Review – Sarah Millican, Home Bird Tour, Derngate, Northampton, 26th February 2014

Home BirdSarah Millican is yet another big name comedian that Mrs Chrisparkle and I don’t really know very well, although I have seen her on television a few times and thought that she came over as a very cheery and cheeky Geordie lass who told it like it is. She certainly knows how to attract the punters as I don’t think there was a spare seat in the house and we had to book our tickets a year and a half ago. That’s some fan base she’s got there.

Sarah MillicanShe presents her act in a simple, straightforward way; no supporting performer, no light show, no comedy songs, just Ms Millican centre stage with a stand-up mike and a bottle of water. And, my word, can she make you laugh. She has a delightful mix of self-deprecation and assertiveness that occasionally tumbles into aggression, mainly if there’s the threat of removal of food. She’s extremely talkative; she’s not one of those comics who will go any length of time with some physical mime comedy – you sense she’s the kind of person who couldn’t let a silence go without filling it with speech. So her stories and material are delicately put together and highly structured, and delivered to a set pattern that probably changes very little from gig to gig. My guess is that she’s honed the act to perfection, and she’s not going to stray much from the template.

S MillicanBut that’s fine, because her material is absolutely first rate. The basis of the show is about being a Home Bird – after many years of renting and flat dwelling she has decided to buy a house, and she’s got lots of great material about viewing houses, the responsibilities of house ownership, what sheds are for, and so on. But this is just a springboard for all sorts of general comic observations. She takes on all the things that happen within a relationship and teases the humour out of those situations, with, I would expect, no subject taboo. To look at, she seems like a nice, respectable lady – possibly a schoolmistress or a doctor’s receptionist, or something similar; and then she will shock you with a discussion of how lady parts change colour with age or how you can’t talk to your mother without needing to poo. She also swears quite a lot, which can take you by surprise if you’re not expecting it.

In many respects she reminded me of Victoria Wood in the 1980s, when she was at the top of her game. With sharp, knowing material, she is confidingly northern about the intimacies of everyday life, how to cope with a husband and parents, birthday treats, clothes shopping (a lot of nice material – if you’ll pardon the pun – about how pyjamas are now lounge leisurewear), her affinity with cats, and so on. She has Ms Wood’s ability to make you recognise those little moments we all experience and blow them up into major comic events.

Sarah MShe breaks off every so often to get feedback from various sections of the audience on a hot topic. The first hot topic was how to deal with half-live half-dead furry animals that your cat drags in; the second was what items you would choose to take with you on a dirty weekend. I guess breaking off like this gives her vocal cords a small chance to regroup every so often – because she really is very talkative indeed – but it also gives her a chance to come back with some great reactions to the suggestions shouted out by the crowd. Quite a risky strategy I suppose, but a challenge to which she is certainly capable. Many of the comments shouted back out to her were pretty inventive too! It also added a personal touch to her material, giving us all a chance for a little two-way banter.

She told us that when we left the auditorium we could collect a free badge, saying either “Home Bird”, or “Dirty Stop Out”. I’ll leave it to your imagination which one I took. A really well-structured and funny evening with someone who is 100% in charge of her talent; a true masterclass in stand-up. She’s touring until May but my guess is that if you haven’t already booked, you’re probably too late.

Hannah Faulkner – A New Name in the Music Scene

Hannah FWell, new to me at least; but actually Hannah started her music career about four years ago, working her way through hundreds of gigs both locally in the Northampton area but also at the O2 in London, Westfest, and Hardcore Til I Die in Spain (get me, I’m so hip.)

Hannah FaulknerShe’s got an EP coming out later this month, with three excellent tracks that she not only sings but has also written herself. If you’ve heard her previous recordings like Knight in Shining Armour and The One, produced in collaboration with Dougal and Gammer, you might be expecting something bright and clubtastic, but this new EP definitely spins off in a different direction. I’d describe her music style as a kind of folk rock; gritty and determined, with powerful, thoughtful lyrics, great tunes and warm, funky arrangements courtesy of her talented band.

Hannah Faulkner b/wThe title track, Alive, is a pacey, feel-good song about triumph over adversity; expressing an optimistic view on the future and sharing true friendship. It’s both lively and reflective at the same time, a really satisfying song that grows on you the more you hear it. Then there’s another song called Kick Me When I’m Down, full of defiance and vitriol against a bitch who’s revelled in trying to get the better of our Hannah, with a chorus that’s based on an invitation to swivel on her middle finger!

Hannah Faulkner green stageBut my favourite of the three songs on the EP is Did Your Mama, which starts off with a really slinky introduction and builds into this bittersweet account of a manipulating bullying guy who mistreats his women and Hannah’s no-nonsense advice to her girlfriend that she’s got to get rid of him. Did your mama never teach you nothing about how to treat a woman? I’m guessing not. Soulful and heartfelt, this is a song that really gets under your skin.

H FaulknerThe EP will be available on 28th February and if you like the sound of Hannah and her work you can find out more at her website where there are links to videos and interviews as well as the dates for all her upcoming gigs and an online shop. If you click here you can hear extracts from the EP so you can judge her style for yourself. I think she’s pretty special – see what you think!!

