Review – The Osmonds, Derngate, Northampton, 27th April 2012

The OsmondsI couldn’t call myself an Osmond fan, you understand, that would be so not right. But when such an iconic group books in at your local theatre, it would be churlish not to follow up and actually see them perform live. Plus I don’t think Mrs Chrisparkle and the Lady Duncansby would have forgiven me. And I did hope they would play my three favourite Osmonds songs – Crazy Horses, Goin’ Home and I Can’t Stop.

OsmondsSo we all trooped in, a full house, a variety of ages, mainly aged 40 plus I would estimate, and about 95% female. Curtain up at 7.30pm and the joint was buzzing. And then – lo and behold, a slideshow screen appears on the stage with some “Did You Know?” questions. OK, I thought, an amusing way to start the show. Which type of music did the Osmonds first sing? A Bubblegum, B Barbershop, C Light Opera, D Rock n Roll. Let’s go with – B. Correct! Moving on. How many individual acts have formed out of the Osmond family…. And then another…Which group member made a rude sign to the Queen of England (I bet that question went down well in Glasgow)….and then another….after a while I was expecting “Which blood group predominates in the Osmond family? A – A; B – B; C – AB; D – O. “How many Osmonds have nine toes? A – 3; B – 5; C – 7; D – they all do. Then you start to worry. 7.30 became 7.40 – more questions. 7.40 unbelievably became 7.50 – still more questions. Mrs Chrisparkle had to rush home from work to watch this garbage. She could have had an extra 20 minutes to let her dinner go down. At 7.50 I texted Lady Duncansby sitting in the cheap seats: “for ****sake, when’s it going to start?” (Ours is a very informal relationship).

More OsmondsAt 7.55pm, the lights changed and some musicians walked on stage. The Osmonds? No. The Dropouts. Who? They advised us that the Osmonds had asked them if they would come on a sing us a few 70s songs, and obviously they must be obliging lads as that’s exactly what they did. Four songs, in fact. I’m a child of the 70s but only recognised two of them. They were, in fact, quite good – and certainly heaps better than watching a sequence of questions about obscure TV reality shows the Osmonds had appeared in (that weren’t even shown in the UK so how in the name of all that’s decent were we meant to get those right?) At 8.05pm the Dropouts appropriately dropped off the stage and it was time for the interval. We met Lady Duncansby in the bar and her language included the words “con” and “swizz”.

That'll be the Osmonds, thenAt 8.25pm we were encouraged to return to our seats for the second half of the performance by the Osmonds. People snorted that there hadn’t been a first half yet. Anyway, lured by the prospect of Little Jimmy et al, we went back. And they did come on – and they were great. The promotional material had depicted four Osmonds but unfortunately at the last minute Wayne was not well enough to travel, so we were left with Jay, Merrill and Jimmy. But they are consummate performers, they still sing extremely well, and they do spread more than a little magic to their devoted fans.

JayIn just under 90 minutes we got lots of old songs, a few new ones, a little cheesy dancing, a spectacular drum solo from Jay, some schmaltzy “family” reminiscences, an unexpected vision of Christ as a backdrop, some chat, some heavy advertising from Tesco (you almost expected to see the Osmonds logo with blue and white stripes running through it), and lots of handshakes with the front rows. They did indeed sing Crazy Horses – it was their first number, and also a reprise right at the end; and they did sing Goin’ Home, (Jimmy got the words wrong) just before they went off in that pretend tradition that it’s all over when it isn’t. They didn’t however sing I Can’t Stop.

The Osmonds, who knew?As an audience we acapella’d Paper Roses (with the compulsory use of a “W” instead of an “R”) and we made Jimmy sing Long Haired Lover from Liverpool. Even though he wasn’t on the same continent, every time a picture of Donny flashed up, a thousand or so ex-teenyboppers screamed. It was a little bizarre.

MerrillDon’t get me wrong – it was really enjoyable and I am thoroughly pleased to have seen them perform in the flesh, so to speak. It could have been so much more rewarding as a whole if they just ditched that stupid introductory slideshow. Why not have the support group do a few more numbers early on? Then it would have been a much more balanced evening. This is to be the group’s final UK tour, apparently, so if you miss them here now, thatsyerlot. I doubt whether there will be any tickets left now for the remaining dates anyway.

Mrs C and Lady D are still fantasising about how manly-gorgeous Merrill looks. This could carry on for some time.

Review – Dara O’Briain: Craic Dealer, Warwick Arts Centre, 25th April 2012

Dara O'BriainWe’ve seen Dara O’Briain on TV a few times, doing a little bit of stand-up, but primarily presenting “The Apprentice – You’re Fired”, where he has a very wholesome blend of gentle teasing and intelligent badinage. We’d not seen him live before though. My guess was that as a stand-up he would be very quick of brain and strong of material.

And I was right. What I wasn’t aware was that, as a big man, he can command a large and rather soulless venue like the stage of the Butterworth Hall at the Warwick Arts Centre and treat it as though it were as intimate as his living room. Wednesday night’s gig was part of his Craic Dealer tour, and I think he sold out all three nights within a very short time.

Another Dara O'Briain pictureWith no support act, and the show lasting for two and a quarter hours, including a twenty minute interval, he needs no props, apart from a gift bag of crisps that he shares out at the end of the show to the people who contributed the most. He’s very funny, as you would expect, and I like his straightforward way of telling a story – no need for stylistic embellishments, he lets his material do the talking – and as it’s very good material, it works.

For someone who is such a good talker, he must also be a really good listener too; as the information he gleans from the punters at the front whom he interrogates in the first half, constantly comes back as references in the second half, when you’re really not expecting them; and not just repetitiously – he sneaks references in when you think he’s going in a completely different direction. Very creatively done.

Amongst last night’s subjects were how to most terrify a burglar in your home, the level of expertise of current Irish construction workers, how not to take a photo when someone gives you their camera and how the singer Plan B might have got his name.

Look it's Dara O'Briain againI think he has something of the Frankie Howerd to his style – not Howerd’s camp mannerisms or his oohs and aahs, but in his way of addressing the audience as a whole in a confidential way, making them feel they’re the only one he’s talking to – and also by rounding on the audience when they vocally disapprove of any his dodgier topics.

But what you come away with is a distinct impression of someone with a fairly massive brain (not big headed though), an amazing way of dealing with people and a provider of top quality comic material in a fast and fluid way. A really enjoyable night out!

Eurovision 2012 – Semi Final One

Another year has flown by so it’s time to take a look at this year’s Eurovision runners and riders. We’ll start off with Semi Final One, taking the songs in the order in which they will appear on the night (the night in question being Tuesday 22nd May), and not only do you have the range of betting odds courtesy of (taking all the bookmakers who will give you the first four places as each way, as at 24th April) but I’m also giving each song a star rating out of five, just for a laugh. So here goes!

Montenegro – Euro Neuro – Rambo Amadeus

Rambo AmadeusSo anyone who hasn’t watched Eurovision for a few years will get a bit of a shock if they tune in to Tuesday’s Semi-Final and are expecting the usual Boom banga dinga dinga. That Mr Amadeus is a wag, isn’t he? Known for being subversive with his music he’s come up with this anti-bureaucratic anti-governmental anti-modern age ditty that is too clever for its own good. The video is visually quite entertaining but musically it’s going to have people switching off in droves. 80-1 to 200-1 **

Iceland – Never Forget – Gréta Salóme and Jónsi

Gréta Salóme and JónsiNot the old crowd pleaser by Take That, but something that sounds like a pivotal moment from an Andrew Lloyd Webbersson musical. Very dramatic and emotional, and their voices blend pretty darn magnificently – no need for an Elaine Paigesdottir. One of two songs that Gréta had in the Icelandic National Finals this year, so she’s been a busy girl; and this is Jónsi’s second go at bringing back the trophy to Reyjkavik. You can almost feel the steam rising between the tectonic plates and smell the sulphurous pong from the bathroom taps. As Nordic as it gets. 12-1 to 22-1 ****

