Review – Drunk, McOnie Company, Leicester Curve Studio, 28th January 2014

DrunkDrew McOnie’s Drunk. No, that’s not a criticism, it’s an exciting and vivacious evening of music and dance that had its first airing last Tuesday at the Leicester Curve. It was only a month ago that I saw his stage work for the first time in the raunchy and inventive Chicago, at the very same theatre. Now he has launched his own dance company with a new show, the exhilarating and cheery Drunk; 80 minutes of fast, frenetic, funny and fabulous choreography interspersed with the story of how “Ice” spent her evening, waiting for a date and recollecting ex-lovers by means of Grant Olding’s wistful and witty songs.

Gemma SuttonWhilst Ice (Miss Gemma Sutton on terrific vocal form) is hanging expectantly round the bar, she encounters various customers who all take on the mantle of representing various drinks. Scotch, Martini, cider, Absinthe, vodka, champagne and rum, all get a mention in the programme but I reckon there were quite a few others there who turned up at the bar with the intention of getting smashed. Ice herself is somewhat slow to nail her drink colours to the mast, and with the others all demanding to know what she wants to order, the pressure is on – and she can’t decide. It’s as though her senses are assaulted by the huge variety of alcoholic choices; confronted by an overload of optics one might say. Surprisingly, Ice isn’t a great mixer;Anabel Kutay I guess when the heat is on she tends to water down the contents a bit. Thus she looks horrified when getting coerced into a dance routine by those reckless spirits cavorting around her, although she soon gets the hang of it. As each digestif gets digested, she starts to loosen up, and as the evening comes to an end, she finally melts and makes her choice.

Ashley AndrewsFrom my position in the front row of the Curve Studio last Tuesday, I felt a tremendous impact from the show. It’s like a waft of pleasure that just hits you direct from the stage. The set is simple but effective. You’re in a nightclub, with the wonderful band amassed on the other side of the bar, who create a fantastically sophisticated sound that incorporates jazz and swing, with elements of musical theatre; in fact, the score contains a wide variety of musical influences and absolutely calls out for a cast album to be made. Along the bar counter are enticingly shaped frosted glasses and bottles that the dancers will later take to both their mouths and their hearts; apart from that there are just a couple of stylised box seats scattered around and an empty stage for the eight superb performers to fill. The majority of the costumes are in various shades ofSimon Hardwick grey and white, which look classy and elegant by themselves and then take on the livelier colours of whatever light is being projected on to them, creating an almost chameleon effect. The whole thing is a cunning combination of classiness and self-indulgence; in a nutshell, it all looks and sounds gorgeous.

Katy LowenhoffThe real impact though is from the incredibly lively and strong dancing. These eight performers really know the meaning of entertainment. At close range, you can see so clearly the huge effort and stamina required for them to do what they do, and I am full of admiration. I don’t know how collaborative the choreographic process is – very, I expect – because each dancer seems to have their own particular moves or styles at which they excel and which form a major part of their contribution to the show; for example no one does slinky sexy quite like Miss Anabel Kutay, and no one does athletic high kicks quite like Mr Ashley Andrews, and both of them have great routines that encourage them to dig deep and absolutely perform their socks off.

Daniel CollinsWhat sets this show apart from many other excellent dance pieces is its clear narrative, as expressed through the songs, rather than being a group of scenes each with equal abstract weight from which you assemble your own interpretation of what’s going on. That’s what makes it feel more like a one-act play, enhanced with music and dancing, instead of simply a piece of contemporary dance. It has the “one woman’s journey” element of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Tell Me on a Sunday, but with those great moves to accompany it, it’s a lot more entertaining.

Lucinda LawrenceThe whole show flows beautifully from scene to scene, and each scene generates its own humour or pathos as well as its superb dancing; but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have my favourite moments. I loved the humour and choreography of the opening routine where all the dancers start chatting up their chosen drinks and the “drinkies” themselves start to respond back, so that they end up almost making love to each other. The thought of Mr Simon Hardwick’s slightly shocked response to his bottle snuggling up to him (“oh, that’s a bit intimate”) still makes me laugh. Another highlight was Miss Katy Lowenhoff’s glittering (literally) appearance as Champagne, the belle of the bar, whizzing about in an appropriately bubbly fashion, whilst everyone else was singing from their pompous wine tasting notes. But perhaps the funniest sequence featured Messrs Andrews, Collins, and Misses Kutay and Lawrence as four posh sporty types, chukka-ing their polo ponies and getting down to some very close quarters rowing. It had the audience in hysterics.

Fela LufadejuDrunk has a very grown-up feel to it, and it doesn’t shy away from a number of adult themes, which absolutely proves that top-quality dance is probably the most expressive form of theatre you can see. In productions like this, you don’t need words to be eloquent. It was one of those shows where you came away at the end a better person than the one you went in as. I sense this new show is going to make a big impression on the dance world, and it was a privilege to be part of its first ever audience. There’s only a handful of seats left for Saturday’s performance at the Curve, but it’s going on for a month’s season at the Bridewell theatre in London in February. Really tempted to go again!

Review – The Pride, Richmond Theatre, 27th January 2014

Richmond TheatreA couple of years ago, I saw that “The Pride” was being revived at the Sheffield Studio, directed by Richard Wilson, and, reading the promotional blurb, thought it sounded like a fascinating play. Unfortunately we just couldn’t fit it in to our busy schedule. “You can’t see everything”, as Mrs Chrisparkle frequently advises me. Then I saw that it was on at the Trafalgar Studio last year, but, again, we couldn’t get around to it – and it now featured one of my favourite actors, Mathew Horne. The post West-End tour wasn’t coming anywhere near us, but the enforced absence of Mrs C on the second leg of her American Business Odyssey meant I would have more time to travel to a distant theatre to see it. Thus is it was I took the long trek by train and tube to Richmond last Monday.

It was also about time that I visited this theatre. It’s extremely beautiful, one of those old Victorian palaces dedicated to the Thespian Muse. As it’s part of the ATG group and I have one of their lovely membership cards that gives you 10% discounts, when I got to Richmond I thought I’d check the theatre out and see if they had a restaurant or a café, as I would be needing some sustenance after my long journey. Alas, no. Just a bar. Do they serve sandwiches, I asked? Crisps, came the reply. So, reflecting sadly on the loss of 10% off my dining bill that night, I sought out the local Pret for a baguette and a coffee; quite a soulless, desolate place as it turned out.

The bar at the theatre is long and narrow, but with a nice range of wines and a surprisingly large number of chairs, tables and benches on which to perch and peruse your programme. Inside the auditorium, the decoration around the stage and the walls is baroquely beautiful, but the chairs themselves are a bit unyielding. The stage is really high, so from Row D of the stalls I did a lot of looking up, but that also meant that if you had a tall chap in front of you, you would still have a very clear view of the action.

The PrideAnyway, the play’s the thing. This is Alexi Kaye Campbell’s first play, originally staged by the Royal Court in 2008 and already coming back for revivals, which must be an indication that it’s going to last a long time. Unlike the Sheffield version, this production is directed by Jamie Lloyd, who also directed it back in 2008. It’s a beautifully written, complexly structured, robust comparison between a 1950s illicit gay relationship between Oliver and Philip (who is married to Sylvia) with a 2000s open gay relationship between Philip and Oliver (whose best friend is Sylvia). They may have the same names, but they are not the same characters; and scenes of yesterday and today criss-cross each other on the stage with remarkable ease and a telling sense of juxtaposition.

