Review – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Jack Liebeck Plays Sibelius, Derngate, Northampton, 23rd September 2012

Jack Liebeck plays SibeliusAutumn brings the start of this year’s subscription season of concerts at the Derngate in Northampton, and I’m delighted to say that Mrs Chrisparkle and I have tickets to all but one of them. So it’s the welcome return of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra with a glorious threesome of Wagner, Sibelius and Tchaikovsky, a super balanced programme designed to warm us up, show off a fine soloist, and end with the full orchestra at its best.

Enrique BátizOur conductor was Enrique Bátiz, a splendidly formal gentleman of 70 experienced years, who takes his time to get to the podium, sombrely accepts the audience’s applause by resting his hand across his chest, never comes close to a smile, but with the manner of a slightly infirm old headmaster gets an absolutely cracking performance from the orchestra. His discography comprises 145 recordings, so he’s clearly the Cliff Richard of Latin American classical music.

The first piece was Wagner’s Flying Dutchman Overture, a stately and grand performance interspersed with some musical fireworks; a good opener that pleased the appreciative, if a bit small, Derngate audience. I thought the horns were particularly outstanding, but what do I know?

Sibelius’ Violin Concerto in D Minor was next, and we awaited the return of Snr Bátiz with Jack Liebeck, winner of the 2010 Classical Brit award for Young British Performer of the Year. We’d seen him a couple of years ago on this same stage with this same orchestra performing Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. On that occasion I was very impressed with the sound that he made from his playing but felt he was a bit clinical and cold when it came to the emotion of the thing.

Jack LiebeckWell that’s all changed now. Mr Liebeck’s whole attitude seems much more enthusiastic. You can see it in his body language – lurching back and forth as though on a choppy sea, reaching on tiptoes to get the high notes, and really embracing the passion of the Sibelius with his every facial gesture. And of course his technical prowess is magnificent – those challenging cadenzas in particular were completely gripping and he never sacrifices the purity of the note for the bravura of the performance. I’d not heard this concerto before but I loved it and a CD of it is on its way to me from those nice people at Amazon. The orchestra put in a great performance too, including an intriguingly rasping playing of the horns, which Mrs C at first thought was a lone kazoo in the percussion. Sustained applause at the end of the concerto brought Mr Liebeck back for an encore. I didn’t recognise the piece but I know it was Bach because just before he played it, he exclaimed “Bach!” So there was no doubt.

RPOAfter the interval, where Mrs C and I met a nice old lady who came into town by herself to see the RPO concerts while her old husband seemed to prefer staying in and watching X-Factor, we returned for Tchaikovsky’s Fourth Symphony. Again this was a new piece to me, and again I absolutely adored it, especially its second, third and fourth movements. The second movement centres on a very plaintive, moving theme which I thought the orchestra played beautifully. I can’t think how come I’ve not heard it before. The third movement consists of Tchaikovsky getting plucked, which is an overwhelming sensation when the entire string section is on the pizzicato. The final section is such a whirlwind of flourishes and excitement that it quite takes your breath away. You know that package from Amazon? A recording of this symphony is in there as well. The final applause was one of those occasions where it gradually gets warmer and warmer as the audience reflects on just how good all the elements of the evening have been. We were getting poor old Señor Bátiz to walk on and off the podium countless times to take the applause. Each time, it was still with his sincere but solemn expression, the heartfelt hand on the chest; until the last time, when he simply did that sharp cross-hands gesture which clearly is Mexican for “enough already”. He’s got a train to catch, thought Mrs C.

Many’s the time we’ve been to see these RPO concerts and inevitably we walk home exhilarated afterwards, talking of being lucky and privileged to enjoy them so close to home. This was no exception. Here’s to the next one.

Review – Rough Justice, Milton Keynes Theatre, 22nd September 2012

Rough JusticeTerence Frisby. The name alone brings back thoughts of the Swinging Sixties. Fashion, pop and innocently risqué sex comedies. To think I was only 8 years old when I was taken to see Frisby’s There’s a Girl in my Soup at London’s Globe theatre (now the Gielgud). It starred West End stalwarts of the time Richard Coleman, Peter Byrne and, over from Australia, Karen Kessey. It was one of those early theatrical experiences that cemented my relationship with the stage, if that’s not too pompous a concept for an 8 year old.

You couldn’t get much of a greater leap of subject matter from There’s a Girl in my Soup to Rough Justice, which originally appeared in London in 1994, and concerns the trial of a media celebrity who has admitted killing his nine month old, severely brain-damaged baby in a fit of… well he can’t actually describe what kind of a fit it was. All the professional evidence points towards the fact that the late infant wouldn’t have had much of a life and probably wouldn’t have made it past 40. Not that that’s justification for murder in the eyes of the law, of course. But anyway, James Highwood, the aforesaid celebrity, insists it’s manslaughter and not murder.

Courtroom dramas are always exciting, and this is no exception. Highwood defends himself without the aid of Counsel, so is bound to make mistakes and put his foot in it even more. His legal adviser is amiable but you sense slightly ineffectual, and the prosecution barrister, Mrs Caseley, is a formidable, word-twisting, humourless adversary who can discern the weak spot in a witness statement at fifty paces. Add to the mix a slightly doddery judge, the occasional outcry from the gallery, and clunking prison door sound effects straight out of the opening titles of Porridge, and you have all the ingredients for an engrossing legal wrangle well told.

