Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground, Derngate, Northampton, 27th May 2011

Jeremy O'DonnellSomething’s not quite right with the Screaming Blue Murder situation. The numbers are dwindling away. This week I reckon barely fifty people turned up, which is a bit of a disaster for a comedy night, as laughter is infectious and the more people there are, the greater the atmosphere. This is most noticeable at those times when where laughter would normally continue for a while, it stopped; so when the comics needed to take a swig of water from their bottle, for example, it could sometimes be in silence. Not great for the atmosphere. So I think it was a hard task for this week’s performers to make the humour last, but to give them credit, they were all excellent.

Our compere was Jeremy O’Donnell. It was his first time as host here and I thought he was a very warm and funny presence. He connected well with the audience and got us as hyped up as it was possible to be under the circumstances. He actually picked on Mrs Chrisparkle and I briefly at one stage, but it was an enjoyable exchange and we didn’t feel uncomfortable. So thanks for that!

Marc LuceroThe first act was Marc Lucero, an older, grey haired comic with a slightly dishevelled look and excellent material. He had a great little routine about the benefits of gun crime in North London; a really funny observation about food miles on your plate, and a great way of coming to terms with moving from a regular cooked breakfast to a doctor-enforced muesli alternative. I won’t give away the punchlines, but he was really funny!

Marian Pashley Second was Marian Pashley. This was the second time she has appeared at the club since we’ve been going, and I remember her act fondly. Regrettably she more or less did exactly the same act again, so it was only mildly amusing for us. She has a very nice deadpan delivery though, and her self-deprecation material is very entertaining.

Michael SmileyOur final act was Michael Smiley, originally from Northern Ireland and using his accent and roots to great effect with observational comedy about being Irish and living in London. I particularly liked his stuff about what used to be the voice of terror is now the voice of Tesco. Great energy, and you forgot the fact that it was a small audience.

So all in all a really good night. Come on, Northampton comedy lovers, come back to the Screaming Blue Murder nights. Great value entertainment!

Review – Love Love Love, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 26th May 2011

Love Love Love I can remember as a teenager poring over my Plays and Players magazine and reading about this new dynamic company Paines Plough, who were doing tough new right-on plays that were changing the world. It’s only taken me 36 years finally to see one’s of their productions! Mike Bartlett’s Love Love Love has been touring since March and has two more weeks to go in Cambridge and Oxford.

The play traces the fortunes of a couple from their meeting in 1967, through their tempestuous marriage in 1990 to their coping with their grown-up children today. It pulls no punches where it comes to exposing the relationships bare and there are uncomfortable moments where the desperate needs of some individuals get annihilated by stronger characters.

Lisa JacksonAlthough it’s a play of three acts, it’s also a “play of two halves” to use footballing parlance, as both Mrs Chrisparkle and I found the first act somewhat underwhelming but the second and third acts riveting. Actually Mrs C described the first act as “a right turn-off”. This shows how Kenneth and Sandra got together, him downright pinching her from under his brother’s nose, and her being a willing pinchee. I thought Lisa Jackson as Sandra was particularly good in this scene, playing a most convincing posh 60s pothead. Looking like a young Tracey Emin, she strongly suggested all the freedom offered by the trendy lifestyle, and oozed a coy promiscuity by her body language and behaviour whilst also depicting the selfishness of the privileged young. The act certainly brightened up when she arrived on stage.

Simon DarwenThis scene also includes an excellent performance by Simon Darwen as Henry, Kenneth’s older brother who is hoping to score with Sandra but clearly hasn’t got a hope. Preferring classical music and disapproving of drugs because they’re “not legal”, I identified with some of the more staid aspects of his character and I felt he captured the doomed expectation that his brother would steal the girl away from him extremely well.

Ben AddisBut here’s the first act problem for me – well two problems. Firstly, it’s slow and seems to get unnecessarily bogged down with trivia in comparison with the tight, not-a-word-wasted speeches of the other acts. It’s almost as though there were two writers. The relative quietness of the first five minutes is a stark contrast with the overwhelming sense of confrontation that pervades every aspect of the rest of the play. The other problem is that, unfortunately, I didn’t really believe in the portrayal of the young Kenneth by Ben Addis. I’m not sure if it’s the fault of the actor or the writer, but I just could not see this slob, lounging around in a decadent dressing gown like a Slumdog Noel Coward, as having the magnetism required to “get the girl”. When I was a student I knew a guy who would always attempt to sleep with other guys’ girlfriends simply because he knew he could, and normally he did. But this young Kenneth really didn’t have that impact. However, as Kenneth in 1990 and 2011, Ben Addis was completely believable and gave a really top performance; although it’s stretching the imagination that by 2011 Kenneth was still playing his old record-player and hadn’t have gone out and bought all his favourite 60s music on CD, indeed if not having it all mp3’d wirelessly throughout his luxury pad.