Review – Kevin Dewsbury, Out Now, Dave’s Comedy Festival, Belmont Hotel Leicester, 20th February 2014

Kevin DewsburyLet me take you back 35 years gentle reader – there is a reason for this, please have patience. In my second year as a student at that all-hallowed Oxford University place what I attended, there was an International Festival of the Arts held at all sorts of teeny little venues scattered round the town – a kind of #oxfringe I suppose. One of the acts in particular attracted the attention of one of my friends, because they were both from the same neck of the woods: in the middle of nowhere in deepest darkest Minnesota. So he, another American friend from Kentucky, an English mate and me all decided to go and see this guy do his stand-up comedy routine. His name was (still is, I believe) Allen Brookins-Brown. It’s a name unlikely to mean anything to you, but he was an absolute hoot. We’d already had a few drinks by the time the show started, so we were more than ready to have some fun. Totally surreal, fantastic comic timing and we laughed our heads off all evening. The slightly embarrassing thing was that the four of us made up 50% of the entire audience. After the show was over, my Minnesotan friend approached him and said we had all enjoyed the show enormously and we would be honoured (I suppose that would have been “honored”) if we could take him out for a drink. Thus it was that we spent another hour or two in the company of this hilarious man, getting steadily drunker and drunker, and indeed I believe my Minnesotan friend and he are still in contact to this day. No mean achievement that, when you remember that the worldwide web wasn’t even a glint in Tim Berners-Lee’s eye at that stage, so all done without the aid of social media.

Why am I telling you all this? Because last Thursday we had the pleasure of seeing Kevin Dewsbury’s Out Now show, on its penultimate airing before he wraps it in tissue paper and consigns it to the bottom of a spare-room drawer. And, sadly, the audience was very small. Bigger than the eight of us who saw A B-B, but not that much more. It’s a huge shame because, no matter how clever the material or how gifted the comedian, there is inevitably a lack of atmosphere with so small a house, and audience members become much more self-conscious. Should I laugh here? Did I laugh too loud? Should I laugh louder to show my support? Am I the only one laughing? Am I the only one not laughing? Then you start thinking about what the performer is thinking about you. With so few people in the audience, there’s no hiding place. And so it can go on. Mind you, it’s worse if you see a play as part of a very small audience; that can be really embarrassing. About fifteen years ago Mrs Chrisparkle and I saw a revival of There’s a Girl in my Soup at the New Theatre Oxford – it had been one of the first plays I’d seen in London when I was a kid so I’d always wanted to see it again – but there were only about 25 of us in this massive theatre, which made it one of the weirdest (and not in a good way) theatrical experiences ever. Fortunately with a show as enjoyable as Out Now that self-consciousness takes a very back seat.

Kevin DewsburyAnyway I digress (as I often do). We’ve seen Kevin Dewsbury a couple of times at the Screaming Blue Murder nights in Northampton when he has acted as stand-in compere, and whenever you see him you know you’re in absolutely safe hands. I’ve always really enjoyed his relaxed, thoughtful style of comedy, and I have been looking forward to seeing him perform his own act, rather than compering, for a couple of years now. He’d created Out Now for the Edinburgh festival last summer where it received some very favourable reviews, so I was pleased to discover he was bringing the show down to Leicester as part of the Dave’s Comedy Festival.

You’re welcomed into the gig to the sound of Tom Robinson singing “Glad to be Gay”, which I haven’t heard for decades. I was impressed by its bittersweet lyrics and its walloping sense of irony. One of the many things for which that song is responsible was a society at London University when I was doing my postgrad called “Glad to be Green”; which was ostensibly a group of people who cared for the environment but was actually an excuse for a fortnightly organised pub crawl the length of the Mile End Road.

K DewsburyI’m digressing yet again. Out Now is a highly autobiographical account of Mr Dewsbury’s life as a “blokey gay” man (his words), the manner in which he came out, and his battles with mental illness that were all tied up with his internal angst that beset him up till about five years ago. I was really struck by the personal nature of this show. When a comedian comes on stage and does a standard set about his mother-in-law, his wife, his kids, his parents, his sex life, his childhood, etc, etc and etc, unless you actually know this person, you’ve got no idea whatsoever whether it’s completely true, pure fantasy or somewhere in between. My guess is that the germ of an idea probably comes from the truth but then gets embellished and ironed out to such an extent that it simply becomes an act rather than a confessional. But with Kevin Dewsbury you believe every word he says is true, which creates a real bond between the audience and the performer.

He talks about gay life in general – the terminologies that straight people normally don’t get to hear, who takes what role in the love making department, what happens in gay venues, and life with Grindr (which is apparently now compulsory). He also takes a mock- (at least I think it’s mock) pop at straight men’s “respect” for women; and points out the innate sexism in the fact that the straight version of the aforementioned “who’s nearby and wants sex” app is Blendr, which name subtly envisages the woman making smoothies or hummus when she’s not putting out. Mind you, five years ago I would have thought Grindr was a kitchen tool for preparing peppercorns.

Kevin DMrs C and I are lucky enough to have loads of fantastic gay friends, primarily (but not exclusively) due to our socialising in the Eurovision fan scene. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that some of our best friends are heterosexual. So I’m not sure if there could have been anything that Mr Dewsbury could have said that would have shocked or surprised us, but I can certainly think of some people who would have wriggled uncomfortably in their seats at this hour of gay agenda material that would probably have had him banged up at Her Majesty’s pleasure under the late unlamented Section 28. Naturally, his attitude to his subject is both personal and respectful, yet he scatterbombs his routine with little, old-fashioned, not-entirely-gay-friendly observations as a kind of contrapuntal leitmotif (pretentious, moi?) which emphasises the change of attitudes prevalent since the Bernard Manning years. It also acts as a rather nice reductio ad absurdam (I am getting carried away) – for example when a serious, thoughtful and politically correct observation ends up being a bumming joke. This is all interspersed with some entertaining comedy songs and the surprising realisation that he’s actually quite a good singer.

