West End Eurovision, Piccadilly Theatre, London, April 21st 2011

West End EurovisionHaving heard so much about these shows in the past, I was determined this year we would get tickets. And what a great idea that was, as this terrific show combines my two great loves of Theatre and Eurovision, and it’s clear from the audience that I am not alone!

It’s all done to support the Make a Difference Trust, who do great work to support people living with HIV and AIDS. This year, the casts of eleven west end shows came together to compete to win the coveted trophy. Gaby Roslin, with Denise van Outen Each show has to perform a Eurovision song – and not one that has been done in previous years. It’s an opportunity for their creative talents to work wonders, either making something completely new out of a well known song, or painstakingly observing and mimicking an original performance. Graham Norton The top two entries this year were great examples of both. Additionally, each show has an “ident” – a short film put together by each cast to introduce their song. There’s an additional voting prize for the best ident.

This year the glamorous proceedings were hosted by Gaby Roslin, looking resplendent and taking fun control; and the celebrity panel of judges were Graham Norton, Sheridan Smith and Justin Lee Collins. Sheridan Smith Each West End show entering also had a two-person judging panel, but of course in time honoured tradition they could not vote for their own show. I wonder where they got that idea from?

Justin Lee Collins Anyway the minutiae of these details are far less entertaining than the show itself. It’s bizarre to read in the programme, for example, “The Phantom of the Opera” perform “Diggi-loo Diggi-ley”, but perform it they did, right down to the golden shoes and the magic and wonder. “Wicked” created a Big Fat Gypsy Wedding version of “Aven Romale”, the 2009 Czech entry. “Dirty Dancing” took Carola’s “Captured by a Love Storm”. Diggi Loo Diggi Ley And there were many more. The cast of “Priscilla Queen of the Desert” took Iceland’s “This is my Life” and used lots of bare chests and black leather.

Aven RomaleHowever, definitely the favourite of the audience was “The 39 Steps” taking Finland’s 1976 entry “Pump Pump” by Fredi and Friends. This was delightful because of the precise way their performance echoed the all-hallowed original. Fredi was there in his black outfit, slightly less plump than I remember him, This is my Lifebacked with his girl singer/dancers, the keyboard player and the two other backing performers, one of whom was perfectly decked out as the gormless guy in the grey jumper back in 1976. It was really funny, but really musical too and it completely won the audience over.

Pump Pump It didn’t however win. That honour went to probably the second favourite of the night, “Legally Blonde”’s version of Verka Seduchka’s “Dancing Lasha Tumbai”. Introduced by the evening’s winning ident, we got to know a little about Ukraine’s sensational star Dr Belond, and his creatively ludicrous sex-change clinic. Dancing Lasha Tumbai Dr Belond, who had a surprising resemblance to my best performance by an actor in a musical award winner and his team gave a fantastic performance that had everyone in hysterics from start to finish.

Dr Belond There was even a guest performance by Bucks Fizz, at least the three of them who aren’t Bobby G. Eurovision legends, looking great, singing…err.. a bit out of tune really. But no one cared. It was Bucks Fizz, goddammit!

If I’m honest, I think the show dragged a little during the voting but it was gone 1.30 am and I’m not one for staying up too late. But apart from that it was a marvellous evening and I cannot understate the commitment and creativity of these performers who did the whole night for charity.

Bucks Fizz Mrs Chrisparkle and I were fortunate to have VIP tickets, don’t you know, which not only gave us access to a free glass of champagne in a roped-off area of the bar before this show started, but also entry to the after show party. The only way we could work out the location of the party was to follow all the Beautiful People on the way out of the theatre wearing similar wristbands. Once we got there, it was a bit crowded so any chance of a relaxed chat with Bucks Fizz over their back catalogue was never going to happen. We did however get glimpses of Sheridan Smith (tiny but well built), Denise van Outen (tiny and slim) and Denise Welch (relatively tiny but bigger than the other two put together). It did feel quite daring for the two of us to be in such highly regarded company (although it’s not the same time we’ve been to the same party as Sheridan so there), but sleepiness took over and after a short time we night-bussed it back to our Travelodge.

Definitely look out for this event in the future!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Derngate, Northampton, April 15th 2011

Meryl O'RourkeI was half-expecting this gig not to go ahead, as all three of the listed comics were doing other things according to the Chortle website and the promised compere was performing in Hong Kong! Nevertheless all three comics were there, and our commere was the wonderful Meryl O’Rourke who we saw here a few months ago and kept the night flowing fast and hilariously. She had her work cut out as there were a couple of older drunk guys in the audience who were in a heckling mood but rather than chuck them out they decided to monitor them closely, which involved Meryl sitting with them during the acts, which worked very well as far as the rest of us were concerned!

