijan – Ell and Nikki – Running Scared

AzerbaijanAnother contemporary song from the Drip Drop stable, and surely in contention for a high place in the final knockings. Simple but effective lyrics and a memorable musical hook. 9-1 to 16-1

Greece – Loukas Giorkas feat. Stereo Mike – Watch My Dance

GreeceA mixture of styles, dramatic Greek with rap, like Alex Panayi meets Eminem. For me it’s a total failure, but Mrs Chrisparkle likes it. There’s no accounting for taste. Remember Cyprus and Greece can’t vote for each other in the semis. 25-1 to 125-1

Comments on the Semi Final Two songs tomorrow, with any luck!

Eurovision 2011 – the ones that got away

It’s about time I put font to Word and put on record a few thoughts about this year’s Eurovision. I think it’s going to be a good one! What is particularly impressing me this year is the number of memorable tunes scattered throughout Europe that have risen to the top of the milk, making it much more Full Channel Island than Tesco Value Skimmed (if it exists.) Not all the performances are great, and some of the lyrics are banal; but the composers have been doing a damn fine job this year.

But before I take you through the contest and introduce you to the pleasures that await in May, I’m first going to give an honourable mention to some songs that fell by the wayside en route to Düsseldorf. It’s important to recognise the really enjoyable songs that didn’t make it through their National Finals because they can otherwise quickly get forgotten about. And that would be a tragedy. No, it would.

So I’m going to start off with Romania, who chose very early this year, well very late last year to be precise, and a song that I listened to several times in January much to the disappointment of Mrs Chrisparkle, who “quite liked it”. It’s Leticia with “Dreaming of you”, which came 6th in their National Final on New Year’s Eve. It’s simple, plaintive and charming.

Moving a little sideways to Romania’s neighbour and close partner in the voting stakes, Moldova. Whereas I think the song that has been chosen for Moldova this year is execrable, the song that came 6th (again) is a great little number, full of Balkan Promise. It’s Break It Up by Boris Covali and Cristina Croitoru.

Back towards the Mediterranean in Greece they had a very odd National Final, with the performers in one studio and the audience in another. Maybe this contributed to their choosing one of I think the worse Greek entries for years, and missing this little gem, the only one in the final that was sung in Greek, Hamogela by Trimitonio. I think it may have come last.

In Ukraine they overlooked what could be one of the biggest smashes in years, the extraordinary Jamala, with her song Shine. The Ukrainian decision making process where it comes to Eurovision is one of the most flawed in humanity. Let’s hope they never go for their ISO 9000. Jamela’s voice is something of an acquired taste but this song cannot fail to make you do precisely what the title is all about.

Moving north, in Latvia, I think they chose a terrific song to go to Germany, but it means this wonderful song had to come second – Banjo Laura by Lauris Reiniks. Cute video too.

Ending up in Sweden, there’s all sorts of songs that would have been worthy winners. I think Sanna Nielsen’s I’m in Love is my favourite:

But I’m growing very fond of Swingfly’s Me and My Drum:

and the ultimate in schlager, Jenny Silver and Something in your Eyes:

There are other great songs from around Europe, but I don’t want to lose your attention. I’ll be deliberating Semi Final One soon.

Review – Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, Milton Keynes Theatre, 23rd March 2011

Ballets Trockadero de Monte CarloYay! The Trocks are back! Refreshed, revitalised and more athletic than ever! If you’ve seen them before you know they each take on the persona of a male and a female ballet star, from the finest Soviet tradition. You’ll also know this is no mere comedy show but a display of the most exquisitely controlled ballet you could possibly find outside the world’s top companies. We’ve been coming to see them for years now, and every time we get really excited at the prospect and always love their shows. I guess you could call us “fans”.

Yuri Smirnov Over the years, of course, one develops one’s favourites, and some of them were on stage last night. My favourite Trock of all time, Comrade Ida Nevasayneva, a.k.a. M. Velour Pilleaux, a.k.a. Paul Ghiselin, is the Ballet Master of the company and regrettably wasn’t performing. When he takes on the role of von Rothbart in Swan Lake he completely cracks me up, I can’t think of a funnier non-speaking performance. Last night though we had another really excellent von Rothbart, Yuri Smirnov, as performed by the brilliant Robert Carter. I had hoped Mr Carter’s other alter ego, Olga Supphozova, would play Odette, as his/her interpretation of that role can’t be beaten. However he was a great von Rothbart, maniacally evil when things are going his way, pathetically impotent when the Prince pulls stronger on the Odette tug-of-war.

