Review – Mogadishu, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 28th February 2012

Mogadishu“It’s about Africa, then?” asked Mrs Chrisparkle on the way to the theatre. “No, I think it’s about a school” came my rather uncertain reply. In fact, the only reference to the capital of Somalia in the play is when the middle-class girl says that what sets her apart from the other scumbags is the fact that she knows where Mogadishu is. As it happens, she doesn’t; and in many respects she isn’t set apart from the other scumbags either. Not that the majority of them are scumbags. As you can tell, it’s not a straightforward business.

Ryan Calais CameronVivienne Franzmann’s play is as gripping and exciting an unfolding of a story as you could possibly wish. From the very first scene you are hooked into its snowballing tale of racism, lies, bullying and justice. And you really have no idea how it’s going to end until the final three scenes tie it all up. This is her first full length play, having worked as a secondary-school teacher for twelve years. It shows. I cannot imagine how anyone other than a teacher would have the insight and authority to tell this tale in this context. I completely believed in it all the way through.

Jackie CluneAnd, although the material in this play is very dark, it manages to be very funny too. It’s tightly written – not a word is wasted. Everything drives either the story or characterisation forward at a cracking pace. Its simple but effective staging emphasises the starkness of its reality, its people trapped in their lies. Co-produced by the Lyric Hammersmith and the Manchester Royal Exchange, it’s a credit to both of them.

Nicholas BeveneyOne particularly interesting aspect of Tuesday’s performance is that the theatre was full of school students. When Mrs C and I saw them in the foyers we were desperately hoping they were seeing Stomp in the Derngate; but no, they piled into the diminutive stalls of the Royal. We just hoped they would have some adults with them to make sure they stayed shut up. We needn’t have worried. This play clearly hit home with the youngsters – they were captivated; and they learned a few interesting lessons about being in an audience. This play has some Ayckbournian laughter moments – by which I mean you witness something desperately awful, that means a personal sadness to someone in the play – but it is written so deftly amusingly that you burst into hysterical laughter. Then the laughter stops in your throat as you silence yourself with embarrassment; then people around you laugh at your reaction. That happened a couple of times during the play; the youngsters sounded appalled at what they had found funny; and it’s fascinating to observe.

Jason BarnettI’m going to refrain from telling you anything about the plot of this riveting story because I think you need to see it for yourself. Let me tell you instead about its splendid performances. There are two characters right at the heart of this play. Jason, played by Ryan Calais Cameron, is the gang leader and thought by Amanda, the teacher played by Jackie Clune, to be more sinned against than sinning. Rosie WyattYou decide if she is right. Mr Cameron is perfectly cast – a natural authority with the minions who surround him, a tough bully to get his own way, wheedlingly affectionate (some of the time) with the girls when trying to coerce them against their will, yet instantly flinching and subordinate to his father Ben, played superbly by Nicholas Beveney. There’s a great scene where Jason starts out all cocky and mouthy with the unimpressed Ben, and who suddenly shrinks visibly as his father moves to dominate over him. Mr Cameron portrays the nature of the bully to great effect, both when they have power, and when their power is removed. Really good work.

James BarriscaleJackie Clune’s Amanda is the kind of teacher you would have liked to have had at school yourself – compassionate and caring, and with a clear sense of right and wrong. It’s fascinating to see her self-confidence and confidence in others slowly becoming eroded with the gradual realisation that she is no longer in control of her work issues. Just before the interval is a superb scene where her self-belief starts to ebb away and provides a tantalising cliffhanger moment to take you through fifteen minutes of deep discussion about the first half. You desperately want justice to go her way, but as it appears increasingly unlikely you get wrapped up in her emotional angst.

Savannah Gordon-Liburd She is matched by her mouthy, troubled daughter, Becky, played by Rosie Wyatt, whom we saw as the troubled daughter Rose in Love Love Love last year – careful, don’t get type-cast. She gives another exuberant and painfully honest performance; once you brush away the hard defensive exterior of her character, her great vulnerability is exposed. And there’s a solid support from Amanda’s husband Peter, played by Jason Barnett, offering kindness and practicality, often to have it thrown back in his face.

Hammed Animashaun James Barriscale’s Headmaster Chris gives a good account of a man already overworked and having to deal with an HR issue he really could do without, trying to be fair to all sides and having to fight against his personal views. His interview battles with Ben are powerfully exciting scenes. It’s very well written and staged.

Tendayi Jembere The other playground kids are all also excellently brought to life. I really enjoyed the assured performance of Savannah Gordon-Liburd as Jason’s most favoured girl Dee; more mature than the other kids, more intelligent and most aware of the difference between right and wrong. Her scene at the end with Amanda where she tries to make some reparation was pitched perfectly and tugged really hard at any notion of forgiveness you might have left in your soul.

Farshid RokeyAnother favourite was Hammed Animashaun as Jordan, the most carefree kid on the block, who gets some of the best lines and rises to the challenge of making the most of the humour in the play. The largely youthful audience really appreciated his characterisation and delivery. Tendayi Jembere played the rather dim but loyal Chuggs with sincerity and conviction, and Farshid Rokey’s Saif was the embodiment of chavtastic which somehow made his internal conflicts as to how much he was prepared to toe Jason’s line more painful and realistic. Michael Karim’s bookish Firat and Tara Hodge’s gormlessly gobby Chloe both added terrific support.

Michael KarimAt the end, I think it’s fair to say that no one wins, but the whole story hangs together perfectly and all loose ends get tied up with great satisfaction. If you’re thinking of taking Granny, do be aware that this play has more four-letter words than a bunch of sailors delivering dictionaries. I don’t particularly care for unnecessary swear words, but they’re all totally in keeping with the characters and context.

