Review – Matthew Bourne’s Sleeping Beauty, Milton Keynes Theatre, 30th January 2013

Sleeping BeautyA new Matthew Bourne production always has the promise of greatness. It was at the Wycombe Swan that we first saw his Adventures in Motion Pictures’ Swan Lake, one Saturday matinee in 1995, and we were electrified by it. I think we saw it three or four times within that first year, and whenever it comes round, as it often does, it’s our sworn duty to go and see it again. Since then we’ve seen Cinderella, Nutcracker, Highland Fling, The Car Man, Play Without Words, Dorian Gray, and last year’s Early Adventures, all of which are somewhere on the scale between very good and excellent. And now we have Sleeping Beauty, which to my mind is the nearest he has come to recreating the theatrical thrill that is his Swan Lake.

Christopher MarneyGood to see Mr Bourne is still working with his tried and tested colleagues. One glance at the programme and you are reassured to see that Lez Brotherston has designed the set and costumes. The sets are amazing – opulent and classy, and still leaving a large central space for all the dancing to take place. Particularly stunning are the house and garden scene for Act Two and the neon lit wedding reception for Act Four. The costumes are splendid too – especially outstanding are those for the good fairies and Carabosse. The puppetry to convey the baby Aurora is also brilliant: subtly done, remarkably realistic and very funny.

Chris Trenfield One of the problems I have with some of Mr Bourne’s works is that, for contemporary dance productions, sometimes they’re just isn’t enough choreography. Well he’s certainly put that right with Sleeping Beauty. It’s jam-packed full of dance; and one of the finest sequences comes quite early on with a remarkable pas de six performed by Count Lilac and the five fairies. Lively, exciting, dramatic and also humorous, the variations are all superbly danced and you can’t help but grin from ear to ear whilst watching.

Hannah Vassallo A very small quibble – it’s hard to tell from the programme who is performing which role as you have a choice of two or three performers for each character and no information insert to guide you for that individual performance. So in my mentions of any particular dancers in this blog, I sincerely hope I have allocated the correct dancer to the correct role – I am relying on their bio photos and my mental images of what they looked like! I’m pretty sure our Count Lilac was Christopher Marney, recently a well deserved nomination for outstanding performance in Modern Dance in the National Dance Awards. He was excellent in this Act One pas de six, but also fantastic in the climactic assault on the wicked Caradoc at the end, even if his masked appearance with Leo (Chris Trenfield at our performance) making their way to the wedding reception, did put me slightly in mind of the 1960s Batman and Robin. I was also a little put off by the visual tableau just before the interval when it looked like we’d gone all Transylvanian. Mr Marney looked highly creepy in this scene, and I thought Leo’s transformation into a good fairy could have been done a little more subtly.

Ben BunceChris Trenfield is great as Leo – he does some wonderful solos and has a fantastic rapport with Hannah Vassallo who played Aurora when we saw it. His highly athletic dancing, dressed as a working gamekeeper whilst everyone else is in their fancy garden party whites, is visually outstanding and Mr Trenfield really gets into the rough-and-ready aspect of the character. The only duff note of the whole evening for us was the step sequence depicting Leo going on an interminably long walk to find Aurora.Luke Murphy It was funny at first, but then it just went on too long – and choreographically, it’s not very interesting. Miss Vassallo was a superb Aurora; cheeky, slightly tomboyish when we first see her; amusingly checking out all the suitors at the garden party, and her dancing with Leo in that scene was exquisite. She looks perfect for the role too – precisely how one would imagine Sleeping Beauty to look in real life.

Katy LowenhoffCasting a severe spell over the garden party scene is Caradoc, the nasty son of the dark fairy Carabosse, both played by Ben Bunce (I think) in the production we saw. His appearance as Carabosse in the first scene is thrilling. He looks like the most malicious drag queen diva bullying his demands on the ineffectual King and Queen, almost as if he were a Beardsley creation (Aubrey, not Peter). Daniel CollinsMrs Chrisparkle wasn’t over-menaced by Carabosse’s two attendants though; more wet than threat, she felt. As the dark fairy’s son Caradoc, Mr Bunce is the height of snooty, manipulative villainy and his scenes with Aurora are mesmerising; you’d swear Rohypnol was involved. There’s a wonderful coup de theatre – 100% Bourne – when Leo goes to wake Aurora in her bed… and it isn’t her. Caradoc’s final come-uppance is a thrilling scene, with great visual impact and energetic choreography, not to mention effective use of stage tattoos.

Danny ReubensThe whole ensemble are on top form, with great support from Luke Murphy as the footman and Katy Lowenhoff as the nanny, Daniel Collins and Danny Reubens amongst the suitors and Kate Lyons and Mari Kamata amongst the fairies. Apologies if I have some of the casting wrong – but without a detailed cast list the programme is almost worthless!

Kate LyonsThis is a very fine addition to the Bourne canon; and whilst it has neither the painful emotional drive of Swan Lake nor its extraordinarily varied and satisfying score, it’s a delight to see that Mr Bourne is still producing dance productions of the highest quality and vigour. It’s already had a sell-out season at Sadler’s Wells; it was a completely full house when we saw it – wonderful for a Wednesday night in Milton Keynes – and it will continue to tour. I see no reason why this shouldn’t follow Swan Lake and have a proper West End Theatre run. We would be very happy to see it again.

Mari KamataPS. The Milton Keynes Theatre experience is definitely on the ascendant. Not only have they opened up the area of the foyer which used to be a supporters/club members/rich people only area, and now which provides much more space for everyone to relax pre-show, they’ve now also got a chap tinkling the ivories, and I must say he was jolly good. A really jazzy funky version of Justin Timberlake’s Cry Me A River sent us into the theatre with a spring in our step and having forgotten the cares and woes of the day. Well done!

Review – Janina Fialkowska Plays Chopin, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Derngate, Northampton, 27th January 2013

Janina Fialkowska Plays ChopinOnce again it is a delight to welcome the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to Northampton, and good to see that there plenty of avid music lovers in attendance. Fortunately the snow had all but melted away so it was an easy trek into town for an audio feast of Brahms, Chopin and Beethoven.

Our conductor was Fabien Gabel, whom we have not seen here before. Very dashing and smart, he’s the kind of conductor who throws himself whole-heartedly into cajoling every section of the orchestra to outperform themselves on an individual basis. A lively bit comes along and he’s flapping around frenziedly – then comes a soft bit and he’s beckoning out gently with one hand in an encouraging way as if to part the musician with their last Rolo. Despite all this he’s not over-the-top in his movement, he just obviously enjoys his job and isn’t afraid to show it. I found him equally entertaining to watch as any of members of the orchestra.

Fabien GabelThe first piece was Brahms’ Tragic Overture. Mrs Chrisparkle remarked that she’s experienced a few of those. The programme notes advised that it met a lukewarm reception on its first performance, has been slow to gain a regular place in the repertoire, and performances remain relatively scarce to this day. Not having heard it before, you couldn’t blame us for wondering if it was going to be a bit rubbish. We had no need to worry. It was lush and stately and full of beautiful expression from the strings and there was also some really good oomph from the horns. Not tragic at all, we agreed.