The set is simple but works perfectly for the text; two walls shoot in every so often at right-angles to create Highwood’s barren waiting cell for his meetings with his solicitor and wife, then they shoot out again and become part of the backdrop of the court. The lighting too, is simple and clear and is used to highlight Highwood’s loneliness in the dock; but also the house lights dimly come on whenever the judge or barrister are addressing the jury, so that we, the audience, also feel like we’re playing our part (as indeed we will, later).

Tom Conti Highwood is played by Tom Conti and it’s just the kind of role he plays perfectly. An everyman character under duress; an ordinary nice guy pushed to the limits of what life dishes out before you crack. As you would expect, he brings out all the wry humour of the script as well as tugging at our heartstrings with some extreme and highly convincing emotionally-charged scenes. An actor as experienced as Mr Conti, and in a role like this, could very easily have simply “phoned it in”; but I really admired the fact that he gave an absolutely first rate performance to our small Milton Keynes matinee as if it were a capacity Saturday night in the West End. And it was so rewarding to see him do a good play again, unlike…

Elizabeth Payne As Margaret Caseley, acting for the prosecution, Elizabeth Payne gives a very strong performance. Witheringly redoubtable, you would not want to face her in the witness box. It’s no surprise that she didn’t become a defence lawyer. With her superbly clipped tones, and bullying to the extent that the law allows, it’s a very well written role and her performance does it credit. I also liked David Michaels as Highwood’s long-suffering lawyer Jeremy Ackroyd, awkwardly gooseberrying around in the cell when Highwood and his wife meet, and becoming the embodiment of a facepalm emoticon whenever his client says all the wrong things in court.

David Michaels I was very pleased to see another old stage stalwart for the first time in ages, Royce Mills as the Judge. He has a perfect voice and physical presence for the part, and manages to combine kindliness with a robustness that makes you think that he genuinely is a disinterested legal presence; whilst all the while giving splendid facial reactions to the court goings-on. Carol Starks plays Highwood’s wife Jean, with her own demons to sort out, and is very convincing with her tired, scared and complex support of her husband. The other smaller roles are all very well played and I also feel it’s a very assured directorial debut by James Larkin.

Royce MillsThe play ends suddenly, with the verdict. I was expecting some further plot development afterwards, maybe a tying-up of some loose ends; but the play is seen very much through the court’s eyes, and so after the jury have delivered their verdict, its job is done. However, Tom Conti does then come forward at curtain call to address the audience and ask if they agree with the verdict in the play. Considering only the admissible evidence we have seen, we are asked to vote guilty or not-guilty to a charge of murder by a show of hands. I won’t tell you how either the play ends or indeed how our audience voted, but I can tell you that Mrs Chrisparkle and I gave different verdicts. Honestly! I ask you! Did she not hear the evidence?? Mrs C also reported back from a trip to the Ladies’ after the show that, in her opinion, the play had done the impossible; it had encouraged a group of ladies in the toilets who had never met before to discuss the play and whether they thought Highwood was guilty or not. That’s some achievement.

Carol Starks So, it’s smartly written, with a couple of twists, good characterisation and has a thought-provoking ending. At the interval Mrs C and I discussed it avidly trying to work out the whys, wheres and hows of the whole story, and that in-depth discussion carried on after the show as well. A rewarding and well performed play that I would certainly recommend.

How much do you think is a reasonable price to pay for an interval ice-cream? We’re not talking a Heston Blumental concoction here, just one of those innocent looking standard little tubs that appear in an usher’s tray and are about a dozen mouthfuls’ big. Spoon under the lid – you know the deal. As it was a matinee we thought we’d give our livers a treat and swap the Sauvignon Blanc for a Toffee Fudge. Imagine our surprise when the large handful of coins Mrs C offered the usher were not man enough for the job. £3.50 is the cost of a tub of ice-cream – that’s £7 for the two of us. Time after time we saw people approach the ice-cream man, look aghast, and then walk away empty handed. If we were to take Lady Duncansby, the Special Agent nieces plus their parents to the panto in Milton Keynes, that would set us back £24.50 just for seven ice-creams! I can tell you that’s not going to happen – especially as their panto stars (and I use the word loosely) Louie Spence this year. But I fear the Milton Keynes theatre is turning into quite a hostile environment. Our seats in the stalls were absolutely freezing cold. Put the heating on, can’t you! Add to the fact that they have crammed in an extra row of seats to the detriment of audience sightlines and legroom, and now they are overcharging for ice-creams. Our solution, incidentally, was to buy two Sparkling Waters instead, which, including my 10% off for having an ATG membership card, came to £3.60. I do hope Milton Keynes isn’t going to become the Ryanair of theatres.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground, Derngate, Northampton, 21st September 2012

Dan EvansTwo weeks quickly fly by and we’re back at the Underground with three more super acts, two wonderful intervals and our host with the most, Dan Evans, still – I’m delighted to say – coming forward with new stories and fresh material, for which I am truly thankful, amen. Dan’s easy way of gently insulting the audience and ridiculing himself even more is perfect for getting us all relaxed and warmed up – unless you’re picked on of course.

