It’s a very different atmosphere watching a comedy act in Northampton’s beautiful Royal Theatre than when you see the Screaming Blue Murder acts in the Underground or the big-hitters in the Derngate. It’s a little more formal and slightly more reserved. Nevertheless, you still feel nice and close to the stage, so it doesn’t preclude a little audience participation; and if you’ve been lubricated with the old Chenin Blanc, you can still let your comedy hair down.
Who doesn’t love Father Ted? When we saw that Ardal O’Hanlon was touring we thought we definitely had to see what his stand-up routine was like. I don’t think I’ve seen him do it before, even on television. So I really didn’t know what to expect.
I certainly didn’t expect to see a warm-up comedian before the interval. No problem; Mrs Chrisparkle and I always like to see new comics. On for the first 25 minutes came Pat Cahill. He was all wide eyed and enthusiastic, with an engaging persona and a nice sense of the ridiculous. In many respects, I found his act extremely old-fashioned; I don’t mean this in a pejorative sense, but it was a bit like watching a star comedy TV show from the 60s or 70s – introductory patter, a few comedy songs, a smattering of physical mime; a bit of everything really; and, for the most part, pretty clean. With adverts in the middle, this would have been perfect for the half hour show on London Weekend TV at 7pm on a Friday night. His material was somewhat hit and miss; a little like the Parable of the Sower, quite a lot of it fell on stony ground, but that which fell on good ground was very nourishing and entertaining. However, I wouldn’t be truthful if I said that we went into the interval feeling thoroughly warmed up. I’m sure in the environment of a comedy club he would come across much funnier.
So what of Ardal O’Hanlon? I guess Father Ted is history now (gosh yes, it finished in 1998 would you believe) because he looked much older than I was expecting. His style is very relaxed and informal, very inclusive and private – you feel like you are having a one-on-one chat with him in the pub. Superbly self-deprecating, he is easy to identify with – for example he asks the women in the audience why they always prefer the slick guys to the awkward ones (rather sweetly, one lady shouted out, “we don’t!” – but I know she was lying).
He gives you a nice insight into life in rural Ireland, including a really funny routine about why people might leave their little town or village. His excellent material includes an examination of Catholicism, anecdotes about his wife and family, and even the fact that he came 3rd in a Father Dougal lookalike contest. His funny observations lasted almost 90 minutes, which is pretty good value, and the whole thing was very charming and relaxing. But when you think back on his set, it’s hard to identify any particular themes or structure to the show. He wasn’t quite as laid back as Shappi Khorsandi, but not far off. A very neat, precise performer; at the end he bowed to the audience very formally and gracefully, almost like a ballet dancer would. A class act, for sure. His tour continues to December – if you think he’s the kind of act you’d enjoy, then you’d be right!
It’s incredible to think it, but it is now 18 years since Matthew Bourne’s original production of his sensational revitalisation of Swan Lake first hit our stages. At the age of 18, it’s now come of age. It can vote, get married and go to war. By definition then, it can no longer be an enfant terrible, more a pillar of the community. But even if the audience knows full well what to expect, each performance is an assault on the senses. You still get those frissons of witnessing the avant-garde, being challenged by the sight of an all-male troupe of swans, observing the veiled (or not so veiled) hints of homoeroticism, gratefully appreciating the first act humour, powerlessly suffering the desperate tragedy of the final act.
This is one of those shows that we always see every time it comes around, and this was probably our ninth or tenth visit. We last saw it three years ago and appreciated then that there had been a few minor changes to keep it moving and contemporary. Today there are more changes; nothing drastic, just a few embellishments and emphasis changes, and some re-shaped choreography in Acts Three and Four. These make the swans more menacing as a group (although perhaps less menacing individually), and make the Prince even more tortured. This may well be due also to the amazing performance of Sam Archer as the Prince, who actually played the Prince when we saw it in 2010 but who I think has now really got into the role in a much greater depth. I found Act Four more moving than usual and I admit I had to brush away a tear when the Prince finally collapses dead on the bed (sorry if I’ve ruined the ending for you). One of the swans (Tom Cummings maybe – a little hard to tell without a full cast list) picked up the dying Prince and held him in his arms in mockery of the Act Two position that the Prince had adopted when he was being entranced by the Swan. It was a stunning visual image.