Having built up a soothing air of warm serenity with the Brahms, it was time to move on to Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 2 in F Minor. I’d caught sight earlier of the Steinway, lurking at the back of the stage where you would normally expect to see the percussion. Therefore it had to be wheeled into position before the arrival of our soloist Janina Fialkowska. What a performance. First violins had to move this way, second violins moved that way, cellos hovered perilously close to the stage edge. Two dinner-jacketed guys grabbed hold of the piano and went for the gap. They reversed it in and out of place several times, in an attempt to find the optimum position. They were worse than me trying to reverse-park the Golf. Meanwhile, the first violins were chatting at one corner of the stage, the cellos were chatting at the other end; one tall musician (I can’t remember what instrument he was playing) stood right at the front of the stage looking out and beaming into the audience as if he were trying to find his relatives. It all seemed to take ages. Honestly, how to kill an atmosphere! The whole procedure looked so amateurish and unplanned. We’ve seen RPO concerts with piano soloists on three separate occasions but I can’t remember such a cumbersome arrangement.

Janina FialkowskaAnyway, eventually everything was in place and we could continue. M. Gabel brought Ms Fialkowska onto the stage with a palpable air of expectation. It was all worth the wait. Chopin’s 2nd piano concerto is a stunning piece, combining delicacy and grandiosity, sorrow and folky jollity. In that first movement, Janina Fialkowska’s hands fly across the keyboard at an incredible speed, somehow managing to catch all the right notes in their path as they go. One wonders how the brain can instruct the hands to go to all those places with exactly the right sequence, speed and expression. That’s why I gave up at Grade VI. For the second movement, a seriousness descends and Ms Fialkowska played the most beautiful, deceptively simple, nocturne – plaintive and resonant, full of feeling and emotion; we loved it. Straight into the third movement and she gathers all the liveliness back and goes for broke, her hands shimmering over the keys almost as much as her black sparkly top glittered under the spotlights. An absolutely stonking good performance. The orchestra gave it great support too, including a stunning sequence towards the end where the strings are played with the wood part of the bow rather than the hair. The whole performance understandably caused the Derngate to erupt with approval. As Ms Fialkowska came out for her second bow, one of the theatre staff hovered behind her with a very nice looking bouquet. Fatally, he hesitated. He couldn’t tell when to make his move. She went to leave the stage. He bounded in with the bouquet. Flowers and soloist were successfully united and all was well that ended well; but we were a bit worried for him. Next time you have a bouquet to present to a soloist, imagine you’re trying to cross a road in Vietnam. Don’t look, just stride out and do it.

RPOAfter a scrummy Chenin Blanc and the chance to get our breath back after that wonderful performance, we returned to the auditorium for Beethoven’s 6th symphony. The Pastoral symphony is full of recognisable tunes but I can never quite place them before I hear it. I don’t think I was the only one with that problem, because as soon as it started you could hear a tiny wave of breathy recognitions around the room as if to say “oh yes, THAT one.” It was another great performance. M. Gabel got right into it and dug all sorts of superlatives out of the orchestra. The cellos were having a particularly good time, exchanging knowing looks and smiles as it progressed. The music flowed over us like a soothing honey and lemon drink. It’s easy to tell the break from the first to the second movement and from the second to the third (cue the musical birdsong); but the third, fourth and fifth movements all run into each other so that when it finishes it’s a bit of a shock. My little pastoral idyll had come to an end.

Even then it wasn’t all over, as we got a little burst of Mozart as an encore, which was a very nice touch. The evening was superb and we really enjoyed it. Not quite as much, perhaps, as the cellists, who all kissed and hugged at the end, as if wrapping up a self-help group meeting. Three cheers for the RPO and their wonderful Sunday night concerts here at the Derngate; there’s no surer way of ending the weekend both relaxed and energised.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 25th January 2013

Screaming Blue MurderA new year and a new season of Screaming Blue Murder comedy nights at the Derngate – always something to look forward to, as the capacity crowd last Friday testifies. Our host was Dan Evans, and he was on excellent form with some great new material (thanks Dan!) nicely interlaced with some old favourites, and his appearances went down a storm.

Dan EvansWe had previously seen two of the three acts a couple of years ago, when they were blisteringly brilliant. First was Paul Kerensa, who we saw in February 2011 and who indeed came third in the 2011 Chrisparkle Awards for Screaming Blue Murder stand-up. Again he was extremely good. I’m no prude but I do like the way he can get a full room of slightly inebriated young people laughing their heads off without using swearing as part of his act. He’s recently had eye surgery and used that for a lot of new material that was really funny and thought-provoking. He did his routine about grandparents’ names again, which still creates a lot of laughs as he involves the crowd in the discussion. I also loved his references to an Ikea cabinet, I’ll say no more.

Paul KerensaOriginally booked for the second slot was Loretta Maine but a last minute change introduced us instead to Ninia Benjamin, whom we haven’t seen before. She looks funny – so you’re more or less laughing before she opens her mouth. When she does get going, it’s a stream of utter filth – not much subtlety – but she’s extremely funny with it. It’s a full-on, high octane performance; and when she started manipulating the microphone in a certain suggestive way, she had the full attention of all the gentlemen in the audience, which is probably why she got a huge reaction at the end (so to speak). She’s very self-deprecating too, which always comes over well on stage. You couldn’t take your mother to see her.

Ninia BenjaminHeadline act was Rob Heeney, who we saw in April 2011 and who was in fact the lucky recipient of that year’s Chrisparkle Award for best SBM stand-up. So I know, for a fact, that he is a very very funny comic. However, for whatever reason, his act simply failed to ignite. I think Ms Benjamin is so overpowering that she’s more or less impossible to follow. I won’t dwell any more on his material because it’s tried, tested and good stuff but it just failed to land.

Rob HeeneyIf I may use a wine analogy here (and as it’s my blog, I’m going to do so anyway) it was like having and 12% Pinot Grigio followed by a 14% Australian Shiraz and ending up with a 12.5% Pouilly-Fumé. You simply couldn’t taste the Loire after the Barossa Valley even though it was top quality. I think if Loretta Maine had still been on the bill it would have been better balanced. Hey ho; some you win, some you don’t. Next show in two weeks!

Review – The Ladykillers, Milton Keynes Theatre, 24th January 2013

The LadykillersIt will come as little surprise to you, gentle reader, that I am not particularly familiar with the 1955 Ealing film starring Alec Guinness, on which this theatre production of The Ladykillers is based. I understand from reading the programme that Graham Linehan’s stage version uses the film as a touchstone, but that it very much goes off-piste story- and script-wise from the original. So if you are a purist Ladykillers devotee, this play might disappoint or upset you.

Michele DotriceMrs Chrisparkle and I are neither of those, so we found this scatty and demented story of five bungling crims nicking £200,000 from the Kings Cross train very funny and endearing. On the face of it the characters are all stereotypes, but Mr Linehan’s writing invests each of them with their own strong personalities, some of which nicely clash with the hoodlum role they ought to fulfil as part of the gang, and which successfully raises the comic potential. They are also rather cleverly played as real human beings so that they don’t become grotesques. The story is pleasantly daft, and once the initial success of the crime starts to unravel, there is only one possible outcome, which you delightfully enjoy watching as it works its way to fruition.

