Eurovision 2013 – Semi Final One

Mrs Chrisparkle and I have been off on our travels a lot over the past few months and I regret to say that I am not as au fait with all this year’s Eurovision entries as I have been in the past, or would like to be. I do have some special favourites, which I will no doubt recommend to you as the blogs go on. Nevertheless, I am delighted to bring you my preview of this year’s contest, starting with Semi Final One, and we’re looking at the songs in the order that Swedish Television have seen fit to rig (I mean, carefully chosen so as to maximise the viewing public’s satisfaction). As in previous years, I’m also giving you the betting odds, courtesy of (taking all the bookmakers who will give you the first four places each way, as at 26th April) and also giving each song a star rating out of 5. Semi Final One is the one where UK viewers can vote, by the way, so consider your choice wisely!

Austria – Natália Kelly – Shine

Natalia KellyFirst off is part American, part Brazilian, part Austrian Natália Kelly, whose name features one of the least necessary accents I’ve ever encountered. It’s a nice little song, a bit ploddy, but a good performance should get her off to a reasonable start. However, she performed at the London Preview Party this year, and, if I’m honest, hers wasn’t one of the stand-out performances. She participated in Austria’s 2011 season of The Voice, and she’s still only 18. Music composed by Alexander Kahr, also responsible for Manuel Ortega’s Say A Word in 2002. 66-1 to 100-1 ***

Estonia – Birgit Õigemeel – Et Uus Saaks Alguse (New Beginning)

Birgit Estonia 2013I think she’s dropping the Õigemeel for the contest, for linguistic ease. I think it’s a shame she’s not dropping the song instead, because I find this extremely tedious. She’s an excellent singer and has had much better songs in the Estonian final before. She’s expecting her first child, so I hope the excitement of the evening doesn’t bring on a medical emergency. The winner of the first Estonian Pop Idol in 2007, she’s played Maria von Trapp on stage (and won) and is studying music at Tallinn University. Is “extremely tedious” a bit harsh? Possibly. It all sounds very pretty but it’s totally forgettable; at least it’s not actively unpleasant. But I’d be very surprised to see it on the Saturday night. 66-1 to 100-1 **

Slovenia – Hannah Mancini – Straight Into Love

Hannah ManciniI think she’s dropping the Mancini for the contest, because it doesn’t sound a bit like Henry’s output. This is the first upbeat song of the night and it’s not half bad. It’s a decent tune rewarded by a technothrob arrangement, and Hannah herself is a classy looking dame, the second of the night’s American born artistes, who’s even been on Jay Leno’s Tonight Show, and worked with Sheryl Crow and Seal. I’m a bit worried about the poor lad drowning in the blue bath. This will go down well at Eurovision discos. 100-1 to 200-1 ****

Croatia – Klapa s Mora – Mižerja

Klapa s MoraWhen I heard that Croatia this year was going to submit a klapa song, I expected something bland out of the Questa Notte stable. However, I think this little melody, sung in a very gently operatic style, is a bit of a stunner. Mižerja had already been chosen as the entry before they selected the individual singers, plucked from other klapa groups around the country, to perform it. OK, it’s a song about misery but it doesn’t sound too downbeat to me. One of the singers, Bojan, was a backing singer on Moja štikla in 2006, so he can obviously do “jolly” too. I don’t suppose the votes will come in like the klapas on the night well but I count it an artistic success. 100-1 to 250-1 ****

Denmark – Emmelie de Forest – Only Teardrops

Emmelie de ForestOK I have to admit that the running order is working for me. After the reflective tranquillity of Croatia comes the out-and-out pop pleaser Only Teardrops performed by the posh sounding Emmelie Charlotte Victoria de Forest. Today’s answer to Sandie Shaw, the beautiful and barefoot Emmelie did an unplugged slower version of the song at the London Preview Party, which showed her talent as a performer but didn’t really suit the song. She’s a bit of an enigma, is our Emmelie, making out that she’s a great-great-granddaughter of Queen Victoria and her dad said he was the illegitimate son of Baron Maurice Arnold de Forest. You decide. Only Teardrops is co-written by Lise Cabble who also penned A Friend in London’s New Tomorrow and Aud Wilken’s Fra Mols til Skagen. So she knows how to write a good song – and this is the bookmakers’ favourite. I like it a lot; I think it lacks a certain je ne sais quoi (see what I did there) that would make it a great song, but nevertheless it’s going to do very well on Saturday night. 6-5 to 13-8 *****

Russia – Dina Garipova – What If

Dina GaripovaA nauseatingly self-adulating video ruins what is otherwise a nice performance by Dina Garipova of this year’s Russian entry, a slightly old-fashioned ballad but a good tune nonetheless. Ms Garipova has a minor vocal tic that grates with me – when she goes for the high notes she seems to hit another note halfway up for a split-second as if her voice needs a leg-up to get there. 22 year old Dina won last year’s Russian version of The Voice, so is likely to be popular. The English language page of her website is a complete mess. 11-1 to 14-1 ***

Ukraine – Zlata Ognevich – Gravity

Zlata OgnevichOn to Ukraine, which is a great improvement on the song before; a catchy number with a terrific staccato arrangement, performed by unquestionably the most beautiful girl in the contest. The composer and lyricist have already between them written eight of the best eastern European entries of the last decade, and I think this is definitely one to watch. Born in Murmansk, her father was a surgeon on a Soviet submarine, and she is a soloist in the Ukrainian Armed Forces’ Song and Dance ensemble. She sang the Kukushka song that came second in Ukraine’s national final in 2011. Something tells me this is not going to win, but it will certainly be in with a chance. 9-2 to 7-1 *****

Netherlands – Anouk – Birds

AnoukWell here’s a Marmite entry if ever there was one. Is that Joni Mitchell singing? No it’s the Netherlands’ favourite rock chick Anouk, who’s had a very successful career over the past fifteen years. It was considered quite a coup when Dutch broadcaster TROS announced she would represent them this year. The song is the first single off her most recent album (her eighth), and is stands is 3 minutes 23 seconds long, so they’re going to have to do something about that. My own thoughts are that this will do well with the juries but families at home expecting something boppy and eurovisiony will turn off in droves. It’s different, that’s for sure. Will this be the first Dutch song to make it through the semis since 2004? That’s unsure. 11-1 to 20-1 ***

