Three Countries in Three Days – Bari, Italy; Olympia, Greece; Ephesus, Turkey

BariAfter our week or so leisurely exploring the delights of northern Italy, we boarded our ship the MSC Magnifica and started our seven day cruise. The first port of call was to be Bari, in the Puglia district of southern Italy. I’d always thought that ships stopped here simply to refuel but that would be most unfair to this charming city, albeit in a workaday fashion. From what I’ve seen, very little of Italy is what you could term “pretty” – but its natural colour, warmth and architectural styles make it a very pleasing destination. And so it is with Bari. The ship docks centrally so just a fifteen minute walk takes you to the centre of the old town.

Basilica di San NicolaThere aren’t that many actual “sights” as such, but a good place to start is at the Basilica di San Nicola. We arrived at about 11.00 on a Sunday morning and the church service was in full swing, as you would imagine, so we didn’t linger inside making a nuisance of ourselves. Nevertheless I could establish it has a beautiful ornate ceiling and it’s one of those churches that is light and bright inside rather than dark and austere. It dominates a small square, in one corner of which is a rather impressive statue of San Nicola himself. Off the square are narrow streets with just enough room to accommodate you, the locals, the motorbikes, and the tradespeople who are all jostling for supremacy.

CathedralWe had arranged to meet Mrs Chrisparkle’s uncle Professor Plum and his wife the Lady Plum, as they were touring southern Italy at the same time, as chance would have it. We found a nice little café in the early spring sunshine just off the San Nicola piazza and sat outside and drank coffee whilst we reminisced about old times. From there we followed the narrow streets to the Cathedral, with its impressive tower and dome, and inside it’s full of interesting statues, carvings and artwork. We had a long linger here.

Old townWe wandered round to the castle, which is grand and imposing from the outside but when you enter it you realise they charge you to see plaster casts of sculpture and you think, actually, I can spend my time and money better elsewhere. So we moved on and simply followed our noses in a circular direction that took us back to the centre of town. Avon were sponsoring a road running race so the town was busy with spectators. We didn’t see many runners though – I think they’d already finished and set about having lunch, which is precisely what we decided to do. We found a lovely little place to sit outside in a square, the Trattoria Mercantile, where we had pizza and a bottle of Greco di Tufo at an extremely reasonable price. The time flew by but we had the opportunity afterwards briefly to walk around the coastal road admiring the views before we’d completed a full circle and were back at the ship. We bade farewell to Professor and Lady Plum who continued their Puglian Odyssey, and we got back on board the Magnifica for the onward sailing to Olympia.

Olympia - archway leading to the trackOf course it’s not Olympia where you dock, it’s Katakolon, but what else are you going to do when you get off your ship in a village artificially extended purely for the purpose of taking hordes of cruising tourists the short drive to Olympia. I hadn’t done my pre-travel preparation properly – not like me at all – and I was convinced we were going to Mount Olympus. Wrong – it was Olympia, the birthplace of the Olympic Games. I would say it is vital to go with a good guide or a good guidebook at least, because if you just wander round by yourself it’s very hard to get a clue as to precisely what you are looking at. It’s an impressive sight overall, although with poor facilities – Mrs C and Lady D would not recommend the Ladies’ toilets. Olympia - the trackThe little town alongside Olympia has a few shops – not bad quality at all – and some bars and restaurants that advertise free wifi, that sadly seem to be only accessible by one person at a time, hence a lot of frustrated people flipping shut netbooks and shaking smartphones. But that’s not the reason you come to Olympia – you come for the history of the birthplace of the games, to stand or run on the running track yourself, to imagine yourself taking the Victor Ludorum and becoming the Local Hero. The track is very interesting, as it’s still completely visible and clear – and is a long “straight line” track, as opposed to the circular tracks we expect to see today. The archway entrance is still in good condition, although a lot of the rest of the site comes across as varying degrees of rubble, which is why you need a guide to make sense of it. The loud and cheeky lady taking us round brought it to life and it was very informative.

Mary's HouseFrom Katakolon it’s a short hop – maritimely speaking – to reach Izmir in Turkey, from whence one of your tourist options is to take an excursion to Ephesus. I’d wanted to go to Ephesus ever since I first saw “Comedy of Errors”, so that I could imagine Antipholus and Dromio in situ, and, wandering around the place, you really get a feeling of how rich and privileged a place it must have been to live. But before you reach Ephesus, first you visit Mary’s House. Yes, this is indeed the Virgin Mary’s house, apparently; for many years it had generally been believed that Mary spent her last years in the Ephesus area, and about 200 years ago a nun had a vision of precisely where her house was, and how it was constructed. Clerics and dignatories identified this building as the one in the nun’s dream; ergo, it’s her house. Of course, it is a holy place, and treated with a lot of reverence. If you go, you will join a queue of people shuffling to get in; you will smile benignly at the nun on duty who will scowl back at you; you will go through the living room and bedroom, both of which look just like chapels, and then you leave. You don’t really get a chance to linger and look around, which is a shame, but to be fair you do get something of a frisson that this just might be where Mary ended her days.

Statue of MaryOutside there is a spring where the devout go to bottle some water and drink it or take it home as a blessing. Apparently you should make a wish when you drink the water. Lady D wouldn’t tell us what she wished for, but she’s started doing the lottery again. The long walls alongside the well are completely covered with prayers for the Virgin Mary – little pieces of paper which make an impressive sight. There’s also a humdinger of a wide well outside the house; you wouldn’t want to be stumbling back late after a night at the tavern, guessing the route home in the dark. Between Mary’s House and Ephesus there is a splendid golden statue of Mary alongside the road. It’s really rather beautiful.

