Back in that dizzy summer of 1986 when the young Miss Duncansby and I set about seeing everything in London worth seeing, the Andrew Lloyd Webber/T S Eliot combo of Cats was hot on the list. “The longer you wait, the longer you’ll wait” was the smug advertising strapline, as it had been around for five years and you still had to book a good four months in advance to get decent seats. So we committed, and went, and our memories are that we really enjoyed it.
Fast forward 27 years to the Milton Keynes Theatre and this current touring production; a Saturday matinee with barely a seat available. When you enter the theatre you realise the set is amazing: the grim detritus of everyday life stuck together to make platforms, rooms, doorways and so on; scraps and rubbish overspill into the seating area; lights suspend all around the auditorium. It’s quite something. When the orchestra starts, hundreds of cats’ eyes blink at you in the dark creating true theatrical magic. At the end of the show, when Old Deuteronomy and Grizabella ascend to the heavens, the stagecraft of their spaceship-like journey is stunning. The music is played strongly and vibrantly; that very recognisable Cats overture that always reminds me of TV sports themes sets you up and gets you ready for a really enjoyable show. Performers start emerging from the darkness, dressed in extraordinary cat costumes and make up, emulating precisely that delicate, wily, determined, languid behaviour of your average domestic moggy, and reminding me of why I’m more of a dog person. They’re great dancers and singers and the whole Prologue sequence is fantastic.
And then something rather strange happens – and I guess this may be controversial. You get presented with a parade of different cats, with musical numbers and dance routines to portray their different characters, but there’s hardly any link between them. Dramatic intensity ebbs away; a sense of aimlessness takes its place. There’s absolutely no connecting narrative between any of the scenes, apart from the occasional sighting of Grizabella slinking on stage, getting attacked by other cats, then slinking back off. You don’t get any sense of progression or plot development. It ends up feeling like a rather sterile episodic contemporary dance where you don’t quite get how the current piece relates to the one before or the one after. Much to our surprise, and disappointment, we both found it a really boring show.
The T S Eliotishness of it all is strangely disturbing too. I love a good bit of Eliot as much as the next man, but I don’t think this works for the stage. Old Possum’s Practical Cats are more or less what you would expect from someone grappling with constructing the Four Quartets on one hand and then writing something for his godchildren on the other. It’s non-contemporary – Bustopher Jones in white spats for goodness sake? It’s pretentious – Jellicle cats and Pollicle dogs? Sadly, it’s also amazingly tedious at times – the whole Gus the Theatre Cat and his Growltiger the pirate sequence had me numb with disbelief. Mrs Chrisparkle gave up and decided that sleep was a more constructive way to spend the afternoon from the Bustopher Jones number to the interval, and then nodded off again early in the second half but fortunately woke up for one of the better scenes, Mr Mistoffelees. I tried hard to stay awake throughout and largely managed it.
It’s a shame because the cast put their heart and soul into this show and give really good performances. There are at least two star turns. Joanna Ampil as Grizabella doesn’t have to do much but what she does is superb, and her two “Memory” sequences are outstanding. I could tell Joseph Poulton was a great dancer in his role as Quaxo but when he becomes Mr Mistoffelees he’s in another sphere – breathtakingly good. Other excellent performances came from Ross Finnie as Skimbleshanks, the railway cat, breathing life and humour into an otherwise rather tedious character; Melissa James, rather fabulously sexy throughout as Bombalurina; and Oliver Savile was good as the Rum Tum Tugger, even if his make up gave him a slightly off-putting resemblance to the Bruce Forsyth of the 1960s – but then he’s definitely In Charge.
So despite all those extraordinarily good elements I fear this is not the sum of its parts. I’m prepared to accept I’m in the minority as it went down very well with the audience and is, in any case, one of the most successful musicals of all time – so what do I know? It’s touring till January – go see it for yourself.
This was one of those comedy gigs where you had to be on the ball to buy the tickets as soon as they went on sale. We’d seen Jason Manford on TV before, mainly in “Show Me The Funny”, a failure of a series in that it wasn’t funny enough, but strangely compelling nevertheless. You saw these hopeful comics trying to break into the big time, only to be criticised savagely by the judges as one by one they were kicked out in the best Reality TV style. Many of the comics were actually very good, and Jason Manford acted as both host and “older brother” to the contestants, trying to be constructive with their acts and cushioning the flak when the comments got tough.