Rosie WyattWithout giving away the rest of the story, Kenneth and Sandra get married, work hard, have two kids, and the rest of the play shows the journey (Yes! The “J” word!) that their self-obsessed relationship takes and the effect it has on their children, both as teenagers and adults. I commend the great performances from Rosie Wyatt as Rose and James Barrett as Jamie. Possibly the 1990 Rose was a little too like Catherine Tate’s Lauren for that age, but then I’ve never had a 16 year old daughter, so what do I know. Her 2011 parental demands pull everyone up sharp but are totally within character. There’s also a great little scene between father and 14 year old son where they smoke together and find a mutual ground in admiring one another. Throughout the play smoking is a common theme – it seems to be that if you’re smoking together, you’re on the same wavelength.

James Barrett  At the second interval, Mrs C and I decided that, given their upbringing and parenting, we thought the children in 2011 would have done pretty well for themselves and would be able to meet head-on the demands of daily life. You’ll have to see the play yourself to judge how accurate we were. Suffice to say the change of character in Jamie in particular was stunning to watch.

The whole question of coping with one’s parents or one’s children will always be one of life’s major themes. Some people manage it well, others don’t. The dilemma facing Kenneth and Sandra on the one hand, and Rose on the other is really well conceived and written. At times I agreed with one side, then I agreed with the other. I still don’t quite know who was right and who was wrong. It’s a play that keeps you thinking long past curtain down. I’m currently siding with the parents but I’m aware it makes me look like a heartless bastard.

I’ve read a comment online today from someone who attended the same performance and who described it as being “one of the worst things I have seen” at the Royal. Personally I think that’s way off the mark. It’s a challenging play and largely extremely well performed. The slow start is definitely to its detriment but it improves no end afterwards. No matter what, it’s great that Paines Plough continue to tour with innovative new work. Not everyone’s a Chekhov, but there’s still plenty here to get your teeth into.

Review – Hamlet the Musical, Royal, Northampton, 19th May 2011

Hamlet the MusicalElsinore, 1600. The battlements of the castle. The Ghost of Hamlet’s father appears. And sings!

You know a show’s a winner when you sit through it in joy, walk home afterwards in joy, go to bed in joy, get up in joy and laugh about it all through breakfast. I had a preconceived idea of what “Hamlet! The Musical” would be like, having seen an introduction to it at the season launch and having read a couple of reviews. But actually the show exceeds expectations on all levels. It’s not merely a Shakespearian spoof. The songs are delightfully catchy and tuneful; the lyrics are extremely witty and cleverly thought out; and the cast work their socks off with huge zest to fill the Royal auditorium with laughter and affection.

Shakespeare plays of course do lend themselves to being “musicalised” in different ways. You can take the basic play and put music to it, like Trevor Nunn’s Comedy of Errors in the 1970s; you can attach a musical to the side of it, like Kiss Me Kate; you can use it to inspire a completely new work, like West Side Story; or you can keep the characters and a few words from the original script and tell basically the same plot tongue firmly in cheek like Hamlet the Musical. And it works really well.

Among the songs, it has a big number, “To Be or Not To Be” that strongly reminds me of Sweden’s 1999 Eurovision winner “Take me to your heaven”. The two could nicely interchange! I liked the use of the Danish song sheet and pluckily attempted it in the original tongue. There’s another song which is all about what the bloody bloody hell do we bloody do now, which had me in hysterics. A song that relies heavily on inadequate swear words contrasts so entertainingly with the work of the English language’s greatest wordsmith. To pick just two songs to remember is to do an injustice to the rest of it though; every song works in its own way.

Jack ShallooUsually a moody misfit, Hamlet here is presented as part Everyman and part dingbat; his incongruous “ordinary bloke” appearance is so not what you would expect of the eponymous Prince that it really maximises his comic potential. He’s endearingly hopeless, really – needing a decent question, he can only get as far as “to be or…” I thought Jack Shalloo’s performance was a real knockout. It’s the combination of his apparent ordinariness, his slightly “fish out of water” characterisation, and his unexpected ability to sing and dance way beyond what you would expect from looking at him! One cheeky glance and he takes you into his confidence so that his plight is your plight. But then rather than build up a tragic Shakespearian crescendo, instead he’ll play the fool or play up to the girls just like anyone of us would. I loved the portrayal of his England tour – suddenly becoming a popstar, chatting up the talent in the audience and getting the lady cellist to ring him. He’s like a chip off the old block as the Ghost of Hamlet’s Father has that certain Vegas quality too!