Ephesus - LibraryAnd so on to Ephesus. We’ve been to Palmyra in Syria; and unfortunately once you’ve been there nearly all other sites of ruins look like just a bunch of ruins. But Ephesus is special; it covers a considerable area and has a comparatively large number of extant buildings so you really get a good impression of the town as it was. Unlike Olympia, many of the major buildings and sights are well described on information boards, including in English, so you can easily just wander round by yourself, learn a lot and drink in the atmosphere. There are at least two amphitheatres, as far as I recall, and a number of houses, temples and so on. But the big pleasure of Ephesus is the main street, with buildingsEphesus - Footprint and mosaics either side, going down a hill towards the Library on the left hand side. The Library is great – it puts you a little in mind of the Treasury in Petra, although Petra is in much better condition. As usual in these places, there are a lot of entertaining things to see – like the directional footprint on a marble slab pointing the way to the House of Ill Repute, and the rather splendid communal latrine. On the way out there are a number of sarcophaguses just lying around in the grass and the carvings on them make it well worth the detour. So I would say a day trip to Ephesus is a must, even if, as on this cruise, by coming directly after a day at Olympia, it means negotiating non-stop rubble for two days.

Review – Torch Song Trilogy, Menier Chocolate Factory, 24th June 2012

Torch Song TrilogyMrs Chrisparkle and I have very fond memories of seeing Torch Song Trilogy in the 1980s. We were fortunate to see it during a brief period after Anthony Sher left the cast when the writer Harvey Fierstein took over the role. It was one of those evenings of dramatic enlightenment that hits you right between the eyes, and you emerge from the theatre a different person from the one who went in. I wondered if this new production would have lost any of that impact, or if it would have become slightly dated over the years. I’m delighted to say that it remains a landmark in 20th century drama and this is a vivid and satisfying production at the Menier.

David BedellaThat it definitely still packs a punch is helped enormously by Douglas Hodge’s vision and staging. The intimate setting of the Menier is the perfect place to look David Bedella’s Arnold right in the eyes and experience at least some of what he is going through. For the first part of the trilogy, the acting space is confined to a narrowish strip at the front of the stage and that closeness gives it an added sharpness. Having the Torch Songs sung by individual members of the cast, rather than the dedicated “Lady Blues” singer in the original, also involves the rest of the “team” more and gives it a greater sense of unity. For the second part the back wall retreats to reveal a vast bed on which all four bedtime-clad characters spend the entire act. I loved the way the characters moved around the bed and established themselves in different areas of it, occupying corners, sleeping alongside each other, and doing forward rolls from one side to another, all to emphasise the ménage-à-quatre aspect of the story, and it works ingeniously well. The stylised sudden and surprise ending is also very effective, juxtaposed as it is with an ironically funny song. For the final act, the wall has gone back even further to reveal a large kitchen diner and living room area giving plenty of space for all the characters to grapple with the ogre that is The Mother. The clear, simple and effective staging works a treat.

Joe McFaddenAt the heart of the play is Arnold, and his journey through three stages of his life – meeting Ed; his relationship with Alan and how it intermingles with Ed and Laurel’s relationship; and his moving on later to foster and adopt David, tackling his relationship with his mother and with a possible hope of future happiness with Ed. The story is superbly crafted, the text snappy with New York Jewish humour, and David Bedella takes the part of Arnold as if born to it. From his first, larger-than-life appearance as the drag queen preparing to go on stage he is completely believable. His amazing full deep voice exudes natural confidence but is perfect for the pathos in scenes where he’s vulnerable and uncertain. I’ve yet to see Mr Bedella do anything less than a gutsy performance and he is, unsurprisingly, great.

Laura PyperIn fact all the cast are excellent. Joe McFadden as Ed does a good line in boyish enthusiasm and his full-on crying is uncomfortably realistic. He’s an excellent foil to Mr Bedella as he can be both scene-stealing and quietly discreet in the shadows while Arnold’s character takes centre stage – the mark of a generous and thoughtful performance. Laura Pyper’s Laurel is the perfect match for Mr McFadden – lively and loving whilst he’s more coldly happy reading the paper and her growing resistance and antagonism to Arnold on that fateful weekend is amusingly done.

Tom Rhys HarriesTom Rhys Harries as Alan pouts extremely well as he kneels disconsolately on the bed and succeeds in getting a lot of humour out of the role. Perry Millward, as flamboyant foster son David, is great as an over the top (but not too much) teenager and he clearly shows the boy’s propensity to potential wildness but also genuine affection and thankfulness for Arnold and the home he has safely provided. The character does get a little irritating – as any similar 16 year old boy would be. He captures the essence of David really well.

Perry MillwardThe role of Arnold’s mother, the sympathetically named “Mrs Beckoff”, is a delight for an actress gifted in the use of the Jewish Sharp Tongue, and Sara Kestelman revels in it. It’s not a grotesque performance, it’s extremely realistic and all the more effective as a result. Very cleverly, as she spouts her anti-gay venom, you realise you still have some sympathy with her. She really shouldn’t say the things she says but she absolutely makes you understand her position. A beautifully subtle reading of the role – and she also sings the Torch Songs with superb emotion.

Sara KestelmanGiven the production’s excellent attention to detail, two props irritated me because they were not in keeping with the time and the place. When Arnold and Laurel are doing the washing up you can clearly see that the plates have a “Churchill Made in England” stamp underneath – not impossible they would have Churchill plates, I grant you, but highly unlikely. Much worse was Arnold’s act one telephone – yes, it’s a nicely wall mounted round dial grey bakelite retro phone – but the number sticker on the dial is clearly British – with its reminder to dial 999 for Fire Police or Ambulance, and the visible phone number is a three-figure number on the Mostyn exchange, which I believe is in North Wales. You have to walk past the phone on the way in or out of the auditorium during the interval so it catches your eye and it really looks like a clumsy oversight in the Props department.