Tara HodgeA really strong performance of a really strong play that will make you think twice. You may come out of it a different person from the one that went into it; I love it when that happens. Touring till the end of March, definitely one to catch.

Review – Chris Addison, Derngate, Northampton, 23rd February 2012

Chris AddisonMrs Chrisparkle and I only know Chris Addison from his appearances on “Have I Got News For You”, where he always seems a nicely brought up young man, and, as niece Special Agent N exclaimed as she pointed to his poster outside the theatre, “it’s the man from the Direct Line adverts!” He is also in “The Thick Of It” but that programme and I have never been in the same room together. I guess the range of his TV appearances accounts for the very wide range of clientele seeing his stand-up show; very young people mixed with very old people, and even a few in between.

I’m pleased to say he’s very very funny indeed; highly political, but with great observations on those stupid aspects of life we all encounter but out of which we can’t quite make our own comic material. He’s very extravert too – having seen Jeremy Hardy a few weeks ago, they make an interesting comparison; a lot of their material shares a common, left-wing, ground, highlighting the dangers of sleepwalking into a right wing utopia. But whereas Mr Hardy is quietly wry, the electric charge that emanates from Mr Addison could turn all the Northampton street lights back on. He can’t stop his nervous energy as he bounces around the stage – a genuinely unstoppable movement unlike, say, Michael McIntyre’s deliberate skipping. You feel that new ideas and observations occur to him all the time and he will happily go down endless tangential routes exploring what’s funny there before returning to his main theme. It’s a very enjoyable joint voyage of discovery.

He reacts well with the audience, at one point engaging them to share in the lies they have told their children (or the lies they were told as children), which winkled out the entertaining tale of a local couple who convinced their daughter of the existence of uphill and downhill sheep – you could tell which they were by whether their front legs or back legs were shorter. Apparently this poor woman was 22 when she realised it wasn’t true.

With many incisive observations about class – from a comic who clearly adopts a middle-class stance – everyone can readily associate themselves with his material; from the times when everyone groups together to witness the riots on TV, but which then turns into a wine and cheese party; to the nimbies who do a 180 degree turn on their principles if the word Waitrose is mentioned.

Two and a quarter hours packed with enlightening and very funny stuff. Great entertainment! He seems to be constantly touring, so no reason to miss out on seeing him.

Review – Moscow City Ballet, Swan Lake, Derngate, Northampton, 19th February 2012

Moscow City BalletWe all know the tradition of Russian ballet – you don’t have to be a fan to have heard of the Bolshoi, the Mariinsky, Nijinsky, Nureyev and so on. About eleven years ago, Mrs Chrisparkle and I found ourselves in St. Petersburg, as you do, and spent an evening watching a performance of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake at the – if I remember correctly – Mikhailovsky Theatre. It was to be our first attendance at a genuine Russian Classical ballet performance. Boy, was it poor. The dancers were bored, danced boringly, the orchestra played boringly, and the whole evening was primarily set up so that Japanese tourists could take a constant stream of flash photography throughout. If it hadn’t been for the Russian champagne at the interval, we might well have thrown ourselves into the orchestra pit without a parachute.

So it was with some trepidation but still some hopefulness that we booked to see the Moscow City Ballet’s production of Swan Lake. For extra ballast, we took our nieces, Special Agent N (laid back and taking it all in her stride) and Special Agent S (slightly younger, still agog with excitement.) I’m delighted to say this is a whole different ball game; top notch dancing with commitment and elegance, fantastic attention to detail, stirringly skilful and, above all, simply beautiful to watch.

We’ve only once before seen a “traditional” performance of Swan Lake, and that was by Birmingham Royal Ballet some years ago, which I chiefly remember for the powerfully atmospheric way in which the swans appeared from a misty nowhere in Act Two. Apart from that, it’s just the Trocks’ famous Act One version (which is brilliant) and Matthew Bourne’s male swan version (also brilliant.) I think this is probably then the most faithful we have seen to the Petipa/Ivanov 1895 staging. And it’s no surprise that their choreography remains so popular – it’s just so enjoyable to watch.

Production values are appropriately high – the set, though simple, is attractive and evocative – especially the big stained window for Act Three. The costumes are superb – sufficiently lavish to look spectacular, but not so that they draw you away from the dancers themselves. Similarly the orchestra is nicely in control of its music – you’d find it a bit of a flat performance if it was a concert, but as a framework for the dance it was perfect.

Alevtina LapshinaAt the performance we saw, Odette-Odile was played by Alevtina Lapshina. She was magnificent. A mysteriously beautiful Odette, outstanding whether fronting the corps, in pas de deux with the Prince or as a soloist. She is remarkably graceful and faultless in her fluidity. Even some rather irritating off-stage door-banging could not affect the beauty of her scene with the Prince, shortly before the dance of the little swans. As Odile, she adopts a half-coquette, half-harlot smile and there is no way any of the other brides were going to get a look-in with the Prince. Special Agent S was particularly amazed at her wonderful turning fouettés during the grand pas de six. It’s a stunning performance – and we loved the white and black costume she briefly wore, excellent detail from the costume department there.

Kanat NadyrbekThe Prince was Kanat Nadyrbek. He too gave a very good performance, strong and graceful in support of Odette and suitably beguiled by Odile. His dance was superbly controlled and perfectly placed throughout. For me the role gets overshadowed if you have a really great Odette though. But Mr Nadyrbek was excellent nevertheless.