Mark Felgate First act was Mark Felgate. He has a brilliant way of using ventriloquism in his act without having a dummy. He’s a bright and breezy kind of guy, very likeable, sufficiently silly and with a good rapport.

Robert White Second was a very intriguing guy, Robert White. Not only with Asperges Syndrome, but also gay, and playing up to both situations to great comedic effect. I didn’t think I was going to like him at first, but within about ten minutes I found him irresistibly funny. He incorporated witty sound effects from his keyboard into his act, as well as making up a song about Nick Wilty an audience member on the spot, which was incredibly skilful. Definitely a comic I would like to see again.

Last was Nick Wilty, an older comic, very wry, slightly surreal; the kind of act that provides me with a constant smile rather than big belly laughs.

All in all a very enjoyable line-up. Next one of these is in a month’s time.

Eurovision in Concert, Club Air Amsterdam, April 9th 2011

Amsterdam, Amsterdam, de stad waar alles kan. This was de eerste keer that we’ve been to the Eurovision in Concert show (het is een wonder, I know) and I wasn’t quite sure what to expect. I’ve been to Amsterdam before, and as a town ‘t is Ok. We had a very nice hotel close to the club so was able to combine seeing the show with some relaxing sightseeing. But you’re not interested in that. You want to know what the performers were like!

PresentersWell we started off with Esther Hart giving us Two More Nights, as the first time her microphone wasn’t working properly so in good Eurovision tradition she got to do a reprise. She had two co-hosts, whose names I’m afraid I don’t know but they all kept the thing bouncing along at a good pace.

I can’t recall the order in which the songs were performed but these were the acts I thought performed particularly well – either as good as you would expect or better. I don’t mean to say these are necessarily my favourites or the best hopes for the Eurovision final, but the performances were ace:

United Kingdom

I didn’t see Turkey perform, as I was talking to Glen Vella in the Green Room (more of which later) but my spies tell me they were excellent. I also missed the first half of Latvia, which was a shame as I really like that song, so I don’t feel as though I can comment on how well they performed.

The good news is that I don’t think anyone performed badly. There were a couple of instances where I was surprised that the performer didn’t have as much charisma or stage presence as I was expecting, but it would be churlish of me to name names.

It was clear that many people were there just to see Blue, including plenty of non-Eurovisioners. Unsurprisingly they were the last act on. They performed so well that I thought they must be miming. Having seen a few YouTubes of the event, I think they probably were. They definitely have great presence though, and the enthusiasm for the song was palpable. I think it has a really good chance of doing well.

Antony CostaThe Blue guys were only around very briefly after the show, but long enough for Mrs Chrisparkle to get her photograph taken with Simon and Antony. In fact Antony was so taken with Mrs Chrisparkle’s Eurovision Icons Blue T-Shirt that he insisted on the photo being taken, which was quite amusing! Being at the centre of attention like that doesn’t make her feel particularly comfortable. “I’m going to take such stick for this later” she confided to Antony. “I know exactly what you mean!” was his rather self-effacing response.

SenitThis wasn’t our only brush with stardom. In order to get a good view of Blue’s performance, we stood on benches at the side back, which was close to the Green Room. When Blue got going there was a rush of activity and a rustling of a green dress and we were joined on our perch by a very enthusiastic Senit from San Marino who was desperate to see them perform! She was cheering and whooping as much as any fan would.

Glen VellaAnd then of course there was my meeting with Glen Vella from Malta. I was proudly sporting a Eurovision Icons T-Shirt with the Malta image so my friend JP, who is able to do these things, snuck us into the Green Room to show Glen. He was bowled over to see it, and his dancers were amazed too. They all took loads of photos, and even after we had left, Glen called us back in to the Green Room for more photos as the photographer from the Times of Malta had arrived. So I am actually on a photo attached to the official press release for Glen’s performance!

You too could be a proud owner of a Eurovision Icon T-Shirt, either bearing the image of Blue for UK or Jedward for Ireland, and exclusively signed too, as one of each is being auctioned for charity on Ebay at this very moment. Here are the links:



So all in all it was a very jolly affair. Yes one could criticise that the sound quality wasn’t as good as one would have hoped, it was pretty crowded, and you had to pay for your drinks with silly pre-paid card things which inevitably meant you paid for more than you had, but I think everyone had a good time.