Angela BarnesTwo of this week’s comedians were new to us. First up was Angela Barnes, who had good solid material and an attacking delivery. If I’m honest I found her tone a little strident but she still made me laugh a lot. Nicely self-deprecating and I liked the observations about dating a doctor!

Andy WhiteSecond on, and again new to us, was Andy White, who for me was a phenomenal find. Intelligent and linguistically deft, he had some wonderful observations and did some excellent routines. He pulls funny faces and does funny voices but as they are all genuinely very funny, that’s all good. I loved his French version of the Flintstones and his brief appearance of Nelson Mandela. His act went down hugely in the hall, and he’s one of the simply funniest comics I’ve seen for a long time.

Andrew O’NeillThe headline act was Andrew O’Neill, whom we have seen before but who remembered as being funnier the first time. I don’t think he had changed his act much and his slightly surreal madcap angle just didn’t work after the suave Mr White. I remember his “I’m not racist, but…” lines working much better before. He has a sequence where he does a long list of similes – I can’t quite remember why – and each one gets more ludicrous than the last. I’m afraid that was very dull. Shame, because I know he can be funny – but it didn’t happen for us this time round. He got only moderate applause at the end.

Dan was still selling his books for a fiver outside afterwards, and I enjoyed the opportunity for a brief chat. I fear as a result I might get picked on next time…

Review – Radio Times, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 18th September 2012

Radio TimesTo celebrate the 50th anniversary of the corporation, the BBC brought out a double album in 1972 (remember those days of vinyl?) containing two hours of nostalgic clips – mainly radio – from a variety of broadcasts from the 1920s up until the “present day” – which if I recall rightly was Till Death Us Do Part and the Moon landings. I loved that record, and felt from an early age that the Beeb must have played an enormous role during World War Two in boosting morale and keeping spirits high. A major element of this was their cheery comedy and musical wireless shows like ITMA and Bandwagon, and it’s this kind of show that is lovingly resurrected in “Radio Times”. This production, a washed-and-brushed-up version of an original 1990s show, was born last year at the Watermill in Newbury, and is in the early stages of a tour throughout England which I’m sure will keep the home fires burning until Christmas.

Christian EdwardsI was very uncertain about booking for this show, as on paper (or on computer screen) it didn’t appeal to me that much, save for the fact that it stars Gary Wilmot, who is just about the most reliable name you can have on a stage to guarantee a good time. But I did think it would only appeal to old fogies, would shamelessly wallow in nostalgia, and have twee written through it like a stick of rock. Well, I was completely wrong. It’s a superbly entertaining show, with a funny script, great music and some fun performances.

Gary WilmotThe show never lets up in its attention to detail, which is a major source of the fun. Even before you go in, the ushers are dressed as ARP wardens, and guide you to your seat with little torches as in the Olden Days. The set itself absolutely conjures up how you would expect a 1940s radio broadcast from the Criterion Theatre to have looked; the costumes and styles are spot-on; and the use of language and comedic delivery capture perfectly those radio stars of the time. An essential element is that rather strange BBC radio comedy hallmark of a posh-voiced announcer interwoven with all the comic activity – pure Round The Horne – and this show kindles that happy memory delightfully.

Sara CroweThe whole cast are great. A major secret of its success is having the performers play the instruments as well, a Watermill trick that eliminates that sense of a band segregated at the back somewhere. The Grosvenor Girls, who replicate the Andrews Sisters’ sound brilliantly, not only sing and look good but also play brass and strings. When guest hunk Gary Strong offers to chip in to the musical numbers with his ukelele, you soon understand why they all roll their eyes. And Jeeps the sound engineer creates so many different sound effects with a myriad of props, as well as his own voice, that heaven knows how Christian Edwards, who plays him brilliantly, keeps up with everything that’s going on. He must be utterly exhausted by the end of the show.

Vivien CarterGary Wilmot, as Sammy Shaw, the cheeky star of Victory Bandwagon, is precisely as entertaining as you would expect him to be. He has such an easy, relaxed style; his presence is a reassurance; his every gesture, word, song makes you smile. He is the Olympic Gamesmaker of musical theatre; every household needs a Gary Wilmot to make the day pass more smoothly. Sara Crowe is excellent as his long-suffering girlfriend and co-performer Olive, who elicits some of the sadness out of her songs but a lot of the humour too.

John ConroyVivien Carter plays Ann Chapman, the lovely young singer and receiver of the “Dear Girlfriend” letters, and she completely captures the era with an immaculate performance and superb vocals. But arguably the topmost laughs are from John Conroy’s stiff-and-starchy BBC producer Heathcliffe Bultitude whose character, shall we say, endures the biggest journey of the night. It’s a great role and shows off a number of Mr Conroy’s entertaining talents.

Ben Fox There were a couple of minor hitches; a few lines got garbled here and there, and Mrs Chrisparkle felt it was a little overamplified for a theatre as small as the Royal. True, I did occasionally have difficulty deciphering some of Wilf’s lines (the very funny Ben Fox) because his microphone was drowned out by the sound of the musical instruments, especially in the first act. But that’s not what you remember from the evening. You take with you the memory of some wonderfully funny musical numbers – Ali Baba’s Camel, I took my Harp to a Party, for example; you remember how the show created a convincing wartime vibe, and you revel in some first rate performances that made you laugh and smile all the way through. Abi Grant’s book is really funny and well written, and the whole thing is basically a delight. Don’t think that this show is just for Oldies – it’s irresistible entertainment for everyone and I’d definitely recommend it.