Jess RobinsonOphelia is sweetness and light but becomes the girlfriend from hell that Hamlet needs to ditch in order to avenge his father’s murder. The staging of her descent into madness is one of sheer hilarity. Jess Robinson is great in this role but also in the several other roles she takes, perhaps best as the irrepressibly cheery Rosencrantz, a wholesomely squeaky college dude who would irritate the pants off you on Wittenberg Campus. Gabriel VickThe other half of this ingeniously presented duo is Gabriel Vick’s Guildenstern, equally nauseating for all the right reasons. He is terrific as Laertes, the kind of guy who comes back from foreign lands having acquired the accent – and much more. I don’t recall Laertes going to Spain, but this one obviously did. He may be all protective of his sister and trying to macho up against Hamlet but deep down you get the feeling he just likes dressing up. I think this is the third time we’ve seen Gabriel Vick – we also caught him in Avenue Q a while back and he was marvellous as the son in the Menier’s Little Night Music (later, Henrik, much later…)

Virge Gilchrist Virge Gilchrist’s Gertrude is a fantastic incarnation of weary lustiness, regretting the fact that her son has “issues”, but being won over by hunky Claudius’ gold codpiece, and her breaking the news of Polonius’ death to Laertes is a stroke of genius! Mark InscoeMark Inscoe’s Claudius is villainy personified and gets nicely uncomfortable watching the play within the play, brilliantly presented as snatches from opera. As Gertrude says, he clearly prefers Ayckbourn. He has a marvellously mealy-mouthed song about his capacity for doing good from which he wrings every nuance. David BurtDavid Burt revels in numerous other roles, including Polonius, nicely hidden behind the arras (not), a gravedigger with a cheeky tombstone bearing an ALW epitaph, and a Fortinbras who suffers from Premature Interjection. It all ends with everyone dead of course, killed with authentic Danish weaponry, and you just love the way they milk the death spasms.

It’s pure escapist entertainment from start to finish. Take an extra tenner with you as you’ll definitely want to buy the CD. It’s on next week in Richmond, and hopefully somewhere else after that. ‘Tis no tragedy, it’s a wonderful two hours that will suit lovers and detractors of Shakespeare alike!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Derngate, Northampton, 13th May 2011

Debra-Jane ApplebyThe last SBM was cancelled, and it’s been a full month since our last comedy night! So it was a welcome return to our usual Friday fun extravaganza. A new commere too! Debra-Jane Appleby. I thought she was perhaps a little nervous to start with, but she needn’t have been as she had an endearing personality and some cracking good lines which she used nicely with the audience, so we were good and warm for the first act.

Wil HodgsonAnd this was Wil Hodgson. Oh dear. I’m afraid I didn’t get the joke. He has no interaction with the audience whatsoever. I can see that his routine kind of requires him not to, but the first thing that happened when he started was that an attractive young lady from the front row got up and walked out – presumably to the loo or the bar. He didn’t remark on it, even though she virtually walked within 6 inches of him. And when she returned he didn’t mention it then either. He is the only comic we have seen who wouldn’t have taken this golden opportunity to bond with the audience. His routine is all about wry observations about the characters in his home town of Chippenham. I’m afraid they weren’t very interesting. And I am alas the wrong age to understand the concept of comparing people with Care Bears. Never mind.

Loretta Maine Second was Loretta Maine. A fantastic comic creation by character comic Pippa Evans. Loretta is a mascara running bunny boiler, who uses her guitar playing as a weapon against men and whose routine was a laugh a second. Much of her humour was incredibly sick, delightfully so. She interacted splendidly with the men in the audience, and her songs were great. Happily see her again!

Yianni Agisilaou Last up was Yianni (Agisilaou), an Australian comic of Greek origin, extremely funny and with a very warm personality. The kind of person you like to like. Too much good stuff in his routine to repeat here, but he has a terrific interaction with the audience; Mrs Chrisparkle was brought up in Australia, and so much of his humour struck a chord with her. Another comic we would definitely watch out for.

So all in all a great night!

Eurovision Song Contest 2011 – The show, the party, the aftershocks

Flags above the barFor the third consecutive year our Eurovision Night has been in the form of co-hosting a party in a pub in Birmingham. We start off with some Eurovision music, have flags all over the place, a big screen to watch the show on, a sweepstake, a poll as to who is the party’s favourite, and we end up with a Eurovision disco till dawn. Well, not dawn, about 2am. We were extremely pleased with the numbers attending as we thought most of our Eurovision friends would be firmly ensconced in Düsseldorf, but we still had about 60 people in all, including someone who had flown back from Düsseldorf that morning, having watched the Friday evening dress rehearsal! Gosh.