Ashley Romanoff-Titwillow And what a Prince! Ashley Romanoff-Titwillow, as danced by Joshua Grant, absolutely embodied how splendid the dance can be on those moments when the comedy takes a back seat (which is never for long). His first solo was breathtaking. Mrs Chrisparkle gasped audibly. It was great. Maya Thickenthighya Odette herself was danced by Maya Thickenthighya (Emanuel Abruzzo in real life). He/she has joined the company since we last saw them and is a first rate new recruit. When you’ve seen the Trocks as often as we have, you get to see different incarnations of the same diva. She is very different from the Maya Thickenthighya I remember in the 1990s, who was a much more hirsute and stocky version!

Vanya Verikosa The supporting corps were marvellous as always, with extra special comedy brilliance from Vanya Verikosa (Brock Hayhoe). She really threw herself in to it. I also enjoyed Christopher Lam as Boris Nowitsky playing (not really dancing) Benno. Boris Nowitsky Great with the facial interpretations; best Benno I’ve seen since Igor Slowpokin. The Pas de deux that opened the second act was beautifully performed by (I think) Colette Adae (Claude Gamba) and Andrei Leftov (Boysie Dakobe, another terrific new Trock). Colette Adae Again the grace, skill and athleticism these guys create on stage is amazing. Apart from the fact that Colette looked a bit butch you would never know you weren’t at the Mariinsky.

Andrei LeftovThen we had Go for Barocco, to the music of the Brandenburg Concertos, simply, deftly staged, with its trademark dance that mixes pure classical style with Olympic Road Race Walk. I was delighted to see Lariska Dumbchenko (Raffaele Morra) join us for that one. Ms Dumbchenko exudes sheer elegance until she starts haring it across the stage all guns blazing.

Lariska DumbchenkoAnd of course, the Dying Swan. I wish I knew how they position those loose feathers in the costume so that they continue to fall out at a constant pace. It never fails to delight, and Ms Thickenthighya executed her beautifully.

Of all the dance companies I can bring to mind, this is the one that most constantly achieves balletic excellence. The pointe work is amazing. Sometimes you just find yourself staring at their feet in awe and ignoring the comedy. Their leaps are stunning. That move they do, sorry I don’t know the technical name, when they spin round several times whilst kicking their legs out and in at the same place on each spin is extraordinary. Olga SupphozovaAnd no one can do that like Ms Supphozova as she showed us in the final act, Raymonda’s Wedding. It’s a joyous piece that brings the whole company together, blending the finest dance with top physical comedy. Katerina Bychkova The coupling of the extremely tall Katerina Bychkova with the extremely short Andrei Leftov is pure genius. And of course it leads us to their finale, which always brings whoops from the audience.

As you can tell, we loved it. Their UK tour lasts another three or so weeks, so see if you can get tickets for High Wycombe, Birmingham, Sheffield, Bradford, Edinburgh or Salford. And we even got a signed poster too for £10. Bargain!

Another film seen – The Lincoln Lawyer

Lincoln LawyerIt’s ridiculous. We haven’t been to see a film for months and months and now this is the third in as many weeks! I’ve not read any of Michael Connelly’s books but we were attracted to this film because we thought it would be Grishamesque in style and with a good story to boot. Quite enjoyed most of the Grishams I’ve read or seen before.

Matthew McConaughey Not sure that it’s that Grishamesque really, in many respects I think it’s better. It doesn’t get quite so bogged down in the mundane day to day aspects of being a lawyer, hard-nosed or rookie (they seem to be the only two types of practising lawyer). It is however a rattling good story, and I was kept fully entertained throughout. It has a nicely unexpected twist at the end, which I guessed just three seconds before its reveal. As well as the fast paced thriller aspect to the film it also dealt with some very interesting questions: how the rich can afford the best law money can buy and how it’s very different for the no-hopers with no cash; how the authorities try to load additional crimes onto people convicted of different crimes in order to clear up their solving rates – often ruining the case so that a guilty person gets off scot-free; and how sometimes defence lawyers end up defending someone they heavily suspect to be guilty. The story takes all these threads and more and it makes for a jolly good film.

