Review – Rambert Dance Company, Mixed Bill of Four Elements, Rooster, Dutiful Ducks and Sounddance, Sadler’s Wells, 24th May 2014

Rambert Does RoosterThe appeal of booking to see this programme by Rambert could be summed up in four words – The Return of Rooster! My fantasy contemporary dance show programme would be a night of Christopher Bruce works – in this order, Swansong, Ghost Dances and then Rooster. I can remember seeing Rooster several times, at High Wycombe and Oxford – but a trawl through my programme collection came up with just one occasion – October 1995 in Wycombe, with a fantastic cast that included Christopher Powney (now Artistic Director of the Royal Ballet School), Marie Laure Agrapart (who now has her own dance company in France, and with whom I was in love, sadly she didn’t know it), Paul Liburd (now teaching at the London Studio Centre) and Vincent Redmon (not sure what he’s doing now).

Rambert 1995There was a time – about when Mark Baldwin took over as Artistic Director – that I felt Rambert slightly lost its way. We kept faith with them, and went to see them whenever we could, but sometimes the dance skills were not as great as in the 80s and 90s. I don’t attribute this to Mr Baldwin – he’s a great choreographer and we used to love seeing his own dance company’s productions at that time. Maybe they just got the Millennium Bug. That’s when Richard Alston’s company really took over for me as being the company You Just Had To See.

Rooster 1995But I’m delighted to say that Rambert were on top form with this mixed programme of old favourites, and although there has been some criticism that Rambert are rehashing old stuff and not creating new work – which may be a justified observation – there’s no doubting that Sadler’s Wells was packed to the rafters with a very enthusiastic audience last Saturday night. The first piece was Lucinda Childs’ Four Elements, first performed by Rambert in 1990, her work rarely seen in the UK. Each of the four elements makes up each of the four sections of the dance, so I’m not quite sure why some people were so confused as to when it was all over, applauding when only a couple of the elements had been completed – cue for my pompous disapproval of people applauding too early. Mrs Chrisparkle rather appreciates it when people applaud early, as it shows that the audience are really enjoying it and can’t contain their enthusiasm. She’s much more charitable than me.

Lead Rooster 1995Four Elements is visually spectacular, with costumes representing dominos, playing cards, a skeleton and – I think – picnic blankets, reflecting similar designs in the backdrops behind the dancers. Water, the first section, had all the dancers together in a series of movements that left me in mind of Olympic gymnasts performing the Floor Exercise. The second section, Earth, had just the women dancers performing largely the same kind of movements as in the first part. The third section was Air, just men this time, randomly entering the stage from the wings individually, each with a mixed up sequence of small leaps, large leaps and skips. If the first scene was the Floor Exercise, this was the Triple Jump. It was entertaining to watch, but it wasn’t until the last scene – Fire – that the whole dance worked for me, which brought together the three previous elements combined with the dancers dancing together for some of the time, but definitely solos at the end. All in all, it was an enjoyable piece, if ever so slightly soporific to watch.

SounddanceAfter the first interval it was time for Rooster. I was really surprised to find they hadn’t scheduled it to end the evening. Performed to a soundtrack of great Rolling Stones hits, it’s a satirical look at the chauvinistic 1960s male, how he preens and panders to himself, how he mistreats women, and how he often doesn’t get the upper hand. It’s a wonderful combination of humour, colour, sex and Christopher Bruce’s inimitable choreography and it always makes me whoop with joy.

Sounddance soloThe characters aren’t named but there’s a “lead rooster” who is the first to pose slowly into place, and he seems to be in charge of the rest of the guys. He was danced by Miguel Altunaga and he is absolutely brilliant. He starts off the “Little Red Rooster” sequence and also features in some other numbers, notably “Sympathy for the Devil” at the end. Particular highlights for me were a spectacular “Paint it Black” with a fantastic performance by Dane Hurst and a fabulous trio of menacing girls danced by Hannah Rudd, Carolyn Bolton and Patricia Okenwa; a beautiful Ruby Tuesday with a very sensuous and wistful performance by Antonette Dayrit; and – always a pleasure – a superb duel/duet between Vanessa Kang and Adam Blyde (I think) in “Play with Fire”, where the lavish red boa inevitably takes on a life of its own.

Dutiful DucksChristopher Bruce has re-staged it slightly and brought the choreography up to date in a few places – I noticed the three Paint It Black girls in the finale adding a disco element to their dancing; and Dane Hurst did a bit of “shootin’ from the hip” gun action during one of his routines. Both of these were enjoyable additions. If I had any criticisms it would be that the guys who have to catch Ruby Tuesday in their arms and then toss her in the air like a pancake slightly telegraphed their moves so that they were visibly static in place to receive her long before it was necessary – a slight distraction, I felt. I also thought the performance of “Not Fade Away” was a little less manic than I remember it, which slightly reduced its impact. But these are very minor quibbles on what always has been and remains one of the most exhilarating 25 minutes of dance you can ever hope to see.

Four ElementsAnother interval took us into Dutiful Ducks, a short male solo choreographed by Richard Alston and danced superbly by Dane Hurst to a backing track of a nonsensical jumbling up of alliterative words. It’s fun – but it’s only a curtain raiser to the final substantial piece, Merce Cunningham’s Sounddance. Here we have another alienating soundtrack, a scribble of noises that partly resemble that teeth-on-edge scraping chalk on a blackboard sound, the amplified crumpling of crisp packets and a severe drain clearance problem. It’s extremely disconcerting to listen to, but the accompanying dance is as beautiful and as eloquent as you could wish for. If you removed the scribble and replaced it with, say, a Brandenburg Concerto, the dance and the music would intertwine beautifully. It’s the juxtaposition between the formal elegance of the dance and the modern racket that gives this piece great force and energy. Very crisp and accurate footwork, it showed the company at its absolute best. I would still have preferred the evening to end with Rooster though. The applause at the end of Rooster way surpassed that at the end of Sounddance. Maybe we were all Rooster fans, returned for a Rooster reunion. It kind of felt like it. Nevertheless it was a great evening of dance and we all loved it.

Four ElementsP. S. Interesting theatre etiquette issue. As we were all taking our seats at the beginning of the evening, a lady (not very tall) and a gentleman (average height) went to sit in the row in front of me and the lady to my right. The lady went to sit in front of me, the gentleman went to sit in front of the lady to my side. Their bottoms had barely touched the padding when the lady to my right interrupted them and very firmly asked them if they would swap sides so that the lady was in front of her and the gentleman was in front of me. That way she would see the stage better. The lady in front had no problem in changing sides. However, this meant that I got the bigger bloke in front of me – and as I hadn’t been party to the arrangements I got a bit narked by this. So I said “actually, I preferred it the way it was”, to which the lady to my right, who hadn’t looked at me at all yet, said “but you’re much taller so it won’t affect you”. She had no idea if I was tall or short to be honest. I said that I would bob my head around and try to see past him. As it happened, it didn’t really inconvenience me, but I did rather resent how she went about it. She should have said to the people in front, “would you mind swapping sides so that I can see better”, and then turn to me and say, “that is, if that’s ok with you?” To which I would have said, of course that was no problem. But instead she decided that she was going to saddle me with the bigger bloke and that was that. Mrs C thinks I’m starting to get very cantankerous in my old age.

