Review – Jeremy Hardy, Royal, Northampton, 27th January 2012

Jeremy HardyHere’s another famous name on the comedy circuit with whom Mrs C and I were fairly unfamiliar, apart from occasionally catching on the odd radio programme. I thought he would be dry and wry but I wasn’t sure what else to expect. I wasn’t expecting over two hours of self-assured, intelligent, observant left-wing comedy, which was a constantly refreshing joy.

Mr Hardy appears modest and slightly undynamic in appearance – he’s wearing a top not a cardy, because he says a cardy would make him look like Rigsby out of Rising Damp – but it’s a mask for a razor sharp wit and an agreeable sense of justice which is the root of much of his comic observations. He moves swiftly from subject to subject without politics ever going too far off the horizon. Here’s a good impression of his approach to politics: everyone hates Cameron but at least he’s honest that he’s a bastard, but everyone doubly hates Clegg because he’s a bastard’s bitch; and Cable is the reasonable image of the LibDems because he oppresses the poor in their own accent. Jeremy Hardy shares a disappointment that life isn’t as good as it should be, and points out all the rotten aspects of life where, really, humanity should try harder. His observations really hit the target.

It’s all absolutely effortless though, or at least it seems to be, so you have a very warm and comfy feeling of being gently led past all the dreadful aspects of society by this kind and caring guide, pointing out all the pitfalls that might accidentally lead you into despair were you to go down that path. At the end of this “comedy therapy”, you feel refreshed and hopeful that life might turn better if everyone heeds Mr Hardy’s advice; but also distressed that everyone else doesn’t share the same political beliefs as you and him.

With no supporting act and just a brief interval it is indeed a tour de force. It’s so rewarding to enjoy comedy with a left wing slant that is uncruel, insightful, and above all intelligent.

Review – Pippin, Menier Chocolate Factory, 22nd January 2012

PippinThis is the first proper London revival of the Stephen Schwartz/ Roger O. Hirson musical since Bob Fosse directed it in 1973. According to the programme notes, this production is trying to get the show recognised again as a mature, adult, dark piece, and away from its legacy of being only suitable for school productions. All I can say is, welcome back Pippin, you’ve been absent from our stage too long. This is a brilliantly inventive production and is performed by a first rate cast.

One of the strengths of the Menier is its amazing versatility as an acting space. You can set it the right way round, the wrong way round, sideways, in the middle, in traverse; it wouldn’t surprise me one day if they stage something upside down. This time they have created a walkway between the steps down from the bar to the point of entry to the auditorium, and decked it out like a rather geeky, nerdy student’s bedroom. And just on your way in there is the student himself, sitting at a TV screen, playing a computer game. It’s not over high-tech; there’s something of the 1990s Atari to it all.

And then you enter the auditorium, and the stage is alive with flashing lights and retro green cursor lines, and you realise you are in the middle of the computer game. How is this going to frame the story of Pippin, you ask yourself. Comfortably, as it happens. Pippin is the elder son of Charlemagne who rebelled against his father and was banished as a consequence. The 1973 production began with a troupe of actors, under the Leading Player, who introduces a new actor to play the part the eponymous boy prince searching for fulfilment. With cunning modernisation, the Leading Player is now in charge of a computer game, and the boy prince role is to be played by the young lad in his bedroom at home who we walked past earlier. Sometimes when a gifted director decides to update a show, it can be disappointing when the new framework only partly fits the original story. For me, this reincarnation of Pippin worked the full 100%.

The set itself is suitably creative in its own right. What appears to be grey stone, that nicely represents castle walls, is actually littered with gaps and holes so that the cast can appear and disappear with sudden ease. Lighting effects on the walls serve to enhance the scenery and give it additional depth and suggestion of different locations, and all this works really well with the computer game scenario.

Harry HepplePippin himself is perfectly cast and played by Harry Hepple. As the slightly naïve prince who gets emboldened by ambition and then depressed by reality, he manages to be both prince and game player at the same time and conveys both aspects of the character convincingly. His singing is also amazing, we were both wowed by his voice.

Ian KelseyHe also really communicates the character’s wannabe heroism and decency, that becomes the inspiration for him to overthrow his father Charlemagne, a bullying emperor enthusiastically played by Ian Kelsey, who portrays him as a wide boy, lording it over his sons and wife whilst looking for a bit of slap and tickle wherever he can get it. There’s a strong emotional scene when Pippin does actually kill his father – but later he regrets it as his governing skills aren’t that great, and I loved how the death gets undone.

Frances RuffelleFastrada, Charlemagne’s wife, is played with urban charm by Frances Ruffelle, who is also a great singer and does a wonderful blend of coquettish and coarse. You could imagine she would give as good as she gets when she’s alone with Charlemagne. She invests the role with great humour and gives a superb performance.

Caroline QuentinThe role of Berthe, Pippin’s grandmother, has been shared by various actresses during the run, and the performance we saw was the last time Caroline Quentin took the role. It’s actually just one scene and one song, but she delivers it with huge panache and got a deservingly great cheer from the audience at the end of it. She’s such a spirited communicator. The song is great fun too and we all had to sing along with it, verging into pantomime. It’s time to start livin’ and time to take a little from this world we’re given. Hugely entertaining.

Bob HarmsI was looking forward to seeing Matt Rawle in the role of the Leading Player as we saw him in Evita as Che and he was excellent. Unfortunately he must have been off sick as his role was played by his understudy, Bob Harms. What a find! Mr Harms carries off the role splendidly. He’s a great singer and dancer, and commands the stage in his role of MD. When the characters start to go off script in the second act you really feel his anger and frustration at losing control. If you saw Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, there’s definitely something of the Major-Domo character about him. We thought he was great and One To Watch.