Al WeaverThe 1950s affair is a destructive thing. Oliver thinks he’s found true love, only to have his hopes dashed and his newly established self-knowledge ridiculed and exposed. Philip suffers from having that part of him he has been fighting all his life shamefully revealed; and both he and Sylvia have to endure the breakdown of their marriage, she with the added burden of having introduced the two men to each other and dealing with her subsequent sense of abandonment. The 2000s relationship is more positive, even though Philip and Oliver’s relationship is extremely rocky and Philip walks out; but they meet again at a Gay Pride event where they observe the self-confidence of everyone around them, which leads on to a very optimistic ending that looks forward to an accepting, non-prejudicial future. What links the two separate stories is Oliver’s sense of “The Pride”, essentially the ability to be oneself, and what it means to the six main characters (that’s the three main characters, times two).

Harry Hadden-PatonIt’s a very cunning set, with two hidden doors in a glass backdrop, the surface of which looks as though it’s been artificially antiqued like one of those Victorian mirrors that has lost some of its back lining, so that it’s part reflective and part see-through; a visual metaphor no doubt for a mixture of the clearly obvious and the secretly hidden. An almost violent use of light and sound startles and disconcerts you as characters are suddenly revealed or concealed behind the glass. Those are the harsh moments, which are tempered by the softer transitions from scene to scene where one actor will enter the set to assume their place for the beginning of the next scene, whilst the previous scene is still finishing, thereby giving the whole play a great feeling of flowing inexorability.

Philip and SylviaIt’s acted throughout with great commitment and sensitivity by a terrific little cast. I was really impressed by Al Weaver as Oliver – the 1950s version being polite and respectable, with just a hint of those “mannerisms” that Philip would later complain about, then later with a sad guiltiness yet still retaining complete integrity throughout the whole exposure of the relationship. His modern Oliver is 100% out and proud, portraying the character’s addiction to sex with strangers with humour and ineffectual regret, whilst also revealing his lack of self-confidence by his total reliance on Sylvia and his clinging to Philip. It’s a beautiful performance: funny, heart-breaking and dignified. I really enjoyed how he flipped between his two characters with great fluidity in an instant; and throughout the evening he had his hand and wrist strapped up, presumably due to some injury, so to perform like that when not being properly match-fit is remarkable.

Naomi SheldonHarry Hadden-Paton is also superb as Philip, especially the 1950s version – a chummy, confident, sociable gentleman at first, visibly completely wrong-footed by his sudden realisation of attraction to Oliver, stumbling through his cover-up and then taking it out on Sylvia by cruelly over-reacting to her questions. The stress that the subsequent relationship puts on him brings out a surprisingly violent streak, and the horrific impact of the final scene before the interval has you clenching your teeth in shared agony. The modern Philip is perhaps not quite so fully written and you don’t have quite such a grasp of what the character is like – apart from being generally decent and unable to cope with Oliver’s promiscuity. Naomi Sheldon, a brilliant Hermia in last year’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is painfully good as the 1950s Sylvia, her beautifully clipped Standard English accent suggesting the epitome of post-war respectability, slowly putting all the pieces together to come to a conclusion about Philip’s odd behaviour. When she finally confronts Oliver about the affair, it’s a fantastically moving speech with so many conflicting emotions bubbling over one another but all kept as quiet and respectable as the times dictated – a really stunning performance. She’s also excellent as the modern Sylvia, trying to juggle her own life and hopes for a new relationship whilst maintaining and managing Oliver’s dependence.

Mathew HorneMathew Horne provides additional light and shade with the three minor roles, all of whom make a big impact on the stage – the Nazi (I shan’t explain how a Nazi crops up in the story, suffice to say it’s both disturbing and hilarious), the Lad’s Mag editor Peter, and Philip’s doctor. I loved his performance as Peter – a riot of Saaf Laandaan laddishness, very jokey, a true cock-of-the-walk; but when it comes to discussing how he saw his Uncle Harry’s eyes for the last time, it really brought a lump to the throat. And he was perfect as the doctor, clinically aloof from Philip’s distraught and self-disgusted voluntary patient at the aversion therapy clinic, as he explains in cold detail the heartless procedure Philip will undertake; a stand-out scene that was just too tragic for words.

Oliver and PeterIt’s a very thought-provoking, emotional play, benefitting from superb performances and an intense, thoughtful production. For their final curtain call, the cast come on holding placards that read “To Russia with Love”, showing that there are still places in the world where the play’s call for acceptance and equality falls on stony ground. There’s only a few more performances left at Richmond this week, but I’m sure this play will continue to resurface every so often – it’s too fascinating not to!

Review – Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Milton Keynes Theatre, 23rd January 2014

Priscilla Queen of the DesertFirst there was Mamma Mia, the musical featuring the songs of Abba, which we took a long time getting around to see; but when we did finally catch it, we loved it. Then every other musical seemed to feature pop songs rather than original music, and that just didn’t inspire me very much as a theatregoer. Putting a story together where the action has to match a group’s songs that may have been recorded decades ago struck me as putting the cart before the horse. And one of the shows that was born during my “No Pop Song Show Thank You Very Much” period was Priscilla Queen of the Desert. We hadn’t seen the film anyway, and the prospect of watching drag queens on a bus driving round the outback to an 80s disco soundtrack just didn’t do it for me; it felt both too surreal from a story point of view, and too unoriginal from a music perspective.

Alan HunterHow wrong was I? I should have known better. I’d already realised that the use of Abba songs in Mamma Mia is incredibly inventive and adapts beautifully to an enjoyable original story; as an example, if either Mrs Chrisparkle or I are feeling downbeat because something sad has happened, the other one is bound to open a conversation with the words “Chiquitita tell me what’s wrong?” (If you haven’t seen Mamma Mia, 1) you won’t get that and 2) why not? Go this instant!) Similarly the use of established pop songs in Priscilla enhances the little ironies of the story and emphasises its comic or sentimental aspects. From the parental love of “I Say a Little Prayer” to the use of “Don’t Leave Me This Way” at a funeral, from the soggy culinary disaster of “Macarthur Park” to the Ping-Pong ball possibilities of “Pop Muzik”, a lot of thought and inventiveness has gone into the structure of this show.

The DivasIt also hadn’t occurred to me quite how funny it would be – not only from the comedy dance routines but also from the actual story and script, which is buzzing with jokes and brilliant observations. For instance, there’s a killer line that describes how the late character “Trumpet” got his nickname – and no prizes (but it works well all the same) as to which soap character Jason Donovan’s Tick fancied the most. The staging is smart, colourful and extremely camp, the costumes are way way way over-the-top and a hideous delight, the choreography is fast, funny and expertly performed, and the acting is of a very high standard indeed.

Giles Watling and Richard GrieveIn a nutshell, Sydney-based drag performer Tick responds to a guilt-trip request by his ex-wife Marion (who manages a casino in Alice Springs) that he should take his drag act for a show at the casino and in doing so finally get to meet his eight year old son Benji. He enlists the help of two friends, transgender Bernadette (who used to be a star at Sydney’s “Les Girls”) and drag queen Adam (aka Felicia Jollygoodfellow). Together they take their pink bus named Priscilla on a trip to Alice Springs via such enlightened townships as Broken Hill and Coober Pedy. On the way they meet homophobic prejudice and violence, but also unexpected kindness and support; and it all ends happily ever after, with Tick reading Benji bedtime stories, and Adam achieving his ambition of climbing Uluru, so that he can say he’s in a frock on a rock with a c**k.