Montenegro – Who See feat. Nina Žižić – Igranka

Who SeeAnd another Marmite entry, and a clash of cultures as folk rock makes way for hip hop. It’s all in Montenegrin, and sounds to my untrained ear like it would be a paean to gangster lifestyle, smacking up bitches and pimping your granny to score some coke. But in fact the translated lyrics are a rather traditional song about going to a jolly party. It reminds me of an updated version of Bulgaria’s 2008 entry DJ, Take Me Away. Whilst the Who See guys are contributing to such musical gems as “Puff after puff” and “Invite some sluts”, it’s amusing to note that by day one of them works in a toy store. I know I’m not the target market for this kind of stuff, but, dammit, actually, I quite like it! Interestingly the youtube video has been seen by over 1.2 million people as at writing, making it one of the most watched of this year’s entries. So who knows how it will do? 100-1 to 200-1 ***

Lithuania – Andrius Pojavis – Something

Andrius PojavisIf you like your Eurovision understated, then this just might be for you. There’s something strangely enthusiastic about Andrius’ downbeat song and downbeat performance that makes it not quite as drab as it ought to be. I’m not really selling it, am I? There’s no way this is going to qualify, but I don’t hate it. His face looks as though he is singing a totally different song, which adds to its general unwordliness. He doesn’t care about note accuracy too much either. Maybe he’s Lithuania’s answer to Morrissey. 80-1 to 300-1 ***

Belarus – Alyona Lanskaya – Solayoh

Alyona LanskayaWith the country’s usual transparent voting integrity, last year’s disgraced Belarussian national final winner Alyona returns with a new song, that is naturally not the one that won in Minsk last December. Solayoh is a bouncy, clappy, singalong song that gets under your skin even though you’d prefer it to stay where it was. It’s all about the joy of dancing in the sunshine, even though it’s night time; nothing wrong with that. The music is by Marc Paelinck who was responsible for Chiara’s What if We and Xandee’s One Life, both stonking good tunes. Alyona’s quite a sweet thing, and I think this is borderline qualifying. 25-1 to 80-1 ***

Moldova – Aliona Moon – O mie (A Million)

Aliona MoonConfusion hath made its masterpiece! Alyona followed by Aliona! SVT didn’t think that through properly. It’s not the only confusion either – the English version as sung in this video is A Million, whereas the literal translation of O Mie is a thousand… We’re talking a discrepancy of several noughts-worth of exaggeration here. No matter, it’s actually a terrific little tune sung with passion and conviction by the lovely Aliona, who needs to change her hair gel. Last year she was a backing singer for the Lăutar himself, Pasha Parfeny, and this year he has done her the honour of writing O Mie for her. To get into the final it will have to do without Romania’s twelve points, as they’re voting in Semi Final Two. I think it will make it though. 66-1 to 100-1 *****

Ireland – Ryan Dolan – Only Love Survives

Ryan DolanAfter a few moody numbers it’s time to go upbeat again. Not really a disco stomper, more a disco swayer, Only Love Survives is a pleasing tune that embeds itself in your psyche so that it bursts out of your brain every so often and you’ve no choice but to go with it. Ryan Dolan is a personable young chap from Northern Ireland, and he’s co-written the song. It’s no masterpiece but definitely one of this year’s best. 25-1 to 80-1 *****

Cyprus – Despina Olympiou – An Me Thimase (If You Remember Me)

Despina OlympiouHere’s a song that improves every time you hear it, which of course is pants as far as the Eurovision is concerned because you need that immediate impact. Despina Olympiou is a singer of great reputation and experience in Cyprus, whose career started over 20 years ago. She studied piano at Trinity College London, and has recorded with both Eurovision’s own Stereo Mike and Michalis Hatzigiannis and indeed An Me Thimase’s lyricist Zenon Zindilis also wrote the lyrics for Mr Hatzigiannis’ Genesis back in 1998. It’s a winsome gentle ballad, but without douze points coming from Greece (they’re voting in the other semi) I don’t think this will make it to Saturday. 100-1 to 200-1 **

Belgium – Roberto Bellarosa – Love Kills

Roberto BellarosaWhen I first heard this song I was instantly taken with its great hook in the chorus, and I still find it a really catchy song. Unfortunately since its first airing it’s undergone some tarting up and prettifying, which has resulted in some of its raw energy being lost. Nevertheless it’s still a good song, and if 18 year old Roberto Bellarosa, who won the first season of The Voice in Belgium, can nail the vocals it really ought to sail through to the final. It’s co-written by Iain Farquharson who wrote 2011’s Azerbaijani winner Running Scared, and Andreas Anastasiou who wrote the Cyprus entry for 2011. Listen to this and you’ll be doing “love kills over and over” in the shower tomorrow morning. 100-1 to 200-1 ****

Serbia – Moje 3 – Ljubav je svuda (Love is Everywhere)

Moje 3The elements are all there – sexily clad young ladies, a boppy arrangement, and it’s written by the lyricists of Molitva, Ovo je Balkan and Nije ljubav stvar; but for me this just doesn’t add up to the sum of its parts. I find the chorus more irritating than catchy – that bit where the notes run up and down the scale really grates! I’m sure it will do well and get into the final with ease, but I’ll not be voting for it. 40-1 to 80-1 **

So don’t forget to watch Semi Final One on Tuesday 14th May on BBC3 – and if you’re in the UK, vote! I’ll be back with a preview of Semi Final Two ‘ere long.

Review – A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 24th April 2013

A Midsummer Night's DreamThe programme notes for this new production of Midsummer Night’s Dream include a quote from Samuel Pepys, who in 1662 described it as “the most insipid, ridiculous play that I ever saw in my life…nor shall ever again”. Well he didn’t know much about theatre, did he? Although I must confess I was a little disappointed when I first heard that this play would be in this year’s repertoire, only because we’ve already seen it twice very recently, and this would become the third time in three years – and indeed, we are also booked to see the Michael Grandage production in London in November. However, this new offering at the Royal and Derngate is such a funny, warm-hearted production, that within about four seconds of its starting I was hooked and after five minutes I remembered that you simply can’t have too much Midsummer Night’s Dream.

