Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 8th March 2013

Screaming Blue MurderThis is turning out to be one of the most successful Screaming Blue Murder seasons we’ve witnessed, both from the point of view of the number of bums on seats – lots – and of the quality of the comedy on offer. This week we had two comics we had seen before plus a new one and also a new compere.

Paddy LennoxThe new compere was Paddy Lennox and he was terrific. A last minute stand-in for Dan Evans, he was full of attack and had a very warm Irish personality which he used to great effect. He was superb bouncing comic ideas off the front row characters, and generally he had some great material. He didn’t shy away from the ridiculous but all his stories were totally believable, which helps you identify with him. We’d really like to see him again sometime.

Paul RickettsOur first act was also new to us, Paul Ricketts. He has a very nice unhurried charm and a great story-telling ability, with the result that he literally had the audience in the palm of his hand. Intelligent, thought-provoking material that was still very funny and a perfect opener for the evening.

Meryl O’RourkeNext up was Meryl O’Rourke, who we’ve seen once as an act and once as an MC. She was on extremely good form, with some excellent material about sex and motherhood, but mainly about sex. She ratcheted the energy levels up quite a bit with a lot of high octane comedy and it was an extremely funny set.

Christian ReillyOur final act was Christian Reilly who we saw over two years ago, doing more or less the same act but it’s absolutely brilliant. A man with a guitar, his material is based on musical pastiches, funny voices and guitar trickery and it all works amazingly well. Even when you don’t know the original song he is lampooning, it’s still really funny. We loved him, and so did the audience. I’ve never heard that amount of whooping and cheering for an act here like that. Definitely the best reaction from a crowd in the five years we’ve been coming here. Simply superb.

A really successful night – one of those surprisingly rare occasions when the energy and humour levels continued to increase as the evening went on. All too often the second act isn’t as good as the first, or the third act isn’t as good as the second. This time the recipe was faultless. The perfect comedy night out.

Review – The Book of Mormon, Prince of Wales Theatre, 2nd March 2013

Book of MormonYou know that thing when there is a huge crackle of anticipation in a theatre before it starts? You can find it in abundance at the moment at the Prince of Wales where The Book of Mormon is currently previewing. We saw the first Saturday matinee preview, so I guess there may still be some tweaks ahead, but to be honest I couldn’t see anything that needed tweaking.

Gavin CreelBut I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s the first time I’ve been to the Prince of Wales in many years and I was absolutely stunned at how beautifully it has been renovated. It was originally built in 1937 and has had a full Art Deco makeover. The bar at the back of the stalls is sensibly massive, and how pleasing it is to see it fully staffed with at least six hard-working people. The toilet provision is much more plentiful than you’d find in the average theatre. And the prices of drinks and merchandise were, I thought, remarkably reasonable. Every single member of staff that we talked to was jolly, friendly, polite and helpful. What a fantastically well-run theatre!

Jared GertnerThe Book of Mormon comes to London with a happy history already behind it, having collected no fewer than nine Tony awards in New York. Written by the irreverent team of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, of South Park fame, and Robert Lopez of Avenue Q, it’s not hard to predict the level of humour and zaniness that will fill the theatre. If anything, it’s far funnier than I expected, because it has none – well, very little – of the grotesqueness of South Park and the stereotypes depicted are actually rather endearing. It’s also less cruel than I had expected, and it has a rewardingly happy ending – all apart from the poor guy who gets shot halfway through. To say it’s irreverent is an understatement; and it is chock-full of subject matter that many people could find extremely offensive; but it is all done with a lightness of touch so that your only reaction is to laugh your socks off; and anything else that isn’t tied down. This really is intensive care funny. Imagine a cleaner-cut version of Jerry Springer The Opera and you’re somewhere in the right area. It goes without saying that it’s shamelessly non-PC; and it’s superbly staged throughout with great sets, lighting and costumes.

If you don’t want to know the story, skip this paragraph, although I’m only really giving you the introduction. Elders are getting paired off to go and spread the word of Mormon on doorsteps around the world. Our hero (or is he?) Elder Price is looking forward to partnering a regular guy just like himself and hitting the joyous streets of Orlando; instead he is paired off with our other hero (or is he?) Elder Cunningham, a needy nerdy fantasist with no mates, and they’re sent to Uganda. Things don’t go entirely to plan – there are no doorbells on the mud huts for one thing – and our heroes join the other Elders already in town in completely failing to make any conversions. But things turn around… and a bizarre success story awaits. I won’t tell you any more as I don’t want to ruin it for you.