Graham WeaverOne of the things we both appreciated about the show, but especially Mrs C, who grew up in Sydney in the 70s and 80s, was the entertaining number of cultural references that we both could tune into. Old TV shows and characters get mentioned; the names of favourite sweets and drinks are recalled, and there are some fantastic pure Australianisms that you think surely no one would use any more – don’t come the raw prawn with me! But best of all was memories of Les Girls. When Bernadette meets Bob, she wows him with the fact she was once a Les Girls star, as he fondly remembers seeing the show (one senses several times) during his youth. Well how about this for a local reference – our first date (Mrs C and I, in her Miss Duncansby days) was at the self-same Les Girls. Tick and BenjiIt was a tremendous revue, two shows a night, the later one being a little more risqué than the earlier; and at around midnight you went upstairs to a big disco ballroom between the two shows. The stage routines were full of glamorous women, none of whom were women; and with one poor chap called Shane if I remember rightly, and all he had to do was act as a foil to the glamour-pusses and do a strip. It was there that I had my first and only Faggot’s Finger. It was a cocktail. I’m sure you’ve got the measure of the place from my recollections. But it was real glamour – and it has a great place in our joint affections.

Jason DonovanPriscilla is quite a surreal show in many ways, but I liked the way it did absolutely no scene-setting and made no apologies for what it was going to be. Right from the very start, it just got on with it. And it has a brilliant opening with a superb performance by Alan Hunter as Miss Understanding, doing a wonderful interpretation of Tina Turner singing “What’s Love got to do with it”. No disrespect to Mr Hunter but in a sense it works as a warm-up act, and boy does he get the audience going. The three divas, Emma Kingston, Ellie Leah and Laura Mansell, make frequent appearances in a number of guises and sing with fantastic gutsiness. Giles Watling makes a bemused and amusing Bob, an icon of tolerance in a prejudiced world, Frances Mayli McCann an outrageous and hilarious Cynthia, and, in the performance we saw, Joseph Jones a confident and cute Benji, who shows that prejudice is learned, not innate.

Richard GrieveBut it’s the triumvirate of big guns who absolutely make this show. Graham Weaver is a brilliant Adam, a spoiled, bitchy, over-confident know-it-all who’s just out to have fun and to hell with the consequences. He’s an excellent singer and dancer, and I predict a great stage future for him. Richard Grieve is extraordinary as Bernadette – he doesn’t play her, he is her; you can’t see the join between performance and reality. Probably the most convincing female impersonation I’ve ever seen, both very funny and very moving. And Jason Donovan is magnificent as Tick, an everyman/woman character at the heart of the show, going on a journey (that’s a “Journey”) not only from Sydney to the Alice but from a person with something missing in his life to someone with a purpose.

It’s one of the most feelgood shows I have ever seen, and we both loved it. It’s definitely a must-see if you can; unless you’re homophobic, in which case you will absolutely hate it.

Review – Don Quixote, Moscow City Ballet, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 20th January 2014

IMG_4830Two years ago we saw the Moscow City Ballet perform Swan Lake, and looking back over the statistics, it’s been a constant source of interest, being my most-read blog post of all time. At the time we really enjoyed their “traditional classical” take on what is probably the most “traditionally classic” ballet of all. The company are performing both Swan Lake and other regular favourite The Nutcracker this week at the Royal and Derngate, but we thought we’d take the opportunity to see something we hadn’t seen before – and for one night only, on Monday, they performed Ludwig Minkus’ Don Quixote; it’s always good to experience new things.

Kitri and BasilMinkus isn’t a name that instantly comes to mind when you think of Russian classical composers, and I certainly didn’t know the music to this ballet before seeing the performance; but I found it really enjoyable. It’s perfectly suited to balletic movement, being somewhat stately, somewhat reserved, somewhat polite, but also with some upbeat jolly tunes too; making it a wonderful accompaniment to the traditional dance you see on the stage. The Moscow City Ballet orchestra conducted by Igor Shavruk were on excellent form on Monday night and played Minkus’ entertaining score with elegance, style and panache.

Don QuixoteWe’ve been lucky enough to see a number of touring companies over the years performing ballet and opera but few (if any) maintain such high standards of tradition and production values as the Moscow City Ballet. Not only do we have a talented orchestra to enjoy, but also the sets and the costumes are beautiful and of high quality. The dancers, of course, are graceful and skilful. My only slight quibble, as when we saw Swan Lake two years ago, is that you sense they are just a little under-rehearsed.

DryadsThe tale of Don Quixote, the ballet, is much shorter and simpler than the tale of Don Quixote, the novel. The ballet is based on just two chapters of the book (I haven’t read it, I’m afraid) and concerns the aforementioned Knight Errant, together with his faithful servant Sancho Panza, chancing upon an innkeeper’s daughter (Kitri) in a village courtyard, together with her lover (Basil), and the foppish nobleman (Gamash) whom her father wants her to marry. Don Quixote mistakes Kitri for his beloved Dulcinea (easy mistake) and dreams of her surrounded by a team of beautiful Dryads (as you do). Basil tricks the innkeeper into blessing his marriage to Kitri by pretending to kill himself (always a good idea), Gamash goes off in a huff and Don Quixote blunders on in search of more hilarious adventures. As you may gather, this is one of those ballets that doesn’t have that much of a plot.

Mariya MyshevaBut that doesn’t matter because it’s so entertaining to watch. It’s danced with a great sense of fun and wit, with some good comedy moments, lots of knowing glances between the characters and it’s also good to see that the dancers are genuinely enjoying themselves. The role of Kitri was danced by Ekaterina Odarenko, and she is staggeringly good given the fact that she’s only 18 years old; God only knows how good she’ll be in five years’ time. Immaculate on point, and beautiful in her solo work and also in pas de deux with Talgat Kozhabaev as Basil. A little more mature, he joined the Moscow City Ballet when Miss Odarenko was only five years old! He’s full of character on stage, in fact acting like a right jack the lad much of the time – think Rudolph Nureyev reincarnated as Liverpool comic John Bishop. He did some of those slow elegant walks across the stage to get to where the next dance sequence was to start, as superbly lampooned by the Trocks, but his dancing was very charismatic and entertaining even if he did travel a bit during his fouettés. There was an amusing moment where he threw his guitar into the corps de ballet, but it didn’t quite land where it was expected and thus almost brained the poor chap who was meant to catch it; and the otherwise exquisite pas de deux with Miss Odarenko that cemented their relationship finished with a slip of perilous uncertainty (hence my suspicion of their being under-rehearsed), that could have ended up in A&E if he’d dropped her. But they really were very good together; and the secondary pairing of Mariya Mysheva as the Street Dancer with Kanat Nadyrbek as Espada the Toreador also worked extremely well, both being very talented and highly watchable dancers who didn’t put a foot wrong as far as I could tell.

Those guitars have a life of their ownThe comic roles were also very enjoyable. Dmitriy Trukhachev was an amusing but still credible Gamash, posing pretentiously, gently leching after the beautiful girls surrounding him, and nicely overreacting to the trickery that put an end to his betrothal to Kitri. Lorenzo the innkeeper was danced with great gusto and humour by Yaroslav Alekhnovich; and Valerii Kravtsov, as an apparently lame Sancho Panza, turns in some wonderfully tricksy dance steps and laughter-inducing shapes. I remarked on his lively performance in Swan Lake two years ago and said surely he should be promoted to soloist soon – and now I see he has been! Together these dancers performed a charming and memorable pas de trois during the engagement celebrations. The eponymous knight doesn’t have to do much as the action largely revolves around him rather than involving him, but Aleksandr Gavrilov (also credited as Stage Manager) as Don Quixote can wield an obscenely long spear with the best of them.

GamashThere’s something so refined and quietly amusing about observing all the traditional Russian ballet etiquette. In a fantasy existence I’d like to be one of those guys who sits at the corner of the stage, watching the action and smiling benevolently at the dancers, and when one of them comes anywhere near they give them a respectful smile and generous wave of recognition as if to say, “keep it up fella, you’re doing great”. If it’s a ballerina, their smile and wave is a little warmer and means more “phwoar, looking gorgeous, honey”. There was a lot of that going on in the final act. That would be a great job. I could do that.