Ryan Phillipe I’m no expert on film acting but all the main parts seemed very well performed, Matthew McConaughey was on screen almost throughout and made the car-centric lawyer more than just a person who made things happen; and Ryan Phillippe as the guy he is called on to defend makes an excellent smug rich kid. These people are completely new to me by the way. I know that will surprise you.

I was reminded though of one of the reasons why I fell out of love with the cinema. In the first scene, the lawyer has a quick conversation with a member of staff who promises him a good case. At least I think that’s what happened, as I could not understand any part of the conversation. To me it sounded like a couple of American accents impersonating two other American accents without a discernable word between them. Is it just my oh-so-English brain, or do other people find it difficult to hear some conversations in films? It really annoys me when I think I’m missing what’s going on just because they murmur!!! It would never do on stage. Bring back elocution lessons!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Derngate, Northampton, 18th March 2011

Dan EvansAnother three comics for our delectation at the Derngate last Friday. Dan Evans was compere again and I thought he dealt magnificently with a noisy lady in the front row. His put-downs were perfect (and well deserved) and really appealed to a snob aspect of the rest of the audience that I was surprised was there… he got it spot on. The subsequent acts themselves took their lead from Dan, and whenever she piped up, they tended to ignore her, or say “shush” – much the wisest move.

Quincy Anyway first up was Quincy. No, not Jack Klugman running his fingers over the flesh of what you expect to be a stiff but is in fact a beautiful babe on his yacht, but a rather relaxed and very funny London guy, very tall and imposing but nicely self-effacing (proud of his 18 year old son, “tall, broad, strong, just like his mother”). Did some good jokes, built a nice character and was warmly received, a very good opening act.

Stuart Hudson Second was Stuart Hudson. This man’s humour is positively sick. I absolutely loved him. He characterises himself as a right reprobate but you could easily relate to him too. He did some really black humour, completely near-the-knuckle stuff that made you cringe audibly as you laughed, but it was extremely funny too. He also constructed a varied act, in that sometimes he just did clever inoffensive material too, to break it up which worked really well. “Not that nice to see you after all, to see you after all not that nice – Bruce Hindsight.” I’d definitely recommend him.

James Dowdeswell Last up was James Dowdeswell. If Stuart Hudson was sick, James Dowdeswell was slick. He delivered very clever and funny material at a good pace and with a good understanding about the kind of stuff we wanted to hear. All too often the headline act is the one that gets heckled, as by the end of the show a few more drinks have gone down the gullet and confidences blossom, but there was never any doubt this guy would just run his act his own way to great effect. Mrs Chrisparkle’s favourite of the night – very satisfying stuff.

Review – King Lear, Donmar Warehouse Tour, Milton Keynes Theatre, 16th March 2011

King LearWe’ve seen at least three Lears over the past few years. We were very lucky to get good seats for Ian McKellen’s Lear in London a few years ago, and more recently we were slightly less lucky to see the late Pete Postlethwaite’s Lear at the Young Vic. Postlethwaite was excellent but I had lots of problems with the production itself. On the other hand McKellen’s Lear was as majestic as you could imagine.

Derek Jacobi So it was with great expectations that we witnessed Derek Jacobi’s interpretation of Lear. And I must say it’s a very different, but completely valid and credible portrayal of the misguided king. Whereas Lear is often a towering, bullying, bossy kind of guy, Jacobi’s pre-heath Lear is spoilt, petulant and wheedling, insisting on a peck on the cheek from Goneril before she starts buttering him up, his voice going very high tenor when he wants to get his way – you can imagine his bedroom having a royal cot with lots of toys on the floor. His descent into madness isn’t as gradual as some Lears – to me he seemed pretty on top of his wits until his encounter with Poor Tom, which seemed to flip him over the edge. When he referred to Tom as a philosopher I felt the madness kick in. Technically, as you would expect from an actor of his stature, it’s a beautiful performance. Every word is clear; no line is wasted; his eyes and his manner convey precise meaning when the Shakespearian language gets a little dense.