Nevertheless, this still very strong play is brilliantly realised with Douglas Hodge’s direction which, with some excellent performances makes this another winner for the Menier. Highly recommended.

Midsummer Bacchanalia, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 23rd June 2012

Midsummer BacchanaliaAs part of their Festival of Chaos, the Royal and Derngate organised a late night Bacchanalia on Saturday 23rd June to coincide with Midsummer’s Eve (almost). Part feast, part party, part performance; “expect the unexpected” was the strapline, so it was a voyage of trust as we went into the unknown.

Jo Blake CaveIt turned out to be mainly party; and, in keeping with the R&D’s Dionysian summer, one that got steadily more alcoholic as the night went on. Clustered slightly anxiously outside the Royal Theatre Circle, we were suddenly beset by a noisy and welcoming bunch of characters who greeted us like old friends and encouraged us into a side room – that I now know to be the rehearsal room – decked out in gold wall hangings and giving a pretty good foretaste of the hedonistic self-indulgence to come. Uncertain what would happen, some people sat on chairs, others on the floor; Mrs Chrisparkle and I in our usual unconfident party manner clung to the walls for security. We started off with a dramatic introduction from the theatre’s storyteller Jo Blake Cave. She has a charming style and natural authority; and she used her skills to good effect to stimulate the imagination as she wandered round giving her account of the birth of Dionysus. And with something of a flourish the party began in earnest.

Acoetes and DolphinThere were five or six main characters – I’m not entirely sure who they all were – but one was the DJ in a gold lame dress, and we thought his music was pretty funky and enjoyable. There was another man dressed all in leaves – not quite sure what that was about; then we had an entertaining couple in the form of a dolphin, who only spoke “deep deep neep neep” type noises – but very eloquently – accompanied by the pirate Acoetes, who every so often sprayed the delighted dolphin with water to keep him moist. I’m sure you don’t need me to tell you that Dionysus turned a bunch of wicked sailors into dolphins, but that Acoetes was always on Dionysus’ side and became a priest to Dionysus as a reward. Whenever the dolphin got things wrong Acoetes would take him back stage for some physical corrective abuse. That’s not part of the legend – that was on Saturday night. It was a funny act. The dolphin also mixed some mean rum cocktails which he was generously passing to all and sundry. Acoetes had more than a passing resemblance to Dr Zee from Flathampton. I bet you never see the two guys in the same room together.

King Lycurgus and a DolphinExhorting everyone to dance was the savagely wounded King Lycurgus of Thrace, which by all accounts is a very dangerous place to go, I couldn’t recommend it. He may have been wounded, but he was well up for a party. His white shirt was soaked in blood and every time he got near her, Mrs C covered up her proudly newly acquired white Levi’s jacket lest it be contaminated from his dripping wounds. Fortunately it survived. There was a very jolly lady whose identity I didn’t quite catch – she might have been Semele, (Dionysus’ mum) – not certain – but she was helping everyone to scoff cherries and cumquats dipped in a chocolate and toffee sauce. I remarked that the offspring of Semele should be called Semolina. Apparently Euripides left that bit out. Then this lady who may or may not be Semele came back with some round white chocolates covered in coconut which she described as her “balls” and which Mrs C and I were required to feed one to each other. They were very nice. When she came round again I fancied another. She accused me of already having helped myself to her balls. My eyes pleaded for more though, and I got it. I’m just lucky that way with hedonistic women. By the time the evening was coming to an end she was sailing around with a bottle (several actually) of Sainsbury’s Port, some of which she lobbed heartily in Mrs C’s glass, more of which she just swigged out of the bottle. It was getting very decadent by this stage, as you can tell.

Bacchanalia We were just politely wandering round when a young lady dressed in a dark cloak beckoned to us and encouraged us to go on a journey with her. Always happy to oblige, and with a group of other similarly enticed partygoers, we followed her and her colleague out of the party and into the deep dark secret areas of the theatre. Well, past the toilets to the Underground Studio actually, so not that secret; where we were met by some cavorting nymphs welcoming us to Delphi. We were to take a look round and then join them for tea. Sounded nice. In the middle of the floor of this verdant paradise another lady was lying prostrate. She was the Oracle, we were informed, and once we were taking tea we were invited to ask the Oracle any questions. This could have been very funny indeed, if perhaps we’d had a bit more to drink than we had done, but actually no one could think of any questions and it started to feel slightly embarrassing. Some questions were eventually forthcoming, and the Oracle, true to her word, came up with some pithy answers. The kindly Oracle girls gave us all a coin which they said would be necessary on our continued journey.

Lycurgus and SemeleOur guides told us it was time to go but they had a special treat for us – to visit the Boatman. So we left the Underground and turned into the Royal Stalls. After much knocking, eventually the boatman answered. It was Charon – not Sharon, as he pointed out. It was highly irregular for us to be transported by him across the River Styx, but as we all had coins for him, he’d make an exception. We followed him in his imaginary boat until we ended up on the stage of the Royal – which was very interesting in itself, to be behind the lovely Safety Curtain, and see the little message written on the back – and also to find that one was basically part of the set of Blood Wedding. Charon told us to wait – and that the light might fade – and out went the lights and we were left darkling. In the pitch black, the storyteller’s voice emerged and told us the tale of Orpheus and Eurydice, how she could follow him from Hades, until he looked back…. In this slightly spooky environment Mrs C clung on to me for dear life and I don’t suppose she was the only one. Afterwards Charon released us and sent us on our way to meet King Midas, resplendent on his throne in the Royal Circle foyer. A welcoming king with a welcoming handmaiden, we ate golden grapes and got gold streaks painted on our faces. He wished us good luck on our way. Mrs C noted I had tried on his golden gown last year at the Flathampton Fashion Show. Just because everything he touches turns to gold, there’s no reason not to be occasionally thrifty as well. Once we had solemnly sworn not to tell a soul about where we had been… oh damn, I’ve told you now… we rejoined the party.