Review – West End Eurovision 2014 – The Final Battle – Dominion Theatre, 22nd May 2014

West End Eurovision 2014Our second time of seeing West End Eurovision – our first one, in 2011 was a complete hoot. Unfortunately it’s always held on a Thursday night and there’s work the next day unless you plan very carefully. So that’s what we did this year. It’s being called “The Final Battle”, with a very sad threat of there being no more in the future – I guess they must be very arduous to organise. I’m always amazed at the keenness and competitiveness behind it all. “Battle” is indeed a suitable word.

drinks receptionIt’s all done to support the Make a Difference Trust, who do great work to support people living with HIV and AIDS. The event involves the casts of many West End shows, all coming together to perform a Eurovision song, which gets voted on by the star jury, their peers from the other shows, and us, the rabble in the audience. Before the night, they’ve already filmed their idents – little introductory movies for each performance – which you can still see on youtube. Vote for your favourite and the MAD Trust receive £1. I voted for my favourite five (Mr Generous). After you’ve seen the performances, you are then invited to turn on your mobile phones (really? Did anyone actually turn theirs off?) and vote for your favourite performance. Apparently the whole thing raised £66,000 this year for the charity, which is not bad going.

Everyone arrivingWe paid extra for the VIP seats, primarily because we wanted a good view of the show, and of course we were happy to donate more to support the very good works of MAD Trust, but also in the hope of doing some star-spotting. More on that later. But with our bronze coloured VIP wristbands gleaming, we made our way up the stairs to the Studio at the Dominion, where the Drinks Reception was to take place. And a very jolly affair it was too. There was a brief address by chairman David Pendlebury, where he welcomed us all, introduced us to the jury members (of whom only Rylan Clark was actually there, resplendent in his Conchita Wurst outfit), told us all to have a great night and suggested that it might – just might – not be the last of these events. Yes, you heard it here first. (Unless you were there too.) We kept on bumping into David Pendlebury during the course of the evening and he seems a jolly nice chap.

The JuryFuelled with a second plastic mug of cava, we made our way to our seats – and they were pretty magnificent. Middle of row G, on the central aisle, fantastic views. I knew that some of our Eurovision friends were also going to be there, so we scouted around and found them for some pre-show hugs and quips. Back in our seats, awaiting the slightly-later-than 11.30pm start (there was no way all those people were going to make their way from the bars to their seats by 11.30), Mrs Chrisparkle was overawed with the incredible vibe in the place. It felt so exciting. The atmosphere was electric.

Making Your Mind UpOur host was the superb Richard Gauntlett. I don’t think I’ve seen him before, but he was excellent at keeping everything fast moving and really funny. Our competitors (over 230 of them apparently), he said, were all backstage more nervous than Max Clifford looking for the soap. The resident cast of We Will Rock You came on for the opening number of the night, “The Show Must Go On”. Ironic, said Mr Gauntlett, considering it’s closing on Saturday week. I’ve never had the remotest interest in seeing We Will Rock You – but I have to say, it was a pretty stunning start to the show.

Ding A DongHe then introduced us to the judges, Rylan Clark, Lesley Joseph, Caroline Quentin and Graham Norton. They all sat in the box to the left, like the Muppets’ Statler and Waldorf going on a double date. They were very enthusiastic all night, and came up with some wonderful lines. Culture snob that I am, I really expected not to like Rylan, who I’d never seen before; but I must be honest, I thought he came across as a really likeable funny guy.

Rock 'n' Roll KidsOnto the contest proper, with the first of nine entries – the cast of Once performing Bucks Fizz’ Making Your Mind Up. It started off as a typical spoof of the group, dressed in the same colours, ripping off the skirts, but then went AWOL as a troupe of leprechauns joined in, fiddles and Irish dance routines blazing. Michael Flatley would turn in his grave. Very entertaining, with nice musical interludes from Riverdance and We Will Rock You.

Flying the FlagNext up was cast of The Book of Mormon performing Teach-In’s Ding-a-Dong, the 1975 winner for the Netherlands. The perfect choice in many ways, given the Mormons’ predilection for doorbelling activities. Their ident, as The Real Housewives of Uganda, was brilliant, and their live performance carried on with the same characterisation. Flinging babies (not real ones) about as props, they did a lovely version of the song, first accompanied by some dancing missionaries, then by tribal dancers – it was like 1976 and Ipi Tombi all over again. Of course, being from the Book of Mormon, this was never going to be devoid of foul language and dubious taste – and in the end the Real Housewives of Uganda removed their traditional costumes to reveal their late night Kampala nightspot little black dresses. Really funny – the audience loved it.

CongratulationsOur third act was The Commitments cast performing Rock ‘n’ Roll Kids, Ireland’s winning entry from 1994. Graham Norton showed himself up by confessing he’d never heard it or of it. Back to Fan Camp for you sir. Unfortunately there was a false start with this one, as the microphones on stage failed. It would have been great if it had been Bandido (Spain 1990 – if you know the song, you’ll get the reference). It started with some evocative shadow dancing, but then got infiltrated by characters from other shows to great comic effect. A Mormon elder, a Mamma Mia Abba-type, Jean Valjean, Billy Elliot and the Phantom (probably more) all ended up singing together. By about this stage you realised that the standard of entries was extremely high.

Disco TangoAfter a short appearance by Harriet Thorpe, telling us more about the good work of the Trust, it was back to the show and, probably my favourite of the evening, the cast of Les Miserables performing Flying The Flag, Scooch’s Magnum Opus for the United Kingdom from 2007. It started with a lone barricader plaintively emoting about flying the flag – of course, it’s the French flag (they are Les Mis after all), which was followed by an invasion of BA type air crew doing all the usual moves with even a message from Captain Cameron Mackintosh on the video wall. The inventive use of the French flag throughout made it unquestionably Les Mis, but alongside this archetypal British comedy song, it made a terrific combination.

Jan JanThe cast of the Phantom of the Opera took to the stage to perform Congratulations – and after the high energy of all the previous entries, this one had a slightly less showbizzy feel to it, although they also chucked in elements of Riverdance and there was also a massive Rubik’s cube on stage for some reason. Congratulations though was an appropriate choice to celebrate performer Philip Griffiths’ record as the longest running performer on the West End stage – 34 consecutive years I believe. Then we had the cast of The Bodyguard performing Disco Tango in the original Danish, Tommy Seebach’s magic little ditty from 1979. Quirky, comic and somewhat surreal, it’s not often you get to hear Beverley Knight singing in Viking. Maybe because it wasn’t in English there wasn’t quite the opportunity to represent the lyrics in the performance, but still it was very enjoyable.