It ought to be hard to make mental illness funny without being dismissive or callous about it, but Mr Dewsbury has it down to a fine art – rather like Ruby Wax in Losing It, you can really break down the stigmatising barriers with mental illness if, as a sufferer, you simply but eloquently express precisely the thoughts that are going through your mind. Mr Dewsbury’s psychosis meant that all of his senses were extraordinarily heightened so that just the presence of a banana in his room meant that it took on huge significance for him – its smell, and indeed its shape, getting way too big for its boots. We never did find out if he ate it. Combining his very open account of his mental health issues with jokes about penises brings us back to those ironic “Glad to be Gay” lyrics. The overwhelming feeling at the end of the gig is that without question it is a funny show, but also a rather moving insight into a disturbed mind that’s fortunately no longer disturbed. A very honest and frank evening’s entertainment, and I can’t wait to see what new material he’s going to come up with!

Review – Mozart Requiem, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 16th February 2014

Mozart RequiemOne of the good things about including the Northampton Bach Choir and the Boys and Men of All Saints Church Northampton in a Royal Philharmonic Orchestra concert at the Derngate is the fact that all their friends and families buy tickets so there is a virtually full house and always a fantastic atmosphere. Another is that they are extremely good at singing, but I mustn’t get ahead of myself.

Alexandra DariescuThis was the first time we’d seen the Royal Philharmonic since last summer, and we’ve definitely missed them. But I wasn’t entirely sure how much I would appreciate an evening of non-stop Mozart. Do you remember the criticism of him in Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, that there are simply too many notes? That’s always struck a chord with me, if you’ll forgive the expression. However, the two pieces that made up the evening’s programme are so different in structure and content that you certainly don’t suffer a surfeit of Wolfgang.

Renato BalsadonnaThe first part of the evening was devoted to Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 21, with the Romanian soloist Alexandra Dariescu. She was BBC Music Magazine’s Rising Star in 2011 and 2013’s “Woman of the Future” for Arts and Culture, and it’s not hard to work out why. From where we usually sit in the auditorium you can very clearly see the pianist’s hands on the keyboard, and I have to say the dexterity with which Miss Dariescu launches herself on the ivories is extraordinary. This is not a piece that necessarily calls for quite as much intense expression as some piano solos we have seen – Janina Fialkowska last year playing Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 2 comes to mind. What it does require is immense skill, incredible clarity and a great feeling for all those Mozartian scales and arpeggios, especially in the first and final movements. The Andante section in the middle is instantly recognisable as the theme to Elvira Madigan, an essential track on any 1960s easy listening album; Elizabeth LlewellynI believe it’s even been used to flog woollen carpets in TV adverts in its time. It’s always rewarding to get the chance to hear a frequently heard piece of music in the context of its original setting, and with superb accompaniment from the orchestra Miss Dariescu made that lovely theme stand out. By the time we’d reached the final movement, I had become so mesmerised by her hands that I was struggling to concentrate. She could use that skill for hypnosis. It was a great performance that rightfully got a huge reception and during the interval the bar was buzzing with people discussing how skilfully she played it.

After our halftime Tempranillo we returned for the performance of Mozart’s Requiem. The Northampton Bach Choir and All Saints Choir had patiently sat in their seats for the duration of the piano concerto, but now it was their turn to shine. The conductor for the evening, Renato Balsadonna, is Chorus Director at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden, and he was a great choice as his specialised ability to get the best out of the vocalists was really apparent. When we saw the Northampton Bach Choir at the Last Night of the Derngate Proms lastKitty Whately June, we thought they were a bit ragged at times, and suspected that there wasn’t a lot of understanding between the conductor and the choir. Not a bit of it this time. All throughout, the choir were absolutely at the top of their game – clear, forceful, gentle, emotional, triumphant and all the attributes in between – and all timed perfectly together.

Anthony GregoryThe four vocal soloists were also superb – soprano Elizabeth Llewellyn, Mezzo Kitty Whately, Tenor Anthony Gregory and Baritone David Stout – investing passion, authority and personality into this glorious music. Right from the start there was a feeling of instant attack from orchestra and choirs alike: a wall of sound that filled the theatre from top to bottom. There was a palpable sense of drama and power; surely this is the most stirring music that Mozart ever wrote? Excitement and strength from the Dies Irae and the Rex Tremendae; the beauty of the solo voices in the Tuba Mirum and Recordare; the haunting choral delicacy of the Lacrimosa; all building up to a stunning climactic Sanctus and Agnes Dei, and a superb final soprano solo by Miss Llewellyn in the Lux Aeterna, who I thought was magic throughout.

David StoutMy only criticism of the evening as a whole was that, as it came in at about one hour and fifty minutes, it would have been really nice to have a third, short, piece to start the proceedings, just so that we could have been introduced to the orchestra by themselves first. A little five-minute overture would have given us the chance to settle down and appreciate the various sounds that the RPO so skilfully make and get to know the conductor’s style. By going straight into the concerto at the beginning of the evening, all eyes were (quite rightly) on Miss Dariescu; and with the massed choirs and stunning soloist singers for the Requiem, I thought the orchestra itself rather missed out on their share of the glory of the evening.