Colin RyanThis production is directed by Gary Sefton, who, along with the R&D’s ex-artistic director Laurie Sansom, has provided us with some of the most memorable plays in Northampton since we’ve been here. Travels with My Aunt, Diary of a Nobody and A Christmas Carol all had his hallmark combination of clear story telling and inventively comic staging, with an emphasis on revealing the characters’ own funny little ways. And now we can add his Dream to his Northampton canon; a tight, pacey, eight-strong production that takes a few liberties with Will’s script – and why not – which make the story easier to follow and play it for laughs.

Silas CarsonTi Green has designed what appears to be quite a stark set at first, but as the play progresses you realise it has a life of its own, and the cascading sheets of coloured material that fall from heaven make an excellent visual contrast with the barren darkness beneath. I love the way the set changes at Puck’s behest; walls move, windows descend to his whim, like some mystic orchestra conductor. Although Oberon is the boss I get the feeling that Puck is in charge of this particular Dream. Colin Ryan appears at first as a very Puck-like Philostrate, Master of the Revels, and with a sinister smile he assumes blue surgical gloves to start his “operations”. It was Mrs Chrisparkle who pointed out to me that the blue streaks that appear on the characters faces and bodies once they are out in the wilds of fairyland show that they are under his influence – basically, they’ve been Pucked; a round of applause to her for that insight. Jon Nicholls’s effective music is at times eerie, at times sweet and really enhances the sense of otherworldliness.

Amy RobbinsThe opening scene of this play can sometimes be a bit heavy handed with exposition, but here it’s as fresh as a daisy and crystal clear as to what’s going on. The characterisation is so instantly appealing that you can’t wait to see how these four (potential) lovers sort their relationships out. It’s also a delight to meet the rude mechanicals, the parts doubled up by the actors you’ve already met in the previous scene, with a female Quince, a scouse Flute, a falsetto Snout and an earnest and enthusiastic Bottom. A very regal Titania, a noble Oberon and real young fairies with genuine fairy-dust complete the cast. There were just two directorial decisions we didn’t quite agree with – Mrs C didn’t really like Bottom’s ass projectiling a dump; mainly because for the rest of the scene the actors ended up kicking it around the stage. And I wasn’t that keen on seeing Bottom’s bottom as he walked up the stairs and offstage – yes it’s a laugh, but quite a cheap one and doesn’t add to your understanding of the character or the play.

Naomi SheldonApart from that, everything works like a midsummer night’s dream. Silas Carson’s Theseus is authoritative but kind, dispensing his ducal wisdom and gently mocking the idiotic rural actors. His Oberon is more generally decent than others I have seen, and when he realises his joke on Titania has gone too far he really seems to have trickster’s remorse. And I loved his beginning of Act Two entrance. Amy Robbins as Hippolyta has a great line in charmingly elegant teasing and her reactions to the ghastly Pyramus and Thisbe really made us laugh. As Titania she is both temptress and harridan. When she was tearing strips off Oberon, I thought, you really wouldn’t want to get into an argument with her; but her erotic appreciation of Bottom’s ass was the most convincing and delightful I’ve seen.

Frances McNameeNaomi Sheldon gives a wonderful comic performance as Hermia, the nice little rich girl who has an eye for a bit of rough. There’s a fantastically funny fight scene where she accidentally gets involved, and her physical comedy that follows is just brilliant. She’s also very funny as Mistress Quince, the long-suffering director; traces of Wigan in her clipped accent I thought, and the very embodiment of Wall (isn’t that usually Snout’s gig?) Frances McNamee’s Helena is part sexy secretary, part oafish desperada throwing herself at the uninterested Demetrius and generally being run ragged round the forest; a terrific performance. Her Snug reminded me of a mid 1980s Victoria Wood creation, all introvert and tea and buns for one, until she lets rip as the lion. Well roared, lion.

Oliver GommOliver Gomm’s Lysander is a brilliant comic creation – shifty, snide, and totally lacking in the good grace that Egeus demands for his daughter. When he falls under Puck’s spell and turns his affections towards Helena, he does it with such sudden comic energy it takes your breath away. His Flute sounds like a rustic Steven Gerrard and does a memorable comic turn as Thisbe, with a ridiculous drawn-out death scene that warrants its own round of applause.Charlie Archer Charlie Archer as Demetrius represents all the dull respectability that Lysander isn’t, smug and toffee-nosed but never a caricature, and also bringing superb physical comedy to the role. Stripped to their Long Johns, Lysander and Demetrius have a brilliant boxing scene, and it’s comedy magic. As the high-pitched Snout, Mr Archer plays a hilariously simple soul who can just about portray moonshine, barely.

The role of Egeus is purely functional and doesn’t have much in it to make an actor shine, but as Bottom, Joe Alessi has enthusiastic attack, great comic timing and makes a superb, rather loveable ass.Joe Alessi And finally Colin Ryan’s Puck is slippery and ethereal, dispensing joy and mystery wherever he goes; he looks perfect for the part and gives an eloquent Irish lilt to Shakespeare’s poetry. What you take home with you after this show is a feeling of satisfaction, of intelligent physical comedy, and above all the memories of a lot of laughs, and you can’t say fairer than that.

Review – The Hired Man, Studio at the Curve, Leicester, 21st April 2013

The Hired Man 19841984. Not the scary Orwellian one but the real one, which was probably even more scary in retrospect. Five years into the late Baroness Thatcher’s regime that changed the nation forever. Two years after the Falklands Conflict; the time of the Miners’ Strike; protests at Greenham Common; ah, happy days. And a little musical opened at the Astoria Theatre (now G-A-Y) with a book by Melvyn Bragg and music by Howard Goodall. I went to see it on 2nd February 1985 according to my ticket stub, and was totally blown away by its intensity, emotion, terrific score and amazing cast. That original production was born at the old Leicester Haymarket theatre, and in a sense, thirty years later, it’s come home.