It’s a pleasure to see such a high quality production and committed, skilful dancers. The company’s tour goes on to mid-March, although the only other Don Quixote date left is at Crawley. But it’s well worth catching!

Review – The Burlesque Show, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 18th January 2014

Sammy Mavis JuniorThe Burlesque Show now seems comfortably to occupy a regular slot every January at the Royal and Derngate. We saw the first one, back in July 2011, which at the time hit us as a bombshell of unexpected delight. It came back six months later, with some changes but many similarities, when it confirmed its place in our portfolio of must-sees. Alas, we couldn’t make the date for last year’s show, but this year it was confidently scheduled for two nights (and both sell-outs I believe), we got great seats for the Saturday night show, and I knew we would be in for all sorts of treats.

Beau RocksBurlesque is a fascinating genre. If you’ve not been to one of these shows before, you might just be expecting a sequence of stripteases. It’s true that some rather lovely ladies peel off their layers down to a bare minimum, but, as Kenny Everett would have said, it’s all in the best possible taste. Not remotely smutty or pornographic, these routines are more titillating than anything else; they are likely to be elegant, witty, downright hilarious, or a combination of all three. In addition, you have a number of alternative acts: singers, comedians, magicians and “variety”, into which slot any number of completely screwball entertainers could fit. In the absence of a programme you’ve got absolutely no idea what they’ve got lined up for you – which gives it an additional frisson – and the sequence of acts is never predictable.

Luna RosaIf you’ve seen earlier Burlesques at the Royal, there were a few changes to the style in this year’s show (although I don’t know if these changes were in place last year). For one thing, our delightful hostess (more of whom shortly) encouraged us to react with noisy abandon each time a young lady got a little daring with her déshabillement. In the past we might have just sat there respectfully appreciative, but clearly that’s not what they want from us anymore. They want feedback! The man to my right needed no further encouragement to whoop excitedly at the merest drop of a glove, and I suspect his wife may occasionally have wanted the earth to open and swallow her up at his reactions. Still, like any good husband, he was only doing what he was told.

Glorian GrayThere were also (I felt) slightly fewer acts this time and our hostess played a greater role throughout the evening’s proceedings. No problem there, as it was the return of Sarah Louise Young, this time in her alternative persona of Sammy Mavis Junior, a trailer park slut with a heart of gold. She spoils us with some great comedy songs, like “You’re the Greatest Audience”, “Trailer Boys” and a love song to her new man, who was (allegedly) in the audience that night, where she confessed how deeply and for how long she would love him. She’s got a great rapport with the audience, convinced one poor chap to join her up on stage with her doing press-ups, and carried on her teasing of the people in the boxes, who turned out to include the same Trevor whom she sang to on her iPhone two years ago.

Rod LaverAs in previous years, we were treated to three ladies who did some stripteasing, but I think it’s fair to say they were a more varied selection than on previous occasions. Miss Beau Rocks was the opening and closing act, and she epitomises the beautiful and sensual Burlesque style (but with a nice touch of cheekiness). We also met the Exotic Luna Rosa, who performed two striking routines, and who either challenges or confirms your beliefs that tattoos are or are not sexy. And we were entertained by Miss Glorian Gray, who I think was my favourite act of the entire show, a splendidly gutsy buxom lady who danced and stripped whilst bouncing up and down on a trampoline. Yes, you read that right. It had to be seen to be believed. It was hilarious, and somehow you could strangely appreciate it as its own art form, or sport. I could imagine that at the Olympics. It’s a shame we don’t see Miss Kittie Klaw performing her routines anymore – I loved the one she did a couple of years ago that involved finding spiders between all the layers of her clothing – but she’s “management” and “stagehand” now, so we have to be content with just the occasional purr from her.

Rod Laver and Alexandra HofgartnerFor variety we had the amazing Rod Laver – no, not the legendary Australian tennis champ, but a circus performer who can do incredible things with ping pong balls. We’re not talking anything seedy Bangkok style here, more a question of holding them in his mouth, then projectiling in all directions, against all surfaces and catching them (orally) on the return. He can take five balls in his mouth; no sniggering, please. The more balls he devours the more his cheeks puff out so that he looks like the old MGM cartoon dog Droopy. Pure variety, extraordinarily skilful, and very very funny. After the interval he returned with Performance Artist Alexandra Hofgartner for more ping pong merrily on high, where the balls almost took on a foreplay role as they were passed between the two of them in all kinds of semi-erotic ways. Not quite Royal Variety Show material, but very rewarding nonetheless.

The Great VoltiniAnd then an act that defies everything you can think of: health and safety, sanity, logic, and the laws of electrical resistance. Meet the Great Voltini, whose act involves sending charges of electricity through his, and his partner Nurse Electra’s, bodies to illuminate light bulbs, fluorescent tubes and power machines. His pièce de resistance comes when he shoves an electric probe into his backside and it lights up a halo on his head. You think you’ve seen it all? Not till you’ve seen this act you haven’t. Hilarious and terrifying.

Pete FirmanIt’s always the magician that seems to be top of the bill, and Pete Firman comes completely worthy of that accolade. This chap takes sleight of hand to another planet. I’ve worked out how he does his tricks; either he can move his hands at an outrageously fast speed so that the brain can’t process what the eyes see, or he simply manages to make us look at something else whilst he’s “doing the business”. Or both. Of course, he distracts us with brilliantly funny chatting with the audience, bringing assistants on to the stage, and chucking monkey nuts around; but at the end of the day, he can really make magic happen. His trick of having someone write their name on a tenner which is then miraculously discovered in a sealed envelope inside his wallet is spectacular. But the thing that really got me was his ability to pass a handkerchief through the microphone stand. He did it right in front of our eyes. Twice. I’m a sucker for magic; I so want to believe in it, that you could fool me with the easiest trick imaginable and I’d think it was the fifth dimension. Anyway, Mr Firman was great, I could watch him for hours.

If you want to find out more about the Ministry of Burlesque (it would be great to know what their civil servants wear) you can visit their website here. Unquestionably this was another Burlesque triumph at the Royal. A little teasing, a little horror and a lot of humour. More please!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 17th January 2014

Screaming Blue MurderA New Year means a new year’s regular supply of Screaming Blue Murders at the Derngate, where, for a (relative) pittance, you can have a Friday night fix of three great comic acts, two super intervals and one humdinger of a host. On our recommendation, not only did we also have with us Lady Duncansby and her butler William, but also the Duchess of Dallington together with her Estates Manager ghillie “Mr Brown”. A disappointing show could have led to our being blacklisted by Debretts, so there was a lot at stake.

Dan EvansDan Evans is back hosting, still wearing his lucky pinstripe suit which now has got so old that it has a permanently open fly; cue for some entertaining material about its contents. Dan is still magic at warming up the audience, eliciting dubious job backgrounds from the punters in the front rows, breaking down the barriers and getting us all in the mood. And with some excellent new material too!

Larry DeanFirst up was someone new to us, Larry Dean. A naturally funny guy, Scottish but with a hilarious “Chelsea” English accent when he chose to use it, he was cheeky and engaging and had some great material. He bases some of his act on the fact that he is gay, some of which worked brilliantly – like the possibly less obvious uses for installing Grindr on your phone – but some of which were a bit Neanderthal, like doing physical impersonations of “typical gays”, whatever that might be, and also committing the cardinal sin of using the word “gay” to mean “bad”, “like straight people do”. Errr, not all straight people, Larry. But he was bright and likeable, and on the whole we really enjoyed his set. His linking his sexuality with his parents’ enjoyment of betting was fantastic.