Daniil OrlovPossibly more entertaining to watch, however, was Daniil Orlov’s Von Rothbart, whose appearances were a constant joy. He seems to cover huge areas of stage with the lightest of leaps, and created a genuinely menacing figure. I hadn’t noticed before – maybe it is new? – his brief, simple appearance at the back of the stage in Act three where he dances across the stage in a mirror image of the Prince, blinded by Odile’s attractions, doing the same movements front stage, suggesting von Rothbart is mocking and controlling him. Very effective. I really enjoyed his performance.

Swan LakeThe whole company are on top form, but I would also like to mention a couple of other performers; you either love the role or you hate it, but I thought Valeriy Kravtsov’s Jester was fantastic – dancing superbly, eyes and face full of expression, astonishing with his acrobatic split leaps, commenting wryly on the court activities through the medium of movement alone. Wonderful; he’s listed as a member of the corps de ballet in the programme, surely he must be promoted to soloist soon.

I also thought that, as one of the Polish brides, Anna Nunes really got into the spirit of the dance and was grace and elegance personified; another stunning performance.

Act ThreePerhaps occasionally a couple of the male corps de ballet seemed slightly under-rehearsed in Act Three, and once or twice Mrs C felt the dancers in the Act One pas de trois were a little out of place; but, in all honesty, who cares, it was gorgeous throughout. Having seen those grumpy ballerinas in St Petersburg it was a true delight to see this company wearing their “happy to be dancing” smiles – when it was appropriate to do so. The acting and characterisation were as good as you could possibly have hoped them to be.

Special Agent S thought it was unfair that the male corps de ballet didn’t get a curtain call at the end. Just goes to show that life can sometimes be sexist, kid. We all loved it though – and it’s a real treat to welcome a dance company of this quality from Russia. If you’re a fan of classical ballet you will really enjoy this. Touring till the end of March, don’t miss it.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground, Derngate, Northampton, February 17th 2012

Kevin Dewsbury

Another very full house last Friday night to enjoy the usual selection of three comics, two intervals and one compere, who this time was Kevin Dewsbury. He compered here last June, was excellent then and was excellent this time too. He has a very relaxed style of humour, coming across as rather caring and kindly, but still with very good material with proper punch lines! He did repeat a bit from last time, but it’s entertaining stuff and we enjoyed hearing it again. I love his observations about pompous people who speak normal English but then go into a silly foreign accent when they say “Sarkozy” or “Reichstag”. Guilty as charged.

 Alfie MooreFirst act was Alfie Moore. He had been on that “Show me the Funny” programme last year – the reality/ comedy programme that sounded great in theory and ended up being a damp squib as it was all background and no comedy. Anyway Mr Moore successfully eradicated any disappointing memories of that series. He was superb. He trades creatively – but not intimidatingly – on the fact that he is a serving police officer as well as a stand-up. He does a lot of un-PC comedy without causing any offence, which is a good trick. He had some great material about Postman Pat’s employment in the light of the Disability Discrimination Act; and I loved the line about how you are no longer required to state your sex on a job application form – ridiculous, how else are you going to know how much to pay them? Also his observation that he was in a same-sex relationship; well, it’s with a woman, but the sex is the same, always…. He was a complete hit and we would like to see him do a longer set in the future.

 Danielle WardIn a sense, everything went a bit downhill after that. The second act was Danielle Ward, whom we saw here in July 2010, and she was very good that time but this time she never quite took off. Quite a lot of her material seemed to just fizzle out without any real payoff at the end. I’m afraid her applause was only lukewarm. Perhaps she just wasn’t the right kind of comic persona to follow Alfie Moore.

 Steve BestFinal act was the rather manic Steve Best; again we’ve seen him at the Screaming Blue Murder before, almost exactly a year ago. He’s fast and furious and rattles through his almost schizophrenic material – it’s a constant battle within himself as to whether he agrees with himself or not. I think the whole act very much relies on his hitting absolutely the right tone from the start to keep the audience in touch with his nonsense. Again this time I don’t think he was quite as successful as his last appearance– but nevertheless it’s delightfully stupid, deftly performed and overall very funny.

 A great night out, as usual, and very rewarding to see the Underground absolutely packed again.

Review – Oedipussy, Spymonkey, Royal & Derngate, Northampton, 15th February 2012

OedipussyIf you’re going to update a Greek tragedy, you might as well go the whole hog. Spymonkey’s latest production, born in Northampton and on the road until May, takes the mythical king from his youthful days in Corinth (“Corinth, Corinth”) to becoming the ruler of Thebes (“Thebes, Thebes”), making sure to include killing dad Laius at the crossroads, and marrying mum Jocasta, and encounters with Tiresias, the Sphinx, the Oracle, and the shepherds Lucky and Plucky (I think they made those names up.) You have to hand it to them – not only is it an evening of ludicrous comedy, they actually take you through the Oedipus story in quite a structured way. In all honesty you wouldn’t recommend it to the Fifth Form studying for exams, but I think Sophocles and Euripides would approve. No half hog here.

Apparently their inspiration for digging deep into serious legend came as a result of a bad review by Joyce McMillan – the name gets repeated a few times – in the Scotsman, of their show “Moby Dick”. It’s true – she really didn’t enjoy it. So I’d better be careful what I say lest I end up part of the introduction to their next show. It was the “bunch of middle-aged actors” line that really got Petra Massey’s goat – and I agree with her: if they really are the ages they say they are – and you get the feeling this is a company that would tell the truth – then I am older than all of them, and I’m still young, so there. If that review really was the kick up the backside they felt they needed – tongue in cheek no doubt – then jolly good show, because this is a very exuberant and entertaining experience, mixing Greek myth with James Bond and much more besides.

