Review – Stewart Lee, Much a-Stew About Nothing, Derngate, Northampton, 28th September 2013

Much A Stew About NothingWe’ve seen Stewart Lee occasionally on television and thought he came over as an intelligent comedian; my only criticism from his TV appearances would be that perhaps he lacks a touch of charisma. Still, anyone who co-wrote “Jerry Springer The Opera” has got to be worth going to see. On stage, however, he comes over far more vibrantly. He is a true wordsmith. His sentences are crafted with immaculate care; he is a poet of a comedian. He has a superb understanding of how words go together, using alliteration and rhythm; he can express a simple concept using words that you would not normally associate with it, thereby making you see the concept in a different way. He is just a delight to listen to.

The basis (apparently) of this tour is that he is trying out new material that will be recorded in December for his new TV series which will air in March 2014. He said he will give us the content of three thirty-minute programmes – one before the interval and two afterwards. Setting the context of the gig in this way immediately gave it an artificiality, a surrealism, which in itself was very funny, but ever so slightly weird. A Brechtian Verfremdungseffekt – old Bertolt would have been dead impressed.

Stewart LeeMr Lee deconstructs the whole idea of a comedy gig perfectly; explaining how jokes will be set up in advance for you to watch out for, almost undermining his own material and skill but with a very satisfactory comedic result. He’ll stop to remonstrate with the audience as to why they didn’t laugh at one particular joke, for example. It’s a very self-assured and individual approach to comedy and it really works. Of course, what will go well on a TV programme may not go quite so well with a live audience in Northampton. As I have observed many times before, Northampton audiences don’t tend to “get” political humour. I don’t know if it’s that we don’t follow current affairs, don’t have any political views, don’t have any time for politicians; but you can get a really great set from a comic that examines and ridicules current political thought and it sails right over our combined heads. True enough, all his stuff about Cameron and Milliband, etc, was very telling and intelligent, but the audience reaction was relatively quiet.

However, what we do “get”, is any hint of prejudice. Any comic that comes out onto a Northampton stage and gets a little bit racist or a little bit homophobic tends to get short shrift. Mr Lee had a superb routine about UKIP (ok that part’s political) ridiculing the party’s barely concealed xenophobia in an extended reductio ad absurdam which had everyone in fits. It was such a simple but revealing way to expose nonsensical prejudice against immigration – and immigrants; quite brilliant. He also had another terrific sequence about how someone “came out” as Latvian – again, a really clever and funny pop at homophobia.

Stewart Lee againI have never seen a comic ridicule a member of the audience for using their mobile phone so intensively as Stewart Lee did after the first few minutes of the show. Mr Lee called out into the audience “what’s that light, it’s really putting me off” – the owner of the said phone mumbled something about Facebook, but another member of the audience nearer the stage said to Mr Lee “it’s his torch”, and for about the next ten minutes he did a brilliant routine about how some people are so inexperienced about theatre that they didn’t know there would be lighting, or electricity, installed there. Then he carried on with a mock phone call to Michael McIntyre, warning him the next time he came to Northampton to watch for audience members with torches – and that McIntyre would need to use different comeback lines from the ones he had used – and on, and on, it went; it was completely brilliant and you would never, ever dare turn on your phone in a theatre again.

We got extremely good value for money – including the interval it ran for a good two and a half hours. His material is original, quirky, and beautifully recounted. I’d definitely see him again and would thoroughly recommend this show!

Review – About Time, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 25th September 2013

About Time Writers love to mess about with the concept of time, don’t they? J B Priestley was never happier than when he was plotting a Dangerous Corner or having a mystical Inspector Call; he even wrote a play called “I Have Been Here Before”. Ayckbourn is fascinated by time and has set different plays all performing at the same time in different parts of the same house; or with alternative endings depending on the toss of a coin; or indeed playing around with Communicating Doors, entering and exiting into time itself. And then there’s Doctor Who of course; and a whole raft of science fiction.

Rachel McAdams and Domhnall GleesonNow it’s Richard Curtis’ turn to dabble with this concept, in his latest rom com, About Time. It’s an elegantly written, mischievous tale about a family where the males have a secret gift – they can go back in time. All they have to do is go into a cupboard, clench their fists and whoosh, they return to a moment they had previously indexed to amend, rectify, and generally tinker with the past. Young Tim is of course highly suspicious of his newly discovered gift, and does what any young man would do under such circumstances – goes back and attempts to enhance his love life.

Bill NighyBut that’s not quite as easy as it sounds, as women have a mind of their own too. If the course of true love never did run smooth that’s even more the case when you have the ability to rewind and erase. Nevertheless, by a devious trick of time he snatches his newly found beloved away within seconds of her otherwise falling for a jerk at a party and they all live happily ever after.