And that was very much Jason Manford that appeared on stage in First World Problems – decent, kind, supportive. It goes without saying that he is very funny; but he’s also very relaxed; you sense he’s very honest – you don’t feel he is putting on an act in any way, but that this is the real him; he’s strangely comforting, like an evening of comedy massage which you can just let wash all over you, so that you feel better for it, and will come out of the theatre refreshed. However there was nothing remotely challenging about his routine; there was never that edgy moment when you were laughing at something which you knew you shouldn’t; there was nothing dangerous, where you felt like he was propelling by the seat of his pants and we would land up in experimental country. It was safe. Even if the subject material was a little dicey from time to time, it still felt extremely safe. Later on, Mrs Chrisparkle and I realised that we found it hard to remember very much of his material. That’s not to say it wasn’t enjoyable because it definitely was – but just not particularly memorable.
The act starts quietly with him strolling onto the stage with neither exciting build-up, nor pizzazzy music lighting; he’s just a bloke wandering up to the microphone stand to spend an evening with you. He opens with a great joke, when a guy in an interview is asked, what’s the worst thing about you; shan’t give you the punch line but it was a good crowd-pleaser. The rest of the first half is spent in entertaining chit-chat, good interaction with the audience, nothing too structured (as it seemed to me) – in fact Mrs C and I were reminded of when we saw Shappi Khorsandi, when her pre-interval stint was completely structureless, free-flowing, and totally devoid of real material, although, nevertheless, still entertaining. Mr M has more structure and more material than Miss K, but maybe not a lot more.
The First World Problems, a much loved twitter hashtag, that he refers to are those little things that go wrong that annoy the hell out of you at the time but are of trifling insignificance in reality. His prime example is a jolly good one, and one that sends you into the interval grimacing in sympathy. But during the break he asks the audience to come up with their own which we then discuss at the beginning of the second half. This was a very entertaining sequence, but I did wonder if he was simply getting the audience to write his material for him; no matter, his reactions to it worked well. Amongst the first world problems of the people of Northampton were the moment when you realise that you have run out of toilet roll and are not wearing socks either (try not to think too hard about that one); and that moment when you ruin a superb bacon butty by, instead of dolloping on some yummy tomato ketchup, what dribbles out of the sauce dispenser is reminiscent of precum. I do apologise if you were eating your dinner just now. Rest assured, the stomachs of 1200 people in the Derngate on Friday night all went vociferously queasy at that point.
Lots of good natured heckles got bandied about, which resulted in Mr M combining his Peppa Pig material with his amateur operatic skills to create Peppa Pig The Opera, which we all promised not to mention, but you can’t trust us Northampton audience. In fact, the moments when the deference between audience and performer broke down and he gave back as good as he got were among the funniest. He’s an amazingly successful live comic and his shows do book out well in advance, and he’s definitely worth catching. Great for a relaxing night’s comedy!
I remember when it was first mooted that the Royal and Derngate would give birth to a little arts cinema on its side patch of grass. We thought it sounded a very exciting prospect; at the same time we were a little sad that we thought it meant sacrificing a piece of green in the centre of town. X months later, and the Errol Flynn Filmhouse opened on 21st June and I’m delighted to say it’s thoroughly amazing. Particularly on a rare summery evening like yesterday, when the path to the cinema is graced with tables and chairs, with cinemagoers enjoying a refreshing glass of wine or a sensible coffee before the screening. And there was no need to worry about the loss of open space – the area outside has been landscaped beautifully and looks much greener than it did before.
The cinema itself was constructed as its own separate pod, sited at a slightly jaunty angle to the side of the theatre, but with a separate entrance to the box office and bar, and an integrated door to access the main building for other facilities. There are new happy welcoming staff, a range of different and rather classy eats and drinks, with the ability to take elegant wine glasses (made of glass – gosh!) and bottles even (incredible gosh!) into the cinema, which you can place on the nifty little tables that separate the seats. Ah yes, the seats!! They are of sumptuous black leather, they recline (useful for nodding off during a boring film no doubt), the seat numbers are discreetly obvious, if that isn’t an oxymoron, and they are fabulously comfortable. The auditorium is stylish, with a crystal clear unobstructed view of the screen and top quality sound. On the way home Mrs Chrisparkle said it was simply the best cinema she’s ever visited. I predict a rekindling of my interest in the art of film as a result of this terrific new venue for Northampton.
So our first choice of film at this cinema was Behind the Candelabra, the story of the relationship between Liberace and Scott Thorson, based on Thorson’s book of the same name. I had presumed this would be something of a “kiss and tell” account, which I would normally think was a somewhat scurrilous and unworthy practice. However, if Liberace did actually treat Scott Thorson in the way that the film depicts, then I’d say he was entirely justified in spilling the beans. The film cleverly shows how the 17 year old Thorson was one of a line of younger men that Liberace met, fancied, bedded, and kept as a luxury captive for a while; then got bored of and moved on when the next suitable young studlet came into sight.