Some other subtle changes include having recognisable celebrities in the Act Two bar scene – it always did include the thick-set tweedy woman who visibly warmed to the charms of the younger girls – but I see she is now characterised as June Buckridge (from Frank Marcus’ Killing of Sister George). We now also have the appearances of Quentin Crisp and Joe Orton turning up too, so I think it’s fair to say that bar has become a little more metrosexual (at least) in its nature. The girlfriend character is now even more badly behaved during the gala ballet scene – in addition to all the little transgressions she used to do she now beats out the rhythm of the music like a tattoo on the front ledge of the box, to the disgust, naturally, of the Queen. The choreography for the Act Three waltz seems to have become even more lascivious, with a lot of appropriately raunchy hip-swivelling, which made it all the more entertaining as a result. However, Mrs Chrisparkle thought the end to the third act looked a little messier in comparison with previous performances. Perhaps clarity of storytelling got sacrificed for the whirlwind of activity that takes place in those final few very important seconds; she didn’t think that was quite up to scratch.
It’s still a sensational show though. Sam Archer is superb as the Prince (even though for me Scott Ambler remains the best) and for the performance we saw, his Swan was danced by Glenn Graham. I think that’s a lucky role for a cover to perform. Our first Swan was Will Kemp, understudying Adam Cooper I believe, and he was mesmeric. The Swan/Stranger role is one where you can absolutely show off and stun your audience. Mr Graham was enthrallingly brilliant. As the Swan he was so intense; his incredible ability to hold a fixed gaze really heightened the tension between him and the Prince. His dancing was immaculate too. As the Act Three Stranger, that same steely glare helps him dominate proceedings and I absolutely loved the way he led the Allegro Molto Vivace coda (that Tchaikovsky originally put in Act One) – full of brilliant attack with all the boys stage right lunging their way into the coquettish girls’ stage left area and back again; superbly entertaining.
In the performance we saw, the Queen was danced by Michela Meazza and she was superb. Sometimes the Queen can be a little static – so aloof and over-starchy that she barely moves. This Queen danced magnificently, whilst still bringing all the cruelty and horror of the unloving parent to the role and nicely enhancing the humour of her selecting escorts from the talent on offer. To be honest, if I may be so bold, and if you would kindly forgive my directness, gentle reader, she’s the original QUILF. Anjali Mehra played the Girlfriend with huge enthusiasm and a great sense of fun; you got a sense that this girlfriend truly regretted her involvement in any underworld plot to discredit the Prince. From the ensemble, I really enjoyed the partnership of Chantelle Gotobed and Luke Jackson as the Italian Princess and escort – he the know-it-all but ineffectual celebrity, she the girlfriend from Hell, encouraging the Stranger to be as naughty with her as you could decently show on a Saturday matinee. But everyone put their heart and soul into the show and it was a fantastic performance.
It was a sell-out, so if you want to see it on its current tour, don’t hang about booking tickets, get them bought now! It’s touring through till May 2014 including trips to Belgium and Israel. Go on, you won’t regret it.
PS. The audience were disappointingly chatty; because the music is recorded, I wondered if that signalled to people that it’s perfectly ok to talk over it in a way that you wouldn’t if it was live. In case you were wondering, it isn’t.
PPS. I bumped into Messrs Harry Francis and Simon Hardwick, late of A Chorus Line, who are in Leicester rehearsing the Christmas show, Chicago. It was very nice finally to be able to say a quick hello to them. Mr Francis said he thought Chicago was going to be great (you heard it here first) – had I booked? I hadn’t then, but I have now!