In full swingBy the end of the evening, the Oracle and her girls, Charon and King Midas all made their way into the throng. Midas – I’d dropped the “King” title by now – told me I was looking good for my age. I took it as a compliment. The lady with the bottle of port wanted a dance, which was difficult as I had no time to put down my glass; so it was just a quick cavort. Bloody Lycurgus came and chatted her up and shortly afterwards they were seen giving it all on the dance floor. Just before it was all over, our storyteller returned with a few final words about dear old Dionysus. I was kind of expecting him to make an appearance, until I realised he was of course already here – in the wine, in the food, in the decadence. We toasted him with what was left in our glasses and the party was over. Everyone seemed to have a good time; if you’re the kind of person who swings naturally into party mode with a load of strangers it was the perfect opportunity for fun. We’re not quite like that, but we still enjoyed it and very much appreciated the great effort put in by what must be dozens of people to run the party and perform its entertainments. I understand there was a plan to go on to the Black Bottom Club afterwards and continue drinking until 3am, which originally we thought we would do; but as we had to be up early the next day, we decided against it. Sense prevailed. Take that, Dionysus.

Review – Sister Act, Milton Keynes Theatre, 21st June 2012

Sister ActRegular readers won’t be surprised to hear that Mrs Chrisparkle and I have never seen the original film of Sister Act but I always fancied seeing this show and wanted to catch it when it was at the Palladium, with Sheila Hancock as the Mother Superior. Alas it was not to be, but I jumped at the chance to see the current UK tour.

The story is pretty simple – showgirl Deloris sees gangster boyfriend murder a squealer so has to flee for safety. The softy police guy arranges for her to stay in the local convent, much to the disappointment of the rather staid Mother Superior but to the excitement of the nuns who learn amazing song and dance routines off her. As such their religious services gain massive popularity and thus Deloris’ cover is blown. The villains get close but it all ends with the suggestion of “happy ever after”.

With no pretensions to having a hidden message other than “evil is bad, good is great and isn’t it wonderful when we all get along”, this show is filled with feelgood fun-packed scenes and Mrs C and I sat through it beaming with pleasure. It looks smashing – lavish costumes, beautiful set, nicely lit; although some mischievous electricity gremlin turned up the house lights during a few scenes which felt odd. It’s got a nice big talented cast to use up the stage, and a superb twelve person orchestra which whacks out the jolly score superbly.

There were one or two slight issues that kept it in the realm of the 4* and not the 5* for me. For instance a couple of the numbers in the second half were over-amplified so that the lyrics were hard to follow; a shame, because the lyrics that we could decipher are really good. The nuns’ welcoming song “It’s Good to be a Nun” is very funny and the evil Curtis’ “When I Find My Baby” is nastily witty. Mind you, we both thought “Bless Our Show” strayed into the saccharine. That was the other slight problem; when the show gets a bit sentimental it loses some of its drive and punch, but that’s probably hard to avoid with the storyline as it is.

Cynthia Erivo What you certainly can say is that there are some terrific performances. As Deloris, Cynthia Erivo has a great presence, looks gorgeous and has a superb voice. She performs with gusto and pizzazz throughout, whilst still retaining the occasionally vulnerable aspect of her character. She creates an immensely warm and likeable atmosphere on stage, and having only graduated from RADA in 2010, I’m sure she will have a very successful career.

Julie AthertonJulie Atherton’s Sister Mary Robert, the rather timid postulant who gains confidence from her friendship with Deloris, has a belter of a beautiful clear voice which you could never predict from her diminutive appearance. Her character’s journey is very warmly told and Ms Atherton gives a super performance. Jacqueline Clarke, as Sister Jacqueline ClarkeMary Lazarus, has lost none of the cheeky charm she had as one of Dave Allen’s sketch partners back in the 1970s, and can use her relatively older age to great shock effect; like when she’s jazzing up some dance routines and dishing out some less than holy jokes in her no-nonsense manner. She was very funny and a huge hit with the audience.

Edward BaruwaEdward Baruwa plays Eddie Souther, the cop who rescues Deloris and hides her in the convent, and it’s probably the most realistic characterisation in the whole show. He’s a bit wet really, but struggles manfully with his wimpiness to great comic and emotional effect. His growing confidence with Deloris is a delight to watch and he has a brilliant routine – “I Could Be That Guy” – where he dreams of “coming on strong”, with his wonderful pastiche of slightly hamfisted 1970s soul performer. And with some very cleverly done changes of outfit – I saw how they did the first one but the second one was a big surprise! I really enjoyed his performance, and of course it’s very rewarding when his character saves the day at the end.

Cavin CornwallStraight out of pantomime, and absolutely excellent with it, is the evil Curtis played by Cavin Cornwall. Mr Cornwall has a magnificent voice and is convincingly nasty in his ruthlessness. He has scary authority on stage which provides a very funny juxtaposition with his ludicrous henchmen when they turn into backing singers and dancers – more entertaining performances from Michael StarkeGavin Alex, Tyrone Huntley and Daniel Stockton. Michael Starke’s Monsignor O’Hara is another very good performance, as he develops from being a rather starchy clergyman to a glitzy showbiz compère. I think his secret is that he gets just the right level of campness to the character so that it’s all the more believable.

