Review – Mansfield Park, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 29th October 2013

Mansfield ParkDespite having studied English at Oxford University sometime in the last millennium, Jane Austen and I have never really had much to do with each other. I remember being told to read some Austen before crossing through those hallowed portals for my first term, so I chose Northanger Abbey because it was the shortest (no fool me). I can’t say it left much impression though, as my head was filled with drama and I would much sooner have read all the latest offerings by the playwriting movers and shakers of the late 1970s than the elegantly prosaic world of early 19th century Hampshire.

Ffion JollyBut isn’t it great when you get a crossover? The successful 2012 production of Mansfield Park by the Theatre Royal Bury St Edmunds is touring again in 2013, and you need no further proof of Jane Austen’s enduring appeal than the sight of a packed Northampton Royal Theatre on a Tuesday night. There were even people in the Upper Circle. Briefly, ten year old Fanny Price is taken from her poor family to live with her richer relatives where she is well provided for but is the victim of condescension and is not allowed equal social standing with the rest of the household. From her lowlyish position she can observe the comings and goings of the youthful members of the family and their romantic attractions to the Crawfords and others. As time goes by, things go more and more Fanny’s way until by the end of the story she legitimately becomes the centre of the household. There’s definitely an element of “Ugly Duckling becomes Swan” in this tale.

Laura DoddingtonThis adaptation by Tim Luscombe is nicely structured and keeps the story going at a good pace – I really liked the way that the new characters for the next scene would enter and start talking before the old characters of the previous scene had left the stage, you felt there was no “downtime” at all – although at 2 hours 40 minutes it was perhaps a trifle on the long side. Mr Luscombe gives Lady Bertram a constant headache so she is never seen (an effective running joke) and eliminates a few other characters, including Julia, so that there are only three Bertram children. It’s cleverly constructed so that the actors can double up as both the Bertrams/ Crawfords, and the extended Price family. The simple design by Kit Surrey is effective enough to give an impression of delightful country living (whilst being eminently tourable) but occasionally it was a little confusing as to precisely where we were and precisely who the characters were.

Geoff Arnold Nevertheless, the production benefits from some very good performances. The heroine Fanny Price is played by Ffion Jolly, who absolutely looks the part and captures Fanny’s meekness and moral uprightness extremely well; her polite distaste for Henry Crawford and growing fondness for Edmund are also very enjoyable to watch. I really liked the performance of Laura Doddington as Mary Crawford; bright, cheery, optimistic and beautifully patronising to Fanny, and aggressively assertive with Edmund over his choice of career. She brought out all the comedy of the role whilst retaining the more serious and manipulative sides of her character too. Mary’s brother Henry is given a subtly smarmy presence by Eddie Eyre, you could pinpoint his voice somewhere between that of Robert Peston and Chris Barrie in The Brittas Empire. He’s nicely devious in his dalliances, although I’m not sure I entirely believed him when he started protesting his genuine new-found love for Miss Price.

Pete AshmoreHats off to Geoff Arnold for taking on three roles and making each one very different and completely believable; the self-indulgent waster Tom, the sincere and well-meaning William, and, best of all, the toffee-nosed idiot Mr Rushworth, twitching with disapproval at the follies of youthful exuberance. Leonie Spilsbury is a superbly spoiled Maria with a touch of the Violet Elizabeth about her, and Pete Ashmore very convincing as the wannabe clergyman Edmund, suffering from a permanent bad hair day, who has to temper his affection for Miss Crawford with his deep-seated interest in modest decency. Richard Heap is a splendidly blustery Sir Thomas, laying down the law with stentorian tones, and Julie Teal superb as the viciously patronising Aunt Norris, begrudgingly offering succour to the less fortunate Fanny, figuratively wiping her feet on her as she goes.

It’s a very well put-together production, and makes for a very enjoyable evening. It’s not the best thing since sliced bread, but it absolutely does what it says on the tin.

Review – Le Week-End, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 28th October 2013

Le Week-EndWell it was all rather a strange evening really. When we arrived at the Errol Flynn Filmhouse (still the best ever place you could possibly wish to see a film) the foyer was packed with noisy boozers. We couldn’t believe it – normally there’s a small queue of people wishing to take advantage of the innovative food and drink provision before taking it into the cinema, but this was like a party. When I eventually got to the counter to order our Argentinian Malbecs (delish as always) I asked the chap serving if the place had suddenly got extremely popular. Apparently it was a birthday party group who had seen the earlier film and had decided they didn’t want to leave! Anyway we got our drinks and fought our way into the auditorium.

Lindsay Duncan and Jim BroadbentThe announced time on the tickets is for when the film is due to start. 8.30pm. There’s always 15 minutes or so of adverts and trailers beforehand – you know the score. Anyway, 8.27, 8.28, 8.29 came round and the auditorium was in silence. No trailers, no nothing. We predicted a problem. Mrs Chrisparkle expected to finish her Malbec, reclining in her plush leather chair, and then go home. But no, at 8.32 a little voice popped in to say there were technical problems but it would be starting very shortly. And indeed, so it did – lots of adverts. By about 8.50 another usher emerged and said they would stop all the adverts now and go straight into the film.

No criticism of the cinema intended, but it was already turning into a Long Week-End. However, once the film had finished it felt like a very long Week-End indeed. Actually the film is relatively short but it felt like an eternity. Looking at the reviews, this is definitely a Marmite film; I read a five star review of it that absolutely loved all the aspects of it that we absolutely hated. It all goes to prove that reviews are simply personal reflections of the artistic experience, and we’re all different.

