Review – Dancing at Lughnasa, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 29th May 2013

Dancing at LughnasaIn the early 1990s Mrs Chrisparkle and I found ourselves up to our eyeballs in matters too dull to repeat here but which meant that we spent about four years without going to the theatre. At all. Unimaginable! As a result of that fallow period, we never saw Dancing at Lughnasa first time round; or indeed, any Brian Friel play. So it was a good opportunity to put that right with the choice of this Olivier and Tony award winning play as part of this year’s Made In Northampton season.

Michele MoranI was expecting something gentle, lyrical, reflective and Irish. Well two out of four isn’t bad. I wouldn’t call it a gentle play by any means – its depiction of poverty, dementia and unfulfilled lives is hard hitting, albeit punched with a soft glove. Neither would I think of it as lyrical – the language of the Mundy sisters is more attuned to the mundanity of getting batteries for the radio, the drudgery of work and maintaining the household than any pretence to a romantic notion of the simple “good old days”. Reflective, however, it certainly is. The whole structure of the play is that Michael, the grown-up son of Christina, looks back on his childhood and the characters who inhabited it, to tell to a present-day audience the story of the sisters. Because he tells us how the story ends, this gives rise to a considerable sense of dramatic irony, especially in the second act. And finally, Irish; it goes without saying really, and indeed many of the accents I heard around the theatre and bar during the interval were from the Emerald Isle.

Zoe RaineyContrasting and interspersed with the drudgery and general tedium of remote village life with no money, comes the concept of dancing, a simple form of self-expression, which the sisters turn to in order to bring some light into their lives. It may be the childish dancing of Rose, the razzmatazz dancing of Maggie, or The Full Riverdance that the sisters do as a group when the infectious joy of the music from the wireless is too much to ignore. Dancing is associated with negative aspects too – Gerry, the waster boyfriend of Christina, and father of Michael, loves to dance, and not to do much else; and the ritualised dancing of the Ugandan tribe where Father Jack had gone as a missionary in part caused his downfall.

Grainne KeenanTechnically, as seems always to be the case with these Made in Northampton shows, it’s a wonderful production. Naomi Dawson’s fantastic set, which gives a huge impression of depth – Row A has been removed from the stalls for this production – has skeleton roofing, tired furniture, a black horizon and real grass. Jon Nicholls’ ethereally eerie background music gets interrupted with a jolt by the harsh sound effects of real life. Lee Curran’s lighting subtly draws your attention to the important scenes and contrasts the sunlight of the garden with the dinginess of the house. It’s all masterminded by the director Richard Beecham who has created a terrific ensemble spirit within the cast and allowed Brian Friel’s text to do the talking in a sensitive, gimmick-free staging.

Caroline LennonIf I have a criticism of the play, it would be that – basically – not a lot happens. And some of what does happen, you don’t actually see or experience, you just get told about it. But your attention is always held, and the lack of action certainly doesn’t lead to boredom. It makes you think hard about the wider relationships of the characters, for example, what happened to them in the future, and what was the Priestleyesque “dangerous corner” when something went wrong; Mrs C and I spent the rest of the evening trying to piece in the gaps of the play for ourselves – which is always a satisfying process.

Colm GormleyThere are some terrific performances. Kate, the schoolmistress head of the household, is played with great understanding and insight by Michele Moran. Kate is the authoritarian, the breadwinner, and frequently the bully; at other times she can lose her inhibitions just as much as her less responsible sisters. Michele Moran absolutely gets that mixture of kindness and harshness, and it’s a superb performance. She completely reminded me of my old headmistress. I shuddered at the thought.

Sarah CorbettZoe Rainey is splendid as Christina, downtrodden when part of the sisterly group, but blossoming when alone, beguiled by Gerry, even though she knows he’s only spinning his stories. Her gradual descent from placid to jealous is beautifully realised when she observes Gerry interacting with the other sisters, particularly the well meaning Agnes, another super performance by Grainne Keenan; there’s obviously some history there between the characters, but you have to piece it together yourself.

Christopher SaulWe both really enjoyed the performance of Caroline Lennon as Maggie, warm-hearted, cheeky, flawed, and always doing her best for the group as a whole. Her facial expressions at others’ conversations and references give you gradual clues to gather together and fill in the gaps about Maggie’s past; a subtle and beautiful performance. I also thought Colm Gormley, as the narrator Michael, did a great job of bringing us into his confidence, reminiscing about the past with warmth but not sentiment, vocally interacting with his aunts as they were playing with him, and coming to terms with aspects of his own life as a result of reliving these memories.

Milo TwomeySarah Corbett expressed Rose’s simple nature with a wide-eyed wonderment and an innocently child-like voice to boot; Christopher Saul’s Jack was a superb study of someone in the first stages of dementia, still largely able to survive independently but who needs someone else to join the dots for them, and Milo Twomey made a roguish Gerry, all charm and empty promises, although we did think that his Welsh accent occasionally went a bit Home Counties.

But it’s a very engrossing and thought-provoking play, given a loving treatment by the cast and production team. Definitely recommended.

Review – Peter and Alice, Noel Coward Theatre, 25th May 2013

Peter and AliceA bit late in the day to get round to seeing the second in the Michael Grandage season at the Noel Coward (I’m still calling it the Albery) Theatre, but travel, Eurovision and other commitments prevented our earlier attendance. Starring Dame Judi Dench and Ben Whishaw, both of whom were in Skyfall, and written by John Logan, who wrote the aforementioned film and is apparently writing the next two James Bond screenplays, one might expect an evening of espionage and gadgetry, femmes fatales and martinis. No. This is a very thoughtful and imaginative exploration of what it must be like to be the real person on whom a celebrated fictitious person is based.