Carly BawdenThe second half of the show is slightly imbalanced as it concentrates on the relationship between Pippin and Catherine, a partly demure but often saucy Carly Bawden, and her slightly troubled son Theo played by Stuart Neal. The domestic situation that Pippin finds hard to cope with is indeed a little one-dimensional in comparison with the over-the-top antics of Charlemagne’s court, who you rather miss. Nevertheless the songs are beautifully sung and make an ironic contrast with Pippin’s tangible descent into misery.

Stuart NealI won’t tell you how it ends but suffice to say, the exit from the auditorium when you’re going home is precisely the same as when you first entered but with one vital change – a fantastic attention to detail that made me laugh on the way out.

It’s all superbly performed and sung, the music sounds superb, and Chet Walker’s recreations of Bob Fosse’s choreography are magnificent – edgy as Chicago and sexier than Cabaret. Definitely one of the best productions we’ve seen at the Menier and it should surely transfer somewhere after the run ends on 25th February. Go and enjoy!

Royal and Derngate Northampton Subscription Season Launch 2012

Made in NorthamptonLast year Mrs Chrisparkle had a “business thing” to attend, and so missed the launch event, which was a shame as it’s an excellent opportunity to whet your appetite for the season ahead, as well as to hob and to nob with the great and the good. Fortunately this year she was able to come too, so we both headed off to the Royal eager with anticipation.

Our host for the evening again was Laurie Sansom, not only Artistic Director of the Royal and Derngate, but also director of, inter alia, such treats as the recent Eden End, Duchess of Malfi and Spring Storm. Thank heavens he shows no sign of wanting to move from Northampton.

The BacchaeStarting at the end of the season, he first took us through the three plays that will make up the Festival of Chaos productions, which will themselves be part of the London 2012 Festival, and part of the Cultural Olympiad. It’s great to have Northampton and the R&D recognised at this level. All three are to be directed by Mr Sansom – as they’re his three favourite plays of all time. A new version of Euripides’ Bacchae is the first of the three, and the first surprise of the evening is that it will be presented at the Chronicle and Echo building, in the disused printing area. Dionysus alongside industrial machinery? Sounds atmospherically intriguing, and I’m really excited about this one.

Blood WeddingThe second Chaos show, if I can call it that, which will be played in rotation with The Bacchae, is an adaptation of Lorca’s Blood Wedding by Tommy Murphy. I’ve never seen a straightforward production of Blood Wedding and I don’t think this will be one either. Mr Murphy wrote “Holding the Man” which came to London a while ago, which I didn’t see, but I understand was both desperately funny and desperately sad, which sounds like a decent mix for Lorca.

Hedda GablerThe third Chaos production is to be Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, which Laurie Sansom said can be likened to the Female Hamlet. We saw the production at the Oxford Playhouse a couple of years ago which was quite good, with Rosamund Pike and Tim McInnerney. Ms Pike was a miserable presence from the start, which I’m sure is one way of reading the role but I wonder if a Laurie Sansom version might have more light and shade. It’ll be good to have some meaty drama though. These three plays are nothing if not meaty.

Ladies in LavenderWorking back, Laurie Sansom then introduced us to Shaun McKenna who has adapted the Judi Dench and Maggie Smith film Ladies in Lavender for the stage. It’s all about how two rather stale lives are changed by the sudden appearance of a third person – washed up on the beach. This sounds like it should be an extremely classy production, as the second – and most major – surprise of the night is that the Judi Dench role will be played by none other than Hayley Mills. That is some coup. If that wasn’t enough Ms Mills joined us by Skype from New York for a brief interview. If I have a slight concern, I wonder who will play the Maggie Smith role – will the production manage the right balance between the two characters? Time will tell, but on the face of it this looks amazing.

OedipussyAnd bringing us back to almost the present, Emma Rice came on to tell us about the new Spymonkey production, Oedipussy, which opens in February. I’ve not seen Spymonkey before but I think I am going to like them. It sounds like it’s going to be well wacky, and then some. The four Spymonkey actors later came on stage themselves and introduced their idea of the play in their own way within a superbly funny playlet. The impetus to go Greek was apparently as a result of a damning comment by a critic who basically thought they should grow up and do something adult. Gosh, I do hope I like the show otherwise they might wreak their revenge. According to their website, the show contains incest, violence, mutilation, strobes, nudity and chorus work. I’m not certain their clowning backgrounds will help you with your Classics degree – expect more Greeks Behaving Badly.

In other news, there is to be a new friends’ scheme called The Artistic Director’s Circle which gives you enviable access to the backstage world of the theatre; and an encouraging announcement that 2012’s Christmas play in the Royal will be Dickens’ Christmas Carol. I understand it’s currently pre-embryonic in development but I’m sure it will fit perfectly in the Royal environment.

So there it is, 2012’s Made in Northampton season in a nutshell. We’re very lucky to have such a destination theatre in our midst and I am sure it will be a season to remember. Can’t wait!

Review – Strictly Come Dancing Live, NIA, Birmingham, 21st January 2012

Strictly Come Dancing LiveMrs C and I are huge Strictly fans so it was with great delight that we unexpectedly received two surprise tickets for last Saturday’s matinee at the NIA in Birmingham. As you would expect, the place was completely packed. What strikes you when you enter the auditorium are both the expectant buzz and the extraordinary stage. The band and judges are at one end of the arena, surrounded by an extravagant light wall, and the whole central area is devoted to dance floor. Two large video screens help you see in close detail what your eyes can’t focus on, as well as being used to give amusing backstage insights.