Jeff GoldblumThe problem with this film starts with the trailer. If ever a promotional item gave you the wrong idea about the content of the main product, this is the one. Is there an Advertising Standards Agency watchdog for film trailers? Ofmovie, perhaps? This would be an excellent topic for their scrutineers. You would think it was going to be a Rom Com for sixty-somethings; a couple going to Paris for the weekend to celebrate an anniversary and rekindle their flagging relationship. We’d seen the trailer a few weeks ago, where Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent traipse from restaurant to restaurant saying “no, too touristy”, “no, not enough people”, “no, too many people” etc, etc, and that’s precisely what we do in a foreign city. We knew instinctively that we would identify with these people, and get a feelgood throb from seeing them grow back together.

paris eiffelBut instincts can sometimes be wrong. For a Rom Com, there was precious little to laugh at, and when it ended, everyone left feeling as flat as a pancake. The cinema was full of middle-aged couples who obviously all expected to identify with the characters in the same way; and if you have the remotest amount of self-respect you couldn’t possibly. Actually, the film is about a couple who have been married for forty years and have become desperately cruel to each other, despite occasional highlights of mutual understanding. It’s not really a comedy because there’s not a lot funny in it; it’s hardly a tragedy (at least in the classical sense) because you have no sense of anyone being particularly heroic. I’m not really sure what it is. Not so much a Rom Com, more an Argu Tede.

On paper it looks like a winning combination. Lindsay Duncan and Jim Broadbent are always brilliant in everything they do. They’re in Paris; that glorious city of dreams. A couple in a flagging relationship take a weekend away to regroup. It’s got to be a winner, no? What they don’t take into account is the fact that, for the most part, it’s quite boring – there’s an excellent climactic dinner party scene, but it’s incredibly slow to get there; it’s self-indulgent, self-pitying, feels totally inconsequential and above all, it’s thoroughly amoral. The only thing that seems to unite this couple is a desire to go to expensive restaurants and do a runner. They stay at a very posh hotel and ruin the walls. They run up bills they cannot pay. Basically this film celebrates illegality and irresponsibility, and the kind of behaviour most middle-class middle-aged people would despise in younger people.

paris sacre coeurThere were things I liked; I liked the structure of the film, in that it started with the beginning of the weekend, with them on the train to London, and ended with the end of the weekend, with them abnegating their responsibilities by dancing in a café when by rights they should be doing the washing up. There was no faffing around with unnecessary introduction. I liked Paris – it was certainly the most enjoyable thing on screen and makes a superb setting for any film. We thought Jim Broadbent gave a very good performance as the desperately sad Nick; however, Mrs C’s observation about Lindsay Duncan’s performance as Meg is that she has turned into a kind of female Bill Nighy, all throw-away lines, self-conscious posturing and “look at me” glances to camera. Jeff Goldblum was also very good as Nick’s old college friend, and I felt very sorry for him when Nick and Meg just walk out on his party without saying goodbye. But then, that’s just the kind of people they are.

paris tuileriesWhat progress is made in their relationship over the course of the weekend? All I could detect was that on the first evening Nick has a phone conversation with their son who is obviously having domestic difficulties, and Nick would like him and his family to return home whilst Meg is dead against it; by the end of the weekend, Nick too is putting him off from returning home – not in a decent way, mind; he said no and then whilst the son was remonstrating, he just pretended that the phone line had cut out. Coward. Apart from that, I didn’t get a sense of an increased understanding between the two characters; but then, so what, I really didn’t care either.

When we did finally emerge into the open air, Mrs C was amazed that it was only twenty past ten; that 93 minutes was amongst the longest we’ve endured. Our energy and enthusiasm had been completely sapped by the film and its unpleasant characters. We did briefly wonder on the way home how they will get themselves out of their unresolved pickle at the end of the film, but then came to our senses as we asked, “who cares?”

Review – The Lyons, Menier Chocolate Factory, 27th October 2013

The LyonsHaving just seen a hard-hitting black comedy with a dysfunctional family and a cruel mother (Leicester Curve’s production of The Beauty Queen of Leenane), the next day we went to the Menier Chocolate Factory, where we witnessed a hard-hitting black comedy, with a dysfunctional family and a cruel mother. Is there something in the water that’s causing this? “The Lyons” is a 2011 Broadway hit by Nicky Silver, being seen for the first time in the UK in this production. It’s sharp, snappy, very funny, somewhat anarchic and probably not to be recommended if you’ve had a recent bereavement.

Isla BlairHospital style drapes form the traditional theatre curtain and get swished away with unsentimental briskness to reveal Ben on a drip in a hospital bed, with his wife Rita reading a magazine, and a nurse doing the usual checks. But you quickly realise this is no normal hospital visit. Not only is the patient terminally ill with cancer – very terminally, as it turns out – but his beloved visitor can’t stand the sight of him. Gaining inspiration from a glossy magazine, she is planning a makeover on the living room so that all traces of him will be eradicated from her home once he’s shuffled off this mortal coil; a pure charmer, if there ever was one. Add to this mix their two children, both saddled with a lot of baggage; an alcoholic daughter who picks unsuitable guys, and a gay son fantasist. There’s sibling rivalry; there’s also sibling secrecy, and by entrusting secrets to each other, both children have unwittingly given the other a huge amount of ammunition to be kept in reserve for the time they can both do most damage. That’s enough plot revelation; suffice to say, this is not a family you would want to live next door to. As it progresses you realise that this is actually a very nasty play, full of nasty people; but you kind of don’t want it to stop either.