Paul BownThe set is fantastic, with its slopey floors and weird-angled doors, beautifully suggestive of Mrs Wilberforce’s ramshackled, subsided cottage, deliberately targeted by Hitler because of her strong letters of anti-Nazi complaint to the newspapers. The special effects when a train passes close by are surprising and very funny, and get a deserved round of applause. The set turns around at one point to reveal the ledge outside the lodger’s window, which is used to great comic and dramatic effect. The only time the set gets too clever for itself was with the use of model cars climbing the outside wall as a graphic illustration of how the heist took place – the cars didn’t move smoothly enough, the collisions lacked visual impact, and it just didn’t work for me.

LadiesThe show is certainly helped along by some full-throttle comic performances. Key to the whole thing is Mrs Wilberforce herself, the moral, kindly little old lady who accidentally becomes complicit in the crime. Michele Dotrice plays her with very polite dottiness; everyone has a little old lady like this in their family or in their street, and recognising those familiar traits is a delight. One of the funniest scenes was her reaction to the teatime concert for her friends and neighbours (a hilariously motley bunch of “ladies” who look like a nightmare version of My Fair Lady’s Ascot Gavotte). Her comic timing throughout the play is a joy and it’s great to see her back on the stage.

Clive MantleProfessor Marcus, the mastermind of the villains, is played with a perfect blend of pomposity and gutter by Paul Bown. His role is the least easy to play for laughs – he is the straight man of the team, whilst all his colleagues have their quirky foibles; the cerebral one, and he plays it with great assurance and thinly-veiled nastiness. There are two other great comic performances; I loved Clive Mantle’s thoroughly cowardly Major Courtney, avoiding every opportunity of being put on the spot, milking the agony of descending to this criminal level yet sneakily working out ways to bag all the loot for himself. His unexpected fondness for women’s clothing starts to take hold during the course of the play and is superbly portrayed – resulting in a splendid appearance at curtain call; officially one of the best staged and funniest curtain calls I’ve seen in years.

William TroughtonI was also very impressed with William Troughton as Harry Robinson, the drug-addicted young waster with a nasty thieving habit. I don’t think I’ve ever seen drug addition (not a particularly nice subject) dealt with so humorously in a play before. His pratfalls and physical comedy are absolutely first rate. Visually he is the spitting image of his father David Troughton and comedically he is a chip off the old block too. These three actors really understand how to play farce; their ensemble interplay was absolutely terrific.

Chris McCalphyI also liked Chris McCalphy as One-Round, the thuggish doltish member of the group, who makes a very credible simpleton with surprising artistic tendencies – a bit like a modern day Bernard Bresslaw. Cliff Parisi as dangerous foreigner Louis Harvey was terse but amusing and there was very nice support from Marcus Taylor as the long-suffering Constable who unwittingly gives Mrs Wilberforce carte blanche absolution at the end.

Cliff ParisiThere are no big lessons or Things That Could Change Your Life about this show, it’s just an affectionate look back at the old film and played purely for laughs. An absolutely full house at Milton Keynes for a Thursday night has got to be a good sign too. It’s touring various parts of the UK and Dublin till April, and I’d certainly recommend it for a funny night out.

P.S. On the unending search for the perfect seat at the Milton Keynes Theatre, for this production we had Stalls seats E20 and 21. Whilst for my taste they were a little far from the stage (they’re not fifth row but eighth), the seats are comfortable, you have plenty of leg room and a joyously uninterrupted view of the stage due to the excellent rake from row D. I think I’d still go for row A as first choice, but row E is definitely a most acceptable alternative.

Review – Privates on Parade, Noel Coward Theatre, 12th January 2013

Privates on ParadeThis is the first of the new Michael Grandage season at the Noel Coward (which I still subversively think of as the Albery, formerly the New – I hate these theatre name changes!) and we’ve booked for four of the five shows, as they looked so tempting. That obviously implies that one of them didn’t quite so tempting – I wonder which! It was with some trepidation that we took our seats – F15 and F16 in the stalls – as we’ve chosen the same ones for all the shows. So we were relieved to discover that the view to the stage is fine, so long as you don’t have a huge Man Mountain sitting in front of you, as Mrs Chrisparkle did. Gallantly, I offered to swap seats with her. Coquettishly she declined. Manfully I insisted. This could have gone on some time, but sense prevailed, we swapped, and it was me who ended up peering past the Man Mountain at odd angles, dodging and weaving like a boxer from side to side as the action moved around on the stage. To be honest, it was only the scene with Sylvia and Flowers in bed together that was really difficult to see. But if Mrs C had stayed in her seat, she would have attempted to see past him for a while but eventually would have given up and tuned out.

Privates on Parade 1977Anyway – I’d been looking forward to seeing this show for ages. Not only since it was announced as part of the Grandage season, but actually I’ve been waiting for a revival of this play for years. I missed the Roger Allam version about ten years ago, much to my annoyance. I’ve been a great fan of this play ever since I saw it in 1978, at the Piccadilly Theatre I believe, with Denis Quilley as Terri Dennis, Nigel Hawthorne as Major Flack and Joe Melia as Bonny – three great performances, and sadly, none of them with us any more. The original soundtrack LP was one of the most frequent visitors to my turntable, and I know Denis King’s songs back to front and inside out. They are such a clever parody of those 1940s wartime performers, played in this show superbly by Jae Alexander’s combats-clad band. It’s an enormously funny play, dotted with moments of real sadness too; Peter Nichols’ semi-autobiographical account of his Malayan army days was obviously a labour of love.

If you don’t know the story, I’ll try not to ruin it for you. Young, inexperienced Private Steven Flowers – the Peter Nichols character – turns up in Malaya to be attached (“heaven!”) to Acting Captain Terri Dennis, who is in charge of entertaining the troops. Flowers joins his motley crew and we see his character develop and mature as he learns about life and love – very quickly – against the backdrop of the army shows and the Malayan Emergency of 1948. However, the text of the play has obviously undergone some changes. In my 1977 Faber edition, without giving the story away, a third character joins Lee and Cheng, the two Chinese attendants, which gives an additional dimension to the story. By the time I saw it in 1978, that element of the storyline had been dropped, and for the better I am sure. Nevertheless I was very disappointed at a story change in this production, which comes in the final scene, and which questions the motives of one of the major characters. I won’t say more on the subject, but not having seen the play since 1978 I wonder when this rather unfortunate change was introduced. If you’ve got the tiniest clue as to what I’m on about, I’d be interested to know.