Kate ThorntonThe host is Kate Thornton, of whom I don’t know a lot, but she’s really good at the job, as well as looking thoroughly gorgeous. Friendly and reassuring when required, but also quick-witted at stabbing a telling remark or two along the way. Actually one thing I hadn’t expected was how generally funny the whole show is. Whether it’s Kate or the judges, the dancing or the backstage shots, there is a lot to laugh at in this show, much more so in fact than on the TV programme.

JudgesLen, Bruno and Craig are the three judges and each play up their own characters admirably throughout the entire show. Len continues to rewrite the language with his strange metaphors for enthusiasm; Bruno has his over-the-top reactions and his strange body language for enthusiasm, and Craig nicely wallows in his dour reflections that may or may not encompass enthusiasm. Both Bruno and Craig “lost it” at one stage and were helpless with laughter, which was an additional delight for the audience. Craig directs the show, and has included some judgely dancing in some of the big “entr’acte” numbers, some of which he couldn’t quite perform himself, which was a laugh.

Then of course there are the contestants and their professional partners. I was quite surprised how quiet the professionals were in the post-dance chats with Kate. Personally I get attached to the professionals just as much (if not more) than with the celebrities because you get to know them over the series, so I would have perhaps liked a little more chat from them. They do have to do a lot of dancing, mind.

The show starts with a big dance from the professionals alone and to be honest, I thought it was under-rehearsed as none of them seemed to finish together and on time. I was surprised at that. They were definitely better in their individual dances with their partners and in the subsequent group dances.

Harry JuddFrom the moment the couples are introduced there is absolutely no doubt who is going to win – Harry and Aliona. There’s something about Harry (I wonder what it might be that all those middle aged women see in him) that must appeal to about 98% of the audience, as far as the allocation of whooping and cheering is concerned. To support the underdog, I was determined not to vote for him, even if he was the best, as his victory was a forgone conclusion from the start.

Robbie and KatyaEach couple dances twice. First on was Robbie Savage, partnered with Katya Virshilas. What did you make of Robbie in the TV series? I thought he was surprisingly good. Well, in the middle of the live arena, he was surprisingly awful! Yes he sells himself really well, and it’s thoroughly entertaining, but actually his dance skills are Really Not There. Katya herself, whilst talking to Kate, said that Robbie basically wasn’t very good – Kate had to remind her they were meant to be on the same side.

Anita and RobinSecond were Anita Dobson and Robin Windsor. They did their Charleston, and highly enjoyable it was. I didn’t really feel that the crowd got behind them that much, probably still suffering palpitations after the sight of Robbie’s chest. The judges were pretty impressed though. Amongst the professional dancers, I do think that Robin Windsor stands out as a really strong performer.

Mark and NatalieThird was another chest opportunity, Mark Foster with Natalie Lowe. He’s the only celebrity in the show not to have been in the most recent series, and was clearly at a disadvantage, but he performed reasonably well. Natalie’s a terrific dancer, isn’t she. She even threw in a wardrobe malfunction in her second dance for good measure, so that we almost saw both their chests.

Nancy and ArtemNext was – I think – Nancy dell’Olio who is dancing here with Artem Chigvintsev. I know someone who has met Nancy dell’Olio, and he says she’s frankly bonkers. I saw no reason to doubt his word. Her performance is very funny – especially the second dance when she cheats and has both Artem and Robin to help her – but she rarely dances a step. I couldn’t tell how genuine or acted Artem’s rather sad and resigned look is when Nancy says they need to change the choreography – he just gently backs away into the darkness. Very funny stuff.

Jason and KristinaThen you have what you might call “The Big Three”. Jason Donovan with Kristina Rihanoff first; they did their Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” number and then their Argentine Tango. Jason made a slight boo-boo on the first dance, which I confess I didn’t notice, but did a sensational tango and so I decided I would vote for them.

Chelsee and PashaNext was Chelsee Healey with Pasha Kovalev, who must think he has fallen on his feet considering this was his first series. They danced just as well as they did on the TV and gave a terrific show. The judges were wowed.

But everything else was eclipsed by Harry Judd and Aliona Vilani. When you watched the last series at home, you might have felt that the popularity for Jason, Chelsee and Harry was more or less even-stevens, and that only a poor performance by one of them would have led to more votes for one of their opponents. Not a bit of it. If this audience is anything to go by, Harry must have received more votes than all the others put together. You could barely hear anything else in the arena above the cheers for him, and he and Aliona executed two perfect dances, getting a maximum 60 points from the judges. He is the only celebrity participant who really could be a professional dancer. If he wants to change his career away from drumming, I reckon every door is open.

AlionaThey whittled it down to a final two of Harry and Chelsee but the eventual winner was never in doubt. In a sense, the weakest part of the show is that the competition element seems a little unnecessary. The series has already taken place, and the winners and runners-up have been decided. If there had been more competitors from previous series, against whom you couldn’t so easily assess this series’ celebs (imagine if Zoe Ball and Mark Ramprakash had been part of the line-up, for example) the competition would have been more interesting. Nevertheless, it’s churlish to criticise it on those grounds. It’s a terrific lively show, colourful, spectacular, engaging and very funny too. I would certainly recommend it.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground, Derngate, Northampton, 20th January 2012

Screaming Blue MurderA funny thing happened at the Screaming Blue Murder last Friday night, which is no less than you would expect with a great compere, three excellent acts and two alcohol-fuelled intervals. We’ve not been able to attend the last couple of shows so it was with some surprise that Dan Evans, compering, said he was still on the search for “the man who has been writing about him on the internet”. Mrs Chrisparkle’s penny dropped as she shuddered and whispered “keep quiet!” “So where is this Chris Sparkle?” Dan continued. It was The Moment of Outing. “It’s me!” came my voice from the third row. “You? At last I meet my nemesis!” shrieked Dan as his body contorted in a combination of victory and agony. Aaargh, I thought, this could be a very bumpy ride. But there’s no free speech without responsibility, so I faced it head on. I admit, I have been guilty of whingeing about Dan’s repeating the same jokes time and again in this blog, but then not quite as much as Dan is guilty of the afore-mentioned repeatings.