Review – The Village Bike, Sheffield Crucible Studio, 15th September 2012

The Village Bike “Was that the most masturbation you’ve ever seen in a play?” asked Mrs Chrisparkle, on waking the morning after seeing last Saturday’s preview of “The Village Bike”. “On stage, yes, I think” I replied, erasing distant memories of the 16 year old me seeing “Oh Calcutta” with a pal. This bright and breezy award-winning comedy by Penelope Skinner started life last year at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs and fits perfectly into that adaptable and stimulating space, the Studio at the Sheffield Crucible. They’re staging it in traverse, which always adds to the intimacy of a play because there is no hiding place on that stage and you really feel part of the action.

Amy CuddenBecky and John are expecting their first baby, and whilst John is thrilled at the prospect and launches himself 100% into pre-natal research, the effect on Becky is simply to switch her randiness thermostat to boiling point. Newly moved into a village, Becky buys a second hand bike, ostensibly to explore her new surroundings and keep her pregnancy fitness levels up, but it ends up being the vehicle for her to widen the circle of her friends, in many ways, as it were. I won’t spoil it for you with any more plot revelations.

Christopher HarperIt’s a delightfully creative set by Fabrice Serafino, with fully functioning kitchen, bedroom with apparent ensuite, overactive plumbing, a video wall, and even an inventive way of representing the open road pouring with rain. That’s pretty good going for a space that small. The kitchen chairs were those clear Perspex ones that Mrs C has always had a fondness for – a nice touch suggesting youthful domestic aspiration. The play itself is rather beautifully written and constructed – with one slight quibble, more of which later; it doesn’t shy away from some awkward subjects, it absolutely connects with the audience (a lot of laughter of recognition) and basically it’s very, very funny. The words are juicy enough to give the actors clear insight into the characters they are portraying, and it’s all rather lovingly directed by Jonathan Humphreys, who gave us his excellent Happy Days last year at the same theatre.

Caroline Harker The acting is of a uniformly high standard throughout. Absolutely central to the play is Becky, played by Amy Cudden. She’s hardly ever off stage and her whole performance is a delight, whether she’s squabbling in bed with her husband or tripping over her words with some lousy (and hilarious) come-on type chat with the plumber or the bike seller. She has great timing too – I noticed quite a few occasions when she waited for the audience’s guffaws to die down before carrying on, something I always appreciate. And it would be hard to ignore the fact that she deploys her feminine charms in a pleasingly subtle way, if I may refer you to Mrs C’s opening comment.

David Bark-JonesI must tell you about two other especially superb performances. Christopher Harper as her eco-warrior husband John gives a wonderful comic performance, interlaced with perfectly pitched pathos. Splendidly earnest, and blind to a woman’s needs as only a husband can be, he has some great set piece scenes like where he gives Becky her “surprise” from Amsterdam, and when he is lying innocently on the bed reading a breastfeeding manual whilst Becky is “otherwise engaged”. I loved his ways of coping with his wife’s mood swings – that slightly patronising tone and mealy-mouthed smile; we’re all guilty of it. Mind you, he really is helped by Penelope Skinner’s script in these scenes, which is perfect to a syllable. Perhaps his best scene is where you think he is going to find out about her infidelity but, typically, he misses the point – really very funny.

Sean McKenzieThe other superb performance is from Caroline Harker as Jenny, the “experienced mother” neighbour who always wants a chat at inopportune moments and is frightfully well-meaning, yet has a surprisingly humorous innocence about her too. At times she was a bit like Margo Leadbetter meets Miriam Stoppard, heartily dispensing baby advice with lots of middle class girl-power. She got some of the best laughs of the night. The rest of the company are all very good, and extremely well cast. David Bark-Jones as the former owner of the bike, Oliver, hits the right level of sleaziness and ruthlessness. Sean McKenzie’s Mike the plumber is amusingly bemused throughout, and Alice Selwyn makes the most of her brief but wittily written part as Alice.

Alice Selwyn My only quibble with the play is how it ends. The final 30 seconds for me did nothing to add to the understanding of the characters or their plight, it wasn’t particularly funny and, in fact, it verged on the embarrassing. I’ve thought about it more over the past couple of days, and concluded that it just doesn’t work. Omitting it wouldn’t work either, as the scene before has a quiet and introverted ending, so it definitely needs a final punch – but this isn’t it. More like a whimper than a bang. But don’t let that minor aspect bother you because it really is a very funny play with a bright and thoughtful production and some star performances. Highly recommended.

Review – Macbeth, Sheffield Crucible Theatre, 15th September 2012

MacbethOver many years of theatregoing you get to see quite a few productions of Macbeth. Not surprising really, being the magnificent play that it is; I can think of only a few possible rivals for the title “Greatest Play in the English Language”. Naturally, every director wants to do it differently. I’ve seen it done in 20th century dress; I’ve seen it heavily abridged; I’ve seen it with a male Lady Macbeth. In fact, it’s not often you see it without a modern twist of some sort – and that’s one of the things that makes Daniel Evans’ new production at Sheffield stand out – it’s incredibly faithful to Shakespeare’s original. They’ve even kept the Hecate scene in – only the second time I’ve seen it. Although it was a bit odd that Macbeth nips in after Lady Macduff and her boy have been slain and nicks her baby out of the cot; and whenever we see Macbeth towards the end of the play he’s cuddling a mewling infant. Treachery, regicide, homicide, and now cotnapping. Not a nice Thane.