It’s very difficult in a noisy party atmosphere to gauge the vocal nuances of the performances and generally speaking it seemed like an overall excellent performance from overall everyone. The big reactions at our party went to Hungary – no surprise there, being a schlagertastic favourite; Sweden, same applies; UK – also no surprise to be keen on our home team; and Spain – the thought of sunnily dancing to this song on the beach in Benidorm obviously cheered up the rather overcast streets of Birmingham. And indeed, the (perhaps) surprise favourite of our party, according to the votes submitted, was Spain!

When the early votes were favouring the UK there was, as you can imagine, vast amounts of whooping excitement, which later on turned to whoops of despair – “SIX from Ireland? TWO from Greece? Etc”. The very close results made for an exciting voting hour anyway. I really liked the use of a clever algorithm to sequence the votes in the most exciting way. The first ten juries each gave their twelve points to twelve different countries, and indeed only 5 countries out of the 25 didn’t get a douze points from someone. A whizzkid with a spreadsheet on a Eurovision chatboard I visit has worked out that Azerbaijan won with only 43.8% of the available scores, and as such is the winning song with the lowest proportion of marks since this current voting system started in 1975. Brotherhood of Man in 1976 have the highest proportion, since I know you’re asking.

Party crowdIt was an excellent party anyway, as I hope the attached photos will bear out. The Eurovision disco was finished off with a lovely cup of tea and a bag of crisps and bed at 3.30am. Then we had a nice Thai lunch in Birmingham on the Sunday before motoring home. But curiosity got the better of us and we decided to rewatch the programme on Sunday night to get the full “at home, highly quality audio, actually hearing what the commentator says” version of the show.

It looked spectacular. The backdrop fitted in with the performances beautifully. I didn’t like the presenters much, but I am grateful that they have now given rise to a new phrase “Danke, Anke” which I’m sure will have legs. The show is now so technically magical and visually stunning, we don’t need to have presenters doing comic turns trying to outdo it. I’d sooner see some decent, more elegant, more classy presenters let the songs do the work. However, I did think the opening sequence was great, with the 43 different Lenas all singing Satellite. On the other hand the interval act was one of the worst ever.

I think one of the biggest surprises was the poor showings of Hungary, Estonia, France and Russia. Watching closely, France was a nervous performance, and Estonia was a shouty one. Hungary was reasonably ok and Russia was good. I guess the Russian act and the Swedish act were very much competing for the same market and Eric’s act was slicker.

At the other end of the spectrum, although I am pleased that Italy did well inasmuch as it was their return after 14 years and hopefully this will give them the optimism and courage to keep with the contest again, I really cannot see the appeal of this song at all. I think its second placing means it is the most successful Eurovision jazz song ever, although success-wise it has little to beat.

Huddle And what of the UK? It was a reasonable performance; Lee’s first attempt at the top note didn’t go that well, but it was no worse a performance than many other countries’. Possibly the staging was a little old fashioned in retrospect. What is it with the UK and light boxes? Only one country awarded the UK twelve points – Bulgaria. The countries that voted for the UK were scattered all over Europe, so I hope that continues to put paid to the Woganesque lie that “the East never votes for us”. The UK received votes from Latvia, Moldova, Lithuania, Albania, Ukraine and Russia, for example, but didn’t get votes from Belgium, the Netherlands, Spain, Switzerland, Sweden or Germany.

So now, it’s Baku, city of dreams. Very tempted to try to go to this one. When else would one include Azerbaijan on one’s travels? And you can visit the Gobustan Rock Art World Heritage site to see stone-age graffiti. Sounds entertaining!

Eurovision Semi Final 2 2011 The Morning After

CheeseFor the second leg we decamped (geddit?) to the Stately Home of the Thane and Lady Duncansby, armed with BBC scorecards, Sauvignon Blanc and Kettle Chips. From the historical comfort of the Grand Drawing Room we witnessed 19 more songs of varying quality. Here are our reactions:

Bosnia & Herzegovina – a nice start from an old codger who is in fact younger than both the Thane and my good self. A crisp performance. Only the Thane didn’t put it in their top ten so we scored it 3/4.