Dan Evans But actually Dan turned this very much to his advantage and was able to frame the compering of the show around my impertinent requirement for fresh material, which very nicely took the mick out of both of us. There was a great moment during one of his sessions when a lady from the front row suggested he did his joke about Luton and the book. A two-pronged attack! In response to which he did a great routine about why doing that joke would not work – and it was very funny. Maybe that should be a regular feature when Dan is compering in future – a request slot? Someone could ask for their favourite Old-Tyme Dan joke. Might go down a storm. As a peace-offering, at the end he gave me a copy of his book, which was very kind. But I had to return it after the show as I already bought a copy over a year ago.

Colin OwensAnyway, to the acts, and they were really great this week. First was Colin Owens, who had very funny insights into bad sex experiences and a nice line in combining this with his progression to baldness; very bright and inclusive, perhaps with just slightly too long a pause between some of his deliveries that made me think “oh no, please don’t lose it, it’s going really well”; but he didn’t, and it did. I loved his observations about having a Bar Mitzvah at Madame Tussauds.

Susan MurraySecond was Susan Murray, who we had seen here before doing a lot of accent-based gags, but who did largely new material (take note!) and handled a heckler very amusingly. Mrs C appreciated her observation that you only have a landline so your mother can ring it. Good stuff, and she kept the act moving really well.

Andrew BirdHeadline act was local lad Andrew Bird. What a discovery! I don’t think any of the comics who have entertained us over the three years we’ve been coming to Screaming Blue Murder have achieved such gold-standard delivery. His timing was immaculate, pacey and flowing but never rushed, giving just the right window to appreciate the now before moving on to the next; his self-confidence meant you never had a moment’s concern for how he would structure the act although this didn’t mean he was in any way big-headed but instead was immensely likeable; and you really identified with him in the comic situations he described, because his observations were so spot-on. Mrs C and I had a prolonged good laugh walking home as we remembered his account of putting the baby in the dishwasher. It’ll have to be a very special performance that snatches this year’s Chrisparkle award from Mr Bird.

So a great night, with a huge and appreciative crowd, slightly weird for me with my unexpected role in the evening’s entertainment, but we’re really looking forward to the next one!

Review – Moscow State Circus, Babushkin Sekret, Derngate, Northampton, 16th January 2012

Moscow State CircusYou’re either a circus person or you’re not. When I was young, I wanted to run away and join the circus. When Mrs C was young, she wanted to run away and join a group of travelling accountants. Well, neither of those stories are strictly true, but you get the picture of the difference between us. Last year we – I won’t say “enjoyed” – “witnessed” is perhaps more appropriate – the performance of the Chinese State Circus at the Derngate. Mrs C made me promise absolutely “No More Circuses” as a result. Trouble is, me and the Moscow State Circus go back a long way. Oleg PopovI saw them when I was 10 at the Wembley Empire Pool (showing my age), and again in my early 20s at the Dominion Tottenham Court Road, and both occasions they had the legendary clown Oleg Popov, who really was amazing, and who I’m delighted to read is still going strong at the age of 81. So I hoped the passing months would eradicate the bad memory of the Chinese affair and I snuck in these tickets to the Moscow State Circus in the hope that She Wouldn’t Notice Until It Was Too Late.

Valerik and ValikThe Moscow State Circus really is, and always has been in my book, a class above your average circus, and I’m delighted to say I feel my decision to book was fully justified in the light of last night’s performance – and not to say a little relieved. It’s not perfect by any means. Similar to the Chinese State Circus, they do for some reason feel compelled to structure the show around a rather artificial story. Babushkin’s Secret is based on the legend of the Twelve Chairs. You’re not familiar with it? You do surprise me. Whilst it does serve as a framework as such, the twist at the end of the story makes for a very disappointing punchline in circus terms. Much better simply to get on with doing what they do best – circus acts.

Yana AlievaOur clowning hosts are Valerik (the straight man) and Valik (the red nosed one), in real life, Valery Kashkin and Valentina Rumyantseva. They strike up a good interaction with the audience and Valerik also proves himself very deft on the stepladder and with a spot of juggling. Comparisons with Popov would be odious, but I did laugh at them, and even Mrs C was occasionally wryly amused.

Four VassilievsTaking the acts in order of performance, we had Yana Alieva’s wonderful hula hoop act, contorting herself in a revolving ring high above the stage; then one of the real highlights of the evening, the Four Vassilievs, who do a spectacular horizontal bar act. Two of the Vassilievs are basically used as bar stands, but it is Vassiliev #3 who does the leaping and twirling who has an extraordinary skill.

VeslovskiysAccording to the programme, we should then have seen the “Fat Man” doing his Revolutions; but there was no fat man last night. Maybe he was off sick. Maybe he had lost weight, suggested Mrs C. Instead we had a bonus act of a couple of Wild West rodeo lassoers and whip-crackawayers. Not sure how they would have fitted in to Babushkin’s Sekret, but we’ll move on. They were excellent – and I recognised them later on as the Veslovskiys, headed by Gennadiy Veslovskiy, who did a thrilling rollerskating act.