Marry MeAfter the interval, where Mrs C and I met more Eurovision friends and decided to stick with sparkling water to help our overall health, we returned to see the cast of Wicked perform Jan Jan, Armenia’s 2009 contribution. Never one of my favourite songs, but this looked beautiful, with atmospheric lighting and glistening blue overcoats giving way to spangly white outfits. This led on to a frankly bonkers Marry Me (Finland 2013) from the cast of Billy Elliot; great choice of song, lots of humour, a disassociation of costumes, all frantic and frenetic. I think the jury were a bit puzzled by that one. The last entry of the night was the cast of Mamma Mia performing Waterloo – which sounds a bit unadventurous, considering Waterloo is the finale number in their show – but was actually hysterical. Like the Commitments entry it featured characters from other West End shows breaking in on the act. So, to accompany four Abba lookalikes, you had the Jersey Boys performing their version of the song, Miss Saigon’s helicopter, Ugandan villagers, Rachel from The Bodyguard and even a cavorting naked man from the chorus of Hair.

Waterloo with Jersey BoysI can’t quite recall the running order but it was about now that director Andrew Keates took to the stage, to give a very brave and honest speech about directing the play “As Is”, which concerns living with HIV, and how he hoped the play might encourage some people to get tested for the condition and if they are positive, to get the necessary treatment. The honesty was that he himself had not been tested, but took his own advice and discovered that he too was HIV positive. So it was a very personal plea for everyone to look after their own health by getting tested and seeking the medical help if they need it. Unfortunately he was interrupted by the most inappropriate heckle of the year, on a completely unrelated issue, which had us cringing in our seats. Even if they had a genuine grievance, there’s a time and a place – and that wasn’t it. But it didn’t dent the emotion and starkness of Mr Keates’ message.

SoniaAfter Beverley Knight drew the raffle (I lost again), it was time for our Eurovision guest act, Sonia, who proved she can still belt out a good hit. Not only did she perform her second placed 1993 entry, Better The Devil You Know, she also sang You’ll Never Stop Me From Wanting You. This moved us on to the voting, which was pretty tight, with the Book of Mormon in 3rd place and a tie for the top between Mamma Mia and Les Miserables. Apparently they don’t do Countback to identify an ultimate winner, so it’s not like real Eurovision. The performers from the winning shows all came back on stage and it was clear that they regarded their achievement with huge pride – and so they should.

Final scoreboardIt was a good 2.30am when it was all over. But of course, it wasn’t, as there was still the post-show party to be enjoyed. When we went in 2011, the party was held at a distant bar, some fifteen minutes trudging through the streets of Soho trying to find the place, and no one was quite sure where it was. Then we had to queue for entry, whilst celebs walked on through, which kind of rankled As I Had Paid For My Entry In Advance With My Ticket Price. Still, there were quite a lot of interesting people to gawp at and eavesdrop on – Sheridan Smith, Denise Welch, Denise van Outen, for example.

After show partyThis time, we had been told in advance that the party would also be held at the Dominion – we should make our way out of the theatre then back to the front where we would find the way in. There only seemed one way back in – through the theatre foyer, where heavies at the door were inspecting our wristbands. Ours were bronze, but everyone else’s appeared to be red. I also noted that the stairs to the Studio, where we had gone for the reception earlier, were now roped off. I thought no more of it, and we spent the next hour or so happily wandering around the foyers watching all these beautiful young people (cast members and their friends I guess) getting rat-arsed, and posing with the winning trophy. I did wonder though, where the other people were. Where was Graham Norton? And Caroline Quentin? I’d seen Aljaz and Janette from Strictly Come Dancing at the Drinks Reception, but they weren’t anywhere to be seen, until I noticed them emerging down some stairs and leaving at about 3.15am. The next day I saw a happy picture online of Graham Norton and Harriet Thorpe sharing champagne, and that’s when I realised that there are VIP parties and VIP parties, and that some VIPs are vipper than others!

I really hope this isn’t the last of the West End Eurovisions, as it’s a splendid tradition, everyone has a great time and it raises a lot of money for a very important cause. Now – the question is, shall we book to see West End Bares? Not been before and, let’s face it, it sounds fun!

Review – Jon Richardson, Nidiot, Derngate, Northampton, 18th May 2014

NidiotI’ve only ever briefly seen Jon Richardson on television, as a guest on Have I Got News For You, when I’ve always found him very funny. We’ve never watched 8 Out of 10 Cats, so I’ve no idea what he’s like on that. But his stage persona of being a grumpy young man – like the Youth Division at Jack Dee Ltd – was new to me, I’d never realised that was his comic Modus Operandi. He’s obviously extremely popular on his TV shows as the Derngate was packed to the rafters with mainly young beery guys and cheeky girls on all boys’ or all girls’ nights out. Mrs Chrisparkle and I probably stood out like proverbial sore thumbs.

It’s unusual for a comic to give his tour a name – this is the “Nidiot” tour – without actually referring to it as part of the material. I wondered if I was missing out on a new generic word so I consulted Urban Dictionary for help – and there’s all sorts of explanations for it there. To me it’s simply an elegant example of metanalysis – one of fourteen ways of making a new word in English without borrowing from a foreign word – where the last letter of the word before moves over to join with the first letter of the next word – thus an idiot becomes a nidiot. It can work backwards too; the Old English for that native snake of ours was a “naedre”, but the “n” went back the other way and it became an “adder”. I can talk about this for hours, particularly when I’ve had a few. Just ask Mrs C. On second thoughts don’t. But there was no particular reason for this show title. It might just as well have been called “Ninny” – which is metanalysis of “an inny” (short for “innocent”). I know. I’ll stop now.

Jon RichardsonI’m digressing; and that’s on purpose because I find I don’t actually have a lot to say about Jon Richardson’s stand up act. It’s not often that Mrs C differ on our attitudes to individual stand-up comics – we usually like the same kind of thing – but this was one of those occasions. To be fair – we didn’t differ widely, we differed somewhat. We both found him generally entertaining and engaging, but whereas he held my attention for the entirety of the show – 2 hours 20 minutes including an interval, overrunning by half an hour – Mrs C slept for the last twenty minutes. But I can kind of see why she lost interest. His material, funny as it is, is very self-orientated. It’s all about how he doesn’t fit in with the other guys on stag nights; or how he doesn’t want to get married like all his mates; how he’s happier being a Lake District lad than a Londoner; how he didn’t get on well in a “Real Man” reality TV show, mixing with other “real man” wannabes. He’s basically a bit of a loner.