Judi DenchDame Judi plays Alice Liddell Hargreaves, the 80 year old Alice of Lewis Carroll’s Wonderland, as she meets Ben Whishaw’s 35 year old Peter Llewelyn Davies, the inspiration for J M Barrie’s Peter Pan, at a Lewis Carroll exhibition in 1932. This apparently really happened. Whilst both have had their fair share of hardships and bereavements, Alice is a relatively stable character who knows that the fictitious Alice has actually been quite useful in her life; whereas Peter is tormented by his alter ego’s continual childhood happiness against the backdrop of him and his brothers being handed over by his dying father to “Uncle Jim” and his rather unorthodox guardianship. Not so much in loco parentis, more in loco mentis tortoris.

Ben WhishawPeter and Alice meet in a wholly unglamorous functional backroom at the exhibition. But once they start challenging each other on their relationships with their famous writers, the backroom is replaced with colourful abstract scenery reflecting the (allegedly) carefree days of childhood. The kindly or otherwise figures of Lewis Carroll and J M Barrie emerge in the memories of the two main characters and we see them interact and watch how the writers play very formative influences in their childhoods. Once they have come to life, they are followed by the fictitious Alice and Peter Pan who also comment on the relationships, and make a stark contrast with their older real life versions.

Nicholas FarrellWhat works so well is the development from the play being about Mr Davies and Mrs Hargreaves, and their reflections on the writers and characters, to the emergence of Peter Pan and Alice, taking over the stage, criticising their real life counterparts, revealing the sad and bad aspects of their personalities – and finally having the last words on their subjects. The real people live and die; the literary creations endure forever. The play has some interesting observations about the nature of reality and fiction, family relationships, mental stability and the fine line between care and abuse by an older friend or relative. And it’s all really beautifully written.

Derek RiddellThere is a distinctly sinister undertone throughout the play regarding the attentions of the Rev Dodgson and Uncle Jim towards their younger charges; whilst nothing is ever overtly stated or portrayed, you sense at any time something dreadful might happen to the youngsters that would merit the accusation of paedophilia. Nothing does; but it hangs in the air like a veritable sword of Damocles.

Ruby BentallRegular readers might know that I’m not a fan of the “play without an interval”; unless it is combined with another one-act play, either side of an interval. However, this is one of the cases where I can see precisely why an interval would be undesirable; there’s no obvious cliff-hanger moment halfway through that would come at an appropriate time, and the gently unsettling atmosphere that gets built up during the course of the play could get lost. At about 85 minutes it’s not so long that you desperately need the loo before it’s finished; but I do always get concerned at the revenue loss sustained by the theatre when they don’t sell drinks and ice-cream during the interval. I know, that’s not really for me to worry about.

Olly AlexanderIt’s an eloquently written play and is performed with all the skill and honesty that you would expect. I reckon 85% of the full house were there just to see Dame Judi – judging by the speed and fervour of the standing ovation when she came on for her second curtain call. They won’t have been disappointed. From the moment she appears on stage, her attention to detail, her technical ability, and her complete immersion in the character are all immaculate and astounding. When she is reunited with the Rev Dodgson (a thoroughly believable, slightly Gladstonian Nicholas Farrell), she changes instantly from old woman to little girl, and it’s a delight. She was also excellent coping with her shame when fictitious Alice, a suitably attitudinal Ruby Bentall, starts delivering a few home truths.

Stefano BraschiBen Whishaw was also compelling as the anguished Peter, with nervous mannerisms and a kicked puppy look when manipulated and subjugated by the odiously pleasant J M Barrie, played with quiet ruthlessness by Derek Riddell. It was a really thoughtful and moving performance. Also excellent was Olly Alexander as Peter Pan, encompassing all the childhood heroism of his character, expressing great excitement in contemplating his adventures, but not holding back from turning on his real life counterpart when his defences are down. The final member of the cast is Stefano Braschi who brings Peter’s tragic brother Michael to life and also does a wickedly funny silly-arse routine as Alice’s suitor Reggie. It’s a splendid production, very moving, beautifully put together and superbly well acted. You do come away from it feeling rather sad; well, we did. If it wasn’t about to close in a few days time, I’d say you should book now!

Grumpy audience update: a while ago I remarked on how often members of the audience grump at you if you need to squeeze past them to get to your seat. There was a splendid example of this at the Saturday matinee we attended. There were a few people we had to inconvenience in order to find our seats but I really didn’t appreciate it when I got told to my face “NOT AGAIN!!” by a grumpy old woman. “Can you get past if I do that”, she moaned, repositioning her leg a tiny distance from where she had previously stretched it out. “I’ll try,” I responded, a little sourly, and then made as much effort to linger and balance precariously over her lap in the process. Some people! Honestly!

Review – Micky Flanagan, The Back in the Game Tour, Derngate, Northampton, 23rd May 2013

Micky FlanaganThis was one of those shows you had to book months in advance to secure your ticket. Micky Flanagan is a big name off the telly, but I’m sure I don’t need to tell you that. But as you might know, gentle reader, Mrs Chrisparkle and I don’t tend to watch the box much and I don’t think we’ve ever really seen Mr Flanagan before. Well, it’s definitely our loss, as he’s completely brilliant on stage.

He is so natural; this does not feel like an act, just like a guy you would meet down the pub telling you about his life, his wife, his family, his job; there’s nothing remotely pretentious or surreal, all his stories are situations with which everyone can identify. And his material is absolutely first rate. Mrs C thought he was possibly the most consistently funny stand-up throughout the whole routine that she’s ever seen. For me I think only Jason Byrne gives him a run for his money.

Back in the GameThere’s no supporting act – just two and a bit hours of Mr Flanagan walking back and forward across the stage, tugging occasionally uncomfortably at the microphone lead to give him a clear path, a bit like a caged lion in the zoo, but with no sense of the stress that the caged lion might feel. He’s immensely relaxed, which puts the audience at ease too, and you never get that edgy feel – you don’t need it – that he might suddenly pick on someone. He’s much too kind for that. His routine is clearly 100% scripted; when people arrive late and leave to go to the loo he just carries on. His material follows on so naturally that reacting to the audience would only interrupt the flow. Normally I like it when a comic breaks off to talk to the audience, but in his case, he knows precisely how best to deliver his act, at his own pace.