The Hired Man 2013In the intervening years it hasn’t lost any of its relevance. The subjugation of the hired man to the demands, whims and mercy of his employer (“the day of rest is Man’s invention”, according to the lyrics), means it can be tough to get right that work/life balance, to the detriment of relationships. Workers’ rights, union clashes, young men going off to war and not coming back, plus the trials and tribulations of young love – all human life is here in the not so idyllic Lake District of a hundred years ago.

Normally I try not to give away too much of the plot of plays and shows but in this case I have found it virtually impossible. So if you’re going to see it and you don’t know the story yet, please bookmark this page and come back after the show! Otherwise, carry on…

David Hunter“The Hired Man” really is the complete package. It has a very convincing and gripping story line, fantastic memorable songs and it’s laden with emotion without ever being mawkish or sensational. I confessed to Mrs Chrisparkle that when I saw it in the 1980s it made me cry. In the interval she smirked, “Have we come to the bit that made you cry yet?” “No”, I replied, summoning up all the masculinity I could muster. Then came the second act. By curtain call she was in floods of tears. Not only her, but I would guess a good half of the audience had reached for the Kleenex. The lady to my left had been solidly weeping for the last half hour. The light caught the bald head of an older man in the second row as he kept on bobbing up and down to the rhythm of his sobs. Few escape this show’s emotional tentacles. That’ll teach Mrs C for being so cocky.

Julie AthertonThis production comes to the Curve as a co-production with the Mercury Theatre Colchester, and is staged in their Studio theatre. This was our first visit to the Studio, and I must say I was well impressed. Comfortable, plenty of legroom, pretty good sightlines and an intimate, experimental vibe, even though it is considerably larger than other “Studio” type theatres I’ve visited. Its layout put me in the mind of the old Mermaid Theatre as it used to be in the “good old days” – a fairly wide stage with just a bank of seats gently escalating up to heaven. The whole Curve complex is quickly becoming one of my favourite venues – the place was packed with people going round craft stalls, watching a gospel choir, meeting for coffee and lunch (delicious food, including gluten-free options in the café), plus it has friendly staff and their ticket prices are delightfully sensible. And I love how you can peek through the offstage area of the main theatre and see all the props and costumes in waiting, as the ASMs go about their business.

Jamie BarnardBack to the Hired Man. It’s one of those productions where the cast play the instruments, apart from Richard Reeday, the Musical Director, on the piano. That really helps to combine the music into the actors’ performance, which in turn assists and enforces the plot development of a musical. Howard Goodall’s lyrics are both tender and hard hitting and fit his tunes perfectly. The arrangements reflect the rural settings; the use of trumpets gives a sense of country bands, and there’s even a harp to enhance the more romantic aspects. The music is performed beautifully throughout. My favourite song from the show, “What a Fool I’ve been”, which has been for many years a regular in my shower repertoire, has an inventive piano backing of anxious staccato notes that panic up and down the keyboard, reflecting John’s inner turmoil. Terrific stuff. Juliet Shillingford’s deceptively simple set nicely suggests the open countryside, but converts easily to the dinginess of John and Emily’s small cottage, the exposed terror of the French battlefields, and the claustrophobia of the coalface.

Mark StobbartThere are some superb performances that add to the tugging of the heartstrings. One of my main recollections of the 1980s production was the extraordinary Olivier award winning performance of Paul Clarkson as John, whose steely gaze burnt through the audience’s combined retina as you witnessed his sorrows, his furies, his delights and his ability to take every blow that life dishes out. So I was curious, if not concerned, to find out how David Hunter would take to the role in this production. I’m pleased to say he’s very different and gives you an excellent insight into other aspects that make up the character of John.

Gary TushawDavid Hunter is a much quieter, calmer John; where Paul Clarkson exploded with resentment and angst, Mr Hunter chooses more to internalise his passions but his expressions and superb singing voice convey the full range of emotions that John experiences. He has an open innocence in the early days of his love with Emily (the wonderful “Say Farewell” was performed with youthful exuberance); and when he performed “What a Fool I’ve been” it really gave me goosebumps up and down my arms. John’s slow realisation that Emily and Jackson have been seeing each other behind his back and which leads into that song was done perfectly. That scene also culminates in the most exciting, technically precise and dramatic stage fight I’ve ever seen. The lady to my left, who was to blub uncontrollably later on, hid her eyes behind her hands as she couldn’t bear to see another punch land – brilliant work by Mr Hunter and Kit Orton as Jackson. In the second half, he ages very convincingly into someone now coping with the different challenges of mining and war, and managing his family. Like the whole cast, Mr Hunter is particularly good at connecting eye to eye with audience members – when he was dealing with his emotional question “What would you say to your son, if you were me” he looked straight at me and I believed absolutely that he was genuinely seeking my advice. At the end of the show, when he finally goes back to the land, he brings a triumphant resilience to the last reprise of the main theme. It’s a really mature performance and offers for big roles ought to be dropping on his doormat on a daily basis.

Kit OrtonEqually, if not more, astonishing a performance comes from Julie Atherton as Emily. We’ve seen Miss Atherton a couple of times before and she always gives a great performance – she was excellent as Sister Mary Robert in Sister Act. Her voice is as clear as a bell and as powerful as a rocket and she couldn’t keep her emotions to herself if she tried. She effortlessly provides fantastic harmonies with Mr Hunter, most memorably in “Say Farewell”, and her growing relationship with Jackson is superbly subtle; you can see her desperately trying to put the brakes on too late, and the scene where she skids uncontrollably into his arms was really moving. She has a lightness of touch with the domestic scenes that bring out the, albeit sparse, humour in the role. But it is in the second half that she really comes into her own. When she can’t keep her son from going down the pit or from going to war – you knew the moment that the excellent Jamie Barnard turned up with a packed suitcase there was only ever going to be one sad outcome; when she gets the letter from John with the terrible news; when she starts to weaken through ill health; and when her spirit returns to the land with John in the final scene, she is just tremendous. I reckon she had tears on her cheeks for about 40 minutes in that second half. No grown man could help but tearfully sniff along with her. You can’t stop watching her – a sensational performance.