Sasha Doktorov and Yulia TsurikovaThen it was the turn of Sasha Doktorov and Yulia Tsurikova, incredibly skilful gymnastic acrobats revolving high above the stage, a very controlled and strong couple. Next was the Rubtsovs Skakalki, a skipping act. It’s much better than it sounds, although to be honest, I felt that if you were a skipper of this level of ability, you probably could have made the act a little more interesting. That’s just me – I’m not over-experienced in the noble art of skipping. To come to terms with her excitement at this act Mrs C started searching her pockets for a dry-cleaning ticket to read.

Professor BulakovThe second half started with a probably my favourite of the night, High Jinks with Professor Bulakov. I thought it was going to be just another clownish pratfall type act, but it develops into an immensely skilful and funny trampolining act. Won’t give the game away, but do be careful if you’re sat in the front row! Vladimir Georgievskiy is the real Professor Bulakov, and I really loved his act.

Katiya DrozdovaWhilst Bulakov and Valerik drown away their sorrows over a bottle of vodka, Katiya Drozdova appears as the doll on the Music Box. This is another contortionist acrobatic act, and she’s highly skilful and watchable. Sasha Doktorov comes back to reach the Twelfth Chair – and it’s an awe-inspiring display of balance and strength. Finally the Rubtsovs came back doing their Flying Jesters routine, a lot of exciting tumbling and crowd pleasing acrobatics.

Rubtsovs As we were leaving the theatre, Professor Bulakov was having his picture taken with loads of kids. I was officially jealous. The good news is that, on the strength of this performance, Mrs C said we can see another circus in 2014. If you like your circuses, this one’s a treat.

Review – The Burlesque Show, Royal, Northampton, 14th January 2012

Sarah Louise YoungSix months after the Ministry of Burlesque’s first Burlesque Show at the Royal, we welcome another show of variety acts with added titillation. Our compere this time was Sarah Louise Young, one third of the current Fascinating Aida line-up and she was full of cheekiness, flair and humour. She had great interaction with the crowd including three girls she named Sister Sledge in the box, Colin in Row C and the missing Trevor, more of which later. She had some terrific songs included her suggestion for the UK’s next Eurovision song, which was all about miserable children living in poverty, and the chorus went “but we don’t care, do we”. She hit the perfect level of total bad behaviour whilst appearing completely proper.

Elle AmourThe first of our three Burlesque teasers, all of whom appeared last time, was Elle Amour, who went a little crazy for some cream cakes. She wrapped up the evening later on with another routine, although she herself was not very wrapped up by the end of it. A charming young lady.Kittie Klaw The second was Miss Kittie Klaw. Last time she was forced to undress to rid her clothes of a surprisingly large number of spiders lurking therein. This time she was dressed in a sailor’s suit and danced the hornpipe, inter alia. Mia MerodeThe third was Mia Merode, whom we saw last time under a different name (see, I did some research.) I have to commend her for remarkable fan work and ability to rotate tassels in different directions. Mrs Chrisparkle kindly took notes for future reference.

Delores DelightMusical entertainment came from Delores Delight, who I also remember from last time. In the second half she had gave a couple of gutsy performances of show stopping numbers and she really does have a great voice! The other musical performer was Elliot Mason. Elliot MasonHe has extremely funny songs about unlikely subjects such as corporate rebranding and mistaken identity, but unfortunately, he sang almost exactly the same songs in the show six months ago, so we found it more nostalgic than riotous. But he’s great at involving the audience making silly accompaniment noises and he went down very well with the crowd.

Paul ZenonPaul Zenon was back again, a brilliant magician with funny attacking patter. He did some good baffling tricks, which I loved, but then I am a sucker for magic. It was during his act that something rather odd happened – the Northampton audience became a little anarchic. Mr Zenon approached a guy in row B to come up and join him for a trick. “What was his name”, he asked. “Gary”, he replied. Within a few seconds the call of “Gary! Gary!” went around the theatre, to the total astonishment of Paul Zenon. Gary seemed to take it in his stride. “Friends of yours?”, asked PZ. “No”, Gary mildly replied. The vocal Mexican wave of “Gary, Gary” went around again. Slightly nonplussed, PZ continued and got Gary to pick a card from the pack, and show it to the audience. “Ten of Spades” shouted out someone from the back, to the huge guffaw of the crowd and the blinking incomprehension of Mr Zenon. “You’re not meant to do that!” he responded, and I felt he was beginning to get slightly irked. It wasn’t the ten of spades; but I don’t think at that point of the trick Mr Z knew that. In the end it was the ten of hearts and a jolly clever trick. But I think Mr Zenon would be the first to accept that overall it was a score draw between him and the audience.

Audacity ChutzpahOnly two acts were new to me, and they were both fantastic. The first was the brilliantly named Audacity Chutzpah, who appeared in the first half as She-Ra, Princess of Power, where she appeared to grow limbs from under her cloak; and in the second half as a Cos Lettuce eating faun who coquettishly approached members of the audience before flinging limp salad leaves around to the tune of Alexander Rybak’s Fairytale. She’s a perfect clown and made me laugh hysterically.

ElanThe other was Elan, a stalwart of the Crazy Horse in Paris apparently, and another fabulous physical comedian, in the George Carl tradition. He uses the suitcase prop superbly – it really has a life of its own; he takes on completely different appearance with a mask, and goes totally berserk bodypopping. Not a word is spoken; a wonderful act.

There was barely an empty seat in the house – even the upper circle was full, and both boxes. One of the boxes only had two people in it. Trevor couldn’t come, apparently, which was the cause of much sorrow. “We love you Trevor” came a disembodied voice from the balcony, continuing the rather weird anarchy of the evening. At one point, a note fluttered down from the balcony on to the stage. Sarah Louise Young picked it up and read it – it was Trevor’s phone number. Thus, with the use of an iPhone, and much embarrassment to his friends, Trevor, ill at home, was still able to hear the final number before the curtain came down. Isn’t technology wonderful? The Burlesque Show certainly is – a thoroughly entertaining and constantly inventive variety show. Highly recommended.