Greece – Aphrodisiac – Eleftheria Eleftheriou

Eleftheria EleftheriouThe first song of the night that might be termed “typically” Eurovision. Things are financially tight in Greece so Eleftheria and her fellers knocked up this dance routine in the Athens Arndale Centre, cunningly leaving the windows open in Next to save on the costs of a wind machine. Eleftheria is officially gorgeous, and bouzouki by numbers though it may be, its simple dancey joy makes this my favourite of the year. It must have been a challenge for Mr and Mrs Eleftheriou to come up with a name for their baby girl; the English translation of her name is “Freedom’s Freedom”. 20-1 to 33-1 *****

Latvia – Beautiful Song – Annmary

AnnmaryAfter the deconstructionalist tendencies of Montenegro’s song, it’s on to the post-structuralist naval gazing of Latvia’s. Annmary’s beautiful song is all about Anmary’s beautiful song, and I rather like it for that – the trouble is, if you don’t catch the lyrics (and Annmary’s English diction does leave something to be desired) its subtlety and humour passes you by. Another striking looking lady, I’d love it to do well but I’m sure it won’t. The video inspires you to break into a song and dance routine in an airport departure lounge, which has long been a personal fantasy. I wonder why Paul McCartney has more kudos than Mick Jagger? 80-1 to 150-1 ****

Albania – Suus – Rona Nishliu

Rona NishliuIn the first line of this song Rona confesses she “nicked a boat that surely unseats a man”, then she hits her thumb and cries with the subsequent pain; at least that’s what it sounds like to me. I jest of course; according to the lyrics include “my plane is landing on the unlit runway of your soul”. Remind me not to fly to Tirana International. A moody pretentious video to accompany a moody pretentious song, mainly memorable for that repeated note. My spies at the Amsterdam in Concert show said she was am-a-zing. She will need to be to carry it off. Not my kind of thing. 100-1 to 200-1 **

Romania – Zaleilah – Mandinga

MandingaZaleilah sounds to me like the kind of title Dave Dee Dozy Beaky Mick and Tich would have come up with. Lead singer Elena is yet another sizzler, the arrangement is quirky and upbeat, and you think it’s going to be something special, but then its meaningless chorus kicks in and it’s so repetitive that you get bored. Popular in some quarters, I file it under Ones That Ought To Be Better Than They Are. 25-1 to 33-1 ***

Switzerland – Unbreakable – Sinplus

Sinplus The first entry chosen to go to Baku, this song has been banging against the inside of my head for about four months now. More Highest Heights than If We All Give A Little (for which it gains brownie points), imitating Mr Broggini’s English accent remains the most enjoyable party trick of the season. Switzerland’s lack of natural allies means it probably won’t get far. A bit meaningless, a bit repetitive, a bit magic; nearly excellent. 66-1 to 125-1 ***

Belgium – Would You – Iris

IrisA dull song that limps along with odd lyrics – “What would you do if my house was empty?” I’d love it if the next line were “break in and steal my laptop and TV”. Iris puts two irritatingly breathy syllables in words that should only have one (life, bag, love). Stretches three minutes to an eternity. I never thought I’d have cause to say this, but it’s not a patch on Witloof Bay. 100-1 to 150-1 *

Finland – När jåg blundar – Pernilla Karlsson

Pernilla KarlssonThis is a gentle song. A very, very gentle song. It’s borderline relaxing/dull, but Pernilla is so cute that to criticise it would be like stamping on a puppy-dog’s tail. A nice folky feel to it, and I like her clarity of diction. The first Swedish language song in Eurovision since Jill Johnson in 1998. 50-1 to 100-1 **

Israel – Izabo – Time

IzaboHere’s a Marmite song, and personally I find it delicious. A thumping good beat and satisfyingly jangly guitars keep this Blur/Britpop-sounding oeuvre upbeat all the way through until its, admittedly, disappointingly lame ending. Is it just me, or does the chorus remind you of the Kinks’ Apeman? Izabo have been going for over twenty years now and it will be interesting to see what this does to their international careers. 100-1 to 150-1 ****

San Marino – The Social Network Song – Valentina Monetta

Valentina MonettaThe second incarnation for Uncle Ralph Siegel’s latest Eurovision hit, carved out of its original banned “Facebook” lyrics, which unfortunately leaves the song with twice the number of “oh-oh-oh-oh-oh”s that it should have. I don’t dislike this song as much as some other observers as the tune is quite jaunty and Valentina has her own special charm. Lyrics like “do you wanna play cybersex again…click me with your mouse” can be viewed as either cheesy crap or tongue-in-cheek witty, you choose. Like a vintage champagne, this will improve over the years, but it will be far too immature for May 22nd. 50-1 to 200-1 ***

Cyprus – La La Love – Ivi Adamou

Ivi AdamouIgnore the up-itself pompous arty-farty video, this is pure disco dancetastic. It’s not going to improve global warming or save polar bears but it is going to give you a very happy three minutes. Everything you could wish from an upbeat Eurovision song. Vying with Greece as my favourite this year. 18-1 to 40-1 *****

Denmark – Should’ve Known Better – Soluna Samay

Soluna SamayWith (IMHO) at least three or four better songs in this year’s Danish final, Soluna Samay’s victory was a testament to her excellent performance. Strangely reminiscent of (but inferior to) Tasmin Archer’s Sleeping Satellite, it’s a song that you keep expecting to soar but, like an honest snooker player, keeps its feet firmly on the floor. Should’ve Known Better? Should’ve Been Better. 9-1 to 14-1 ***

Russia – Party for Everybody – Buranovskiye Babushki

Buranovskiye BabushkiThe Russian grannies may have won the battle of big news story promotion this year but I feel they’re likely to stay Championship in Baku and not trouble the Premiership contenders. True, they are cuddly and sweet to look at, and you have to admire their chutzpah, but they can’t actually sing in tune and I think the juries in particular won’t think the song itself has much merit (“the cat is happy, the dog is happy, we are in a wonderful mood, and very happy”). Mind you, I like this more than the thing they tried with two years ago, whose title in English was “Very long birch bark and how to turn it into a turban”. I will sing along to it, of course, but surely the contest must have more credibility than this? 5-1 to 7-1 ***

Hungary – Sound of our Hearts – Compact Disco

Compact DiscoPlodding ballad or New Romantic triumph? I favour the latter. From the opening keyboard notes I’m hooked. Great instrumentation and strong vocals combine to give this a solid urgency that makes for a serious but rewarding listen. Loved it from the moment I first heard it – probably my third favourite of the year. Given the Hungarian fondness for reversing names I wonder if they should be Disco Compact? The slightly nasty video does nothing to enhance it. 80-1 to 150-1 *****

Austria – Woki mit deim Popo – Trackshittaz

Trackshittaz“The Shitz” are popular back home in Austria, with two number one singles and two number one albums to their rather tasteless name. To woki is to shake, and your Popo is your bum. So, it’s an everyday story about the Noodle Soup gang who go to a club to watch the pole dancers strip. So far, so good. But then they probe a bit deeper into the nature of the bum: “your bum has feelings, your bum is part of you, don’t put it on chairs, your bum has an opinion…” Music by Ivor Novello, words by Noel Coward. 80-1 to 150-1 ***

Moldova – Lăutar – Pasha Parfeny

Pasha ParfenyIncorporating Nelly Ciobanu’s brassy backing from the Hora din Moldova, and that traditional instrument – is it a cimbalom? – and with lyrics that don’t quite work in English (“you haven’t seen before how looks the trumpet”) this ought to be a mess from start to finish but Pasha’s likeable and energetic performance is a complete winner (although I know it won’t be on the night). The ultimate cheesefest and I love it. My fourth favourite of the year, and certainly my favourite ever Moldovan entry. This trumpet makes you mine, girl. 66-1 to 100-1 *****

Ireland – Waterline – Jedward

JedwardComing back for second helpings, Jedward’s new song is more mainstream pop than Lipstick and I prefer it. Very singalong, it will all depend on whether they can maintain their vocals during whatever physical larks they pursue on stage. Again a Marmite act; and although I still think they’re better sight unseen, I do find I’m now warming to them. 10-1 to 20-1 ****

So there we have it, the eighteen songs that make up Semi-Final One, which for me is by far the stronger of the two semis. I’ll be back with a preview of the second Semi-Final in a few days’ time.

