Review – Rory Bremner and Friends, Royal, Derngate, Northampton, 29th June 2011

Rory Bremner and Friends I was really surprised when it was announced that Rory Bremner would be appearing at the Royal. Firstly because I thought he was strictly a TV and radio performer, and secondly because it was the Royal and not the Derngate. If you don’t know, the Royal is a charming small Victorian theatre, that seats somewhere around 300 people and the Derngate is a much larger modern auditorium that seats around 1300, and that’s where the majority of big stand-up acts perform. So I got my tickets booked and bought good and early because I thought there would be a big demand for the seats.

And as the weeks went on, I was looking at the seating plan online and realising that not many seats had been sold at all. Is this an indication that Mr Bremner is past his best? Isn’t there much demand for a satirical impressionist anymore? I was getting a little worried. No need for alarm. I’m pleased to say that the comedy lovers of Northampton are late bookers, because last night there were hardly any seats left, and in fact it was the most packed I’ve ever seen the Royal auditorium.

It’s a very relaxed and enjoyable evening. Rory Bremner introduces the show with about a ten minute slot followed by Ian Shaw on the piano for about fifteen minutes, then Hattie Hayridge has a longer slot, and then Rory Bremner wraps up the first half. After the interval, Ian Shaw returns for some more music and then Rory Bremner does his main session. It’s very satisfyingly structured, just like you would have seen on a traditional variety show on television about thirty years ago.

Ian ShawSo what of his friends? Ian Shaw is a jazz singer but here he spends his time doing some comedy numbers and a couple of unexpected songs that involved the audience. He has a very warm and entertaining personality and a very good rapport with the audience. To be honest, the words “jazz singer” would normally fill me with dread but he was a breath of fresh air, and the time he spent onstage went very quickly.

Hattie HayridgeUnfortunately not quite the same could be said about Hattie Hayridge. Whilst her material was very funny, for some reason she didn’t establish a rapport with the audience whose reaction to her was rather embarrassingly quiet. She has a very dry and self-deprecating style, which will always tickle the laughter out of some people, it then depends if this laughter is catching or not. Last night, it wasn’t really. Sure, some were laughing hysterically, but it wasn’t the majority. If she had been performing in the Screaming Blue Murder club, I think she would have been heckled. I didn’t “get” her character, and I’m afraid that when her act was over I was a bit relieved.

Rory BremnerHowever, Rory Bremner was on top form. He has great material, a natural charm, full of charisma, and is a great communicator. His impressions are still top notch – although I found his Winston Churchill a bit too like Tony Benn – and he has plenty of topical characters too, like Andy Murray and Rafael Nadal. The satire can be biting, but it’s always a delight too. And the intimacy of the Royal was just perfect for his adult, intelligent humour. So, all in all, a most enjoyable night’s entertainment.

Martin Bell was in the audience! Yes, the reporter turned Independent MP. I’m sure it was him. It looked like him and he was wearing his trademark white jacket. Celebrity audiences invade Northampton! You heard it here first.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Derngate, Northampton, 24th June 2011

Kevin DewsburyA new compere this week, who it appears stepped in at the last minute, and that’s Kevin Dewsbury. And he was great! Very likeable, a friendly approach, and lots of great material. We particularly liked his observations on how some people speak foreign words as though they were native to that country – something I’m guilty of – and his musings about what it would be like if foreigners did the same back in the UK. Excellent stuff, and I’d like to see his proper act, rather than just compering.

Noel JamesThe rest of the comics were slightly disappointing on just one level – and that is that we have seen them all at Screaming Blue Murder before. The first comic was Noel James, and of the three he was the one who I think had changed his material more than the others. He was very quick hitting and funny, but unfortunately quite a small audience didn’t somehow take to him. He didn’t seem comfortable with the overall lack of laughter and got a bit anxious. We liked him though.

Mary BourkeSecond was Mary Bourke, whose act was most similar to last time, but is so incredibly funny that she was still the best of the night. Her lines about what her parents’ voicemail messages might be like were really funny, and generally she is very dry and self-deprecating. She does a Sudoku during the laughs, which is a nice trick.

Howard ReadLast was Howard Read, one of the very first comics we saw here, and his act is very clever but also very parent-centric. He has a great lullaby song about how scary life is, which is really funny, but his whole act is about coping with young kids, and as I’m not a parent, it slightly missed the mark for me.

Next fortnight is the last one of the SBMs for a while I think, and we’re otherwise engaged that evening anyway. However, there’s plenty more comedy on the horizon!

My Father’s War Record (Part Two)

Dad's medalsYesterday I posted my research and thoughts on Dad’s war years up to his leaving the HMS Howe on 11th November 1943. On 12th November 1943, Dad rejoined the Victory in Portsmouth until 14th December, when he joined the Sabre. At least I think it’s the Sabre. It’s quite poorly written, and is spelled “Saber” on the record. In fact at first I thought it was Baker, but there isn’t a Baker!

HMS Sabre According to, the Sabre was an Admiralty S-Class destroyer ordered in April 1917 from Alex Stephens at Govan, Glasgow and launched on 23rd September 1918 as the first RN ship to carry this name. After end of WW1 she was transferred after launch for completion by Fairfield shipyard in Govan. Build was completed on during 1919 and the ship commissioned for Fleet service. By 1938 she had been de-militarised for use as a target ship but brought forward for service in 1939 despite her age and unsuitability. Before Dad’s time on board, in 1940, the Sabre was one of the vessels at Dunkirk, evacuating 1500 men. For the two months Dad was with this ship (until 13th February 1944), she was part of 21st Escort Group based in Iceland, deployed for convoy defence in the central Atlantic for support of anti-submarine operations including RAF Coastal Command aircraft. Again, I think I did know that Dad was in Iceland at some point during the war. This must have been it.