Nevertheless it was still a fantastic concert with orchestra, choirs and soloists all on tip-top form. It’s a privilege to have this kind of entertainment on our doorstep.

Review – Russell Howard, Wonderbox, Derngate, Northampton, 14th February 2014

Russell Howard WonderboxHere’s yet another in a series of comedy gigs we’ve attended where we were the only people in the theatre not to know who the comic was. I’ve heard of Russell Howard of course, and seen that he has his “Good News” programme on BBC3, but, like most TV programmes at the moment, we’ve never seen it. Younger people I know said “Oh, Russell Howard, great!” when I told them we were seeing him; older people said “Oh, not Russell Howard!” with the complete opposite reaction. And I think it’s fair to say, judging from the average age of the attendees at the Derngate last Friday, that he definitely appeals to a much younger, and much more female, demographic than, say Russell Kane.

Which is interesting, as I think the two Russells bear many similarities if you compare the two. They’re both the same age (born 1980); they’re both quite manic on stage, incorporating a lot of physical shenanigans, although Russell Kane’s is more the nervy, pacing, balletic twirling type and Russell Howard’s is more the sexual, hip-thrusting, “bumf**k” style. They’re both naturally very funny people, who are completely at ease with suspending what they were going to talk about, in order to take whatever tangent their audience demands – something I always admire in a comedian. They both talk about how whenever you visit the next venue on your tour, the locals will always say that their hometown is rubbish. Russell Howard had tweeted in advance that he was going to be in Northampton and what would the locals recommend he does whilst here; he read out some of the responses, and the first one was “leave”. What else? They both talk about sex, a lot; and they’re both called Russell.

Russell HowardHowever, whereas Russell Kane is quite a wordsmith in his own way, Russell Howard relies much more on old fashioned straightforward, ordinary conversational language, including intensive use of the f word. There’s a degree of sophistication in some of Russell Kane’s routines that I couldn’t really identify in Russell Howard’s. This is not a complaint, and I thought they were both funny in their own way; but there was a kind of (and this is going to sound very snobbish) “lowest common denominator” element to Russell Howard’s act, exemplified perhaps by his routines about his younger brother who, all his life, has waved his willy around whenever he has got excited about something, or extensive material about his embarrassed inability to poo in public, unless he runs a tap to mask the sound. I presume by “poo in public” he means using public lavatories and not in the middle of a municipal park. Actually that was a very funny sequence, comparing how girls all go to the loo together mob-handed without the remotest sense of self-consciousness, whereas guys have very fixed toilet etiquette that must never be transgressed: “Dave, I need a sh*t, come with me mate and run a tap for me”.

Russell Howard in manic moodHe uses the concept of the running gag really well; for example early on he mentions how he and his brother nicked his mother’s phone and changed all the contact names, so that she’d find she’d missed a call from George Michael, and so on. So whenever his mother gets mentioned for the next couple of hours, there’ll always be a throwaway phone joke as an aside. This gave Mrs Chrisparkle cause to wonder why is it that comics nearly always make their mothers sound stupid in jokes? Fathers are always knowing and wise; maybe brutal, maybe laddish; but mothers are inevitably dimwits. He did mess up one running gag though – right at the end of his act he was finishing a story and then came the killer punchline – and hardly anyone laughed; and that’s because he’d forgotten to set it up about fifteen minutes earlier. His embarrassment and subsequent explaining of how it had all gone wrong was probably funnier than the original line.

Other highlights of his act included a very recognisable impersonation of a dog desperate to go on a walk, an amusing conversation when a couple broke off from engaging on a (forgive me gentle reader) blowjob because they recognised him, and the endless fun you can have as a child playing with a slinky on the stairs. He also had several pops at the English Defence League, which can only be a good thing.

Russell Howard in thoughtful moodAfter his finale had kind of fallen apart, he stood a bit helpless for a second or two until a lady shouted out, “Can I have a hug?” at which she promptly jumped up on stage and clasped him to her bosom. Well that was like opening the sluice-gates. A couple of women ran all the way from their balcony seats so they could get to the stage and have a selfie with him. Other women started clamouring noisily for a little personal attention. A rather burly sounding blokey voice called out “can I have a hug too?” Fortunately we quickly moved away from the hug-in, as I had an awful feeling it was going to degenerate into a rather tedious celebrity-fest. In fact, Mr Howard had another finale up his sleeve which was rather heart-warming and a very nice way to finish the evening.

All in all, a very enjoyable evening spent with a very funny comedian, and the packed audience absolutely loved it. Perhaps on reflection he’s not 100% our cup of tea, but he knows precisely what his audience wants and he delivers it to their complete satisfaction. He’s touring round the country until March, he’s at the Royal Albert Hall in April, then he’s off to America, Australia and New Zealand, so the man is obviously in demand!

Review – Fallen Angels, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 12th February 2014

Fallen AngelsWay back in the spring of 1980, dazzled with success at having directed a superb student production of Oscar Wilde’s Salome (a new translation no less) my friend Sue wanted to direct a summer production of Noel Coward’s Fallen Angels. I’d really enjoyed doing the Stage Management on Salome and I’d have been happy to have continued to refine that skill on Fallen Angels; but instead Sue insisted that she wanted me to play Willy. Gentle reader, I am no actor. We had some rehearsals and we struggled along, but in the end it all came to nothing. To this day I maintain that we could have been awesome except that we had the funding withdrawn; but really it was because we were useless.