Stephen AshfieldIf laughter is the best policy, making tickets available for this show on the National Health would be top of every party’s manifesto. Within ten seconds of curtain up I started laughing, and I barely stopped for the next two and a half hours – excepting the interval, where I stopped laughing long enough to enjoy a Pinot Grigio. After you’ve experienced the first number, “Hello!” you’ll find that you never, ever say the word “hello” again with the same intonation as before. There’s only one way to say it – bright eyed and bushy tailed and with the enthusiasm of a zealot door to door salesman. What the show does brilliantly is to lampoon the more ridiculous ideas of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (every religion has some ridiculous ideas) and make you the audience member step back and ask yourself, “looking at this objectively, could you really believe in all this?” It also shows how religions can get created and develop, and even how a new prophet can be realised. So actually, through the method of humour, it makes some pretty hard-hitting points about the nature of religion.

The cast are a complete joy from start to finish. Gavin Creel, who was great when we saw him in the revival of Hair a couple of years ago, plays Elder Price and he looks absolutely perfect for it – you can’t imagine anyone more bright, clean, and shiny for the role. Mr Creel has a great stage presence and a superb singing voice; he reminds me a little of what a showbiz Greg Rusedski would look like. He also takes Casey Nicholaw’s already amusing and quirky choreography and makes a terrific meal out of it – dancing incredibly athletically and show-offishly, slightly mad dad style, thereby making him look just a little more ridiculous. Elder Price is a bit of a louse in many respects, but because Mr Creel is so likeable on stage you still warm to the character despite his faults.

Alexia KhadimeLikeable in a completely different way is the hopeless Elder Cunningham, played hilariously by Jared Gertner, a little mop-head of neuroses who just wants to be loved, and is thrilled to be best-buddied with the charismatic Elder Price. With his super comic timing and fantastic facial expressions it’s a performance of comedy genius. At odds with his appearance, Mr Gertner is nevertheless a fantastic song-and-dance man which really shines through his performance. Together with Mr Creel their partnership is the classic “Odd Couple”, straight guy/comic guy and it works brilliantly.

Chris JarmanThere’s also a fantastic performance from Stephen Ashfield as Elder McKinley, head of the Ugandan mission. The missionaries already there have a simple way of coping with life’s difficulties and any internal torments they might have – they just switch it off, like a light, and there’s a brilliant song to illustrate it. Mr Ashfield’s portrayal of a guy occasionally drifting into his natural gayness and then switching it back off again is just hilarious, and he really shines in the Broadway-style big numbers. There’s also an incredible coup de theatre in “Turn it off” when the lights go out – I don’t know how they do it, but it takes your breath away. The huge roar of appreciation at curtain call for Mr Ashfield said it all.

Tyrone HuntleyAlexia Khadime plays Nabulungi, the village girl who decides there might be something in this Mormonism. She gives a stunning, tender performance, sings with heart and clarity and very nicely underplays the comedy of her role. She’s quite heart-melting too. Chris Jarman, who was excellent in last year’s Comedy of Errors, is terrific as the ogre General who rules the area with an iron fist and instruments of torture. His hilarious appearance in the final scene completely stops the show. And I really liked Tyrone Huntley, who was very funny in the UK tour of Sister Act, as the hopeless Doctor with an embarrassing medical problem. I’ll stop mentioning cast members now, but they were all absolutely first class.

This ought to run for years and years. If you’re not easily offended, I couldn’t recommend it more strongly. I do hope we get to see it again some time. One of the funniest shows I have ever seen – possibly the funniest. A must-see.

Review – Harry Hill, Sausage Time, Derngate, Northampton, 7th March 2013

Harry Hill Sausage TimeI thought I’d book to see Harry Hill because we normally enjoy TV Burp, and his voiceovers on You’ve Been Framed are usually pretty good. This is his first stand-up for six or so years, so it was more out of curiosity than anything else that we booked. A packed audience at the Derngate obviously did the same, with all ages from 8 to 80 and beyond represented. The lady to my right hooted with laughter all the way through the show, the man to Mrs Chrisparkle’s left similarly guffawed intensely throughout, so Harry Hill was definitely doing something right.