Review – Barefoot in the Park, Oxford Playhouse, 23rd April 2012

Barefoot in the ParkMany years ago Mrs Chrisparkle declared “Barefoot in the Park” to be one of her all-time favourite films, so it was a no-brainer that we should see this new touring production of Neil Simon’s original play, directed by, as well as starring, Maureen Lipman. It was a huge success on Broadway back in the 1960s, but a 2006 revival flopped.

So is it risky to resurrect it again? As the curtain goes up to the strains of Jack Jones’ Wives and Lovers, you expect some 1960s New York glamour, trendiness and sophistication. But of course, the reality is newlywed Corrie and Paul’s tiny basic apartment has no heating and a broken skylight. In New York’s 2006 people felt reasonably affluent and secure in their jobs, and maybe this setting didn’t connect much with those theatregoers. In Britain’s 2012, however, times are hard, and I think we can all understand the plight of the young couple starting out in life with a grotty flat and not a lot of money, but full of hope in their hearts.

So, whilst the play is rather dated in some aspects – in this world of children owning smartphones, Corrie’s delight in having her first telephone delivered and installed is charming but seems anachronistic today – the basic themes of the play are still relevant, and I think it’s a good choice of play to revive. Plenty of young couples still start out with nothing but enthusiasm; there are always going to be potentially tricky mothers/mothers-in-law; and that fine line of blending your leisure time and home life with the demands of your work remains blurry. And of course, as long as people are people, and are therefore flawed, they are always going to be a source of disappointment to their partners at some point, which is when you have to work out your compromises in order to get a happy balanced life together. This is the stark reality that faces Corrie and Paul once the initial excitement of the wedding and the moving in together has died down.

Tim Goodchild’s set very evocatively recreates that top-floor Brownstone apartment – bare and basic, with a very dismal and dirty glass roof; the door to the bedroom that you can hardly open because the bed is in the way; the clothes rail inconveniently far from the bedroom (no space for a wardrobe); the useless tiny kitchen that would be impossible to cook in; all looking tired and drab, but nevertheless suggesting that exciting prospect that with a bit of time and effort you could make it look really swish.

Faye CastelowRight at the centre of the story is Corrie, played by Faye Castelow. Young, idealistic, and keen to experience everything she can, her delight in her new surroundings is a joy – she’s playing at being an adult for the first time and loving every minute. You don’t want life to knock the innocent exuberance out of her, as it inevitably will. It’s a very good performance, quirky and funny, whilst remaining totally within the bounds of reality. She is matched by Dominic Tighe’s Paul, his feet firmly on the ground, aghast at the number of steps you have to climb to get to the flat Dominic Tighe(one presumes Corrie agreed the deal on a girlish whim), deeply in love with her but also very aware of his responsibilities and obligations with work and the more serious aspects of life. It’s an equally good performance. Their second act argument scene is conducted with a splendid mixture of pace, silliness, outrage and genuine disappointment. For me it was the highlight of the play. Through their argument they learn the art of compromise and it’s a heart-warming moment when you realise Paul did actually go barefoot in the park.

Maureen Lipman Maureen Lipman is Corrie’s mother, Mrs Banks, and it’s a beautifully understated comic performance. She conveys all the regular motherly concerns without ever becoming a real nag. The role gives her ample opportunities to show off her brilliant comic timing; and you also get very telling insights into her personal loneliness, which will be more acute now that Corrie is living away from home. On top of all that you can just glimpse that slight twinkle in her eye suggesting there might be a more companionable life ahead for her with Victor, played by Oliver Cotton, Oliver Cottonwho gives a funny but again totally believable performance of the weird neighbour with outrageous tastes and extravagant gestures. Ms Lipman’s direction of the play is what makes this production really tick. It emphasises the laughs within the text – some of the lines are still very, very funny – but without ever going over the top. It could have been tempting to make Mrs Banks a hideous dragon and Victor a grotesque foreigner and poke cruel fun at their backgrounds and attitudes. Instead the production allows all its characters to have their personal motivations and genuine emotions recognised and respected. It makes for a much more believable and rewarding scenario.

David PartridgeThere’s also some entertaining support from David Partridge’s Telephone Repair Man and Hayward Morse’s Delivery Man – how nice (if surprising in this kind of role) to see him on the stage again (original Brad in Rocky Horror, Nick in What the Butler Saw, Tony award nominee in Butley on Broadway, and son of the late Barry Morse). Hayward Morse The full house at Oxford gave a warm reception to this surprisingly thoughtful production of a charming play, with lots of funny lines and a feelgood factor. It’s still touring, and with Richmond and Cambridge still to come, I’d recommend it for an entertaining night out.

Italy – Padua

PaduaThere are all sorts of stupid reasons why one might be attracted to visit a certain town over and above simply wishing to see the sights that you know are there to visit. I’m glad I’ve now ticked Padua off my list, and my main motivation for including it in our Italian Odyssey was so that I could sing on the streets “I’ve come to wive it wealthily in Padua” (from Kiss Me Kate, or Taming of the Shrew if you’re more literary). I’m a constant source of embarrassment to Mrs Chrisparkle and Lady Duncansby; I spent an entire Norwegian cruise a few years ago irritatingly breaking into the opening lines of the “Song of Norway”.

Basilica in the distanceAnyway – Padua, or Padova, if you prefer. I’d pre-booked our train tickets in advance using the Trenitalia website, and if you plan to travel by train around Italy and you can pick particular dates and times for your journeys, and stick to it, I’d really recommend it. When we asked the hotel staff in Verona how much time we should allow to get to the station, their first question was: have you bought your tickets in advance? They said if you have to queue for your tickets then add another half hour to your journey. You don’t need that kind of stress when you’re on hols.

Typical PaduanThe website is easy to use and has a very good English translation. There are also some absolute bargains to be had on there, and some of our trips were extremely good value. There are a number of options as to how you would like your tickets – I chose the ticketless option, where all you have to do is tell the ticket inspector a six digit booking code when on board. Easy peasy. In the end, the combined cost of a single from Verona to Padua, then from Padua to Venice, and finally back from Venice to Verona cost approximately £45 per person, travelling first class. The carriages were clean and comfortable, and you get a complimentary drink and snackette. They even have English language newspapers on board. Plus you arrive in your destination relaxed and raring to go.

Al Cason HotelWe chose our hotel – the Al Cason – primarily because it was close to the railway station and it got sufficiently good reviews on Trip Advisor (currently Number 6 of 59), and was pretty cheap. As a three star it doesn’t have quite the pizzazz of the other hotels on our jaunt, but it was perfectly good enough for one night. The staff were helpful and the room was clean – if a little dark. There’s an unusual thing – the room numbers are not written on the doors but are etched into the carpet in the corridors! Breakfast was fine.

Giardini dell’Arena So with only a matter of only five or so hours of daylight to experience everything Padua had to offer, we headed out on our mission of exploration. Gasping for some water, we called in at a little kebab shop near the hotel and got chatting to the chap behind the counter who was proudly displaying an award for his cricketing prowess – not exactly what you would expect in the back streets of a north Italian city! The walled “old town” of Padua is actually quite small so you can get a good appreciation of the place in a short time. The major attraction to see is the Cappella degli Scrovegni, the chapel famous for its Giotto frescos. The only way you can visit is to book in advance, and they have drastically reduced the windows of opportunity to visit. My 2007 guide book says it’s open from 9am to 10pm, but when you go to the website to book, you find it’s now restricted to just the late morning and early lunchtime. Unfortunately we arrived too late in Padua to visit on the same day and were leaving too early the next day to slot it in then too. So regrettably the Scrovegni frescos remain a mystery to me. Always good to have something to come back for, though. Instead, we had a quick wander around the Giardini dell’Arena nearby; a nice bit of greenery in the urban area.

Palazzo del Capitanio We were heading south into the centre, on a route that takes you through lots of workaday yet attractive piazzas – the Piazza Insurrezione, the Piazza della Frutta, the Piazza delle Erbe, the Piazza dei Signori and the Piazza del Duomo. We walked through them all and they were all vibrant with daily commerce and business activities. The big astronomical clock, made in 1344, of the Palazzo del Capitanio in the Piazza dei Signori cries out for having its photo taken. We arrived at the Piazza del Duomo, with the intention of visiting said Duomo, but by then realised we were absolutely starving. So we found a nice little place, Il Gancino, opposite the Duomo, where we sat in the sunshine, ate pizzas, (not Mrs C, obviously – the tuna salad went down a treat), drank some nice Italian plonk and I fended off nuisance calls from 3 on my mobile phone.