From 14th February to 6th July 1944 he served on the Caroline. This seems quite an odd posting. The Caroline was launched in 1914 and survived the Battle of Jutland. From 1924 she was in Belfast as the headquarters and training ship for the Royal Naval Volunteers’ Reserve’s Ulster Division. But in the Second World War she became the Royal Navy’s Headquarters in Belfast Harbour which was used as a home base by many of the warships escorting Atlantic and Russian convoys including Captain-class frigates of the 3rd Escort Group. She served as the last afloat training establishment in the Royal Naval Reserve. Today she is listed as part of the National Historic Fleet, Core Collection, and although no longer capable of making way under her own steam, she remains afloat and in excellent condition. I wonder why he was transferred to the Caroline, and what he would have done there? It was during this time, on 10th May 1944, that he was awarded two War Service chevrons.

This is where Dad’s war history gets very fragmented. He seemed to spend very short times in all (bar one) of his remaining postings. I wonder why? There is no suggestion that he was in any way “difficult”! All through the war his character is marked as “VG”, and his Efficiency Rating is “Satisfactory” (on a scale of Superior – Satisfactory – Moderate – Inferior). From 7th July to 10th August it was back to the Victory, and then two months, (11th August to 16th October) to the Marlborough, which I think was another training establishment, this time in Eastbourne, specialising in Electrical instruction.

Then it was the Victory again (17th October to 3rd November) and then to the Pembroke. I think this was yet another shore barracks, at Chatham. This was just for a month until 2nd December, and then the Victory yet again until 28th December. Then it was the Flycatcher from 29th December to 31st January 1945. This, yet again was not actually at sea. This was the Royal Navy’s Headquarters for their Mobile Naval Air Bases which supported their Fleet Air Arm units. This was at RNAS Ludham in Norfolk.

HMS NabsfordAnd then, right at the end of the war, came his second longest ever posting, from 1st February 1945 to 23rd February 1946 to HMS Nabsford. In that February, the Royal Navy moved its Transportable Aircraft Maintenance Yard No.1, known as TAMY 1, to RAAF Station Archerfield in Brisbane, Australia, and Nabsford was the name given to the new Royal Navy base there. Dad in Australia Here (above left) is a photo of a plaque commemorating it and the British personnel who served in the Pacific theatre, which can be viewed in the old administration building along with plaques from the RAAF and the US 5th Air Force. I always knew Dad went to Australia! But I always thought it was Fremantle. Maybe they called at Fremantle on the way.Pacific Star I’m fairly sure this photo (above right) was taken in Australia, so this must have been during this time. He’s the one standing at the back. I think, from what I can remember, that Dad was pretty happy on this posting. I’m really glad for him! I’m guessing this was how he got the Pacific Star.

Dad at Nabsford This photo on the right looks very much like it was taken by an aircraft, so maybe this is also from his Nabsford days. On 9th February 1945 he was granted a Good Conduct Badge/Medal (1st class) and he also got his WSI (3) – that’s the War Service Increment, and on the same day in 1946, it was increased to WSI (4).

1939-45 Star 24th February 1946, the war now fully over, and Dad being a veteran at the age of 22, his next transfer was to the Golden Hind, just to 4th March. This sounds like this should have been some historical romance type of ship, but in fact it was based at what is now Warwick Farm racecourse in Sydney, and was a Royal Navy manning depot. I guess this may just have been a temporary relocation post before returning back to Britain, as the last posting on his record is once more to the Victory in Portsmouth from 5th March to 13th August 1946.

Africa StarIn addition to his Pacific Star and Italy Star, he also has the 1939-45 Star, which was awarded after six months training and at least one voyage made through an operational area; the Africa Star, which would have been for his service on the Howe in 1942 and 1943; and the Atlantic Star, awarded for at least six months’ service afloat during the course of the war, and with a France and Germany emblem, which was awarded if you were otherwise entitled to a France and Germany Star – uniform regulations did not allow the awarding of both. Atlantic StarThe France and Germany Star was awarded for operational service in France, Belgium, Luxembourg, the Netherlands, and Germany from 6 June 1944 (D-Day) to 8 May 1945. The qualifying sea area is the North Sea south of a line from the Firth of Forth to Kristiansand (South), in the English Channel and in the Bay of Biscay east of longitude 6° west, provided such service was directly in support of land operations in France, Belgium, the Netherlands or Germany. And this is where it all gets very curious, because I can’t see from his war record, why he was entitled to this emblem. Maybe during his time on the Flycatcher he went out into the North Sea on some operation I don’t know about.

War Medal 1939-45As well as those stars, he also has the War Medal 1939-45 and the Defence Medal. Looking at the criteria for being awarded the Defence Medal I again can’t quite see how he was eligible, so maybe there was something additional I don’t know about. Just another secret about the war he took with him!

Defence MedalSuffice it to say I am enormously proud of him for what he experienced at such a young age and nothing will ever prise me apart from his medals, wartime photos and his war record! I really know very little about him after the war. I know he met my mother in the mid 1950s, they got married in 1958, had me in 1960 and we were a happy threesome until he unfortunately died of a brain tumour on January 1st 1972.