Review of the Year 2011 – The Second Annual Chrisparkle Awards

Welcome to the Second Annual Chrisparkle Awards, celebrating the best in entertainment in Northampton and beyond! Every show that I saw in 2011 and that I blogged (actually only one show didn’t get blogged, more of which later) is eligible for one of these delightful – and virtual – awards.

So let’s get on with it, and start off with Best Dance Production.

As last year, I actually only saw three dance productions all year and they were all excellent. But the winner has to be one of our regular favourites, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo (aka the Trocks) for their show at the Milton Keynes Theatre in March 2011. I’m awarding joint 2nd place to the other two productions, Rambert’s Awakening tour at the Derngate, Northampton in March and Richard Alston’s current tour at the Derngate in October.

Classical Music Concert of the Year.

We saw five concerts and they were all very enjoyable.
In 3rd place, it’s the BBC Prom we saw in July featuring the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus playing Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky and with soloist Midori doing the Walton Violin Concerto;
In 2nd place it’s the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Derngate with their programme of English Classics and soloist Julian Lloyd Webber in November; but just pipping it
In 1st place it’s the RPO again at the Derngate in May with their Grand Tchaikovsky Gala, and the spectacular solo by Alessandro Taverna of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto.

Best Entertainment Show of the Year.

An odd category this; it includes all the non-categorisable productions one sees over the year, including pantos, revues, circuses and so on. And it proved tricky to make a decision, but a decision has been made nonetheless.
In 3rd place, the adult-only Flathampton night at the Derngate in July;
In 2nd place, Theatre MAD’s late night charity show West End Eurovision at London’s Piccadilly Theatre in April; and
In 1st place, the wonderfully varied and superb Burlesque Show at the Royal, Northampton in July.

Regrettably, here comes the first turkey of the year – I am compelled to award a Worst Entertainment Show of the Year; which sadly has to go to the Chinese State Circus show at the Derngate last January, which was so boring and basically pathetic that I couldn’t be motivated to write about it.

Best Star Standup.

A new category for this year. This is to consider the best stand-up comic on a big stage, not the comics who have appeared at the Screaming Blue Murder club (see below). All four of the star comics we saw this year were new to us as live performers, so we saw them with no previous baggage. We thought one of them was a bit disappointing, but the rest were all excellent in their own way. So the top three is:

In 3rd place, Reginald D Hunter, Sometimes Even the Devil Tells the Truth, at the Derngate in November;
In 2nd place, Al Murray’s Barrel of Fun at the Derngate in October; and
In 1st place, Jason Byrne’s Cirque du Byrne at the Derngate in September.

Best Standup at the Screaming Blue Murder nights in Northampton.

I think we’ve seen over 40 comics this year at the Screaming Blue Murder shows. I’m not going to name and shame the few who were disappointing – they know who they are. This was very hard to whittle down to a top 5, and there are many terrific acts who are missing out on their Chrisparkle gong, but here goes:
In 5th place, the Raymond and Mr Timkins Revue (14th October);
In 4th place, Swindon’s own Tony Cowards (2nd September);
In 3rd place, Cornwall’s own Paul Kerensa (4th February);
In 2nd place, the superb comic creation Loretta Maine (13th May); and
In 1st place, the very hilarious Rob Heeney (1st April).

Best New Musical.

Last year we just had a best musical but this year it has been split into Best New Musical and Best Revival Musical. Only three contenders for each award, so here goes:
In 2nd place, Stephen Sondheim’s Roadshow at the Menier Chocolate Factory in August; and
In 1st place, Hamlet the Musical at the Royal in May. Hamlet won the award on the strength that by the interval I knew I just had to have the CD.

Best Revival Musical.

In 2nd place, and fully deserving of great congratulation, was the excellent revival of Avenue Q touring at the Derngate in July.
In 1st place, and fully deserving of even more congratulation, is Stephen Sondheim’s Company at the Sheffield Crucible in December.

No need for a worst musical nomination.

Best New Play/Comedy of the Year.

Again this has been split into new play and revival categories. We saw six “new” plays this year and they were all very rewarding in their own ways, but the top three is fairly easy to agree on.
In 3rd place, Clybourne Park at Wyndham’s Theatre in London in April;
In 2nd place, Diary of a Nobody at the Royal, Northampton, in March; and
In 1st place, One Man Two Guvnors on tour at the New Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham in October.
I also want to give a mention to the excellent Terrible Advice at the Menier which only just failed to get in the top three.

Best Revival of a Play or Comedy of the Year.

Eleven contenders on the shortlist for this award, so there are some great productions who have missed out on a mention.
In 3rd place, The Years Between at the Royal, Northampton in February;
In 2nd place, Hobson’s Choice at the Sheffield Crucible in June; and
In 1st place, Racing Demon at the Sheffield Crucible in February.

Turkey time: Worst play of the year.

Four plays really didn’t come up to scratch in my book: Oxford Playhouse’s Lady in the Van was generally tedious; Warwick Arts Centre’s Government Inspector generally irritating; the Derngate’s Yes Prime Minister generally offensive; but worst of all was Smash at the Menier. How I hated that play.

Best performance by an Actress in a Musical.

For a long time through the year there was only one real contender for this award, but then along came another production and pipped her to the post!
In 3rd place, Samantha Spiro for Company at the Sheffield Crucible;
In 2nd place, Jess Robinson for Hamlet the Musical at the Royal, Northampton; and
In 1st place, Francesca Annis for Company at the Sheffield Crucible.