M FlanaganDuring the course of the evening we learned the differences between a girls’ night in and a boys’ night out, the addictiveness of speaking African, and the irrepressible joy of stealing sandwiches. He explored these topics in an incredibly funny and inventive way. There’s a wonderful sequence about weddings that takes you from receiving the invitation in the post to a really embarrassing conversation with the vicar after the service. There’s a brilliant routine about having your prostate tickled – by the doctor, I should add – and some wonderful stuff about – and there’s no polite way of putting this – wondering who might or might not be up for wanking you off, and the subsequent benefits of that same kind gesture.

It’s all done with a superb lightness of touch, and whilst there’s a lot of adult material there, it never comes across as offensive, only extremely funny. He sold out last time he was here, he sold out this time. He has a few more dates in London next week then he’s back on the road in September. Absolutely not to be missed!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 17th May 2013

Dan EvansAll good things come to an end, and last Friday’s Screaming Blue Murder was the last of this season. It’s been a fantastic series of comedy nights, with I would guess record attendances and a really good range of comics taking to the stage. Our compere was Dan Evans, as usual, ever genial apart from when he puts the boot in to deserving front row spectators. Thanks Dan for coming up with some new material and also for knowing when the old stuff is what they really want!

Joe RowntreeAs has been the pattern recently, of the three comics, one was new to us and two we had seen before. Our newby this week was Joe Rowntree, an affable chap who looks like the kind you could share a happy pint with. He has a relatively quiet style which means his wicked punchline moments have a good shock value. We enjoyed his exploration of the nastier side of his wife, and the tricks she plays on him when he’s not expecting it, and I really loved his routine about Prince William wanking; yes, honestly. Excellent stuff.

Jen BristerSecond up was Jen Brister, who we enjoyed seeing here a couple of years ago. Some of her material was the same as last time – including the brilliant coming out as lesbian to her Spanish catholic mother, but there was also some new stuff about visiting friends with new babies and her interactions with men, and she also maintained an excellent rapport with the audience. Extremely funny and she got a great reception.

Josh HowieFinal act was Josh Howie, who we saw nearly two years ago and who we didn’t like at all that evening. This time round was a fascinating experience. He started off by talking to the front row which sparked off about twenty minutes of really hilarious observational comedy, about a disastrous visit to the hospital with his wife which centred on his need to be proved right and to get his own back. It absolutely tapped in to one of the least honourable aspects of most relationships and it was spot on. A vast improvement on last time! Then he realised he still had about ten minutes left to do, which he introduced by saying “and I haven’t even talked about blacks and Muslims yet”. I sighed inwardly as he reverted to the type of jokes I despised last time. He wasn’t perhaps quite so offensive this time round, but it’s such a shame that he can’t get past this really rather unpleasant material.

Nevertheless a great night. No doubt the season will start again in the autumn. I will be first in the queue!

Eurovision Semi Final Two 2013 – The Morning After

So last night we decamped to Duncansby Manor for the traditional showing of the Second Semi Final with the usual wide range of alcohol and nibblies. As on Tuesday our arduous task was to identify the ten songs that we would jointly and severally put forward to Saturday night’s final.

PeRLatvia – Had an instant appeal to Lady Duncansby and Mrs Chrisparkle, but then again they hadn’t had the “benefit” of hearing it all the way through before. Two bouncy chaps in glittery suits certainly seemed to enjoy themselves and it’s a happy sound; but the truth is that there isn’t much of a song in there. I briefly considered having my haircut like a shark’s fin too. Mrs C and Lady D were swayed to vote for them – not me.

ValentinaSan Marino – Lady D said it instantly reminded her of Apricot Stone, and how much she hates that song. I wondered why Valentina wasn’t draped in her sheet, and was also very concerned about that bit of hair that kept getting in her mouth. It’s a song of two halves, but the ladies had got too bored with it before the upbeat final fifty seconds. Only I voted for it.

EsmaFYR Macedonia – Verging on the camptastic, but rubbish at the same time. Lozano was fine, but Esma was just awful to my ears. She provoked a lot of mirth on the sofa though. At Esma’s second chorus Mrs C cried “oh no, she’s off again!” Scott Mills’ description of her as a tomato on castors was about right. No takers.

FaridAzerbaijan – Lady D looked at Farid; then she looked at the boy in the box; then back at Farid; then sighed “decisions, decisions…” It’s a very strong song, and Farid sang it really well. The boy in the box gimmick was effective when they were absolutely in time – the couple of occasions they weren’t, it jarred. When they were back to back they looked like a pair of bookends. All three of us voted it in without hesitation.

KristaFinland – A pre-show favourite of mine, I thought it lacked just a tiny bit of oomph in that performance. Still it’s a massively fun number with a quirky routine and a naughty ending. We all liked it, but it didn’t spark discussion. But we’re all members of Team Ding Dong, so we all put it through.

GianlucaMalta – It’s been a long time since I’ve seen someone look as though they were genuinely enjoying their performance as much as Dr. Gianluca. Its light, story-telling style had a big impact, and although it’s a gentle song, it went down really well with us. A very appealing performance, and best use of stage apron so far. Three yes’s.

ElitsaBulgaria – It took the dreadful performance of Macedonia to make me realise this song isn’t quite as bad as I first thought. Still, that’s not saying much. The bagpiper looked like he was strangling a pig. Mrs C would look very nice in Elitsa’s jacket. Still sounds like the record is warped. Three no’s.

EythorIceland – Lady D was rather taken by Eythor’s looks, whereas I knew he would not be Mrs C’s cuppa tea. Personally I thought he looked a little like a hamster in a wig. It’s a simple, pleasant, dare I say it slightly plodding song that doesn’t offend in any way. Not quite strong enough for me to send through but the ladies did.