Please, if anyone has read my account of Dad’s war record – the ships he was on, his medals, the events he may have witnessed – and you have any further information about them, I would be very interested to hear – just leave a comment.

My Father’s War Record (Part One)

My father in the 1950sIt’s taken me ages to find Dad’s war record. I discovered it a few years ago for the first time when I was clearing out my Mum’s house, and I didn’t have the time or opportunity to look carefully at it at the time but I promised myself I would – in due course – take a long hard look at it and do some research as to what he did in the war. And then of course, I lost the record. However, a couple of days ago, I suddenly remembered that I had kept it with his war medals! So now I’ve found it again, and I’ve got the opportunity to give it the attention it deserves.

Leonard Poppe – my father – was born on 1st November 1923, which I knew, and it gives his trade as “Dairy Labourer”. Well I always thought he was brought up in the timber trade, so that’s very odd. It’s bizarre today to think there could be much work for a dairy labourer in East Ham. He volunteered to join the Royal Navy on 30th December 1941, so he would have been just 18 years and 2 months old. I remember being told that he deliberately volunteered for the Navy early, because he thought he would see less carnage than if he were called up for the Army.

Here are his “vital statistics”: Stature – 5 feet 10 inches. Chest – 34 ¼ inches. (That seems so slight in comparison to me! He endured a poor childhood – loving but no money – and that sounds a bit undernourished to me.) Hair – Brown; Eyes – Blue; Complexion – Fresh. For marks wounds and scars: “Scar forehead and left knee”. The period volunteered for is described as “Until the end of the period of the present emergency”. And his first engagement was on 9th February 1942 when he joined the “Duke”, Naval Training Establishment at Great Malvern. This went on to be the Royal Radar Establishment. He was given the rank of Stoker, 2nd Class. The training lasted till 16th March, so it was a five-week course.

HMS Howe He then went to the Victory, which was the main Royal Naval barracks in Portsmouth, from 17th March to 16th June 1942. I think this was probably for further training, in Radar work. Then it was on to HMS Howe, from 17th June 1942 to 11th November 1943, with a promotion to Stoker, 1st Class from 9th January 1943. I’m owing a lot of my information here to Mr Wikipedia, so I hope he’s right. Apparently the Howe was the last of five King George V-class battleships in the Royal Navy. I’m pleased to say the Howe apparently never saw any major ship-to-ship action, apart from one important event during his time, more of which later. She was launched on 9th April 1942, and commissioned into the Royal Navy on 29th August 1942.

More from Wikipedia: “She commenced sea trials in August 1942, but was made available for operations with the Home Fleet from November onwards. Her main duties were to provide cover for Arctic convoys and to intercept any major German warships attempting to enter the Atlantic. On 31 December, following the Battle of the Barents Sea, Howe was part of a multi-ship force that sailed to protect Convoy RA 51 and intercept, if possible, the German pocket battleship Lützow.

“In late February, Howe joined the escort screen of Convoy JW 53 to the Soviet Union, and the return Convoy RA 53. In May 1943, Howe was visited by Prime Minister of the United Kingdom Winston Churchill, then a few days later by King George VI.

“At the start of May, Howe was marked for deployment to the Mediterranean to support Allied landings. After taking on several 20 mm Oerlikon cannons, she departed from Rosyth for Gibraltar on 21 May, and arrived five days later. Howe was assigned to Force H, and operated in support of the landings at Sicily (Operation Husky) and Italy (Operation Slapstick) . After Force H was transferred to Algiers in early June, Howe was again visited by King George.

“During the landings on Sicily in July, Howe was positioned between Sicily and Sardinia to guard against any interference by the Italian fleet, and on 12 July joined HMS King George V to take part in diversionary bombardments of Trapani and the nearby islands of Favignana and Levanzo. After Husky, Howe returned to Algiers for maintenance. Whilst there, on 4 August an ammunition ship, SS Fort Le Montee caught fire and exploded, seriously damaging a nearby destroyer, HMS Arrow, and causing a substantial number of casualties. A party from Howe was sent to help in the dreadful task of gathering bodies and body parts.

“On 8 September, after the Italian surrender, Howe and King George V escorted a naval force to land the British 1st Airborne Division at the important port of Taranto on 9 September and, while en route, an Italian squadron was encountered sailing to Malta to surrender. On 14 September, Howe and King George V escorted surrendered Italian warships to Alexandria from Malta. On 1 October, Howe arrived at Algiers, and departed for Scapa Flow to resume duties with the Home Fleet. She was refitted for service in the Far East at Plymouth Dockyard between October 1943 and June 1944.”

Gosh, there’s a lot to take in here. I have a vague recollection of either Dad or Mum quoting Dad saying that he had been in the Arctic during the war, but I had no idea of what he might have been doing. To be honest, he never spoke about his war experience. I think, as a very young man, he saw an awful lot of horror and it scarred him, and he tried to spend the rest of his life blocking it out. Unlike my mother, whose ATS war was very deskbound and she loved it – it sounded rather like being in some Enid Blyton’s Girls’ Dormitory with midnight feasts and late night talks about handsome fellow officers. Mum at warThe photo on the left here shows Mum “at war”, she is the person furthest left in the picture, and this is dated 29th June 1945, so to be fair, the worst was over by now. Her worst war memories were the misery of spending Christmas sending out death notifications to families.

Italy StarAnyway, the activities of the Howe explain why Dad has the Italy Star. I never put two and two together to work out that he would have been involved with the Sicily and Italy landings.