Jenny SeagroveAnyway, as a result, I’d always been keen to see a proper production of Fallen Angels, but they don’t seem to come round very often. The last Coward revival we saw, Volcano, was a terrible disappointment. However, out of the ashes of that lamentable lava, a couple of years on, here’s a revival of Fallen Angels directed by Roy Marsden (who directed Volcano), starring Jenny Seagrove (who starred in Volcano) and featuring Robin Sebastian (who featured in Volcano). I guess they must all be friends. I was concerned when I realised the extent of the extinct Volcano in this production, but I needn’t have worried. Whereas we thought Volcano was pretty awful, Fallen Angels is absolutely magic.

Sara CroweIt’s a simple tale of two friends who have both been married for some time to their respective and respectable boring husbands, who love them for sure but the spark has definitely gone out of the relationships over the years. The prospect of renewed excitement comes when they hear from the mysterious Maurice, with whom both ladies were amorously occupied in the earlier flushes of their youth. Overcome with passion they fantasise about him; then they decide they can’t possibly meet him as it would jeopardise their marriages; then they decide they don’t really care about their marriages much anyway; and then they end up waiting for his arrival so long that they get dead drunk. Finally Maurice arrives (bad timing) when the husbands are back from the golf trip – so how are the wives going to extricate themselves from that mess? Considering Coward was still in his early twenties when he wrote this play, it shows very insightful understanding about relationships between partners and friends, both in and out of wedlock. All in all, it’s a delightful piece of writing.

Tim WallersPaul Farnsworth’s design has great feeling for the period with terrific costumes and a refined set, all with an excellent attention to detail. Jenny Seagrove’s Julia is a classy lady with natural quiet authority and 1920s chain-smoking sophistication. She exudes comfort and middle-class boredom with every languorous pose on the chaise-longue, and it’s a delight to watch her attempt to retain dignity as she loses her grip on her friendships and her sobriety. But the absolute highlight of the play is the sensationally funny performance by Sara Crowe as Jane, seething with pent-up frustration, getting bitchier as she gets progressively more inebriated; and you’ve never seen anyone get more of a sexual frisson out of remembering how attractive someone’s teeth were.

Robin SebastianThe second act is an incredible tour de force from both performers, as they grapple with the stresses of awaiting Maurice’s arrival, taking too much Dutch Courage on an empty stomach, indulging in highly competitive one-upwomanship, degenerating into verbal catfights, hurtling over the settee like horses at a gymkhana and engaging in some very silly shenanigans involving a pineapple. With its expertly timed and performed physical comedy it reminded me in part of the second act of Noises Off. It’s a wonderfully memorable and funny scene.

Gillian McCaffertyAdded to all that there are excellent supporting performances by Tim Wallers and Robin Sebastian as the rather pompous and easily fooled Fred and Willy, and Philip Battley as the cosmopolitan but slimy Maurice; you could almost smell the stereotypical garlic. There’s a great scene where Maurice greets Fred by kissing him on both cheeks, and Mr Wallers’ utterly horrified reaction is completely hilarious; a simple comic device, but it works brilliantly. Finally there’s a superb comic performance by Gillian McCafferty as the know-it-all maid Saunders, who can play the piano better than her mistress, understands the intricacies of golf clubs better than her master, knows perfect French, and who’s been there and done that with all sort of subtle superiority over everyone else in her orbit. Coward really knew how to write an off-the-wall maid, and this is one of the best.

Philip BattleyThe whole production is a comic triumph and left the very full audience at the Royal helpless with laughter. It’s touring till the end of March and I can absolutely recommend it not only as a really funny evening out, but also as a splendid example of how what might be regarded as a dated drawing-room comedy can still have relevance and pack a magic punch.

PS From our seats in Row C of the stalls, I’ve never felt such a rush of cold air into the auditorium as when the curtain went up at the beginning of the play. The cast must have been absolutely perishing!

Review – The Only Way is Downton, Trafalgar Studios 2, 10th February 2014

The Only Way is DowntonI first noticed this little show when I received my regular brochure from the Oxford Playhouse, where it was on for just one night in January, when we were already busy, but I thought it looked a hoot. Mrs Chrisparkle and I don’t watch much TV as we’re always at the theatre! But we make an exception for Downton Abbey, and spent one New Year’s Day watching the first series in its entirety, so hooked were we. We’ve never seen The Only Way is Essex though – credit us with some standards.

This is Luke Kempner’s one man show that was a huge success in Edinburgh last summer, an hour and three quarters of TV fantasy where our favourite posh nobs and scheming servants car-crash into the X-Factor and The Great British Bake Off, amongst other modern cultural highlights, and all without the aid of a tardis.

Luke KempnerThe story is straightforward. The Dowager Countess of Grantham shocks everyone by announcing her impending marriage to a younger man (presumably there were no older men alive) and the household has to prepare for the wedding. Trouble is, the Earl of Grantham has run out of money (again) so the whole cast has to find devious means of earning or winning some cash. That’s the framework that allows Mr Kempner to run riot with fantastic impersonations and a surreally silly plot.

Luke Kempner in actionI’ve no idea how many characters he voices during the course of this show – dozens and dozens – and he has a real knack for it. Particular favourites of ours were his “downstairs” females – Mrs Hughes, Mrs Patmore and especially Daisy, whose gentle lisp was absolutely uncanny. Mind you, he’s great with the upstairs ladies too, with a slightly unhinged Cora and a delightfully static Lady Mary. The Dowager Countess perhaps occasionally sounded more like the lovechild of Maggie Smith and Julian Clary (possibly one of life’s less likely outcomes). With the men, he excelled with the sneaky and snide Thomas Barrow, a splendidly jolly Earl of Grantham, and a quietly satanic Mr Bates. We don’t watch X-Factor or British Bake-Off (see paragraph 1, above) but I can recognise a good Dermot O’Leary when I hear one, and he got Mel and Sue’s soft and punchy voices down to a tee. I won’t tell you any of the other voices because that would give too much of the game away.