There’s also a certain lack of light and shade to his material – one could be unkind and say it’s all “me, me, me” but in a sense it is; you don’t get much impression of the other people who weave their way in and out of his life, whereas most other comics blend in funny material about their mates, their wives and girlfriends, their children, and so on. Even their dog. I also found his material very hard to recollect the day after. That’s not to say it wasn’t enjoyable; but I don’t think he tackled any major issues and made you think differently about them as a result. The only specific sequence I can remember with any real certainty was his regretting that he’d never masturbated outside in the open air when he was younger. He’s decided it’s too late to start now. The fact that I remember that probably says more about me than him.

jon richardsonThere’s also a slight credibility issue (for me) in that I don’t think he looks like a grumpy young man. He smiles a lot – he seems to be having a good time up there on the stage, and, swear words notwithstanding, he’s very polite in his attitude to us. He’s keen to please; he wants us to have a good time. This is not symptomatic of a grumpy young man. I think Mrs C believed in his grumpiness more than I did. He was also one of those pacey comedians – by which I don’t mean that he kept it all going at a super pace (although in that sense it was all paced just fine) – but he paced from side to side the whole night long. He actually only paced across the central area, not from wings to wings, and he did it quite fast; so he really did give the impression of the legendary caged tiger. It did make me feel a little anxious, if I’m honest.

However, once all that criticism is out of the way, what you’ve got left to appraise is, is he funny? Yes, he is; I laughed a lot. Mrs C laughed too – though not quite as much as me; and certainly not during the last twenty minutes, when she simply decided she’d had enough; she’d enjoyed what she’d listened to, but she didn’t feel as though continuing to listen to his material would substantially add to the enjoyment of the evening. She can be quite a harsh critic, can Mrs C. In fact, what she said was: “he was like comedy Enya – very nice, but it all just went on in the background”.

Review – Lord of the Flies, New Adventures, Birmingham Hippodrome, 18th May 2014

Lord of the FliesIt’s a tricky thing, converting a much studied, highly allegorical, significant work of literature such as Golding’s Lord of the Flies into just under two hours’ worth of contemporary dance. As the director/choreographer, if you go into too much plot detail you end up getting bogged down in a mere series of gestures and “dance conversations”, and the audience gets concerned about having to understand every single little nuance – which is pretty darn impossible. On the other hand, not enough detail and it becomes too abstract with just hints and suggestions of the original work and you haven’t really covered your remit.

Dominic North“Do you know the story of Lord of the Flies?” I asked Mrs Chrisparkle, as we quaffed our pre-matinee glass of Sauvignon Blanc. “No”, she replied, “do you?” “It’s all about a group of boys who get washed up on some desert island and have to survive.” I realised my response was light on narrative but I couldn’t remember much else. I read it when I was about 16 at school Because I Had To. “Oh yes,“ I added, “there’s also a boy called Piggy who gets killed”. “Is there a synopsis in the programme?” she enquired. There wasn’t. Two and a half hours later, by the time we were in post-show discussion mode, we realised there were a number of moments that we didn’t really understand. What was the pig’s head all about? Who was the mysterious bloke who suddenly appeared and then dropped out of sight? And then came back again? Why was the one guy left on stage at the end? What do the clothes rails represent? One quick flick through the Wikipedia synopsis of the story answers most of those questions, but I agree with Mrs C – and the ladies on the train home in the evening whom we eavesdropped and heard saying the same thing – a synopsis would have been helpful. And I still don’t get what the clothes rails were for.

Danny ReubensScott Ambler is the choreographer for this piece, with Matthew Bourne as overall director. I am a huge admirer of Mr Ambler’s work – ever since we first saw him as the Prince in Swan Lake, I’ve never seen that role performed better, and I’ve followed his career with thinly-disguised fandom. I think he’s done a superb job with the choreography in Lord of the Flies, creating some exhilarating solos, exciting stand-out group work and characterful quirky moments for individual dancers throughout the show.

Layton WilliamsThere’s a core cast of nine dancers taking the main parts, but in each venue around the country, there is a backing ensemble made up of local young men and boys, from college students to teenagers down to little kids, all of whom study dance or performing arts, and who, on the strength of the performance we saw, overwhelmingly put their heart and soul into it. Naturally, this structure is going to lead to an imbalance of dance skills and expertise, so Mr Ambler has had to construct routines that will bring the best of out of all members of the cast, both experienced and beginners. The result is fantastic – apart from the obvious differences of ages with some of the dancers, the integration between the professionals and ensemble is seamless. You simply cannot see the join. There are many sequences when you have twelve or fourteen dancers centre stage performing the “main dance” (for want of a better expression) while the rest of the cast lurk on the edges, observing or acting out their own mini-playlets; but it’s astounding to think that three to five of those main dancers will be from the local cast.

Chris WilsonThe Birmingham Hippodrome has a pretty massive expanse performance area but the show occupies every possible space. When all the cast are on stage there is so much to watch, with so many different relationships being played out, so much interaction between the dancers and so many little individual scenes that give you an insight into the characters depicted, that I think you’d need to see this show at least three times to be sure of seeing everything. There is an excellent sense of plot progression, as the costumes, make up and choreography all work together to increase the sense of developing chaos and savagery. Even if there are moments when you really don’t get what the story is trying to say, or the symbolism escapes you, the overall visual and musical impact is so strong that it carries you along anyway.

Fenton LockleyIt’s danced throughout with the superb skill and commitment that you would expect from a Matthew Bourne production. Ralph, the kind of “Head Boy” character, is danced by Dominic North, who I think we have seen before but I haven’t really noticed much before. Not only is he a great dancer, but his facial expressions are really communicative, so you can follow plot details and understand Ralph’s character really well. He’s perfectly cast up against Danny Reubens’ “bad boy” Jack, who, I have to say, is exceptional in this production. He was great in last year’s Sleeping Beauty but since then he has really upped his game immensely over the past year. He’s one of those performers you can’t stop watching – definitely a star of the future. In addition, Layton Williams is brilliant as the wistful and unworldly Simon, with elegant and expressive solo work and he is fantastic in his final scene. There’s also a thoughtful and sincere performance by Sam Plant as the doomed Piggy, the responsible intellectual who is always going to be bullied by brutes.

Jack DologhanAll the ensemble guys were also equally fantastic, but a few really stood out for various reasons; Chris Wilson for his extraordinary presence and strong dance skills, Jack Dologhan for the humour and resilience of being the littlest chap, Khalid Daley for the sensitive way he moved with the music, Fenton Lockley for the way he acted through dance, and Hugo von Frangstein for his all-round stage presence and maturity. But, really, they were all great.

Khalid DaleyWe’ve seen a number of Matthew Bourne/Adventures in Motion Pictures/New Adventures shows now over the years, and we both agreed that for visual impact and emotional contact this is very high up there with the greats. Swan Lake is still The Boss for us, but we enjoyed this more than Cinderella, Nutcracker!, Dorian Gray and maybe even Sleeping Beauty. You might just want to refresh your memory of the plot before going to see it, that’s all. This powerful and hard-hitting production is touring on and off for the rest of the year and is a must-see for anyone who enjoys their contemporary dance.