Austria – That’s a wig, noted Lady D. We all thought Nadine was a great singer but that there were more entertaining songs. Only the Thane put it through. (1/4)

The Netherlands – a bit dull, and regrettably the lead singer with his hair and teeth slightly resembled a greasy rabbit. It was ok. (2/4)

Belgium – After about two minutes Mrs Chrisparkle exploded with “surely they’ve had their three minutes by now!” I guessed that the older generation would approve of this more. The beatbox sounded like he was in a padded cell – no bad thing. (2/4)

Slovakia – Excellent legs. Singing a bit off. Great legs. (2/4)

Ukraine – The sand artist show with minor musical background. Lots of “can you guess what it is yet?” in an Australian accent. Mika’s winged shoulder pads were mere pupae in comparison to last year’s Belarussian butterflies. (0/4)

Moldova – A performance that was already too weird for words before the unicyclist came in. The Thane read a pamphlet about camping sites. (0/4)

Sweden – An upbeat and slick presentation. “He’s straight??” commented at least one amazed onlooker. The glass smashing isn’t a patch on how it was in Melodifestivalen. (4/4)

Cyprus – We loved the swaying. We loved the sperm. We loved how the sperm swayed with the swayers. No chorus. (0/4)

Bulgaria – Good performance. Other stuff was better though. Not much to say. (1/4)

FYR Macedonia – I still think this song is fun, but I preferred the video. Great backdrop. The others more or less hated it. (1/4)

Israel – I only use the “f” word occasionally but it really was a fabulous three minutes. Ms International had an extraordinary dress constructed of unravelling raffia work. We knew DI had had a sex change but there was some confusion as to which direction it had gone. Great use of catwalk. Sang better than I expected. (4/4)

Slovenia – A cunning combination of dramatic and dull. Much admiration for the thigh boots. Nice top too. Maja must have gone to “Star by Julien Macdonald” at Debenhams. Mental note made for Mrs C’s Christmas present. (2/4)

Romania – Very good performance of a very good song. Everyone singing along. Stripey trousers. (4/4)

Estonia – Getter Jaani looking like a wide-eyed doe, dressed like a delicious liquorice allsort. Thought her singing was a bit off sometimes. “Woeful” said the Thane. Though originally she gave this song the nod, Lady D rejiggled her scores again after seeing Getter in interview and awarded her AV vote to the Netherlands instead. (1/4)

Belarus – Fun. Attractive performance. We tried some excellent alternatives, these work well: “I love Skelmersdale”; “I love Milton Keynes”; “I love Birmingham”. Northampton and Aylesbury just don’t scan as well unfortunately. (4/4)

Latvia – Showed my age by likening the rapping chap to the late Freddie Garrity. I love the song but felt it was all a bit static. “They’re not pulling it off are they” said the Thane. Probably just as well. (3/4)

Denmark – Within ten seconds of it starting: “I like it” said Lady D. “A winner” said the Thane. And we enjoyed the run around the stage. Satisfaction encapsulated in three minutes. (4/4)

Ireland – Our two households couldn’t be counted as Jedward fans. We all think the song is catchy. The descant of the backing singers drowned out the lads. The presentation wearied us and we didn’t really rate it I’m afraid. (0/4)

Scorecard Not as successful a prediction of the ten finalists as we achieved on Tuesday. Only 4/10 for the Thane, 5/10 for the ladies and I got a massive 6/10. Big shock for me was Moldova getting through – admittedly they would have got douze points from Romania but who else would vote for that? Ukraine was also a surprise, I can only assume the voters went for Mystic Meg on the sand board and ignored Mika Newton. In the other direction, I really thought Dana International had done enough to qualify, she oozed star quality and class. I thought Ireland was unpredictable and I still can’t call how they will do on Saturday.

My attempt at a sand picture Thought Scott was much better last night, some very good lines and a much more confident delivery. Sara was also better but the interviews with foreign singers were pointless as they can’t understand her accent. I barely can myself.

Eurovision Semi Final 1 2011 The Morning After

CelebrateSo here’s what happened. Mrs Chrisparkle and I had our calorie controlled salad early and then laid out the wine and crisps in expectation of the company of Mrs Chrisparkle’s parents, the Thane of Duncansby and Lady Duncansby. This was to be their first hearing of any of these songs.

All guests duly settled we each had our own BBC score card and chose the ten songs we would “put through” – the Eurovision equivalent of a thumbs up from the Roman Emperor in the Colosseum. Fortunately since last year our area has gone properly digital, so our BBC3 reception was vastly improved, indeed it was actually watchable; unlike last year, when we had to make a heart-wrenching yomp across town to the inlaws’ which caused us to miss the first five songs and induced in me an ugly and unpleasant sulk. Anyway that was last year. This year:

Poland – decent song got pretty much annihilated with a lack of tuneful singing. The Thane and his Lady, Mrs C and I all agreed it wasn’t going through, thus it gets a score of 0/4.