Carmen MirandaThe only other changes I noted were that a couple of the songs got shortened a little, which was probably a sensible decision. The reference to Room 504 in the Noel Coward song has been dropped – it’s an old Vera Lynn song apparently – and 35 years on no one would get it. I didn’t get it the first time round. This highlights a slight problem with the play today, in that few people really remember Vera Lynn, Carmen Miranda and Flanagan and Allen any more. Mrs C had no idea why Bonny and Bishop were dressed as they were for “Sunnyside Lane” – Bud Flanagan’s fur coat was a new concept to her. I also thought it was interesting that in Simon Russell Beale’s interpretation of Vera Lynn singing “The Little Things We Used To Do” he didn’t really attempt a vocal impersonation of the Force’s Sweetheart, unlike Denis Quilley’s original performace. Mr Quilley did hilarious vowel stranglings, “singing all those little things we uuuuuused to doooooooo”. Everyone in the 1978 audience recognised Miss Lynn’s vocal tic, but today they probably wouldn’t appreciate it. People still recognise a Noel Coward delivery of course, and Mr Beale’s performance of that was much closer to an impersonation. I also noted that a change in the song “Privates on Parade” removed Major Flack’s impression of the Chinese saying “velly solly, no fight now, all lellow men back to land of lising sun”; no doubt trying to reduce the play’s potential for accusations of racism.

Noel CowardAnyway that’s enough of what’s not in the show. It’s still a very funny, very moving, life-enhancing production, contrasting glamour and war, art and life, youth and age, and with a great insight into the nature of relationships. At its heart – with heart being the operative word – is Acting Captain Terri Dennis, a queen amongst men, extraordinarily decent and kind, a hugely talented artiste, but probably not much of a soldier. He’s played, out loud and proud, by the great Simon Russell Beale, an actor whom we associate with Shakespeare and Chekhov, the RSC and the National Theatre; so if you haven’t seen the camper side of him before, you’re in for a surprise. He takes to the role with supreme comfort and confidence; he’s a natural female impersonator, and he gives a performance brimming with entertainment. The audience loves him, and you feel like it’s a mutual arrangement. He’s very funny and very serious, giving off all the showbiz sparks yet revealing the unglamorous truths beneath. Fantastic.

Joseph TimmsPrivate Steven Flowers is played superbly well by Joseph Timms, including using a really good Swindon accent. He’s infectious with enthusiasm, mixing the bravado of youth with inexperienced vulnerability. He’s excellent in his awkward first scene with Sylvia, very credibly not quite knowing how to stand or where to look as she changes her costume. Through the show, as he learns how to be a man his confidence comes on in leaps and bounds, and you can see it in his bearing during the “Privates on Parade” Davina Pereraroutine where he’s revelling in his promotion. We both really enjoyed his performance; my only slight quibble is that he does have a slight tendency to talk whilst the audience is still laughing at the line before, so that you can’t actually hear what he says. His Sylvia is played by Davina Perera, a very elegant Ginger Rogers, and warmly endearing as the Welsh/Indian musical performer who’s had to endure being used and abused sexually to maintain security but who longs for love to take her back to the valleys. I also enjoyed very much her interplay with the wicked Reg; moving, resentful, defeated.

Harry HeppleThe other members of the troupe are all played really well, revealing the humour and tragedy in their characters. Harry Hepple, excellent in Pippin at the Menier last year, is a quietly tender Charles Bishop and gives a super rendition of Sunnyside Lane. Sam SwainsburySam Swainsbury hits just the right note of brash but believable as Kevin Cartwright; he does a great performance with Mr Timms of The Movie To End Them All, and his final scene where he’s desperately trying to hang on to all his youthful hope and exuberance against all odds veryJohn Marquez nearly brought a tear to my eye. John Marquez gives a great comic performance of Len Bonny’s foul-mouthed warm-hearted hapless Brummie and his “Charlie Farnes-Barnes” scene brought the house down. Brodie Ross’ Eric Young-Love, besotted with a sense of status, priggishly Brodie Rossover confident in love and vacuously prepared for fisticuffs to prove his heterosexuality, is another perfectly pitched performance. As a contrast to all these likeable characters, Mark Lewis JonesMark Lewis Jones gives a brilliant performance as the vicious Sergeant Major Reg Drummond; brutish with Sylvia, despising the bum boys (his phrase), yet you can understand why he would appear strangely charismatic to the suggestible Flowers over a few gin-and-tonics.

Angus WrightThe other main member of the cast is Angus Wright as Major Flack. A beautifully funny role, written so cleverly by Mr Nichols, the Major is an essentially decent fuddy-duddy whose devotion to God blinds him from seeing everything else that’s staring him in the face. Now, maybe it’s because I remember Nigel Hawthorne’s performance so fondly, and because Mr Hawthorne’s voice for this role was so hilariously reminiscent of Colonel Hathi from the Jungle Book, that I have to say that I thought Angus Wright underplayed the role of Major Flack too much. Many of Flack’s funny lines simply got lost in the delivery – not enough emphasis, not enough volume, a little too rushed. Maybe the idea was to make Flack less cartoony and more realistic, but I’m not sure it worked. One other criticism relates to the significant scene towards the end, when all the lights go off during the magic show. The subsequent dramatic chaos that follows, for me, lacked an impact; and the tragic conclusion of that scene suffered as a result, so that it wasn’t as alarming or as sad as I expected.

Nevertheless, I still think it’s a fantastic play and there are some really superb performances to enjoy. I was 17 when I first saw it, and it was one of those great occasions when I came out of a show a different person from the one that went in. I hope that today it can still have that impact on its audience.

I would like to add how sorry I was to hear that Sophiya Haque, who played Sylvia for the first couple of weeks of the run, lost her fight against cancer only a few days ago. My condolences go out to her family and friends. I can only guess at the sadness that must have caused the rest of the company, and they are dedicating the remaining performances to her memory.

Review of the Year 2012 – The Third Annual Chrisparkle Awards

Welcome to this glitzy review of the best live entertainment in Northampton and beyond! As in previous years, every performance that I saw and blogged about during 2012 is eligible for one of these prestigious (but virtual) awards. As an exception this year, I have included all performances seen up to January 5th 2013 as these few extra shows were all born in 2012 and that’s where they will live in the annals of time.

So without further ado we’re going to start off with Best Dance Production.

I saw six dance productions last year, and identifying the top three was easy – but placing those top three in the correct order is a difficult decision, so I am going with my heart and listing them purely in order of how much I enjoyed them. Which means:

In 3rd place, the graceful and strong performance of Swan Lake by Moscow City Ballet at the Derngate, Northampton, in February.

In 2nd place, and especially for “Torsion” and “Void”, Balletboyz The Talent at Milton Keynes Theatre in February.

In 1st place, and absolutely at the top of their game, Richard Alston Dance Company’s programme at the Derngate, Northampton, in October.

Not many turkeys this year – but the first is The Most Incredible Thing by Javier de Frutos and the Pet Shop Boys, which bored us to tears at Sadler’s Wells in April.

Classical Music Concert of the Year.

We saw six concerts in 2012, and each was excellent, giving us a feeling of being privileged to have access to such performances on our doorstep.

In 3rd place, Julian Bliss Plays Mozart with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Derngate, Northampton in November.

In 2nd place, Jack Liebeck Plays Sibelius, also with the RPO at the Derngate, in September.

In 1st place, Nigel Kennedy Plays Brahms, you guessed it, with the RPO at the Derngate in June.