Lobster TelephoneHowever, at the interval, Mrs C turned to me and said, “I thought he would be more…” and she couldn’t quite find the word. “Witty?” I ventured. The penny dropped – we settled on witty. Harry Hill’s humour is extraordinarily physical and surreal; a surrealism that I had never fully comprehended from his TV appearances. I quite appreciate surrealism – I love that lobster telephone sculpture thing of Dali, for example. Mrs C isn’t so keen. But we would have both enjoyed this show more if he had featured more word play and traditional comic routines, and less cavorting and silly noises. If you’re into cavorting and silly noises, you’re going to love Sausage Time. I guess we’re just a bit more cerebral.

One thing’s for sure: Mr Hill puts an inordinate amount of effort into this show. He is all guns blazing, full steam ahead, from the very start to the very finish, and the creativity and imagination behind it is admirable. He has some joke threads – offering ice-creams to the front row, reflecting on famous people’s surnames, skipping round the stage like a dog (not that dogs skip) that sometimes work, and sometimes fall short. It made me realise that in some respects he is a modern day Max Wall, putting his surprisingly flexible body through some amusingly contorted paces. Don’t get me wrong, there were some great moments throughout the evening – for example, he did an act where he translates a well known song chosen from the audience into Tongan. That made me laugh a lot, despite its innate silliness. He did some routines where he traced the careless behaviour of members of the public on the street to some catastrophic outcome in a hospital or similar – very clever and very funny. There’s a brilliant little routine about Dignitas – no, really. There was a nice – and highly surreal – transition from a slapstick cavorting scene into a Shakespeare scene. And of course, the evening ends with the sausage, which in its own totally bizarre way, was very funny and quite mesmerising. I shall say no more.

Harry HillIt was a bit unfortunate that the people he picked on in the front row to participate in a little fun-and-gamery were not really up for it. They both worked in Care in the Community, about which Mr Hill decided he couldn’t make fun, they looked very staid and uncomfortable at being on stage and being asked to do silly things (which they largely didn’t do) and what could have been a very funny sequence ended up being a bit embarrassing. It should have sent us into the interval on a high but Mrs C rightly felt it was a damp squib.

Dave ThompsonThe surrealism picks up in the second half, with the arrival of a man (I recognised him as Dave Thompson) who attacks Harry on the mattress, and returns every so often in a kind of satin one-piece swimsuit; another man I didn’t recognise in a leotard crooning to the audience, and the band changing from being “The Caterers” to “The Harrys” – in other words, dressed like Mr Hill. Add to that three puppets and a paddling pool in which Mr Hill gets very wet – I’m sure you get the picture. There was a brief Q & A session at the end, the prospect of which always makes my heart sink, but in fact it was quite funny because there were just two or three questions, and it developed into a scripted finale which wrapped it up nicely.

So if surrealism and slapstick is your thing, you’ll love this. Plenty of the audience did. If excessive silly noises get on your nerves, well you might find it a little trying at times. On reflection, we were probably not sufficiently on his wavelength fully to appreciate his act. However, I certainly did appreciate the ingenuity and effort behind the show and I did, on the whole, enjoy it. If you think you’re a perfect match for this kind of humour, you’ll have a ball. It’s touring to the end of March and then goes to the Hammersmith Apollo. No need to take your own sausage.

Review – Spring Awakening, Royal and Derngate’s Youth Theatre’s Musical Company, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 1st March 2013

Spring AwakeningFrank Wedekind’s original play of Spring Awakening was written in 1891 but didn’t see light of day on the British stage until after the 1968 Theatres Act lifted the requirement for plays to be subject to the Lord Chamberlain’s red pen before performance. Are you wondering why it was banned? It was probably to do with its representations of homosexuality, masturbation, sado-masochism, abortion and suicide. Before 1968, you’d have been lucky to get just one of those past the censor – but together that bunch of bad boys would have created one big heart attack for the Examiner of Plays.

I’ve not read the play, but I was very keen to see Steven Sater and Duncan Sheik’s musical adaptation that was so successful on Broadway, but that fared so poorly in the UK, despite winning four Olivier awards. I remember feeling a severe disappointment that it had closed before I got the chance to see it. Therefore I was delighted to find out that the local Youth Theatre group attached to the Royal and Derngate had chosen Spring Awakening as their latest production.

I will be honest with you, gentle reader. Mrs Chrisparkle and I have seen some shocking amateur productions. Mrs C still bears emotional scars and even has horror flashbacks over a couple of them. I had faith that the local group would be good – the Community Actors Group here did an excellent Our Country’s Good a couple of years ago – and I thought that Spring Awakening itself would probably be entertaining enough to get us through the evening unscathed even if the production wasn’t that great.