Nicholas DayIt is a beautifully written, cunningly structured play; if you were to take away the bad language, some of the subject matter and the violence, you would be left with pure Ayckbourn. Nicky Silver has written a play that makes you laugh, and then instantly regret the fact that you found such a dreadful situation funny. Despite the fact that the action takes place over approximately one week and there are only two different locations, you get the feeling that this play has a very wide range; the unseen characters only mentioned in the text all have their own identities too and they all take on quite vivid personalities in your imagination. There are a number of neat twists in the story which keep you topped up with surprises right through to the end, and it’s all told in a concise and punchy one hour and fifty minutes, which even includes a (somewhat brief on the Sunday matinee) interval.

Charlotte RandleThe cast of six give great performances, full of electricity that sparks off each other and keeps the momentum cracking. At the centre is the ghastly Rita, played with huge relish by Isla Blair. Savage, self-centred, mean and cruel, nevertheless she successfully keeps up a dignified persona so you could easily assume she was as nice as pie. She delivers Rita’s spiteful lines with such comic brilliance that you sometimes have to look away to cringe. Nicholas Day (whom we last enjoyed as the Headmaster in The History Boys in Sheffield) is the exasperated Ben, finally telling his wife and family what he thinks of them and fondly reminiscing about his father. For every vicious volley that Miss Blair thwacks at him, Mr Day ricochets it back with suitable venom. They make a lovely couple.

Tom EllisCharlotte Randle is excellent as the daughter Lisa, all smiles and sympathy one minute, all self and self-destruct the next. Her performance is a cunning blend of being sweetly assertive and outrageously manic. I really liked Tom Ellis as Curtis, with his hilarious but sad secret; the plot unexpectedly concentrates more on him in the second act, and he is very convincing as both fantasist and impatient patient. Ben Aldridge appears in just one scene but very nicely conveys the surprisingly complex character of the Estate Agent; and Katy Secombe’s nurse is a delight, dispensing friendliness to those she considers deserve it, and aggression to everyone else; or should that be the other way round. Even her use of the anti-bacterial gel oozes contempt.

Ben AldridgeThis savage play is not for the delicate; nor, as I said earlier, if you’ve been recently bereaved because I think the blackness of the humour would cross over into being positively upsetting. But it’s a great look at a woefully unpleasant family, using terminal illness as a turning point in their relationships. Crisply directed by Mark Brokaw, it’s another winner for the Menier.

Katy SecombePS. Do you ever wonder how much the cast observe the audience during a play? In a big theatre, when the house lights are down, I expect they don’t see much. I’ve no idea – I’ve never been in that situation. But in a small place like the Menier, where you can basically stretch out from the front row and touch the stage, it might be different. There was one point in the second act when Isla Blair was completing a speech which meant she turned from the character she was talking to and looked towards the audience. She then looked down, and glanced up at us again in a double-take. Both Mrs C and I noticed it. Then of course she carried on as if nothing had happened. What on earth was she looking at, we both wondered. Then the penny dropped. Mrs C was wearing the most sensational pair of colourful Doc Martens. That might not be how you imagine her (she’s not a bovver girl), but suffice it to say these boots are florid purple and with a soft fabric like a 70s Indian Restaurant wallpaper. I can only think that Miss Blair caught sight of them and her brain said “What the hell are those? Check them out again!” And, you know, Miss Blair gave us both a devilish twinkle in her eye during curtain call.

Review – The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Curve Studio, Leicester, 26th October 2013

The Beauty Queen of LeenaneAre Martin McDonagh plays like buses? You don’t see any for ages, yet within the space of a few months we’ve seen The Cripple of Inishmaan and now The Beauty Queen of Leenane, currently playing at the atmospheric little Studio theatre at the Curve in Leicester. Like “Inishmaan”, the “Beauty Queen” is a stunningly written, tightly constructed, highly dramatic piece; perhaps not quite a funny as the former, but a whole lot darker too.

Michele MoranIt first appeared in the mid-1990s, set in more or less contemporary County Galway, in the impoverished house of 70 year old Mags and her downtrodden and anger-ridden daughter Maureen, who at the age of 40 has just waited on her mother hand and foot, with no thanks for it and no life as a result. You guess that every attempt that Maureen has ever made to gain some independence has been ruthlessly quashed by her vicious, selfish mother. So when Mags discovers that construction worker Pato, currently working in London, is returning to Leenane for the weekend, she does her best to make sure that Maureen doesn’t hear about it. However, that plan goes astray, Maureen meets Pato, and thus starts a chain of events that ends in tragedy. No more plot details – if you haven’t seen the play, the surprises up Mr McDonagh’s sleeve are well worth concealing.

Nora ConnollyThis is a riveting co-production between the Curve and the Mercury Theatre Colchester, (just like the fantastic Hired Man earlier this year), directed by the Curve’s Artistic Director Paul Kerryson with great feeling for both the tenderness and savageness of the plot. Juliet Shillingford’s set conveys the poverty of Galway twenty years ago with great attention to detail – I loved the cooking range at the back of the set, the 70s/80s style kettle and telephone, the miserable television, the basic radio set. To bring the hostile environment outside into firm focus for the audience, when it rains in Leenane, it rains on stage too – Mrs Chrisparkle and I got a little damp in the front row. It’s uncomfortable, disconcerting, and gives you a very acute sense of reality.

Andrew MacklinThe cast of four hold your attention throughout, each of them giving a fantastic performance. Standing out magnificently is Michele Moran as Maureen, whom we really enjoyed earlier in the year in Dancing at Lughnasa, and who conveys all the character’s pent up emotions with incredible force. The angry victim, the downtrodden drudge, the coquettish virgin, the irritating show-off, the unhinged sufferer, the desperate loner are all aspects of the character that Miss Moran absolutely gets and portrays brilliantly. She’s spectacular in the role, and spectacularly terrifying in many ways too.