Best performance by an Actor in a Musical.

The same applies; two excellent performances earlier in the year trounced at Christmas!
In 3rd place, Jack Shalloo for Hamlet the Musical at the Royal, Northampton;
In 2nd place, James Fox for Chess at the Milton Keynes Theatre in January; and
In 1st place, Daniel Evans for Company at the Sheffield Crucible.

Best performance by an Actress in a Play.

Lots of fantastic performances this year but these are the lucky three:
In 3rd place, Marianne Oldham for The Years Between at the Royal, Northampton;
In 2nd place, Zoe Waites for Hobson’s Choice at the Sheffield Crucible; and
In 1st place, Gina McKee for the Donmar’s King Lear at the Milton Keynes Theatre in January.

Best performance by an Actor in a Play.

Again many great performances pass without a mention, but the top three are:
In 3rd place Malcolm Sinclair for Racing Demon at the Sheffield Crucible (and also Rattigan’s Nijinsky at Chichester in August);
In 2nd place, James Corden for One Man Two Guvnors at the New Alexandra in Birmingham; and
In 1st place, Derek Jacobi for King Lear at the Milton Keynes Theatre. Daft really – how can you compare James Corden and Derek Jacobi? I’ve gone with Mr Jacobi’s fresh and insightful reading as opposed to Mr Corden’s onstage fireworks. I also want to give a mention to the excellent Jamie Parker for Racing Demon too.

Best Ensemble Performance by the Company.

This is for where a company works seamlessly together, something I always really admire in a performance!
In 3rd place, Diary of a Nobody at the Royal, Northampton;
In 2nd place, Propeller’s Henry V on tour at the Milton Keynes Theatre in December; and
In 1st place, Hamlet the Musical at the Royal, Northampton.

Favourite theatre of the year.

Very torn. Last year I had no question about awarding the Chrisparkle to the Royal, Northampton. But this year I feel it should go to the Sheffield Crucible for consistency of excellence.

It’s been a great year of theatregoing, thank you for your interest in my reviews and I hope 2012 will be a bumper year of theatre glory!

Review – Alice in Wonderland, Royal, Northampton, 30th December 2011

Alice in WonderlandI heard once that the annual Christmas play in the Royal Theatre in Northampton is more entertaining than the traditional panto in the Derngate. So I thought we’d give it a try. This year (I mean last year) it was Alice in Wonderland. So, surrounded by in-laws and nieces we descended the foyer staircase into Wonderland.

They’ve done an excellent job in transporting the usual Royal bar area into a fantasy land where you might meet a white rabbit or a mad hatter, have your photo taken as the Queen of Hearts, and enjoy your interval drinks and ice creams at fancy laid out tables or even reclining in a harem tent (perhaps not quite the traditional Wonderland fantasy, but I’ll go along with it!) The nieces enjoyed their chat with the Mock Turtle and Dodo, and I’ll admit it, so did I. I’m such a groupie.

Anyway there was consternation in the auditorium because they had lost Alice! Whilst they were working out where she might be, we had a choice of costumes for her to wear. I went for the sleazy red dress but the audience was disappointingly predictable in the choice of classic Tenniel blue frock. The Mad Hatter was posing for photos at the front of the stage while the Queen of Hearts was knitting from the Royal Box.

Liza SadovyYou might by now realise this is not the traditional recounting of the Alice story. It is instead a hugely fun adaptation which takes all the main elements of the original and creates a totally new tale – that of providing amusement for the Queen of Hearts as part of her birthday celebration. All the characters are required to do their turn, including an initially grumpy and unwilling Alice plucked from the auditorium, or else it’s off with their heads. I guess if you were expecting the standard story, you could be a bit disappointed; but the cast and script are so bubbly and entertaining that you shouldn’t feel glum for long.

Mark McGeeIt’s co-directed by Dani Parr and Laurie Sansom, Northampton’s own Artistic Director. I don’t how the work was shared, but this production has the classic Sansom stamp – a terrific ensemble feel. The actors are so comfortable with each other, interacting seamlessly with each other, tacitly encouraging each other to give of their best. I don’t know how he does it. He must run a great workshop.

Ryan EarlyLiza Sadovy is the Queen of Hearts, a pushy cow who cheats at croquet, who would frame her own son just for the bloodlust of it, but also has a twinkle in her eye that encouraged me (at least) to vote him guilty – it was the promise of a go in her swimming pool that did it. She’s perfectly cast, has great interaction with the audience and clearly has a wonderful time doing it.

Adam BaxterMore favoured by Mrs Chrisparkle and the other ladies of our set, was the roguish charm of Mark McGee’s Mad Hatter, who acts as an everyman-type narrator guiding us through the madness, and whose attraction for the Queen is clearly more than you would expect from your average milliner. He commands the stage with a big show number in the court where he dons a gold glittery suit and top hat straight out of A Chorus Line finale. I covet it. I also loved his and the March Hare’s (Ryan Early) surreal Table of Delights, an almost torturous tea-party where Alice constantly misses out on the victuals. Mr Early also gave a very nice turn as a hard-nosed theatrical agent. Good stuff.

Ngozi UgohAnother favourite was Adam Baxter as Little Bill the heroic lizard, whose speech of tragic bravery after he had been shot out of the caravan (don’t ask) had me guffawing embarrassingly loudly. He did all the physical comedy really well. And Ngozi Ugoh as Dodo Sminkypuffs and the Cheshire Cat gives another excellently spirited performance. We all thought she was great and could be Someone To Watch In The Future. But all the cast were highly entertaining and no one gave anything but a great performance.