Susan MurraySecond was Susan Murray, whom we have seen twice before and is always good for a laugh regarding dealing with your mother on the phone and funny accents. However, this time round she seemed slightly underprepared – there wasn’t an awful lot of material, it was just general friendly (and amusing, don’t get me wrong) chatting. It felt a little like she was just coasting through this one.

Anthony KingThe headline act was Anthony King who we saw back in 2010, who was ok on that occasion but this time round his act worked really well. He’s a lugubrious character who performs comedy songs with his guitar that have an edge of psychosis to them. He has the kind of persona that makes you suspect he just might gently slaughter you while you’re laughing, given half the chance. Very funny throughout, and despite his quiet laid back delivery you never doubted for a moment that he was in total control.

It’s a great night out, and we could do with a few more people attending. Come on Northampton, where else are you going to get entertainment like this for 12 quid?

Review of the year 2013 – The Fourth Annual Chrisparkle Awards

About this time every year an esteemed panel including myself and no one else meets to assess the relative brilliance of all the shows we’ve seen the previous year so that we can recognise and celebrate the artistic fantasticity of the arts world in Northampton, Sheffield, Leicester and beyond! The coveted 2013 Chrisparkles relate to shows I have seen and blogged between 6th January 2013 and 16th January 2014. Let’s not keep anyone in further suspense – let the glittering ceremony begin!

As always, the first award is for Best Dance Production (Contemporary and Classical).

I saw nine dance productions last year, from which it was quite easy to shortlist a top five, but the top three are:

In 3rd place, the fantastic combination of skill and artistry embedded in the October programme by the Richard Alston Dance Company at the Derngate, Northampton.

In 2nd place, the hilarious but incredibly accurate and beautiful dancing of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, as seen at the Birmingham Hippodrome in February.

In 1st place, the consistently rewarding and fulfilling version of Swan Lake by Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures, that we saw at the Curve, Leicester, in November.

Classical Music Concert of the Year.

For some reason we only saw four concerts in 2013, and these are the top three:

In 3rd place, the Last Night of the Derngate Proms, by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, at the Derngate, in June.

In 2nd place, Janina Fialkowska plays Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto, plus Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, with the RPO at the Derngate in January.

In 1st place, Alexander Shelley conducts Scheherezade, together with Peter Jablonski’s performance of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, with the RPO at the Derngate in April.

Best Entertainment Show of the Year.

This is the all-purpose, everything else category that includes pantos, circuses, reviews and anything else hard to classify.

In 3rd place, Jack and the Beanstalk at the Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, in January 2014.

In 2nd place, and maybe misclassified here but I can’t quite bring myself to call this artistic endeavour a play; Cooped, by Spymonkey, at the Royal, Northampton, in January 2013.

In 1st place, the stunning tango extravaganza that was Midnight Tango, with Vincent and Flavia off Strictly Come Dancing, at the Derngate in July.

Best Star Standup of the Year.

We saw seven big star name stand-up comedians this year, and they were all excellent, but these are my top four:

In 4th place, Jason Manford and his First World Problems, at the Derngate, in July.

In 3rd place, Jack Dee at the Derngate, in September.

In 2nd place, Stewart Lee in Much a-Stew About Nothing, also at the Derngate, in September, who was just pipped by

In 1st place, Micky Flanagan and his Back in the Game tour show at the Derngate in May.

Best Stand-up at the Screaming Blue Murder nights in Northampton.

Of the thirty or more comics that we’ve seen at Screaming Blue Murder last year seventeen made the shortlist, and the top five are:

In 5th place, an extremely funny guy with a quirky view on urban life, Nathan Caton (18th October)

In 4th place, with an almost unique ability to make a young audience rock with laughter without any swearing, Paul Kerensa (25th January)

In 3rd place, the fantastic mix of gay and Asperger’s that goes to create Robert White (8th February)

In 2nd place, musical comedy genius Christian Reilly (8th March)

In 1st place, the most mischievous comic on the circuit, Markus Birdman (8th November).

Best Musical.

Like last year, this is a combination of new musicals and revivals, and we had a dozen to choose from. The top four were easy to identify; but the fifth place show was really hard to decide from the sixth place show. However, the panel have made their decision, and I’m sticking with it.

In 5th place, the re-invigorated Chicago at the Leicester Curve in December.

In 4th place, the beautiful and moving The Color Purple at the Menier Chocolate Factory in August.

In 3rd place, the riveting revival of The Hired Man at the Leicester Curve Studio in April.

In 2nd place, the outrageous and hilarious The Book of Mormon at the Prince of Wales Theatre in March.

In 1st place, which will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me, the painstakingly caring and reassuringly faithful revival of A Chorus Line at the London Palladium in March.

Best New Play.

As always, this is my definition of a new play – so it might have been around before but on its first UK tour, or a new adaptation of a work originally in another format. Six to choose from, these are the top three:

In 3rd place, despite its cackling disruptive audience, the very inventive play version of The Full Monty, at the Lyceum Theatre Sheffield in February.

In 2nd place, the thoughtful and imaginative Peter and Alice at the Noel Coward Theatre in May.

In 1st place, the timelessly relevant and beautifully adapted To Sir With Love at the Royal, Northampton, in September.

Best Revival of a Play.

A shortlist of sixteen productions, but in the end relatively easy to sort out the top five:

In 5th place, the first of three Michael Grandage productions as part of his long season at the Noel Coward Theatre, A Midsummer Night’s Dream in November.

In 4th place, the hard-hitting yet strangely funny Beauty Queen of Leenane at the Curve Studio, Leicester, in October.

In 3rd place, Michael Grandage’s production of Peter Nichols’ Privates on Parade at the Noel Coward in January.

In 2nd place, Michael Grandage’s stunning production of The Cripple of Inishmaan at the Noel Coward in August.

In 1st place, the only production in 45 years of theatregoing that I loved so much that I had to see it again the next day, Cal McCrystal’s officially fabulous revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s Mr Whatnot at the Royal, Northampton in April.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical.

So many terrific performances to choose from but I have a top five:

In 5th place, Hayley Gallivan’s brutally treated Nancy in Oliver! at the Sheffield Crucible in January 2014.

In 4th place, Leigh Zimmerman’s indestructibly sassy Sheila in A Chorus Line at the London Palladium in March.

In 3rd place, Cynthia Erivo’s incredibly moving Celie in The Color Purple at the Menier Chocolate Factory in August.

In 2nd place, Julie Atherton’s tear-jerkingly superb Emily in The Hired Man at the Leicester Curve Studio in April.

In 1st place, Scarlett Strallen’s stunning Cassie in A Chorus Line at the London Palladium in March, and for her ebullient Cunegonde in Candide at the Menier Chocolate Factory in December.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical.

A really tough category and with so many great performances not getting a mention, but here’s my top five:

In 5th place, David Hunter’s triumphantly resilient John in The Hired Man at the Leicester Curve Studio in April.

In 4th place, Gavin Creel’s selfishly wonderful Elder Price in The Book of Mormon at the Prince of Wales Theatre in March.

In 3rd place, Christopher Colquhoun’s savage then partly redeemed Mister in The Color Purple at the Menier Chocolate Factory in August.

In 2nd place, Jared Gertner for his gutsy buddy-from-hell performance as Elder Cunningham in The Book of Mormon at the Prince of Wales Theatre in March.

In 1st place, John Partridge’s role-defining performance as the workaholic, passionate choreographer Zach in A Chorus Line at the London Palladium in March.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Play.

Some great performances here!

In 5th place, Isla Blair in The Lyons at the Menier Chocolate Factory in October.

In 4th place Felicity Kendal in Relatively Speaking at Wyndham’s Theatre in June.

In 3rd place Nora Connolly in The Beauty Queen of Leenane at the Curve Studio Leicester in October.