Jill CardoThe whole cast is excellent, but I would commend to you some particularly impressive performances. Mark Stobbart as Isaac, John’s chancer of a brother, irrepressibly looks for easy ways to make a bit of cash but has a heart of gold, and when he comes back from war and his wrestling days are over I felt really sad for the character. Gary Tushaw as John’s more responsible brother Seth, gives a sterling performance of reliability and has great stage presence. Kit Orton’s Jackson is a charismatic chap who you would have no doubt would easily win over any fair lady – and he has a brilliant voice. And Jill Cardo’s May, John and Emily’s nearly grown-up daughter, gives a great performance of a girl on the verge of being a young woman, teasing and daring with her clothes, with an impish sense of humour and a big heart that could break at any minute.

What can I say? It’s an intense, almost draining experience – we slept for hours afterwards due to emotional exhaustion. The music is sensational – Mrs C hasn’t stopped singing “Oh to be a hired man” for the last four days. The performances are skilful and engrossing, and the whole production is magic. Simply brilliant, and you’ll kick yourself if you miss it.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 19th April 2013

Dan EvansYet another very busy night at the Screaming Blue Murder last Friday; as far as bums-on-seats are concerned, this must be their most successful season yet – so congratulations to everyone involved! Our compere was Dan Evans, back on fine form and handling a difficult front row heckler with great aplomb. She didn’t shut up when he was being subtle with her, so he started ridiculing her in front of everyone, and it worked! Dan is still delving deep with new material, and I did like his joke about stalking Doctor Who assistants. I find it more entertaining to hear his new material, but his old joke about “the appearance of space” still has everyone rolling in the aisles though, so who am I to judge?

Ria LinaOur first act was someone new to us, Ria Lina. A girl with a ukelele – suggests a promising start – but unfortunately her first song was just rather tasteless and offensive without being funny, and it got her started on the wrong footing. She did have some good material, but some of it was race-based, and us simple folk in Northampton may not get political jokes but we are remarkably unprejudiced. Her final song about being middle class and not famous was actually really wittily written and structured, but by then the energy had sapped away a bit, so she received polite rather than warm applause.

Marc LuceroSecond up was Marc Lucero, who we have seen before and enjoyed very much, but this time he was on fire. It was largely the same routine as before but his pace and timing were spot on, and the personality behind the gags emerged just perfectly. Some excellent observations about the local fathers creating their own self-help group, and the design fault in a crane system designed to lower you into the bath; and a brilliant final story involving the au pair’s knickers ended his set on a complete high, so that we went into the second interval still howling with laughter.

Mary BourkeThe headline act was Mary Bourke, who we’ve seen twice before in 2010 and 2011 and she always delivers top class comedy. What surprised and delighted me was that this was 95% brand new material – only her (hilarious) observations about mumsnet from previous shows still made an appearance. She had some great material about providing “yoof” with rhymes about dissing their mothers; an excellent suggestion for the title of Amanda Holden’s autobiography, something you won’t find on a “Welcome to Luton” street sign, and much more besides. A most assured performance – and incredibly funny. So we can list this as another great Screaming Blue Murder night, and believe me it is the best value comedy entertainment imaginable!

Review – Northern Ballet, The Great Gatsby, Milton Keynes Theatre, 16th April 2013

The Great GatsbyScott Fitzgerald’s fantastic book came out in 1925 and rarely goes away. Last year we saw the daylong marathon that was Gatz – the bold experiment of a dramatised reading of the book in one fell swoop; for me not entirely successful, but certainly worth the attempt. And this year we have David Nixon’s dance version for Northern Ballet, set to the music of the late Sir Richard Rodney Bennett. We’ve seen a few of their productions in the past, all of them excellent, especially Romeo and Juliet, which had both of us sobbing into our Sauvignon Blancs. But rather like Gatz, this Gatsby is a jolly good stab at re-interpreting the book in another format, and like Gatz, doesn’t quite work.

Victoria SibsonNevertheless there are plenty of aspects of the performance that are a sheer joy and well worth the ticket price. Primarily, you go to a dance to see dancers dance, right? On that level it works like a dream, as the company are in really good form, their technical ability stands out a mile and they must be amazingly fit to sustain those energy levels throughout the show. Other senses are appealed to as well; the costumes are superb, especially the ball gowns of the partying ladies and Myrtle’s stunning first act creation. The orchestra are superb, and recreate Bennett’s jazz, Charleston and other film music with intensity and excitement.

Benjamin MitchellThere are some particularly excellent set pieces. All the dance party scenes are lively and engaging, especially when Myrtle loosens up to Irving Berlin’s When The Midnight Choo Choo; Myrtle’s death is a vivid and startling piece of dance drama; and the entrance of guests to the Theme from Murder on the Orient Express is fun and feelgood. I loved the use of the sliding panels at each side of the stage to give extra entrance and exit spaces, and also to suggest a deeper stage than that provided at Milton Keynes; all part of excellent design by Jerome Kaplan.

Martha LeeboltSo what’s the problem? It’s twofold, IMHO. It’s a brilliant book, written with such control and detachment. It’s not really about Gatsby; it’s not really a romantic novel about Gatsby/Daisy/Tom/Myrtle; rather it’s a somewhat cerebral examination of the outsider, Nick Carraway, and how he never quite fits in with society around him, playing at romance with Jordan but shying away when his cold interior is threatened, and observing the savagery of other relationships from a safe clinical distance. Gatsby himself is an enigma, an illusion; and it’s hard to engage emotionally with such characters. For all its beauty and elegance, there’s not a lot here to hang your heart on. At moments of high drama and sadness in the dance, Mrs Chrisparkle likened herself to Diana Morales, who, when faced with the death of Mr Karp, felt Nothing. Because it is a rather unemotional book, the dance lacks a little splash of passion.