Koza MostraGreece – I don’t care if this is a searing indictment of the Greek economy, the chorus is just the title being repeated ten times and it’s really rather tedious. The guys looked quite smart in their Moss Bros kilts but Agathonas looked very uncomfortable. After three minutes of it, Alcohol Is Necessary. Only Mrs C put it through.

MoranIsrael – Whilst Moran’s face says “sexy secretary” to me, her body says “bit of a bruiser” to Mrs C. It’s a strong song and she sang it well, but the three of us couldn’t stop looking at her dress. The ladies thought if she got through to Saturday’s show that perhaps they could find her something more “forgiving”. Repecharge material, and only I gave it its Saturday night slot.

DoriansArmenia – Although this is a bit of a dull song, it was very different from everything that had gone before, and its style had a good appeal at that point of the evening. Mrs C admired its variety; Lady D liked the way Gor wore his scarf. I wasn’t sure of his tremolos. Nevertheless it came across quite well, and we all voted for it.

ByeAlexHungary – A sweet song, not entirely well sung, but with a certain Magyar charm. Lady D was not only attracted to the guitarist, but she also thought ByeAlex would be the kind of guy you could talk to after sex. She must have been on the oysters. This song does successfully what Lithuania’s doesn’t (IMHO). 100% from us.

MargaretNorway – That Verfremdungseffekt of a technothrob introduction either appeals or it puts you off. Both Mrs C and Lady D were turned right off at the beginning, and Lady D stayed switched off to the end. I’ve always liked the song, but it did lose something in that live performance. Mrs C and I gave it the benefit of the doubt, but there was quite a lot of doubt.

Adrian and BledarAlbania – When the introduction started up, Lady D said “I’ve heard this before, I like it”; and then as soon as Bledar started singing she said “oh no I don’t”. Very firmly. I quite appreciate this song’s anthemic quality – I tend to like that sort of thing at euroviszh. I prefer it to the Armenian entry anyway. Again Lady D was the only nay-sayer.

Sophie and NodiGeorgia – Starts promisingly, then becomes a dull dirge. I felt sorry for the eurofans who must have been gagging on that dry ice. We watched in silence until the hilarious choreographic moment when the two of them walked towards each other – plod, plod, plod, stop. Terribly stagy. Mrs C described it as “overblown woodchip”. No score.

TakasaSwitzerland – This has long been my favourite song of this year’s contest, and Lady D’s too. Sadly on the stage it looked and sounded a bit ragged, and 95 year old Emil – to whom all kudos be given – did look as though he couldn’t really keep up. Out of fondness for the recording, we all put it through.

CezarRomania – This has long been my least favourite song of this year’s contest. It’s still awful, and the faux-naked dancers just looked ridiculous, although not as bad as Cezar dressed as Abanazar from Aladdin – the stuff of nightmares. Mrs C and Lady D stunned into speechlessness. Thumbs down from everyone.

So Lady D and I both got six right and Mrs C got seven, so she was the overall winner of the two heats. For that, her prize is to spend Saturday afternoon bedecking a bar in Birmingham with balloons and flags in preparation for our Eurovision party.

Best lines of the night – Ana Matronic on Petra Mede’s dress: suitable for “my big fat gypsy funeral” was the killer.

Have fun everyone on Eurovision night!

Eurovision Semi Final One 2013 – The Morning After

So we all met up to celebrate the annual festivity that is the first semi-final. Crisps and nuts were consumed, wines were free flowing; and we each took our responsibilities seriously as we weighed and judged each act as to its merits for being considered for promotion to the premiership of Saturday night. Don’t forget you can click on the pictures to bring them up to full screen loveliness.

NataliaAustria – The song was ok, and Mrs Chrisparkle and Lady Duncansby were both envious of Natalia’s jeans. Bit slow to start, but she warmed up a bit later on. But none of us was that impressed. No one put her through to the final.

BirgitEstonia – A confident performance, but I’ve always thought the song was dull, and see no reason to change my mind. Lady D wants to know where Birgit gets her eye-shadow. Mrs C gave her the benefit of the doubt and put her through.

HannahSlovenia – The instant upbeat sound caught all our attentions. A lively song, and Hannah shows remarkable proficiency in walking in those boots. Her outfit reminded me of Sage the owl from the Herbs having been spray-painted in graphite; and her dancers’ helmets had to be seen to be believed. We all liked it and all sent her through to Saturday.

Klapa s MoraCroatia – Mrs C hated this on CD but quite liked it on stage. It’s a very nice song and the guys sang it really well. I could quite fancy one of those sub-Napoleonic uniforms. Do they do them in H&M? Lady D doesn’t really do mizerja, so not that impressed. Two out of three.

EmmelieDenmark – I enjoyed seeing the otherwise po-faced whistle player stifle a smirk at the huge round of applause at the beginning of this performance. The song sounded as good as ever, and Mrs C appreciated the military drumming. Nice golden shower too. We all gave it the thumbs-up.

DinaRussia – I think this was the first time I’d really enjoyed hearing this song. I was impressed by its anthemic qualities that I hadn’t noticed before. Also she had a nicely swathed pink cleavage. Deadly in the criticism department as ever, Mrs C and Lady D both remarked on her “roll of fat”. Girls can be cruel. Still, we all put it through.

ZlataUkraine – I’ve always liked this song but I’m really not sure about the jolly green giant. Zlata is my favourite honey of this season, and she didn’t disappoint, but I felt the song started to ebb away a bit towards the end. You can see that she’s feeling it in the photo. More harsh words from the ladies – “look at the creases in that ill-fitting dress”. Everyone’s a critic. We all liked it though.

AnoukNetherlands – This is a song you either get, or you don’t. I never really have got it, and Mrs C and Lady D were bored to tears with it. When Anouk started yet another chorus, Mrs C was heard to exclaim “Jesus Christ Almighty”. Whilst the voters that mattered heard Anouk’s prayer, none of us did. No takers.