Tom HollanderThat’s just a small part of the plot. Richard Curtis is unbeatable at creating hapless but kindly men who need a damn good love affair but who go about it in the most awkward way possible. Tim is a natural successor to Charles in Four Weddings and Will in Notting Hill, just more ginger. His characters give hope to hapless, hopeless men all over the world – on behalf of all such chaps, Mr Curtis has done us a great service – and, as always, the hopeless man succeeds (against all odds) with a beautiful woman. Tim is a very believable, likeable chap and you really want his blossoming romance to come to fruition. This element of the film is extremely heart-warming; and the comedy that ensues from it, as it does from the whole time travel story, is top notch. Indeed, some sequences in this film had me in complete stitches.

Margot RobbieThere is another side to it though – a rather sentimental side. Can you turn back time in order to avoid a horrific car crash, or a terminal disease? The former – not without other disastrous consequences; the latter – not at all. Does the sentimental side work? Well it certainly pings on your heartstrings and ends up boiling over with emotions, albeit in a terribly British, reserved sort of way. At least two ladies in the audience were moved to tears, and one actually had to leave the auditorium for a few minutes to compose herself. Whilst the plot never became unbelievable (apart from its central theme), I did feel that it dipped into mawkishness just a little to much. I won’t say anymore – I’ve probably already told you too much of the plot anyway. You’ll just have to go and see it to decide for yourself.

Joshua McGuireIt’s crammed full of excellent performances, both in the leads and in the smaller parts too. I’ve not seen Domhnall Gleeson before and he’s absolutely brilliant as Tim, his hopeless haplessness gently developing into confidence and maturity. Rachel McAdams (also new to us) is Mary, the object of Tim’s desire, and she’s superb at conveying the sexiness of the start of a new relationship. It’s a great comic performance throughout. It goes without saying that Bill Nighy and Lindsay Duncan as Tim’s parents, are completely fantastic and steal virtually every scene they are in. Lydia Wilson is both feral and innocent as Kit Kat, Tim’s sister, and there’s great support too from Tom Hollander as the self-obsessed playwright friend of Tim’s father, Vanessa Kirby as Mary’s unreliably wild friend Joanna, Margot Robbie as Kit Kat’s glamorous pal Charlotte and Joshua McGuire as Tim’s nice-but-thoroughly-useless colleague Rory. It’s a very enjoyable and engrossing story and well worth seeing – just remember to take tissues for when it overdoses in schmaltz!

Review – Madness, Northamptonshire County Cricket Ground, 22nd September 2013

MadnessMrs Chrisparkle and I were feeling rather sorry for the residents of Abington Avenue. Our walk up from the town centre had been uneventful; the Kettering Road was quiet, just a few people outside the Picturedrome as we turned left towards the Cricket Ground. A few more people started emerging, heading towards the ground, but even then it was remarkably relaxed – a typical Sunday evening I guess. Once we’d got past Lea Road, it was a different matter. “Is that a riot going on ahead?” asked Mrs C nervously as we continued walking towards a thronging mass of people. “Unlikely” I thought, although doubtless we both remembered that bizarre Christmas Eve in 1986 when we just avoided getting caught up in the “Shire Wars” riot in Aylesbury town centre. ‘Eee it were tuff in Buckinghamshire in them days.

the crowdsTreading carefully over broken glass and weaving our way past the drunks outside the pub just before the cricket ground, we kind of wondered what the hell we had got ourselves into. Still, once we entered the ground, you felt an increased level of safety, secure in the knowledge that you were in the company of people out for a good night’s entertainment rather than those who simply wanted to get rat-arsed. Nevertheless, the lure of a spot of alcohol called, and, having been very good and not brought into the ground any “food/drink/alcohol/illegal substances” as it warned on the ticket, we headed towards the bar. Then we saw the queue. “How much do you need a drink?” asked Mrs C. “Not that much”, was my reply. So we pressed on, into the crowd, to see how near we could get to the stage without having to get too intimate with other onlookers.

Warm-up groupWe did rather well really, as we managed to get a spot that was more or less centre in front of the stage and only about – what – 50 rows or so from the front? Very difficult to estimate with so many people there, but it was a good location. As we arrived the final warm up band was performing their swansong, and we thought they were pretty good. Then we had an announcement from the producer, Liz Hobbs, who beefed us up with the news that they would be putting plenty more concerts on at the cricket ground in the future. I can just imagine the residents of Abington Avenue hanging out the bunting. With only a few minutes before Suggs and the Nutty Boys were due to come on, there was an influx of lads to our area of the pitch, all high on “emotion” and not afraid to express it. Why oh why did they sell Madness hats there? I understand the need for “merch”, but really? Encouraging people to wear something that makes them six inches taller standing right in front of you? Is that what you want when you want to see a stage? Thus our prime spot became slightly less than prime; still I am sure it’s a problem that everyone had, unless you arrived with hours and hours to spare, hurled yourself in a mad rush as soon as the gates opened and decamped in the front row. I’m afraid our time is more valuable than to spend it just hanging around for a concert to start.