Best Entertainment Show of the Year.

A wide category that includes pantos, circuses, revues and anything else unclassifiable. Always tough to call.

In 3rd place, the Moscow State Circus’ Babushkin Sekret, at the Derngate, Northampton, in January 2012.

In 2nd place, The Burlesque Show at the Royal, Northampton, in January 2012.

In 1st place, Cinderella at the Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, in January 2013.

Best Star Standup of the Year.

The best stand-up of the year, not part of a comedy club night.

We saw 8 big name comedians doing their stuff but the top three were:

In 3rd place, Marcus Brigstocke and his Brig Society, at the Royal, Northampton, in October.

In 2nd place, similar style but just pipping him for content, Jeremy Hardy at the Royal, Northampton, in January.

In 1st place, Dara O’Briain’s Craic Dealer tour, Butterworth Hall, Warwick Arts Centre in April.

Time for another Turkey – Paul Merton’s Out of My Head tour, at the Derngate, Northampton, in April – may have been clever but it wasn’t funny.

Best Stand-up at the Screaming Blue Murder nights in Northampton

We’ve seen over thirty comics this year down in the Underground at the Royal and Derngate, and it’s been the usual array of the Good the Bad and the Ugly. Here are my top five:

In 5th place, Scunthorpe’s own copper Alfie Moore (17th February).
In 4th place, no relation I’m guessing, Ian Moore (5th October).
In 3rd place, the very funny Steve Day (16th March).
In 2nd place, big local hero Andrew Bird (20th January).
In 1st place, and regaining his 2010 title, the unstoppable Paul Sinha (2nd March).

Best Musical.

Last year this was split into Best New Musical and Best Revival Musical but with only two (and that’s questionable) new musicals seen this year I’m lumping them all in together. Some great productions so I’m going for a Top Five:

In 5th place, very close thing but it’s Hello Dolly at the Curve Theatre, Leicester in December.

In 4th place, the delightful and funny Radio Times at the Royal, Northampton in September.

In 3rd place, the innovative revival of Pippin at the Menier Chocolate Factory in January.

In 2nd place, the rewarding and moving revival of Merrily We Roll Along at the Menier Chocolate Factory in December.

In 1st place, the exhilarating revival of My Fair Lady at the Sheffield Crucible in January 2013.

Best New Play

This is my definition of a new play – which may not necessarily be an actual brand spanking new play never seen at any other theatre ever before, but is certainly new enough! Only six plays came into that category, and here is my top three:

In 3rd place (and very nearly made it to 2nd), Ladies in Lavender at the Royal, Northampton in April.

In 2nd place (and very nearly downgraded to 3rd place), Bully Boy at the Royal, Northampton, in September.

In 1st place, The Last of the Haussmans, at the Lyttelton, National Theatre, in July.

Best Revival of a Play

This is the category with the biggest long-list in these awards – I can count 23 contenders. There are some smashing productions that fail to make the Top Five, including the National’s Comedy of Errors, Sheffield’s Democracy, Chichester’s Arturo Ui, Northampton’s Blood Wedding and Hedda Gabler. But these are my favourite five (and they’re all quite brilliant):

In 5th place, Torch Song Trilogy at the Menier Chocolate Factory in June.

In 4th place, Betrayal at the Sheffield Crucible in May.

In 3rd place, Charley’s Aunt at the Menier Chocolate Factory in October.

In 2nd place, Abigail’s Party at the Menier Chocolate Factory in April.

In 1st place, for its sheer breadth of vision and its pushing of boundaries, The Royal and Derngate’s The Bacchae at the Northampton Chronicle and Echo Print Works in June.

Turkey time – the rediscovery of Coward’s Volcano (Oxford Playhouse in July) was a damp squib and the revival of that old war horse Dry Rot (Milton Keynes Theatre in September) wasn’t much better.

Best performance by an actress in a musical

A really tough call this one but a decision has to be made and here it is:

In 3rd place, Cynthia Erivo in Sister Act, Milton Keynes Theatre in June.

In 2nd place, Carly Bawden in My Fair Lady, Sheffield Crucible, in January 2013.

In 1st place, Jenna Russell in Merrily We Roll Along, Menier Chocolate Factory, December.

Best performance by an actor in a musical.

Again, very hotly contested and you know they must be good if they kick the likes of Damian Humbley, Gary Wilmot and Michael Xavier into the long grass! The top three are:

In 3rd place, Martyn Ellis in My Fair Lady, Sheffield Crucible, in January 2013.

In 2nd place, Harry Hepple in Pippin, Menier Chocolate Factory, in January 2012.

In 1st place, Dominic West in My Fair Lady, Sheffield Crucible, in January 2013.

Best performance by an actress in a play.

Too close to call not to have a Top Five:

In 5th place, Claudie Blakley for Comedy of Errors at the Olivier, National Theatre, in February.

In 4th place, Emma Hamilton as Hedda Gabler, Royal, Northampton, in July.

In 3rd place, Jill Halfpenny for Abigail’s Party, Menier Chocolate Factory, in April.

In 2nd place, Natalie Casey for Abigail’s Party, Menier Chocolate Factory, in April.

In 1st place, Laurie Metcalf for Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Milton Keynes Theatre, in March.

Best performance by an actor in a play.

21 contenders in the long list, and so many brilliant performances that won’t get a mention, so I definitely need a top five:

In 5th place, Henry Goodman for The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui, Minerva Theatre Chichester, in July.

In 4th place, John Simm for Betrayal, Sheffield Crucible, in May.

In 3rd place, Ery Nzaramba for The Bacchae, Northampton Chronicle and Echo Print Works in June.

In 2nd place, David Bedella for Torch Song Trilogy, Menier Chocolate Factory, in June.

In 1st place, Mathew Horne for Charley’s Aunt, Menier Chocolate Factory, in October.

Theatre of the Year.

Very close this year between my three favourite theatres – Northampton’s Royal and Derngate, Sheffield Theatres and the Menier Chocolate Factory. However, taking everything into account – consistency of excellence, variety of entertainment, and the whole theatre-visit experience, I’m awarding the Theatre of the Year to the Royal and Derngate Northampton!

Thank you to everyone who reads my blog – I’m amazed at how the numbers have steadily increased over the past year or so! I wish you all happy theatregoing and a great 2013!

Review – Spymonkey’s Cooped, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 15th January 2013

CoopedWith happy memories of Spymonkey’s Oedipussy from last year, we naturally booked for this year’s production, Cooped, which is a remounting of the show that originally made the company’s name back in 2001. It’s described as “a deliciously demented take on the pulp gothic romance”, which is about as sensible a description as you can have for this totally wacky, anarchic, irreverent, very silly, very funny show.

Petra MasseyI guess if your sense of humour is geared more towards Rattigan or Coward, this probably isn’t for you. If you like something subversive and full of the unexpected, this more than fills the bill. It’s a sheer delight how they take a genre and then mock it mercilessly – and it doesn’t matter how familiar you are with their subject matter, because it seems to me all their shows contain a bit of everything. Cooped, for example, includes ghosts, a Eurovision-style pop song, a mischievous bishop and random wandering pheasants. With the old country house set and the shenanigans going on outside the leaded window, it actually put Mrs Chrisparkle in mind of the recent touring production of The Mousetrap, which is probably not a compliment to Miss Christie.