The Beauty Queen herselfNora Connolly is the despicable Mags; one can often feel sympathy for a little old lady eking out her final years in loneliness and sadness – but not this little old lady. Manipulative and cruel, the things she does on stage actually make the audience gasp with horror. Nora Connolly makes her irredeemably unpleasant character completely come alive – no pantomime villain this, she is a very real person, and it’s a superb performance.

Stephen HoganWe really enjoyed Andrew Macklin as Pato’s brother Ray; short tempered, not overly intelligent, holding a grudge, and nicely conveying the character’s own mental hang-ups. He speaks his words as though each line is a dagger wound. His second act scene with Maureen was very suspenseful – you kept on thinking that one of them was going to murder the other, but who would it be…? And amongst this nervous-making threesome is Stephen Hogan’s Pato, a refreshingly open, normal bloke who gets caught up in the battle between mother and daughter. I loved his Act Two soliloquy; it really explained what the character was all about and you just knew it was going to pave the way for a melodramatic sad ending. My only criticism of his performance is that when he prepares breakfast for Mags, he knows his way around her kitchen far too well for someone who had never been there before.

It's not going to end well...One very strange experience: there was no applause at the end of the first act. It certainly deserved the traditional pre-interval clapping but you could tell it wasn’t going to materialise so I gamely started it off. I did about fifteen claps but with no one joining in, until Mrs C convinced me I was fighting a losing battle. I think I’ve only experienced that once before, and that was in a very lacklustre play (can’t remember what), but this was an excellent production. I assumed the rather lazy audience just couldn’t be bothered; Mrs C’s opinion was that the audience was so dumbstruck with how horrible the mother was that they couldn’t bring themselves to show any signs of appreciation. Anyway, enthusiastic applause at the end of the play certainly made up for it. It’s a hard-hitting production of a fascinating play that you carry on discussing days afterwards. Not an easy watch – disturbing and shocking in many respects – but horrifically good.

Review – Barry Humphries, The Eat, Pray and Laugh Tour, Milton Keynes Theatre, 23rd October 2013

Eat Pray LaughThe first night (definitely) of Barry Humphries’ farewell tour (allegedly) took place in the distinguished and elegant surroundings of the Milton Keynes Theatre. That’s a sentence that looks unlikely on many levels. But it’s true; for Mrs Chrisparkle and I were amongst the glitterati lucky enough to attend that sumptuous occasion. I’ve seen Barry Humphries just once before, in “A Night with Dame Edna” at the Piccadilly Theatre, circa 1979 if I remember rightly. I went with a couple of school/university friends and I have to say it was one of the funniest evenings at the theatre I can remember. The show started with a substantial address by the Australian cultural attaché Sir Les Patterson; then there was a brief sketch with retired soldier Sandy Stone; and after the interval, a lengthy assault by Dame Edna Everage, to include devastating humiliation of the audience and a mass gladioli rally.

Sir Les PattersonAnd this time round? Structurally, not much has changed. The main difference is that Mr Humphries has now surrounded himself with four good looking dancers and a pianist, who all help to keep the show running along nicely. We find ourselves in Sir Les Patterson’s garden, where he is about to create a pilot for his new TV cooking show. Retired from politics now, but still very much in the media glare, Sir Les has lost none of his persuasive charm where it comes to the ladies, with his tasteful summer clobber and uninhibited personal habits. You’ll be delighted to know that both the barbie and the dunny form part of the routine. Woe betide anyone who foolishly books seats within the front few rows of a Barry Humphries show. You will get involved! Suffice to say Sir Les has a few tricks up his sleeve and some absolutely side-splitting anecdotes. The punch line to the “peanut in the ear” routine is as comedy genius as it is unexpected.

Sandy StoneThrough artful means we also get introduced to Sir Les’ brother Gerrard – a very nice coup de theatre – and by a bizarre and complex way (I think Dame Edna would term it “spooky”) we see the return of Sandy Stone. If this were a routine on Strictly Come Dancing, Craig Revel Horwood would have described the transition from Gerrard to Sandy as “somewhat clunky, darling.” My memory of Sandy Stone from 1979 was that he was a rather nondescript character who created a bit of a “down” between the jollities of the two main comic creations. So when he appeared in this show I was rather expecting the comic atmosphere to ebb away. But actually, this was a most beautiful and touching comic/tragic monologue, superbly delivered, and you would have to be a very hard-hearted person not to have warmed to the old feller. It is completely different from what went before and what comes after, but for me it stood out as a truly stunning vignette, with a really sweet, moving ending.

Dame Edna EverageAfter the interval Pinot Grigio, we get treated to near on ninety minutes with la Grande Dame herself. Long past her 1970s Housewife Superstar persona, she is now virtually a deity. And indeed, Dame Edna has just returned from being spiritual in India, so now she is a self-styled mystic guru with special healing powers to renew the flagging marriages of sad people from Milton Keynes (or in this case, Luton). Delightfully taking us through hilarious anecdotes and reminiscences, and above all interacting with the audience members (a few of them somewhat unwillingly, I wonder why) she continues to do what she does best. Yes, there are a few rough round the edges comedy songs; yes, she still takes the mickey out of the elderly and the coiffurely-challenged. Slightly surreally, Mrs C and I were both reminded of Julian Clary in his Joan Collins Fan Club days; Dame Edna could just as easily started rifling through peoples’ handbags or commenting that they get their hair done by the council. But she didn’t; as her signature song goes, it’s probably because of her “niceness”. A comic creation supreme matched by a comic performance sublime.