Madness entertainI’m sounding like a right grump, aren’t I? Actually, the concert was really good. You can never tell if a group you liked 30 to 35 years ago will still cut the mustard, but Madness sure do. Suggs is a born showman, and his sub-robotic silly dance routines still amuse and entertain; and his voice is still as clear as a bell and full of knowing wit. Musically, they’re great, and their brass arrangements resonate across the crowd as raucously as ever. I was a bit concerned that they would just play (those dreaded words) stuff “from our latest album”, and whilst there was a bit of that, for the most part they simply wallowed in nostalgia, playing all their oldies and goldies. The only song of theirs that I like and they didn’t play, was “Driving in my car”. Apart from that, it was a set geared to please.

more MadnessHow could it fail to entrance the crowd when it opened with “One Step Beyond”, played with all the silliness and bravado the band could muster? “Embarrassment”, and the superb “My Girl” followed shortly after – and it’s great at such an event when simply everyone knows the words. They played for a good hour and a half, with just a brief break whilst one of the guys performed (if that’s the right word) “New York, New York” in his own, inimitable fashion. But when you end up with “House of Fun”, “Baggy Trousers”, “Our House”, and “It Must Be Love”, you realise quite what a contribution the group has made to the world of high octane fun pop music. Their encore was “Madness” (which personally I could have done without) and “Night Boat to Cairo” (a must).

At the end, everyone seemed to disperse in an extremely orderly way and the whole thing was clearly well organised and stewarded. I hope they continue to bring more top acts to Northampton – there’s definitely an audience for it. Terribly glad I don’t live near the cricket ground though.

Review – Twelfth Night, Filter Theatre Company, Curve Studio, Leicester 21st September 2013

Twelfth NightIllyria? I think not. This is about as far away from a natural setting of Twelfth Night as you could possibly imagine. No palaces, no sea coasts, no woodland; instead the stage is set up for a rock concert. Guitars, keyboards, drums, speakers, overlapping wires and microphones, all set on a blank black stage. The stage manager is sat at her desk at the back in full view of the audience. The cast come on in dribs and drabs, drinking tea, chatting to themselves, sizing up the audience, offering us Werthers’ Originals (I am of an age where these are becoming de rigueur) and generally warming themselves up in very relaxed way.

Jonathan BroadbentAs I said only last week I would much sooner see a brave failure of an experimental production rather than a lazy, easy success. We’ve seen Filter once before, a few years ago when they brought their Three Sisters to the Derngate. It was avant-garde, but for me not quite avant-garde enough, and it just didn’t stamp its mark on the play quite as strongly as I would have liked. Not so with Twelfth Night. This is a very, very wacky and way out approach to the play and, I have to say, we both enjoyed it immensely. It’s brave and experimental, and certainly not a failure. The only aspect which I feel doesn’t quite work is if the creative team were hoping you’d go home fully understanding the original Twelfth Night story. If you’ve not seen the play before I think you’d be confused by the doubling up of characters and not quite understanding the changing locations; if you are familiar with the play, that would also help you appreciate some of the extra little nuances they chuck in from time to time. Otherwise, it’s a palpable hit throughout.

Lizzy WattsIt’s certainly not for purists though. About fifteen minutes in, an older gentleman got up from his seat and walked right across the front of the stage and through the exit in a very obvious “I’ve had enough of this rubbish” mood. He could have been a plant I guess – we saw that done once with DV8 Dance Company many years ago but that looked precisely like the plant it was. This gesture, with its resultant slightly surprised looks and comments from the cast, seemed pretty genuine to me. If you were going to see this production as a student of English literature, I’m not sure it would be hugely beneficial to you. If you were going to see it as a drama student, then you’d find it endlessly fascinating.

Polly FrameThe cast all play their various instruments and operate computers with recorded sound throughout the show giving the impression that the music and sound effects arise organically out of the text rather than being an artificial accompaniment. A lot of the setting seems to be derived from Orsino’s first speech, “if music be the food of love, play on” (audience members might have to prompt him to remember it) as the Duke is trying to distinguish the white noise rubbish that’s invading his brain from the clear notes of melodic love that he’s also trying to locate. It’s a clever interpretation of that opening scene, and it works well.

Sandy FosterViola becomes Cesario by borrowing a jacket and a hat from members of the audience – which is a clever touch, because how else would the shipwrecked Viola conveniently come by men’s clothes? Toby Belch first enters uttering Hamlet’s soliloquy and staggering off in a drunken heap – possibly an Elizabethan equivalent of singing “Show me the way to go home.” Sir Toby and Sir Andrew Aguecheek’s noisy revels are inventively portrayed with acrobatics, ball games with the audience, involving a member of the front row (me, actually) in singing their song, and passing pizza around the stalls. When Malvolio puritanically interrupts the revelry with his aghast “is there no respect of place, persons, nor time in you?” he pointed speechlessly to three ladies sitting in the second row who were scoffing pizza, which really involved the audience in sharing the same guilt due to bad behaviour as Belch and Aguecheek; it was an extremely funny scene. There are loads more examples of inventive staging that I shan’t tell you about – you’ll have to go see the play.