Stephan KreissTheir whole raison d’être is to make you laugh. There appears to be no end they won’t go to to achieve that aim. They will explore every tangent and every whim until it reaches the point of reductio ad absurdum, and it really works. They even subvert the set – with the window tricks, the steps off that clearly don’t go anywhere, the lift with its artificial flashing light. Their shows are not erudite comedies of which you will find yourself appreciating the finer points for weeks to come – they are slam dunk, in your face, happening now, laugh your socks off shows that live life to the full until curtain down.

Aitor BasauriOne can only wonder at the recruitment process at Spymonkey HQ. “So you want to join our band of merry men? The two chief elements in our Person Specification are 1) amazing clowning ability and 2) a complete lack of inhibitions”. There is some beautiful physical comedy in this show. Petra Massey’s ability to remain stiffly inanimate when she has collapsed and someone is trying to help her to her feet is extraordinary and leads to some hilarious moments. There’s also a wonderful scene where Stephan Kreiss’ face is being consistently bashed against a briefcase on the floor – such skilful clowning; as is his extremely active and rather disgusting tonguing of Miss Massey. As for inhibitions – look no further than the most unexpected and funniest ever use of nudity on a stage; never were figleaves more redundant. Acrobatic, ludicrous, brazen and totally gratuitous – and why not?

Toby ParkIt’s clear to see they’re all having fun on the stage – I doubt anyone could carry off this kind of performance if it was a chore. There was a marvellously teasing moment between Aitor Basauri’s Bishop of Northumberlandshirehampton and Toby Park’s Murdston based on the traditional kissing of the bishop’s ring, which was actually not as rude as it sounds. Their enthusiasm is deeply infectious, as the audience were loving every minute of it. It goes without saying that all four performers turned in brilliant performances.

The castThere were a couple of technical glitches in the first night performance we saw – sound volumes went wrong with the opening and closing of the window and a TV screen brought on during the performance of “Mr Sandman” (don’t ask) didn’t work. Given the number of sound and lighting cues they must have in the show it’s surprising there aren’t more errors. Mr Park’s “Jewish glasses” wouldn’t stay on his nose, to much amusement.

The programme promotes a couple of workshops that the company is running later this spring. I can only imagine that after two weeks’ working with them, you would be unrecognisable from the person you were before. Think of how much more confidence you would have!

A riotously funny evening, and one which we both agreed on the way home we could easily go back and see again. It’s on in Northampton till Saturday 19th January and then plays a few dates in Brighton and London in March. Go see it!

Photos of the Spymonkey team taken from their website, copyright Sean Dennie. I thought it was wise not to choose the naked ones!

Review – My Fair Lady, Sheffield Crucible, 5th January 2013

My Fair LadyHaving emerged from Cinderella at the Lyceum after the matinee, which Lady Duncansby pronounced as quite the best pantomime she’d ever seen, and which was certainly “up there” as far as I was concerned, we wondered if our evening treat of My Fair Lady tickets at the Crucible would be eclipsed. There was no need for us to worry.

My Fair Lady 1979This was the third time I’ve seen My Fair Lady. This was one of the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s favourite shows and I learned the songs at her knee to the accompaniment of a soundtrack maxi-single of the original London production by Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews. I first saw it in 1979 at the Adelphi Theatre with Tony Britton as Higgins and Liz Robertson (Mrs Alan Jay Lerner) as Eliza. Dame Anna Neagle played Mrs Higgins. The notable thing about this production was, if I remember rightly, that the costumes were based on those designed by Cecil Beaton and used in the film, so it was certainly a glamorous event. The second time was in 2002 when Mrs Chrisparkle accompanied me to my favourite theatre, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane (always give it its full name) to the production that famously starred Martine McCutcheon and in which famously she rarely appeared. Actually we saw Alex Jennings and Joanna Riding in the main roles and they were excellent. It was during a very hot summer and the theatre’s air conditioning had packed up; I remember we were all issued with paper “My Fair Lady” fans in attempt to keep 2,300 people from passing out.

Dominic WestSo having seen two big, meaty, chunky productions on big stages, it would be very interesting to see it done on the large but nevertheless comparatively intimate stage of the Crucible. I’d seen a tweet a couple of weeks earlier by Daniel Evans, Artistic Director of the Crucible and director of My Fair Lady, where he couldn’t believe his eyes that every single subsequent performance of My Fair Lady (bar one) was sold out. Having seen the show, I’m not surprised. This is one of the most engaging, communicative productions you could possibly imagine.

Carly BawdenIt all starts before you’ve even taken your seat. Enter the auditorium and the sight of Covent Garden’s arches takes your breath away. The stage is filled with flower girls and costermongers, all doing their damnedest to make an honest bob, encouraging the people in Rows A and B to buy their wares, and despairing when no one seems to have any change on them. You’ve been won over before it’s even started. Incidentally, we sat in the middle of Row C and they must be the best seats in the house.

Anthony CalfWhat comes across is the perfect combination of a great show, great songs, a great cast in a great production. I know that sounds simplistic and lacking critical teeth, but that’s basically the whole show in a nutshell. Every second is a pleasure; every song, every dance routine, every conversational exchange are there to make you wallow in delight. This may not have the Cecil Beaton costumes – the ladies are in shades of cream, ivory and beige; a toffs’ uniform, I suppose – but that allows the quality of the book and music to shine through.

Nicola SloaneHiggins, that spoilt chauvinist par excellence, is played to perfection by Dominic West, who gets the just right amount of bombast, vanity, charisma and – when you don’t normally see it – vulnerability. I would say he was probably the least bullying and barking Higgins I’ve seen, which makes the character more interesting. When he realises what a complete fool he’s been at the end, as he’s grown accustomed to her face, this Higgins produces actual tears; the first time I’ve ever really felt that Higgins really regrets what he’s done. When he’s reunited with Eliza, he does a brilliant failed-attempted cover-up of his emotions, which is absolutely perfect. It’s an extremely realistic presentation of the behaviour of a spoilt man, and it couldn’t be more believable.

Richenda CareyCarly Bawden, who was very good in the Menier’s Pippin last year, really comes into her own as Eliza. Hers is the perfect transformation from ugly duckling to beautiful swan, with some fantastically well performed songs that she takes on with relish. Her “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” was heart-warming and felt very genuine – and was superbly supported by the backing dancers to give it an extra oomph. “Just You Wait” and “Show Me” were delivered with great attack, “The Rain In Spain” with humour and terrific musicality, but her big moment was “I Could Have Danced All Night” which was just superb. The embodiment of irrepressible girlish excitement, it was sung exquisitely and the sheer exuberance of it created sustained applause of real appreciation. Stand Out Moment No 1.