Kenneth TindallWhich brings me on to the choreography. For the majority of the characters, it seemed to me, David Nixon has provided some elegant and attractive gliding moves; specifically lots of twirling – not pirouettes on the spot, but the kind of spinning where they move over a large area of stage; lots of open arms at second position; lots of ladies’ legs being gracefully lifted and placed back down on stage at 90 degree angles. These are all beautiful moves, and they were all exquisitely performed. The only problem is that towards the end of the show I began to find the choreography rather samey. I wanted some variation, something quirky to stand out. The only two characters whose choreography had a different vibe were Myrtle and George, and as a result I found them much more interesting to watch; earthy, raw and physical, unembellished, unsophisticated and honest. Victoria Sibson gave a fantastic, expressive performance as Myrtle, shining with exuberance in the first act, desperate and restrained in the second; and she was matched perfectly by Benjamin Mitchell’s George whose Act One routine with the tyre was so confidently executed and whose Act Two grief had boundless athleticism.

Hannah BatemanAnother quibble I had with the choreography was that the show seems to want to follow the original story so faithfully that, from the middle of the second half on, the dance gets bogged down in the minutiae of the story-telling. Individual passages from the book seemed to be expressed in dance form in such a precise way that you felt inadequate if you couldn’t understand every nuance, every dance conversation. I would have preferred a broader brush technique for these scenes – but maybe that’s just me.

Giuliano ContadiniThere’s no denying the great performances from Martha Leebolt as Daisy, beautiful and flirtatious with Gatsby whilst risking the wrath of the brutish Tom, danced with great charisma by Kenneth Tindall, whose “slapping Myrtle” scene got a round of applause that disconcerted Mrs C. Hannah Bateman invested the character of Jordan Baker with warmth and charm, and she can make a golf swing look sexy. Giuliano Contadini was an immaculate Nick Carraway, who delivered some very deft dance moves in a way that made them look really easy; and Tobias Batley was Gatsby; measured, aloof, and technically fantastic.

Tobias BatleyDavid Nixon’s adaptation stops eight ninths of the way through the book – Gatsby’s death makes for a startling final curtain. In one sense it was a shame he couldn’t show the final chapter and reveal what subsequently happens to George, or Tom, or Nick, or Jordan. Considering the rest of the story had been so faithfully represented, I did feel it was a sudden ending that didn’t resolve all the issues. But maybe this just goes to show that The Great Gatsby is not an easy work to adapt. It was a pretty full house and the appreciative applause lasted long and loud. There is a lot to admire in this production and is certainly worth seeing; and even if it doesn’t succeed on all levels it’s still an inventive and enjoyable production and you come away in awe of the skill of the dancers.

Review – Alexander Shelley Conducts Scheherazade, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Derngate, Northampton, 14th April 2013

Alexander Shelley Conducts ScheherazadeAfter a really busy weekend there are few more enjoyable prospects than to spend Sunday evening in the company of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at one of their regular visits to Northampton. Well we’d had an exceedingly busy weekend, so a triple bill of Russian classics was the perfect medicine.

Our conductor was Alexander Shelley. It was the first time we’d seen Mr Shelley, and he is a dignified, authoritative figure, clean-cut and enthusiastic to bring the best out of the performers in his charge.

First on the evening’s agenda was Tchaikovsky’s Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. A lively performance of this great attacking overture, the orchestra were already on top form and you could see Mr Shelley was intent on having a great time. I loved its periods of stateliness and sensuousness. A super start to the programme.

Peter JablonskiThen we had the usual hiatus of moving the Steinway into position, whilst members of the orchestra hover uncomfortably in corners. I wish they could do that a bit more seamlessly. Mr Shelley returned with the guest soloist, pianist Peter Jablonski, resplendent in a very trendy Nehru jacket, to play Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. What impressed me most about his performance was that he covered the keyboard with such speed and such ease; and also how he threw his entire body behind the expression. When he lunged down towards the bass notes he followed through by hurling his left hand right down almost to his ankles.

I’d forgotten what an amazingly entertaining piece this is. It constantly surprises you with its inventiveness, finding yet another variation on how to play that old theme. Sometimes it makes you laugh with its irreverence, at other times is overwhelms you with its typical romantic Rachmaninoviness. It was a superb performance and the whole orchestra gave Mr Jablonksi fantastic support.

Alexander ShelleyAfter a soothing Chenin Blanc, we returned for the final piece, a performance of Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade. This is one of my favourite pieces of music, and the orchestra blew me away right from the start. The music is so representative of the sound of the sea, culminating in a shipwreck, and as it ebbs and flows over forty minutes or so, it really takes your imagination with it. That Mr Shelley led the orchestra through all its dramatic intensity with terrific attention to detail, and that the orchestra responded gloriously goes without saying. But what I wasn’t expecting was the leaders of each part of the orchestra to take such exquisite virtuoso solos. First Violinist, Clio Gould gave a performance of incredible subtlety and beauty; and when she was matched with harpist Suzy Willison-Kawalec, both of them brought out the absolute best in each other. Bassoonist Rebecca Mertens (I think) had gorgeous warmth to her playing, and lead cellist Tim Gill simply made his instrument sing. It was a riveting all round performance.

At the end we were treated to an encore, the final movement of Stravinsky’s Firebird, to send us all home with vibrant strings zinging in our ears. Mr Shelley generously allowed all sections of the orchestra to have their own special moment of appreciation from the audience, and they well and truly deserved it. For sheer enjoyment this programme was hard to beat.

Review – High Society, Derngate, Northampton, 9th April 2013

High SocietyThere’s always room in the calendar for a swanky revival of a glitzy old musical, and Music & Lyrics’ co-production with Venue Cymru of Cole Porter’s High Society certainly does the trick. The original musical was based on the play of The Philadelphia Story, and then a revival in 1998 souped it up with some additional lyrics by Susan Birkenhead, ditched a few less well-known songs and replaced them some favourite numbers from other Porter musicals; which makes a bit of a hotch-potch if you’re a Porter purist, but a real crowd-pleaser if you’re not bothered.

Sophie BouldIt’s an amusing story of rich socialite Tracy Lord preparing for her umpteenth wedding to a dreary stick-in-the-mud and the attempts to undermine it by her still-in-love ex, Dexter Haven. Add to the mix a pair of journalists wanting to get a scoop on covering the wedding, a lascivious uncle, a precocious younger sister and a chorus of maids and footmen, and it’s a recipe for a lot of fun.