I wonder if he was involved with the party who was sent to clear the HMS Arrow of body parts. I think he must have been, as I do know he did have at least one experience during the war where he came into contact with a lot of death and destruction and it affected him deeply. So this must have been the occasion. It’s very lame of me to comment “how awful for him” – but I can’t really think of any other way of putting it. Awful of course for the dead and bereaved too. I’m going back to Mr Wikipedia for some more information about what happened to the Arrow and the Fort Le Montee.

“Fort La Montee was in harbour at Algiers, preparing to sail for the invasion beaches on 4 August 1943. Before she could depart, a fire broke out aboard ship. Attempts were made to fight the blaze, whilst the harbour authorities, fearful of the risk of an explosion and damage to the other ships anchored there, ordered her to be towed out into deeper waters. Tugs were able to attach lines and bring her out into the bay. The British A-class destroyer HMS Arrow had been in the harbour at the time and came alongside to help with the firefighting. Efforts to control the fire were eventually unsuccessful, and it spread to the forward compartments and into the holds where the ammunition was stored. The entire forepart of the burning freighter then blew up, sending flaming debris raining down over a large distance. The Arrow was caught in the blast and she too caught fire, sustaining heavy damage and considerable casualties. She was subsequently declared a constructive total loss and never returned to service. The devastated Fort La Montee continued to burn. The aft section had to be sunk by gunfire from a Royal Navy submarine to prevent it blowing up. The remains of the forward section remained ablaze and burned for several days.”

I am absolutely sure that Dad witnessed this. I do remember descriptions from my childhood of a ship that had one half sunk whilst the other half was ablaze. I think this was the moment that scarred him. On reflection, looking back over his subsequent life, I’m sure this was his most significant life-changing experience. He would still have been only 19 years old and this was why he could never talk freely about his war.

On a lighter note, I don’t suppose a Stoker, even one promoted to 1st Class, would have met the King or Churchill, but it’s an amusing thought! I think if he had, he would have told me, as that would have been one of the brighter memories of the war.

Anyway we leave the story of the Howe here, and tomorrow I’ll post the second half of my research on Dad’s war record. If you have any other information about the ships he was posted on, or the events he may have seen, please let me know by leaving a comment, I’d be really interested to hear from you.

Review – Eden End, Royal, Northampton, 16th June 2011

Eden EndIt’s been a long time since I’ve seen a J B Priestley play. I think the last one was Stephen Daldry’s Inspector Calls which Mrs C and I saw in London sometime in the 1990s, but we were stuck at the back of the Garrick Theatre in London with the actors so distant they might just as well have been in Cardiff for all that I could connect with them. We saw a production of “I Have Been Here Before” at the Wycombe Swan also in the 90s with Mr Rumbold from Are You Being Served as the mysterious German Doktor. Before then it was just a production of An Inspector Calls at the Shaw Theatre in London in 1978 and a TV adaptation of Dangerous Corner around the same time.

So it was good to have some renewed exposure to this 20th century British stalwart. “Eden End” is not so often performed – perhaps because it doesn’t have the beguiling “time tricks” of Inspector Calls and Dangerous Corner. And maybe it is easy to see why it could have fallen out of favour in this modern age – what could a play from 1934 set in 1912, that doesn’t really have a very strong storyline, have that is relevant to today?

Well you just have to see it to answer that question. Laurie Sansom’s production of Eden End takes a simple tale and makes it riveting. As usual he has brought together a cast that works wonders as an ensemble. You get the feeling that in every performance the actors get a new truth out of the material, so fresh is their connection with the audience. On one level the play is about the return of an actress daughter to the family home after eight years’ absence, and the emotional ripples it creates through those left behind. On another, it reveals the reality of “the other man’s grass is always greener”; how people cope with the knowledge that life could be better somewhere else. And are they right? Very Chekhovian, Laurie Sansom refers to its similarities with “The Cherry Orchard” in the programme; there’s also a lot of “Three Sisters” in there too, as everyone has their own private Moscow.

Fantasy and reality are blurred with the brilliant set – ostensibly a traditional drawing room, but with a stylised stage curtain as the back wall and stage footlights around the edge. The fantasy suggests a glittering stage career elsewhere, but does the reality agree with that? If you saw the recent production of “Love Love Love” by Mike Bartlett, it features a daughter character who is bitter at her failed music career because no one told her when she was young that she simply wasn’t good enough. The returning actress Stella also implies that the fantasy of a brilliant acting career was a much more comforting place than the reality of being barely adequate at it.

Charlotte EmmersonStella is played by Charlotte Emmerson, fab when last seen here at the Royal as the Duchess of Malfi. It’s a beautiful performance – combining the apparent starry glamour of her profession with vulnerability in the uncertainty of whom she loves, and the worry of whether she can sustain a career. At one stage, for a little while fantasy reigns as she meets up again with long lost love Farrant; then reality returns in the form of her ex-husband. Charlotte Emmerson wonderfully portrays this movement into the light and then back into darkness.

Jonathan FirthFarrant, played by Jonathan Firth, is also a winning creation. What could easily be just another stock Edwardian stiff-upper-lip chappy with a gammy leg, becomes a real person who overcomes the reservations of the era to tell Stella how he feels. Overflowing with decency, his sense of correctness and his openness are very genuinely acted and I enjoyed his performance very much. There’s an excellent moment when he encounters Charles Appleby. His reactions are simple, but perfectly executed.