We’d actually seen the opening scene before – they performed it at the Royal and Derngate’s Subscription Launch – and it’s a wonderfully subversive and unusual way to open a show. By introducing you to the four actors, it cleverly gives you an initial insight into their characters and their roles within the company; and begins a link that runs throughout the evening of their coming out of character and engaging with the audience, as themselves, on whatever is playing on their mind. It’s quite a fun device for the actors to address the audience anyway – you feel you’re as much part of their evening as they are of yours – but it’s particularly rewarding when they’re talking about their fellow cast-members behind their back.

There’s no doubt at all that these four performers are naturally funny people, and, when you realise they have clown backgrounds, it all makes sense. I bet they could all do solo pieces that would fit perfectly in something like The Burlesque Show. They have a fluidity of movement, very expressive facial and eye movements, and above all, don’t give two hoots about how stupidly they are dressed (or not), which is handy in this production as most of the time they look like adverts for Tena. You get the feeling they are very brave performers who would go to the end of the world (stage-wise) if the art warranted it.

Petra MasseyI guess no one in this cast is braver than Petra Massey, who plays the Sphinx as half woman half cat but with a vital misinterpretation. Her chats with the audience were also amongst the most entertaining. When she suddenly breaks off and shares how the Oedipus story reflects her own life, it was very funny, and very believable, as was the way she went back into character. She also has a wonderful moment of comic business with what she does with a sheep sacrifice. Toby Park I also really liked Toby Park’s rather miserable soliloquy, lamenting his currently woeful job, knowing he’s capable of so much better than this, handing out his graphic and web design consultancy business cards at the end – which appear to be genuine – although he won’t get any work via his website as it requires a password to get in! He was also great as Tiberias, and as the Chorus whose hat looks like the icon for my spam folder.

Stephan KreissStephan Kreiss makes for a delightfully unhinged young Oedipus, let loose into the world and desperately seeking a shag, which you might get if you’re in the front row. As an older Oedipus he cuts a commanding figure – his lovey-dovey scenes with Jocasta are very funny and his tragic hero scenes are brilliantly over-the-top. Aitor BasauriAitor Basauri makes up the foursome, his physical appearance being especially unsuited to nappies. As Laius, his teaching Chrysippus how to wield a discus is scarily sensual. I also loved him alternating as Lucky and Plucky and his devotion to his sheep is inventively done.

Other highlights include his appearance as a singalong leper colony – really funny and so skilfully performed; the Oracle, whose eyes have something of Alice in Wonderland’s Pig Babies about them and the effective representation of blood and death. Jocasta’s was hilarious. I also loved the predictable but hilarious consequences of having headgear too large for the entrance door onto the stage. Simple ideas often work best.

If I have a criticism, it would be that, as a whole, it is so frothy, so cappuccino, so light in its touch, that actually, on the way home, there isn’t a lot to discuss. It’s very funny, end of. It’s also a Marmite production – I would say for every eight people laughing riotously, there were two sitting stony-faced. If you don’t get totally ridiculous comedy, I don’t think you’d like it. Mrs Chrisparkle adored it; I liked it a lot. This was our first Spymonkey experience; we’d definitely see them again and would recommend this show if you’re an aficionado of the ultra-daft.

Review – The King and I, Derngate, Northampton, 9th February 2012

The King and IAhhhh, “The King and I”, one of Mrs Chrisparkle’s favourite films. The very title sums up an era of lavish musicals and escapist exoticism, and makes you go, “Ahhhhh”. Mrs C confessed she normally cries at the end, so I knew I would have to be on tearwatch alert. I don’t think I’ve seen the film – I’ve seen very few really – but the songs were always favourites of me dear old mother, and one of my earliest memories is being allowed to play her 78rpm record of Getting To Know You, then putting it on the floor, kneeling on it and breaking it in two. The perils of shellac.

There’s no doubt that someone has done something right with this touring production, born at the Leicester Curve, as the Derngate was packed on Thursday night and indeed I think the whole week has been more or less a sell-out.

There are lots of good things to say about this show. Primarily, the appreciative audience really loved it and gave it a very enthusiastic reception. I think it’s fair to say that many of them were Of A Certain Generation; some probably remembered the film coming out in 1952, a few were possibly even around in the days it was set in 1862. But they loved it, so if you match the target demographic with the show, it’s a total success, and I’m all for that.

Ramon TikaramMy guess is there’s no one quite like Yul Brynner, and comparisons are always going to be odious, but Ramon Tikaram gives a fine performance as the King. He has a very gutsy voice and sings splendidly. His rather wayward hair impresses with a suitably exotic manner and he does the important aspects of the king – petulance, self-doubt and a growing warmth to his newly acquired member of staff – very convincingly. I liked his subtle throw-away facial expressions when Anna was introduced to his 67 children – very nice. Mrs C used to work with someone who knew his sister Tanita.

Now for my first less-than-complimentary note of the night. Anna is normally played by Josefina Gabrielle, a fine actress, whom we loved in Sweet Charity, and whose casting was the final clincher on whether or not to book the tickets. Always a fatal mistake to book on the strength of an actor, because you never know when they’re off sick and will be played by an understudy – but that’s the rules of theatrical engagement and it’s right to give the understudy all the respect and indeed encouragement they deserve. However, on this tour, Ms Gabrielle has decided she wants one day off a week and, in Northampton, Thursday was decreed to be her duvet day. You can’t tell from the King and I website which shows she’s not doing, but only by going to the individual theatres’ websites to see if they mention it. When I realised we’d booked for her day off, I have to tell you I was pretty miffed. Being sick is one thing; escaping or having a better offer is another. In my mind, it doesn’t say much for her regard for her audience. It makes you feel like you’re not that important to her. So if you are a fan of Ms Gabrielle, check she plans to show up the same night as you. I am going to move on now.