Dame Edna all EasternMr Humphries is 79 now, but still has an extraordinarily quick wit and the physical stamina to be on stage for the best part of two and a half hours. Once Dame Edna has dispensed with the legendary gladdies we get some computer generated video footage reminding us of all Mr Humphries’ comic creations, and to the most rousing reception I have heard for a very long time, Mr Humphries himself comes on for a final bow – all velvet jacket and dashing fedora. I can’t remember him ever before appearing as himself to finish off a Dame Edna show, almost providing us with a legal notice, the ocular proof, that she doesn’t really exist. No matter, there was something strangely emotional about that curtain call. Maybe it really is going to be his farewell tour. Maybe?

Dame Edna all featheryThis was the first night of the tour, so could probably be counted as a “preview”, and there were a couple of slightly ragged edges to the presentation which I’m sure will quickly get ironed out. Press night is in November during his Christmas stint at the London Palladium, and the show is touring the entire country between now and March. It’s an incredibly funny night at the theatre and if you’ve never seen Sir Les or Dame Edna live – this just might be your last chance to do so; you won’t regret it.

Photographs from – the tour details are all there too.

Review – The Eighth Annual Malcolm Arnold Festival Gala Concert; Movie Classics with Julian Bliss, Derngate, Northampton, 20th October 2013

Eighth Annual Malcolm Arnold FestivalEvery year in Northampton the Royal and Derngate plays host to the annual Malcolm Arnold Festival, celebrating the life and works of one of the town’s most famous sons. The two day event involves concerts and talks and always culminates in a gala concert given by the Malcolm Arnold Festival Orchestra – the Worthing Symphony Orchestra by any other name – and this year the theme was Movie Classics.

John GibbonsFestival Director Paul Harris welcomed regular conductor John Gibbons to the stage and we were all set to go. First was Klaus Bedelt’s “Pirates of the Caribbean”, a very enjoyable, attacking piece of dramatic music that got all sections of the orchestra pulling together; it served as an excellent overture. Next was the first of three Malcolm Arnold pieces – his suite of music to the film “Inn of the Sixth Happiness”. I can barely remember the film from my dim and distant past, but I was really bowled over by Arnold’s fantastic music, especially the beautiful moody second movement – great work from cellist David Burrowes – and the delightfully escalating Knick Knack Paddiwack-based third movement. Structured a bit like Ravel’s Bolero, which would close the evening’s concert, its constantly building energy and arrangement was a real joy.

Malcolm ArnoldThen we had another of Northampton’s sons, William Alwyn, and his finale music to the film “Odd Man Out”. John Gibbons told us it was written before the film was shot – an unusual way round of doing it – and that the scene depicted by the music would be the suspenseful denouement when the lead character would finally get his come-uppance. It was suitably dark and eerie, and the strings gave it real strength and character – an excellent performance. Next was the main theme from “Schindler’s List”, by John Williams; a beautiful, haunting tune played clearly and sweetly by the leader of the orchestra, Julian Leaper. One of those pieces that can help you drift away after a hard day at work.

Julian BlissThen it was time for the return of Julian Bliss to the Derngate stage. We had very fond memories of his performance with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra last November. Now he was back to play Malcolm Arnold’s Clarinet Concerto No 2, which gave him maximum opportunity to show off his incredible style and range. The first movement ends with a cadenza, Arnold’s instruction being to make it “as jazzy and way out as you please”. Mr Bliss filled that space with some inventive phrases and comic echoes that I found a sheer delight – they were technical fireworks. The second movement was extremely strange, with some very plaintive, meditative harmonies coming from the strings; and the final movement an over-exuberant, maniacally upbeat sequence of ragtime influences which certainly made you smile, even if largely out of incredulity. Mr Bliss sure knows how to perform a rollicking good concerto, which took us in to the interval. Interestingly, he read his music off an iPad, rather than the traditional paper sheet music. Mrs Chrisparkle and I differed as to whether we found this more, or less, distracting than the traditional method. Suffice to say, what it lacks in rustling paper turning, it makes up for in positioning and hardware issues.

Poom PrommachartWe returned to the auditorium to hear Alwyn’s march from “The True Glory”, another short but satisfying upbeat piece, which took us into the perennial favourite, Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue. On the piano, Poom Prommachart, the young Thai pianist who won this year’s Sussex International Piano Competition, and who is definitely a rising star. Although he plays with great feeling and movement, and his performance is enjoyable to watch, I felt it lacked a little light and shade – he seemed to play the whole piece with the same firmness and loudness throughout, without allowing any softer elements in. Similarly, I found the orchestra, at times, became a little muddy with this piece. There were a few sequences where it seemed to lack clarity and organisation. I remember listening to a recording of the Rhapsody, played by George Gershwin himself, and there is no disputing that he absolutely communicated the heart of what he had tried to write – the steely rhythms of a train, America’s national melting pot, New York’s metropolitan madness. I don’t think either our orchestra or soloist really conveyed those messages. It was followed though by John Barry’s “Out of Africa”, a very serene and relaxing piece that can wash all over you like a Radox bath; beautifully played.

Julian Bliss returned for two more short pieces – Malcolm Arnold’s “You know what sailors are”, which is a lark-a-minute sketch of musical eye-tiddly-eye-tie which ends with its foot in the air and a dimple in its cheek; then on to the more familiar “Flight of the Bumble-Bee”, Rimsky-Korsakov at his most show-off, with the usual violin being replaced by the clarinet in a fast and furious whirlwind of woodwind. For someone so talented, Julian Bliss comes across as remarkably unstarry and grounded, and nicely self-deprecating in his couple of short speeches – how refreshing that is.