Norway – lively stage presentation and an entertaining song. Still a bit flat in part. (2/4)

Albania – Good performance, the first one where the singer got most of the notes. All agreed she looked pretty scary though, and nobody liked the song much. (0/4)

Armenia – Enjoyed the boxing motif, and Lady Duncansby thought she would easily get down to this in the disco. But it quickly palled as the lyrics-lite took effect. (1/4)

Turkey – The guitars set a new theme and people quite liked it, but in the end there were some much better songs. And the contortionist just didn’t help. (0/4)

Serbia – Lady Duncansby actually does remember dancing to this song in The Cavern before you were born. A good tuneful performance. (2/4)

Russia – Don’t understand that opening sequence at all. Slick act though, and Mrs Chrisparkle confessed to something about “gutter thoughts” when she thought I was out of earshot. (4/4)

Switzerland – Having spent the last 6 months finding this just a bit too twee, Anna comes along with a knockout performance. Lady Duncansby was so taken with this one she almost dropped her Chardonnay. (4/4)

Georgia – A very good performance of a song that has been a favourite in the Chrisparkle household since its first hearing. Mrs C starting to go off it though. (2/4)

Finland – We loved the emerging planet. It didn’t look at all endangered to us. Only the Thane could see in this what others clearly can. (1/4)

Malta – A great performance from “my mate Glen” as we now term him, and the Thane became the second person in the world to like the song too. (2/4)

San Marino – Looked forward to hearing this lovely song. A very static performance though, which reminded Mrs Chrisparkle of someone frightened of tripping a PIR sensor. Shame about the vocals, but we largely gave Senit the benefit of the doubt. (3/4)

Croatia – Not that great a performance. The first dress change was a bit of a cheat with the camera looking away and then coming back to see her changed. Anyone could do that. No one liked it much. (0/4)

Iceland – Went down very well here, and not just because of the backstory. Excellent performance too. (4/4)

Hungary – Heard that rehearsals hadn’t been great, but she certainly pulled out all the stops. The room went into swoons of appreciation. (4/4)

Portugal – Was expecting a more quirky performance and the banners were just boring. As was the rest of it. (0/4)

Lithuania – a good performance of a dull song. References were made to the size of her hips. I’ll say no more (although the word “twins” was mentioned in that context). The Thane was in sole appreciation. (1/4)

Azerbaijan – I didn’t know she was from Enfield, and her enunciation of “nothing” as “nuffing” was a moment of delight. We all thought this would do well. (4/4)

Greece – The rapper was greeted with cries of “don’t like it” from the room, but it was amazing how the appreciation of this song increased when Loukas opened his jacket. Lady Duncansby hastily rejigged her scoring as a result. (4/4)

ScorecardSo three of us got seven out of the ten correct, and one, the Thane himself, got eight – he got the most last year as well if I remember. The five songs we gave 0/4 didn’t qualify, which is quite pleasing in retrospect. Along with many others I am amazed Turkey didn’t qualify, not so amazed at Armenia’s failure as apparently her performance in the jury-watching-rehearsal was dire, and somewhat surprised about Norway although the Stella Mwangi/Kate Ryan allusion had been made elsewhere previously.

My bets on Iceland and Azerbaijan are still safe, and it was a good looking show. Great set. Didn’t think much of the presenters though, and thought the UK commentary varied from just about adequate to ghastly. I understand there were “communication issues” from Düsseldorf which must have been difficult for new presenters to cope with. But cutting from a live Sara Cox to a pre-recorded Sara Cox when the pre-recorded bits were obviously meant to look live seemed very ham-fisted to me. We honestly thought she was under the influence of noxious substances at times, and I thought the little vignette she did about running to the commentary booth was, well, just pathetic. Ale Jestem She could also have learned how to pronounce “Mwangi” in advance, just as Scott really ought to have known that the J in “Jestem” is pronounced like a Y. I thought he was going to become a bit of a Euro-basher in the Wogan fashion at first but he did have a few good lines later on. Room for improvement for Thursday!

Review – Grand Tchaikovsky Gala, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Derngate, Northampton, May 8th 2011

Grand Tchaikovsky GalaAn almost full house to see another concert by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Derngate in Northampton – a Grand Tchaikovsky Gala. So you knew in advance it was going to be a musically bumptious night and as usual the Royal Philharmonic were well up for the job. Our conductor for the evening was Grzegorz Nowak, whose biography in the programme virtually filled up two pages. He’s a commanding figure on the podium – sometimes looking avuncular, sometimes stern; imposingly broad-shouldered he sways stiffly with his baton and clearly goes to the same hairdresser as Boris Johnson.