Michael PraedIt looks pretty ravishing; Francis O’Connor’s sets are classy, with just the right level of Art Deco to be convincing for the late 1930s; his costumes are smart and colourful; Andrew Wright’s choreography is snappy, funny and extremely well executed (we particularly liked the Stomp-inspired routine for “Well Did You Evah”); and the band under the direction of Michael Haslam create seriously fabulous music.

Daniel BoysIt’s a great, experienced cast and they all put in a lot of work to make the evening go with a swing. Tracy Lord is played by Sophie Bould, and she’s perfect for the part. She looks beautiful, she sings with great expression, she has excellent comic timing and she got a great round of applause. We saw her understudying Maria in the Palladium’s Sound of Music a few years ago and she was great in that too.

Alex YoungShe is matched by Michael Praed’s Dexter Haven, who looks as American Socialite Sophisticated as you could possibly imagine, and has an incredibly rich depth to his voice that carries off the romantic numbers perfectly. Daniel Boys, who wanted to be Joseph back in 2007, and who has enjoyed loads of theatre parts since, is brilliant as the frustrated writer Mike Connor, with another superb voice and great stage presence. Alex Young, who plays Liz, his colleague who is hopelessly and unrequitedly in love with Mike, gives a terrific all-round performance of musical comedy; and she’s rather cute too. It must be very difficult to take such a well-known song as “Who Wants to be a Millionaire” and make it sound fresh and new, but Mr Boys and Miss Young did a brilliant job.

Teddy KempnerAlways delighted to see another of my favourite performers, the larger than life Teddy Kempner, this time embracing the role of Uncle Willie, chasing after Liz in a really funny but never grotesque way, and giving his all in “She’s Got That Thing” like a man half his age (and size). I’ve always enjoyed Mr Kempner’s performances ever since I saw him as Snoopy thirty years ago.

Keiron CrookI also very much liked Keiron Crook as Tracy’s appalling fiancé George Kittredge, all bluster and control freak, conveying a character with a complete lack of sense of humour to great comic effect. Marilyn Cutts and Craig Pinder, as Tracy’s parents, give great support and seventeen year old Katie Lee as Dinah, with a performance of considerable confidence and expertise, is obviously going to be a star of the future. The chorus of attendants, maids, waiters and so on were terrific, and gave a performance as good as any that you’d see in the West End.

Katie LeeThere were a few tiny problems with the set on its first night in Northampton – there was a too-long pause between the end of the final scene and the curtain call which I’m guessing was because they were struggling to fix the staircase in position; when the curtain finally opened a stagehand was still fiddling with it and rushed off in something of despair. As a result, the staircase wasn’t properly secured, and the final dance sequence that takes place on it caused it to sway perilously from side to side. We had our hands over our mouths fearing some health and safety catastrophe – which fortunately didn’t happen! Well done to the cast for keeping going. I also wondered if there should have been some other mechanism to prevent us seeing cast members walk off stage once they had left the main acting area; they leave the set through the back doors, but then you see them traipse off in either direction. It didn’t look right; but perhaps this isn’t an issue at other theatres.

But that’s not even a miniscule quibble. It’s a super production, very much appreciated by the full audience, ticking all the lively and colourful boxes, full of feelgoodness, and certainly recommended. It’s touring until July throughout the country – go and see it!

Review – Proof, Menier Chocolate Factory, 7th April 2013

Proof“What is it with this new trend of having to shout in order to prove you’re angry?” asked Mrs Chrisparkle slightly tetchily over our interval Pinot Grigio during last Sunday’s performance of Proof. “The young woman in this play shouts in just the same way the young woman in A Taste of Honey did. Makes my head hurt!” “Funny you should say that”, I responded, “as A Taste of Honey was directed by the same person, Polly Findlay”. Her eyes widened as if she had just stumbled over the most fabulous Eureka moment. “Well”, she concluded, “she needs to find another way to help actresses express anger”.

I have to agree. From the opening scene, where Catherine, played by Mariah Gale, is conversing with her father Robert, played by Matthew Marsh, it was instantaneously noticeable how many more decibels were emanating from Miss Gale’s diaphragm than from any of her fellow actors. I immediately got a sense of imbalance, and, although I got used to it after a while (quite a long while) I could never stop thinking that her performance was a bit shouty.

Mariah GaleBut really, I should start with the play. David Auburn’s Proof won the 2001 Tony Award for Best Play and that year’s Pulitzer Prize for Drama. It’s a tight, compact little play, with some clever twists and nice garden paths to lead you up. It tackles some interesting subjects – the inability to continue working when you’re suffering mental illness, the fine line between genius and madness, the inheritability of mental illness, sibling rivalry, and the question of how do you prove that you had a genius idea first or that someone else stole it. Helen Goddard’s set is a feast for the eyes and really accurately suggests a rather decrepit back patio. I also liked how the play manipulates time, with present, past and imaginary all having their place.

Matthew MarshBut I have two major problems with the play. It’s very slow to start – and, apart from the clever twist in the first scene, the first half hour or so is actually quite boring. There doesn’t seem to be much in the way of dramatic intensity between the characters and simply increasing the shoutiness levels is no replacement. It doesn’t get going until the argument between the two sisters, which reveals much more of their characters’ natures. The character of Hal, played by Jamie Parker (who you can always rely to put on a fine performance), is very thinly drawn and you get precious little understanding of his character or motivations from the text.

Emma CunniffeMy other problem is the ending. The whole basis of the play concerns the authorship of a brilliant piece of mathematical proof, apparently discovered by the ailing Robert during a burst of lucidity whilst suffering from mental illness. But did he really discover it, or was it actually the work of his – maybe – equally brilliant daughter? And how can you prove who came up with the proof? How much more intriguing it would have been if the ending had been enigmatic – suggesting one resolution, whilst giving evidence in the other direction, so that you kept on guessing during the train ride home. But no – Mr Auburn makes it very clear in the final scene exactly who it was that came up with the proof and frankly I was disappointed.