Geoffrey LumbThe cast are first rate throughout. Jonathan Broadbent is a classy if music-mad Orsino and doubles up as the foppish but totally believable Andrew Aguecheek. Lizzy Watts is an authoritative Olivia, stiffly respectable and no-nonsense until she starts fancying Cesario, when traces of an amusingly suppressed ladette appear. Polly Frame does a very good job of differentiating Viola (and Cesario) from Sebastian, using a superb deep voice and nicely portraying the latter’s penchant for a punch-up. Sandy Foster is a brilliant Feste, as wise a fool as you could hope to meet; she comes across as a naturally funny person and you sense she is the gel that actually makes much of the production stick together. Geoffrey Lumb is a hilarious Sir Toby, not only because he looks just like Mrs Chrisparkle’s cousin Nick, who is himself in many ways a real life Sir Toby, but also for his superb attention to comic detail, immaculate facial expressions and a performance of total conviction. Fergus O’Donnell’s Malvolio is a brilliant creation – full of waspish bossiness at first, then when he thinks Olivia fancies him he gains rockstar status in his head, with some terrific air guitar work and louche body language; finally his total humiliation is capped by being imprisoned for alleged lunacy – it’s a great performance that really makes you feel sorry for the old steward.

Fergus O’DonnellAt 90 minutes without an interval, and with long periods in silence or several repetitions of the same song, you can guess that they’ve trimmed a lot of the excess of the text away, removing a few characters and leaving the very bare structure of the plot. They’ve torn up the rule book on how to perform Shakespeare and I was very impressed with the way they all carried it off so well. But the basic story is still all there and you won’t be disappointed at the way they depict Olivia’s falling in love with Cesario and then Sebastian, Malvolio appearing cross-garter’d, Toby Belch being a drunken wreck, and much more besides. Anarchic, inventive but above all, huge fun, this is a great production that’s touring round the country and I would definitely recommend it!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground, Derngate, Northampton, 20th September 2013

Screaming Blue MurderAutumn must be here if Screaming Blue Murder has returned to the Derngate. The last season was a huge success with nearly every night a sellout. Obviously not so many people realised the season has started again as it was a fairly quiet night, which was a shame as they missed out on some top comedy.

Dan EvansDan Evans returns as our host and proves himself to be the compère beyond compare. As always he gets a great rapport going with the front row audience, which this week had a few minefields, with a group of guys minding a mate fresh out of prison (apparently) and another guy on a first date with a girl who had got absolutely sloshed by the first interval. Nevertheless he safely steered us through choppy waters to a comedy safe harbour.

James SherwoodOur first act was James Sherwood, who has a very quiet and reflective style and an amusing sense of slightly pompous self-satisfaction. The majority of his act was stationed at the keyboard, pointing out some ridiculous aspects of pop song lyrics. It was very clever and funny material; some of it sustained laugh out loud stuff, some a more contented chuckle, but all very enjoyable.

Maureen YoungerSecond was the very different Maureen Younger, full of attack and not afraid to grapple with the bawdier aspects of life. She’s a naturally funny person, with very good material and a nice sense of self-deprecation. She built up a great relationship with the audience and her ebullience created an excellent contrast with the quiet introversion of the first act.

OlaLast up was Ola, a late change of performer I think, and the only one of the three whom we had seen before. Again a very different kind of performer who delivers his material with supreme confidence at a deliberately slow and thoughtful pace; he builds up an air of being slightly arrogant and dismissive of fools – but then pricks his own balloon with subtle punch lines. He’s one of those comedians where his presence is totally engrossing all the way through; part one-act one-man comedy play, part rapid-reacting comic ping-pong with the audience. Terrific stuff.

A really well structured evening of comedy, and you can’t get better chuckle-value for your £12.50. On again in two weeks time – sadly we can’t make that one, why don’t you go and let me know how it went?

Review – Jack Dee, Derngate, Northampton, 18th September 2013

Jack DeeDespite the fact that we don’t watch much TV, even Mrs Chrisparkle and I know who Jack Dee is. In fact we remember him winning Celebrity Big Brother – that was twelve years ago, would you believe. We’ve always enjoyed his TV appearances and rather warm to his persona as a grumpy old git. Would he be any different on stage?

J DeeNo, not really, although I was surprised that he looked a bit older than I was expecting. He does make humorous references to his well-established reputation as a lugubrious grump and he has some very enjoyable routines about promoting “so what?” in conversation. But this “couldn’t care less” attitude does not extend to his own performance and what must be extensive preparation for a show like this because it was presented in an immaculate manner, full of extremely funny and clever observations that never for one moment feels forced or unnatural. Whether it be talking about his family, the visiting electrician, life on the road or sex with a donkey, it all flows at a perfect pace and you believe every element of it is true.