Review – In Praise of Love, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, April 7th 2011

In Praise of LoveI’m really pleased to see Terence Rattigan receiving deserved attention in his centenary year. If there’d not been any Rattigan, there wouldn’t have been any Osborne to rebel against him. I can imagine a late 1950s dramatists’ tug of war competition – Osborne, Wesker, Pinter, Beckett, Delaney pulling hard on one side with Coward and Rattigan on the other, looking for a bit of support from The Mousetrap and Salad Days. The outcome of the struggle was inevitable.

But class will out, and it’s great to see his current reinstatement on our stages. When I was 16, I took myself down to London one evening to see a revival of “Separate Tables”. It had a fantastic cast, lead by John Mills and Jill Bennett; masterclasses in stiff-upper-lipness and emotional devastation respectively. The following year I saw the original production of “Cause Celebre”, with Glynis Johns and Kenneth Griffith. I remember the play being heavily criticised for “not being as good as the plays he wrote in the 1940s.” I felt that was unfair – it was a good story, well acted, lots of suspense; and I can look back now and feel that I was privileged to see an original Rattigan production.

Enough reminiscing. As part of their “Made in Northampton” season the Royal and Derngate now have a new production of “In Praise of Love”, one of Rattigan’s less well known plays originally produced in 1973. To outline the story is to spoil it for you, so I won’t. Suffice to say it involves a long marriage, sickness, secrecy and hidden motives.

The use of a black curtain slowly rising at the beginning of both acts and slowly descending at the end of the acts makes a surprising visual impact. You very slowly begin to take focus on the set (an amazing recreation of a book-lined flat by Naomi Dawson) and the couple living in it; slowly you appreciate the situation in which they find themselves; and at the end, slowly it dawns on you what the future will hold.

Geraldine Alexander At the centre of this play is Lydia, an Estonian refugee whose homeland no longer exists (remember this is 1973). Rootless, she clings on to her love for husband no matter what life (and he) subjects her to. He drives her to anger, to love, to impatience, to tolerance, and much more besides. She loves her son non-judgementally, but like any mother is willing to manipulate him well outside his comfort zone. And she loves their family friend – to what extent, I think that’s for you to decide. Geraldine Alexander plays Lydia with gutsy fragility. In the nicest possible way, she looks like someone who has had to put up with a lot in life, and her slow descent into drunkenness is spot on. At times girlishly sprightly, at times careworn and depressed, she accurately depicts all the aspects of the character. Mrs Chrisparkle and I are friends with a couple of Finnish ladies of a certain age, and Finnish and Estonian traits being pretty similar, I can tell you this is a very realistic interpretation of the highs and lows of a Baltic lady!

Jay Villiers Her husband Sebastian is a self-confessed “shit”, and his selfish cantankerousness is very credibly written and played; useless domestically, demanding socially, begrudging with praise and kindness. We all know the kind of bloke who takes his wife for granted and acts boorishly; some of us even may be him. Jay Villiers shows beyond all doubt that it is not a pretty sight. The character development in the second act is equally well done. It’s a very fine performance.

Sean Power Sean Power as the old family friend turns his hand deftly to supporting all three of the other characters in their hours of need, without ever giving you the sense that he is talking out of place or being disloyal to the others. His character is in a tricky situation and you completely believe in the “only way out” that he can live with.

Gethin Anthony Gethin Anthony as the son Joey is a calming influence on his feisty mother but a source of irritation to his father, with his different political views (quite a nice twist on the norm of the day where Rattigan’s traditional characters would have been old fashioned Tories disgusted by the leftist attitudes of the “younger generation” – here an old Marxist is disappointed by his son being liberal). Gethin Anthony’s younger behaviour revealingly contrasts him from the older characters. Here you see the polite young man who greets the family friend, the optimistic person at the start of a hopefully promising career, and also someone who looks forward to a better political future. He’s also not above a childish stomp upstairs in a huff when things go wrong – mind you, nor’s his father. It’s a very likeable performance, the easiest character in the play to identify with; combining the occasional insolence of youth with the anxiety of being out of one’s depth with the future.