Martyn EllisAnthony Calf plays Pickering with enormous decency, and with genuine disapproval for Higgins when he goes too far with badgering Eliza. It’s a rather passive role where more things happen around you than you actually do yourself, so it’s vital that his reactions to what’s going on are genuine and entertaining; a very enjoyable performance. Nicola Sloane’s Mrs Pearce is delightfully long-suffering and her starchy but growing affection for Eliza is very well expressed. Another relatively minor role but beautifully played was Richenda Carey as Mrs Higgins.Louis Maskell At Ascot, she plays host as Miss Doolittle gets her first outing into society, and is splendidly disapproving of her son but kind to Eliza, and the whole scene is done magnificently. Miss Bawden’s wonderful delivery of “what is wrong with that young man, I bet I got it right” and “them as pinched it, done her in” is memorably hilarious. Towards the end of the show when it is with Mrs Higgins that Eliza seeks sanctuary, Richenda Carey’s withering looks to Mr West speak more than words ever could. An excellent performance, and one that won her huge applause at curtain call.

Chris BennettI never normally respond much to the role of Alfred Doolittle, as I always feel it’s a bit over-the-top and lacks some credibility in comparison with the rest of the show, although the Dowager Mrs C always adored the character. I’ve changed my mind! Martyn Ellis has made me reconsider my previous snobbishness. He is genuinely funny – he brings all the character’s sneaky idle deviousness to the forefrontCarl Sanderson – and he’s quite a nifty mover too for a man his size! His two set-piece musical numbers both worked really well, but for sheer theatrical exhilaration, the whole rendition of “Get Me To The Church On Time” almost leaves you speechless. A great dance routine, that unexpectedly turns into tap, and performed with such spirit, still gives me goose bumps just thinking about it. Stand Out Moment No 2.

Emily GoodenoughThe other surprising – perhaps – and revelatory performance came from Louis Maskell as Freddy, with “On The Street Where You Live”. Always one of my favourite songs, since I can’t remember when, it’s quite easy to sing it as a gentle, loving mellifluous number, all pretty and tuneful. This performance is quite different. It’s like someone has finally listened to what the words are actually saying in the song and he’s acting them; and meaning it. Mr Maskell has taken his big number and made a real showstopper out of it. Stand Out Moment No 3.

Nick ButcherThe support from the ensemble is absolutely first rate and the production owes a huge debt to their talent and commitment. In particular I thought Doolittle’s pals Harry and Jamie – Chris Bennett and Carl Sanderson – gave him perfect support and Emily Goodenough and Nick Butcher shone in all their scenes. Alistair David’s choreography was splendid throughout, and put Mrs C and I in mind of some of Matthew Bourne’s best dance movement creations. Oh, and the Ascot Gavotte is just fantastic.

No question this will be the benchmark for future productions. It would be a crime if it didn’t transfer or at least tour. One of those shows that remind you you’re alive. Unhesitatingly recommended.

Review – Cinderella, Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, 5th January 2013

CinderellaWe’re well into January now and all the pantomimes have finished for the season. Let’s have a big “aahhhhh”. When did the panto season become so short? When I were a nipper, the Palladium panto used to carry on until at least February, possibly even March if I remember rightly. Mind you, they were big variety shows, with enormous star names. The first one I went to was Jack and The Beanstalk, with Jimmy Tarbuck as Jack and Arthur Askey as the Dame. That was in 1968. The 1970/1 panto was Aladdin, with Cilla Black, Leslie Crowther, and Terry Scott. In 1972 it was Cinderella with Ronnie Corbett as Buttons, Terry Scott and Alfred Marks as the Ugly Sisters and Clodagh Rodgers as Cinders. Big names that carried big shows, that big audiences wanted to see. But now that we’re in the second week of January 2013, this Cinderella has already packed up her crystal slipper and gone to ground for eleven months.

Jonathan AnsellNevertheless, the panto tradition, it seems to me, is still doing amazingly well. Virtually every theatre in the country, outside the West End, has an annual pantomime. A source of bemusement to overseas visitors, this essentially British form of entertainment allows you to do all those naughty things that you’re not normally allowed to do in a theatre. The more rules it breaks, the more it conforms to the tradition. The older I get, the more I love them, and it’s an enormous pleasure to have discovered one of the country’s best places for panto, the Sheffield Lyceum.

Sue DevaneyWe went last year, for the first time, and saw their Sleeping Beauty. There would be no question we would book again for this year – and I am sure we will book for next Christmas too. At the heart of the Sheffield panto, is their favourite pantoiste (nothing to do with Sheffield by the way, he’s from Essex) Damian Williams. This is his fifth consecutive season doing the Sheffield panto and he’s confirmed to be “daming” again for the sixth time in Jack and The Beanstalk next December. He’s just such a breath of joy. Loud, cheeky, back-chatting, engaging, not afraid to make an idiot of himself, and very very funny, I don’t know of any performer who can turn his hand to this form of entertainment with such fresh gusto.

Ben FaulksOf course it really helps that Paul Hendy’s script, like last year’s, is so funny, and that the production is full of colour, great costumes, and a terrific band – who were responsible for one of the funniest moments too, when they vocalised the Lone Ranger theme. It seemed like a very happy company, and their on-stage ease with each other really helped the transfer of excitement and joy to the audience.

Kate QuinnellOur Prince Charming was Jonathan Ansell, an ex-member of G4, who shot to fame on X-Factor. I’d not heard of him before – indeed I thought G4 was some kind of international conference – but the young lady sat to my right was clearly a fan. Every time he came on she preened with pleasure, laughed at his lines, swooned at his singing and clapped really really hard so her hands must have stung. It’s true, he has a great voice and a bright appeal to make all the ladies, and a few of the gentlemen, tingle with delight.

Ian SmithSue Devaney was the Fairy Godmother, flying in from the wings, acting as a narrator but also popping up here and there in the story too. She used her Lancashire accent to great comic effect and, like the best Fairy Godmothers, could be both graceful and cackhanded. Absolutely perfect for the top of the tree.

Michael J BatchelorDandini was Ben Faulks, or, as Damian Williams constantly referred to him, CBeebies’ Ben Faulks – again there’s no way I would know him from TV – but he was bright and chirpy and a good stooge to Mr Williams and the Prince. Kate Quinnell was a very attractive Cinderella, wide-eyed and eager to please her horrid sisters, and occasionally showing flashes of a wicked sense of humour during those slightly wayward moments towards the end of a run – useful for when the scenery didn’t fall into place properly in one scene. Her delightful singing was equal to Mr Ansell’s and they made a great pair together. Talking of which, Ian Smith and Michael J Batchelor were extremely good and extremely horrible Ugly Sisters, daubed in grotesque make-up and wearing wonderfully ghastly fashion creations. David Westbrook was a surprisingly sprightly and cheeky Baron Hardup and I particularly loved the scene where he emerged as a Carmen Miranda backing dancer.

David WestbrookThe dancing villagers were all very entertaining and each brought their own personality to the ensemble routines – I was very pleased to see, amongst their number, Lee Bridgman, who we enjoyed very much in TV’s So You Think You Can Dance, one of the best TV reality/talent shows IMHO.