In 2nd place, the other half of that double act, Michele Moran in The Beauty Queen of Leenane at the Curve Studio Leicester in October and also for Dancing at Lughnasa at the Royal, Northampton in May.

In 1st place, and no surprise, Dame Judi Dench for her performance of consummate ease as Alice Liddell in Peter and Alice at the Noel Coward Theatre in May.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Play.

Eighteen actors in my shortlist, and I whittled it down to this:

In 5th place, Ansu Kabia for To Sir With Love at the Royal, Northampton, in September.

In 4th place, the magnetic stage presence of David Walliams as Bottom in Michael Grandage’s Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Noel Coward Theatre in November.

In 3rd place, Ben Whishaw for his threateningly unhinged performance as Baby in Mojo at the Harold Pinter Theatre in January 2014 and for his compellingly thoughtful performance as Peter Davies in Peter and Alice at the Noel Coward Theatre in May.

In 2nd place, Simon Russell Beale’s flamboyant performance as Terri Dennis in Privates on Parade at the Noel Coward Theatre in January 2013.

In 1st place, Daniel Radcliffe’s totally convincing performance as Billy in the Cripple of Inishmaan at the Noel Coward Theatre in August.

Theatre of the Year.

In addition to my usual shortlist of the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, Sheffield Theatres and the Menier Chocolate Factory, I have to add the Leicester Curve and also the Noel Coward Theatre for its Michael Grandage season. Taking everything into account – the standard of productions, the comfort of the theatre, the box-office experience, and the general feelgood feeling you get when you’re there, it’s a tight squeeze this year but I am again going to declare my favourite theatre of the year to be the Royal and Derngate, Northampton! God bless her and all who sail in her!

And thanks to you, gentle reader, for still coming back to read my random thoughts on all the shows we’re lucky enough to see. Hope you all have a very Happy New Theatregoing Year!

Review – Mojo, Harold Pinter Theatre, 16th January 2014

IMG_4829Whilst Mrs Chrisparkle was jet-setting it across the States for a three hour meeting, I thought I’d take the opportunity to see Mojo at the Harold Pinter theatre (or, as I like to call it, the Comedy theatre). It was a play I quite fancied the look of but thought it would be something Mrs C wouldn’t really appreciate. With hindsight, I think I was probably right, I don’t think she would have liked it much; but then again, I don’t think I liked it much either. I should say right from the start there are a few spoilers in this blog post, so if you’re still to see the show, and don’t know what happens, please ignore paragraphs four, ten and eleven.

Rupert GrintIt’s set in a dingy Soho club in the 1950s where a rock’n’roll set from young and upcoming star Silver Johnny is guaranteed to pull in the crowds, so the club makes a lot of money. But arguments and power struggles between Mr Johnny’s manager Ezra and local gangster Sam Ross end up with one dead manager and one kidnapped star. The club is run and staffed by a bunch of London hoodlums, and basically the play is about how this “management team” copes with the aftermath.

Gentle reader, I’m a pretty seasoned theatregoer. In my lifetime I’ve seen well over a thousand plays and shows. However, in order to encapsulate the nub of the play in a brief paragraph like the one above, I had to check Wikipedia and other sites that provide a synopsis in order to get the basis of the plot. I found the writing to be so deliberately obfuscating that I spent most of the play trying to understand what was going on without ever really being sure.

Daniel MaysStructurally it’s quite old-fashioned; it preserves many of the unities of classical theatre. It all takes place on the same day, in the same location, and there’s more or less one theme – how the guys are going to cope with the situation. But as a result, particularly in the first act, so many of the important events that shape the story happen off stage, with the result that you spend all the time watching people talk about other people you don’t meet and events you don’t see. For it to work as a play, you really have to be captured by the characters on stage, what they say and how they say it, because there’s nothing dramatic to look at. It’s all very reported, very wordy – and I’m afraid I found the first act really quite boring. The second act is better, because – finally – things actually start happening on stage; and the climax is riveting, certainly helped by the technical expertise of the actors and the set, when Mr Johnny is brought on, trussed up like a chicken, suspended by his feet on an abbatoir-style pulley system; and when one of the characters gets shot, the use of stage blood is very atmospherically done.

Ben WhishawIt’s written by Jez Butterworth, an author of some distinction, and everyone raves about his play “Jerusalem”, which I haven’t seen, as I confess to being new to his work. Mojo was indeed his first play, originally produced at the Royal Court in 1995, and it feels to me very like a “first play” – the author has some interesting characters, an imagination of a couple of stunning visual set pieces, a lot of cockily bad language, and a story to tell. But I do think the story comes last here, and its sense of dramatic narrative, rather like Feargal Sharkey’s “Good Heart”, is hard to find. And when you come away and ask yourself, “what was all that about then”, sadly I don’t feel Mr Butterworth had anything particularly enlightening to say about the characters or the world they inhabited; I don’t think this play changes the world in any way. It comes; it tells its story; it goes away. It left me with no residual impact. It’s one of those occasions where it’s not the sum of its parts.

Which is of course a great shame, as those parts, that it’s not the sum of, are pretty tremendous. Ultz’s set is very evocative of a grim nightspot and its unglamorous backstage offices. Charles Balfour’s lighting is used to great effect to create differences between the general murkiness of the club’s day to day activities and the outside world. The use of music and sound similarly suggest the possibility of external activity that doesn’t permeate into the small underworld presented to us. And the all-star cast are extremely good in their roles.

Mays and Grint double actAt the heart (not that it really has one) of the play is a virtual double act between Sweets and Potts, played by Rupert Grint in his first stage role and Daniel Mays. If this really is his stage debut, all credit to Mr Grint, whose performance is a delight. Sweets is a hyper-anxious, sucking-up, wheedling little guy who you sense is only part of the gang because he provides the pills (presumably the sweets of the nickname). His funny mannerisms suggest someone who knows he is punching above his weight but has no choice but to keep punching, and his speech delivery mimics anyone who he’s trying to impress. Think a young Ian Beale from Eastenders but with amphetamines. It’s a very assured performance and, if a long-lasting glittering career wasn’t in the bag before, surely it is now.

Ben Whishaw in Silver Johnny's jacketThe other half of the double act, Daniel Mays’ Potts, is a more experienced, more wise-cracking version of Sweets, unpredictable as to whether he will fly in the face of authority or cower in its presence. With similar speech patterns to Sweets, Messrs Mays and Grint perform a veritable verbal ballet together, the two becoming interchangeable, which is at times very funny indeed. Another very assured performance, and the audience loved him, but I found the character of Potts really irritating. I didn’t really feel there was a genuine character in there, more a generic caricature of 50s London gangsterhood; think Boycie from Only Fools and Horses but without the wealth and standing.

Colin MorganAnother superb performance (you would expect nothing less) comes from Ben Whishaw (compellingly good in Peter and Alice) as Baby, a really nasty piece of work. You can’t quite put your finger on where the character’s sadism is psychotic and he can’t really do anything about it, and where it is deliberate. He has a perfectly pitched highly unnatural laugh that would really scare you if you knew someone like that in real life. Every move he makes, everything he says, could be a threat – either veiled or actively intimidating. Mr Whishaw also has this ability to make himself (and his character) blend into the background, patiently waiting to pounce; which gives Baby’s input, whenever it comes, a greater impact.

Brendan CoyleColin Morgan’s Skinny is the drudge of the gang, given the most menial tasks in the club, and is the victim of much of Baby’s more savage attention. I sensed this was the character that Jez Butterworth liked the most, as you got more of an insight into his character than anyone else – his sense of self-worth (that no one else sees), his ambition, his misplaced vanity. It’s a funny and sad performance, and his death scene is magnificent. Baby’s murder of him is essentially ludicrous anyway, and they all make the best of the comic potential of the scene – the best-written part of the play I think – but when he shakes and can’t finish his words because he’s suddenly cold and is about to die, it’s a combination of humorous and harrowing, and surprisingly moving.