First on offer was Marche Slave, which I don’t think I’d heard before. It’s kind of Tchaikovsky by numbers, and almost every style of music of which you think he’d be capable is crammed into this piece. So it makes for a stimulating introduction, but it’s not something you’d go out of your way to check back on.

Alessandro Taverna Much more rewarding was the Piano Concerto No 1, with soloist Alessandro Taverna (I’m sure that’s a bistro in Corfu). When he walks on to the stage he looks slight and unassuming; he reminded me of the young Roger Rees in Nicholas Nickleby when he’s all earnest and insecure. He took a while to get comfortable on the piano stool too, with his jacket tails getting stuck in an out-of-focus position. But once he started, he was genius! His playing was really superb. He captured the drama and romanticism of the piece, and provided the necessary light and shade to break up the otherwise relentless Tchiakovskiness of the evening. I didn’t get past Grade IV piano so I’m no judge but I don’t think he put a foot or indeed a hand wrong in the entire piece. The audience loved it and gave him possibly the warmest reception I’ve heard at one of these concerts. As a treat afterwards he encored with a short jazzy piece from Friedrich Gulda’s “Play Piano Play” which really showed his skill and bravura.

After the interval we got the Capriccio Italien (which is not, as I had originally thought, an antipasto) which seemed to be a lot of introductory fanfare but then turning out a bit insubstantial as a piece. Fantastic sound from the brass section though. Then there were some extracts from the Nutcracker, and you realise as you hear them what terrific short tunes they are. Putting them together like that is like having a plate of five sweet cakes which you eat one after another. Gorgeous whilst you’re munching, but quickly over, and providing a slight feeling of sickliness afterwards. Mrs Chrisparkle and I also observed that it is impossible to hear “Dance of the Mirlitons” without singing to oneself “everyone’s a fruit and nutcase” a la Frank Muir.

Grzegorz Nowak The final piece was (surprise surprise) the 1812 Overture. Chance for the percussion to rule, and they took the opportunity magnificently. I particularly liked the incessantly clanging chimes and of course the cannon sounds made by what sounded like the most intimidatingly large drum imaginable. It was all very enthralling and enjoyable. Again the audience responded most warmly and with great respect. Shame the two violinists furthest stage right at the front couldn’t have suspended their conversation during the applause. There’s no greater way of dissing the audience! Anyway, small cavil. We had a great time, and look forward to the RPO’s return next month!

Another Film Seen (well a DVD actually) The Social Network

The Social NetworkIt was our anniversary a few weeks ago. Not a major one, just an in-between one. So I bought Mrs Chrisparkle everything you needed for a night in. A box of chocolates, a bottle of champagne, a bottle of Saint-Emilion (sheep as lamb syndrome) and a DVD. I say “DVD”, but in fact it was our first ever blu-ray purchase, as our new “Sound Bar” (so trendy) is also a blu-ray player. “You’ll notice such a difference”, said the salesman.

Well the chocolates were eaten in pretty short order, so I thought I’d better buy another box. That too got consumed rapido, and the Saint-Emilion went the way of all flesh last Sunday. But that left the champagne (really nice) and the DVD. I bought “The Social Network” because a) we’d heard of it; b) I use Facebook a lot; c) it was up for a number of Oscars; d) it was in the blu-ray charts; and e) it was the only film in the charts that wasn’t either violent or for kiddywinks. Ergo, The Social Network was the recipient of my purchasing power.

It was pretty early on in the proceedings that we both agreed we really didn’t care one iota what happened to any of the characters. Mrs Chrisparkle was prepared to bale out about twenty minutes in, I urged caution in the hope that it might improve. It didn’t really, but we did stay to the bitter end.

Jesse Eisenberg Did you ever see Peter Shaffer’s “Amadeus”? One of the criticisms of the older generation of the young upstart Mozart was that his music had “too many notes”. Well here is a film that has too many words. Far too many. From the start to the finish you are subject to a verbal assault that bombards the senses and leaves you drained. I have no doubt that Jesse Eisenberg’s portrayal of Mark Zuckerberg is an accurate depiction of someone with Asperger’s Syndrome or Narcissistic Personality Disorder or whatever it is that he has, but I found the constant pounding of the words out of his mouth intensely tiring.

Armie Hammer It’s certainly a clever cinematic trick that one actor (Armie Hammer) played both the Winklevoss twins. In fact I didn’t realise it until I came to research this blog post. Presumably that’s why it won the Oscar for Best Film Editing. Well I can’t argue with that. The scene where the twins were complaining to the President (was that his title?) of Harvard was probably the most entertaining of the whole film. As usual, I hadn’t seen any of these actors before. I didn’t think any particular role was performed in a knock-out excellent way.