Damian WilliamsBut there’s no doubt the show belongs to Damian Williams. Whenever he’s onstage the energy sharpens and the laughter doubles. Very much a 21st century Tommy Cooper, he handles the usual panto scenes so deftly and wonderfully – like the “ghosts behind you” scene, where, as usual, he adopts the identity of a Sheffield icon – this time Jessica Ennis, which I have to say was one of the funniest visual images I have seen for a very long time. It was made even funnier in the matinee we saw as the bench they were sat on upended and sent Crucibella flying onto her backside and struggling to regain composure. Mr Williams also did an excellent Bruce Forsyth Strictly parody with Miss “Twice Daly” Devaney, a great sequence with Mr Faulks as they made a sketch out of the name of every board game under the sun; and, in the midst of some brilliant one-liners throughout the show, I loved his riposte when Cinderella said she loved him, but as a brother – “we could move to Norfolk?”

The Sheffield panto is something to look forward to throughout the whole year – make it a Christmas priority!

Review – Loserville, Garrick Theatre, 3rd January 2013

LoservilleI had fleetingly seen good feedback about this show and had heard that despite this it was due to close early – and so, with the unexpected opportunity to see a couple of London shows shortly after New Year, we thought it would be worth a try. After I’d booked the tickets, I saw an advert on the underground for it, where it was described as “Grease for the 21st century”. That worried me a bit. If you’ve read our reaction to the real Grease that we saw last April, you’ll understand my concern.

Aaron SidwellI can appreciate the comparison. There’s a bunch of older school kids teeming with hormones and you can split them into bespectacled geeky nerds (our heroes) and spoilt, bullying, shallow, good looking Grease-types (the baddies). Into this mix arrives the geeky but fanciable Holly – an outsider with a past as it turns out, and in Grease terms, she is Sandy. The baddies blackmail Holly into betraying her nerdy friends, but she double-crosses them at the end, and good prevails. That’s where it really departs from Grease, as Loserville is actually a very moral tale. In Grease, selling out leads to success. In Loserville, honesty is the best policy, be loyal to your friends, act for the good of society, and you will win the day. Cheats don’t prosper in Loserville.

colourful sceneIt’s all set in a 1971 technical college, although there’s nothing Please, Sir! or To Sir With Love about Francis O’Connor’s lively set, which reminded me of a cross between Happy Days (Richie Cunningham’s as opposed to Samuel Beckett’s), and Tron. Mathematics whizzkid Michael Dork (note the subtle use of surname) is on the brink of creating the first email and all he’s missing, were he but to know it, is the final ampersand. His best mate is trying to write a book set in space and populated with characters called Leia, C3PO, and other similarly recognisable monikers. His name is Lucas Lloyd (note the subtle use of first name). Dork and his awkward pals have just discovered girls and their loins are positively throbbing at the prospect of putting theory into practice, but they have yet to learn the art of “asking out”. The baddies, of course, all exude sexual confidence and probably learned the art of seduction through the placenta. When Holly turns up, she is distinctly dorky but at the same time sassy too, so is the perfect fuel for Michael’s cockpit. She starts to help him find the email missing link but it’s not long before they get a thang going on; and while supporting chums Francis and Marvin pillock around with pretend spaceships and a similarly barmy lady enters their life, no one wants to go out for Thursday night bowling with Lucas, who is left home alone.

Eliza Hope BennettFor me, this was a stumbling block in the storyline. Gentle reader, I have been Lucas. I have been that stalwart gang member, who without noticing it, discovers that his best pal and everyone else in the set have moved on to pastures new, and, sadly, he has been left behind. No, please don’t cry for me, I’m well over it now. Lucas’ solution to the problem is to get angry (yes I understand that) and then betray his friends (no! There’s no way he would do that!) Lucas reveals how to break into the safe that holds the details of Michael and Holly’s research to the ne’er-do-well Eddie’s henchmen, Eddie being too lazy and thick to come up with the science that will gain him a lucrative position in Dad’s business. Lucas does this in exchange for a half-arsed promise of book publication. Realising his manuscript has been dumped and that he has been well duped, Lucas eventually gets reintegrated with the gang and – also extraordinarily unlikely – ends up with Eddie’s ex-girlfriend. I’m sorry, I just think that whole sequence of events is ridiculously unlikely! I also found the “laughing at foreign accents” sequences – with the two Yugoslav girls struggling sexily with their English – immensely tedious, but that’s just me; remembering that dreadful old TV programme “Mind Your Language”, it’s probably a highly accurate represention of what was funny in 1971.

Another colourful sceneThese aspects of the storyline aside, it’s an entertaining tale and performed with huge commitment and style. The young and talented cast perform their socks off and the songs, written by ex-Busted member James Bourne, are all very jolly and accessible. To my ears, they all sound like variations of Busted’s “Year 3000”, but that’s ok. The last song of the first half is the very catchy “Ticket Outta Loserville”, which audience members in the interval bar couldn’t resist but sing along to whilst quaffing a Cabernet Sauvignon. This is all good stuff.

Richard LoweThere is another problem though – despite this huge enthusiasm on stage something about the show does not get conveyed to the stalls. It’s not as though you feel like an estranged onlooker, but that obvious joie-de-vivre on stage does not catch. It’s a little like that massive firework that you know is packed full of noise and colour, but whose blue touch paper simply won’t light; or like there’s an invisible firewall blocking the energy before it reaches the audience. I’ve thought about this a lot over the past week and I still can’t identify why. I would hate to think that it’s because I’m too old for the show – that couldn’t possibly be the reason. I did get a sense early on in the evening that I had missed out on some important piece of plotting and I worried slightly that I wasn’t going to understand what was happening – but as a problem that lasted no more than the first fifteen or twenty minutes. So it’s not that. For Mrs Chrisparkle the main problem for the show was that it wasn’t Hairspray. She felt it had the enviable possibility of turning into “Son Of Hairspray”, but regretfully it comes nowhere near that other show in terms of entertainment and engagement. It’s true – in the comparison stakes, Loserville is a bit of a loser there.

Yet another colourful sceneThere’s a quite cute presentation of the cast at the beginning and to a lesser extent at the end of the show, where cast members hold a board with their character names and their own names on – or those of their friends – to identify who they are. If you’d known they were going to do that, you could have got away with not buying a programme. The sequence put me in mind of the opening credits of a TV show or film. It was inventively done in a cartoony and jocular style and was rather amusing to watch. Brecht would have loved it.

Stewart ClarkeThe whole thing was charmingly done, and I reckon the majority of the cast – for whom many Loserville was either their professional debut or not far behind it – will go on to have excellent stage careers. Aaron Sidwell as Michael was a superb geeky hero, with a slick stage presence and a great feel for the song and dance; Eliza Hope Bennett as Holly brought out all aspects of the character really well and was extremely watchable throughout; Richard Lowe as Lucas had just the right amount of goofiness and vulnerability to shine in his role; and Stewart Clarke conveyed brilliantly the vain despicability of Eddie – we loved his curtain call dressed in combats. Don’t forget the band – six guys who filled the sound waves like musical geniuses. I wonder if, with a little tweaking, this could come back another day?