However, despite all this, we do have a slight problem, Houston. The set is great; the acting is great. If you take any sequence of conversation within the play, it’s elegantly written and may well make you laugh, shock you, surprise you, sadden you. There is a clever coup de theatre in the story that turns the world on its head. But somehow, when you put it all together, it just comes across as being a bit underwhelming. Despite tackling important subjects and plumbing the depths of deep emotion, it all feels a bit small. A lot of the first act comes across as very “scene-setting” – Mrs Chrisparkle actually used the word “clunky”. The second act is written much more fluidly and the story progresses without interruption to its climax. But, as the curtain fell, I was expecting something more to happen. Does it end there? I can see why Rattigan chose that moment to close the scene, and the visual expressions of the two characters on stage at the end were very telling of their plight. But I still wanted one more thing to happen. One more twist; one more revelation. Rattigan, you let me down!

On our way home Mrs Chrisparkle said she couldn’t imagine a better production of this play. And if that is half-praise, I think that sums up my thoughts too. If you’re interested in Rattigan, you’ll want to see it out of a sense of completeness. You’ll also get to see some really good acting and a play that’s perfectly suited to its surroundings in the Royal.

Eurovision 2011 – The Grand Final

So we’ve cogitated and pondered at length over the songs in the two semi finals but we still need to consider the Big Five. Oddschecker.com range of odds as at 5th April.

France – Sognu – Amaury Vassili

FranceSong Sung Corse, every contest needs one. I’m not a popera fan but this is something else. Whether you think of it as an aria or a hymn, its haunting tune stays with you and if ever a song warranted the return of the orchestra, this is the one. The introduction is so Bolero that all it lacks is Torvill and Dean. Not sure we’ve seen him do a live performance of it yet, let’s hope it doesn’t unRavel (geddit?) He is (was) the world’s youngest proper tenor, apparently. Think it’s going to do really well. 9-2 to 11-2

Italy – Madness of Love – Raphael Gualazzi

ItalyWell an official Hoorah from me at the welcome return of la Bella Italia to the Eurovision fold. Of course, they already have their world renowned San Remo festival, and they chose the winner of the Newcomers’ Category to go to Düsseldorf. “Follia d’Amore”, in its original state, is taken from his second album. It’s ok. It’s quite nice. It doesn’t shake any trees. It’s a cheeky jazz-lite, the kind of stuff I don’t really like. You might though. 28-1 to 50-1

United Kingdom – I Can – Blue

United Kingdom Let’s start by saying it’s a great improvement on recent years – the strongest UK song for possibly a decade. I have my fingers crossed for the performance but I am concerned about Lee’s vocals. He really has to nail them. I love the “G-G-G-Get back up again, Woh!” motif. They’ve done a lot more homework than many previous UK entries and are promoting themselves round the continent, although it was a shame they couldn’t sing the song in the early days of their travels. I trust they will keep their kit on when they’re on stage. Modestly optimistic. 5-1 to 9-1

Germany – Taken by a Stranger – Lena

Germany So was it wise for Lena to defend her title? This is a good song but it’s introverted and private. It doesn’t have the same immediate impact as Satellite, needing several plays to grow on you, and I think it will struggle to make the top ten. The lyrics are somewhere between weird and oblique and you can’t identify with them. No doubt she’ll give a stylish performance though. 8-1 to 12-1

Spain – Que me quiten lo bailao – Lucia Perez

SpainThis is a jolly party song, but a bit on the slight side. Probably more woh’s than it needs. Nobody can take away the good times Lucia’s had and why would you want to. She’s probably a hoot in the Plaza Major at midnight. I just think it’s going to come across a bit lightweight on the night. 50-1 to 200-1

So that’s all the songs run through. I’m perfectly happy with the standard this year, there are some pretty good ones there and lurking behind in National Finals land.

And who do I think will join them from the Semis? OK my stabs at premonition are as follows:

In alphabetical order:

Semi Final One – Armenia, Azerbaijan, Croatia, Hungary, Iceland, Norway, Poland, Russia, Serbia, Turkey.

Semi Final Two – Bosnia, Denmark, Estonia, Ireland, Israel, FYR Macedonia, Romania, Slovenia, Sweden, Ukraine.

Next step in the Eurovision pre-season is the Eurovision in Concert show being held in Amsterdam on Saturday 9th April. More Eurovision blogging after that event.

Review – Smash, Menier Chocolate Factory, April 3rd 2011

SmashI read in the programme that it was Maureen Lipman who had suggested to David Babani when she was appearing in the splendid “A Little Night Music” that it would be a great idea for the Menier to revive her late husband Jack Rosenthal’s 1981 comedy Smash, inspired by his experience of rewriting his TV play “Bar Mitzvah Boy” as a stage musical. Rosenthal’s play turned the character of the writer into a woman and it was Maureen Lipman herself who played the role originally when it did a provincial tour but didn’t reach the West End.