The big problem though for us was that there was no feeling of suspense at all in the film – we knew about the court case over the “ownership” of Facebook, so we knew where it was all heading; most of the characters were either unpleasant or one-dimensional so there was no identifying with anyone; and the script struck me as remarkably unwitty – perhaps I’m too old to laugh at rowers with their pants down or a guy being accompanied by a chicken. The whole effect was to make me want to use Twitter more.

Reviews So I’m reading the reviews on the front of the dvd box: “Masterpiece” (The Times); “An American Landmark” (Rolling Stone); “One of the truly defining films of its era” (Radio Times); “Inspiring” (Daily Mail); “Smart, exciting and thought-provoking” (The Sunday Times) and I wonder which film’s screening they actually attended. Remind me to take no notice of these organs’ arts reviews in future.

And how was the blu-ray aspect? It was fine. I guess I was expecting something more though. I didn’t think it made that much of a difference. Still, the champagne was nice.

Review – Clybourne Park, Wyndham’s Theatre, London, April 30th 2011

Clybourne Park1959 – the trials of selling a house; 2009 – the trials of buying the same house; and the social repercussions of both. Bruce Norris’ smartly clever play is a delight and I’m guessing it’s challenging fun for the cast. Each cast member has two roles, one set in 1959, one in 2009 and it’s as pacey as it can be with characters required to talk over each other, no shying away from difficult subjects, lots of laugh-out-loud moments and some uncomfortable buttock shifting.

“Clybourne Park” is a new relative to Lorraine Hansberry’s 1959 play “A Raisin in the Sun” with which I regret I am not familiar, so I can’t comment. The two plays share a character (structural similarities with “Hamlet” and “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” are noted in the programme), that of Karl, who wants to keep the neighbourhood white in Hansberry’s Play, and who in Clybourne Park is friends to Bev and Russ who are selling up and moving out, and has similar concerns.

You may well have heard that Clybourne Park is a play about racism, and it certainly is! But while taking nothing away from the impact that definitely has, its multi-layered characters additionally pose other interesting and difficult questions of how people from different backgrounds behave with each other. Yes there is neighbourhood-based racism courtesy of Karl who is aghast to discover the identities of the people moving into Clybourne Park. But other levels of insensitivity include a deaf character who is the unwitting subject of prejudicial language; and there is even the crass condescension of Bev to her daily help Francine, hectoring her to take possession of a useless kitchen implement that she doesn’t want, is far too difficult to pack, and is too good to throw away. Then we move to 2009, and people are much more enlightened. Aren’t they?

The play is at times hysterically funny – that kind of humour which catches in your mouth as you guffaw as you realise the awfulness of what you’re laughing at. Sometimes you sense a general unease in the audience at the non-politically-correct nature of some of the lines, where the laughter slowly gathers momentum like a Mexican Wave as you realise it’s acceptable to vocalise your amusement. But you’re embarrassed too.

Stephen Campbell Moore It’s a very clever play because it’s easy to make assumptions as to who is being racist or insensitive about whom and why, but life is rarely that straightforward, which makes the humour even more cringey. There’s a key segment in the second act when Steve, played by Stephen Campbell Moore blunders his way into an ill-advised joke-telling session where there’s no turning back. It’s all beautifully performed, and the social balance at the beginning of the conversation is shattered by the end of it. It’s very easy to see oneself somewhere in that situation, whether as the joke teller, the audience, the offended or the horrified onlooker. But it’s much more than a series of racially-challenged comments; it’s a very well constructed play which will challenge everyone, comparing attitudes fifty years apart, and with a hark-back to 1959 at the end, tying up the loose ends and satisfying in its completeness.

Sophie Thompson There are no obviously starry roles in the play and the whole cast turn in great performances, but especially memorable is Sophie Thompson’s 1959 Bev, the height of middle-class respectability and charitable to a point; I felt that, 20 years on, transplanted to London and a few gins later, she could turn into Mike Leigh’s Beverly from Abigail’s Party. Lorna Brown Lorna Brown’s sophisticated 2009 Lena subtly manipulates the whole of the second act from her central position and it’s a stunning performance, particularly in contrast with the uncomfortable Francine of the first act. Lucian Msamati I also really liked the willing but rather hapless 1959 Albert played by Lucian Msamati, doing his best to do the right thing under trying circumstances.

I’m very pleased we got to see this play before it closes but I find it impossible to think that Clybourne Park is going to go away so soon. It was a pretty much full house and is surely ripe for a tour. It’s got a lot to say and it does it extremely well!