BaptistryAfter lunch we crossed to the Duomo, but it was closed till 4pm. Never mind, we’ll come back, we said. Next door, the Baptistry, was however open. What a jaw-droppingly astonishing sight. It’s stunning. It dates from around 1200 and inside is entirely decorated with frescos of scenes from the Bible, painted by Giusto de’ Menabuoi in 1378. It isn’t a large building – somehow its intimacy makes it more astounding, as you feel really close to the images, which is something you can’t quite feel in a huge cathedral that might have similar decorations on its ceiling. There are seats all round the walls so you can sit and take it in from all directions. If you know me personally, gentle reader, you will know that I am a naturally law-abiding person – tediously so, sometimes. There are times when rules are meant to be broken though, so I deliberately transgressed the no-photography rule when the man at the cash desk wasn’t looking. I didn’t use a flash and it was only with the iPhone, so where’s the harm? I think you’ll agree the view is “something else”.

Palazzo della RagioneWe retraced our steps back to the Piazza delle Erbe to find the Palazzo della Ragione. This was Padua’s law court and council chamber, built in 1218. When we got to the ticket booth, the lady there looked distressed for us. She explained that they were using the Palazzo to prepare for an art exhibition. We looked despondent. “Does that mean we can’t go in?” I asked. “Oh no”, she said brightly, “you can go in but we can only charge you half price”. To be honest I didn’t feel the need to commiserate with her too deeply. She said there would be areas where they are setting up the exhibition where we couldn’t go, but we could go everywhere else. “Let’s risk it”, I said.

HorseOn entering, you realise it’s another astonishing sight. It’s the largest undivided medieval hall in Europe; 80 metres long, 27 metres wide and 27 metres high, and its walls are covered with frescos by Nicola Miretto, dating from 1420 to 1425. Walking around it, you are in awe of its scope and majesty, and it’s thrilling to see that the frescos are still in remarkably good condition. At one end of the hall is a copy of the huge Donatello horse, the original of which is in the Piazza del Santo; at the other, a reconstruction of Foucault’s Pendulum made by the Physics Department of Padua University. An amazing place to visit, and all for a couple of euros. Oh, and if you want my advice, installing an exhibition of local art there is redundant.

Graduation dayFrom the balcony of the Palazzo you can look down on to the Piazza delle Erbe, a great place for discreet people-watching. It looked like there were some lively goings-on happening to the far left, so we thought we’d investigate. This route took us toward the heart of the university area, and we realised it must be Graduation Day, as there were a number of happy-looking young people celebrating; some wearing a traditional laureate wreath around their necks, like one demure young lady I noticed; others in bikinis allowing themselves to be body-painted as some kind of performance art. We never did that at my alma mater, that’s for sure.

Piazza del SantoIt seemed a little indelicate to linger alongside the bikini-clad girls for any length of time, so we carried on towards the Piazza del Santo, taking in an attractive old balconied building where, according to the plaque outside, Dante worked in 1306. We followed the via del Santo down towards the Basilica di Sant’Antonio. After a nice coffee break in one of the cafes there, we went to visit the Basilica. I confess I can’t remember too much about its interior; you get to a stage when another majestic building doesn’t get registered in your head because you’re still processing the previous majestic building. In any event, it’s possibly mainly notable for its domed exterior, which has something Moorish about it. It was built to house the remains of St Anthony of Padua, a simple man, apparently, who rejected worldly wealth; he must have looked down from heaven at the huge church they built him and said “Didn’t you lot listen? I don’t need all that!” Further round the piazza there are the Scuola del Santo and Oratorio di San Giorgio, but it was closing time so we just had enough time to peep round the Oratorio and see the art works on the walls.

Prato della ValleThe Prato della Valle looked interesting on the map although I didn’t know anything about it, but as it was close by, we thought we’d take a gander. It’s terrific! A beautiful open park, it’s the largest square in Italy, with statues surrounding either side of a moat and a green island in the centre. A place for simply lounging about, as indeed all the Paduans were doing most assiduously when we were there.

Piazza dei Signori at nightIt was the end of the day, and we were faced with a good hour or so’s walk back to the hotel. En route, we passed by the university area again, where we saw the same demure young lady we had seen earlier, now looking somewhat worse for wear – students, eh? We followed a different route back, the via San Fermo, and what did we find just before we turned the corner into the via Dante? A coeliac shop. No, not a place to buy coeliacs, but a little emporium of wonderful gluten-free edibles and a very friendly and helpful man pointing out all his coeliac-friendly options. Mrs C did a trolley dash of “Supermarket Sweep” proportions and stocked up on biccies and cakes which would prove invaluable in the next few days. The gentleman in the shop said he would be selling online shortly and indeed I see he now is; but his shop, Il mondo senza glutine, at 108 via San Fermo, though small, could be a life-saver for any coeliac who finds themselves hungry in Padua.

Cova RestaurantSo after a much needed rest and refresh, it was back out on the town to forage for food. We discovered the Cova Restaurant on via Calvi and it was full of locals, which we thought was a good sign. It was. A nice ambience and good food and drink – Mrs C had the Tagliata again as she had in Verona the previous night, but comparisons are odious and the Veronese one was slightly better. Still, it absolutely did the job. Even better, afterwards we stumbled (probably not the best word) upon a charming open air enoteca, the Santa Lucia in the Piazza Cavour, where we had some delicious Chianti and some totally unnecessary but yummy nibbles. It was probably the best evening bar-based experience we had in Italy.

Enoteca Santa LuciaAnd that was our brief sojourn in Padua. Tomorrow it would be off to Venice, no doubt the highlight of our tour; but I’m very glad we included our one night in Padua as it is a charming place, with some stunning sights and a friendly atmosphere. We never did get back to the Duomo, and I didn’t get to wive it wealthily, but you can’t have everything.

Review – Ladies in Lavender, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 18th April 2012

Ladies in LavenderNeither Mrs Chrisparkle nor I can actually remember seeing the film of Ladies in Lavender, so seeing the stage production was certainly a chance to appreciate the story for the first time. There was a big “oooh” of excitement when it was announced at the subscription season launch that this production would star Hayley Mills. I was certainly responsible for one of the “oooh”s. My only concern at the time was they would need to cast another actress of sufficient clout to keep it balanced – but I needn’t have worried as they have in the form of Belinda Lang.

And what a palpable sense of 1937 Cornish claustrophobia they really do conjure up. From the moment the curtain rises on their unravelling wool whilst listening to the wireless, meticulously planning the timing and the construct of the evening’s cocoa, you understand that, by today’s standards, and using Shirley Valentine’s phrase, these are two little lives inhabiting a very little world. But the storm that scares them into an early night also provides them with the biggest shake-up they’ve probably ever experienced – the discovery the next morning of a young man washed up on the beach. By the time he’s been rescued, seen by Dr Mead and put to bed under the protection of Aunt Elizabeth’s counterpane, their lives will be changed forever; as, for good measure, will the mysterious young Andrea’s too.

EnsembleWhat must the world have been like in 1937 – a pretty scary place, I would imagine. The local community would be highly suspicious of an eastern European, fluent in German, suddenly appearing in their community. Added to which, another foreigner, Olga, unexpectedly moves to the area, allegedly to improve her painting skills, but she wants to make contact with him. Are they spies? Was his sudden appearance on the shore somehow staged? Are the genteel Widdington sisters in any danger? Surely not, you think – but as the plot opens out there is a nagging doubt in the back of your mind. In the end you realise your concerns were unfounded – the truth was much simpler and more honest because what the story is all about is the simple attraction Ursula feels for Andrea.