Well I was half right. It’s a really moving, daring but highly enjoyable musical with some excellent songs and a gripping story. But what I hadn’t predicted was that the young performers in the company would be so able, so convincing, so assured and so watchable. The combination of the keen and talented young company and a bold, high quality musical turned it into a superb evening of theatre.

It was held in the Underground, which is a very useful space for a small production like this. It was staged in traverse, with two rows of seats on either side of a long narrow stage. Stumps and branches came up from the floor and overhung the ceiling, and the stage area itself had a very ornate branch pattern on the floor so that the feeling of forest permeated the space. At one end sat the four musicians under the leadership of Simon Egerton, who all played the score with clarity and emotion, and were the perfect musical support to the performers on stage.

Spring Awakening againThe story concerns a group of young people in this 19th century German village where morals are strict and there’s little scope for self-expression. And they’re all feeling those teenage urges. Moritz feels anxious and guilty about his fantasy dreams but Melchior, the charismatic boy in the class (there’s always one) explains them for him in an essay, which Moritz devours. Georg is powerlessly enamoured with his music teacher’s bust and Hanschen gets to grips with his longing (literally) whilst hiding from his mother. The girls are even more innocent. Wendla, who is frustrated by not knowing about the birds and the bees, and whose mother refuses to explain it to her, meets up with Melchior and a relationship (of sorts) is formed. There’s a scene where Wendla asks Melchior to beat her because she knows one of her friends gets the same kind of abuse from her father, and you feel that Wendla just wants to experience some physical stimulus to prove to herself she’s alive. Reluctantly Melchior complies, and it’s a fascinating and shocking insight into how a sado-masochistic fetish can develop. Eventually Melchior and Wendla have sex without her really knowing what is happening to her. Is it rape? You decide. From there it’s a downward spiral, with Moritz failing school (undeservingly, through the devious manipulation of the headteacher) and subsequently committing suicide; and, with Melchior sent to a correctional school, Wendla shows signs of pregnancy, resulting in her mother taking her to a back street abortionist, from which Wendla dies as a consequence. It’s an extremely moving story but strangely not depressing. The characters have such a life force about them that you feel that mere death won’t hold them back, and indeed the spirits of both Moritz and Wendla return to join in the final choruses. Why on earth did this show did not last longer in London?

Considering the young age of the cast, there are some performances of extraordinary depth and maturity. Brett Mason as Melchior has a superb stage presence and an amazing ability to act while singing. Whenever his character began a song, Brett Mason projected a brightness and a conviction that many professional actors would envy. His self-discovery of a predilection for sadism was horrific but fantastically well done. His reaction when he discovers Wendla’s grave and realises what has happened in his absence actually made both Mrs C and I shed a tear – now that’s impressive. He sang really strongly throughout the whole show, but he carried off the disarmingly funny song “Totally f***ed” with particular aplomb – and superb support from the rest of the cast.

Wendla was played by Nicole Read who was completely convincing as this child who is almost a woman, desperate to know more of life and to break free of the stifling family environment. She was heart-breaking in the way she blindly stumbled into the path of the abortionist, ignorant of the dangers and the repercussions of the act. She was scarily vulnerable in the sado-masochism scene, and to cap it all, is an excellent singer too. It was Wendla’s friend Martha who told all the other girls about how her father took her belt to her, and Bethany Coulson played this scene superbly movingly, suspecting there might be something wrong about her father’s behaviour but believing she was equally guilty; being scared by her own honesty and fearing for her own future; it was another tear-jerking moment.

Spring Awakening one more timeMatthew Parsons as Moritz also gave a superb performance, being picked on in that opening Latin lesson scene (why were Latin lessons always so terrifying? It brought back horrible memories for me), desperate to learn more about sex from Melchior, sweating under the pressure of school work, having a bit of a thing for Melchior’s mum (a very mature and enjoyable performance by Katy Sturgess), refusing the chance of an escape with Ilse despite his better judgment, and with a final resignation feeling he had no option but to take his own life. He delivered all these scenes with immaculate honesty and sensitivity. When he actually put the revolver in his mouth and pulled the trigger, a man next to me let out a horrified “Oh my God” – that’s how much the audience believed in and cared about what was happening.