Who SeeMontenegro – Only at Eurovision. Its silliness coupled with its energy won us over, and Nina gave a belter of a performance. Lady D said “respect” and “check it” a couple of times. I’m not sure those spacesuits would be totally safe at -150°C. We all voted for it though.

AndriusLithuania – Andrius, the man with the manic eyebrows. “Look at the size of his hands” said Lady D, which I was sure was some coded message. Such an understated performance yet it has a certain something. I’m sure he sang “because of my shoes I’m wearing today, one is called love, the other is suede”. Lady D is having legal documentation drawn up so that she can adopt him. Mrs C and I weren’t so keen.

AlyonaBelarus – A generally camptastic experience. The song came over as lively and we all tried to sing along with it. Alyona was looking stunning, and her dancers were looking like they were enjoying themselves. Oooh get you, Belarussian boy on the left of the picture. We all put it through to the final.

AlionaMoldova – I’ve always liked this song but now I’m beginning to go off it a little, and last night’s performance didn’t really help. Whilst Lady D thought the extraordinary expanding dress was indeed a work of art, Mrs C wasn’t so keen on Aliona’s heavy breathing and the fact that they threw everything at it. Sometimes less is more. None of us had it in our top ten.

RyanIreland – Surprise of the night. It’s a good song, but Ryan absolutely nailed the performance and made it into a great song. Do you think they had to scour the continent to find two drummer/dancers with complementary tattoos, or was someone busy out back just beforehand with a stencil and a spray can? Pretty damn faultless, and my top score of the night. Nice earrings, Ryan. We all sent it sailing through.

DespinaCyprus – Despina’s a big star back home and she gave a great performance of this dull song. She looked stunning in the dress but Mrs C pointed out how out of kilter her eyebrows were – and once we’d all seen that, you couldn’t take your eyes off them. Generally ok, nothing more. Mrs C thought she would go through in the repecharge – and she did.

RobertoBelgium – Roberto still looks a bit scared on stage, but wouldn’t you be with those fierce girls there with you? Look at that photo – she’ll have that jacket off in no time. It’s a great classic pop song, that I feared wouldn’t make it to the final, but I’m really pleased it did. Lady D drawing up another set of legal documents to adopt him – he’ll have to share the spare bedroom with Andrius. We all voted him through.

Moje 3Serbia – Nothing can beat Ana Matronic’s comment that they look like Destiny’s Child as dressed by Hello Kitty. Totally weird presentation – don’t know if it was meant to be sexy but it certainly didn’t work for me. The song was as tedious as ever, and none of us voted for it. Looking at that picture, do you think the girls will come to regret this in later life?

So that means that I (the Eurovision fan) got six of the ten right and the ladies (Eurovision hangers-on) got seven. There’s no justice. Back for another post-mortem on Friday.

Review – Birdsong, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 13th May 2013

BirdsongMrs Chrisparkle and I were probably amongst the last people on earth not to know what Birdsong is all about. We’ve not read the book; we didn’t see the TV adaptation; and we missed the play the first time around. My expectations were that it would be a World War One love story – all trenches and silk postcards, and probably with a very sad ending. Whilst there are some similarities, that doesn’t really capture it. Stephen Wraysford is a young lieutenant on the Somme – a fish out of water and with unresolved heartache concerning Isabelle, a married woman with whom he fell in love six years earlier. By use of flashbacks, you see how the relationship with Isabelle came about, and that developing story is contrasted with the here and now horror of the First World War.

Jonathan SmithI understand that the book has a complex time structure and so to adapt that to the stage is a challenge. Personally, I didn’t think it worked that well as a play. The first act in particular has so many backward and forward flip-flops in it, that you never stay in one place and one time long enough fully to digest the characters and build a dramatic tension. I confess I actually found the structure of the first act positively irritating. It was almost like it was trying deliberately to be clever, but at the sacrifice of the story and drama. It was very disjointed, and every time the story line got going, you’d flash back, or forward, and lose the momentum.

Tim TreloarThe first act is also way too long. Mrs C checked my watch after three-quarters of an hour – a sure sign that she was bored – but the interval curtain didn’t fall until another three-quarters of an hour had passed. The lady to my right, who hadn’t bought a programme, thought it was a one – act play and was about to go home when she twigged that people had left their coats behind just to go to the bar. Before the second act, she told me that it was only through discussions with her companions that she now had the remotest clue as to what was going on. Why had the daughter turned into a prostitute? Why had the father become a captain in the army? I showed her the programme note that says the play takes place on the Western Front, 1916-18, but also moves back to 1910, Amiens, as Stephen delves into his past. I also showed her that many of the cast double- or indeed triple-up their roles, so that if you’re not on the ball, you might get confused. “Ohhhh, that explains it” she sighed. She seemed to me to be perfectly intelligent, so I deduce that the play – or production – doesn’t communicate its message fully. Credit where it’s due though; the second act is hugely better. There are far fewer time changes, and those there are flow much more naturally. There was enough opportunity to really appreciate the characters and understand some of their fears and motives – and the acting generally improved too. Mrs C felt – and I tend to agree – that quite a lot of the acting in the first act veered towards the mahogany.

Liam McCormickVictoria Spearing’s set is amazing; in such a tiny space as the diminutive Royal stage, it recreates the trenches, bars, tunnels, drawing rooms, bedrooms, hospitals, and so on. The set is also subservient to the action; it never upstages it by clever trickery, it’s just there fulfilling its proper purpose. Similarly Alex Wardle’s lighting design effortlessly moves from summer sunshine to claustrophobic tunnel and the use of silhouettes and offstage mines and bombs is very effective.