Once more it’s time for that winning combination of a super compère, three fabulous acts and two lovely intervals that go to make up the entertainment orgy that is Screaming Blue Murder at the Derngate. Obviously wounded by previous audience comments that compère Dan Evans was wearing the same suit yet again, this time he turned up in a suave, sophisticated, very nearly matching jacket and trousers that would have looked really trendy on Terry Wogan in about 1975. I know that’s a bit cruel. I actually got a feel of the material and it’s very sturdy quality stuff; and I agree – to gentlemen of a certain age like Dan and me, that mid-range brown is definitely the new black.
Dan’s still bringing out new material each time he comes here, which is great for us regular attendees. He’s such a naturally funny guy anyway that just his warm-up interaction with the audience is worth the entrance price anyway. This week he coped admirably with a call-centre manager, a conveyancer, a heavily pregnant lady, a newbie lady from Leeds and the regular front row policeman and his sons. It’s like one big happy family really.
First up was someone new to us, Stu Goldsmith; an engaging and likeable young guy, who got off to a good start when a member of the audience just walked out the moment he went on stage – never to return. He had some great material about dating websites and how couples and singles view each other and manipulate each other, which was not only very funny but also insightful. A very good start to the evening.
Next, and in a change to the advertised programme, it was Tania Edwards, a very funny lady who based a lot of her act on the fact that she has one of the poshest voices this side of Chelsea. Despite her appearance she doesn’t hold back with some hard hitting material that you wouldn’t expect from such a glamorous lady. She kept up some good banter with the crowd and we’d definitely be happy to see her again.
However, everything that went before was but a build up to the headline act, Markus Birdman, whom we had seen here once before and I remembered as being a complete hoot. He is the most mischievous of comics; you completely trust him to blow you away with inventive and fresh material, which he does with effortless confidence and friendliness. His rapport with the audience is instant and solid – you feel you know him so well; imagine your favourite cousin, but funnier. If I tell you that he regaled us with the two best jokes about the speed of ejaculate you are ever likely to hear, you’ll get some idea of his act. I think the fact that his father is a vicar helps him to see the funny side of life from many angles, so his material is very varied and wide-ranging. He’s also very generous with his time and gave us a good long act; even then the crowd was wanting more. One of those acts who you still laugh about several days later.
I think there’s one more Screaming Blue Murder left this season – alas we can’t attend. Looking forward to more in the New Year!
We booked tickets to this concert on the strength of two songs that we both know and enjoy – “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” and of course “Suddenly I See”. We had no idea about the rest of her back catalogue or current music, so we didn’t have any particular expectation of how the evening would develop, and you could say our attendance was a leap of faith. I’m pleased to say it turned out to be a very worthwhile leap indeed.
There was a slightly odd feel to the structure of the evening; for instance, at the bar. We arrived and did our usual trick of ordering a couple of Chenin Blancs to take into the show and another couple for the interval – but we were told they were not accepting interval orders that night because they weren’t sure how long it would be and whether they would have time to get drinks ready for it. As it happened, the interval came at 8.40, and there would have been bags of time to prepare the drinks. As a result I had to queue again at the bar for the interval, and, as I was wearing my Invisible Suit, I had to wait a long time to get served, which meant the queue to buy the CD of the support act (read on below…) was immense and so we ended up not joining it. Humph.
Then there was the audience itself. I checked the R&D website earlier in the day and the whole theatre was pretty much a sell-out. But as we took our seats about five minutes before the show was due to start, whole banks of seats were still empty. “Must be because there is a support act, and people will arrive late”, we assumed. Still, how did they know there would be a support act? It didn’t say so on the tickets…. Anyway, the start time of 8pm came and went. Then 8.05pm. At about 8.08pm a “roadie” (how hip am I?) came on, twiddled a few knobs with the machines and instruments, and wandered off. At this stage I remarked to Mrs Chrisparkle that the whole presentation was giving an impression of an amateur, rather cheap affair – it wasn’t giving me much hope for a top class professional show.