Gina McKeeThere are lots of other jewels in this crown of a production. If self-deluded Lear is every inch a king then Gina McKee’s Goneril is every inch a bitch. When she tells Lear how much she loves him in the opening scene her words are not directed at her father but at Cordelia, her eyes challenging her to “beat that” when it comes to her turn. It’s a very mature and physical performance – when she comes on strong to Edmund she really turns on the sex-factor, frankly masturbating in front of him. You wouldn’t want to upset her; I’ve never seen Albany being grabbed by the testicles to mock his weakness before. “Goneril and the Gonads” makes a very sharp impression, and the audience cringes with discomfort.

Justine MitchellShe is well matched in villainy by Justine Mitchell’s Regan. Looking all butter-wouldn’t-melt she beautifully underplays the scorn with which she suggests Lear’s retinue is diminished from a hundred to barely one. Her squeal of childish glee when Gloucester’s eyes are removed was stunningly horrific. It had all the excitement of a little girl unable to contain herself at a birthday party.

Alec Newman As the other bastard in this play, although this time a real Bastard too, Alec Newman is a very dashing Edmund, and totally believable; you’d swear he was telling the truth about Edgar’s plot to kill his father. Some Edmunds are rather cold and collected in their approach to their plot, but this is a very excitable one, glorying in his wicked plans, impatient to get on in life. When he’s playing Goneril and Regan off against each other you can see his genuine delight at the sport, it’s a really sexy game for him.

Gideon Turner The rest of the cast all play their parts very well, Gideon Turner’s Cornwall was very convincing as the unapologetically malevolent putter-outer of Gloucester’s eyes (I particularly liked –if that is the word – the way he threw the second eye on to the floor and you heard it bounce) and Gwilym Lee Gwilym Lee as Edgar’s Poor Tom character did actually bring a tear to my eye with his sorrow at seeing his blind father. As is often the case, Lear’s entry with the dead Cordelia in his arms brought a lump to the throat. It was Jacobi’s “Howl! Howl! Howl!” (Act V Scene III, line 256) that did it.

One thing I really admired about this production is how there was barely any staging or furniture. The unchanging set is just three walls and a ceiling made of planks with various shades of white and grey daubed on them (with additional splashes of red after Gloucester’s blinding). Lights behind slim gaps between the planks create the lightning effect for the heath. For props and furniture, there was a chair, a joint-stool, a map, a few letters, some jewellery and swords and a bit of earth for Edgar’s Tom make-up. This really means that all your attention is on the words, the characters, the acting. Having seen a number of over-staged productions recently it’s thrilling to see the drama evolve unadulterated by minutiae.

Additionally I should mention that Adam Cork won the Olivier Award for best Sound Design for this production, which is a fitting reward for the moody, scary, disquieting atmospheres that he has created. Lear on the heath is a very different interpretation from the traditional – the words are delivered much more calmly and quietly than usual – but the sound design helps create a very spooky experience.

It’s excellent that the Donmar is making this production available to a much larger audience. The Milton Keynes Theatre was sold out for a Wednesday evening, which is good news for business. It’s a great, stark production that lets the text do the talking and with some fine characterisations of its villains and victims to inhabit it.

Review – Diary of a Nobody, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, March 10th 2011

Diary of a NobodyConfession time. When I attended the Royal and Derngate’s Subscription Season launch in January, this was one of two productions that I wasn’t certain I was going to enjoy. I’m not familiar with the original book and I feared that it might be a little dated, a little stilted; a lot of Victorian pomposity and bluster and no substance.

Hah! How wrong I was! This is a truly super show. It’s laugh out loud funny from start to finish and each of its four performers is a star turn.

Mr Pooter is at the heart of it, a traditional Victorian man in many respects but with an interest in modern fads, like these wonderful new enamel paints (cue all the furniture turning red). The troubles that beset him are the same we have today – pesky builders who create more work than they repair; bankers who abuse the system to make money for themselves; obstructive pub bouncers; there’s a lot of similarities. And Mr Pooter’s honesty nearly always works against him, hence he doesn’t get into the pub, he unwittingly offends his wife so she goes off and stays with her friend, and he complies with his Godlike boss’s demand that he changes his holiday week so he misses out on the best view of Broadstairs beach.