It’s a really interesting, enjoyable and engrossing film, with a well-written and witty screenplay, bringing a lot of subtle and not so subtle humour to the first part of the story and making you very sympathetic to Thorson’s rather sad plight in the second half. Swayed by Liberace’s style and showmanship, and flattered by his attention, he quickly loses his independence and even his identity as he gets wrapped up in the star’s world. One aspect of this was Scott’s undergoing facial surgery at Liberace’s insistence so that he looked more like him; you can only imagine how much of a mental torture that would become when the relationship started to go sour. Following the surgery he ended up on a disastrous cocktail of drugs, from which, by the sound of it, he has never really recovered.
It’s a great cast and they work together brilliantly. Michael Douglas is an unnervingly realistic Liberace, brash and charismatic at his glittery piano, creepily predatory in his private relationships, pathetic and broken in his final days. Matt Damon is also superb as Scott, moving convincingly through a ten year timeline as he develops from young animal trainer to kept plaything, then as a discarded drug addict and finally undertaking a calm reconciliation with Liberace at the end of the star’s life. Dan Aykroyd plays Liberace’s agent Seymour with no-nonsense bullish determination, and there is a fantastically funny performance by Rob Lowe as the plastic surgery guru Dr Startz. Other excellent support is provided by Debbie Reynolds as Liberace’s mother, a dab hand on the poker machines, and Bruce Ramsay as Liberace’s bitchy houseboy Carlucci. Liberace’s music is given a new lease of life by the late Marvin Hamlisch, who arranged the score in what would be his final film.
Steven Soderbergh, the director, had difficulty raising the funding for this film as many studios said it was “too gay”, whatever that means. Congratulations to the Errol Flynn Filmhouse for showing the film anyway – when Lady Duncansby enquired at the local Vue if they would be showing it, they said no because they considered it “unsuitable for Northampton”. Yes, the main characters in the film are gay but the issues of relationships, dependence, manipulation, loyalty, charisma, and so on are universal themes that have applied to everyone regardless of sexuality over the centuries. The film has had a very successful run here, and I believe they are bringing it back for at least one extra date. Very enjoyable and definitely worth seeing!
All week so far we had been transported around the city in style. From the elaborate limousine provided by the Oberoi to transfer us from the airport, to the luxury cars provided by our guide Amish for our general sightseeing, we had travelled in air-conditioned comfort. But for today he thought we ought to try an alternative, so we went back to Crawford Market by taxi. A Mumbai taxi isn’t quite like a British one. It was small, bumpy, had a lurid mock leopard-skin fabric tacked on to the roof, and a gaping hole just to the left side of the clutch pedal. It also had quite the friendliest taxi-driver you could ever hope to meet.
He dropped us off outside Crawford Market, which we had visited two days earlier, but it has so many nooks and crannies that it was well worth a revisit. It was the first real opportunity we’d had to appreciate its structure from the outside. Its windows and archways are decorated with alternating red and white bricks in a very Moorish style – you could be in Cordoba. We went in, to discover we were in the fruits district. Rows and rows of highly polished colourful apples gleamed in their boxes, piles of grapes overflowed their bowls, the pineapples, mangoes and oranges all looked highly delectable. Stacked above them, massive baskets lined with the brightest colour foil paper making outstanding diamond shaped designs – presumably to display future produce.
In the outside area too, the fruit market continues. Under tattered tarpaulins, traders spend the day stacking, chatting, displaying, and putting the world to rights while the good citizens of Mumbai carefully select the prize items. It’s fascinating to see all the different people here going about their business – an incredible hub of activity. The paths can be quite narrow, so the porters have perfected the ability of carrying a basket with one hand over their head, so as to squeeze through with a full load. Others simply stack baskets on their head. Alongside the fruit, the other popular items for sale in this area are caged birds. In some locations they are for sale so that you can release them for good karma. I’m not quite so sure here – some of them are rather exotic looking creatures, and they also sell birdcages too. Still, no doubt if you are wealthy, you can release an expensive bird for a much classier kind of karma.
The last time Mrs Chrisparkle and I went to India, in 2006, we visited a shop in Agra and bought a few reasonably priced, reasonably smart clothes that still survive in our wardrobes today. We had mentioned to Amish that we wanted to go to a decent shop for a little clothes-hunting, and he suggested Dia. Great choice! We spent the best part of an hour trying on shirts and trousers, checking out belts and bags, and looking at costume jewellery, all of it very good quality at sensible prices. Mrs C took to the process like a woman possessed. She was in and out of the changing room appearing in different colour trousers each time, asking our opinions of each colour and style. After a while something happened, and Amish and I just started to laugh. I can’t quite remember why, but we ended up giggling like schoolgirls. As Mrs C was failing to attract our attention for the next couture critique, the lady trying to assist simply said to her “let them play” and so she carried on the important task of fashion consultant. Well, there’s only so much clothes shopping a guy can take, after all. But we bought wisely in that shop – and we’re still very pleased with our purchases.