Mr DeeHis comic observations are intelligent and perceptive, but instantly recognisable as part of everyone’s day-to-day lives. For example, the silly rules and rituals that everyone follows when they are either giving or asking for directions, are here exposed in a brilliant routine where I, for one, was saying to myself “I do that too!” And you don’t realise the bizarreness or stupidity of what you regularly do on such occasions unless you have someone like Mr Dee confess his own experiences. And I loved his take on the 21 units of alcohol maximum. TourSo true!

A packed Derngate had a jolly good night’s comedy of the best kind – where you go home understanding a bit more about what it is that makes us all tick. Unsentimental, unapologetic, but never cruel, he tells it like it is. Two hours (precisely) of top quality entertainment, his tour continues until November. A class act.

Review – Holly Golightly, Lost Musicals at Sadlers Wells, 15th September 2013

Holly GolightlyIt’s always a pleasure to come to the Lilian Bayliss Theatre at Sadlers Wells for our annual outing to see one of Ian Marshall Fisher’s Lost Musicals. There are three on offer this year, and I chose Holly Golightly over the others because its creative team of Bob Merrill and Abe Burrows had chalked up some pretty nifty musicals in their time, and also because both of us are completely new to the whole “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” thing. Yes, we’ve neither read the book nor seen the film, so it’s about time we got to know who Holly Golightly is (was).

Holly Dale SpencerThe back story to the musical is fascinating. In its pre-Broadway try-outs it underwent numerous rewrites – nothing particularly unusual about that – but by the time it was to reach Broadway it had suffered the indignity of two book writers being sacked. Nunnally Johnson first, then Abe Burrows; to be replaced by “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”’s Edward Albee, Simone Craddocknot known for his contribution to the frothy world of musicals. After four Broadway previews, producer David Merrick pulled the show and it never saw the light of day again. Even though it was starring Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlain, Merrick realised he had a lemon. The version that Ian Marshall Fisher has resurrected has the Abe Burrows book, so it’s the version that never even got to Broadway.

Joseph Wilkins The Lost Musicals setting can expose the weaknesses of long lost Broadway shows. Unable to rely on costumes, sets and a full orchestra, one concentrates heavily on the script, the lyrics, the tunes and the story. When you find a nugget of gold, it’s a pure delight; Cole Porter’s Paris is a fine example. Jonathan Dryden Holly Golightly, on the other hand, really doesn’t work very well. Firstly, it’s very long! At a 3.30pm start we weren’t finished until 6.40pm. The tale is rather plodding and lacking in drama, although Abe Burrows’ book had some witty lines and funny moments. The songs are unmemorable and didn’t seem to illustrate the meat of the story.

Stewart Permutt Wasn’t it someone famous who said a song in a musical must carry the story forward, and that you should come out of the song at a different place from where you went into it? Actually, perhaps it was me. Anyway, that’s a major problem with this work – most of the songs are largely irrelevant to the story moving forward. The song “Travelling”, which was clearly designed to illustrate Holly’s life modus operandi, and gets an end-of-show reprise, is very lame for a signature tune. “I’ve Got a Penny”, on the other hand, nicely contrasts Holly’s fiscal status with her wonderment at the contents of Tiffany’s store. “You’ve never kissed her” sung by the hopelessly smitten Jeff is a charming ballad of unrequited love and “The girl you used to be” is a rather sad account of the love of her former husband Doc, despite the general creepiness of the whole idea of her as a teenager having married her adoptive father.

Paul LincolnI can’t say that the show helped me to understand who Holly Golightly was. I couldn’t work out if she was looking for love, or excitement, or cash, or security; maybe all of the above, maybe none. You may say that’s because she’s an enigma – but I got the feeling that it’s because the character wasn’t particularly well written. The only aspect of her character that was clear to me was that she was a nightmare neighbour. At least Jeff was surely in love with her; and as for the other gentlemen suitors, their frequently repeated lyric that they were “dirty old men looking for dirty young girls” casts a shadow on any notion of romance in this show.

Gareth DaviesAs always, Mr Marshall Fisher has assembled a cast of huge talent who look great in evening wear, seated in a semi-circle, scripts in hand, timing their joint standings-up and sittings-down to perfection. Holly Dale Spencer, as wide-eyed as she was in Kiss Me Kate, sings beautifully as Miss Golightly and it’s no surprise that she bewitches all the guys in town. Joseph Wilkins is a rather subdued Jeff, but he has a great voice; Simone Craddock, who we saw in Annie a few years ago is a slinky funky Mag Wildwood; Jonathan Dryden has a terrific, but totally irrelevant, song “Ciao, Compare” as Sally Tomato; and there’s great support from Stewart Permutt (as always), Paul Lincoln, Gareth Davies, Andy Gillies, and distinguished veteran actor Gary Raymond.

Andy GilliesBut David Merrick was right – if not a complete lemon, the show is pretty citric a lot of the time, and I guess it would have been a massive flop on Broadway. Nevertheless, it’s fascinating to watch from a historical perspective; and if you are interested in the history of musicals then you already know that all of these Lost Musicals are always worth a visit.