Robert DawsAgain, without having read the original, so I may be wide of the mark here, where I think this play could have gone wrong would be to accentuate the downside of Mr Pooter. He could be played as a pompous, tedious, self-deluded, self-aggrandising know-it-all. However, instead, this Mr Pooter is just so immensely likeable! Robert Daws plays him with an air of total joy. From the first few moments you are captured by his humanity and you want to be his friend. He is so pleased to be centre stage and delighted to say “Good evening” to everyone that you know you’re going to love him. When he comes up with his awful jokes you still laugh along with him, whereas if anyone else said them you’d run a mile. You identify with him throughout the evening because you are on his side and he is essentially one of the nicest people you could possibly know. Robert Daws’ performance is stand-out smashing. He connects instantly with the audience and we stand by his side the whole time. By the end of the show if anyone said anything unpleasant to him you’d have to get up and say “disrespect Mr Pooter and you disrespect me” and that might lead to some regrettable unfortunateness.

Peter ForbesSupporting Mr Pooter are his three thespian acquaintances who play all the other characters in his life. They’re all great. Peter Forbes probably stands out because he plays (inter alia) Mr Pooter’s wife, Carrie, and his instant transformation into that character is amazing. A caring, loving look; a deft manoeuvre of the fingers to suggest sewing; the little girl transported in wonder at the Lord Mayor’s reception. Then in the flick of a heel he becomes Pooter’s blustery old Bicycling friend Cumming, and a host of others.

Steven Blakeley Steven Blakeley’s roles include Pooter’s gangly son Lupin, a sort of nineteenth century ne’er-do-well finance trader who turns from respectable to drunk to lovelorn youth with total ease as well as finding time to be the maid too. And I also loved the performance of William Oxborrow, providing the music and sound effects William Oxborrow but also playing some of the roles including that of Lupin’s prospective playfully useless brother-in-law, which put me in mind of the late great Derek Royle if you were ever lucky enough to see him on stage. On top of all that, the performances of Daisy Mutlar and her friend Murray Posh have to be seen to be believed, and as for the cat….!

It’s directed by Gary Sefton who gave us Travels with My Aunt last year and you can see the influences. I really enjoyed that production but here he has developed that interaction between four actors taking on many roles and made it slicker, faster, more direct to the audience – basically funnier. Hugh Osborne’s writing delightfully theatricalises the novel format and mines the comic situations to great effect whilst credibly delivering the emotional moments too. Although being Victorians, the love moments are suitably stiff upper-lip.

The run is scheduled to end on 19th March but it would be a travesty if this production did not have a life beyond. It received one of the warmest responses I’ve seen in the Royal auditorium and I wholeheartedly recommend it! (In fact I am quite tempted to book for “Does Your Mother Come from Kettering?”)

Two films – The King’s Speech and Black Swan

The King's SpeechFinally got round to seeing “The King’s Speech” the other day. I’m not a great cinema buff – I used to be, but frankly the promise of live theatre is always so much more rewarding to me that I will always choose it first. So this is the first film I have seen since “Toy Story 3” (which I loved) and the one before that was “Slumdog Millionaire” (which I hated).

Colin FirthI enjoyed “The King’s Speech” very much. It’s my kind of film – one that you could imagine being on a stage. No violence. No special effects. Calm storytelling. A simple tale told clearly. The relationship between the King and his Speech Adviser grew very nicely and credibly and I also liked the little digs throughout at the class system – the Archbishop doing his best to discredit Logue and the King fighting against being called Bertie by someone outside The Family.

Geoffrey Rush What also stood out was how much smoking went on! Now that it’s banned from so many places I find it quite shocking to witness sometimes. Why did we ever think it would look cool to be a smoker.

Both Colin Firth and Geoffrey Rush played their parts admirably. Helena Bonham Carter did an excellent posh-bird-with-a-heart-of-gold routine. Littered with mini star turns it was like bathing in honey.

And no sooner had we seen The King’s Speech, we saw Black Swan! This must be the shortest time between our seeing two films since the 1980s, I kid you not.