At first, the sisters are competitive in his fascination for them, vying for the privilege to assist his bedside needs, childishly arguing over who saw him first. But it is Ursula rather than Janet who lingers, reads him the story of The Little Mermaid, and for whom the fascination develops into love. Of course, this love is unrequited for a gazillion reasons – mainly age difference, background, ambition – and of course the simple reason that he doesn’t actually fancy her. Dr Mead is also smitten with Olga – one gets the feeling that the late Mrs Mead wasn’t really a party animal – and his approaches are also ignored. When he’s trying gently to chat her up on the beach he points out a local folly – then goes on to describe it as not really a folly, as it was built by a local worthy to escape from his wife. That’s the metaphor for the play – this love for unsuitable, younger people may seem like folly, but in reality it’s not; it’s an escape, but it’s also likely to be unsuccessful.

The heart-warming thing about this story is that no one really criticises Ursula for her love. Why shouldn’t she love Andrea? There’s a beautiful penny-drop moment when Andrea sees Ursula crying outside in the garden – that’s when he understands the truth, and there’s no denying the strength of the emotions between either of them from that moment. The story ends as it must with Ursula, Janet and the Doctor, all listening to the wireless, together but separate, and coping with their various levels of sadness; the final hand-holding between the two sisters suggesting they will return to their previous existence, supporting each other as needed.

Hayley MillsIt’s a fantastic production of a charming play. Hayley Mills and Belinda Lang present you with an acting masterclass that’s so natural you completely suspend belief that they’re on a stage. Hayley Mills becomes a girl again as she loses herself to the mysterious Andrea, helping him learn the language by sticking English words on pieces of furniture like a game, and getting selfish and defensive when presented with the prospect of his moving on. Of course she’s demurely well behaved; serene and controlled on the exterior, but with emotions working nineteen to the dozen under the surface. She has a beautiful, expressive voice combining clarity and vulnerability in a riveting way; an infectious enthusiasm, and a look that can drive you to tears. As you would expect, it’s a superb performance.

Belinda LangKeeping her in check as much as possible, Belinda Lang as the slightly bossier sister Janet is superbly well cast. She brings out all the excellent “no nonsense” nuances of the character, but even her defences get breached as the arrival of Andrea brings to mind her lost Peter, who went to war and never came back – that whole element of the plot is so beautifully and subtly written, incidentally. I very much enjoyed her snooty reaction to the appearance of Olga on her land, and her otherwise hearty good nature brings out a lot of the humour of the story as she too gives an exceptional performance.

Carol MacreadyThere is a third member of the household, Dorcas, played by Carol Macready, who acts as cook, maid and general factotum, never missing an opportunity to puncture any pomposity or reveal a hypocrisy. Kind hearted but brusque, hers is a great comic turn, and she makes the most of the comedy opportunities that the script generously provides – we particularly loved her gentle awakening of the hungover Andrea. It was very enjoyable to see her on the Royal stage again, as she was excellent in Eden End last year.

Robert DuncanRobert Duncan’s Dr Mead has nice stiff-upper-lip bluster but convincingly allows us to get under his skin to see his inner sadness and his wish to partner up again – maybe with the lovely Olga, maybe not. His brief silent appearance on the beach when he espies Andrea apparently serenading Olga with the violin spoke volumes. A very thoughtful and affecting performance.

Robert ReesAs the mysterious Andrea, to be honest Robert Rees doesn’t have a great deal to do in the first half of the play except speak in a Polish accent and look either surprised or delighted. But as the role develops he also gives a very good performance, with his innocent pleasure of Olga’s company, his childish rage when he realises the sisters have prevented him from seeing her, and his tender reaction to his understanding of Ursula’s feelings for him.

Abigail ThawThe final member of the cast is Abigail Thaw as Olga, a cool customer with Dr Mead, an interloper in the sisters’ garden and the eventual encourager of Andrea’s talent, all of which she performs with spirited aplomb and that slight air of mystery that just makes you wonder if she has an “agenda”. Another really good performance.

The story takes place in four specific locations – the beach, the sisters’ front room, the garden and the upstairs bedroom. The Royal only has a little stage! But the set inventively uses every possible space and successfully squeezes in all the locations; and combined with simple but effective lighting it works a treat. Nitpicking, I only have two slightly critical observations: violins have to be played during the course of the play and – although I’m no expert – I’m not entirely sure Mr Rees’ arm movements with the bow could actually make the sound the violin was purporting to emit. His movement was very smooth, slow and regular even when the tune got a bit funky. Secondly, I think the very final scene would be improved if we didn’t see the figure of Andrea playing the violin in the distant corner – it detracted from what was otherwise a fully realistic presentation all the way through, and as an image it was totally eclipsed by the movingly stricken expressions on the faces of the rest of the cast in that final tableau.

But it’s an ace production of a very charming play, acted magnificently and a real spellbinder throughout. It would be a crime if it were not to be seen elsewhere after it finishes its run in Northampton and its time at the Oxford Playhouse in May. We were actually wondering if it might – just might – have something of the “End of the Rainbow” in its future. All the ingredients are there to make it a potentially huge success. Definitely recommended!

Italy – Verona

Torre dei LambertiIf regular readers noted an absence of theatre reviews a few weeks ago it’s because Mrs Chrisparkle and I were on our travels again. This time accompanied by my Lady Duncansby, we flew to Verona, where we spent two nights, then travelled by train to Padua for one night, on again to Venice for two nights, and then cruised on board the MSC Magnifica to Bari, Katakolon, Izmir, Istanbul and Dubrovnik, before returning back to Venice, taking the train back to Verona and flying home. I hope to cover all that in the next few weeks!

Lungadige PanvinioOriginally we had booked the week’s cruise, but decided we wanted to spend more time in Venice. Checking all the online flight brokers, flights out to Venice were all pretty pricey – I guess it’s a popular (as well as expensive) destination. This gave me the idea of looking further afield, and I came up with the solution of Verona. Only an hour or so from Venice by train, and a much cheaper flight. Also we didn’t have to be humiliated by Ryanair staff, yay! It was a service provided by good old British Airways.

Verona's rooftopsThere was one major disappointment about the BA flight however; no food! I thought they always bunged you at least a snack, if not a meal. But unless you were travelling in first or business, you just got a drink and a clean-up sachet. Not much to clean up, really. And bizarrely, unlike the dreaded Ryanair where you have to buy everything, there was no provision of selling food either. So if you didn’t have a nibble in Gatwick, you were going to stay hungry until you got to Italy.

San Zeno Maggiore at a distanceVerona airport is not terribly far from the city but you wouldn’t want to walk it with all that luggage, so your choices are to get the airport/railway station bus service (every 20 minutes) or to get a taxi. I always have an anxiety about just getting into a taxi at a foreign airport, particularly if I don’t speak the language – I always fear that it will result somewhere between getting ripped off for 20 times the real cost of the journey and everyone getting raped and murdered and slung in a ditch. So I decided to pre-book a taxi through Airport City Transfer, who charged 40 euros for the direct trip from the airport to our hotel. Most other similar services wanted to charge 50 euros. I have to say that the transfer worked a dream – I got all the email communication I was promised including clear instructions; the driver was there on our arrival, he took our bags and put them into his nice clean posh Mercedes, drove us straight to our hotel, unloaded the bags and just asked for the 40 euros. A super service, and I would thoroughly recommend it.

Hotel AccademiaOur hotel was the Hotel Accademia. I chose it because it was “number two” in popularity on Trip Advisor. I see it is now “number one” and I am not at all surprised. It’s a lovely hotel, with very helpful and polite staff, comfortable rooms and bathrooms, a generous breakfast and is superbly located. It also has a discreet and relaxing small bar at the back where you can wind down after a long days’ sightseeing or a long night’s wining and dining.

old gate near Piazza BraSo, off we went to explore. We only had a little time on our first evening before dinner, so we just followed our noses. One thing you have to say about Verona – and it was obvious from the drive in from the airport – it’s stunningly beautiful. The architecture, the colours, the shops, the people – they all reek style. Elegance just seems to appear naturally. Not a place for bargain shopping, I should add: I found a nice trendy black bomber jacket in one of the boutiques that I thought might suit me, but then dropped it like a hot brick when I saw how much it cost – 7,000 euros. You’d need Jessie J’s income to forget about that particular price tag.