Denise BlackIndeed the whole cast are excellent; I just have a slight quibble about Denise Black’s performance as the Mother Superior. She has a superb voice, and I loved her singing – she absolutely looks the part and gives a good combination of innate dignity and very human irritation when having to deal with Deloris. But I felt that she didn’t quite tweak all the humour or pathos out of the role. I’m sure she could have emphasised her withering looks or simply spoken the words in a more creative, slightly less pedestrian way.

Musically, the songs are bright and have good tunes but are strangely unmemorable. We enjoyed hearing them very much but when we left the theatre found we couldn’t bring any of them to mind – in fact we reached the car singing “You Can’t Stop The Beat” from Hairspray, very much in the same style as the Sister Act songs; but it’s not a good sign when you’re reminded of other shows. Mrs C in particular thought the only thing Sister Act lacked was a couple of strong numbers with really good hooks. On reflection, the lyrics are definitely more memorable than the tunes.

However, it really is an enormously entertaining show and a feast for the eyes, with some cracking performances, a very funny book and a great feel good factor. It received a very big reception from the audience and I’m sure this tour, which goes on till October, will continue to be very successful. I’d definitely recommend it.

Review – The Bacchae, Royal and Derngate at Northampton Chronicle and Echo Print Works, 16th June 2012

The BacchaeAn underground car park – pillars, electrical mountings, side offices, a lift shaft, and a bashed up abandoned old car. Walk through that innocuous looking door at the Northampton Chronicle and Echo old print works and you enter a surprising world. A world where security CCTV systems maintain a regime headed by a spoilt king with a manipulative mother, protected by a Head of Security who can instantly summon a line of hard riot cops to intimidate and overthrow any attempts to subvert the system; but where a new cult frenzy is spreading that has caused all the women of the city to abandon their homes and run freely in the hills, thereby gaining superhuman strength; a fervour whipped up to such an extent that people simply do not know what they are doing but become overpowered by the lure of Dionysus and all he represents.

Alicia DaviesThis modern version of Euripides’ The Bacchae adapted by Rosanna Lowe and directed by Laurie Sansom is presented by the Royal and Derngate as part of the Cultural Olympiad’s London Festival 2012 along with their production of Blood Wedding, with which it plays in repertory. I’m sadly ignorant about ancient Greek drama on the whole, so we thought it would be a good idea to attend the talk “Suppressing the Urge” that took place at the theatre before the performance. Professor Chris Carey is meant to know his stuff; we thought he’d give us a good introduction to the play; and in any case, he’s Mrs Chrisparkle’s uncle, so it would have been rude not to go! It was a very amusing and informative talk – and definitely gave us some pointers to watch out for when we saw the play later on.

Kathryn PogsonI’d seen the production photographs for the Bacchae and they did make it look exciting, but nothing quite prepares you for the astonishing way this production fills this disused industrial space. Takis’ design is one of the most exhilarating adaptations of a space I have ever seen. It’s not warm; it’s not cosy; it’s harsh and hostile. It’s the perfect setting for this smart, highly modern, zippy version of the Bacchae, sacrificing some of the beauty – and rightly so I believe – of the original Greek poetry for convincing hard-hitting modern idiom. There are scenes of comedy and tragedy; music songs and chants; some buttock-clenchingly unsettling discomfort; and some no-holds barred horror that will make you swear to vegetarianism for the rest of your life.

Liam Bergin This production tells its age-old story magnificently well and leaves you with some outstandingly memorable mental images that are hard to shake off even after a few days. It’s also full of extraordinary performances. The company works hard to achieve fine drama in Blood Wedding but here you somehow feel they enjoy themselves much more – energy, intensity and a sparkiness in their performances simply crackle with delight with apparent effortlessness. When it comes to Chaos, Euripides trumps Lorca’s ace. It flows freely from its central character and occupies the landscape and all its inhabitants. Expect the unexpected, as Dionysus warns us on his surprise first entrance. He’s everywhere and he’s got a lot to answer to.

Ery NzarambaAfter Dionysus has introduced us to his world, and revealed the shrine to his mother Semele, his followers, the Bacchantes appear and use the car park as their base to plot, to worship, to avenge and to plunge the world further into chaos. The acoustics mean you hear absolutely everything clear as a bell, which suits their challenging and aggressive alarums and excursions. They make a really effective chorus. I particularly loved the show-stopping number led by Alicia Davies in fine form, but they were all excellent and linked scenes together with great pace and menace.

Robert BenfieldThere were two remarkable scenes in the play that for me expressed the special degree of trust between the actors that you always get with a Laurie Sansom production. Pentheus’ mother, Agave, played by Kathryn Pogson, quickly becomes entranced by the Bacchantes when she comes down to the basement to see what all the fuss is about. The spirit of Dionysus quickly embeds itself in her and what started as a confrontation becomes a dreamlike dance of rapture, where she is passed from follower to follower, sailing through the air on an enveloping wave of bliss. It’s a beautiful, balletic sequence, and showed fantastically well how the Bacchantes assimilated Agave. It’s also a great symbol for what Dionysus can be, as this beautiful, calm dance sets in motion Agave’s murder of her own son – you can’t get sharper contrasts. The gruesome scene where she slowly realises what she has done, bringing in Pentheus’ flayed head that she is devouring with hedonistic pleasure, is a gripping performance. The horror of realisation fills in to her face, even while she is still chomping on a bit of son, and her subsequent agonised remorse is one of those moments you don’t forget in a hurry.