Gary RaymondFootnote 1: Bob Merrill’s widow was in the audience. She looked as though she really enjoyed the experience.

Footnote 2: They refuse to take interval orders for drinks in the bar before the show. And they also refuse to take them in a remarkably surly way!

Review – Swan Lake, Peter Schaufuss Ballet, Derngate, Northampton, 13th September 2013

Swan LakeWe returned to the Royal and Derngate for the second offering this week by the Peter Schaufuss Ballet Company, Swan Lake. Given that Romeo and Juliet delivered much more than it promised, expectations were a little higher. Sadly, that was but the first of many misjudgements that evening.

Simona MarsibilioThe pre-show synopsis proved interesting reading. The ballet is framed by the appearance of “The Dream Master” who basically has a nasty dream about the Prince and the Queen, her requiring him to choose a bride, he only liking “The Swan Girl” (no Odette/Odile here) and not fancying any of the exotic princesses who dance for him at the ball. Rothbart tricks him by presenting his daughter the Black Swan (different dancer from the Swan Girl), whom he chooses as his bride, then the truth is revealed, he goes frantic, can’t make it up with the Swan Girl then finally he turns back into the Dream Master and “the nightmare is over”. Now, I am all for experimentation in theatre and dance, and my usual watchword is that I would prefer to see a brave experimental failure rather than a lazy, easy success. Following the tedium of this dance experience, I may have to revise that watchword.

The chief problem is the choreography. For the most part it’s unimaginative and very repetitious. How you long for a touch of the 1895 Ivanov; but Mr Schaufuss’ choreography (I presume it is his, it’s not actually credited anywhere), especially for the swans, seems limited to some stomping around and throwing hands in the air every so often. Either that or the dancers were expressing their own personal dismay at being in this show. The usual highlight of the Dance of the Cygnets was simply unnoticeable as there was hardly any variation from what went before or followed afterwards. The Prince and the Swan Girl’s dances involved a lot of writhing around on the floor so that most people couldn’t see what was going on. Some manic rabbits appeared every so often – I think they were meant to represent jesters – who injected a little element of humour, but even they tended to outstay their welcome.

Ryoko YagyuTo be fair, the choreography improved a little after the interval, with the four princesses’ dances having some flair and wit to them, and the Prince’s final solo being a highly watchable tour de force. There is also a moment where I couldn’t tell whether to laugh or be shocked, when it appears the Black Swan is about to fellate the prince. The brief appearance of Rothbart created a sudden interesting dynamic – the stage brightened up when he came on. Sadly, that was short-lived and it returned to its former dullness when he left.

The recorded music – particularly before the interval – is underwhelming and really quiet. Mrs Chrisparkle thought it sounded like we were listening to music in an adjacent theatre. Bizarrely, it’s also not all from Swan Lake; there are definitely other pieces of music in there that I didn’t recognise. The stage is bare (not that I mind that) but the stitched patches in the backdrop material made it look incredibly cheap and worn. The costumes are all black, white or grey, or a combination of the same, with little style or sense of elegance.

Yoko TakahashiIt’s a crying shame that such talented dancers were being given such dull things to do. Thaddaeus Low is, I am sure, an exciting young dancer and his final solo was indeed superb. Luke Schaufuss (Romeo earlier in the week) is a member of the corps de ballet in this production, and shines with his excellent rapid changements. Ryoko Yagyu and Yoko Takahashi both perform with superb skill and control. The company is packed with extraordinary dancers. But it doesn’t matter how good they are; the artistic vision behind this production is so absent that it commits the cardinal sin of being boring from a very early stage; and basically you can’t wait for it to end. We were overheard talking about the show during the interval by a couple who described themselves as “ballet virgins” and wondered if ballet in the provinces was always this boring. They hated the set, the costumes, the music, the entire experience. We begged them to give the genre another chance in the future, but had to agree, this production is woeful.

Review – To Sir With Love, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 11th September 2013

To Sir With LoveYou remember the film, of course. Sidney Poitier tames an unruly bunch of Swinging Sixties East London teenagers and Lulu sings “To Sir With Love” to him at the end of term disco. Possibly you don’t remember the original book, the semi-autobiographical work of E R Braithwaite (who, aged 101, attended the Northampton press night all the way from his home in New York), about the erudite and suave West Indian immigrant, Ricky Braithwaite, and his experience of school teaching under an experimentally liberal headmaster.

Ansu KabiaAyub Khan Din’s adaptation of the novel returns the story back to its late 1940s setting, a time of poverty and deprivation for many; a post-war era where the indigenous white population were learning how to live side-by-side with new black neighbours. Ricardo Braithwaite has had a successful war in the RAF where he faced no prejudice; but out on Civvy Street three years later, life is very different. Like his creator, Ricky wants to use his degree to get a good job in engineering, but despite his academic qualifications, no employer will give him a chance.