Lori Haley Fox“Alternative Anna” was therefore played by Lori Haley Fox; and she has a beautiful singing voice and absolutely looks the part. I felt she was a cross between Maureen Lipman and Joyce Grenfell, although not particularly Lipman as Grenfell, if you see what I mean. She put Mrs C in mind of Julie Andrews – and I can see the likeness, perfectly clipped syllables and splendid diction. At times I didn’t get a huge sense of emotion from her though. When she sings the song “Shall I tell you what I think of you” when she is venting her spleen with frustration at the way the King behaves, I thought she was a little too polite and reserved. But she did sing “Hello Young Lovers” very touchingly, and her “Shall we dance” with the King, both romping round the stage, was a delight.

Claire-Marie HallContinuing the theme of beautiful singing – and this production is notable for that – I really enjoyed the performance of Claire-Marie Hall as Tup-Tim, the new bride from Burma who is secretly in love with Adrian Li Donni’s Lun Tha. She sings like a dream, and her tragic story makes a really strong subplot. Their love scenes together are very tender and affecting, and really delicately done. I didn’t know how the story was to unfold and was quite upset that it didn’t end happily ever after.

Maya SaponeI wasn’t quite so sure, however, about Maya Sapone’s Lady Thiang. She makes a splendidly authoritarian chief wife, delivers the lines amusingly and effectively and looks the part perfectly; but I wasn’t sure about her singing. It seemed as though she ran out of breath and or saliva during the song “Something Wonderful”, and I found it a strangely uncomfortable performance. Maybe she wasn’t very well.

Matthew RussellThe rest of the cast are all absolutely fine in their roles and a “big up” to thirteen year old Matthew Russell who played the part of Anna’s son Louis at the show we saw – quietly confident, sure-footed, a very good singer, perfect demeanour; all in all a very enjoyable performance.

But I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t highlight a couple of things that really got on my nerves with this show. First – the set. If you read other reviews of this production you will see comments on how magnificent the staging is, how lovely the set, glorious the lighting and so on. Well, it is; but there is a big problem. The show has so many changes of scenery – not only does each of its eleven scenes take place in a new location (obviously) but within those scenes they’ve decided to do things like move the big Buddhas, bring down a light screen and have silhouettes behind, and similar kinds of exotic effects; and in order to achieve this, they have to trundle on massive tall screens that move – rather noisily and distractingly – in front of the set, backwards and forwards, meeting in the middle, moving apart, so that changes can be made to the beautiful set behind. The bizarre consequence of this is that – it seemed to me – an awful lot of the action ended up taking place in front of these screens on a tiny strip of stage, cramping the otherwise expansive nature of the staging. Added to which, the screens themselves are plain and rather ugly. You would guess you were looking at the back of them. I found it really irritating.

Second – and there’s nothing anyone can do about this – the show comes from an era where it was de rigueur to have a “dream ballet sequence”. I blame Oklahoma. In “The King and I”, it comes in the form of a play within a play: Tup-Tim’s version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin – designed to ruffle the feathers of the King in its criticism of slavery. It’s such a shame, because it puts the brakes on what is, up till then, a pacey, funny and rewarding second half. And, boy oh boy, does this sequence go on. It does precious little to move the story forward, and, no matter how well it is performed, how elegant the costumes, how pleasant the music, how skilled the make-up, “etcetera, etcetera and etcetera”, it is so boring. Sorry to have to say it.

To sum up, I think the name of the game here is nostalgia. There’s no doubt this production sent home over a thousand very happy people last night, as I am sure it will every night till the tour ends in May. If you think you are the kind of person who will enjoy this show, I am convinced you will. And why wouldn’t you – great songs, great singing and a huge wallowful of nostalgia. But it didn’t elicit a tear from Mrs C.

Review – Comedy of Errors, National Theatre, Olivier Auditorium, 4th February 2012

Comedy of ErrorsI’d heard two rather sniffy comments about this production of Comedy of Errors before seeing it – one was that as it starred Lenny Henry it was appealing only to people who liked him off the telly; and the other was that the first scene is immensely tedious in its wordy scene-setting. Well I’m happy to report that I think both comments are a load of old codswallop.

Let’s start with that second comment. Yes, it’s an early play and yes, Egeon’s opening speech is long and somewhat tortuous and maybe a more mature Shakespeare would have done it differently. Joseph MydellBut he didn’t so we have to put up with it. Moreover, if you don’t follow all the details of Egeon’s speech you haven’t got a clue as to the why and the wherefore of the following two hours, so there’s no option to cut it. Enter a fantastic set, designed by Bunny Christie. When the play starts it depicts tall tenements in a shady part of town, maybe based on a London/Essex hybrid, where the brutal treatment of Egeon can take place without raising an eyebrow. But when Egeon starts to tell his story, the set splits in two and becomes the tall ship on the raging sea, and mime characters act out Egeon’s tale as it unfolds. I think this is the fourth production of Comedy of Errors I have seen and this story telling in the opening scene has never been so lucidly achieved.