Worthing Symphony OrchestraThe final number of the night was Ravel’s Bolero, that extraordinary exercise in repetition that grows from the softest hint of a tune to an enormous theatre-exploding frenzy of orchestration. We’ve seen the RPO perform it twice before, in 2010 and 2012, and it’s always a thrilling finale. Again for me, this performance of the Bolero didn’t work quite as well. I felt when it began that it simply started too loudly, and that if they were going to keep the progression up, by the time it finished it would have to be deafening. And so it was, with the result that it lacked a certain subtlety; any opportunities for quirky interpretation were traded in for all-out attack. It must be such hard work to keep that snare drum going, unwaveringly, throughout the entire performance, and our timpanist just about carried it off. The part involving the celeste came over as rather harsh and jangly too. But nevertheless it was still an enjoyable performance, and sent us all home stirred and uplifted. Not long to go now before the Royal Philharmonic’s 2013-14 season starts. We’ll be attending four of their concerts. Always a privilege!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 18th October 2013

Screaming Blue MurderUnfortunately we had to miss the last Screaming Blue Murder so this was our first burst of SBM comedy for a month. Our host as usual was the extremely funny Dan Evans, who coped manfully with the lady who wanted him to buy a new suit (it’s true, he has been wearing it for at least five years now) and who scoffed at his regular attempt to flog a few books. Admirably he tried out some new material but it kind of fell by the wayside so he reverted to the tried and tested stuff which certainly helped the newbies warm the place up.

Nathan CatonThe three acts consisted of one new one to us and two we had seen before but a long time ago – before I started blogging this regular comedic feast. First up was Nathan Caton, who we hadn’t seen before, and he is a total breath of fresh air. Original, inventive material combined with a likeable personality and a very subtle way of making his point. He had some brilliant anti-racist scenarios which led us all down the garden path beautifully, like the little old lady who doesn’t like to say “black”; some great “your mum” lines; and new insights into dealing with an upstart younger brother. Frankly, we could have watched him all night long.

Howard ReadOur second act was Howard Read, who we didn’t remember until his act started, and then it all came flooding back and I think it was identical to the one we saw a couple of years ago. He has a very quiet, stylish, respectable persona, which lends itself well to the main thrust of his act, which is how having children has ruined his life. His comic songs are extremely funny, and will certainly make you think again about ways to keep the kids quiet when they should be asleep.

Phil NicholLast up was Phil Nichol, again I was expecting him to be new to us, but when he came on stage I instantly recognised his manic Canadian-based audience interaction from an SBM session a few years ago. He’s loud, out-of-control, constantly surprising, and very funny. I really liked his circle of London accents, and his comedy music is an assault on the senses (in a good way). It felt like his act just went too quickly.

So all in all a very good night as usual, with a very nicely balanced programme. Numbers this season still seem a bit down at the moment, you can’t get better value for your comic pound than coming to this show, so get booking!

Review – Le Corsaire, English National Ballet, Milton Keynes Theatre, 17th October 2013

Le CorsaireIf you’re into your classical ballet, I think it’s safe to say that the Milton Keynes Theatre was “The Place To Be” yesterday for the opening performance of the first ever full production of Le Corsaire by a UK company. Unsurprisingly the place was packed with enthusiastic balletomanes who felt they were about to witness an important evening in the history of ballet. It’s really bizarre that this is the first such production; I am sure I have seen it staged in full before – but it may have been either at the Paris Opera or by the Royal New Zealand ballet. Anyway, I was as enthusiastic as anyone to see what was in store.

 Vadim MuntagirovIt sure is lavish. The sets and costumes are by Bob Ringwood of Batman fame, and evoke an exotic atmosphere of 19th century Eastern Promise. You would expect Aladdin and his genie to emerge any minute from the Market squares and minarets, and it would be a perfect setting for a revival of Kismet. The attention to detail is superb; the craftsmanship that went into the physical creation of those sets and costumes is immense. The Pasha’s sedan chair and entourage, the pirates’ horde of treasures, the dresses of the harem girls all shimmer and shine with jewels and crystals, giving an incredible image of rich luxury. And what a delight to see and hear a full orchestra! Mrs Chrisparkle and I were reflecting that it’s something you rarely see; most dance nowadays seems to be accompanied by a backing track or at best a handful of musicians; and in the big musicals the orchestra is often kept obscured at the back or even completely out of sight. They were terrific, and filled the theatre with the ballet’s rich score.

Alina CojocaruBut it’s all about the dance, isn’t it? Technically, it was a complete treat from start to finish. There are few things more serene than the exquisite elegance of a ballerina, or more inspiring than the athletic bravado of her male counterpart; and this production is crammed with both. It was so rewarding to see Petipa and Sergeyev’s choreography after having recently seen another company perform Swan Lake to the drabbest, most inelegant choreography imaginable. It’s no wonder this form of artistry survives the decades. Conrad, the corsair himself, is danced by Vadim Muntagirov with incredible joie-de-vivre, performing his leaps and twists with great accuracy and amazing strength. His love, Medora, whom he has to rescue from the slave trader Lankendem, is the gorgeous Alina Cojocaru, winner of almost every award under the sun, who simply radiates beauty in everything she does. There’s hardly any point describing the manner in which these incredibly skilful people dance – they are just extraordinary, I cannot analyse further on their abilities. It’s hardly surprising they stop the show after every dance to take a bow.