Then this scruffy young chap ambled on, picked up a guitar, looked at us in surprise as if he didn’t expect an audience to be there, and quietly said “hi I’m Billy Lockett” and started to play us a song. At this point the man sat in front of Mrs C went into a frenzy of excitement. To every guitar chord that Mr Lockett played, he head-banged rhythmically and repeatedly, feeling his way into his groove. He disco-danced in his seat (not really appropriate to the style of music being played to be honest), and, in the words of Kool and the Gang, basically “got down on it”. Frankly, he looked a bit of a pillock. “He must have his fans in” said Mrs C. And sure enough, shortly afterwards Mr Lockett revealed that he was Northampton born and bred and would be playing a local gig in a few weeks’ time. He’d brought some CDs with him that he would sell and sign in the interval. And, do you know what? He was really, really good. No wonder the queue to buy his CD was so long. I’d describe his style as comfortable folk rock; he has a warm, rich voice and, cliché though it may be, he really made his guitar sing. No criticism intended, but he was the kind of artist Alan Partridge would adore. We were incredibly impressed; and today I’ve downloaded all his songs from iTunes.
But of course, K T Tunstall was the main attraction. I was surprised that she didn’t have a backing band – but she’s just there, herself, alone, decked out in glitzy trousers, with a few guitars, a keyboard and a tambourine. And a clever, hidden computer that layers a backing track for each song in front of your eyes (or ears). First she gets the drumbeat going by knocking out a basic rhythm on the body of the guitar (record, wait for it to carry on without her), then maybe a tambourine shake or two (record, comes back at you with the already established drumbeat), then a double click of the fingers a few times (record, that sounds like extra percussion), finally add maybe a little vocal humming or “woo-hoo”-ing (record, now you’ve got backing singers) and the whole cumulative effect is as haunting as it is technically fascinating.
She did – naturally – perform Black Horse and Cherry Tree (about halfway through the show) and Suddenly I See (as part of the encore). The other songs were all new to us, but I have to say, they blew us away with their beauty, their fun, and their style. You know that rather wonderful (and rare) feeling when you buy a new album and every single new track is a delight – well that’s rather what that evening felt like. She was on stage for the best part of an hour and a half, during which time she had very friendly and entertaining banter with us too. Despite being on the big Derngate stage and with a full audience, the whole thing had the intimate feel of a cabaret. The sound quality was sensational – and the light show atmospheric and beautiful; congratulations to whoever did the lighting design. That backing track computer really came into its own for the encore. Not only did KT get us all to sing the words “suddenly I see” which she locked into the computer so that our singing came back out at us as backing singers, but for the last song, Chimes, she set her own voice and instrumentation on repeat on the computer so that it carried on once she had said goodbye and left the stage, and even as we were leaving the auditorium. It was like a very slow lingering fond farewell to a great evening. And today, I’m downloading all her songs from iTunes too.
So the scores on the doors for the evening are: two acts we have never seen before, plus loads of great songs, multiplied by superbly entertaining performances, equals two new fans for each. An idyllic evening of great music – I highly recommend it. You can see the dates for the rest of the tour here and if you’re local and want to support Billy Lockett on his “hometown headline show” (alas we’re already committed elsewhere that night) the details are here.
PS Despite the ushers telling everyone as they came in that photography was not allowed, the entire auditorium was constantly being littered with little flashes of flash camera, inevitably followed up by an usher tracking down the guilty party and asking them to stop. There were a few visually stunning scenes where KT was doing beautiful big numbers under a smoky funnel of whirling light that were unfortunately marred by these irritating flash interruptions. On our way out Mrs C personally thanked one of the ushers for attempting to stop what she described as one of her pet irritations. Let’s hear it for the ushers!