Lenny HenryAnd back to the first comment, if TV stars like Lenny Henry attract a new audience to Shakespeare on stage, isn’t that a good thing? I don’t get the pomposity that criticises him for it. Now of course, if he couldn’t act, and he hammed it up something dreadful, and it was an embarrassment, then they might have a point. But he doesn’t. He acts it completely with conviction and within a few lines you forget that you’re not watching a “legitimate” actor. And let’s not forget – Comedy of Errors is hardly Hamlet.

Lucian Msamati I would say that his Antipholus of Syracuse is a little more violent than others I have seen. Normally A. of S. is depicted as rather a sophisticated or isolated type – sometimes foppish even. This Antipholus isn’t pretending to give his Dromio a biff round the ears, he attacks him head on. No wonder Dromio of Syracuse gets a bit alarmed by him. But then this Comedy of Errors is set in a rather seedy urban underworld; the Duke, the Officer and the Merchants are definitely Not To Be Trusted. It’s dog eat dog out there.

Chris JarmanBut as a comedy duo, they are terrific. Mr Henry does a marvellous line in bewildered looks as everyone in Ephesus appears to know who he is, from edging anxiously around the snooker table while Adriana is insisting on his return home, to emerging sheepishly onto the bedroom balcony clad only in a towel, after they have shared conjugals. He is matched – possibly bettered – by the splendid Lucian Msamati who was brilliant when we last saw him in Clybourne Park, as Dromio of Syracuse, whose exasperations are genuinely funny and who makes that potentially intractable verse come alive.

Daniel PoyserYou have to make the two Antipholi come across as very different characters, so Chris Jarman’s equally convincing Antipholus of Ephesus is a wide boy who expects everything to go his way and his embarrassment at not being let into his house is delightful. The final scene, when the brothers are reunited and go into the house together, is heartwarmingly funny. Messrs Henry and Jarman grin boyishly like Avenue Q’s Bad Idea Bears and it’s an irresistably endearing moment. Dromio of Ephesus, Daniel Poyser, is suitably a little more worldly wise than his Syracusian counterpart, but then again he has been coping with Luce all these years.

Amit ShahOther excellent supporting performances come from Amit Shah as Angelo the goldsmith, who turns from being a meek and mild tradesman to a spitting cauldron of fury, Rene Zagger as the Second Merchant, portrayed with subtle mafia overtones, Rene Zagger Grace Thurgood’s alluring Courtesan who has many a knowing expression as she stirs the waters even further with demands over her ring, and Joseph Mydell’s dignified Egeon.

Grace ThurgoodBut I leave the best till last. Two gems of performances from Claudie Blakley as Adriana and Michelle Terry as her sister Luciana. Pacing, tormented, on her glamorous balcony at the Phoenix, immaculately realised in this constantly evolving set, the equally glamorous Ms Blakley brings genuine anxiety and worry to the role of Adriana. Straight out of The Only Way Is Ephesus, and clearly someone who knows what she wants and is used to getting it, she brings out all the humour of an Estuary woman thwarted; whilst Ms Terry’s Luciana, in what must be one of the least politically correct roles in regular performance, affirms that a man is master of his liberty in a hilarious faltering, Claudie Blakleythinking it out one-syllable-at-a-time, manner. By the time Adriana has leapt onto the snooker table – by the way, none of the actors can play snooker for toffee – they are so in their stride and commanding the stage that there is no doubt that this is their show. And, as Mrs Chrisparkle pointed out, Claudie Blakley has a dress to die for. In the same way that Messrs Henry and Msamati make a brilliant comedy duo, these two are a perfect match throughout and their scenes are pure joy.

Michelle TerryBut probably the best aspect of this production is that the story-telling element is so clear. From Egeon’s opening speech, to the comings-and-goings with chains and rings and purses and what have you, all the elements that drive the story along are crystal clear. Sometimes some of the meaning can get lost in the Shakespearean verse but this production avoids that pitfall perfectly. Mrs C confessed that this was the first time she realised that the Abbess was Egeon’s wife, and she’s seen it three times before. Added to all this, there’s a real ambulance, Turkish buskers playing ironic pop tunes, and an amazingly versatile set, all contributing to a really enjoyable and lovingly done production. Highly recommended.

Review – Spanish Fiesta, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Derngate, Northampton, 5th February 2012

Spanish FiestaFirst visit by the RPO to the Derngate in 2012 for the much awaited Spanish Fiesta, which includes four crowd-pleasing familiar pieces and a first performance. So it was with great anticipation that we took our seats.

Simon WrightThe conductor this time was Simon Wright, a relaxed, avuncular looking man, who looks as though he enjoys the après-concert to the full. I felt that the first piece, Bizet’s Carmen Suite No 1, could have done with just a tad more attack. Rather reflecting the conductor’s appearance, it luxuriated in the soft and the stately elements of the music, bringing out its tunefulness very well – the Carmen suite is basically a medley of songs from the world’s best musical after all – but I didn’t get the spine shiver I would normally like from Les dragons d’alcala entr’acte music, and perhaps the Séguidille lacked some emotion. All was put right though for the Toreadors tune, which went like the clappers and never fails to bring a smile to the face and an air-baton to the hand.

Then we had Fauré’s Pavane. This beautiful piece was perfectly played and was as comforting as nestling in a high tog duvet with a bowl of whipped cream. It clearly suited Simon Wright’s laid back style. Measured and resonant; simply gorgeous.