Stephen Bennett as Hanschen brought out all the humour of the role during his masturbation scene – producing lots of embarrassed giggling from the audience, not surprisingly – and his scenes with Ernst, his inamorato, very convincingly played by Michael Ryan, were extraordinarily mature and touching. There’s a scene where all the young characters are in church, trying desperately hard to restrain themselves from giving in to their physical desires – visually a very effective moment. Hanschen sits behind Ernst and Stephen Bennett’s agony at simply not being able to touch Ernst on the back was incredibly well done. The eventual seduction scene was very tender and when he finally takes Ernst’s hand and leads him offstage it felt like quite a triumph.

I also really enjoyed the performance of Hannah Saxton, both as the bitch of a Latin teacher Frau Sonnenstich, and as the free spirit Ilse, nourished by her Bohemian lifestyle. When Ilse cannot convince Moritz to spend time with her, her sadness and annoyance is very believable. She’s also a very expressive singer, and she sang “Blue Wind” with great purity and delicacy. And I should also mention Louis Jordan’s Georg very amusingly goggling at Fräulein Grossebustenhalter’s assets. But it’s an extremely fine ensemble performance and everyone contributed superbly well to the whole evening’s entertainment.

The performers conveyed a level of dramatic tension and conviction acting that was better than some professional productions we have seen. This excellent young cast is a credit both to the Royal and Derngate and their town. It was only on for three nights – I hope you were able to see it. I’d really like to see this production again!

Review – The 39 Steps, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 27th February 2013

The 39 StepsIt’s always a good sign when the Royal is virtually full on a Wednesday night. The 39 Steps has been packing them in at the Criterion Theatre for at least six years now, and if the reaction from the audience in the Royal is anything to go by, there’s no reason it shouldn’t carry on indefinitely.

Richard EdeI’ve not read John Buchan’s original book – or indeed seen the film – but I would guess Patrick Barlow’s adaptation (he of the National Theatre of Brent) is an extremely loose one. It’s a 1930s spy story – our hero John Hannay has to save the country by preventing the secret of the 39 Steps from leaving our shores. Unfortunately, he doesn’t know what the secret is – and he is followed the length and breadth of the country by the police who think he has committed murder – but he hasn’t. And if the police arrest him and get in the way of his trying to save the nation, well, dash it all, it wouldn’t be worth thinking about, would it? And that’s just the start. It’s a maniacally silly set up, beautifully lampooning the styles of the era and the whole “B” movie syndrome; and it’s interspersed with some wonderful accents – stiff upper lip British, over-the-top faux Scottish, and Marlene-Dietrich-German. By the way, all four actors speak with impeccable clarity – not a word is garbled, which is something I always appreciate. And it’s all very funny.

Charlotte PetersThe talented cast of four play 139 roles apparently! The way they interchange is extraordinary. In some scenes they actually swap roles with each other as the scene progresses, which is hysterical. The whole pace of the show is amazing; it’s really fast and full on, gathering an exciting momentum all the time, and all the cast work together seamlessly like a well-oiled machine. They also recreate a variety of sets and locations with just a handful of props – a few suitcases, a door, a window frame, a very jolly toy train and with the help of a very lively lighting and sound plot.

Tony BellRichard Ede plays Richard Hannay and he’s brilliant for the role. He’s suave and sophisticated, but not too much – so that he can still have the Mickey taken out of him. He’s full of derring-do and heroic charm, which makes it all the funnier when he gets into ludicrous scrapes from which he inevitably bounces back. Both Mrs Chrisparkle and I thought he gave a funnier and more convincing performance than the actor we saw play the part in the West End a few years ago.

Gary MackayCharlotte Peters is also great playing all the female roles, from the alluring Germanic vamp of Annabella Schmidt to the not-so-timid-after-all wife of the austerely religious Scottish crofter; and of course she is directly involved with the happy ending. You wouldn’t expect it not to have a happy ending, would you? The rest of the cast are played by Tony Bell and Gary Mackay and they dovetail perfectly with each other. I can’t go in to too much detail about these performances because it is the inventive nature of the play and the way it is staged that provides all the entertainment – and you wouldn’t want me to spoil it for you. But I loved the train scenes, the Mister Memory scenes (am I right, sir?) and the Scottish hoteliers.

Huge fun, lashings of tongue-in-cheek, and a superb ensemble performance. It’s touring the whole country until July, so if you can’t get to London, this show can come to you. The whole audience were in stitches all night. Highly recommended.