Piazza ErbeThe hotel is just around the corner from the Piazza Erbe, so that became our favourite local haunt. Elegant old palazzo type buildings enclose a market square, mainly selling tourist type stuff but not exclusively; frescos adorn the upper storeys of attractive looking bars and cafes; there’s a charming old Roman statue in the middle of the fountain; and the wonderful old Venetian lion statue atop its column. It’s a genuinely lovely place. Not over pretty; not over serious. Just the kind of place where life takes place and you feel privileged to share in it.

Torre dei Lamberti and Piazza ErbeThe cityscape here is dominated by the Torre dei Lamberti, that rises beside the old law court in the adjacent Piazza dei Signori. We decided early on that we weren’t going to attempt its 84 metre ascent, although I expect the view is stunning. We wandered away from the Torre and discovered a courtyard that was covered in graffiti. Mrs C and Lady D strolled round the yard, which was full of backpacking students,Juliet's graffiti whilst I looked more closely at the graffiti. We carried on, slightly bemused. It was only about 24 hours later that I realised this was the Juliet’s balcony complex, and, basically, we missed it. Never mind – a balcony’s a balcony at the end of the day.

Arena by night We followed the Vias Cappello and Leoni and turned right opposite San Fermo Maggiore, which we would visit more properly the next day, and continued walking round until we found ourselves outside the famous Arena – very unspoilt and mysterious looking at night. Alongside the arena is the Piazza Bra, a long square lined with tasty if touristy looking restaurants. After a couple of false starts we ended up in one of them; regrettably I can’t remember its name but it was comfortable and the food was very good. What I did admire – and this was not the only time it happened on this trip – I asked the waiter to recommend a suitable local wine for the meals we had chosen and his recommendatio came right at the cheap end of the wine list – and it was excellent. Quite unlike the rip-off experience I just avoided in Rio last year. After all that walking, eating, and general travelling, it was bedtime – or should have been. A brief dip into the hotel bar for a nightcap, and we were done in. But then we couldn’t resist nip out again to the Piazza Erbe for a late night drink, and had a jolly nice glass of Chianti at the Caffe Brasserie Filippini.

Amusing frescosI had meticulously planned the next day’s sightseeing – one module in the southern part of the city and another in the north. But first we thought we ought to time the walk to the railway station in case we didn’t go by taxi the next day. My advice – don’t bother. For one thing, we never actually found the railway station, even though we had a clear map to follow. Secondly, who wants to drag cases all that way – including lots of cobbles. You’re on holiday – it’s just not worth it. Get your hotel to book you a taxi. It’s a ten minute drive, and you won’t regret a cent.

Juliet's tombWalking back into town the first place on my list was Juliet’s Tomb. What an odd experience this is! First of all, Juliet is a fictitious character. Some bright spark in the 1930s thought they would create a tomb for her, purely to satisfy the needs of tourists – he didn’t mention anything about the needs of his own bank balance. So her tomb is in fact an empty sarcophagus in the crypt of San Francesco al Corso, which presumably at some earlier time housed the remains of some other unfortunate late person. It’s atmospherically quite creepy though; and the church itself has been converted to a museum with frescos and other art works, which are well worth a look. The guards here are keen as mustard to make sure you aren’t doing anything untoward with their exhibits; but they are chatty and informative, and above all happy to see you finding it interesting.

San Fermo Maggiore insideStrolling past the old city walls at via Pallone and some amusing frescos in via Dietro Pallone, we found ourselves once again at the Church of San Fermo Maggiore. It’s a fascinating place, and well worth paying the entrance fee, as it’s essentially two churches in one – a lower church begun in 1065 by Benedictine monks and an upper church restored sometime in the 14th century. The lower church feels very crypt-like, and Lady D found it a bit spooky. It has a huge ship’s keel ceiling though. Nice frescos and some good solid hinges on the big wooden doors – always a satisfying sight.

Inside the ArenaRetracing our steps from the previous evening, we walked round to the Arena, resisting the temptation to pose for a photograph with an out of work actor dressed as a gladiator. Apparently, it’s the third largest Roman amphitheatre in the world, after the Colosseum in Rome and that at Santa Maria Capua Vetere near Naples. Of course, this is where the opera is famously performed, but there was none on whilst we were there. It was fun just to explore the place – hopping around seats and rows, in and out of entrances and exits, playing Christians and Lions and largely ignoring the roped off no-entry areas where some guys were doing some building work – well, we didn’t get in their way and it was perfectly safe. You get some impressive views from the topmost back row all over the city. It gave you a rewarding feeling of being at one with history. Well worth the visit.

Ponte ScaligeroAnother nice lunch in the Piazza Bra, this time at La Costa, with a great view and friendly service; perfect in the spring sunshine. We crossed the River Adige by Ponte Vittoria and took a quiet charming walk along the river bank, past the Ponte Scaligero – a medieval bridge that got blown up during World War Two and was rebuilt from masonry rescued from the river – along to Ponte Risorgimento and our first view of the tower of San Zeno Maggiore.

San Zeno Maggiore - insideSan Zeno Maggiore has to count as one of the world’s gmost spectacular churches. Built in the early 12th century, it boasts a fantastic ship’s keel ceiling, a dark and mysterious crypt, fabulous bronze door panels, colourful old frescos – it has it all. San Zeno is Verona’s patron saint; Lady Duncansby was so taken with the place that she has adopted San Zeno as her own personal saint. It’s a wonderful place just to lose yourself for half an hour.

CastelvecchioFrom there we wandered past the Castelvecchio, which looks like a grand old building, but decided not to investigate their art collection as we wouldn’t have enough time to give it the attention it no doubt deserves. Instead we carried on back past the Piazza Erbe and on to the Duomo. It’s another magnificent building, with beautiful art and architecture, and stunning ceilings.

DuomoFrom the river by the Duomo you can look across the water and see more churches and the Roman Theatre. There’s an art to a happy day’s sightseeing – don’t get too exhausted. We would have liked to carry on, but the effect of all this magnificent church art is that you get satiated. I don’t think we could have crammed in another sight. Instead we drifted back to the Piazza Erbe and had a really nice drink and snack at the café that seems to attract the most locals – Greppia RestaurantI can’t remember its name but it’s the one that’s at the farthest north-east corner of the square. Then it was back for a rest and out again for dinner. Using the Trip Advisor app on the iPhone (brilliant!) we discovered Greppia. What a fantastic restaurant. The food and drink was excellent – the ambience buzzy and sophisticated, and the service friendly and efficient. Regular readers will know that Mrs C is a coeliac and they knew precisely what to recommend at this restaurant and it was all delicious. I had the Calf’s Liver, Mrs C the Tagliata beef with rocket salad and Lady D the pumpkin risotto. It was a super little find.

A day is certainly not long enough to do Verona justice – but we did our best! Sophisticated and friendly – which don’t always go together – we loved it. The next day we would be taking the train to Padua.

Eurovision 2012 – The ones that got away

It’s that time of year again, gentle reader, when it is my duty to let you hear a few gems that did not make it through their national qualifying heats and therefore will not be gracing the stage of the Crystal Hall in Baku, if they build it on time. It’s been a good year, although perhaps not a great one, for the National Finals. I’m going to start of with an absolute classic. Petter Øien and Bobby Bare got into the final four in Norway with their simple country song, Things Change. It stands out not only because of the different genre, but also because it’s a fine old tune. If Bobby Bare had made it to Baku, he would have been 77 years old; that young whippersnapper Engelbert Humperdinck would be in short trousers by comparison.

Next up is a wonderful dramatic piece from Iceland, not that this year’s Icelandic entry lacks a sense of saga. Hugarro, which my online translator says means “Peace of Mind”, is sung by Magni Asgeirsson. He has one of those voices that makes you think he’s experienced a lot of troubles in his life, and this was his 4th attempt to represent Iceland at the Eurovision Song Contest. Last year he came 2nd with “Eg trui a betra lif”; and this year he slipped down to 3rd, so he’d better pull his socks up in the future. The opening keyboard sound has something of the Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence about it. See what you think.