Matthew KellySo he approaches Greenslade school to see if teaching might be an option; and within a few hours of observing the place finds himself hired and in charge of the terrifying senior class who will be leaving at the end of the year. Of course, he faces disruption, disobedience and distasteful behaviour from his students, who are the complete opposite of him in terms of education and demeanour. But egged on by his very forward-looking headmaster he finds other ways to gain their confidence, and progress is made. In the unlikely event that you don’t know how it all turns out, I’ll say no more.

Paul KempIf ever there was a play that shows how harmful and hurtful casual racism is, this is the one. There were many gasps of shock and amazement from the audience at some of the comments made by the world-weary cynical teacher Mr Weston, which you could take to be the attitude of the “old guard” as it were. There’s also the anti-Jewish comments made by one of the students, so close to the Second World War, which Braithwaite is quick to condemn. The effects of racial discrimination are painfully sharp, shown in the attitudes of both local working-class families and nice middle class people from Berkshire. It both disturbs and disappoints you. Because of the way it highlights and shames racism, Mrs Chrisparkle thinks the play should be compulsory viewing for all schoolchildren.

Nicola ReynoldsIt’s not just about racial prejudice of course; it’s a very interesting look at a progressive educational system (not without criticism), the effects of poverty and the class structure, the nature of bullying, and about friendship and love. At two and a half hours, it’s quite a long play by today’s standards but it certainly doesn’t feel it. We were both totally engrossed by the story and the performances that it absolutely flew by. Mike Britton’s set makes good use of the traditional school blackboard, and effectively recreates the comfortless, hostile environment of the old Victorian school room.

Peta CornishAt the heart of the story is Ricky, played by Ansu Kabia. He is perfect for the role, with his dignified bearing and crystal clear authoritative voice. It’s a superb performance from someone you can absolutely believe is that teacher, doing his best to rise above adversity to make a difference in the world, but who is only human too and reacts emotionally to injustice and personal slight. And what a trooper! After being knocked off his bike, breaking a finger and injuring his hand, he performs the play with his arm in a sling. The show must go on, and Mr Kabia’s devotion to duty is pretty goddam remarkable.

Mykola AllenMatthew Kelly, who we last saw playing another “unusual” teacher in The History Boys, is the maverick headmaster Florian. Whereas Hector was a law to himself in the classroom and lacked support from the powers that be, Florian is the man with the real authority, which Mr Kelly portrays with quiet, confident reason. It’s a really well thought through performance, and his conversations with “Sir”, helping him to establish a rapport with the children, are beautifully judged and constructive.

Harriet BallardPaul Kemp plays the irascible Weston, a pipe-smoking little bigot of a man who would really get under your skin if he were a colleague of yours. Mr Kemp gives him a brilliant weedy, whiny voice which helps emphasise his smallness of mind and vision. Weston gets his come-uppance, in a scene which Mr Kemp plays superbly well – you could hear a pin drop during his discomfited speech. The character is one of many who develop into different people at the end of the play from that which they were at the beginning. Nicola Reynolds is great as Clinty, the domestic science teacher – a good-hearted, no-nonsense character whom she really makes come alive. Unlike Weston, she’s the kind of character you really would like to have as a colleague. She has excellent comic timing in many funny scenes but also creates a lot of pathos where it’s needed. Peta Cornish is the other teacher Gillian, inexperienced at both teaching and at life, who falls for Ricky and very sweetly conveys the tentativeness and embarrassment of her emotions, and is simply lost when it all goes wrong.

Kerron DarbyThere are some great performances from the young actors too. I was really impressed with Mykola Allen as Denham, the most disruptive of the class, whose power base starts to ebb away as Sir becomes more popular. A more sour-faced difficult kid you could never hope to meet, it’s a very intelligent study of someone set in their own ways who refuses to change even when it’s the obvious thing to do; it’s also a great portrayal of a bully who gets what he deserves. His final scene is played with superb controlled emotion. Harriet Ballard, too, gives a great performance as the boisterously difficult Monica, all pretend effrontery and a challenge to anyone’s teaching skills, and whose visible softening is very believable and heart-warming to watch. Kerron Darby gives a very touching performance as Seales, troubled by his own racial heritage; his reaction to bad news really tears at your heartstrings;Heather Nicol and Heather Nicol gives an excellent performance as Pamela, the girl with a crush on Sir, making the best of all the situation’s potential for comedy and heartache. It’s a shame that the programme lists the rest of the cast as “ensemble” as they are distinctly different individuals with their own lines, characters and scenes. True, they did work together seamlessly as scene-shifters and dancers, but I think they should have been individually credited to their roles. I’m sure Sir would have thought each would deserve their own recognition.

Anyway, it’s an excellent production and a thoroughly enjoyable, funny and moving play. It’s the first in a new series of co-productions between the Royal and Derngate and Touring Consortium Theatre, of which we will see one a year for the next three years – sounds like something definitely to look forward to. After it leaves Northampton, it’s touring the country until the end of November. Go see it!