Back out on to the streets, and they really were thronging. Pedestrians, taxis, motorbikes, cars, carts and buses all compete for enough space to carry out their business. You need to be aware of your surroundings at times to be safe, as any kind of vehicle can suddenly sneak up on you from any angle without your realising! Street sellers wander around offering you bags, sunglasses, watches; there was one very friendly lady from whom we had bought a couple of bags two days earlier, who we subsequently kept on bumping into. Every time we crossed a road in Mumbai, she seemed to be there! She was happy to pose for a photograph. There was another seller offering “Genuine Ray-Bans”; extraordinarily good value for Genuine Ray-Bans, I must say. I guess there’s no rent to pay when you’re just wandering around with the goods. We couldn’t resist the bargain; and for the rest of the day Amish and I roamed around looking like a transcontinental version of the Blues Brothers.
Into another market now, this time the Clothes Bazaar at Mangaldas Market. Not only clothes, but all fabrics – sheets, towels, tablecloths, and more. There’s a huge range of products and I’m sure you could spend hours delving through what’s on offer; but we sensed that it was the kind of place that if you stopped and looked interested you would be pounced upon. In comparison to the bright hustle and bustle of Crawford Market it felt quite dark and oppressive, and I think we preferred our clothes shopping experience that we enjoyed earlier.
Outside it was a good opportunity to observe two different forms of street refreshment. One was a fruit stall – where the brightest red watermelons were cut into triangles and stacked to form a little melon mountain on a plate, and it looked so refreshing in the Mumbai heat. The man running it also had golden pineapples and orange coloured mangoes – a really healthy snack option. Almost next door to him was one of these strange contraptions, the mobile sugar cane juice stall. On demand the man feeds sugar canes into this thing that looks like a cross between a mangle and a shredder, and out pours this sweet drink to which everyone in Mumbai appears to be addicted.
We stumbled across yet another market – the Zaveri Bazaar, where you will find all the jewellery you could want, from the cheap and cheerful costume stuff to top of the range ultra-exclusive. Mrs C was looking dangerously interested in some of these shops – I had to try diversionary tactics like “someone as beautiful as you doesn’t need such fripperies” and “oh look there’s a cow obstructing the entrance to that expensive jewellers.” It kind of worked. It was fascinating to see the contrast between scruffy hard-working street life and the high value glamour actually inside some of the shops. It was as though Cartier had just opened up in Skelmersdale.
Heading under a sign that reads “Bombay Panjrapole, established 1834” you enter an area given over to the welfare of animals. Primarily, it’s a place you can go to feed the cows. We went to inspect the healthy-looking sacred beasties whilst Amish went off in search of leaves and grass (to feed the cows, I should add). The office marked Veterinary Dispensary was overflowing with the stuff – it’s obviously the cure for all bovine diseases. He returned a few minutes later with half a tree in his hand, which we then used to feed about twenty cows who were all contentedly awaiting a repast in their compound. It was a little like playing at a Children’s Zoo, but with added religious significance. You could almost hear the cows muttering, “that’s good grass, man”.
From there it was but a short walk to another Jain temple, the Madhavbaug temple, with its lucky decorative swastikas and its delicate marble carvings that looked like intricate icing on a cake, which were being renovated by a team of skilled craftsmen. Nearby was the Icchapurti Ganesha temple, where there were a number of men sat around to make sure that a holy fire remained burning constantly; another interesting feature there was a large bell to the side of the fire which you happily ding to let the gods know you’re ready to worship. At yet another temple, the Madhavbaug Shiva temple, Amish encouraged us to approach a young priest sitting cross-legged on the floor, who said a little prayer for us and daubed a red mark on our foreheads. For a few minutes I felt Officially Indian.
One last charge back into the shops and markets area, as we now found ourselves in the stationery sector. Loads of shops whose sole purpose is to create the most beautiful and elaborate wedding invitations you could imagine. The shop windows are crammed with stunning calligraphy and superb decoratively carved cards that are works of art in themselves. A decent set of invitations is obviously de rigueur at a proper Indian wedding.
After all that exposure to art, temples, markets and more, it was definitely time for a late lunch. In an uninspiring looking building, we climbed up some stairs to a restaurant called the Bhagat Tarachand and the food was absolutely excellent. We returned, shattered, to the Oberoi for a much needed late afternoon nap, and then headed out again later to meet Amish for dinner. We went to the Status restaurant, very close to the Oberoi, that has a relaxed outside eating area and a slightly more formal inside area. We sat outside and consumed Marsala Dosas and lots of other yummy goodies. It was a fantastic place to while away a tasty hour or so in great company. Tomorrow was to be our last full day in Mumbai, and very exciting it was to be too. So we needed our beauty sleep, but not until we’d drifted back to the Eau Bar for one last nightcap.