Over to Hungary now, and a strong final as this year’s Hungarian entry by Compact Disco is definitely one of my favourites. But there was plenty of other prospects to tickle your tunebuds. Take for example this quality ballad, Vizio (Vertigo) performed by the amusingly named Caramel. If you were ever going to name a bloke Caramel, this is not how I would imagine him to look. Maybe he has a soft centre. He won Hungarian Pop Idol in 2005 and is now a judge on the show, so he probably knows his nougats from his pralines.

Double-dipping in Hungary, here’s the song that came draw 2nd with Vizio, Learning to let go by Gabor Heincz, or Heincz Gabor if you prefer. It couldn’t be more different from Mr Caramel’s offering, as it’s light of note and jaunty of step, one of those songs that require you to hop from one side to another in your brain as it progresses. He was a backing singer in the Eurovision a couple of years ago, and the song’s a jolly little thing with a certain je ne sais quoi; if I knew quoi, I would tell you.

I know what you’re thinking – where are the girls? Well here’s one. Ditte Marie from Denmark singing Overflow, another bright upbeat dancy little number that came nowhere in Aalborg. It probably doesn’t examine the human condition in any great depth, but you can have too much philosophy. Wearing an ice queen leotard rummaged out of the seconds bin – check out the rips on her arms – she does a nice line in stage-strutting without it ever being over-the-top. It’s certainly jollier than the song that will represent Denmark this year. Have a listen.

I feel like a touch of the Baltics after that, so let’s nip over to Estonia avoiding the “Kuula” – I’ll dissect that one day soon – and keeping it light let’s have a listen to You’re Not Alone by Birgit Õigemeel (try saying that after a few bottles of Saku) and Violina, which I think of as a prettier version of the James Last Orchestra. Birgit won the first season of Estonian Idol and has recorded loads of singles. This song came 7th in their national final and I think was under-rated. Admittedly it’s not as good as the wonderful Violina/Rolf Junior attempt from 2010, “Maagiline päev”, but I think it deserves an honourable mention here.

Look I don’t want to bore you for too long so I’ll just suggest a couple of others for you. Over in Austria, a chap named Norbert Schneider sang this very “different” number called Medicate my blues away. It couldn’t be further away from the Trackshittaz. Norbert’s into his blues in a big way, and although this wouldn’t normally be my Tasse Tee, I rather like its smooth chirpiness. It’s the title track of his new album too. It didn’t make the superfinal in Austria – probably to his credit.

Whilst we’re in Austria, have a listen to Englishman James Cottriall who also failed to make the superfinal with his song, Stand Up. He moved to Vienna as part of his German and Philosophy degree at Nottingham University, where his part-time busking and other gigs took off so well that he remained there to pursue his music career – very successfully as it turns out. Stand Up is a nice anthemic song and doesn’t feature rappers with dodgy lyrics or a bearded lady.

Time for one more – and it’s over to Latvia, where there were a few good contenders to represent the country. Whilst I think Anmary’s Beautiful Song, that will be in Baku, was probably the perfect choice, it would be remiss not to include this final song in this memorial to songs that you might never hear again. Music Thief is a silly, funny song about plagiarism, with lyrics stolen from other songs and with musical elements you’ll recognise from elsewhere too. The lead singer’s voice gives you hope that one day you too could have a recording career. I’d like the Mad Show Boys come back next year with something equally daft.

If you got this far – and listened to the songs too – well done you. Feel free to post a comment if you like or hate any of them or if you have other suggestions. I’ll be examining this year’s proper entries soon, so you have been warned.

Review – Paul Merton, Out of My Head, Derngate, Northampton, 14th April 2012

Paul Merton - Out of my HeadSo, Paul Merton: “a return to your stand up roots for the first time this century”, according to your flyer. I can just about accept that. “A return to stand up” say some theatres’ websites. No: that is inaccurate. “Paul Merton, Out of my Head” is not a stand up show. However, actually defining what it is proves rather tricky. I think the closest you can get to it is that it is actually a fully scripted play for four performers. The text contains elements of stand up, of improvisation and of sketches, but the whole structure of the show serves to distance the audience from these elements, rather than communicate the content (and presumably some humour) to them. So unless Paul Merton’s gone all Brechtian on us, this show simply misses the mark.

The other main aspect to this offering is that it really isn’t at all funny; which is more than a shame really, because that’s precisely the reason you went out to see this show in the first place. It’s an autobiographical look-back at his life from his childhood to the present day, with a heavy concentration on his mental health problems. But you can’t compare this with, say, Ruby Wax’s Losing It, where she completely strips herself bare (figuratively speaking) and gives you first-hand genuine insight into her mental condition and her practical coping strategies. Paul Merton doesn’t open the door to his inner recesses at all. If anything, the real Paul Merton is wrapped and kept hidden well away from our prying eyes and ears. By not letting us into his real thoughts, you feel the whole thing is mere window-dressing, a deliberate obfuscation rather than using comedy to reveal the truth.

BrunelFor some unexplained reason, the set and promotional literature suggest a Victorian theme, and I suppose it is true that some of the material – the ventriloquist act, “black light” theatre animation, for example – may have been around in those days. Maybe it relates to one of the funnier lines, that Have I Got News For You has been around so long that one of its first presenters was Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Otherwise, I can’t see the point. Some of that black theatre animation was good, mind you. I liked how the ventriloquist dummy came to life, and how Sister Galista spread out all over the backdrop. Note to performers though – I don’t think The Black Theatre of Prague ever wore trainers with white flashings – kind of gives the game away.

Belisha BeaconTo be honest, I didn’t see the point of most of it. There’s a Belisha Beacon type thing that lights up and alerts every time Paul Merton swears. Given the fact that he doesn’t swear as much as most comics, it’s totally irrelevant. He constantly returns to “Little Paul”, the ventriloquist dummy of himself, but it’s not as though the dummy says the things that the real Paul wants to, but can’t, say. I’m not sure why he’s there – certainly not for humour. Little Paul, along with the rest of the cast, are all dressed like Paul Merton in his light grey suit. They all look like him; they all talk about him; it’s all about him; you sense this is therapy by vanity.

I’d like to be able to say that his supporting cast were there to lighten the mood and create a comedy buffer zone that you could dip in and out of; unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the case. Rather than they bringing the overall performance up, I think Paul Merton dragged theirs down. Certainly nearly all the little sketches were weighed down by pointless unfunniness, leaving gaps where we were meant to laugh and applaud that just got filled with embarrassing silence. On those occasions where they did have a good comic idea, it got done to death. Additionally, Suki Webster got the words to the finale song wrong which emphasised the air of amateurishness.

So explain this then? I find Paul Merton very funny when I see him on “Have I Got News For You”, and when he’s on radio’s “Just a Minute”. But this show is hugely disappointing. He seems to be at his best when he’s interacting with other people, talking as unscripted as possible, and doing his celebrated flights of absurd fancy sequences. Sadly this show has very little, if any, of that. There is an “improvisation” sequence, which perked the show up a little – just because it was a change of pace – but again it showed off the performers’ technical ability more than actually being “funny”.

car-crash Quite a few people left halfway through. At only 1 hour 50 minutes, it’s a short show including the interval but I’m reminded of clouds and silver linings. The odd thing is, that, despite all this criticism, both Mrs C and I found it strangely watchable – we’re not sure why, as it wasn’t for the comedy. It wasn’t even the ghoulish pleasure of witnessing a car-crash – it didn’t have enough energy to crash. To be fair, there were a few laughs occasionally tucked away, frequently when he was quoting other, funnier, people like Max Miller and Julian Clary. I think only the politeness of the audience and their overall respect for his back catalogue prevented him from being mercilessly heckled. A fairly full house was buzzing before it started but had flatlined by the end. This is touring till the end of May, so you’d better bring your own jokes with you. An evening of Slight Entertainment.

Review – Toma Fund Presents Eurovision Reunited, The Sage, Gateshead, 11th April 2012

Eurovision ReunitedAn unlikely charity inspires an unlikely event in an unlikely location on an unlikely date – but what a combination! Toma Fund’s Eurovision Reunited was a great show and it would be fantastic if it could become an annual event.