This is a show purely for fun; you’re not going to come away with a greater insight into the human condition and it’s not going to change your Weltanschau. But it will make you laugh a lot. If you like Downton, you’ll love this; we did. It’s on for another week at the Trafalgar Studios, and then continues to tour small venues up and down the country till May. And if you can’t wait to see the show and want to get a sneaky peek of Mr Kempner in action, just search for him on youtube where you will find some brilliantly funny videos!

Review – Russell Kane, Smallness, Warwick Arts Centre, 9th February 2014

Russell Kane - SmallnessRussell Kane is yet another of these BBC3-type comics with whom we’re not that familiar but thought we’d risk paying to see them live; although he was not completely new to us as he co-presented the rather good “How to Win Eurovision” show on TV last year. So we suspected we would like him, but we weren’t sure.

Omar HamdiHowever, before we got to meet Mr Kane there was a support act in the form of Omar Hamdi, a young Welsh-Egyptian comic, who, unsurprisingly, traded somewhat on his unusual background, but still had a lot of entertaining material about culture clashes and some good general observational comedy. I thought once or twice he trod a delicate line where he almost invited the audience to (as Avenue Q would have it) “be a little bit racist”; but he knew what he was doing and it was all good-natured stuff. Part of his “warm-up” job is to find out if there were any overseas members of the audience – which information would be taken up by Russell Kane after the interval and woven into his act. Sadly, we only had a Mexican and a Belgian – I think they were hoping for more. I was going to suggest Mrs Chrisparkle put her hand up but she hasn’t lived in Australia for 27 years, so I thought it might be stretching a point. Plus she would have killed me.

After Mr Hamdi’s 25 minutes, we had an ice-cream-fuelled interval (I was driving, after all) and then awaited Mr Kane. What a little powerhouse of fun and energy he is. He’s one of these comics who never stays still for a second – always pacing about, doing balletic twirls, lunging and jigging. When Michael McIntyre does that it really gets on my nerves because it looks unnatural; but when Russell Kane does it, it’s so intrinsically him that you guess he just can’t stop – it must be his body’s way of releasing some amazing amount of pent-up energy inside. In his skin tight black leggings (it’s not a great look, to be honest) he reminded me of a young Max Wall, not that he really incorporates silly walks as a part of his act, they just happen incidentally.

Not standing stillThere’s also an interesting duality to his persona. Whilst he looks and acts quite camp, and his usual speaking voice is rather soft and gentle, there is also an underlying air of ruffian to him, which surfaces when he’s imitating working-class London/Essex guys (which he does a lot). He talks a bit about his background, and that his father was a bouncer and by all accounts quite a hard man, and you can see he’s inherited streaks of that in his personality. So that soft/rough combination gives him a really fascinating edge. You sense he’s the kind of guy who is at ease talking to all people – any background, any class – which is definitely a gift when it comes to having a great rapport with the audience.

The theme of this tour is “Smallness”, although to be honest I’m not sure it’s that strict a theme, more like a general framework on to which to hang some (but not much) of his material. “What is it with us Brits and smallness?” is the question he poses. “Watch him ejaculate (his words not mine) thoughts about smallness; on keeping things small when life gets big.” I’m glad he doesn’t allow his material to be constrained just to this theme though, because his natural enthusiasm for taking a subject and running away with it makes him one of the funniest comics we’ve ever seen.

Russell KaneHe can so easily identify that moment of recognition with the comic potential of an ordinary everyday situation. For example, what other nation’s population, when they hear a glass being broken in a restaurant or bar, would deem it appropriate to shout out “W**ker!” with the appropriate hand gestures. The French? “Eet ees unlikely”. The Germans? “Vy do zay do dat?” Nope, just the Brits. The Mexican and Belgian in the audience agreed that when they go on holiday abroad and they overhear another group of Mexicans or Belgians talking, they would go up to them, introduce themselves, and have a nice holiday chat. The Brits would do the complete opposite – “oh my God, they’re British, don’t talk to them, don’t make eye contact, run away…” When you go up to an American and ask them what they think of their home town, the inevitable answer is that it’s “awesome!” (Or rather, “ossom!”) Do that to a Brit, and they’ll say “it’s sh*t”. Unless you’re in Manchester, of course. He has lots of excellent Manchester material, much of it centred on his Mancunienne fiancé and her strangulated accent.

R KaneBut it’s not only these international observations where he excels. He’s great at noticing those little things that really irritate in relationships: like Group A sleepers, who can nod off anywhere anytime, get a full ten hours and awake all refreshed and bunny-like; and Group B sleepers, who snatch a few moment here and there, toss and turn all night and wake up knackered. How many Group B sleepers are there in the audience? I put my hand up. How many of you are sleeping with a Group A sleeper? I kept it up. All manner of Group A/B couples then had a laugh at each other’s expense. Then there’s material about not being able to have sex in the morning, or not being able to have sex whilst body noises are emitting… and much more. Whilst the subject matter of his comedy is not exactly ground-breaking his delivery and accuracy of observation is absolutely top notch.