Hugo von FragsteinPS. There was a curtain-up announcement forewarning us that cast members would be at the exits after the show to collect donations to Matthew Bourne’s charitable foundation, Re:Bourne. We’re both perfectly happy to make a small donation on the way out of a theatre but, to be honest, you really do need a little more information about the work that a charity does if you’re to make a contribution. The announcement didn’t give any such details and the advertising in the programme about it is woolly at best. I’m sure it’s a decent cause but we didn’t feel able to give more than a moderate amount without more information. If you’re involved in Re:Bourne please feel free to post more information about its work!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 16th May 2014

Martin CoyoteIt’s always sad when we reach the final Screaming Blue Murder of the season, but at least the people of Northampton gave it a good send-off with another packed house last Friday night. Our MC for this show was Martin Coyote, who we’ve seen before doing his usual act but not as compere. He was superb – lightly keeping everyone well behaved for the acts but also sharing some stonking good material with us. He’s got a great stage persona – wry and rather cynical but still upbeat and positive. He kept the show going superbly and had the majority of the best lines of the night.

Javier JarquinOur first act was new to us, Javier Jarquin. He’s an interesting blend of Chinese and Latino all wrapped up in a Kiwi accent. He comes over as very likeable, with some really excellent material, including how a newcomer to a country can be confused by the shop names, the (highly significant) differences between “it” and “that”, how furnishing a bed changes when you get a girlfriend, and how a pavlova can pale into insignificance when talking to a Croatian. He had both Mrs Chrisparkle and me in hysterics when he equated asking his girlfriend how her day was to accidentally hitting “Print All” on the computer. Great delivery, and really funny. He’s a magician too – would be good to see him do some magic another time!

Helen ArneyOur second act was Helen Arney, also new to us, and, really unfortunately, it all went a bit Pete Tong. Her act is based on her persona of being a science nerd, and doing comedy songs that reflect that. To be honest, I didn’t think she looked or acted particularly nerdy so that persona didn’t convince me. She seemed nervous and somewhat shouty, and rushed the early parts of the act a bit, and I think got put off when the laughs didn’t come. She then forgot her lines in her first comedy song, lost even more confidence, and at that point we lost confidence in her. Her final song, about having a lover in a coma, was extremely dark and savage and would probably have worked if we’d kept faith in her act – but I’m afraid we hadn’t, so it didn’t. Oh well, you can’t win them all.

Andrew BirdLast act was someone we had seen before, and remembered as being brilliant, local lad Andrew Bird. He was runner-up in the 2012 Chrisparkle Awards for best Screaming Blue Stand-up, beaten only by the fantastic Mr Paul Sinha. Andrew Bird’s attack and confidence are just astounding, because they are so perfectly pitched. He has just the right level of enthusiasm for you to fully engage in the pictures of domestic or parental harmony he is painting, with wonderful observations that capture true comedy moments. We loved his material about marketing a lavender scented child’s bath lotion, to calm bath time for a two-year-old into a chilled experience – and the contrast with the bottle of Matey that we all had when we were kids that bleached everything in sight. So much brilliant material, and the audience absolutely loved him.

And that is indeed it, until the next season starts again on 12th September. Get it in your diary now!

Review – Frank Skinner, Man in a Suit tour, Derngate, Northampton, 13th May 2014

Man in a SuitI’ve enjoyed watching Frank Skinner on the TV on and off over the past 25 years or so. He’s always good value guesting on panel shows and we both used to love his Fantasy Football programmes with David Baddiel. Mind you, I draw the line at Room 101. You have to have some standards. This is his first stand up tour in about seven, and certainly the first opportunity we’ve had to see him live, so I grabbed excellent tickets the moment they went on sale. Unfortunately, Mrs Chrisparkle was delayed coming home from work before the show so I was sent on ahead to the theatre to order the drinks, whilst she gobbled her evening meal and followed on in a mad flustery indigestive panic, arriving one full minute before the show started. Where there’s a will, there’s a way. However, she needn’t have worried too much about hurrying as the first twenty-five minutes or so was in the company of support act Gareth Richards.

frank skinnerMaybe it’s a big ask to warm up a full Derngate auditorium on a Tuesday night, but I’m afraid I just didn’t find Mr Richards very funny. His style seemed quite detached and introverted, which I don’t think transferred to the big stage very well. Amongst his material he had a couple of rather dubious jokes that, if you thought about them, made fun of the mentally ill and debased the status of women – you can get away with that kind of stuff if you have a really deft touch or a controversial persona to hide behind but he had neither. Before launching into his final song he said that after the interval we’d have the pleasure of the company of “Frank Skinner!” which was a cue for cheers and applause. But the cheers and applause were infinitesimally quiet, to which Mr Richards said “Oh no, I’m meant to have warmed you up – I’ve killed you!” He had a point. Mrs C needn’t have rushed after all. I should say though, in the interests of fairness, the people I stood next to at the bar in the interval absolutely loved him, so what do I know.

As the title of the tour suggests, Frank Skinner emerges after the interval, dressed in a very smart suit. Stylistically he’s undergone something of a sea-change over the years and now presents himself, visually, as the height of respectability, despite inside being still as mischievous as ever. He’s very engaging and smiley, gets a great rapport with the audience, has lots of chats with people in the first few rows, and gets us all on his side right from the start. He’s excellent at setting up jokes for later on too, which is always a rewarding skill.

F SkinnerHis delivery is relatively slow and deliberate. Not too slow; but you wouldn’t want it any slower. He also spends the entire evening pacing from one side of the stage to the other, but again, very slowly. Not so much like a caged tiger (which can be very offputting), more like someone who’s been told to exercise but doesn’t want to. I always think the way a comic walks (or doesn’t), and speaks either quickly or slowly, gives you an indication of their energy levels and their self-confidence. Mr Skinner’s presence was very reassuring and extremely self-confident; the relatively slow pace allows him the time to think on his feet and to be flexible with his material, going off at tangents in a well-thought-through way, rather than blundering into them only to find a dead-end.

A lot of his material concerns his relationship with his girlfriend. We loved his observation that at his age – which is not dissimilar to mine – to say he has a girlfriend sounds as weird as if he said he has a skateboard. He has a really funny routine about her horrendous ability to remember an argument and make it last…and last. It’s material that many people do but his is somehow additionally credible. Another of his very quirky observations was a comparison between poor people of today and poor people of forty years ago. Very nice. But all round, he’s cram-packed with excellent material.

Frank SMrs C noted how, as the evening progressed, his language became progressively more profane. It’s true, I think he held back some of his more old-fashioned material for the end of the show. It’s a bit like when you meet someone new for the first time, you’re always on best behaviour for a while. Then you might accidentally on purpose let slip a minor swear word to see how they react – that’s how you find your combined level. Once you’re old mates, you talk the same way. I guess he thought his average audience is probably quite a rude bunch. He’s probably right. Mrs C was also disappointed he didn’t sing “Three Lions”. I have a feeling that phase might have passed several years ago. Would have been fun though, if he’d sang what is the best football song evah.

A very enjoyable night with a very assured performer delivering great observational comedy at a deceptively relaxed pace. His tour continues into June and I believe he’s doing Edinburgh this summer too. Definitely recommended!