Malcolm JamesAbsolutely central to the play is the character of Stephen, played by Jonathan Smith. He’s a mixed up character – rather selfish in some respects, generous and heroic in others; passionate in love; tormented by the past. Whilst Mr Smith really has the noble bearing that looks perfect for the role, I have to confess I didn’t really believe in the character all the time. I think the structure of the play, with all the time changes, really did not work in his favour. Neither Mrs C or I were convinced by his protestations of love for Isabelle – we didn’t get a genuine feeling of romance or passion; when they finally fall into each other’s arms and they indulge in the briefest of rather bizarre foreplay, I just felt he was going through the motions. It’s still a good performance, don’t get me wrong – I just thought he could have been a little bit angrier, a little bit more passionate; with deference to Dorothy Parker, he ran the gamut B to Y.

Sarah Jane DunnHowever, as Jack, Tim Treloar put in a superb performance. Full of honesty, clarity and insight, his controlled agony of missing his wife and son was extremely moving, and his support for his senior officer totally believable. There was a terrific dramatic intensity in his scene with Arthur, played equally well by Liam McCormick, when Arthur demands that Jack draws a picture of him. Now that was drama. When Jack cries out “he was my best friend”, that for me was the goosebump moment of the night. Other good performances came from Malcolm James, especially in his role as Captain Gray, Sarah Jane Dunn as Isabelle and Charlie G Hawkins as the terrified young Tipper.

Charlie G HawkinsI don’t like being negative about a production, and there are many good aspects about this show, but in the final analysis, it didn’t really do that much for me. Too much time flipping, too little sustained dramatic tension. My guess is that it simply works better as a book. I’ve read some other reviews of this production and I realise I am in the minority, most people seem to love it – so don’t trust me, see it for yourself, it’s touring until August!

Review – Starlight Express, Milton Keynes Theatre, 4th May 2013

Starlight Express 1986Back in 1986 Mrs Chrisparkle and I embarked upon a whirlwind assault on all the London major musicals. In the space of a few months we saw Chess, Cats, La Cage aux Folles, Les Miserables, Phantom of the Opera (third night, no less), and Starlight Express. The young Mrs C (Miss D as she was) wasn’t entirely convinced at the time of the credibility of choo-choo trains racing, falling in love, and praying to the choo-choo God, the eponymous Starlight Express. I, still being a relatively callow youth myself at the time, thought it was all rather exciting, magical and enchanting, and loved every minute of it.

Starlight Express 201327 years on – to the day, would you believe, we first saw it on 4th May 1986 – and we found ourselves at the Saturday matinee of Starlight Express all over again. Does it still have the power to excite and enchant? Absolutely! There’s certainly been a lot of changes. No Belle; Rocky I, II and III are now the Hip Hoppers; Pearl’s “He Whistled At Me”, originally sung after she’s been smitten by Greaseball, now comes earlier in the show as “He’ll Whistle At Me” when she’s still fantasising about the engine of her dreams; the outdated Ashley (we don’t smoke anymore) has become the much more acceptable Duvay (we do still sleep, however); and other songs have been cut, and other characters renamed. Kristofer HardingOf course, the major difference is that at the Apollo Victoria the race circuit cut right through the auditorium on an apron, whereas on this tour, the live races are replaced by filmed versions for which you have to don 3D “safety goggles”. It’s a clever way of getting round that difficult staging issue, and to be fair the filmed races are quite exciting and inventive; nevertheless I couldn’t help feel a slight sense of being cheated of live action – this is a stage production after all.

Mykal RandPrimarily, though, this show is a visual and audio feast. Banks of strong, brightly coloured lights dart their lurid beams here and there across the stage and into the auditorium; special effects include noisy sudden thrusts of steam parping their way around the footlights, that made Mrs C jump out of her skin at first; Jamie Capewellsuperbly ornate and detailed costumes reflect each individual train’s character; and a cracking backstage orchestra give their all to make every chord zing. The whole presentation of the show is guaranteed to knock you out with vitality and stimulation, and if you are of Mrs C’s persuasion that, deep down, there’s not a lot of substance here, well who cares? It’s purely for sheer, here and now, in the moment, entertainment.

Stuart ArmfieldThe cast are all expert on wheels and take their roles with gusto and panache. Kristofer Harding plays Rusty, our hero, the little steam engine with a big heart of gold, who is desperate to impress the glamorous Pearl, but what hope does a shabby steam engine have against a macho diesel or a slick electric train? Ah, but it’s what’s on the inside that counts; otherwise there’d be no show.Amanda Coutts Mr Harding has a terrific voice with a clarity and purity that perfectly fits the character. When he is finally blessed with his vision of Starlight Express before the interval, his rendition of that song is one long heart-tug, so that even the “trains can’t have feelings” stance of Mrs C would be banished in a flourish of Kleenex. A great performance!

Ruthie StephensAnd what of Rusty’s rivals? I really enjoyed the performance of Mykal Rand as Electra, full of neon glamour and with plenty of the AC/DC about him, as his title song suggests; a great singer and dancer, he hits just the right level of camp and brings out all the humour of the role. Jamie Capewell’s diesel Greaseball is high on vanity and attitude and he gave a very slick performance Lothair Eatonbut I felt he could have been just a tad greasier and nastier; although Mrs C doesn’t agree, she thought he got it just right. Electra and Greaseball’s “One Rock and Roll Too Many”, together with Stuart Armfield’s nicely evil Red Caboose, was very funny and completely believable – you felt that after the exhaustion of that final race they would never again be the trains they once were.

Robert NursePearl was played by Amanda Coutts with appropriately sexy charm and I’m not surprised that young Rusty’s head was turned. She’s got a belter of a voice too. I also really liked Ruthie Stephens’ Dinah, a country and western carriage who suffered every interaction with Greaseball as if she were Tammy Wynette, beautifully encapsulated in the very funny “Uncoupled” song. Lothair Eaton’s Poppa has a great voice and presence and Lex Milczarekleads the whole cast in a very rousing performance of Life at the End of the Tunnel as a finale. And there were superb vocal and dancing performances from the three Hip Hopper trains, Robert Nurse, Lex Milczarek and Ben Harrold, who really livened up the stage whenever they were on and whose “Right Place Right Time” number absolutely hit the spot – funny and exciting choreography from the one and only Arlene Phillips.