He certainly gave us good value, as he was on for very nearly two hours, and we barely stopped laughing all that time. We loved it, he’s now one of our absolute favourites. His tour goes on up and down the country until May, and I would definitely recommend him!

Review – Drunk, McOnie Company – revisited – Bridewell Theatre, 8th February 2014

Gemma SuttonI was lucky enough to see the McOnie Company’s new show Drunk on its first preview night in Leicester, but as Mrs Chrisparkle spent that night in New Jersey, training American and British colleagues on the art of how not to rub each other up the wrong way, it was a case of “Dance for One”. But when she read my blog about what a great show it was, she announced that she too would like to see for herself what all the fuss was about. Thus it was that last Saturday evening we walked along the Strand and crossed that boundary into the No Man’s Land that is Fleet Street after dark, hung a right into Bride Lane, walked the wrong way around the church and eventually found the little Bridewell theatre.

Simon HardwickIt’s a neat little place, with a very welcoming bar that serves nice red wine, and I thought it was a friendly touch that a lady came round all the tables in the bar asking if we wanted to buy a programme. I had already decided that I wouldn’t need another one, as I still had my programme from Leicester, less than two weeks previously. But I can’t resist a fresh programme, so, much to the scoffing of Mrs C, I parted with my two quid; and I’m glad I did, as the new programme has much more information in it, including (what a 21st century world this is), the twitter addresses for all the cast, creative team and band. There are no reserved seats at the Bridewell; you just pile in and grab the best one you can. A word of warning; don’t do as I did, and expect the email which you have printed off as your e-ticket to magically gain you entrance to the auditorium – you have to present it to the box office first and swap it for tickets, which the door staff then take off you. Not realising that led to our losing our place in the queue with my subsequent brief but tangible annoyance that others, who were behind us, were nicking all the best seats. I shouldn’t have worried though, because the Bridewell is a neat and compact venue, and even if you are sitting at the outer edges of the rows you still get a very good view of the action.

Lucinda LawrenceIf you’ve not seen the show before and want to know what it’s all about, may I refer you to my previous blog – just go back a couple of paragraphs and click on the link. It’s always fascinating to see a show a second time; to notice if there are any changes, maybe things you missed the first time, things that are better, or worse, than you remember. That for me is the absolute magic about live entertainment – no two performances are ever identical. And whilst I don’t think there are any significant differences, there were some aspects that I’d overlooked in my first review.

Katy LowenhoffI’d forgotten the brilliant first solo dance, when Daniel Collins’ Martini first shows up, all swagger and swank, and acting as though he owns the place. Gemma Sutton’s Ice thinks she’s really landed on her feet with this hot new date, but then, isn’t it always the way, he’s actually meeting someone else…and someone else… well, Martini is a very versatile drink, after all. It’s a really funny and sophisticated routine, which tells its own mini-epic story in the space of a few minutes.

Fela LufadejuI also appreciated much more this time the scene when we are introduced to Ice’s first boyfriend. He was her Adam, and no doubt she was his Eve; but it was he who tempted her with the apple, and I guess cider is many people’s first experience with drink. It’s a beautiful scene between Miss Sutton and Simon Hardwick – fresh and innocent, cheeky and loving, and very touching. When she decides that she’s had enough of first love and needs to move on, his sense of rejection is very moving. Looking back, you wonder if she really made the right decision that day.

Daniel CollinsAnabel Kutay’s Absinthe seems sexier than ever with her studied slow pouring of her intoxicating liquid down everyone’s helplessly open mouths – there’s no doubt who’s in charge of dishing out hangovers here. The Pimms party of four toffs out on their jolly rampage is still, for me, the funniest scene; and I was very taken by Lucinda Lawrence’s paparazzi’d star Vodka, like a Russian Norma Desmond, languishing at the bar, bedecked in ermine, alluring yet aloof. The Scotch and Rum scene is sensitively and beautifully done; this love story between two American soldiers in 1943 starts with a rolled up note stuffed in a bottle, such as you might find drifting on to a desert island beach and ends with the knowledge that only one of them survived the war. The superbly tender performances of Ashley Andrews and Fela Lufadeju quite bring a lump to the throat.

Ashley AndrewsFinally, I love the cheery and generous curtain call, with each cast member introducing another cast member; and the final exit from the stage, the cast hungover after 80 minutes of hedonism, helps us back into the real world too. As they slope off, from our seats on the side you hear them fantasising about getting cheesy chips on the way home, and you think, “that’s not such a bad idea”…

Anabel KutayI was already sold on the show, but what did Mrs C think? I could tell she loved it, from the way she leaned forward throughout the whole performance, in that body language expression that betrays how involved you are with what’s on stage. We both feel that Drew McOnie has got a real winner on his hands here; with its innovative combination of theatre and dance, he’s created something really special. It’s on till March 1st at the Bridewell but surely it must have some future life afterwards? No matter what, it’s a must-see whether you love dance or drama.

Review – Stephen Ward, Aldwych Theatre, 8th February 2014

Stephen WardHow much do you know about the Profumo affair? If you’re like us, then probably not that much. The name’s familiar – as are those of Christine Keeler, Mandy Rice-Davies, and, when it all came to trial, the judge was the esteemed Lord Denning. But Yevgeny Ivanov? Lucky Gordon? Stephen Ward? No, you’d have beaten me there, those names would have meant nothing until we’d seen Andrew Lloyd Webber’s new musical about the eponymous osteopath, who massaged the backs of the great and painful and found himself buoyant in the sea of early 1960s London celebrity.