Dmitri Gruzdyev & Erina TakahashiDmitri Gruzdyev, member of English National Ballet for twenty years now, is a characterful lowlife Lankendem, a slave trader in it purely for the money and the sex, you’d imagine. He couldn’t care less that Conrad loves Medora, and gives some delightfully dismissive “so what” gestures when challenged. When captured, he becomes a snivelling coward too, which was very nicely portrayed. I was very impressed with his Act One pas de deux with Erina Takahashi as Gulnare; she danced with incredible grace, but he also gave her great support. Similarly I also really enjoyed the partnership of Yonah Acosta as Birbanto and Crystal Costa (Lead Villager) – not only was it beautiful but it had an injection of quite a lot of fun too. But probably the audience’s favourite was a stunning performance by Junor Souza as the slave Ali, with some superb solos and excellent character playing – I don’t think he’s going to remain at “Junior Soloist” level for long. I’m not entirely sure about the decision to make the Pasha a figure of fun. Mrs C thought it was a bit too cartoony, and whilst I quite enjoyed Michael Coleman’s performance I did find the character of his assistant, with his constant flapping around him like Pingu on speed, rather irritating. We were, however, both very impressed at the performances of the children from the Tring Park School – keeping perfect time and acting as elegantly as it is possible for children to do.

Yonah AcostaThe only other aspect that slightly disappointed me was not the fault of the English National Ballet, or Adolph Adam, or Petipa and Sergeyev; it’s just that for me the third and final act rather runs out of steam. There’s the long scene representing the Pasha’s dream of his harem – a simple device to get a full dance sequence out of your top ballerinas, but there’s no story element to it; then the final denouement takes place quite rapidly, and I found Conrad’s shooting Birbanto a little underwhelming – sorry if I have ruined the story for you (it might have worked better if Mr Acosta hadn’t started to get up off the floor until the curtain had finally come down all the way to stage level); the much anticipated shipwreck scene is rather quick and (apart from Ali’s athletic exit) doesn’t really contain any dance as such; and the very final scene is more of a whimper than a bang. But this is still a tremendous production and chock-full of superb performances, and I am sure it will have a hugely successful tour.

Crystal CostaAudience etiquette question #1: I sat next to two elderly ladies, absolutely enthralled by the production, and politely confining their intelligent conversation about the show to the intervals. However, one of them spent the entire evening waving the most rattly fan in front of her face – it sounded like she was juggling a bag of marbles all night. It was very distracting. I didn’t say anything, but I am sure others would have been equally disturbed by her. Should I have said something?

Junor SouzaAudience etiquette question #2: At curtain call a gentlemen in the row in front and about four seats to my left couldn’t contain his enthusiasm and stood up during the applause when Mr Acosta came on and stayed standing for the rest of the call. It’s a genuine source of embarrassment when you start a standing ovation and no one else follows you, but I always think it looks really awful if you then decide to sit down again. So I say, stand up, and stay stood up if that’s how much you enjoyed it. However, another man sat behind him remonstrated with him for standing up and asked him to sit down. “Didn’t you enjoy it?” asked the standing man. “Yes but I want to see it” said the seated one. Abashed, the man sat down again. Are there rules about ovating alone during a curtain call?

Review – An Evening with Petula Clark, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 10th October 2013

An evening with Petula ClarkIt was over a year ago, whilst we were on holiday in Malta, that the Royal and Derngate announced that they would be hosting An Evening with Petula Clark. I’ve never been what you would call a massive fan, but I am fond of many of her 1960s hits, and she is indeed “A Big Name”, and one that I would never thought I would get the chance to see in person. I guessed the show would sell out rapidly, so I asked a kind soul back in the UK to get some tickets for me; and I’m very pleased I did.

Before we saw the show, I read a review from earlier in the tour which implied that her voice had declined disappointingly, so I was expecting the worst. There are few things more cringey than someone who used to “have it”, still trying to trot it out despite the fact they lost it ages ago. Well, have no fear. Whatever “it” is, Petula Clark still has it in droves.

Petula Clark 2013Backed by a terrific five piece band, Miss Clark gives us two and a quarter hours of old hits, new songs and some brilliant covers. She starts off with a couple of songs I’d not heard before – from the new album I guess, but early on she treats us to great renditions of “Don’t sleep in the subway” and “Colour my world”, before going on to some enjoyable recollections of appearing in Finian’s Rainbow with Fred Astaire. She then said she would do a song from that show, and I was half-delighted and half-alarmed at the prospect, as “How are things in Glocca Morra” inevitably brings a lump to my throat, for it brings back happy/sad childhood memories and I can be a soft old thing on occasions. Anyway, thank goodness it was “Look to the rainbow”, which she sang in her quaint Hollywood Irish accent to an updated rhythm and was excellent. Then, blow me, she only went and did “Glocca Morra” too. Well yes, my eyes did well up, but it was worth it, because again she re-invented that sentimental old song in really quite a funky way. Other great numbers in the first half were a very beautiful version of John Lennon’s “Imagine”, a multi-lingual “This is my song”, a Nashville style “My love” (which again really made you appreciate an old favourite in a new way) and a bright and breezy “You’re the one”. Those last two songs being my favourites, I went into the interval well pleased. The interval was actually a good opportunity to reflect with Mrs Chrisparkle just how much more we were enjoying the evening than we had expected.

Petula ClarkIn the second half, other early highlights were a new (to me at any rate) song about Memphis, a stunning cover, accompanying herself on the piano, of Elvis’ Love Me Tender (together with a very amusing anecdote about her meeting Elvis) and a thumping “I Know a Place”. I didn’t know that she had played Norma Desmond in Sunset (Goddam) Boulevard for two years, and she sang “With one look” from that show, which made me think she was probably sensational in the role. She did a pastiche 60s recollection number which evolved into “The Other Man’s Grass” which I amused myself by singing along to, as I remember my parents always hated it. There was a lovely change of mood with “Someone to watch over me” from the Gershwin Brothers’ Oh Kay (the Gertrude Lawrence recording was another one I remember from when I was dandled on my mother’s knee), again with Miss Clark on the piano. She has a great new song, “Cut copy me” which she performed and I was really impressed with both the song and the band’s arrangement – well worth downloading, I’d say. She got the audience to join in with her 1961 hit “Sailor” – that gives you an insight into the general demographic attending last night; then there was a rousing “I couldn’t live without your love”, a hugely crowd-pleasing “Downtown”, and finally a charming song about a rainbow of which I didn’t get the title; but if you’re a fan, you probably know it.