Daisy DouglasStella’s sister, Lilian, played by Daisy Douglas, comes across as deeply repressed and embittered, left behind to look after Father, sacrificing her own happiness for the perceived selfishness of her sister. There’s a great scene between the two of them where they challenge each other’s motives for how life turned out. Gripping stuff. You felt some sympathy for her – but also appreciated that she’s a bit cunning. Daisy Douglas puts over the shades of grey with the character very effectively.

Nick HendrixHer brother Wilfred – looking like how you would imagine a 24 year old Gordon Brown to look but don’t let that put you off – is played by Nick Hendrix. Dashing and ineffectual, still patronised by the family retainer Sarah, sniffing (largely metaphorically) at the skirt of a barmaid, wasting his days at home in idleness, it’s a great study of youthful underachievement. It was very rewarding to see that even in 1934 young people couldn’t get the jokes in those old Punch cartoons! His build-up routines to ringing the girlfriend were very nicely done too. According to the programme, Nick Hendrix is fresh out of RADA and this is his first professional engagement. Well we thought he was absolutely first class, and are sure he’s going to have a great career.

Daniel BettsDaniel Betts plays Charles Appleby, Stella’s estranged husband, a bit of a jack-the-lad actor, dressed like you would imagine Max Miller would if he had an office job. Cheeky and charismatic, you could see why Stella might have fallen for him – and after his night out with Wilfred, you could also see why she would have gone right off him. I have to commend Daniel Betts on his brilliant drunk act. Completely credible, nothing farcical or over the top about it; really well observed and very very funny. Mrs C and I were not entirely sure about Charles and Wilfred’s music-hall song and dance act between Acts Two and Three; they did it very well and I can see how it continues the theme of blur between fantasy and reality; but on the whole, we didn’t “get it”. I note that it’s not in the original text.

William Chubb William Chubb’s Dr Kirby was very convincing as the elderly GP father with a care for his community and a gentle cynicism about life as a whole. Sarah was played by Carol Macready and was a subtle reading of the role of the old retainer, both cantankerous and kindly; occasionally wanting to keep hold of her old niche as authoritative nurse with the children, but knowing her power is gone. When, at the end, she is left behind in a very Chekhovian moment, and she realises Stella has gone without the parcel – I confess it brought a tear to my eye.

Carol MacreadyThis is also a production really suitable for congratulating the usually unsung heroes. I’ve already mentioned the imaginative set of Sara Perks, suggesting a balance between reality and fantasy, stability and instability (the traditional room but set on a jaunty angle) and openness and secrecy (the back room that lights up to reveal Lilian desperately alone). I also thought the music by Jon Nicholls accompanied the mood perfectly, never monopolising a scene, gently suggesting more than it explained – lovely quiet sounds of an orchestra tuning up, for instance; so much more subtle than other sound effects we’ve been subjected to recently.

The sad feeling I had at the end of the play reflected how, throughout the whole play, the emotions were strong but beautifully understated. This gave the whole production a surprising additional energy. It’s a quiet gem, and I’m glad it’s going to be touring after its Northampton run. I recommend it highly.

Review – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Last Night of the Proms, Derngate, Northampton, June 12th 2011

Last Night of the PromsThe Royal Philharmonic’s Orchestral Season 2010-11 at the Derngate in Northampton came to a close on Sunday night with a Last Night of the Proms programme. An excuse for lots of short pieces of musical brilliance, rather like a Works Outing at Classic FM. The orchestra was conducted by Stephen Bell in a bright and breezy mood, encouraging a bit of audience singing during the well known Last Night numbers, but also doing his day job of keeping those RPO-types nicely in synch.

Stephen Bell One of the best performances of the night came with the first piece, Franz von Suppé’s Light Cavalry Overture, where the drums and percussion played their parts with real zest and musicality. It was a wonderful start to the night. It was going to be a fun evening for the percussion, as they had lots of opportunities to make their mark on many of the pieces on offer. A good example of this was Strauss’ Champagne Polka, which had a very amusing “popping cork” sound effect!

Rebecca BottoneGuest soprano was Rebecca Bottone. Normally one associates big-voiced opera singers with big-framed people, so that when they sing “they call me little Mimi” or something like that one has to suspend one’s disbelief somewhat. I have no idea how Rebecca Bottone gets such a full and beautiful voice out of such a tiny frame! Her performances were all superb, and included Song to the Moon from Rusalka by Dvořák, and O mio babbino caro by Puccini (which, as usual, elicited a slight tear on my part); but I wanted to pay particular compliments to her performance of Sempre libera from La Traviata which was sprinkled with fantastic coloratura effects, and also to say that it was wonderful, as always, to hear Rule Britannia decently sung.

One piece I was specifically looking forward to hearing was Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre, as it was one of the earliest pieces of classical music I remember as a child and it has always had a special place in my heart. I’ve heard this piece played slowish and fastish. When you play it slowish you get the full resonance from the violins and horns, and you wallow in its eeriness. When you play it fastish what you lose in musicality you gain in spine tingling thrill. Stephen Bell went for the slowish option, and it was very enjoyable. I did think at one stage that the sound got a little soggy but it was only briefly. I was always going to be hard to please with this one.

Other highlights of the evening were a superb performance of Barber’s Adagio for Strings – you know that bit where the violins get higher and higher and shriller and shriller – and then you suddenly get left in a vacuum – that was most effective and definitely gave you goose bumps; and a very lively and entertaining performance of the Liberty Bell March, where once again the percussion had a lot of fun clanging.