Review – The Play That Goes Wrong, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 12th May 2014

The Play That Goes WrongThe setting is Cornley Polytechnic’s (do they still have those?) staging of the portentous and scary “The Murder at Haversham Manor”, a whodunit by Susie H. K. Brideswell, where Inspector Carter comes to solve the murder of at least one, maybe two, or maybe one again members of the Haversham household. Chris Bean, newly elected head of the Drama Society and all-round smug git, is delighted to welcome us to the show that he has directed, cast, done the costumes for, and choreographed the fight scenes. He has collected together the cream of Cornley’s acting talent for this brave artistic endeavour, which includes the stentorian tones of Robert Grove as Thomas Colleymoore, the hot sex appeal of Sandra Wilkinson as Florence, and the linguistic trickery of Dennis Tyde as Perkins the butler. They’ve even got a real life dog playing the part of Winston, a real life dog. Unfortunately, not everything goes entirely to plan.

Greg TannahillIn fact, nothing does! Take The Mousetrap and mix it with Noises Off, and you’ve pretty much got The Play That Goes Wrong. Before we set off for the theatre, Mrs Chrisparkle asked, “so, what is this then, a comedy?” Not much escapes her. “Something along the lines of Noises Off”, I suggested. That cheered her up, because we both love that play. I think we’ve seen it four or five times now, and every time it comes back as fresh as a daisy and riotously funny. But comparisons are odious, and although I laughed my way through the first act as much as anyone, I did spend the first twenty minutes or so thinking that this is not as good as Noises Off. So I suggest that if you have seen and love Noises Off, and intend to see The Play That Goes Wrong, just forget all about Noises Off and enjoy this play on its own terms. That’s what I decided to do after twenty minutes and the whole show took off for me at that moment.

Charles Haversham murderedI was completely duped by the opening. When we arrived at our seats there was some frantic last minute stage preparations going on by people in black with “Crew” on the back of their shirts. I knew this was the first night of the run here in Northampton and I genuinely thought that they hadn’t got the set entirely ready in time. What a plonker. I realised it was actually the play itself starting, when I turned to Mrs C and said “they’re having problems with the set” and she replied “it’s the play you idiot”. I thought it was going to go down a One Man Two Guvnors line when a member of the public was called upon by the Stage Manager to help repair the mantelpiece. I’ll say no more on that subject, so as not to spoil either play for you.

Inspector Carter goes upstairsEvery conceivable calamity you could think of that could possibly happen on a stage does happen on the stage right in front of you, plus many more that you couldn’t imagine. The resultant laughter from the audience is so loud and so sustained, I don’t think I’ve ever seen an audience enjoy itself so much in the Royal. The only reason you occasionally stop laughing is through sheer physical exhaustion – there’s only so much jollity one body can take. At the interval we met up with Lady Duncansby, her butler William, the Duchess of Dallington and her Estates Manager ghillie “Mr Brown”, who were all sitting in the cheap seats. They were still rippling with uncontrollable laughter in the bar. There were also some members of the cast carrying on mini playlets of their own around us – never seen that before, an extremely funny distraction from your halftime Merlot.

Perkins tries to remember the lineThe real joy though from this production is watching a fantastic ensemble of eight young actors provide over two hours of gifted physical comedy, with split-second timing, a massive sense of the ridiculous, and a fearlessness to their performance which is quite remarkable. Like Noises Off – I know I said not to compare, but bear with me – each actor plays an actor who is performing in “The Murder at Haversham Manor”. So the programme gives you two lots of biographies and photos. Each member of the Haversham Manor cast is a thoroughly ham performer, speaking either too loud or too soft, with all the emphases in the wrong places, putting on an alluring but inappropriate sex vamp act, or being hideously shy in front of the audience. Disaster also necessitates the star struck Stage Manager and the Neanderthal Lighting/Sound man end up on stage too. However, the real actors – three of whom have actually written the play – are an incredibly talented bunch.

Henry LewisHenry Shields makes a wonderfully pompous Chris the director – soul-baringly truthful about telling us about all the terrible productions the team have put together in the past but clinging on resolutely that this show will be tremendously successful. As the inspector, he tries his best to keep order on the stage but it’s a big ask. Greg Tannahill is a wonderfully woefully inept Jonathan, playing the victim Charles Haversham, surreptitiously trying to move about the place whilst meant to be dead, constantly getting his cues wrong. Henry Lewis as Robert playing the Brian Blessed-like Thomas Colleymoore, is hilarious as the blunderingly unthinking actor who can’t remember his lines and says whatever he hears next. I loved Jonathan Sayer as Dennis, playing Perkins, with his inability to pronounce certain words and his thoroughly maniacal high-pitched exasperations. Charlie Russell’s Sandra, playing Florence, is a fabulously awful actress relying on pouting and sensuality to get through her basic lines; and, maybe, funniest of all, Dave Hearn’s Max playing Cecil, who slowly breaks into confident smiles whenever he feels he’s getting some star applause. His routine with Mr Lewis, taking a telephone call when all their hands are otherwise occupied, is a comedy dream.

Rob FalconerThere’s also a wonderful performance from Nancy Wallinger as Annie the Stage Manager, unwillingly (at first) bundled into the action but then her increasingly violent competitiveness with Miss Russell is completely hilarious. And last but not least Rob Falconer as Trevor the Lighting/Sound man, again trapped in the action, briefly having to play the starlet Florence at the moment Max has to kiss her (him). I woke up this morning laughing at that scene: “Just do it, mate, they’ve paid”. And, really, there’s a ninth member of the cast – Nigel Hook’s extraordinary set, which turns into its own nightmare on countless occasions. It’s very rare that a set alone can make you laugh so much.

The most awkward phone callThere was an instant standing ovation from the audience. Mrs C and I don’t do ovations that often – they really have to be deserved for us to stagger to our feet – but there was no question in my mind that the cast totally merited it. This is a fantastically funny evening at the theatre. It’s on until the end of the week here in Northampton, and then going on to Cambridge, Bath, Darlington, Southend, Eastbourne and Leeds, before taking up residence at the Duchess Theatre in London in September. Genuinely brilliant.

Eurovision 2014 – The Grand Final – Two Days Later

Hello again, gentle reader. Well normally, I don’t write a post-final blog, because usually it’s all wrapped up and done and dusted by now. The excitement withers on the vine, people go back to work, summer holidays are considered and life goes back to normal. Raking over the coals at this stage normally feels a bit redundant to me. But this year – no. Conchita Wurst’s victory for Austria was – for me at least – so unexpected because of perceived eastern European prejudices. So this needs a bit more consideration. This was also a year where a lot of the general rules about Eurovision were proved right. I’m going to work my way up the table and see where it takes us.

Twin TwinFrance – last place. We spent the Eurovision weekend at a Mansion party in North Wales with seventeen other like-minded people, and one of our activities was to draw a country at random, then go into Ladbrokes in Llangollen and put a £2 bet on it – any bet we wished. Whilst she was there Mrs Chrisparkle decided to go off-piste and put a fiver on any country getting nul points. 5-1 odds; not bad. So as Saturday night’s contest was proceeding and fewer and fewer countries were left with nul points, France was looking like her only hope for cash beyond the dreams of avarice. Cruelly she was dealt a blow when Finland gave them a point, and then later on Sweden did too. Two measly points. I’ve been an advocate of the French song for months now. I didn’t like it at all on first hearing, and Twin Twin’s performance when it was chosen in the National Final was a bit merde. But I loved the video and still think the lyrics are really clever. Have a read if you’ve haven’t already. But on the night it was very messy, very manic, very rushed and really amateur. It came over as a thoroughly joke entry – and although Eurovision is known by many for its joke entries, they rarely do well. So Rule 1 proved – joke entries never win.