Daniel Evans has staged the play in the round. Instead of the Crucible’s normal backdrop behind the stage, a couple of extra banks of seats recreate a full amphitheatre effect. This adds to the visual impact of some circular images; the witches’ dancing round in a circle, for example; the round centre of the stage at different times becomes a cauldron, a magnificent large round table for Macbeth’s ill-fortuned feast, and a pit from which the apparitions can emerge. It all looks great.

Unfortunately the “in the round” nature contributed to some blocking issues. From my vantage point of seat C17 there were a number of times when a character was speaking and my view of them was completely obscured by actors in front of me. The most irritating example of this was when the aforesaid apparitions are spooked into reality by the witches in a strong ray of light centre stage, which would clearly be a stunning visual effect. At least I think that’s what happened; as First Witch had stubbornly plonked herself in my view line and the only way I could catch a faint glimpse of this coup de theatre was by lunging across Mrs Chrisparkle’s lap, which was the same course of action for the young lad in B17 and the gentleman in A17 and I expect for the person in D17 and so on. Not that they all landed on Mrs C, but you get my drift. It’s a shame because the Witch could have moved just twelve inches to the right and she wouldn’t have obstructed anyone.

Whilst I’m on the subject of technical imperfections, I was also rather disturbed by the off-stage noises during Saturday’s matinee. C17 is the last seat on the row before a handrail and a gap, and below you on the right is one of the entrance and exit paths on to the stage. There really was an awful lot of muttering, clattering and rustling from time to time as actors were getting into position for their entrances down there. Particularly irritating was when they were getting ready for their “Dunsinane” entrance, disguised under twigs and branches, it was incredibly noisy and distracting.

You would think I was very grumpy about this production – I’ve done nothing but complain about it. Well, to conclude this section in this vein – Malcolm is the squeaky clean new hope for Scotland at the end of the play and is often portrayed as a bit wet behind the ears; but this Malcolm is so wet he is positively runny. I’m afraid I didn’t get much sense of kingliness about him. The other characters that lacked credibility for me were the three witches. Indeed they looked the part very well, but to me they sounded like they’d come straight from a RADA enunciation class. They were far too posh to be dressed as hags and dispensing eye of newt and toe of frog; instead you would expect their cauldron to be filled with Waitrose Organic supplies.

Geoffrey StreatfeildApart from all that, it’s really good! Macbeth is played by Geoffrey Streatfeild as quite a decent chap at first; quiet, noble, honourable – which makes his first aside, that of his jealous reaction to Malcolm’s becoming Prince of Cumberland, stand out as being a huge character-leap. His duplicity is really well brought to life. One extremely good view I was lucky enough to share involved Mr Streatfeild’s faux-kindly eyes looking straight at me as he exchanged farewells with the trusting Banquo and Fleance, whose honest faces were also turned to me, with Macbeth’s in between them. It was one of those little theatrical moments when a look said it all; it said, “with this smile I send you to your deaths”, and it gave me a shiver down my spine. I also loved the sharp contrast of his change from beaming host to unhinged madman at the sight of Banquo’s ghost – that whole feast scene is brilliantly staged and acted and is definitely a highlight of the production; by the way, the Ghost’s unexpected entrances take your breath away.

Claudie Blakley As Lady Macbeth, I knew Claudie Blakley was going to be superb, and I wasn’t disappointed. We loved her in the National’s Comedy of Errors earlier this year, and as Lady M she packs exactly the punch you’d expect. This is possibly the most feminine Lady Macbeth I’ve ever seen – not in her dress sense, but with some light flirting and her deceptively charming voice you can really see why Macbeth would fall for her. She makes both a convincing hostess but also a damn good bullying wife. All her scenes are immaculately performed, and the final “out damned spot” speech was sufficiently moving actually to make you feel sorry for her. Normally I sense that Lady M gets precisely what she deserves, but with this portrayal you genuinely feel there is a real person suffering there. Good stuff.

Andrew Jarvis The roles of Duncan, Old Man and Siward are all performed by Andrew Jarvis with splendid Shakespearian gusto. As Duncan he was grandly regal, the kind of old man that both a nation and family could love as one – like a benign Lear. As Siward he was stirringly warrior-like, and as the Old Man he reacted very credibly to Macbeth’s weird behaviour at the dining table, trying not to catch his eye, and rescuing bits of his meal off the floor that Macbeth had flung there. Very enjoyable attention to detail.

John DougallAnother performance I really enjoyed was John Dougall’s Macduff. We’d seen Mr Dougall before in Propeller’s Henry V giving a great performance as the vain French King laid low by England’s might. As Macduff he’s superb – particularly in the moving scene where he slowly realises his little chickens and their dam have been slaughtered, and which develops into very classy belligerence in his fight with Macbeth. You have to hand it to him; during the scene where Ross tells him his family is slain I was already caught up in his excellent delivery when, horror of horrors, a mobile phone went off; both persistently and noisily. Appalling timing! But Mr Dougall did not register it a nanometre. An earthquake could have happened and he was so “in the zone” that he’d have carried on. Brilliant work.