Tom Rhys HarriesBrendan Coyle’s Mickey is the low-level gangster boss, with a deeply threatening authoritative nature and aspirations of grandeur. When he seethes with anger you really feel it in the auditorium. Mr Coyle is, of course, best known as that respectable valet Mr Bates in Downton Abbey, who has the seeming ability to eliminate his opponents with quiet deadliness. Mr Coyle’s Mickey is exactly how you would imagine the “Mr Hyde” aspect of Bates to be, albeit with F words. This is not a man to mess with. But his world suddenly falls apart at the end with both the destruction of his ambitious plans and the assassination of his mate, and his delicately controlled performance very effectively showed how his authority quickly ebbed away.

MojoThe final member of the cast is the underused Tom Rhys Harries (whose performances we have enjoyed twice recently, in Torch Song Trilogy and The History Boys) as Silver Johnny, preparing for his show and then returning as the suspended plaything of a deranged brain. It’s a remarkable feat of endurance for Mr Harries to spend so long upside down like that. I do hope he got medical clearance first. There’s no insight into his character offered as he’s just a commodity as far as the plot is concerned.

I feel like I have missed out on something by not enjoying this play more; it just didn’t say anything to me though, despite the best efforts of its remarkable cast. Ah well, as we were once told by a guide hoping for tips from a bus load of Australian tourists, not every day is a Sunday.

not looking happy togetherPS. A full house gave the show massive whoops and cheers at the end from what sounded like young adoring female fans. The play itself is not one of those feelgood experiences that make you naturally want to explode with vocal joy. I’m guess they were specifically aimed at Mr Grint; maybe a planned campaign of “Whoops for Rupert”. Would that be “Roops”?

PPS. Despite the audience’s ecstatic reception, it was a very downbeat curtain call from the cast. Only Messrs Whishaw and Mays seemed to make any real eye contact with the audience, Mr Grint looked uncomfortable being there, and Mr Coyle looked like he would have rather been anywhere else. I guess that final scene must have taken it out of him.

Review – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Birmingham Hippodrome, 11th January 2013

Snow White and the Seven DwarfsAnother pantomime, I hear you exclaim? Aren’t they all finished by now? No, indeed – Snow White runs at the Birmingham Hippodrome until 2nd February. Whereas many pantos start almost at the end of November, the Brum One only starts shortly before Christmas. Therefore you can always fit the Birmingham panto in, if you’re still feeling in the mood for some festive fun as the long days of January dwindle into February.

John PartridgeAnd festive fun is provided in abundance with this glamorous, showbizzy panto, with no expense seemingly spared on costumes, scenery, effects, music and a top quality cast. It boasts a funny script including some wickedly adult double entendres chucked in for good measure and excellent possibilities for hilarious audience participation from both older and younger theatregoers. The wicked queen’s dragon is a splendid effect, huge and vicious looking, hovering over us in the front stalls with the expectation it’s going to swoop down and take one of us away in its claws. Certainly from our viewpoint in Row E, there’s no way of seeing how it worked – I can only assume it’s theGok Wan same technology that had Chitty Chitty Bang Bang sailing through the air a few years ago. Any latent scariness of the dragon gets deflated later on when he’s revealed to have a bostin’ Black Country accent, which is a nice touch. There’s also a very unsettling appearance by an old crone suspended in the air – at first you think she’s some kind of hologram but as she got closer she looked pretty real to me. Spooky enough to make you think they should have used that trick in “The Woman in Black”.

Gary WilmotOf course, it’s all for fun, the majority of which comes from brothers Oddjob and Muddles and their Dame of a mother, Mrs Nora Crumble. This is Gary Wilmot’s first foray into Pantomime Damehood and he makes a smashing job of it. His eternally youthful infectious energy makes him one of my favourite song and dance stars anyway, and his two (self-penned I believe) songs, “Brummie Balti” and “Because You Love Them” are perfectly suited to the comedic and sentimental aspects of the role. I also loved his “OK, Alright” sequence, which took on a life of its own without any audience coaching. Matt Slack is a hilarious Oddjob, joking around the stage all the time, acting like a big kid which appeals to both the kids in the audience and the big kids in all of us. I loved his throwaway impersonations (his version of Joe Pasquale’s “injury at work” advice advert was brilliant) and he was delightfully dismissive of our being hopeless at greeting him with the agreed “Good job, Oddjob” – it’s an awfully difficult tongue-twister to remember Stephanie Beachamwhen you’re laughing. Paul Zerdin as Muddles, usually accompanied by his sidekick Sam, had an excellent rapport with the crowd, and is a highly skilled ventriloquist. Sam appears in a couple of guises, in one of which his mouth stuck in the wide open position in the show we saw, which led to increased hilarity as Mr Zerdin coped manfully with the technical problem. He’s also brilliant with the tiny kids who come on stage at the end – including a really funny vocal trick with the oldest one; and he also administrates a classic variety-style act with a couple from the audience who end up being dummies, doing a little sketch with fantastically funny lines. Congratulations to them too for throwing themselves so whole-heartedly into the fun.

Paul ZerdinI think the loudest appreciation, however, was for Gok Wan as the Man in the Mirror – yes, he who has to tell the wicked queen “who is the fairest of them all”. He certainly grabbed the part (so to speak) with all the flashy campness he could muster, and his advising the queen in exactly the same way he would advise all the women on his TV show (I’m guessing as I haven’t seen it) was extremely funny. I’m not sure the queen would normally respond to “girlfriend” as a term of endearment. Because his whole TV persona is based on advising women on their clothes and their looks, he’s always identifying with, and responding to, the girls in the audience; and, if I have a slight criticism, as a male audience member I felt slightly ignored by him. But then Mrs Chrisparkle did point out that I didn’t have any problem with Linda Lusardi projecting her assets towards the men in the Matt Slackaudience in Sleeping Beauty. Point taken. What was absolutely brilliant, however, was the sequence with all four of these guys doing this year’s version of “if I was not upon the stage, something else I’d rather be” – and this is the only one of this year’s pantos I’ve seen that has included this routine. Mr Slack definitely gets the worst of the deal this year with having to endure both Mr Wilmot’s feather duster popping up between his legs and Mr Wan’s policeman’s truncheon being thrust up his backside. To be honest, I could watch variations on that routine for hours. Mr Wan seemed to enjoy it so much that he it took him ages to be able to get back to the script!

Danielle HopeWith the benefit of hindsight, Muddles and Oddjob were never going to get a look-in with Snow White whilst Princey Prince John was on the scene – showman extraordinaire John Partridge in full-on hearty mode, leading all the singers and dancers in the showbizzy song and dance routines; although when he exhorted us to sing along in the first number because “we all know it”, I’m sorry I couldn’t as it was the first time I’d heard it. Apparently, it’s a song by someone called One Dimension, or something like that. OK I accept I’m probably not the expected demographic! Mr Partridge is a great singer and dancer and brought huge charisma to the part, and his occasional run-ins with Oddjob were hilarious. As the object of his affections, the nation’s Dorothy, Danielle Hope, was a beautiful and charming Snow White, who’s got a fantastically sweet voice and is the embodiment of innocence. Why oh why didn’t she take our advice – freely and loudly given – about not eating the apple? Still, one kiss from Princey and she was back up on her feet in no time. Stephanie Beacham brings a superior gravitas to the role of the queen; she’s unmistakably regal and vain, and carries off a wicked cackle probably better than she ought. She too has a great connection with the audience, as we feel her threats (“I know where you live”, “I’ll have you all sent to Walsall”) personally feel quite intimidating. A real villain to boo and hiss is always a treat.