We came out of the show, feeling elated and privileged to have seen a great performer. There’s only a few more dates left in this tour, but absolutely well worth catching if you can.

Review – Richard Alston Dance Company, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 8th October 2013

Richard Alston Dance CompanyMy expectations were high. The Richard Alston Dance Company’s annual tour is always on our theatrical calendar because they never fail to entertain and impress with their strong skills and creative dance pieces. However, it’s not often during an evening of dance that you have to pinch yourself to make sure you’re not dreaming. The company’s new tour started last night in Northampton with a programme so full of exquisite choreography and stunning performances, that it must rank as one of the best dance nights we’ve ever seen – and I’ve been watching dance for well over thirty years now.

Ihsaan de BanyaThe company has some fresh faces and some familiar ones, and each gives the maximum onstage commitment throughout the night. It’s great to see the two new apprentices turning in such accomplished performances – Ihsaan de Banya’s athletic enthusiasm, and Jennifer Hayes’ natural charm and elegance radiate the stage in The Devil in the Detail, the first piece in the programme. We saw this dance last year and enjoyed it, but this year it seemed to have an additional spark and beauty. Performed to the live piano music of Scott Joplin, it’s a champagne sorbet of a dance; light, amusing, delicate, but with a very satisfying punch. From the moment Nancy Nerantzi appears and weaves an enticing spell to the “Maple Leaf Rag”, to be joined by Liam Riddick and his incredible physical agility you know you’re in for a real treat. As ragtime dance follows ragtime dance, you become more and more engaged with the dancers,Jennifer Hayes observing their own individual relationships with each other, and your smile widens as it all progresses. Nicholas Bodych is a terrific new member of the company and is a perfect partner to the extraordinarily expressive Nathan Goodman for the “Stoptime Rag”. “Cascades” starts with one of Mr Riddick’s explosive solos, where he shows his amazing talent that deservedly got him nominated for one of last year’s National Dance Awards. I particularly also loved Oihana Vesga Bujan’s earthy sensuality in this dance. But it was all wonderful, from start to finish. At the end of it, Mrs Chrisparkle and I turned to each other and started searching for superlatives.

Nancy NerantziThe second, short piece is Brink, choreographed by the superb Martin Lawrance, first performed in 2007 and here revived with a totally new cast. What hits you at first with this piece is the incredibly forceful accordion music of Ayuo’s Eurasion Tango; it’s one of those pieces of music that just cries out for inventive choreography – and it certainly gets it. Two fabulous duets with Elly Braund and Mr Goodman, then Miss Vesga Bujan and Mr Riddick are full of intricacy and intimacy; you get a powerful sense of strength tempered with submission as each dancer envelops their partner. I was only sorry this dance didn’t last longer. Liam RiddickAfter a pause comes Richard Alston’s Lachrymae, the first of two dances to music by Benjamin Britten in his centenary year. Three duets this time, continuing the theme of intimacy started in Brink, but with a stronger sense of yearning and passion. It ends with all three couples performing side by side, and there was something about that final scene that I found very moving – I can’t explain exactly why, it must just be the power of dance. It was performed throughout with immaculate precision and true emotion; and I also really liked Belinda Ackermann’s pseudo-Indian costumes, which lent an additional air of the exotic.

Nicholas BodychWe didn’t get to the theatre early enough to listen to the pre-show talk, although some friends did, and they said they found it very useful in understanding what was behind each of the three pieces. Mrs C and I were both slightly confused by the narrative in the final piece, Illuminations, about the relationship between Rimbaud and Verlaine, and maybe it would have been clearer if we had attended the talk; although, the programme notes explain the story pretty well, and, to be honest, I don’t mind not fully understanding a dance narrative. Nathan GoodmanSometimes you can overanalyse and try to put into words something that actually is best – maybe only – properly expressed in dance. It’s actually quite a symmetrical piece, full of great choreography and some really beautiful dancing, not only from the soloists but also from the accompanying dancers. What I can tell you is that there were some superb individual scenes within this dance – Rimbaud’s brash opening solo (Mr Riddick at his absolute best); Oihana Vesga Bujanthe way he sorts his way through a crowd presenting a barrier to Verlaine, dismissing them one by one till he gets to the suitably imperious Mr Goodman, which is nicely contrasted with a similar scene at the end but with a much more desperate Rimbaud; Verlaine’s entrance carrying a beautiful girl on his shoulders, only to be replaced by Rimbaud on his shoulders later on; and Mr Riddick’s final departing solo. His depiction of the positive younger man falling into despair and suffering mental torture has a huge impact – it’s an outstanding performance.

Elly BraundIt’s so rewarding to have an evening of dance where the choreography is challenging, expressive, varied and beautiful, and where the dancers rise to those challenges and really live those emotions so they convey to the audience a vivid world of drama and excitement, expressed through the medium of dance. This really is a company on the tip-toppiest form; every single one of the dancers is a powerhouse of creativity and skill, and it’s a programme of unadulterated magic. After Northampton, their tour continues to Wycombe, Edinburgh, the Barbican, Glasgow and Guildford (and Moscow, if you like the cold). Honestly, this is as good as it gets.