Jim BywaterPentheus is played by Liam Bergin as a sharp-suited spoilt Mummy’s boy of a king, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing that can overcome Dionysus’ hold. He gives a good account of petulant annoyance at the security lapses and his fury that Dionysus has escaped imprisonment is real and tangible. He may bark angry threats and try to preserve his whining authority but you know from the start he is doomed. Ery Nzaramba’s Dionysus has an electrifying presence, a manipulating god from the start – you even feel uncomfortable in the opening and closing scenes when he is addressing the audience in case he somehow gets into you too. His voice encompasses power, influence and cheekiness. He teases, he cajoles, he mocks; he won’t be silenced. His scene with Pentheus where he undresses the king so he can change his appearance to spy on the women is another of those extraordinary trust-between-actor moments. Mr Nzaramba is calm and controlling, deceptively supportive and encouraging; Mr Bergin’s face portrays the point where agony and ecstasy meet, sweating buckets in intense vulnerability. A creepy, sensual, erotic, frightening, awful moment, and quite brilliant.

Philip Cairns Humour is supplied courtesy of Tiresias (Robert Benfield) and Cadmus (Jim Bywater) a couple of old Bacchanial sots who are happy to worship because of the drink – I always enjoy it when a toy teddy bear comes to life. The play also features an excellent performance by Philip Cairns as Pentheus’ head of security – a self-sacrificing, unquestioning supporter who only functions to protect and obey.

This is one of those productions where you go on thinking and talking about it for days afterwards. Every so often a new thought comes into your head about it – a fresh insight, a sudden realisation, an unexpected appreciation. There’s a lot going on during those 100 minutes of non-stop drama. I think it would be a crime against theatre if this didn’t have some kind of life after this season ends. It should at least be recorded for television or DVD. But the key to the success of this show is the outstanding overall vision of how this classic tale could be brought right up to date, transforming a dead brownfield environment into a place of vibrant artistic excellence. If you enjoy experimental innovation in your theatregoing, you’re going to love this.

Review – Danza Contemporanea de Cuba, Milton Keynes Theatre, 7th June 2012

Danza Contemporanea de Cuba Whilst Mrs Chrisparkle was enjoying the high life of an unexpected business trip to New York, it was left to me to spread out over our two seats at the Milton Keynes Theatre for the return visit of the Danza Contemporanea de Cuba after their first UK tour in 2010. I’d heard largely good things about this company and was keen to see where they fit in the modern spectrum; and the answer, I’m pleased to say, is at the high end, with inventive, humorous, gymnastic choreography performed by an engaging company to exciting (if recorded) musical scores.

SombrisaThere were three individual dances, decently interspersed by two proper intervals. First was Sombrisa, choreographed by Itzik Galili, and created for this tour. Set to a thrilling drum soundtrack (Steve Reich’s Drumming Part 1), it takes its inspiration from the world of boxing, so the dancers are all dressed to fight and all wear boxing gloves. Simply staged but with complex lighting, visually it’s very effective. The lighting uses both bright white spots and coloured spots in a variety of combinations that constrain individual dancing areas; Yosmell Calderónand when the dancers come close to the front of the stage they’re in some kind of half-light which gives them a slightly sinister air of mystery. For the course of the dance, what starts as general work-out, develops into individual battles and then into a boys’ team versus a girls’ team and then, curiously, into courtships, so that by the end, when the music takes a turn into what sounds like lilting African choirs, it’s become a dance of love. Abel RojoI really enjoyed its progression, and it was danced with great intensity and warmth throughout, even though I thought one or two of the dancers were slightly under-rehearsed on this one. This didn’t matter though – if there were occasional lapses it just helped the impression of one contestant in a boxing match being a little stronger than the other.

Carmen?!The second dance – Carmen?!, choreographed by Kenneth Kvarnström – has been in the company’s repertory for a decade now, and takes some of Bizet’s best tunes and manipulates them into a clever construction for this left field look at the well known opera. The seven guys performing it all did a great job, taking on various aspects of the Carmen story and interpreting it in their own way for this light-hearted piece. Its strength is the juxtaposition of the essential silliness of the choreographed work with the Mario S Elías deadly serious macho attitudes of the performers – it nicely subverts them and makes them look gently ridiculous. You get the sense that they’re largely playing anyway – playing at being toreadors and bulls, playing at being coquettish cigarette girls and vamps; they transform the stage into one big Sevillian playground. Again, the whole company were excellent throughout – I loved the wry facial expressions of Yosmell Calderón, he’s probably the best actor of the company; and also the magnificent technical prowess of Abel Rojo, for me the most fluid and energetic dancer of the company. another Carmen pictureMario S Elías is a great dancer but unfortunately he had a disobedient trouser zip that wouldn’t stay up, and the sight of scrunched up red shirt emerging from his fly slightly detracted from the macho image he was otherwise creating – Wardrobe take note. Another side issue – the recorded sound was of quite poor quality, which, whilst it didn’t spoil the performance, was nonetheless a shame.

Mambo 3XXIThe last piece – Mambo 3XXI, choreographed by company member George Céspedes, who was one of the dancers in Carmen?! – was part of the 2010 tour and a major reason for their Olivier, TMA, and National Dance Awards nominations. It’s an examination of Cuban music and dance, that questions its role within the country and how the country and its people can move forward in the world using music and dance. If this sounds difficult and cerebral, think again. It’s the most vivacious and enchanting contemporary dance I’ve seen in a long time. Yaday PonceThe progression from its uniform and repressed opening to its self-confident expressive finale is a joy to behold. Some of the choreography reminded me of my “dance hero” Christopher Bruce, in the way the dancers wrap around and roll over each other, reminiscent of Ghost Dances and Swansong. There’s a wonderful sequence towards the end where dancers form two groups lining the sides of the stage and then move towards the centre to meet each other and pass, whilst leaving behind two dancers to interact together, Carlos Blancobefore the two sides return, gather up those two dancers and leave another two behind. It’s compelling stuff that really makes you want to get up and join in. Again Abel Rojo was spectacular in his precision and power, but also Yaday Ponce and Carlos Blanco really shone in this performance. It got a well deserved huge reception at the end. This was the penultimate night of its tour – just one show left in Salford on 9th June. Catch it if you can.