Ben HarroldA totally sold out Milton Keynes Theatre gave it a rapturous reception. Sadly that was the last scheduled day of this tour, but I doubt it will be absent from our stages for long. This production certainly keeps the old show alive and you leave the theatre high on exhilaration!

Italy – Palermo and Rome

Palermo flowersIf you cast your mind back to February, gentle reader, I was telling you all about a Mediterranean cruise that Mrs Chrisparkle, I, and several relatives embarked on just before Christmas. Since then, we’ve been to India, to South East Asia, we’ve seen lots of shows, and been generally very busy; and those two last days on our cruise have been ignored. So I’m about to put that right!

Politeama Garibaldi theatreWhen the ship docks at Palermo, you’ve got a wide range of tours you can do round the island of Sicily, but we prefer just to get off and walk around. Although it was December, it was a beautiful sunny day; and maybe the sun just got in our eyes a bit too much because within fifteen minutes of walking around we were completely lost. My map was a bit rubbish, not to scale and it didn’t show where we started from, and I quickly concluded that we weren’t anywhere near where I thought we were. So it was by pure chance that we stumbled across the Politeama Garibaldi theatre,Colourful bikes home of the Orchestra Sinfonica Siciliana, built in 1874, and looking extraordinarily like a mini Albert Hall. It faces a rather grand square, which features a statue of Ruggiero Settimo, Sicilian patriot and fighter for independence. The area has a jolly feel to it – tourists and shoppers mingling with local families and workers on their lunch break. What also impressed me was a display of civic art that you could use to keep fit – a row of static bicycles in multi colours, all mounted on a bright platform. Anyone who gets on and does a bit of pedalling becomes part of the installation, so in a sense it’s a constantly changing display. Clever, that.

RoarWe walked on, and eventually (after having gone in the wrong direction, again) found ourselves being growled at by a lion (not a real one) outside the Teatro Massimo Victor Emanuele, Italy’s largest opera house. We didn’t go in, but admired its grandeur and superbly stocked gardens. You get an excellent sense of space here – not only because the building is so imposing, but the road outside is wide and not too busy, and you feel as though commerce has given way to art. It’s nice when that happens.

Concave crossroadsFurther on, and into a market area, just off the via Maqueda, full of the usual kind of stalls full of tat, but set alongside shops that are clearly top fashion – which makes for an interesting mix. Onwards to the junction with the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, one of my favourite spots in Palermo; a simple crossroads but the buildings on all four quarters have a concave shape to give the impression of a circle. From here you can enter the Church of San Giuseppe dei Teatini, with its Church of San Giuseppe dei Teatinistunning baroque ceiling, gorgeous dome and intricate statuary. Always a nice place for a fifteen minute rest and re-grouping.

From there it’s a short walk to the Vucciria district. This is a none-too-pretty, hard-working, historical market area, with some narrow warrens reminiscent of the souk. Shops overspill into the street and fight for space with pedestrians and motorbikes, awnings and scaffolding. Here you feel that you’re in the heart of the city, and that the opera houses, theatres and churches are the mere decorations on top. As you wend your way past fruiterers and fishmongers, the smells (not always pleasant) take over from the sights,Vucciria and the alleyways get narrower so that the light gets blocked out. Eventually the column outside the church of San Domenico comes into view like the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel and you re-emerge into the modern day.

Mafia monumentHeading back to the port, we took a route that led us past some modern architecture, and, imposing as it was, it looked really out of place. On closer inspection this tall edifice bore the inscription “”ai caduti nello lotta contra la mafia” and is a 1983 monument dedicated to those who have lost their lives in the fight against the Mafia. Quite a stark image before you leave Palermo for your onward journey.

St Peter'sFrom the sun of Palermo, the next day saw the rain of Rome. Isn’t always the way? Every time we come to Rome it rains. It’s as predictable as… well, the weather really. Virtually every umbrella we own was bought somewhere between St Peter’s (where the coach from Civitavecchia drops you off) and the Piazza Navona. We splashed our way across the piazza and considered joining the queue to go into the Basilica – as we haven’t been in for some time – but then saw how long it was and realised it would be the only thing we would have time for. So we pushed onwards, on our usual round trip of favourite Roman sights.

refreshment vansThose ubiquitous refreshment vans that you see everywhere in Rome look so drab in the rain. The promise of Bibite and Gelati looks woefully inadequate when what you really want is Bovril and broth. Over the Tiber we went, looking particularly gruesome in wet winter weather – the water is the same colour as a light green Morris Marina. When everyone else is wielding brollies you realise how narrow some of the pavements in Rome are, particularly when you are the only keen tourist wanting to make their way to the sights and not dawdling and taking photos of pigeons like everyone else.

Chiesa NuovaOn the Corso Vittorio Emanuele, we nipped into the Chiesa Nuova, just in time to take a quick photo before the caretaker evicted us all for lunch. I always like to go in there to see its amazing ceiling and gold decorations – in any other city it would be revered beyond all measure, but in Rome it’s Just Another Church. We diverted off the back using the via del Corallo to take a look at the Santa Maria della Pace, and then dropped down into the top bit of the Piazza Navona.Piazza Navona I’ve been here many times before – the first time was when I was 18 and there is a very embarrassing photo of me eating spaghetti al fresco, with it going everywhere. The prevalence of messy tomato sauce is not quite as embarrassing as the Rubettes style cap I was wearing at the time. Fashion is so cruel.

We’ve never been to Italy in December before and so I was surprised, but very delighted, to see that the Piazza Navona turns into one big Christmas market. It makes for a very lively clash of culture, with Giacomo della Porta’s fountains dominating rows of Santa hats and glass baubles. Continuing our normal route we crossed a few roads until we ended up at the Pantheon.Pantheon Another of our regular must-see sights when in Rome. From the outside it’s majestic; from the inside it takes your breath away. Designed by Hadrian almost 2000 years ago, the height and diameter of the rotunda are both 142 feet and the only light is provided by the oculus hole at the top. The construction was an extraordinary feat, and to think that it survives today as well as it does is beyond words. Pantheon oculusHome to the tombs of, inter alia, Victor Emanuel, Umberto I and Raphael, it’s a building that keeps pace with modern life, and I think it’s a stunner.