Black SwanVery glad we did see it though as it’s a creepy story that you can’t really categorise as psychological/ supernatural thriller/ drama because it’s a bit of everything including a lot of ballet. What really impressed me was how, as the film progressed, the barriers between reality and imagination got steadily blurred. By the end of the film it is quite impossible to say exactly what really happened throughout and what was in Natalie Portman’s mind.

Natalie PortmanAs I am so out of the cinema-loop, this was the first time I have seen Natalie Portman in a film. She’s very good. You never for one second doubted that she was that frigid ballet virgin for whom every nuance had to be perfect, not at all suited to the role of the Black Swan. She was convincingly ill at ease with all around her – the pushy gifted choreographer, the soubrette waiting to take her place, the overprotective parent who put the “mother” into “smother”. Plus she danced. How much was clever camera work I’m not sure, but she sure took the role seriously!

I was really impressed with the score too, as it took Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake and sometimes played it straight, sometimes teased with it a little, occasionally took extreme liberties with it. Very effective.

So are all films like this? Am I going to have to start going every week?

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Derngate, Northampton, March 4th 2011

Back to the Derngate for another comedy night from the Screaming Blue Murder stable. Dan Evans hosted again, always reliable for getting the crowd hyped up and entertained, but he did repeat a few of his usual routines which is getting a little boring for us regulars. At the end of the evening he mentioned he would be signing books again for selling after the show and the woman in front of me shouted at him “Not the books AGAIN!” which made me laugh quite a lot more than some of the “proper comedy”.

Martin Coyote First up was Martin Coyote. An older comic with a more traditional act, but very funny and using lots of modern material. He is the first comic I’ve seen at Northampton make the audience laugh at politics. We did establish at one point that there were very few students in the audience – maybe an older crowd appreciates a little political humour more than the youngsters. He had some very good lines: As a nation, we owe £130 billion pounds in debt which in part funds Trident. Some say we should get rid of Trident and save the £130 billion pounds – alternatively we should point Trident at whoever it is we owe and tell them to f*** off. The Olympics are coming to Stratford, London. How many international athletes think they will be staying in Shakespeare Country? Is this a dagger I see before me? Yes mate, now hand over that gold medal before I use it on you.

Chris Lynam The second act was Chris Lynam. I had read how he polarises audiences – some get his humour others don’t. I nearly did. He is maniacally surreal. Once you get into his character he can actually be quite funny, but his style was so different from Martin Coyote’s that it took the duration of most of his act to understand quite what was going on. He did do very good audience participation though, getting a pretty girl out from the front row to kneel in front of him as if she was going to do some private act and then only to have him use her as a music stand; and getting a guy out to play a piano background to a Philip Marlowe sequence was very funny indeed. He also very nicely dealt with someone’s mobile going off – he simply went to his bag of tricks, found a revolver and shot her.

Dan Antopolski Headline act was Dan Antopolski, of whom I had heard great things, and I was convinced he was a Rowing Blue at Oxford – wrong, that was Dan Topolski. He has a charming wry style, full of clever observations and gentle self-deprecation, and whilst his act wasn’t drop dead guffawing, I had a constant smile on my face and regularly broke into appreciative titters and other vocalised humour-based reactions. Not so for one member of the audience who unexpectedly just told him to “f*** off”. A good heckle is a joy, and a well countered heckle even more so. This was not a good heckle though. Dan simply didn’t deserve it for one thing, and the audience rounded on the heckler as a result.

It was also rather embarrassing. When you go regularly to the SBM you almost feel as though you are at home. And when someone comes all the way up from London with a “Hello Northampton it’s lovely to be here” and then one of your number tells him to f*** off – well it’s a bit like insulting someone you’ve invited round for dinner. Mind you I do think Dan walked into that situation – he did briefly check with the audience to see if they were enjoying themselves as he didn’t sense there was a lot of laughter going on. Possibly a mistake on his part. But there was something wrong with the comedic balance of the evening – as a programme, “Traditional” followed by “Surreal” followed by “Intelligent Observational” didn’t quite work. The leap of faith from comic to comic was too great, the acts didn’t dovetail and the evening didn’t really flow. Nevertheless, it was still jolly funny and all the acts were well worth seeing.