Victoria SimonsenWhen it came to the final sequence of traditional Last Night pieces, they played two elements of the Henry Wood’s Fantasia on British Sea Songs: Tom Bowling and the Hornpipe. Of course the hornpipe got everyone happy clapping along, but the cello solo on the Tom Bowling was absolutely magnificent. I reckon from my programme that must have been played by Victoria Simonsen and she was a complete star.

Finally we got a very rewarding encore in the form of the Great Gate at Kiev from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition, again another chance for the percussion to play at doorchimes to thrilling effect. The whole orchestra sounded crisp, powerful and triumphant.

Mrs Chrisparkle and I agreed that one aspect of a programme like this, that has 17 individual pieces of music, plus an encore, is that nothing lasts long enough really to get your teeth into, or to lose yourself in your imagination. Not a criticism, just an observation, and rather an obvious one too. The RPO have provided us with plenty of other opportunities to dig deep into more searching and challenging pieces though, and I know will continue to do so in the future.

So thank you to the Royal Philharmonic for a wonderful season, and we already have our names down for five concerts for the 2011-12 season which contains some thrillingly famous soloists and some great works to enjoy. Bring it on!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Derngate, Northampton, 10th June 2011

A few more people at the Screaming Blue Murder this week, but still not enough I fear. I can’t think why it isn’t better attended – where else would you get so much entertainment for just a little over a tenner?

Dan EvansDan Evans was our compere again and he’s been off for a few weeks, and whilst he’s still a funny guy and a warm personality, perhaps he wasn’t quite as slick as usual. He didn’t quite connect with the crowd so much this week and as a result I don’t think we were really sufficiently warmed up for our first act.

Matt RudgeWhich was a shame, because Matt Rudge was very funny but just didn’t quite get the measure of the audience and the response to his act just wasn’t there. We found him likeable and enjoyable, and I am sure he would be really top quality with a bigger audience.

Diane SpencerSecond act was Diane Spencer, who I thought was great and who went down very well in the audience. Her humour was basically pretty obscene throughout, and she also created laughter out of some terribly black situations. Skilful!

Simon ClaytonBut probably the last act was the best, Simon Clayton, a big chap with some very down to earth humour. He had a great sequence about how sex with a fat boy is much more rewarding that sex with a skinny guy, and, being more the former than the latter, there was a lot for me to recognise in that and I had to agree!

So all in all a very enjoyable night, and we look forward to the next one.

Review – Yes Prime Minister, Derngate, Northampton, 9th June 2011

Yes Prime MinisterI don’t have to tell you how much of a landmark television programme Yes Minister and then Yes Prime Minister were during the 1980s. They attracted massive audiences and gilded the already glowing careers of Paul Eddington and Nigel Hawthorne. If you catch a repeat episode today, it still makes you shake with laughter, revealing hypocrisy, pricking pomposity, rescuing triumph from tragedy.

Thus the Derngate theatre was pretty much packed last night with ladies and gentlemen of a certain age and class who would have been loyal fans of the TV show. Mrs Chrisparkle was a loyal fan of the show in her youth and was probably the youngest member of the audience. No criticism here – it’s great to see a production providing something that people want to see and the concept of bums on seats is good for everyone.

The scene is Chequers – all very convincing wood panelling and bookcases; and its windows and external brickwork definitely reminded us of the walks we used to do years ago that crossed the Chequers estate when we were Bucks based. It’s a timeless location; and serves to reflect the Yes Prime Minister of the 1980s and the updated 21st century version equally well. For indeed Jim Hacker is today Prime Minister of a coalition government, facing modern issues such as the banks, global warming, and public sector cuts. It takes a leap of faith to believe that the same three people (Jim, Humphrey and Bernard) – or at least three people with the same names and jobs – are still in charge of the country thirty years on; but you accept it nonetheless.

However, the script is firmly as PC as it would be in the 1980s, if not 70s. In fact it’s one of the most xenophobic pieces I’ve come across in a long time. From the Prime Minister’s early references to wops, dagoes, micks and polacks (inter alia), through taking the rise out of our European partners, to a plot progression which suggests some perilously dire consequences for some people but it’s ok because they are only foreigners, I personally found a lot of the content a bit distasteful. This is definitely a world that has never come into contact with Ben Elton, and makes Terry Wogan’s “Johnny Foreigner” positively diplomatic.

I wondered how the production would treat the concept of bringing back much loved characters associated with much loved actors and make it work without the original cast. Would they indeed be the same characters? Would they be doing impersonations? Would they be completely different? Well, yes they are more or less the same characters, they certainly aren’t impersonations and they are somewhat different.

Simon WilliamsSimon Williams plays Sir Humphrey and he comes across as a much more benign figure than Nigel Hawthorne. You feel that he isn’t quite so devious as his 1980s counterpart, a little more aloof, a little more enjoying the luxury of power, more laid back, less Machiavellian, almost avuncular. I don’t know if Simon Williams had a cold, but his voice wasn’t very clear or powerful when we saw it and this detracted from the natural authority you associate with the role. However, he admirably coped with Sir Humphrey’s long obfuscating speeches, which twice earned him a round of applause from the appreciative audience. After the first one, I saw Richard McCabe as the PM mouth “Well done” to him.

Richard McCabeRichard McCabe plays Jim Hacker a little more cynically than Paul Eddington – this PM is purely interested in self-preservation. All his plans are devised to secure his own political tenure, Richard McCabe's astonished lookand you sense that if this causes something which is a boost to the country, that’s merely a fortunate bonus. This is perhaps a slightly more realistic updated character; but he is also more of a buffoon too, reverting to childishness when really Up Against It, and adopting a look of astonishment perhaps a little to readily.