Stephen GossThen we came to our première. Stephen Goss’ Guitar Concerto was commissioned by the soloist Graham Roberts. Messrs Goss and Roberts go back a long way and have played together in the Tetra Guitar Quartet for over twenty years, so they should have a pretty good understanding of how to get the best out of each other. The first movement is described as “bold and bright”; let’s take that first. It starts stunningly; and there’s no doubting Mr Roberts’ mastery of the guitar – although I was expecting an acoustic Spanish guitar rather than the mellow electronic guitar sound we got. It’s also a fantastic piece for the percussion who gave it plenty of welly. As the first movement progresses it loses some of that electronic flamenco feel and becomes more lyrical, but possibly not to its advantage. Mrs Chrisparkle thought – perhaps a little unkindly – that there was an element of lift music about it. I must say it put me in mind of a film score; but I guess the point is we both felt it was rather “background” music rather than something that commanded one’s attention.

The second movement is Adagio sostenuto, an homage to Elgar. The programme notes explain that Graham Roberts asked Stephen Goss to come up with a British alternative to the slow movement to Rodrigo’s Guitar Concerto de Aranjuez, and that the result is something very Elgarian in mood. He’s not kidding. As you get into that second movement it screams Nimrod at you. Possibly a little too much for me, as I felt it stopped being an homage and became more like a derivative influence. The kind part of me tells you it was splendidly played and a clever, tuneful doff of the cap to Elgar; and the unkind part of me tells you I would have preferred to have stayed at home with my CD of the Enigma Variations. The truth is somewhere between the two.

The finale, allegro molto, was, we both agreed, the most rewarding of the three movements, with fantastic Cuban rhythms and more wonderful contributions from the percussion. It was full of attack and very tuneful. However, during the interval both Mrs C and I agreed that – just maybe – the concerto would have worked slightly better as a purely symphonic piece. But then, what do we know?

Graham RobertsAfter the interval, Graham Roberts was back to give us his Rodrigo’s Guitar Concerto. Acoustic Spanish guitar this time, perhaps? No, it was a distinctly plugged version. In both his performances Mr Roberts had struggled a bit with the tuning – he actually told us that the dressing room was too cold for the strings to warm up – and whereas I didn’t think that affected his playing of the Goss, I did feel there was some detriment to the Rodrigo, particularly in the third movement where I thought he was distinctly off a couple of times. Additionally, I also felt in the first movement, the orchestra was a little loud for the guitar – or the guitar was too soft for the orchestra. Just a couple of times you couldn’t quite hear where Rodrigo was going with it. But no real worries; it is of course a mellifluously lovely piece of music and it’s really delightful to let it waft over you, transporting you to your own private Spanish heaven; and in that super second movement, Graham Roberts teased some extraordinary delicacies out of those strings.

Top of the bill, so to speak, and because you really can’t play anything after it, we were treated to a performance of Ravel’s Bolero. We saw the RPO perform this here two years ago and it was stunning. Again, it was a superb performance, and particular commendations have to go to the man on the snare drum. He starts the whole thing off and has to keep going right to the bitter end – an extraordinary feat I think. He was great. All the woodwind too, especially the flute and clarinet, were particularly splendid in that performance and made those early moments of the piece really sweet and exotic. When the strings kicked in they were majestic too. It seems a shame to mention the celeste, but unfortunately it squeaked a little painfully alongside the piccolos; not quite sure what went wrong there. But the whole thing built to a magnificent climax and ended as dramatically as you could imagine.

Great to see a really packed house enjoy such an enjoyable programme of music, especially the combination of the familiar with the new. It wasn’t perfect, but it was played by humans, and humans aren’t perfect. Moreover, it was played with huge skill and commitment, and, as ever, we walked home grateful for the privilege of having a theatre like the Derngate with an orchestra like the RPO on our doorstep.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground, Derngate, Northampton, 3rd February 2012

Karen BayleyWith a change to the advertised line-up it turned out that we had actually seen all four of the comics on show at last Friday’s Screaming Blue Murder before. No matter, sometimes watching a repeat can be comfort for the soul. The compere this week was Karen Bayley, who we saw here a couple of years ago. Then, as this time, she very much tailors her act to the women in the audience, sometimes to the slight exclusion of the men; but no doubt there are many male comics who do the same and I just haven’t noticed. She was excellent at interacting with the crowd and also kept things nicely on course when the unruly elements of the audience got even unrulier. Mrs Chrisparkle particularly liked the line about her having tried speed-dating; well, parents/teacher night.

Dave Thompson First act was Dave Thompson. I recognised him, and I have to confess, my heart sank, as I recall his being totally unfunny and failing badly on his last visit to us. To be fair, he was much funnier this time, and I do rather like his performance when he heads into the world of the surreal for his comedy; but unfortunately that isn’t the majority of his act. He still uses a lot of material that simply lacks humour, and does part of his routine based on living in Brighton and having a handlebar moustache, cue for some riotous (not) lines about “not being gay, honest.” I’ve said it before – we may not be over-sophisticated in Northampton but we don’t go for homophobic laughs. Dave Thompson was sacked from his plum job as Tinky Winky. I throw that in for good measure.

Jeremy O’DonnellThen we had Jeremy O’Donnell, who compered here last May. He has great attack and an even greater stripy shirt. Very fast and furious, he sometimes assumes an air of not doing very well at the comedy whereas he actually hits the spot nine times out of ten, which is a pretty good spot hit rate. I’m afraid I can’t quite remember any of his lines, which probably means I was just enjoying it without trying to memorise it – another good sign. He can come back again.

James DowdeswellHeadline act was James Dowdeswell, who headlined here last March. On that occasion, he was Mrs C’s favourite act of the night, and so he proved again this time, even though I don’t think there was a lot of variation from the material he did the previous time. An unusual looking guy, full of confidence, naturally funny, and who puts down the hecklers with an effective and a seriously-no-chance-of-any-conversation “shush”. He paces it perfectly and you never fear he’s going to run out of stuff to say.