Dilara KazimovaSlovenia – 25th, a pretty harsh result for a pretty good tune. Eight of their nine points came from Montenegro, the ninth coming from Macedonia, so if it hadn’t been for neighbourly voting, they would have been bottom of the heap. San Marino – 24th, Valentina might have hoped for better than that, and she certainly did herself proud with her performances. In a long show, people get a bit tired by the end, so performing in 25th place probably didn’t do her any favours. Malta – 23rd, very unexpectedly low result for a much-fancied song. The UK awarded Malta ten points, it being the UK jury’s favourite entry, but the UK always has a bit of a bromance with Malta. It obviously didn’t do much for the rest of the continent. Azerbaijan – 22nd, far and away Azerbaijan’s worst ever result, their previous worst being 8th in 2008. 22 of their 33 points came from a top placing by San Marino and a dix points from Russia. For what it’s worth, this is the first time the UK have finished higher than Azerbaijan. But then, it was a jazz tune, like “Heute in Jerusalem” or “die Welt dreht sich verkehrt”, and who remembers them? Rule 2 proved – jazz entries never win.

GreeceItaly – 21st place; also with 33 points, and also receiving a douze points (from Malta, neighbourly voting) and a ten from Albania. Emma’s song unfortunately car-crashed; certainly everyone sitting near me at our party couldn’t believe how dreadful it was. Greece – 20th. Big shock as far as I was concerned, and one of Mrs C’s favourites too. It’s a great feel-good song – simple yes, and a bit repetitive, but enormous fun. However: Mistake No 1, the guys did not make good eye contact with the camera, so didn’t communicate with audience at home; Mistake No 2, they over-gimmicked it with the trampoline, which resulted in Mistake No 3, choreography has to be slick, not wobbly. But above all, it proved Rule 3 – rap entries never win.

Sergej CetkovicMontenegro – 19th, surprisingly low for a song that puts one in mind of Lane Moje (even though it’s nowhere near as good). With more Balkan countries participating this would probably have climbed at least another six or seven places; as it is, only four countries voted for Montenegro, all of them from the south east corner of the continent. 24 of their 37 points came from two douze-points, from Armenia and Macedonia. Sergej’s voice was stunning but when we saw him perform in London we were amazed how dull he was on stage, and I think that may have affected his votes on Saturday, and proved Rule 4 – singers with no charisma never win.

MollyGermany – 18th, a better result than I thought the song deserved. United Kingdom – 17th, a disappointing result for Molly. Whilst I never really rated the song that highly, and also thought that Molly was something of an under-performer, I took comfort from the fact that she was a relatively safe pair of hands and wasn’t going to do a Gemini/Bonnie/Blue/etc with the vocals. She also suffered from being last up in the running order. By the time you get to this stage of the show you’ve already decided who you are going to vote for and you stop listening. Look at the surprise last place for Ireland last year. Molly proved Rule 5 – since televoting was introduced, the songs performed last never win.

PollaponkBelarus – 16th, a mid-table-ish score for a mid-table-ish song, twelve points from Russia and no points from any country further west than Montenegro. Iceland – 15th, reasonable result for the colourful Icelandic guys, but the title, “No Prejudice”, like “No Dream Impossible” and “No One” proves Rule 6 – no song with “No” in the title ever wins.

BasimPoland – 14th , No 1 with the UK televoters and No 25 with the UK jury. Talk about polarising Poles. More smutty than sexy. Switzerland – 13th, the first of this year’s songs that we can say ended on the left hand side of the scoreboard. I really warmed to this song and performance over the past few weeks. It received votes from both Ireland and Armenia, evidence that it had continent-wide appeal. Romania – 12th, for some reason, according to my scorecard, my favourite song of the night; not sure how that happened. Considerably less successful than when Paula and Ovi sang Playing with Fire, but then it’s a considerably worse song. Finland – 11th, second favourite with the UK jury; fair result for a fair song. Spain – 10th, highest placing for one of the big 5 countries; much lower than I was expecting but they only received one twelve points – from Albania. Their Portuguese friends, who could normally be relied on for support, didn’t score them at all. Denmark – 9th, so glad this didn’t get higher as those silly lyrics get my goat. That big flag unfurling to reveal the word “love” made my stomach turn. It also proved Rule 7 – no songs revealing a flag with a word on it ever win.

Tolmachevy SistersNorway – 8th; I know we were meant to gain some deep-seated satisfaction that a big manly chap can reveal his inner vulnerability by singing a tender song about mental anguish; but all our party could say to this was “oh purrrlease….” Russia – 7th. There are a number of people, myself not included, who think it is never justified to boo, as it is discourteous to the performer. Whilst I would only advocate booing a performer if they have done a really lousy performance – and I mean really really lousy – and you’ve paid a lot of money to witness it (yes it’s happened a couple of times), I see no reason not to take the opportunity, with 180 million people watching, to let the rest of the world know that you disapprove of their political regime. I don’t think any boos were reserved for the performance of the Tolmachevy Sisters, and that’s quite right. But yes, boo at the mention of the word Russia, why the hell not. It delightfully proved Rule 8 – no countries who have invaded another country within the last twelve months ever win.

Mariya YaremchukUkraine – 6th, getting a higher position than Russia with mildly rewarding one-upmanship. Paper-thin song rescued by sexy girl singer (if you fancy girls) and sexy boy hamster (if you fancy boys. Or hamsters.) Doubtless this benefited also from some sympathy votes. With 113 points this was the highest placing of any song not to receive any douze points. It may be pretty obvious, but it has to be said: it proves Rule 9 – no song featuring a hamster wheel ever wins.

The Common LinnetsTop Five: Hungary – 5th. Great song that came over so well on stage; its subject matter is challenging if you want to consider the lyrics, or rather elegantly danced through if you want to consider the stage show. For me Hungary is THE most consistently brilliant contributor to our beloved contest this decade. Given that Hungary have no “natural allies” in the ESC this was a superb result. Armenia – 4th, the big betting favourite still managed a good result despite ropey performances in both the semi and the final and offering us what is basically a dully repetitive song. Sweden – 3rd; fantastic performance from fan fave Sanna, did more than justice to what I still think is quite a tedious song. The Netherlands – 2nd; their best result since Ding-a-dong, 39 years ago. No one noticed this song until its semi when suddenly I-Tunes went red hot over Europe with Common Linnet downloads. If they’d sung the first verse more in tune on Saturday night, maybe it was theirs for the taking. The duo was named after a Dutch songbird. You know what I’m going to say, don’t you. Rule 10 – no singer or performer named after a bird ever wins.