Maureen Lipman was of course a major contribution to the success of “Little Night Music” which transferred to the West End and Broadway and has done a lot of good for the Menier Brand. No doubt Mr Babani was feeling very warm and fuzzy towards Ms Lipman. However, sometimes when one is closely involved in a project, emotionally attached to its creator, or simply grateful for a job well done, you just can’t see the wood for the trees. I can think of no other explanation for mounting a production of this – regrettably – very unfunny and boring play. If I tell you that I preferred “Paradise Found”, you’ll understand where I’m coming from.

Now, if you’ve read any of my other play comments, you’ll know I’m not naturally vitriolic. I can always find something – SOMETHING – that I love in a stage production. But I think this one has darn near beaten me. Our seating position didn’t help. As a loyal supporter of the Menier (we try to go whenever we can), I always book a Sunday matinee online on the first day that the tickets become available. It’s normally seats in Row A. But you can’t always tell with the Menier as they often – very inventively – adapt the space and change the seating layouts (for example as they did last year with “A Number”). So when you expect their website to sell you the best available tickets and they are row CC, you trust them.

Well I have to tell you our seats CC12 – 13 were totally useless. Back row on the side, close to the end wall which meant that the back third of the stage was totally invisible. I felt very sorry for the two guys to my left who had even more of an obstructed view (although I understand their seats were sold as such, and were cheaper). Our seats were full price and thoroughly inadequate. On more than one occasion I heard an invisible voice on stage taking part in a scene and I had no idea the person was even there. It might as well have been a radio play.

The director Tamara Harvey seems to have only blocked the play from the view of the front of the stage so as a result there were long passages where characters were sat with their back to us. They may have been making facial expressions – we will never know. I estimate about 35% of all the seats in the auditorium were on the side, so it wouldn’t only be us who were ignored this way.

I’m not going to go on about our bad seats, but from our vantage point a) we had a good view of the rest of the audience and saw that a number of them slept through the first act and b) as a stickler for verisimilitude I saw an advert for Google on the inner pages of one of the apparently “1981” newspapers the cast were reading in the final scene. Not good enough attention to detail, I’m afraid.

The alienation I felt from the play was enhanced by having thoroughly unpleasant characters populate it, to the extent that I found it impossible to care about what happened to them. The opening scene has the star composer Bebe (based on Jule Styne) blanking the writer Liz in such an offensive sort of way that I hated his character thenceforward. Additionally, there seemed to be no personal progression for any of the characters throughout the play, despite the fact that the events cover over a year’s timescale. The writer started insecure and ended insecure. The composer started unreasonably bombastic and ended bombastic. Same for the director. The lyricist started – well I don’t know how he started really, I can’t think of any words that sum up such a vacant character – and he ended the same. If everyone’s character ends up in the same place that they started, what’s the point of that?

What appears to be an excellent cast on paper didn’t really translate to the stage either. They didn’t seem to gel as a team. I never got the feeling that any of the characters was actually listening to what any of the others was saying. Now I appreciate that the characters largely had their own agenda and wanted to get their own way within the story but even so I didn’t feel that many of the reactions of the actors to their colleagues’ speeches were really genuine.

Tom ContiAs an actor you can always rely on to provide a star turn, Tom Conti is the best thing about this production. He gives us his New York Jewish act more or less exactly as I remember him playing Vernon in “They’re Playing our Song” over thirty years ago, only older. It’s enjoyable, if safe. His best lines are when he can’t think of what to say, and his words peter out into a befuddled murmur. He does it well – but I think that says a lot (not) for the wit element of the script.

Natalie WalterThe writer Liz is played by Natalie Walter who does the “inexperienced writer abroad” aspect of the role fine enough, but she gave me no sense of despair, anger, frustration, tiredness, or any of another hundred possible emotions when she is found on the floor of her hotel room surrounded by rewrites. It’s meant to be late at night and with urgent work to do for heaven’s sake! She had all the urgency of composing her Waitrose shopping list. The effect on me of her plight was just like A Chorus Line’s Diana hearing the news of Mr Karp’s death, “because I felt Nothing”.