David GanlyDavid Ganly’s Banquo is a gutsy, hearty soul who put me in mind slightly of Brian Blessed after a diet. It’s a perfect reading of the role but he absolutely comes into his own as the Ghost. His empty mouth’s voiceless lamentations and accusations are spine chilling. It’s only a tiny role, but Sophie Roberts’ Lady Macduff filled her five minutes with clarity, humour, and terror and was absolutely spot-on. Her murder made the audience gasp with horror – so that worked a treat.

Sophie RobertsThere was quite a lot of doubling-up of roles, all of which worked fine, but special mention has to be made of Christopher Logan who took seven roles and gave each of them their own identity and dynamic. He was brilliant as the porter – that scene can sometimes be incredibly irksome – but he made it genuinely funny and nicely eccentric; not over-the-top, but perfectly convincing. Heroically noble as the Bleeding Captain; gormless as one of the murderers; compromised as the doctor; and even a suggestion of drag-queen as Hecate, he is a lynch-pin of the production and makes a superb contribution.

Christopher Logan I noticed that the programme acknowledged the assistance – inter alia – of our very own Royal and Derngate here in Northampton. I can guess what their contribution was; when Macduff finally appears with Macbeth’s head on a stick, it had all the hallmarks of The Bacchae’s head of Pentheus which his mother chomps away at in cannabilistic ecstasy. Suitably gruesome and realistic.

So, a few technical issues aside, on the whole this is a very good production and I would recommend it for some excellent performances and a clear reading of the plot. This was possibly the largest audience I’ve seen for a show at the Crucible, so hopefully it’s doing good business, which can only be great news for everyone.

Review – Bully Boy, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 8th September 2012

Bully BoyI count myself very lucky that my family, my friends and I have never had to deal personally with the horrors of war. I’m not acquainted with anyone in the military services; in fact the only people I’ve ever known who have gone to war were from my parents’ generation. I was born at a fortunate time; maybe if the Falklands War had somehow escalated and conscription was introduced I might have been caught up in that; and if at some time in the future we have a World War Three on the lines of the previous two, I might be required to join some kind of Dad’s Army, although I can’t imagine that such a unit would have a place in modern warfare.

So I have no personal insight into the world of war, but I do have experience of being a human – and this is what this play is all about. Humans pushed to the edge of what is endurable, and then being required by society to be heroic role models, to kick mental health issues under the table, and basically, having done their heroic jobs, to crawl back into their boxes until the country needs them, or their sons, to fight another war, next time around.

Anthony AndrewsIn the past when I’ve opened up a theatre programme to discover that the play is a two-hander I’ve always felt a slight sense of disappointment. Somehow you expect less from the play in advance; fewer characters, obviously, but also fewer themes, less variation, maybe a smaller overall vision. Well this two-hander breaks all those preconceptions. It’s chock-full of vision and themes, and whilst there may only be two characters, you really do get to know them inside out. This is quite simply a superb play, written by Sandi Toksvig with sensitivity and insight, wit and compassion, brought to life by two stunning performances in a lucid, inventive production that absolutely gets to the heart of the play and lets the words do the work.

Joshua MilesPrivate Eddie Clark, (strong, young, undereducated, uncontrolled) is interviewed by Major Oscar Hadley, (no use of legs, older, highly educated, controlling and calculating) regarding allegations of his committing an act of summary justice in the field of war. From a point of view of class and background, the two men are worlds apart, linked only by their profession. But then something happens that directly affects the way they both look at their lives, and as their relationship perforce develops, in ways that you would not foresee, similarities arise between them. Woven into this relationship are the themes of loyalty, comradeship, authority, aspiration; reality and fantasy; teamwork and solitary existence. It’s a play of great intensity; from the moment Oscar starts his address to the Court Martial at the beginning of the play to his summing-up at the end, your ears hang on every word and your eyes watch every movement. Normally I’m quite critical of productions where there is no interval – this play is 100 minutes non-stop – as there nearly always is a suitable point where you could break, so we can all get a drink, nip to the loo, all-round freshen up, discuss the first act with you co-attendees, and then return fit and alert for the second half. However, in this play, it’s absolutely vital that there is no 15 minutes break; you would lose that intensity and drive, and it’s best if you don’t allow yourself reflective time to consider what’s going on and how it will all turn out. The end becomes all the more convincing and appropriate as a result.

Major Oscar HadleyThe whole design team have joined forces to create a deceptively simple set, which, with a little visual and sound stimulation, can take you from court to hospital to library to war but with minimal distraction away from the text and performers. It’s amazing how much a table and a chair can re-create on stage when your imagination gets to work. The back projections by Scott Radnor are particularly effective, and the sound effects by John Leonard were superbly realistic.