Review – Rambert Dance Company Awakenings Tour, Derngate, Northampton, March 2nd 2011

Rambert Awakenings TourHaving been somewhat starved of some decent dance for a while – the last dance production we saw was way back when – I was very pleased to see that Rambert had decided to include Northampton on its latest tour. They got a pretty good crowd too, so hopefully that might encourage more dance productions locally. We were a little alarmed at the beginning when we saw quite how many young female school-age dance fans were sat all around us in the stalls because – frankly – they don’t always shut up and watch the performance, and they tend to giggle a lot if a bloke wears tight tights. However, our fears were unnecessary as they proved to be attentive, unfidgety, untexting and above all quiet during the performances. So well done to you!

It was a triple bill – Cardoon Club, Awakenings and Monolith. My favoured sequence of seeing a triple bill is: first – the worthy difficult one that’s very moody and intractable; second – the startling but self-explanatory one that leaves you feeling very satisfied; last – the lively, funny, jolly one that’s a crowd-pleaser. If they’d ordered them in that sequence the programme would have been reversed. Not to worry.

Cardoon Club There was an awful lot of good about Cardoon Club, but for me it was largely the peripheral stuff. It looked beautiful. The lighting was subtle and elegant. The use of front and back chain curtains was clever and enabled the dancers to change the mood of the piece very easily. The music my Benjamin Pope was terrific. According to the programme they use a Hammond Organ as a way of recreating trendy late 60s and early 70s easy listening, and it works a treat. It’s precisely the kind of music the very young me would have looked at in the record shop under the Studio2Stereo label, probably with a faintly erotic lady dancer on the cover and I would have longed to be able to afford. The costumes were excellent and the artichoke hat, which gets its own mention in the programme, is very amusing. And the dancers really committed to this piece and gave it everything. They were completely spot on.

However, I didn’t really enjoy Henrietta Horn’s choreography much. I felt it started promisingly, but the lengthy second section seemed to me a repetition of a very standard type of choreography – fast walking, arms stretched out in front – and not a lot else. There’s also a section where the dancers suddenly seem to become puppeteers, and reality and artifice mix – I think this should have been funnier than it was. There is also a scene (probably the most enjoyable) where the dancers take endless apparent curtain calls, including a very cheeky section where they do it in reverse – I liked that very much. But then it ended on a damp squib. I found it all unstructured, I could never tell where I was in the piece, there seemed no natural progression from scene to scene. Mrs Chrisparkle, on the other hand, thought it was largely just a piece of fun and that I shouldn’t analyse it too much. She enjoyed it a lot.

Awakenings The second piece, Awakenings, is inspired by the patients of one Dr Sacks who treated flu sufferers who went on to develop sleepy sickness – encephalitis lethargica. Personally, I was riveted from the start. A fantastic performance from all the dancers – Jonathan Goddard but I particularly liked Jonathan Goddard and Malorzata Dzierzon. They brilliantly recreated the sense of moving and going about daily life and then suddenly becoming frozen. At the post show talk by Mark Baldwin, he explained that each dancer had a case study of one individual patient and portrayed that person’s debility in their dance. Malgorzata Dzierzon I was very taken with the arresting performance of Otis-Cameron Carr as a patient who could only walk in a straight line. The character that Jonathan Goddard adopted was going through all sorts of angst. I was completely convinced by his plight. Otis-Cameron Carr The opening tableau has all the dancers frozen then gradually coming to life, and is mirrored by the final scene which is identical apart from one dancer spinning in the centre of the stage. Aletta Collins’ choreography is stunning throughout. I thought the whole thing was magic.
Monolith I enjoyed it so much that Monolith came as a bit of a disappointment to me. Again the quality of the dance was exceptional – Mrs Chrisparkle and I agreed that the company have pulled themselves up a notch quality-wise since the last time we saw them – and it’s an evocative set with complementary costumes, but I found it all a bit samey. But it got an excellent round of applause so I am perfectly prepared to accept it was probably my fault.

Paul Hoskins I’d like to give a special mention to Paul Hoskins, the musical director, who we’ve seen come up on stage in his black suit at the end of dances so many times now. He’s been directing the music for Rambert for ages and that’s why he’s so good at his job. This is a very enjoyable programme and Rambert’s dancers in particular are on stonking good form.