Review – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Nigel Kennedy plays Brahms, Derngate, Northampton, 2nd June 2012

Nigel Kennedy plays BrahmsIt was a perfect start to the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee weekend with a long-awaited concert by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with guest soloist Nigel Kennedy. I remember back in the late 1980s being absolutely knocked out by his crisp and sparky Vivaldi Four Seasons CD which had so much more attack and personality than any other recording of the Four Seasons I have heard before or since. So it was a no-brainer that we would book for this concert, and we’d been looking forward to it for over a year.

Andrew LittonThe Royal Philharmonic were conducted by Andrew Litton, whose performances we have appreciated in the past and who was at the Julliard School with Nigel Kennedy. Once again Mr Litton beamed his perky happiness throughout the evening, taking charge of the orchestra in a seemingly effortless way.

We started off with Brahms’ Academic Festival Overture, which was a new one on Mrs Chrisparkle and me. It’s a bright and charming piece and a great way to open a concert. The orchestra were clearly on good form and I particularly enjoyed the punchy drums and percussion.

Next up was what would be the highlight in any other concert in which it featured – Elgar’s Enigma Variations. This really is a personal favourite of mine. It only took the first few seconds of its starting and my eyes instantly welled up with the atmosphere and emotion. It was a beautifully paced and balanced performance, including a really snappy Troyte variation and a delicately laid back R.P.A. Whenever I hear Nimrod, I always feel it’s possibly the most beautiful piece ever written – and then I hear the final variation, E.D.U., and for me it always trumps Nimrod’s ace. Another super performance, and quite rightly Andrew Litton invited virtually everyone in the orchestra to take their own individual bow. In a sense it was odd to play Enigma before the interval, rather than leaving it to the end, but with Mr Kennedy waiting in the wings I could see there was no alternative. We certainly left for our interval Sauvignon Blanc on a high.

In full swingOn our return, the male members of the orchestra (Andrew Litton apart) had reappeared in shirtsleeve order. I wasn’t sure if that was because they were universally hot, or whether it was to go along with Nigel Kennedy’s own informal style. If it was the latter, it’s slightly bizarre to have everyone conform to the nonconformist – but no matter. For vivacious style and content, this couldn’t be beaten. Mr Kennedy saunters up to the podium exchanging bon mots and giggles with half the orchestra before spending the first thirty seconds enjoying and praising the beauty of First Violinist Clio Gould, lamenting the fact that she’s “taken”. He trades a bit of laddish banter with “Andy” Litton – clearly an old friendship that works a treat here – and with “Dave” Cohen, first Cello, of whom he’s also obviously fond. He gives them all, and some members of the audience, a fist bump. Then he picks up his 1732 Carlo Bergonzi violin, turns his back to the audience, and Brahms’ Violin Concerto begins.

At first, his turning his back seems slightly rude; but as the piece progresses you realise it’s actually an act of great humility. It’s a good few minutes before the violin shows up in the first movement, and it’s a time for the orchestra to show off its prowess, so Mr Kennedy makes himself invisible for this time. When it’s his turn, he shifts about 135 degrees round so that he’s still on quite an odd angle to the audience, and starts to make the most brilliant music. His style is still that of the bold, boisterous Kennedy of the Four Seasons. When it came to the first movement cadenza, he played – according to the programme notes – the Fritz Kreisler version and it was stunning. You could have powered the entire lighting rig from his energy.

The whole performance was fantastic. For me, Nigel Kennedy elevated the art of being a soloist a hundredfold. He dazzled, yet remained an intrinsic part of the orchestra, never missing an opportunity by word or gesture to allow his colleagues to shine too. The partnership with Andrew Litton worked perfectly; they clearly have an understanding and appreciation of precisely how the other operates, and it becomes a joint venture of mutual respect and admiration. Each enables the other to soar.

Nigel KennedyWhen the concerto was over, we got the usual rounds of extremely well deserved applause and bows; and just when you thought Andrew Litton would come back for one more call, he stays away and leaves Nigel Kennedy centre stage with the orchestra for a full half hour’s worth of additional encores and banter. He thanks us for supporting live music – no worries, Nigel, the pleasure was ours; he continues to “big up” individual members of the orchestra, and why not; he generates another sequence of fist bumps; he starts to play a little tune on his “fiddle”, gets it slightly wrong and says a playful “oh sh*t”; then finally gives us some exuberant Brahms Hungarian Dances, with David Cohen’s First Cello acting as cimbalom – which works really well. He works some cunning and amusing variations in there too, which included, inter alia, the theme to Bonanza.

After all the rapturous reception was finished, the orchestra had dispersed and the audience was making their way to the exits, it was rather humbling to see Andrew Litton, now dressed in jumper and jeans, nip back on stage to collect his paperwork, a visual underlining of the fact he had earlier handed over the ultimate glories of the night to Nigel Kennedy. A superb concert, a privilege to see a soloist so in command of his instrument, and an orchestra worth going a long way to catch.

Review – Blood Wedding, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 1st June 2012

Blood WeddingBlood Wedding, together with The Bacchae, form the first two thirds of this year’s major “Made in Northampton” highlight, the Festival of Chaos, which is also part of the Cultural Olympiad’s London 2012 Festival. This is no mean achievement, and one of which the Royal and Derngate can truly be proud. The plays (including Hedda Gabler coming later this summer) are Artistic Director Laurie Sansom’s three all time favourites in the whole of drama; so I expect we will see a large dose of his special magic in these productions.