Chris LarkinChris Larkin as Bernard Woolley is perhaps the most different from the TV characterisation. His Bernard is rather camp, a terribly public-school prig; and when he does his set-piece speeches which correct grammar or metaphor, he comes across as a bit of an arrogant arse whereas Derek Fowlds’ Bernard was more genuinely earnest. I didn’t get a sense of his real personality.

Charlotte LucasWhereas Simon Williams played the whole thing straight and gave it credibility, both Messrs McCabe and Larkin frequently went into pantomime mode with their facial expressions and general comic business, which felt a bit unbalanced. The two other major characters, Charlotte Lucas as Claire the policy adviser and Kevork Malikyan as the ambassador, were both very straightforward and realistic and were excellent. However, in a cameo role, Michael Fenton Stevens as the political presenter interviewing the PM on TV seemed to me to go way over the top on the stunned facial expressions, paving the way to what I felt was rather a sudden and underwhelming climax to the play.

Kevork MalikyanWithout doubt, there were some extremely funny sequences. I loved the Prime Minister’s prayer scene. It’s exactly how you think a PM would pray. Sir Humphrey’s script is well written and full of entertaining observations. And the biggest belly laugh of the night actually went to a prop – I’ll say no more. But the revelation of the sexual proclivities of the Kumrani Minister, whilst sharply focusing the play in the modern era, actually served to reduce the comic effect somewhat, and I did find the constant xenophobia persistently irritating.

Michael Fenton StevensThat said, the appreciative audience laughed a lot, especially in the second half, and it was warmly received at curtain call. Maybe the overall problem with it is that it takes 2 hours 20 minutes to tell a story that 30 years ago would have been more pithily condensed into a half-hour programme. It was good, there were some laughs, but we expected more.

Review – Happy Days, Crucible Studio, Sheffield, 4th June 2011

Samuel BeckettI nearly met Samuel Beckett once. He was a friend of my university tutor and he came to see some of us for sherry and debate. “It was a shame you didn’t meet him” said my tutor. “It was a shame you didn’t invite me” was my riposte, but only in thought, not words. I chose not to meet Yevgeny Yevtushenko when he also visited for sherry and debate, and I’m pleased I didn’t as the whole set-up was intimately recorded by a visiting TV documentary team who “just happened to be around”, and I would have found that a great invasion of my privacy. I did however meet Kathleen Raine who came round for sherry (no debate I think). It was on the stairs outside his rooms and I had no idea who she was. I didn’t ask her about poetry, scholarship, neoplatinism or even Ring of Bright Water. “Is it still raining?” was all I said.

Happy DaysI digress. About four years ago I thought it was about time Mrs Chrisparkle was exposed to the works of Samuel Beckett so we went to see a production of Waiting for Godot at the Oxford Playhouse. It was a very good production. It went on a bit perhaps. But I thought it had a lot of merit. All Mrs C said afterwards was “Never take me to another production of Waiting for Godot. Please.” My look must have been one of astonishment as she added: “Don’t make me beg.” So it was with some trepidation that I awaited her response to this new production of Happy Days at Sheffield, with Pauline McLynn as Winnie. It was definitely her name that decided me to book, as I felt it would be perfect casting. What could be more Beckettian than Mrs Doyle? And so it turned out. Her performance is a splendid tour de force and keeps you locked in with interest despite the difficulties that Beckett chucks in your path.

They cleverly constructed a mini proscenium arch stage in the middle of the otherwise free acting space that is the Studio, slightly reminiscent of the kind of thing you might see at a village memorial hall; or actually my old Pelham Puppet Theatre. So you get a very traditional feel but in a modern space. When the curtains open, what you see is completely enclosed on all four sides by a black border frame, which reminded me of those modern digital photo frames, which you can set to play a sequence of snapshots. However, there’s no series of different images here. It’s just a pile of rubble, from which Winnie emerges at the top, visible down to her waist, but with her arms free to gesticulate, a little like one of those awful doll toilet-roll holder things. The rest is arid desert. It’s a very striking image.

Central to the whole play is the character of Winnie. Much has been said about her by countless scholars much more insightful than me. All I can say is that she is irrepressibly optimistic about the minutiae of life, despite living in a hostile environment, buried in a mound of rocks, responding without free choice to external signals, and having limited movement. She is kind, considerate and supportive, and whilst she has her Willie hovering in and out of sight, and her tools for existence in her black bag, she is happy. In the second act, when she is even more buried and with less movement, her outlook is still broadly similar but her eloquence, and maybe her faith, begins to fail.

Pauline McLynnPauline McLynn makes Beckett’s language come alive. If you read the play text it’s extremely difficult to imagine how it can become three dimensional on the stage. But she transforms it. It’s a sparkling, lively performance, with great vocal dexterity, endearingly conveying all aspects of Winnie’s personality. She very much looks the part, and her warmth easily takes us into her confidence. She makes you laugh – a lot. Her timing, which is all important in this play, is impeccable. When Willie finally speaks out loud she says “Oh you are going to talk to me today, this is going to be a happy day!” Mrs C laughed a little too knowingly at this line, making me think I must sometimes be unwittingly taciturn. Oops.