Finally, where would Snow White be without her seven dwarfs? For this production they’ve chosen not to use real dwarfs but ordinary-sized actors on their knees in clever costumes that hide their real legs and appear to give them shorter, fake, muppet-style comedy legs. I can’t quite decide if this representation works well or not. Something inside made me feel it was slightly patronising, slightly freakish, which would not have been the case if they had simply used actors of restricted growth. It’s a no-win situation really. On the one hand, certainly the kids in the audience all seemed to enjoy their seven-dwarf experience; on the other, later that night Mrs C had a nightmare about them. Anyway, I do hope they were given good knee-padding.

The Birmingham Hippodrome prides itself on having the country’s biggest and brashest panto and I see no reason to dispute this claim. It’s a great show and you’re guaranteed a fun time. See it while you can!

Review – Oliver! Sheffield Crucible, 4th January 2014

Oliver!“Oliver!” is another of those shows that’s been with me since I was a kid, although mainly in the film version, until 10th November 1977 when the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle insisted I accompanied her to Cameron Mackintosh’s pre-West End production at the New Theatre Oxford starring Roy Hudd as Fagin. I remember him being pretty good in a funny, avuncular way. Looking over that old cast list, not many names stand out as being active today, although we did enjoy the performance of Marilyn Cutts, who played the Sowerberrys’ daughter Charlotte, in High Society last year. Tom EddenThe late Michael Attwell was Bill Sikes, Mr Sowerberry was played by Graham Hamilton (Equity president 2008-2010); and I also remember Robert Bridges and Joan Turner being a formidable Mr Bumble and Widow Corney, alas neither of them are with us anymore. Many years later in 2009, Mrs Chrisparkle and I took our nieces Secret Agent Code November and Special Agent Code Sierra to see the Rowan Atkinson version at Drury Lane, primarily because we had all fallen in love with The Nation’s Nancy, Jodie Prenger. For Daniel Evans’ new production at the Crucible Theatre we were joined by Lady Duncansby and her butler William, who beat us all in terms of history with this show, having seen the original 1960 production in London, when he was but a mere trainee footman.

Hayley GallivanThis show comes as a worthy successor to the previous fin d’année spectaculars we’ve seen at the Crucible, last year’s My Fair Lady and 2011’s Company. One of the most enjoyable aspects of My Fair Lady was Alistair David’s superb group choreography and once again his skill at filling the Crucible stage with a huge ensemble of cavorting street traders and urchins is used to magnificent effect. The big feel-good numbers work incredibly well, especially “Consider Yourself”, led by a fantastically confident Dodger (Jack Armstrong in our performance) and “Oom-Pah-Pah”, which allows the character of Nancy to shine like the happy carefree girl she ought to be. Ben RichardsOliver! is of course, one of the country’s (maybe the world’s?) favourite shows and every production seems to run and run; it’s as though we the public can’t get enough of it. But, like Chicago, I do have some reservations about the show as a whole. For me, the first act is almost entirely scene-setting and episodic, the pace and structure slightly ploddy. You go from the workhouse, to the undertakers, to Fagin’s den, but I never get a sense of genuine plot development. That’s not a criticism of this production – I blame Lionel Bart. The second act, however, feels completely different. The story really takes over and each scene or song seems to grow organically out of the scene before.

Jack Skilbeck-DunnWhat makes this production stand out from the previous two I have seen, is the way it presents the genuine hardship and violence of the Oliver Twist story, and refrains from straying into loveable caricature. Sometimes I think Fagin can be portrayed like that – a villain, yes, but more sinned against than sinning, and with a heart of gold. Ron Moody, Roy Hudd, Rowan Atkinson are all thoroughly loveable performers. Tom Edden’s Fagin is very different from that, a very realistic creation; a manipulative, wheedling, sinister creature whose interest is pure self. You sense any affection he shows for the boys is just for profit, and his heart is made of stone. Jack ArmstrongMr Edden’s amazing ability for physical comedy, as shown supreme in One Man Two Guvnors, is still evident in this production but turned down a little to create a Fagin devoid of caricature. The highlight of Mr Edden’s performance is his performance of Reviewing the Situation; a showstopper combining comedy and egoism in equal measure.

David Phipps-DavisBut the most hard-hitting realistic presentation comes in the form of Hayley Gallivan’s Nancy, the tragedy victim supreme, singing a song of love and loyalty about Bill Sikes whilst still wiping the blood away from her mouth where he has socked her one. There’s nothing sentimental or sympathetic about this relationship; and when he finally murders her (sorry if that spoils it for you) it’s simply the inevitable outcome of domestic violence – not so much a horrific shock, more a blessed relief.Liza Sadovy and Chris Vincent Miss Gallivan gives a stunning performance (two in fact) of As Long As He Needs Me which absolutely raises the roof, and which contrasts beautifully with her enjoyably light-hearted Oom-Pah-Pah. Ben Richards’ Bill Sikes is a terrifyingly dark demon; quietly vicious, intimidatingly overbearing, totally pathological. I don’t think I’ve ever seen Mr Richards on stage before, and I understand this is something of an unusual role for him. Well, he’s very convincing!

Rebecca LockThere are a couple of excellent partnerships – David Phipps-Davis and Rebecca Lock make a wonderfully squabbling Bumble and Corney, and their disintegrating relationship in Act Two is extremely funny to watch. They are both in very fine voice and sing “Oliver” with suitable vindictiveness. We loved the selfish and insensitive way Miss Lock sat on the recently deceased Old Sally; just one sit-down speaks volumes about the character. Equally fun are Chris Vincent and Liza Sadovy (brilliant in Alice in Wonderland a couple of years ago) as the ghoulish Mr and Mrs Sowerberry, Mr Vincent in particular conveying a really creepy demeanour, with a pallid face that looks like it’s never been within a mile of a vein. Their lovey-dovey routine provides a briliant comic juxtaposition with their ghostly otherworldliness. Georgie AshfordAndrew Bryant is an amusingly phlegmatic scouser Noah Claypole, and Bob Harms (superb in the Menier’s Pippin) is a cynically dour Dr Grimwig. The ensemble, who are bright and energetic and revel in inhabiting their various characters, include A Chorus Line’s Georgie Ashford and Barnum’s James O’Connell, both of whom are surely destined for Much Greater Things.

James O'ConnellBut Oliver! wouldn’t be Oliver! without a pure, vulnerable Oliver, and we certainly had one of these in the form of Jack Skilbeck-Dunn. Not knowing that asking for more was asking for trouble, and too honest to pick a pocket perfectly, he is the embodiment of innocence and sings like a dream. The whole staging of “Who Will Buy”, with his clear, optimistic voice and the wonderful accompaniment of the street traders, was sheer theatrical magic. The other workhouse and gang children are all incredibly gifted and blend seamlessly with the adult cast members, which must be an amazing feat of both rehearsal and performance. I don’t know if we saw the Red Team or the Blue Team, but the tall chap who played Charlie was full of attitude, and the two smallest boys in Fagin’s gang, dancing arm in arm, had us all in hysterics – hats off to you lads!

This is a really enjoyable production, with some great performances, lively choreography, a super band and a timeless story, all blended together with Daniel Evans’ master touch. Another triumph at the Crucible!

PS. Not sure what happened to Bullseye, but Daisy, Lola and Patches (as credited in the programme) must all have been washing their hair that night.

PPS. What do you do when you cast boys in a musical, they suddenly turn into men before your very eyes and their voices break? I think they got round it very nicely in this performance.

PPPS. Apparently it’s only Oliver! (the musical) if you put an exclamation mark after it. Otherwise it’s just a first name. Who knew?