Private Eddie ClarkBut of course it is the performances of the two actors that really remain in your mind. As Oscar, Anthony Andrews brings with him all the bearing, stage presence and technical prowess that you would expect. When he rages, it feels violent and bitter so that you are pulled up sharp in your seat. When he’s sarcastic or manipulating, you rather despise him and want to get your own back on him. When he’s vulnerable and weakened you feel sympathy and you realise he is only human too. You have a constantly changing opinion of him, which helps maintain the pace and intensity. Joshua Miles’ Eddie is a troubled, difficult soul, lacking a direction for his energy, but with whose frustrations you instantly identify, and who you are willing throughout the whole play to be able to turn his life around and have a future. At so many different times throughout the play, his eyes tell a story of unseen, unspoken horror and anguish, and it’s a terrific performance.

TeamworkActually it’s difficult to describe these two performances separately because they really constitute a team. The level of trust between them must be incredible as they dovetail in and out of scenes, constantly relying on each other to create a situation that the other will then work off. It’s a total partnership and it felt like an absolute privilege to see them work together. For 100 minutes there is no let-up of focus between them. Even between scenes you can still see the intensity in their expressions. It’s all quite brilliant.

If I have one slight criticism, it is that just very occasionally I felt the script moves away from a credible conversation between the two characters and takes on the role of a Sandi Toksvig polemic against our political leaders who send our troops out to kill and be killed in their name. But then I think of the beautifully written speech by Oscar where he describes how he answers Eddie’s father’s question about why we went to war; subtle, clear, ghastly and hilarious. It really is a superbly crafted play.

Oscar and Eddie’s relationship (I don’t think you could call it a friendship) goes through many phases, which I won’t mention because I don’t want to spoil it for you. Mrs Chrisparkle thought some of the situations stretched credibility to an extent – they would not be the kind of experience that a Major and a Private would share – although she was completely prepared to forgive Ms Toksvig because overall the thing is just so splendid. Personally, I disagreed; I thought they were totally believable situations and that the experiences of war can drive people to behave oddly and make the unexpected into reality. However, what we did agree on was that it is an extraordinary play and production with great performances. After it leaves Northampton it will be the first play at the new St James Theatre in London, and I think it’s going to be a hot ticket.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 7th September 2012

Screaming Blue MurderHurrah for the return of the Screaming Blue Murder autumn season, from the hot and sweaty depths of the Underground in the Royal and Derngate – but at least it doesn’t smell of damp anymore. Not going to criticise it though, as it’s a perfect venue for this kind of comedy club.

Dan EvansA good crowd – which featured not only Mrs Chrisparkle and myself, but also My Lady Duncansby, the Baron von Badby and the Duchess of Duston – saw Dan Evans introduce the usual line up of three super comics and two lovely intervals. Dan was on very good form – effortless in his interaction with the front rows, and dispensing lots of new material (phew! Good stuff!) even if the one old joke he told was the one that got the biggest laugh.

OlaFirst up was Ola; Olawale Gbaja-Biamila according to Chortle, or Olathecomedian according to Twitter. New to us, it was stimulating to have some intelligent, thoughtful observations to start the evening off, and I admired how he was absolutely in control of the pace of his set, carrying us all along with him, dropping in the funny lines and quirky ideas exactly when he wanted. Lots of pauses, but I had complete confidence in him to see out each thread to its intended outcome. I liked the use of “urban charm” – you’ll have to watch his act to see how that gets included – and also he had a nice form of self-deprecation – one where he allows us to get humour out of his (apparent) slight bigheadedness. When he said he was a Christian you could hear a pin drop – superb timing.

Pierre HollinsThe other two acts we had seen before. Pierre Hollins was next, and I remember him as being full of attack, with lots of hard-hitting material, and he was just the same this time – if slightly better. He’s very good at presenting you with situations as experienced by an ordinary bloke (whatever that is) and I certainly found myself recognising a lot of the funny observations he made. A bit coarse, but in a friendly way. A couple of bizarre songs on the guitar at the end weren’t as strong as the rest of his material, so it didn’t quite finish on a high, but he probably got the loudest applause of the night anyway.

Tony LawThe headline act was Tony Law, who we thought also had improved a lot from the last time he was here. He has a very surreal act; he instantly launches into another world populated by his imagination, which to me only partly makes sense and even less makes for humour. I can’t describe his world – I’m afraid I simply don’t recognise it. This level of surrealism must be a dangerous comedic ploy – if the audience isn’t “getting it”, there’s really nowhere to go; you’re in so deep that you can’t backtrack and start again on a different tack. Last time he was here he was heckled pretty mercilessly and didn’t cope well with it – he got defensive and – frankly – a bit arsey with the hecklers (who were funnier than he was). This time the Northampton audience was much more polite. And although I didn’t really get his act, and I noticed stony silence from Mrs C and Lady D, and drooping eyelids from the Baron, the Duchess of Duston at the end of the row was rocking back and forward with hysteria. Humour is such a subjective thing. His African and Indian elephant routine at the end was a masterstroke though, and I loved it. You had to be there.

Another bunch of comics in two weeks time – already looking forward to it!

Review – Dry Rot, Milton Keynes Theatre, 5th September 2012

Dry RotWhen I was ten, my Mum took me to see Brian Rix in “She’s Done it Again” at the Garrick Theatre – one of the last “Whitehall” farces to grace the London stage, and I remember loving it. One day over a pint I’ll tell you about how nice Brian Rix was to me when I met him that day at the stage door; but that’s another story. I do clearly remember buying a souvenir brochure that detailed all the Whitehall farces from “Reluctant Heroes” in 1950 up to the aforesaid “She’s Done it Again” in 1970; and it included photos and production details of the original production of “Dry Rot”, which ran at the Whitehall from 1954 to 1958. So it’s taken me a long time to get round to seeing it!