Charlotte SpencerOne of the main criticisms I’d heard about it in advance was that, although it was a perfectly good show, who could possibly be its target market? Surely only the (relatively) elderly would remember those days and be interested in reliving those scandalous times? Well, judging from the age bracket of those attending last Saturday’s matinee (and bearing in mind that it was indeed a matinee, which may skew the demographic) then maybe so. However, that’s a real shame. It’s a timeless story – and if it were fiction, we’d be lapping it up. Sex, political scandals, celebrity and espionage – what’s not to love? And, of course, the music of Andrew Lloyd Webber. I’ve not seen all his shows, by a long chalk, but for the most part I find them pretty enjoyable. Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita, Phantom are all amazing. Joseph, Starlight and Aspects are all very good. Sunset – ok, Cats – a bit boring; not seen the others. But if musicals were football teams (and I accept that they’re not) I’d certainly put this show up there at the top of the Championship, looking for possible promotion to the Premiership.

Charlotte BlackledgeI was really impressed with the story-telling aspect of the show. It’s a very well-paced, momentum-building book, and, by the time you get to the second act, it becomes the stage version of a real page-turner. The lyrics are not drowned out by the music (Rent in Concert take note) so you can hear all the words as clear as a bell. That’s not to say the orchestra don’t give it their all, because they do – it’s a really great performance by them, and Lloyd Webber has come up with some terrific tunes as usual – just that it all comes across as beautifully balanced in your eardrums. Structurally or technically, the only thing I thought could have been improved is the Act One climax – Johnny from the club arriving at Stephen’s flat with a gun and not afraid to shoot it; I guess it was meant to be an exciting moment to take you buzzing into the interval, but actually I thought it was a damp squib that needed much more oomph.

Anthony CalfThere’s obviously absolutely no doubt in ALW’s mind that Stephen Ward was framed. With worthies like Profumo, Astor and Rachman surrounding him, Ward was a comparative no-mark, who, with the benefit of hindsight, was always going to be sacrificed on the altar of political expediency. There’s a scene in the show where the Home Secretary and his cronies brainstorm on what trumped-up charge they will get the police to fabricate, nicely giving a new meaning to Stephen Ward’s “Manipulation” song from earlier. This develops into the brilliant “Police Interview”, where the impetus to incriminate Ward in any way they can, is blatantly, ruthlessly and unsettlingly hilariously portrayed. All this, and a superb scene with News of the World journalists (whatever became of that responsible and newsworthy organ?) where they encourage Christine to “give us something juicy” – the plot may be in the 1960s but the subject matter is as relevant today as ever.

Joanna RidingAlexander Hanson is fantastic as Ward; this is the first time we’ve seen him since his excellent Captain von Trapp in the Palladium’s Sound of Music a few years ago. Manipulative, but manipulable too; attracted to the ladies in a determined, confident way; displaying an air of quiet authority that ends up being just a little too quiet to save himself. And musically, he’s great; an outstanding, rich, clear voice and an interpretation of Don Black’s lyrics that make you feel really sorry for him. The bizarre thing is that, of all the people in the show, Ward is the one who has really done nothing wrong; just having a taste for the highlife and a liking for a varied array of ladies – there’s nothing illegal about that.

Alexander HansonCharlotte Spencer gives a great performance as Christine Keeler, the very young dancer at Murray’s Cabaret Club – I’m sure I remember adverts for that club in Palladium theatre programmes from the 60s and 70s – who catches Ward’s eye and doesn’t resist his advances, but with whom, for whatever reason, he apparently doesn’t actually have a relationship – he just installs her in his flat. She’s an excellent singer, looks great, and over the course of the show develops from rough-edged teenager to a more sophisticated, and much more experienced, woman. Charlotte Blackledge’s Mandy Rice-Davies is a more outgoing, back-chatty girl, full of fun and cheek and it’s no surprise Rachman would have shown an interest in her; or indeed, Ward. Interestingly, the real Mandy Rice-Davies apparently advised during the creative process of the show, which lends the plot additional veracity.

Ian ConninghamThere’s also a brilliant turn by Joanna Riding as Valerie Hobson (Lady Profumo) standing by her man in best Tammy Wynette fashion, both when she thinks he has been falsely accused of having an affair with Christine Keeler, and when she knows it is true. Profumo must have been one of the luckiest men alive to have a high profile affair like that and suffer the vengeance of his wife for no more than about thirty seconds. Miss Riding’s performance of “I’m Hopeless when it comes to you” is probably the musical highlight of the show. Anthony Calf, who can always be relied upon to provide great support in any cast, is a very chummy and friendly Lord Astor, so that the scene where he distances himself from Ward because the heat is on, has a much greater impact and you realise what a cowardly toe-rag Astor is. And I really loved the double act of Ian Conningham and Christopher Howell as the two bent coppers intimidating their way through their interrogations. But the whole cast is excellent, and the big set pieces like the rather posh orgy and the courtroom scene work extremely well.

Christopher HowellAt the end of the day it’s Stephen Ward’s story, his good times and his tragic ending; the show completely revolves around him and ends as it begins with his bizarrely featuring in the Chamber of Horrors at Blackpool. Alexander Hanson gives the stand-out performance required for this heavy role. Pre-show warnings advise that it’s not for the easily offended; to be honest I think you’d have to be very easily offended indeed to get upset by its content. It’s an excellent show and I would really recommend it!