Peter GowenLurking in the background, sometimes out of sight, sometimes seemingly undressed, is Willie, who ostensibly has more freedom that Winnie in that he is not enclosed by a mound and he can also read the newspaper, even though it’s probably the same headlines everyday. As of course, in real life, it is. Peter Gowen gives good support and can be a menacing as well as supportive presence. When he is scrambling through the rocks at the end of the play, you feel very disconcerted by what he is doing. Is he trying to get the gun? What for? To kill her? To kill himself? It’s a literally painful sequence – the scraping of those rocks and stones looked and sounded very real to me. I’m sure Mr Gowen’s knees, hands and arms must be red raw by the end of the play

The play’s reputation and its place in the modern repertoire are I think fully deserved. But there is a danger that it could become – maybe it already is – a museum piece, as the stage directions are so set in stone (much like Winnie) that there is limited opportunity for future productions to convey anything new about the play – really the only change possible is the new voice of a new actress. Even Winnie’s facial expressions are dictated by Beckett. It may well be that it is a timeless piece and that Beckett got it so right that changes are not necessary. But I do feel, having seen it once, that there is no need ever to see it again.

Jonathan HumphreysNonetheless it is an excellent production, and a great choice for the Crucible’s young resident director Jonathan Humphreys to cut his Sheffield teeth. As for Mrs Chrisparkle, she found it a much more rewarding experience than Waiting for Godot, I’m pleased to say, and has not ruled out furthering her Beckett-like experiences. I think, however, we might have to wait a little longer before she’s ready for “Not I”.

As a postscript, I’m sure that in later life Beckett could have written an eight-minute drama about an old man failing to come to terms with modern technology and its effect on the wider community, based on my effort to use the ticket machine in the car park.

Review – Hobson’s Choice, Crucible, Sheffield, 4th June 2011

Hobson's ChoiceI last saw this play about thirty years ago, and I confess I don’t remember very much about the production. I was in two minds about booking this time as I assumed my lack of memory about the first show meant that it’s probably not a very good play. But I was wrong. Given the fact that in four years’ time Harold Brighouse’s “Hobson’s Choice” will be receiving its telegram from the Queen, it’s still a remarkably relevant and pertinent play. Set in 1880, Henry Horatio Hobson is a respectable but bullying widower, parent to three daughters all of whom work in his boot and shoe emporium. Eldest daughter Maggie is full of ambition and she chooses the timid but skilful Willie Mossop to be her husband and business partner. The rest of the play follows the rising and falling fortunes of the wider family. And it’s a really entertaining and thought-provoking show.

The flexible space of the Crucible works well to suggest the austere comfort of the middle class shop with its basement workshop, and the six younger main characters sat snugly around the table for Maggie and Willie’s wedding breakfast suggest a desire for upward mobility whilst still being relatively poor. Lighting effects provide all the necessary external scenery and the attention to detail in the set and in the costumes, comfortably evocative of Salford in 1880, are rewarding to take in. I also loved the fact that it was properly blocked! Such basic skills seem to be going out of fashion, but Christopher Luscombe’s direction is smart, clear and allows the text to do the work.

Barrie RutterHobson is played by Barrie Rutter, whom I haven’t seen since he was in the National Theatre’s Guys and Dolls back in 1982. I had read some criticism about the way he reads this role, with the suggestion of too much pantomime bluster and not enough “getting to the heart of the character”. Well there’s no doubt that he plays it for all the laughs – but then again, it’s a funny script, so why not? Personally I thought he got the character spot on. It’s a technically perfect performance, showing great comic timing, and a splendidly physical presence, in which the character’s changing fortunes are well reflected. When his arrogant swagger of the first act is replaced by a worn, tired, sick shuffle towards the end of the play it speaks volumes.

Zoe WaitesThere is also a very powerful performance from Zoe Waites as Maggie. Firm and fair throughout, you slowly see her get what she wants in order to benefit not only herself and her husband but her sisters too. It’s a fascinating character – the ambitious woman, thought by her father to be too old to marry off; having to fight hard for what she believes is right; but always playing fair. When the lawyer Prosser (brightly portrayed by Harry Waller) tries to ask for £1000 as settlement on the trumped-up case they all created to trick Hobson, she is dismayed at the greed and insists that £500 is the maximum that is fair. And when Hobson is sick and needs someone to look after him, despite all the ambition, it is Maggie who stands by him. So although Maggie is the prime mover against the status quo, it is she who retains the moral high ground throughout the play. Zoe Waites is every inch this strong moral woman and completely commands the stage.

Harry Waller There are some wonderfully funny moments. When Hobson arrives at the newlywed Mossops’ basement, all the wedding guests are sent to the bedroom to hide, and Mossop slinks off with them. A simple movement but the impact was hilarious. Also when Prosser tries formally to reply to Mossop’s thank-you speech, the puncturing of his pomposity is beautifully delivered by Cassie Atkinson’s Alice in a sharp one-word retort. Just little moments – but they work a treat.

Philip McGinley The other really strong performance is by Philip McGinley as Mossop. His discomfort at the attention of Miss Maggie in the early part of the play is a delight and he plays the weakly timid character to great effect in the scene with his current “tokened” girlfriend Ada. As his character progresses he grows physically with it, so that when he stands up to his father in law he really is finally a man; and it makes his wife’s face positively burn with pride and attraction. “The younger rises when the old doth fall” says Edmund in King Lear, and it’s true for the contrary fortunes of Mossop and Hobson, in a play which has many nodding acquaintances with Lear.

All in all a most satisfying production, which made me very glad I parted with my £15 for a top price matinee seat. It’s a steal. It’s on at the Crucible until 25th June. There’s no excuse not to go!