Kathryn Pogson Certainly his creative footprints are all over Blood Wedding. The cast work together as a superb ensemble, which I’ve found is the absolute hallmark of his directing style, and the play has a generally stylised and cultured feel to it. I think Mr Sansom even sneaks into the cast himself as the disembodied voice of the news broadcast on TV. The production has a versatile and useful set – I particularly admired the upstairs landing in the wedding scenes, which seems to exist without any side access – and the whole show is sensibly and properly lit. Dougal Irvine’s specially composed score is frankly gorgeous, played live by a gifted quartet in the orchestra pit, and I could imagine myself seeing the show again, simply to re-experience the music.

Liam Bergin The play of course is like a 20th century Spanish Shakespeare – a classic tragedy, which lends itself to all sorts of modernisation and adapting. Lorca’s masterpiece was first staged in 1932 but like Shakespeare its themes of nature, fate and revenge are timeless and can fit in any era, any place. This production is set “sometime in the near future”; a rather surreal world where TV reception is still tenuous, hospital receptionists don’t speak to you until you’ve taken a numbered ticket from the pull-off machine, and you still wash using a Victorian style jug and bowl.

Ery Nzaramba The surrealism is further emphasised in the language. Like much of Shakespeare, the rhythms of the verse lend their own atmosphere, which comes across to good effect in Australian Tommy Murphy’s adaptation. It’s set in southern Spain, but the actors use English North Country accents; and Tommy Murphy includes some down under phrases to the text. “No worries” and “Good-oh” have become reasonably universal but when Leonardo’s wife says she bought something “on special” (instead of “in a sale”) and he describes distances in “klicks”, you are definitely on Terra Australiana. I’m not sure if that was a deliberate ploy or just an accident of idiom; together with all the mother’s anxieties about dust on shoes this could just as easily be the Outback as Andalucia. It all contributes to an intrigue of displacement.

Amanda Wilkin This is extremely stirring drama. From the moment the tale starts to unfold you are locked in. Kathryn Pogson’s Mother, berating Liam Bergin’s Groom about his choice of bride-to-be and her enduring resentment over the Felix family is all very recognisable. Indeed, Mrs Chrisparkle and I saw elements in this opening scene of our very own blood wedding almost 25 years ago; and when the mother finally meets the bride and her father on their own territory, you sense it has all the makings of an acrimonious Scouse wedding reception. (If you’ve ever attended one of those, you’ll know what I mean.) Kathryn Pogson is scarily convincing as a woman just hanging on to her wits, who is emotionally and psychologically scarred by the death of the men in her family, who faces the prospect of her only remaining son leaving her, who scrambles around for reasons to hate her prospective daughter in law, and who wallows in a general disdain for the wider Felix family. Liam Bergin too is excellent as the resolute son toiling on the land all day (partly to get away from his mother, you suspect), exuding a dapper confidence on his wedding day and embodying heroism in his determination to track down the swine who has nicked his bride.

Robert Benfield They are well matched by the pairing of Ery Nzaramba as Leonardo and Amanda Wilkin as his wife. Bitter with his home life, Mr Nzaramba’s Leonardo can barely disguise his loathing for his wife, and gives a great portrayal of someone who is hurting as much as he hurts. The audience should detest him for the way he treats his wife, but his emotionally subtle performance makes your response much more complex. He has a great stage presence in his first scene, when you feel he could lash out with considerable violence at any minute; but this is nicely reigned in for the wedding scene, where he fades remarkably into the crowd so that the abduction of the bride comes as a complete surprise (except that I’ve now told you about it.) I thought Amanda Wilkin was fantastic alongside him – treading a fine line between accepting and resenting her lot, gaining our sympathy for her plight without any mawkish demands for it; perceptive, but powerless; another subtle and fascinating performance.

Rosie Ede The unusual presentation of the character of The Girl – part Shakespearean Fool, part Greek messenger – as a fully adult male in the shape of Robert Benfield works very well. It fits in comfortably with the general surrealism of the production as a whole and also gives the larger than life character more prominence. When she lets loose a tirade of obscenities it makes more sense than if a genuine little girl had said it, whilst still retaining its shock impact. Every time she makes an entrance, she oozes trouble and portent; and her bloodied appearance after the interval, foretelling the death and destruction to come, makes for a very disturbing image.

Jim Bywater The whole cast are excellent, with no weak links at all, but I particularly enjoyed the performances of Rosie Ede as the maid (and particularly as the nosy neighbour), Jim Bywater as the bride’s father – something of a Dickensian self-made man to that characterisation – and Donna Berlin as Leonardo’s mother in law, trying in vain to keep the peace between her warring family. There are some great set piece moments – most notably the machinations at the wedding scene itself, and also later when the wedding party, in pursuit of Leonardo and the bride, enclose and move in on Leonardo and the Groom at their double death scene; that made a very effective and striking tableau. The production takes on the nature themes of the last part of the play – the appearance of the Moon, the living forest, and so on – with some clever modern twists, and the whole vision of the modernised setting holds together extremely well. Despite – or maybe because of – its stylisation, it’s a very engaging production that holds your attention throughout and makes you feel as though you’re witnessing something very special, that magic something that can only happen on a stage.

Donna Berlin It was a shame that on the performance we saw, one significant member of the cast got all petulant at curtain call; when the cast moved into the wings before returning for a second call you could see this person mouthing “What, again? Really? Do I have to? Oh for God’s sake” (or the equivalent), returning to the stage with an impatient glare and subsequently hot-footing it back offstage before some members of the cast had even had the time to stand up straight again. Not only did it convey the message to the audience that they didn’t care about how we reacted to the show, it was also disrespectful to their colleagues. A pet hate of mine! I trust it was a stress-induced one-off.