Richard Schiff Richard Schiff took over the role of Bebe the composer pretty late in the day before the show opened, and I think it showed. His prop handling wasn’t great – he gives Liz a boxed bracelet as a gift on opening night, except that he mishandled it and gave it to her with the box half open and the bracelet swinging all over the place, whilst trying to stifle a giggle at his ineptitude. On another occasion, having been seated on an upturned suitcase, he knocked it over when he stood up – that kind of thing. I think he corpsed again in the final scene because of something Tom Conti said to him at the back of the stage – but I can’t be sure as this was in the hidden “dark area” you’re not permitted to see from seats CC12 & 13.

Josh Cohen The role of Mike the lyricist, modelled on Don Black, was so feebly written a part that Josh Cohen playing him seemed to “feeble down” to occupy it. The character keeps on coming up with statements like “I had to turn down 16 black lesbians” or similar nonsense, and I couldn’t work out why he was saying these things. Were they his own private fantasies? Were the stories he shared with his wife? Were they fantasies he wanted to share with Liz? I couldn’t understand their relevance in the play, but anyway they weren’t funny and I was past caring. Sorry, but Josh Cohen had little charisma or stage presence and was frequently not noticeable. It’s the kind of performance I’ve described in the past as being “phoned in”. I’m afraid this was so bland that really it was texted in.

Cameron Blakely Cameron Blakely as the director Stacey was fine to the extent that he had to play an unpleasant man irascibly and noisily. But I didn’t care about the character and when he alluded to a possible affair with Liz it came as a bolt from the blue. Where did that come from? There was no discernable romantic interest earlier in the play. Also in the script were totally anti-British, anti-English comments from Stacey and Bebe. Now this may very well be a true reflection of Jack Rosenthal’s experience, but I felt quite bludgeoned by their constant criticisms of how useless the British are in every job, in every creative sphere, in every attitude. It was really quite racist. Oh yes, and there was a fight scene between all the main characters. Seen from the side, it was one of the most embarrassingly ham-fisted theatre sequences I’ve seen for a long time.

Just before the final scene the sound track failed. The Sound Supervisor came on stage and said due to a technical problem there would be a short break before the production could resume. The audience buzzed with engaged excitement – at last. Given they had no flying cars or descending chandeliers I thought they should just get on with it in silence. Mrs Chrisparkle prayed that if they couldn’t finish the show and offered us tickets for another performance that there would be no convenient dates. But the show did start up again, and there was a clever line spoken by Natalie Walter about a technical fault – if it was quickly ad-libbed that very moment it was very well done. If it was already in the script then it was a sign from the Gods.

So, in brief: a script bereft of wit played by actors portraying tedious characters who didn’t seem to engage with each other very much and who had their backs to me for much of the time. “Smash” for me used to mean dried convenience mashed potato pieces. It would have been funnier to watch one of their old adverts.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Derngate, Northampton, April 1st 2011

Top quality acts for last Friday’s Screaming Blue Murder, I’m delighted to say. Dan was the compere again, and got good mileage out of the audience, who this week featured two large contingents from a Perfume factory and Travis Perkins Builders Merchants.

Luke ToulsonThe first act was Luke Toulson. Likeable, slightly aloof, nicely self-deprecating; he worked fantastically well with the Perfume factory people – especially referring to the boss’s wife as Camilla. I felt as though he held something of himself back – but it didn’t matter because his material was good enough anyway.

Juliet MeyersSecond was Juliet Meyers, who handled jokes about sex and religion with deft ease, and who went down extremely well with the audience. After her second joke, she’d offended the French, the Scots and used the C word. Twice. That’s some trick.

Rob HeeneyLast was Rob Heeney, who was definitely the best of the night for me; very engaging personality, had a wide range of excellent material, didn’t seem to want to leave and I didn’t want him to either. I’d go out of my way to see him again. Great stuff about sex for the over 40s!

No hecklers this week, which actually made a nice change!

Eurovision 2011 – Semi Final Two

Barely two days after the rigours of Semi Final One we return fresh-faced and expectant at the Fortuna arena for more delights. Let’s go through them again one by one in order, together with the largely pointless range of betting possibilities, brought to you by oddschecker.com correct as at 31 March.