From the Pantheon, it’s another short walk along the via di Pietra onto the via delle Muratte – a good place to buy books and calendars, and also home to an apartment where Mrs Chrisparkle and I spent a lovely week about ten years ago, so we always think of it as being “Our Residence in Rome” – and just follow the crowds to the Trevi Fountain. We could see the Trevi from our flat – Treviand I can confirm, it never sleeps. Crowds are there morning, noon and night; and even in the darkest hour, when few tourists lurk, the city cleaners are out there maintaining it – noisily. Nicola Salvi’s dramatic horses are on a permanent mission to clamber over those splashy rocks whilst Tritons attempt to hold them back. I always find this such an exhilarating place – it’s a combination of the crowds, the noise, the water and the sculpture that I find hard to beat. You just have to gaze at it all for a quarter of an hour and lose yourself. Magic!

Victor Emmanuel MonumentFrom the Trevi, you’ve basically got two choices. Do you head north and find the Spanish Steps? Or do you head south for the Colosseum and Forum? As we were accompanied by our nieces Secret Agent Code November and Special Agent Code Sierra, plus their male parent D and female parent M, none of whom had been to Rome before, they were desperate to see the Colosseum. That was the decider. The route takes you down the via del Corso and its fashionable shops and its fashionable shoppers, and past the Victor Emmanuel Monument, which I always like to see; that controversial structure has been likened to both a wedding cake and an old fashioned typewriter, but its main source of controversy was that it blocked out the view of the Forum from the centre of town.

ColosseumAs we walked on, we looked over into the Forum area and thought it looked deserted. Odd, I thought, we’ll check it out on the way back. Down at the Colosseum, as it was Christmas, they had an attractive Christmas tree outside. It looked relatively appropriate in the December drizzle, but gave an additional air of bizarreness to the guys dressed as gladiators. No matter how many times you see it, the Colosseum is a wonderful sight. It looms so large at the end of the road,Arch of Constantine and its circular shape puts you in mind of a Roman gasometer; and then as your eyes follow it round you get the harsh reality of where its ancient beauty just stops and the wall falls away at 30 degrees from the top. It’s such a dramatic structure. The queue to get in was almost as long as that at St. Peter’s so we decided just to wander around it and drink in the atmosphere. Nearby is the stunning Arch of Constantine, which looks like (and of course is) an ancient monument but it’s actually 200 years younger than the Pantheon.

ForumWe thought we’d return back through the Forum, which is when I discovered why it was empty. They were charging to get in! I’ve never been charged to get in before. I think they now only have one free day a week or so. It’s a real shame, because, like nipping into a gallery for fifteen minutes to do one room really well, it was always nice to dip in for a short while and be at one with history. Now you have to plan your visit and give yourself enough time to do the whole thing, or else it isn’t worth the entrance fee. And we didn’t have enough time to do the whole thing. So we didn’t go in at all.

Castel Sant' AngeloJust going to give a mention to our other favourite Rome sight, even though it’s one that we didn’t fit in on that day, and that’s the church of San Clemente, at the via di San Giovanni in Laterano. What’s incredible about it is that it consists of three churches in one, each built on top of each other, over centuries of use. In the basement is a pagan church from the 4th century; at street level there is a 12th century church and on top is a 17th century extension dedicated to St Clement. You feel as though, just by travelling a few feet, and going up a few stairs, you pass through eras. A memorable sight.

A Roman ChristmasAnd that concluded our two days in Italy. We returned to St Peter’s using the subway system, and it worked like a dream. A slow coach ride back to Civitavecchia, but by taking the “official” unescorted tour, you know the ship will wait for you if you are delayed. There’s nothing quite like a cheeky Mediterranean cruise to excite the sightseeing buds and the MSC Splendida is a very beautiful ship indeed. Hopefully we’ll be back soon!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, 3rd May 2013

Screaming Blue MurderContinuing the success of the rest of the season, last Friday’s Screaming Blue Murder had yet again a full house to watch yet again three top acts who yet again we had seen before, but yet again it didn’t matter as they were on terrific form – yet again.

Dan EvansOur compere was Dan Evans, lively and engaging as ever, and coping effortlessly well with what turned out to be a front two rows teeming with police. I think he shocked himself with the directness of one jibe to a lady in the front row – which she seemed perfectly happy with – so that he spent the rest of the evening apologising to her. That in itself was extremely entertaining!

Luke ToulsonOur first act was Luke Toulson, who we enjoyed very much a couple of years ago. I think a lot of his material was the same but he delivers it with such confident amiability that virtually every line is a winner. Looking back on the evening, all the best lines and comedy sequences belonged to him – playing at shops in a rather cynical way with his daughter; how the birth of UKIP might have taken place; taking hide and seek a little too seriously and discussions with other parents at the school gates; these had everyone uncontrollable with mirth. He could have carried on the whole night.

Sally Anne HaywardSecond was Sally Anne Hayward, who we saw about three years ago; again a very funny act with sometimes toe-clenchingly awkward material about desperate sex and self-image issues, delivered at a perfect pace. There’s something about her self-deprecating persona that really helps you identify yourself with her. Great stuff.

Noel JamesLastly we had Noel James, who also appeared the last time Sally Anne Hayward appeared… coincidence, I wonder? Noel James is laugh out loud funny from start to finish, his speciality being a penchant for the pun, which I guess sometimes might not work but here he went down a storm. Delightfully silly without being unbelievable, impeccable comic timing and hugely confident.

Just one more show in this season, which has got to have been the most successful run of comedy nights here in the four years we’ve been attending. Don’t miss it!