Maybe because there was little new to us I can’t say the evening ever really soared, but it’s incredible value for what you get and I would say Karen Bayley’s extended act mixed with her compering was the highlight of the evening. Plenty of people in attendance, which is great for the comedy club as laughter breeds laughter. Next one in two weeks!

Review – Balletboyz, The Talent, Milton Keynes Theatre, 1st February 2012

Balletboyz - The TalentIt was almost seven months ago that I booked tickets to see this, as we hadn’t caught the Balletboyz for a few yearz. I was always impressed by the way they took the media and used it to further their post-Royal Ballet careers and I am sure they have done a lot for widening the appeal of ballet and contemporary dance, which has to be worth a round of applause in itself.

Original BalletboyzBut surely those Boyz are getting on a bit now? To be honest I’d be surprised if they couldn’t still dazzle like in the old days, and I hoped they would make even just a brief appearance but it seems they are Officially Retired from the stage. So whilst the stage of the Milton Keynes theatre was ablaze with Ballet Boys, they weren’t the Ballet Boyz, if you get my drift.

Balletboyz - New Recruits who seem to have forgotten their clothes They have done some extensive recruiting which you can read about in the programme and at last night’s show presented eight young male dancers, performing their socks off and as close to the top of their game as you could reasonably expect. I bet Michael and Billy are terrific coaches and mentors.

TorsionThe first dance is Russell Maliphant’s Torsion, which was always their top party piece. It’s now been extended to become a dance for six. When Da Boyz used to do it, it was a real duel; full of antagonism and aggressive confrontation; you felt that when they danced in unison it was full of resentment, and they needed to break apart and attain domination. It’s always been a real tour de force. This new staging has transformed it into a much less aggressive, more supportive piece; it has softer edges and you feel that the characters are actually helping and caring for each other rather than trying to get one up on each other.

Leon PoultonThe lighting was great – as it was for the entire evening. In the opening sequence, I really liked how each dancer was trapped in their own spotlight position, dancing anything from gracefully to frenziedly but with their feet still largely secured to the floor and certainly not breaking out of the light circle. The overwhelming sense I got from the piece was one of immense control. The dancers’ movements were so fluid and assured, it really was quite incredible to watch. It’s unnecessary to identify any one particular dancer’s excellence over another in such a uniform company, but I really must commend Leon Poulton’s remarkable ability to dance on his knees. I was wincing in referred pain as I watched, spellbound. When the whole dance had finished Mrs Chrisparkle and I turned to each other and exchanged mutual wows. I felt that they had really laid down the gauntlet of a standard of excellence for other contemporary dance companies to achieve.

AlphaIntroducing the second item was a short video, in pure Balletboyz tradition. It showed the new company in audition, in rehearsal, and on the beach. And huddling semi-naked together. Apparently in jockstraps. I know sex sells, but I think when they throw those images in for no other relevant reason to the dance itself, they slightly cheapen their brand. Maybe because I was on “sex-alert” by this stage, I found the second piece, Alpha, choreographed by Paul Roberts, slightly uncomfortable to watch. As with the previous piece, it was danced with superb fluidity and strong grace, but I found the floaty costumes that deliberately evaporated away from chests and arms a little disconcerting. Mrs C, on the other hand, found it captivating. The backing music of slide guitar and voice by Keaton Henson summoned up a relaxed and lazy air which was sometimes at odds with the high energy dance work. It ends with some strong visual images and exciting acrobatic dancing, but I confess it was my least favourite of the night.

VoidLeading into the third and final dance, Void by Jarek Cemerek, is another video which continues playing as the dance unfolds and transforms the back of the stage into a dismal urban landscape, perfect for the street events Void depicts. The endless rut of approaching car and departing bus gives a feeling of permanent despair and you guess that’s what the lives of these dancing hoodies would be like. A clever light effect on the dancers’ faces makes them look criss-crossed, like a mesh effect, suggestive of their being trapped in a cage. A superbly ominous backing track develops into a big fight scene between the dancers, as though West Side Story has just met the 21st century. The dance explodes into a cross between violent attack and circus style tumbling as the characters career and collide into each other, changing allegiances and heightening tension.

Jarek Cemerek There’s a (relatively) simple but visually memorable sequence when six of them gather on the remaining one, isolated by light, which leads to an eloquent solo by (I think) Anthony Middleton. All throughout the dance the video wall remains a gloomy visual framework. Mrs C felt it was probably the best integration of video and dance she has ever seen, and I think she’s darn right. Another great light trick is played in the final sequence when the dancers are silhouetted against a bright background and a sudden snap of darkness causes a rapid conclusion to the dance. Really stunning stuff. Some of it put me in mind of Christopher Bruce at his best – I think Mr Cemerek may be a great choreographer of the future.

Anthony MiddletonThe programme notes discuss the decision to make this an all-male company. The Original-B-Boyz believe that the company’s work and identity was always male-dominated, and that whilst they did have female dancers too, most notably Oxana Panchenko, who I personally always really enjoyed in their appearances a few years ago, it probably gives them greater artistic freedom to be an all-male company, because, basically, they can chuck each other around as tough as they like. Whilst I’m sure this is true, for me, I did feel a slight sense of imbalance at this all-male world. But this is a mere quibble. Balletboyz – The Talent is a superb presentation of contemporary dance; strong, controlled, quirky, graceful, supportive and constantly surprising. They have raised the bar to a higher level of superlatives with this show. Or should that be the barre? Anyway, they’ve got an extensive tour lined up and I really think you ought to go see them.