Toma FundThe Toma Fund is a charity that supports children, teenagers, young people and their families in the North East and Cumbria who have been affected by a diagnosis of childhood cancer. It is dedicated to the memory of Jordan Thompson and Sophie Atay who were cousins who died of childhood cancers in 2007 and 2010. The fund is run by Jordan’s mother Andrea, who, together with fundraiser Sue Lawrence – a Eurovision fan, came up with the idea of having a concert at the Sage in Gateshead of previous Eurovision winners and performers, with all the proceeds going to charity.

The concert was held on Wednesday 11th April. The choice of a midweek date was, in a sense, both the strength and weakness of the event. Strength, in that it meant the likelihood that the acts would be available was much greater – at the weekends they would more than likely have previous work commitments. Weakness, because it was harder for people other than locals to attend without taking time off work. This actually meant that many Eurovision fans from abroad who would have liked to attend simply couldn’t. The location – Gateshead – was also not advantageous as far as overseas travellers were concerned – flights to Newcastle are considerably more expensive than to London, and there are fewer of them.

Still – who am I to quibble about these things. With some judicious adaptation of the “working from home” concept, and a couple of half-day leaves, Mrs Chrisparkle and I were able to attend, together with our German friend JP, who has a weekly show – Radio International – on Dutch radio about Eurovision, and indeed on which you can hear me every month or so, rambling on about something Eurovisiony. So the three of us were very privileged to get backstage and post-show-party access to record some interviews for the radio show and to hob and to nob with the great and the good.

Nicki FrenchWe got lost trying to find the hotel and arrived at the Sage later than we hoped, so our window of interviewing opportunity during the sound checks had passed. In fact on arrival we were escorted to the Artists’ Dining Room where they were having their pre-show meal. A word about the Sage – it’s a glorious building from the outside, with massive airy public spaces and the Concert Hall is a stunning piece of modern architecture. However, I was surprised how drab the backstage areas are! There are (I think) two main dressing rooms where lots of people share, and a few others for individuals or groups but there would be no room if you wanted to go cat-swinging as well. The Artists’ Dining Room was grey and featureless – apart from an open canteen area and some big tables. Still I am sure it fulfils its purpose.

Linda MartinMany of the artists were having their dinner and it seemed extremely rude to interrupt them, but two we spoke to were Nicki French, who is preparing for a new theatre role in “Guilty Pleasures”, coming to a theatre near you soon, and Linda Martin, whose cup is currently overflowing with the job of mentoring Jedward for this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. I can tell you from our chats with Linda that she is very excited at working with Jedward – she admires their ability to learn and soak up new ideas like a sponge, as well as their commitment to their fans. She’s thrilled with the song “Waterline” – as soon as she heard it, she knew it was the right one – and they are also planning something spectacular for the presentation in Baku. She couldn’t say what, precisely, but she assured us we would all go “wow” in a very big way.

Brotherhood of ManAfter the artists had dispersed back to their dressing rooms we thought we’d try our luck with one of the big names. Tentatively we asked Brotherhood of Man if they would mind giving us an interview, and no question, we were invited into their dressing room, even though they were in the middle of getting ready for the show, and gave us loads of their time. We reflected back on their success of 1976 and they came up with their memories of the time; we talked about their subsequent career, how important their Eurovision win was in terms of their career, right up to the present time with with their current touring show, The Seventies Story. We also established that they weren’t from the Isle of Man! I was able to tell them how “Save Your Kisses For Me” cheered me up when I was in hospital aged 15 – shortly before the 1976 contest – and they said that they had spoken to so many people who associate the song with a significant event in their life. They were charming, funny and generous with their time – a real pleasure to meet them.

Sheila FergusonHanging around the corridors outside we bumped into one of the presenters – Sheila Ferguson, one time lead singer with the Three Degrees. She was dressed stunningly, in a gorgeous black evening dress but I thought she looked anxious and concerned about things. I thought perhaps we shouldn’t interrupt her at this point – but no sooner had he seen her JP instantly asked if she would give an interview and she beamed with delight and said she would love to. She was really funny – quick witted, eloquent, warm and friendly too. I reminded her of her TV sitcom, Land of Hope and Gloria, in 1992, and she was very proud of the fact that she was the first black woman to have the star role in a UK sitcom. She now lives in Majorca, and in fact had a flight back at 5am the following day. But her conversation was peppered throughout with hilarity and we spent the entire time laughing through the interview. A memorable moment came when JP referred to the Three Degrees song “Dirty Ol’ Man” as “Dirty Ol’ Bag” by mistake! I said one of my favourites was “Year of Decision” and she said she always hated that song!

Anne-Marie DavidWe spoke briefly to Mr Johnny Logan, and to Miss Anne-Marie David, two Eurovision legends. The time and situation wasn’t really right for interviews with them though. We spoke to “Captain” Russ from Scooch, who was very happy to do an interview except that he didn’t know where the rest of his group were. Later on we met “Head Stewardess” Caroline, but then Russ was absent – and neither of them had seen “Head Purser” David. The fourth member, Natalie, had just had another baby, so she was described as being on “breast-feeding leave”. Bobbysocks to the rescue! Hanne Krogh and Elisabeth Andreassen were both eager and happy to talk to us and gave us a hilarious interview which talked about their careers and the night when Victory finally was Norway’s, but also involved a considerable amount of flirting between the four of us and which involved some – I can only describe it as – “breast action” from Ms Andreassen, which made me blush from top to toe. “My wife and your husband are watching!” I said; “they should be pleased for us” was her slightly bizarre reply. Later on that evening, Ms Krogh was last seen at the after-show party standing up and proposing a toast to everyone and getting really rather emotional about it all. I think it had been a long night.

BobbysocksMeanwhile, backstage, time was running out, and we had to get to our seats to see the show. It was great. For me, the two stand out performances were when Anne-Marie David sang Je suis l’enfant soleil, her French entry from 1979, and Paul Harrington and Charlie McGettigan singing their winning Rock ‘n’ Roll Kids from 1994 with a stunning purity and simplicity. But everyone was in great voice and turned up the entertainment knob to the top notch. With two songs from Anne-Marie David, Johnny Logan and Linda Martin, and one from everyone else, the evening flew by. Co-hosting the show with Sheila Ferguson was a bespangled Christopher Biggins, as irreverent and cheeky as you would expect.

scoochAfter the show, all the acts (bar one) sat at a row of desks in the foyer and virtually the entire audience trooped by them, one by one, chatting, getting signatures, photos, buying CDs and so on. It was a great opportunity for the fans to meet the acts, and it was again very generous of the acts to give their time so generously. We joined the back end of the queue to get a couple more interviews. At last all of Scooch had found each other, so we were able to talk to them about their careers and what they are doing now – which appears to be a lot of theatre. Black LaceDavid – who is local to the north-east – was also extremely happy to announce that he had got married the day before. I resisted the temptation to say he finally had something to suck on for landing, sir. We also spoke to Ian and Dene from Black Lace, who were a good laugh and very down to earth. Later at the aftershow party, they would somewhat bizarrely sing Agadoo with a karaoke machine to their own backing track.

Josh DubovieWhich takes us on to the aftershow party, where we interviewed Josh Dubovie – the second time I’ve interviewed Josh as it happens – and he is very much looking forward to getting his first CD with his own compositions released later this year. It will be very interesting to hear what Josh’s own stuff is like. He very politely turned down our offer to suggest any words of advice to Engelbert Humperdinck! The last performer we met and interviewed was Scott Fitzgerald, known to Eurovision fans for coming second with “Go” to Celine Dion (with whom he apparently still exchanges Christmas cards) in 1988, but known to the rest of the world as one half of the duo that sang “If I Had Words” to the tune of Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphony. A very friendly and chatty Scot, he’s now living in Rotterdam, and he confessed that the Gateshead concert was only the second time he had sung “Go” in public, the first time being on the Eurovision stage.

Scott FitzgeraldAnd so the party wound to a close, but not before Nicky Stevens of Brotherhood of Man proved herself to be a right party animal, doing Tina Turner and Whitney Houston on the karaoke! An amazing night – full of great entertainment and the thrill of meeting and talking to all these people. It would be wonderful if this could become an annual event – maybe it could become a part of the April “preview party” circuit – and also to continue raising funds for this very worthy cause. I’m not sure when the interviews will all be broadcast but I am sure you will be able to find them through the “show archive” section of the Radio International website.