You can be forgiven, gentle reader, for having forgotten that I hadn’t finished telling you about our most recent trip to India, as it was four months ago that I left the story dangling with just one more day to recall with you – which was our trip to Dharavi. Now, you might think, what on earth would possess anyone specifically to visit Mumbai’s hugest slum area, with an estimated population of anything up to a million people. It’s hardly nice for wealthy westerners to go and gawp at their poverty, is it? And that’s a very hard question to answer, because yes, on the face of it, I would agree; but actually to visit the place, meet the people, observe their endeavours, and marvel at their ability to overcome what fate has chucked at them, is a really humbling experience.
We met our guide Amish and he took us to Charni Road Station, from where we would get the train to Dharavi, getting off at a stop called Mahim Junction. Although we’d played about on the trains before, this was our first experience of actually travelling on one. And it’s a real eye-opener. Nothing seems particularly unusual at first – you get on, find a seat and wait for the train to depart. What’s fascinating is when you approach the first station. The train slows down but barely stops, maybe for five to ten seconds at the most. This is why everyone hurls themselves on and off the train whilst it’s still moving. Now, I have great respect for the Indian people; they are charming, caring, polite and obliging; until it comes to trains. Getting on a train and nabbing a place to sit down is an act of war. There’s only room for the quick and the dead, as the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle used to say. If you’re young and strong you elbow weaker mortals out of the way as you dash for a vacant seat. The older and slower try to slither to the sidelines lest they be trampled underfoot. That famous Indian respect for the elderly evaporates before your eyes. You have never seen such unapologetic aggression displayed en masse. We were gobsmacked. No wonder they have to have women-only carriages.
Although Mahim Junction isn’t in Dharavi itself – it’s a short walk away – your route takes you past some families whose only place to live is on the street. It’s quite a wide pavement, and they’ve allocated themselves areas that equate to their own living space. You might see such people anywhere in India, but it made us think that if you have this level of large-scale homelessness outside Dharavi, what on earth would it look like when you got there? But we realised that these people are the really unlucky ones, for the slum dwellers of Dharavi do actually have rooms, roofs and shelter.
A pathway takes you over a very wide footbridge where the trains pass beneath on their way from the city centre to all points due north. As we crossed over, we saw that the trains were just stopped there, for no apparent reason, and their passengers were just hanging out of the doorways, as they do, looking for a sign that their journey would continue. It was like an image of them all frozen in time; packed like sardines, going nowhere, powerless against the state machine that would decide when and how they would make progress. Crossing further over the bridge you come to a spot that, in a grander location might be described as a balcony with a commanding view over all Dharavi; and your attention is primarily drawn to a gaudily painted corrugated iron shack with “WELCOME” boldly written on its front wall. Visually, it looks like an ironic statement; but actually, I think it’s genuine. This is their home and you are welcome to visit.
You walk down the stairs, and there you are, instantly in the heart of Dharavi; a wide, commercial High Street full of all kinds of people, many dressed extremely respectfully, involved in some form of trade. This is not a lazy place. To survive here, you have to be hard working and industrious, doing maybe heavy or physically demanding work in a cramped, probably ill-equipped environment. The first business we visited was a small bakery where a dozen or more young guys were baking biscuits and rolls, laying them out to cool, packaging them up and sending them off with a chap on a bicycle to their various customers. I don’t know about you, but that’s not what would have come to my mind if I’d thought about an “Indian slum”.
There are so many different businesses there, many of them based on recycling bits of rubbish that have been specifically imported from the west for the purpose. Some of them are things you would simply never imagine. There were the guys who snipped down multi-coloured bits of material into tiny shreds that would be used as packing or cushion filler. There was the man who salvaged and renewed tiny pieces of computer hardware and parts of white goods, seated on a filthy floor trying to make some sense out of the wreckage of old bits of plastic and metal scattered all around him. Another man was painstakingly bashing out and making good old paint cans so that they could be reused. There was a workshop where a team of guys were creating new-ish jeans out of cut-up pieces of old jeans, and a man spent his day ironing garments with the oldest, heaviest iron you have ever seen.