Where else might you be required to shout “Pig Baby!” at the top of your voice, whilst chucking numerous of the said babies on to the stage, or get hit by stuffed hedgehogs propelled by flamingo croquet mallets. “First address your hedgehog – Hello hedgehog!” is already ensconced as part of the Chrisparkle family repartee. All this plus the unexpected arrival of the jam tarts! It’s full of colour, entertaining props, funny songs, memorable lines and we all loved it from start to finish.

Review – Company, Sheffield Crucible, 28th December 2011

CompanyCompany is a Stephen Sondheim musical from 1970, jam packed full of his best tunes, most of which I first heard when as a youngster I finally got to see Side by Side by Sondheim (I had a ticket when I was 16 but my mother grounded me and wouldn’t let me go to London by myself because of the risk of terrorist bombs at the time – boy was I furious.) So I’m delighted to have finally seen it, and to contextualise such wonders as “Getting Married Today” and “Barcelona”.

Daniel Evans This is a fantastic production of a fascinating and rewarding show. The premise is that 35 year old Bobby (or Robert, Bob, Robbo, depending which friend you are) is still unmarried and thinks he might just possibly be ready for it, despite his observations of those good and crazy people his friends, who took the problem of life and applied to it the one-size-fits-all solution of marriage, to a greater or lesser degree of success in each case.

According to the programme notes, Sondheim says the whole show takes place in the “now” and consists of various aspects of how Bobby sees his life and his friends. There isn’t a time movement; there is no “journey” as such. Whilst I wouldn’t dare tell Mr Sondheim what his show is about, Mrs Chrisparkle and I felt there was a definite time movement in the show.Claire Price In fact, Mrs C thought the final scene, when the friends are looming with their birthday cake but Bobby is nowhere to be seen, actually takes place the next year, on his next birthday. This comes after the epiphany of “Being Alive” where he actively yearns for life to treat him rough so that he can feel the emotional scars of life. His distancing himself from his friends shows that he doesn’t need them to advise him any more; this is a definite “moving on”. However, it did occur to me after the show – in 1970, Sondheim was still not a fully mature composer and musical-writer. If it had been written ten years later, “Being Alive” would have ended the first act, and the second would have showed Bobby’s married life coming a-cropper. As it stands, it’s almost too clean and easy a way to end to the show. But I’m not complaining.

Damian HumbleyIt’s an officially fabulous set – simple but perfect. The great size of the Crucible stage is just right to represent the expansiveness of Bobby’s New York loft apartment, with a sunken square area in the middle that also represents any other flat, or room, or bar; with bright light panels on the floor around the outside which flash the atmosphere of night spots and other locations; and there is also a balcony type walkway above the stage that doubles as Bobby’s entrance corridor and as other friends’ living spaces. It works really well.

Samantha Seager And at the heart of it all is Bobby, Daniel Evans, who was excellent when we saw him in the Sondheim 80th Birthday Celebration show in Northampton last year. Sheffield is remarkably lucky to retain his services as Artistic Director of the Crucible and to have him perform so regularly. He gives one of those performances where you can’t stop watching him. Steven CreeEven when his friends are taking centre stage and acting out their married difficulties you feel you have to keep watching for his reactions to what’s going on. His vocal clarity is superb and he injects great passion and meaning into Sondheim’s admittedly already luxurious lyrics. Even when his character is being a bit of a bastard (i.e. in “Barcelona”) he still carries you with him. Wonderful stuff.

Anna-Jane CaseyAll the roles are extremely well performed and cast. Claire Price and Damian Humbley make a spiky Sarah and Harry whose relationship discrepancies get alleviated by resorting to martial arts; Samantha Seager and Steven Cree’s Susan and Peter are a David Birrellwell-confused couple who are happier together when divorced; Anna-Jane Casey and David Birrell are a very believable Jenny and David, married a bit longer perhaps and stuck in their ways, she trying drugs for the first time and disappointing him because he feels her enjoyment of it is faked for his benefit; Samantha Spiro’s Samantha Spiroriveting performance as the manic Amy whose “not getting married today” is matched beautifully by Jeremy Finch’s well-meaning Paul, who visibly crumbles when she says she doesn’t love him; the magnificent Francesca Annis’ worldly-wise performance as Joanne, supported but never controlled by Ian Gelder’s Jeremy Finchnicely underplayed Larry; and Lucy Montgomery, Kelly Price and Rosalie Craig as Bobby’s three girlfriends, any one of whom the cheeky devil could be bonking at any minute.

To add to our viewing pleasure, we were lucky enough to be in the centre of Row A, which means that so much of the acting is going on at your eye level, very close and with no obstacles. Francesca AnnisI love that feeling of being so physically involved in the play that the actors spit on you. One particularly memorable moment was when Robert’s friends all start ganging up on him, getting closer and closer with their pesky birthday cake, their Ian Gelderintimidating eyes starting to narrow as they get more and more intent on corrupting him with their marriedness. They were looking right at me – I could feel his pain. It’s no wonder the poor chap fled from them.

Lucy MontgomeryThere are some great musical highlights – the way Joanne sings “The Little Things You Do Together” in segments as it reflects the activity on stage; Marta’s broad sweep of urban survival in “Another Hundred People”; Amy’s hilarious but tragic Kelly Price“Getting Married Today”; Joanne’s savage “Ladies who Lunch”; and Bobby’s brilliant interpretation of “Being Alive”, as well as the show-stopping presentation of “Side by Side by Side”. Rosalie CraigBut it’s not just a series of highlights; the whole thing meshes together wonderfully as a whole, and you come away from the show feeling satisfied that you’ve experienced top quality solid entertainment. A super production, that deserves a life hereafter.