Unfortunately it was a “Show Alone” night, as Mrs Chrisparkle was unable to get out of a work commitment, so it was just Pinot for One as I took my seat in Row A. Those naughty people at the Milton Keynes Theatre have ruined their stalls, by the way. By far the best seats in the house used to be Row C, a perfect distance from the stage (fifth row back), and with a small rake from Row B in front. They’ve now created Row CC, between rows B and C, which means the once delightfully spacious legroom of Row C has disappeared and you’re now going to be looking directly at the heads of people in Row CC, as they’ve also eliminated the little rake. Row A is now the best front stalls seat, as it still has a rake behind Row BB, and is a good distance from the stage for plays, although a bit close for musicals and dance. Is that too much information for you?

Gemma Bissix Anyway back to the show. The evening definitely suffered from having quite a thin audience; laughter surrounding you makes comedy funnier, no matter what’s happening on stage. There were plenty of opportunities for amused snorts, giggles and a couple of hefty laughs, but my overwhelming reaction to the production was that it was a small affair dwarfed by too large a theatre. The set was pretty basic, and the off-stage sound effects sounded highly artificial, although the costumes were adequate and I didn’t notice anything wrong with the lighting. There’s a lot of comment in the programme about how farce is an enduring genre of comedy – with which I entirely agree – but to be honest this play struck me as being firmly the kind that would have entertained our grandparents and I felt it was very dated. There’s a lot of laughing at foreigners (well one foreigner) for simply not having the decency to speak English (one of my pet-hates in the theatre); when we’re not laughing at him and his seely Frensh aczent we’re meant to be laughing at the over-the-top yokel vocal and behaviour of the maid (Gemma Bissix stretching credulity to the limit for most of the evening); or the posh/common accents of the bookie and his runner; or the stiff uppers of the retired Colonel and his Memsahib, who run the hotel where all the madcap events take place.

Neil Stacy There are some good performances but I also thought a lot of the set piece farce action was a little sloppy in places. The (various) feet going through the dry rot hole on the stairs was telegraphed a mile off each time; the stumbling around of the stupefied French jockey seemed to lack comic timing; and I thought the final tableau where all the various chaotic events were meant to come together just looked a mess. Most of the comic business needed to be snappier and the whole pace of the farce sequences needed to be a bit more frenetic.

Liza Goddard That said, I really enjoyed the performances of Neil Stacy as Colonel Wagstaff and Liza Goddard as his wife. They have natural stage authority and made their rather one-dimensional characters completely believable. Ms Goddard’s slightly wide-eyed innocence was perfect for Mrs Wagstaff and Mr Stacy’s Last Days of the Raj Colonel’s voice seemed modelled on the Jungle Book’s Colonel Hathi, which was no bad thing. John Chapman reserved all the best lines in the play for the Colonel, and even though from the viewpoint of 2012 he’s an outdated fuddy-duddy, it’s still the performance of the night.

Evelyn Adams I also liked Evelyn Adams as their daughter Susan, endearingly posh and polite, struggling to be correct when dealing with the refined advances of Mark Martin’s John Danby, another good performance. Miss Adams pitches her performance on the right side of cute, which is also no bad thing.

Mark MartinFor me, where the show didn’t work was with the three low-life bookie rascals. For this show to succeed, I believe you have to look on these characters as loveable rogues. You can then be partly on their side and share in their deceit and villainy. The trouble was, I found them to be various degrees of irritating, and I simply didn’t care what happened to them. This is not because of how they were performed; I think it’s just the way they are written and how they embody a kind of stage villainy that hasn’t seen the light of day since the last episodes of Arthur Daley. I did think that Steven Blakeley as Fred Phipps did excellent pratfalls though, and the scene where he had to learn to ride the horse on the back of the sofa was technically very well done. There’s no doubt that Mr Blakeley has “gormless” off to a T, and that is meant as a compliment.

Steven Blakeley I did find the play rather depressingly class-stereotyped. I know that it’s a product of its time but it bothered me in a way that it wouldn’t have bothered me in a contemporary Coward or Rattigan play. Retired Colonels are duffers; domestic help are thick; bookies are villains; Frenchmen are irascible; policewomen are bombastic. I think I need more out of a comedy than that. Maybe if Mrs C had been with me I’d have enjoyed myself more, but in all honesty I think it’s a museum piece of a play, and you’d need to be well tanked-up and in a theatre full of like-minded (and tanked) people to really enjoy this one. It’s been touring, and with some cast changes from theatre to theatre, so you can still try your luck with it at Oxford, Brighton or Guildford after it leaves Milton Keynes.

PS. I forgot that actually the best performance of the night came from the lady who, fifteen minutes before curtain up, announced that the doors to the auditorium were open. She used tones of excitement and mystery; deployed light and shade; I detected Sturm und Drang; nuances of Brecht; Grotowski would have been thrilled. Auditioning for RADA or just wanting to make sure the hard-of-understanding pensioners got the message? Couldn’t tell. Had a foyer full of amused, if slightly stunned, people though.