Review – Romeo and Juliet, Peter Schaufuss Ballet, Derngate, Northampton, 9th September 2013

Romeo and JulietI didn’t know anything about the Peter Schaufuss Ballet Company when I booked these tickets, but it’s always good to catch some well-performed classical ballet every so often, so we thought we’d give it a go. The company is based in Denmark, and Mr Schaufuss has been Director of London Festival Ballet, Berlin Ballet and the Royal Ballet, Copenhagen. Sir Frederick Ashton’s version of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet is something of a family piece, with the original Juliet being played by Peter Schaufuss’ mother, Mercutio by his father, and this current production’s Romeo being played by his son. Peter Schaufuss himself is playing the Duke and the Friar in this production. Ashton bequeathed his Romeo and Juliet to Schaufuss when he died in 1988, and one of the company’s raisons d’être is to keep Ashton’s creative spirit alive.

Luke SchaufussI did, however, find it slightly bewildering to enter the auditorium to discover this huge portrait of Peter Schaufuss on the stage, effectively hiding the set (such as it is) until curtain up. It reminded me of the ubiquitous pictures of President Assad that we saw everywhere in Syria a few years ago, subtly (or not) emphasising his dominating presence. I’m not saying Mr Schaufuss is a tyrant, I’m just saying that your average ballet-goer in Northampton would be more interested in the dancers playing the lead roles rather than the company Director. Once the picture was raised aloft from the stage, it all felt less portentous and intimidating.

Stefan WiseThe party behind us were shocked – vociferously and extendedly – that there wasn’t an orchestra and that Prokofiev’s stirring score would simply be recorded music churned out through speakers. That wasn’t an issue for us – welcome to the world of small-scale touring ballet. I was a little disappointed there wasn’t a programme though. The set consists of a plain backdrop and a few steps linking an upper platform to the stage, which provides for two separate dancing areas and four entrance/exit zones. Plenty of space for dancing, which I always think is A Good Thing. No expense spared on the costumes, however, which were elegant, refined and thoroughly beautiful. The lighting was also very evocative and rich, which helped to create mood on the otherwise featureless set. However, a lack of both programme and set can sometimes make a ballet a little hard to follow. If you didn’t know the story beforehand I think you would struggle to make sense of some of the first scenes.

Yoko TakahashiWe were very impressed with Luke Schaufuss as Romeo. He certainly looks the part and cuts a very dashing figure swirling his grey silky cape in a justifiably attention-seeking opening solo. His dancing throughout is excellent and he has a great stage presence. He is very well matched by his two mates, the imposing Stefan Wise as a jokey Mercutio, and Ricardo Pereira as a pally Benvolio; and the three of them dance some superb scenes together. We also thought Jordi Arnau Rubio as Tybalt was brilliant, and his swordfighting scenes with Mercutio were more dramatic and believable than many a stagey danced fight. Thaddaeus Low gave a very good performance as the spurned Paris, with a couple of very adroit solos. I reckon both of these young dancers could be Names To Watch In The Future. There was a very enjoyable performance from Yoko Takahashi as Livia, very energetic but accurate in her dancing, and Josef Vesely and Katherine Watson were a fairly terrifying Lord and Lady Capulet. I tend to watch ballet closely because I really appreciate the technical expertise of the dancing and I must say I was very impressed with the standard of ballet throughout.

Ryoko YagyuBut the absolute star of the performance was Ryoko Yagyu as Juliet. She had something of a shaky start when a slippery stage upended her during her first dance – although she was straight back on her feet and completed the rest of the dance perfectly. At the end of the scene she ran off into the wings in that delicate ethereal way that ballerinas have of almost disappearing into thin air, but misjudged the tiny gap available and crashed headlong into (I think) a bank of lights that created a horrendous clatter and clashing of metal offstage. That must have hurt! I half expected to see her return with her arm in a sling and wearing Pudsey’s eye patch. To be fair, she wasn’t the only cast member to come-a-cropper as they exited the stage – I guess on the first night that aspect of the performance was a little under-rehearsed.

R&JNevertheless she did a superb performance, with incredible pointe work, extraordinarily extended legs and a great feeling for the character. She looks really young, which emphasised the tragedy of the story and I have to say I found the end rather moving; Mrs Chrisparkle found it more dramatic instead, but at least both of us enjoyed it in our own way. You do wonder though, why on earth Juliet thought it was a good idea to take the sleeping draught; and why Romeo arrives equipped with a handy bottle of poison, ready to take his own life at a moment’s notice. Maybe it was the Elizabethan equivalent of an iPhone. He probably never went anywhere without it.

I didn’t have huge expectations of this production to be honest, but we were both very pleasantly surprised. If you enjoy your classical ballet and are happy to see it with minimal staging I’d definitely recommend this production. It’s sharing with Swan Lake this week at Northampton and then from 16th to 21st September it’s in Belfast. Well worth the trip.