Bosnia Herzegovina – Dino Merlin – Love in Rewind

BosniaDino’s a big star in downtown Sarajevo, and has an excellent Eurovision record as being writer of Sva Bol Svjeta and singing half of Putnici (not sure if he was Put or Nici though). Is this another notch on his bedpost or a blotch on his escutcheon? A notch I think. He looks like he could be a contemporary of the original Merlin, and their performance appears to have been choreographed for a completely different song. I feel it lacks something somewhere – I wonder if in a few months he’ll discover a few missing odd notes that fell down the back of the sofa. 8-1 to 14-1

Austria – Nadine Beiler – The Secret is Love

AustriaThe first few notes make you think you’re in Whitney Houston I Will Always Love You mode, but actually it’s not quite as disastrous as that. When the song can be finally arsed to get going, it’s not a bad tune, but it’s very heavy going, more posing than imposing, and it does get on my nerves by the end. She’s had a couple of top ten hits in Austria and is a TV talent show star. Her hairstylist is obviously a fan of Aneka’s “Japanese Boy”. 33-1 to 50-1

Netherlands – 3J’s – Never Alone

NetherlandsIt’s a middle of the road, guitarry, plaintive, serious-ish song which is pleasant in parts. It’s the kind of song you know you ought to appreciate because they doubtless put a lot of hard work into it. However, it’s got none of the attack of the Lovebugs and their Highest Heights of a couple of years ago, and we know what happened to them. I find it very difficult to take seriously a song with the lyrics “there are golden gardens at the sweet end of your trail”. 66-1 to 200-1

Belgium – Witloof Bay – With Love Baby

BelgiuamNo, it’s not the return of the Flying Pickets – no such luck. When does acapella become simple showing-off? At about 1:40 on the accompanying youtube, when the admittedly skilful but tiresome singing is interrupted by a jerk with oral explosions. It’s the kind of noise a six year old makes when playing with guns. If you have to listen all the way through, (not recommended) you can enjoy mild diversion by pretending they’re singing “White Loaf” instead. 50-1 to 300-1

Slovakia – Twiins – I’m Still Alive

SlovakiaAnother song that fails to live up to the promise of its first fifteen seconds. And what’s with the “ii” in “Twiins”? Are they specifically targeting the Finnish market? It’s vacuous lowest-common-denominator Atomic Kitten/ All Saints/ Girls Aloud soundalike stuff, that goes nowhere and takes ages not getting there. The Twiins were backing singers for Tereza Kerndlová when she had some fun in 2008. Didn’t like that much either. 40-1 to 100-1

Ukraine – Mika Newton – Angel

UkraineFresh from a selection process that Mugabe would have been proud of, the upshot isn’t a bad song from Mika Newton. She’s got quite a nice voice, quite a pretty face, and it’s quite an enjoyable tune, even if it doesn’t linger in the brain too long afterwards. She’s an Avril Lavigne-type rock chick who came to prominence during the Orange Revolution and I expect we’ll see her in Düsseldorf on Saturday night. 25-1 to 100-1

Moldova – Zdob si Zdub – So Lucky

MoldovaI was quite pleased when I realised the Zdobs were back in town, as Boonika had a certain charm about her – for me it succeeded where the Babushki of last year’s Russian National Final totally failed. However, then they presented us with “So Lucky”. Three different tunes with no apparent dovetailing to unify them into one song. None of the three tunes makes for enjoyable listening. It’s all very raucous for raucous’ sake. I guess it has an element of anarchy but that dream in our hearts that one day we will all meet in Chisinau seems even further away. 40-1 to 125-1

Sweden – Eric Saade – Popular

SwedenA slick act and a creative musical arrangement make this a memorable performance, but I do have problems with it. Much has been made of the apparent rip-off of the drum opening to “Rasputin” and frankly they’re guilty as charged. The rhyme of possible with impossible is unforgivable – yes it rhymes, but you might as well have “I’m not going to Kings Cross Station, I’m going to Euston Station”. (It just about scans). The man likes a gimmick and I understand he is single-handedly responsible for rescuing the glaziers of Stockholm from recession. I predict Sweden’s best result for years. (Bold, aren’t I?) 8-1 to 12-1

Cyprus – Christos Mylordos – San Aggelos S’Asapisa

CyprusWords fail me, it’s so boring. It’s so boring it makes me angry. With any luck you might drift off before he starts singing. If you don’t, you might care to notice that the chorus appears to have no lyrics. But who cares. 40-1 to 300-1

Bulgaria – Poli Genova – Na Inat

BulgariaDisappointed to discover that “na inat” doesn’t translate as “nah, innit” but as the more prosaic “for spite”, and having read the lyrics I now understand why she sounds as miffed as she does. I don’t mind this. It’s got a bit of attack, and the tune is ok. You’d be nervous if you bumped into her in a dark alley, mind. Ends very suddenly. I think they just ran out of minutes. 80-1 to 200-1