Very alarming to see were the two guys who spent the day dyeing material in two old vats, trudging around their tiny workshop barefoot, whilst the floor was swimming in chemicals. What it must do to their skin isn’t worth imagining; no health and safety regulations here. Still, when the choice is to work in a hostile environment and have an income to support your family, or no work and no income, there isn’t much of a choice for them. OK, maybe your life expectancy might not be more than 50; but without it, it might not be more than 30, so it’s a no-brainer. They seemed resigned to their plight, but we felt absolutely no sense of them resenting our presence or criticising us for being there. As always in India, we felt completely welcome.
There were three other sets of people whom we met in Dharavi who made a particular, lasting impression. There was one garment workshop where the owner had saved his profits so successfully that he had been able to invest in a huge modern knitting machine. A big computerised console, it covered a large worktop space and he was immensely proud of it. I hope it brings him much success. We were also privileged to be invited to take tea with two elders of the community from the Dharavi trading association; the man who intervened in business disputes between the traders, and his assistant; and it was fascinating to observe how much respect they had in their environment. There was a constant flow past of people who would stand before them, whilst they were seated, simply to say good morning and be noticed. The only person for whom they deferred extra respect to, by standing up, was the oldest gentleman inhabitant of Dharavi who came to call as well. Their welcome to us, their fascination in the fact that we had chosen to visit them, and the symbolic significance that they invited us to take tea with them, was the icing on the cake of a very memorable experience. The final person who made an impact was a cheeky boy on his bike who seemed to like us, and started following us about and chatting to us at odd moments. I would stop to take a photo, and he would suddenly emerge from nowhere to pull a funny face right in the middle of the shot. Remember “Slumdog Millionaire”, and how it featured street urchins from the slums? Many of the slum scenes were filmed in Dharavi and you could easily imagine how this kid could have featured in it. He had a very winning way about him; I hope he gets to lead a fantastic life, and carves a great future for himself despite his humble origins.
Turning into a darker area, where hardly any sunshine reached, we walked through narrow alleyways which hid the entrances to people’s homes; there’s no denying the meagre arrangements for the residents, but at least they’re not on the street. Ramshackle plumbing abounds everywhere; Amish showed us a junction of pipes where the fresh water and the foul water merged into one, at which point we felt a little queasy about having drunk tea with Dharavi Trade Association people. We emerged into an open courtyard which was 70% rubbish tip and 30% recreation area. The local boys were having a cricket match, as they do everywhere at all times of day and night in India. On one hand, it was pitiful to see them sharing one broken cricket bat and having to field the ball out of the rubbish mire; but it also embodied their incredible spirit to get on with life and make the most of what they had. We found our way back out of the dark alleyways into the sunlight, just a little further along the main street where we had first arrived, but it felt like we had visited another world in the meantime. Bizarrely, it was school going-home time, and past these slum workshops walked rows of spotlessly clean, smartly uniformed, private-school children, forming such a stark contrast with their environment. I had no idea where they had come from or where they were going (from college to home presumably) but it was quite the most unexpected sight.
Signs suggesting faded glory abound in Dharavi – my favourite was this decrepit board outside a run-down building boasting its availability to hold marriages and social functions. It really did look out of place. But not everything is a total mess. The temple of Srisiddhi Vinavakar, dedicated to Ganesh, located near the entrance/exit to Dharavi, is immaculate. Its intricacy of carving and spellbinding colours are an unexpected splash of magnificence in this decaying district. No matter how little money you have, in India religion and spirituality always seem to come first. We paused and sat for a short while before making our way back out of Dharavi and towards the centre of Mumbai. In this area of acute shortage and driving poverty, coupled with the most extraordinary spirit of ambition, hard work and decency, there’s just so much to take in.