Jamie ParkerMariah Gale’s Catherine has a very convincing abrasiveness when dealing with characters or subjects she doesn’t like and her mood swings are very well portrayed, shoutiness aside. However, we both felt much more in tune with Emma Cunniffe’s performance as the bossy sister Claire, determined to get her own way despite a pretext of caring about her sister’s well-being. She gave a great performance of controlled exasperation and bullying. Jamie Parker breathed as much life into the role of Hal as possible and was immensely watchable as usual. Matthew Marsh, who we enjoyed in The Last of the Haussmans, brought depth and understanding to the difficult role of Robert.

Not a bad production by any means, but sadly we both came away from this with feelings of general dissatisfaction.

P.S. Please, Menier, could you put the heating on? That auditorium was freezing! Mrs C kept her Danish High-Tog jacket on throughout the whole show and the man next to her was huddled in overcoat and scarf! When he nodded off we weren’t sure if it was boredom or hypothermia.

Review – Mr Whatnot, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 5th & 6th April 2013

Mr WhatnotAbout a hundred years ago, gentle reader, when I was but a lean and callow youth (well, not particularly lean), I was trying to put together a thesis about the withdrawal of stage censorship in the UK in 1968. This was long before the advent of emails and Google, so I wrote letters to many splendid dramatists of the day to ask them if they’d ever had a run-in with the censor. One of those to whom I wrote was Sir Alan Ayckbourn (although he was plain Alan in those days). He kindly responded by saying that he was (and I quote) “in those days a fledgling dramatist as it were and never wrote anything remotely worth censoring”.

Cal McCrystalCertainly his “Mr Whatnot”, which first saw the light of day in 1963 and was barely heard of again after its disastrous brief London run in 1964, doesn’t grapple with any of the meaty subjects of its illustrious contemporaries. Pinter’s Homecoming, Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane, for example, you would have thought were from a completely different era. So reviving this early Ayckbourn is a fascinating experiment in showing a perhaps ignored side of the sixties drama scene.

Liz CrowtherI knew nothing about the play in advance, other than the fact that it had been a flop, which is something you rarely associate with Ayckbourn. I was, however, impressed with the fact that it was being directed by Cal McCrystal, whose CV includes the physical comedy direction of the wonderful One Man Two Guvnors. Alas Mrs Chrisparkle and I were away for much of March travelling round South East Asia (blog posts will appear in due course, I trust) so we missed all the excitement of the opening of this production, and in fact just managed to get back home in time to see it on its final Friday night. We enjoyed it so much, that the next day we actually booked to see it again, at the matinee, and took Lady Duncansby along as a surprise treat. I don’t think, in 45 years of theatregoing, I’ve ever gone back to see the same production so rapidly. I also can’t think of another play where the eponymous hero doesn’t say a word. Godot doesn’t count because he never appears; Joe Egg (as in A Day in the Death of…) is a mute child throughout apart from when she skips onto the stage to introduce the interval. If you can think of one, please let me know!

Russell DixonAt first, I wasn’t sure I was going to enjoy it, as it presents itself as something so different from “your average play” (whatever that might be). We are introduced to the piano tuner, who goes through his usual domestic morning chores of making a cuppa and attending to his pussycat. This person is, we discover later, Mr Whatnot; a man who does everything in mime, to a range of informative sound effects. Once Mr Whatnot has settled down with his morning paper, we meet the upper class residents and guests of Craddock Grange – and it was at this point that I began to worry a little. They were all very stereotype characters (lord, lady, posh girl, wet fish boyfriend, hearty country lady) but without the stereotype set of an elaborate drawing room/country mansion – you feel that the set of The Mousetrap would be perfect for it. But as the silliness of the play kicks in, you realise that the strength of the production is in the way the audience’s imagination fills in all the gaps, and that the largely blank stage is vital to its success. By the time the lisping toffee-nosed Cecil was getting excited about the sight of “duckth” in the pond I was in seventh heaven of comic entertainment.

Antonia KinlayThe show has so many experimental aspects that really excite me in the theatre. I love the way it breaks the fourth wall; it has elements of burlesque, the plot goes completely off tangent a couple of times into ridiculous flights of fancy and then gets brought back sharply to reality (such as it is); and all this is in the context of a very simple comic story of an outsider wreaking havoc in a domestic environment. There’s not an ounce of cynicism, harshness or sadness in the plot; it’s simply an experiment in finding the comic light and wallowing in it.

Charles HuntEvery member of the cast puts in a delightful performance. Liz Crowther’s Lady Slingsby-Craddock is a marvellously comic blend of the refined and the randy, and the way she gets dragged and spun around on the floor is almost balletic! Russell Dixon as his Lordship has immaculate comic timing, and can extend a belly laugh for ages with just one resentful glance at a misbehaving family member. The scene where he merely utters a four-letter word is comic genius simply because of its terrific shock value.

Flick FerdinandoAntonia Kinlay plays Amanda, the rather sweetly thick heiress to the Slingsby-Craddock estate, and she’s superb. She really gets the 60s vibe in her appearance and trendy dancing, and is delightfully provocative to the smitten Mr Whatnot. Her awful beau, Cecil, is played by Charles Hunt and he makes a brilliant priggish spoilt brat of public school idiot.

George KeelerFlick Ferdinando (what a splendid name) is hilarious as the back-slapping tweedy lady, feverishly competitive at tennis and with no inhibitions where it comes to afternoon tea – and also as the bottom-swinging, flamenco dancing maid; and George Keeler’s performances as all the other minor characters are full of wonderful physical comic business and he invests them all with their own special individuality.

Juanma RodriguezBut Juanma Rodriguez as Mint (or Mr Whatnot) has to take the plaudits for his incredible performance. His face is so expressive and his physical comedy so inspired that you simply can’t stop watching him. You could say there is a similarity to Mr Bean – only to an extent though, because Mr Rodriguez’ performance never strays into the grotesque and is always completely believable. You also (well I did at least) really identify yourself with him, and want him to succeed in all his little subversive plans to get the girl. Technically faultless on both performances we saw, his bio in the programme suggests he normally works in Spain, but I really hope we get to see him again in the UK.

It would be a tragedy if this wonderful production were never to see the light of day again. It was a privilege to see it.