FYR Macedonia – Vlatko Ilievski – Rusinka

FYR MacedoniaOne of those rare occasions where Mrs Chrisparkle and I completely agree on a Eurovision song. We both think this is pretty ace. It’s fast moving, jolly, unpretentious Russkipop, the age-old story of “we don’t speak each other’s language” and with an amusing nod to Kalinka to boot. Check out the video to see the two least convincing Russian dancers within 50 miles of Skopje. I hope it gets through to Saturday night, but I fear it won’t. 100-1 to 300-1

Israel – Dana International – Ding Dong

IsraelAnd here’s a classic example of where we don’t agree – the return of Ms International. How well we remember her feathers flapping in Birmingham all those years ago – but that was then and this is now. Mrs Chrisparkle can’t get past the first “Ding Dong” without reaching for the mute. DI’s voice continues to be on the tentative side of weak; the English words of the song verge on the risible; and yet, you know, I really like this! The tune just carries me away. Wouldn’t it be fun if just once Dana International sang the “Ding Dong” bit in the style of Leslie Phillips? 25-1 to 100-1

Slovenia – Maja Keuc – No One

SloveniaWritten by the same creative team who wrote “Energy” and “Mr Nobody”, and one of the co-writers of “Stop”. You wouldn’t credit it, would you? I think it’s a lot of caterwauling over nothing. 33-1 to 50-1

Romania – Hotel FM – Change

RomaniaOne of the UK’s “satellite” entries as the boy David Bryan is originally from Newton Aycliffe. As soon as the plinky plonky pub piano starts up it’s instantly appealing, with its nice tune and singalong easy to follow lyrics. Romania have come close in recent years and I think this has got to be in with a good chance. Just don’t mention the webcam. 25-1 to 100-1

Estonia – Getter Jaani – Rockefeller Street

EstoniaAlready a fan favourite, here we go with another strong song, a punchy tune and performance with a memorable hook. But is there any significance to the “1273” or would any old number have done? A quick spot of research reveals there’s no such address. Pity. Still I like it. I kind of wish it didn’t have that quieter slower sequence in the middle. You’re going to be hanging around like a lemon at the Eurovision disco during that bit. Sure to qualify though. First mention of diamonds and pearls of the evening. 5-1 to 13-2

Belarus – Anastasiya Vinnikova – I Love Belarus

BelarusIf you can’t get quicker than a Kwik Fit Fitter, you can’t get camper than a Belarussian Eurovision song, which is another of life’s little ironies. I can’t help but think the lovely Anastasiya will belt out her paean of her nation on Thursday night and millions of people all round Europe will just roll their eyes and say “yeah, right”. The song couldn’t be Russkier, and there’s a lot of fun to be had with it, but I think at the end of the evening Anastasiya will be getting into her Trabbie and toodling off back to Minsk. 66-1 to 200-1

Latvia – Musiqq – Angel in Disguise

LatviaAnother example of where Mrs Chrisparkle and I seem to be completely out of kilter with the rest of Europe, in that we really like this one too. Sensually alliterative lyrics, a thoughtful arrangement, it’s kind of softly contemporary if you get my drift. These two guys have been together for a couple of years now and have had a few hits in the Latvian charts. I don’t mind the rap section but it does go on too long. Must remind them how to spell “Music” some time. 66-1 to 150-1

Denmark – A Friend in London – New Tomorrow

DenmarkA bit boring to watch, but very anthemic; could be the dark horse, if they put lots of 50p’s in the meter and they’ve still got a packet of the Olsen Brothers’ fireworks left. It’s a comfortably unchallenging feelgood song, the musical equivalent of a favourite warm old cardy. Andreas Johnson must be furious. Second mention of diamonds and pearls of the evening. 14-1 to 22-1

Ireland – Jedward – Lipstick

IrelandAnd finally, a subtle way to wind up the evening. Hair styled by Edvard Munch, John and Edward cavort and vocalise their way through the routine with all the musicality of Janet Street-Porter. The song is disgustingly catchy but I think it’s going be way off radar of everyone east of Ostend. Definite 12 points from the UK if it gets to the final. 20-1 to 40-1

So I’m going to have a lie down in a darkened room now and will be back soon with the five finalists plus the songs I think will join them on the Saturday night. Thanks for reading!