Returning to Mumbai we had lunch at a Shiv Sagar restaurant, one of a chain of vegetarian fast food restaurants that do good food and is quite tourist friendly. Amish wanted to take us to the Leopold Café too, established in 1871 and a place where all and sundry meet to discuss the issues of the day over a tea or a sweetmeat. Not on the day we were there, though as it was closed and partly boarded up. There was also a sense of tension surrounding the place; people were milling around the stalls outside but not really doing anything; something felt wrong. We realised that an argument was starting up between one of the outside stallholders and a couple of men who were lingering outside. Then – a flurry of activity, the sound of shutters suddenly falling down, Leopold Café T-shirts were flung against the windows from inside to obstruct your view inwards, and all these guys hanging around suddenly got their hidden cameras out and started clicking their lenses at anything that moved. Apparently the café was the subject of an Income Tax Inspection raid, and everyone outside turned out to be an amateur (or otherwise) paparazzi photographer, trying to get the best shot of the proprietor and the inspectors. I guess it might have been a photograph worth taking if you needed some dosh. So we never got to go inside Leopold Café, but we did witness a proper Indian fracas.
After a rest, and before dinner, we had one last tourist site to visit – the sacred water tank of Banganga. It’s rather well tucked away in the Malabar Hill district, and is the place where Lord Rama shot an arrow into the ground from which emerged a spring of water. It’s quite an expanse of water for one little arrow, so it was obviously a good shot on Rama’s part. As we sat on the steps and dusk turned into night-time, we observed a few people taking a dip into the holy water – whereas we just tippy-toed around some of the shallower edges. It was a very peaceful, relaxing and reflective place, and with a charming small temple adjacent; although little did I know that I would get bitten by a mosquito there that would erupt into a very big bump on my leg over the next few weeks; alas I am the kind of person that mosquitos find totally irresistible.
From there we had just one more thing to do – our final dinner out with Amish, back to the Status Restaurant where we had eaten the previous night. However, whereas the night before we sat outside under the stars and treated ourselves to Marsala in Dosa from the canteen, on this last night we dined inside – and it was quite some feat to acquire a table too, fortunately Amish knows the right people! We made it as memorable and slap-up an event as we could, including Paneer Tikka Masala, vegetables and mushrooms cooked in fenugreek, aromatic chana and dal, and all washed down with top quality celebratory Coca-Cola. It’s a lovely restaurant and the meal was superb. Take a look at the menu, and see what you fancy. We felt very privileged to be there, and it made a fitting last night in Mumbai.
So that was the end of our Indian Odyssey – or rather, a week simply spent in and around Mumbai. There were still plenty of places we didn’t visit, but the secret of good travelling is always to leave somewhere to return to. And that’s precisely what we’re going to do next year – watch this space!
Our fourth visit to the Noel Coward theatre in the space of a year and the fourth different production of Midsummer Night’s Dream we’ve seen in the past few years. It’s another triumph as far as the Michael Grandage season is concerned, as it’s a dream of a “Dream”, played for merriment and pleasure to a packed house by a talented and committed cast who have a whale of a time doing it. The more I see this play, the more I enjoy it, especially its high jinks scenes of mistaken love between the four young lovers, but I also really enjoy the scene where Titania falls in love with Bottom, and the rehearsal scenes by Quince and his crew, culminating in their final performance of the notable tragi-comedy “Pyramus and Thisbe”. Gifted actors and directors can create splendid comedy out of these scenes and that’s certainly what Michael Grandage has achieved with this production.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. You’d guess from the way that the Athenian Court is dressed in the opening scene that we’re somewhere in the early 20th century – smart, stylish but not overly vivacious in appearance. Fairyland, on the other hand, is like the set from “Hair”, with its inhabitants in a perpetual stage of inner peace and hallucination brought on by their wacky baccy. With this play, the more up-to-date the setting, the more you feel you can relate to the characters, which in turn sharpens the humour. However, none of this really matters, because the essence of the story is timeless; as Jenny Wren sings in “Barnum”, “love makes such fools of us all”.
Padraic Delaney and Sheridan Smith make a very mild mannered, democratic almost, Duke Theseus and Hippolyta. Mr Delaney (an excellent Babbybobby in The Cripple of Inishmaan, the previous Grandage play at this theatre) listens fairly and tries to be constructive in determining Egeus’ complaint about his daughter Hermia’s intransigency in whom she will agree to marry; Miss Smith meanwhile politely takes a backseat and won’t dream of interfering in matters of state; but both giggle like naughty young lovers when they think no one is watching. As Oberon, Mr Delaney is a very mischievous king of the fairies, not as angry as sometimes he is portrayed; and Miss Smith is an enchanting Titania, extremely laid back and content with the company of her pot-fuelled posse. There’s almost something of Edwin Drood’s Princess Puffer to her characterisation. It’s no secret; I am a little bit in love with Sheridan Smith (who isn’t?), and it only takes a certain smile to get your toes tingling. Gavin Fowler’s Puck is a cheeky chap – he and Oberon make a right pair of lads in their “love-in-idleness” “let’s anoint everyone’s eyes with love potion” games. He’s not really how I would imagine a merry wanderer of the night to look – he’s more the kind of guy you’d share a few pints down the pub with. But it works as a partnership. Leo Wringer brings just the right level of proper decency mixed with a touch of savage spite in his brief appearances as Egeus.
I always love the bickering and romantic and/or sexual confusion between Hermia and Helena, Lysander and Demetrius, and this winsome foursome are no different. Susannah Fielding’s Hermia is rather precious and spoilt, and with a hilariously surprising proclivity to turn nasty in a fight; Katherine Kingsley’s Helena is delightfully furious at how she is treated by the others whether they appear to be in love with her or not, and has an unsurprising proclivity to turn nasty in a fight. There’s not a lot of character difference between Sam Swainsbury’s Lysander (a sensitive Cartwright in Privates on Parade, the first play in this season) and Stefano Braschi’s Demetrius (whose versatility brought alive several minor roles in Peter and Alice, the second) – they even wear the same Athenian standard issue underpants. Nevertheless, all four turn in exceptional comic performances, and their lengthy scenes in the forest are stuffed full of physical comedy that must be choreographed precisely within an inch of its life for it to look so slick.
And then, of course, there are the rude mechanicals. Confession time: I am not a particular fan of David Walliams; that’s not to say I don’t like him but Mrs Chrisparkle and I have managed largely to avoid Little Britain and his other TV comedy roles. However, I have to say, his Bottom is officially fabulous. Very camp, he plays him as the forest’s biggest luvvie and it works a treat. The whole performance is crammed with comedy gesture that is never quite over-the-top and would be completely appropriate to an old acting ham like Bottom. Whether it’s constantly running his hand over Flute’s face, taking odd words and giving them a life of their own (“some man or other must present WALL!”), eyeing up his colleagues in a not entirely platonic manner whilst they’re not looking, or encouraging some enforced (let’s not beat about the bush) fellatio in Pyramus’ elongated death scene, his performance is a total joy from start to finish. As Miss Smith is diminutive, Mr Walliams is tall and imposing – visually, they make a very nice comedy juxtaposition. Richard Dempsey has an effective line in intellectual geek in his portrayal of Peter Quince, and the other mechanicals all make the best of their traditional dimwit characters and acting performances. I make a very appreciative mention of Jack Brown, the understudy appearing in the role of Flute, who made an almost attractive Thisbe and brought the house down with the sheer stupidity of his final scene – great stuff.
All the Grandage season plays have been absolutely top-notch so far and this is no exception. Unashamedly funny all the way through; I can’t recommend it too highly. We haven’t booked to see Jude Law in Henry V – but I do hope that Mr Grandage puts together another similar season in the near future.