AustriaWhich takes us to: Austria – 1st. An utterly extraordinary achievement on the part of Conchita Wurst. Whilst it was not my favourite song of the year (I find it a little dated) it’s certainly classy and anthemic. Nearly everyone has likened it to a Bond theme, and you could certainly imagine it on the silver screen with the iconic 007 credits. Visually it was a stunning light show, that really reflected the lyrics and the performer, and left a superb final impact. But it’s Fräulein Wurst to whom we have to pay most attention. I was amazed that she garnered so many votes from east of the Oder-Neisse line. With petitions from Russia, Belarus and Ukraine not to show her song lest it corrupt their youth, and stories of transmission blackouts when she was on, I really expected her support to collapse in the old eastern bloc. But the Russian televoters put her third, as did the Ukrainian jury, and the Belarussian public voted her in fourth place (despite the fact that the state-obedient jury members individually had her finishing no higher than 20th). We know that it’s governments who wage war, not people; maybe in the same way, it’s governments who peddle in prejudice, rather than their citizens. Certainly, the public in these countries did not shy away from voting for Austria – just as some westerners chose to boo Russia to show their disapproval of its regime, it appears that many Russians and their neighbours also chose to go against the party line. Whatever, the result was a complete slap in the face of prejudice, and a tacit approval of living life your way, because it’s your life.

ConchitaI have to come clean here, as there’s no point my not being honest. When I first encountered the phenomenon that is Conchita Wurst two years ago, when she was seeking the Austrian ticket with the song “That’s What I Am”, I found her appearance simply too challenging. I’m not particularly forgiving if I perceive prejudice in others, and I always try to be as unprejudiced myself as possible. But Conchita just proved a beard too far for me. I could not reconcile that beautiful face and elegant, sexy, appearance, with ten days’ growth. It freaked me out – I could not look at her. It took a conversation with a friend who is also an ESC fan, when I admitted that I couldn’t accept her appearance, for him to point out the prejudice I was displaying.

“But her beard”, I stuttered, “it’s almost over-visible. It’s blacker and more striking than any other guy’s beard”. “And do you think that’s a coincidence?” he asked, “of course it’s striking. It’s the most deliberately striking-looking beard in the world.” The penny started to drop. “You mean he’s proving a point?” I responded lamely. “Now you’re getting it” he replied. And at that point I realised that Conchita’s appearance is not an awkward, distasteful combination of two very contrasting looks, but a deliberately assertive and positive visual statement that you can be what or who you want. I’ve discovered since then that Tom Neuwirth’s original attempts to get on a TV reality show were scuppered when he was told at the auditions that he had an amazing voice but that it was far too feminine for a man. So he came back the following year dressed as a glamorous woman, but with this splendid jet-black beard, as if to say, “here I am, the woman you want me to be, but inside I know I am a man, and here’s the proof”. And that’s a totally splendid position to take.

Conchita WurstBut back to this year’s result – and ignoring all the side issues, Conchita Wurst has been the only performer I think this year to have delivered consistently faultless vocals through all the rehearsals, the pre-show concerts, and on the main shows. When we saw her at the London Preview Party she had more charisma than almost all the other contestants put together. You cannot take your eyes off her when she is performing. I’m one of the few people I know who haven’t met her – you probably have – but by all accounts she’s one of the nicest blokes you could meet.

Now – I really can’t decide, next year whether we should go to Austria, Vienna presumably, to see the contest in the flesh, or stay in the UK. Not been to the contest in person since Birmingham in 1997, as we normally like to hold or attend parties. But it will be the 60th show, and I reckon that’s going to be something special. Advice welcomed!

Eurovision Semi Final Two 2014 – The Morning After

Eurovision Semi Finals are like buses in remote rural villages, aren’t they? You don’t get any for a year, then you get one on a Tuesday and then another comes round on Thursday. With Lady Duncansby and her butler William still on manoeuvres on Exmoor, we had the honour of welcoming a royal guest for the second semi, as HRH the Crown Prince of Bedford was in attendance. As our splendid bottle of Corbières slowly got quaffed, and he watered down countless cans of Coke with generous additions of Jack Daniels, we took our task of deciding which ten of the fifteen songs would go forward to Saturday night’s final immensely seriously. And as usual, our judgement was sometimes weighed in the balance and found wanting.

MaltaMalta – One of Mrs Chrisparkle’s big favourites this year. At first I thought Michelle’s voice was going to drown out Richard’s but then it all fell nicely into place. Great performance, we all liked the way it built and then got dead anthemic. Slightly hopeful for my 100/1 each way bet for Saturday. We all put it through.

IsraelIsrael – Another really strong performance of a song that I liked from the moment I heard it. I thought Mei toned down the scariness that I had seen from her previously, and there was a fantastic money moment when she strode out purposefully from the back of the stage. I gave it my top marks of the night. Again, general approval from all present, and we all sent her through to Saturday.

NorwayNorway – It’s taken a long time for this song to grow on me – albeit ever so slightly, and I enjoyed Carl’s emotional delivery. Mrs C almost nodded off though, and His Majesty was stifling his yawns. Collectively the three of us are too shallow for this kind of intensity; we prefer throwing shapes in a disco rather than an introverted study in gloom. In the end we all concluded that it just didn’t do it for us, and we sent Carl’s silent storm back on the first ferry to Tromso.

GeorgiaGeorgia – Is there a polite way of saying “utter rubbish”? Actually that probably is the polite way. From that opening sub-yodelling, through Mariko’s manic yoga moves to the inanely jolly parachutist, three minutes to earth became three minutes of nightmare. I did laugh at the parachute though. He should have bailed out ages ago. The Crown Prince had to gather his jaw off the floor where it had dropped in bizarre amazement. It was a no from us.

PolandPoland – How would Warsaw’s Christmas hit transfer to the stage from its video of boundless cleavage? By having a generously proportioned young lady getting progressively wetter as she plunged herself over a washboard, that’s how. Oh, was there a song going on as well? You’d never know, as it’s another one of those paper-thin offerings that are beholden to the Gimmicks Department. It didn’t do anything for Mrs C; and HRH was never going to be in that subset of viewers hanging onto that washerwoman’s every droplet. Big fat zero from us all.

AustriaAustria – The much awaited arrival of La Conchita brought a wave of happiness to our TV screen. We recognised her dress as being the one that Mrs C had dropped off at the Heart Foundation shop a couple of weeks ago – nice to see it being put to good use. As usual a note-perfect performance, that looked and sounded stunning. I still think the song’s a bit dated, but who cares? Three people in awe all sent it through to Saturday with their blessing.

LithuaniaLithuania – This came over as very repetitive and something of a let-down. I was convinced Vilija’s dancer was my friend John from New Zealand, but apparently he was busy so sent a stand-in. I think the song’s tedious. HRH thought it wasn’t bad. The performance was ok. Mrs C spent most of the three minutes googling for pictures of kittens doing management consultancy. Ho Hum. Negatory, rubber ducky.

FinlandFinland – Well, the light show was fantastic, and it looked a-ma-zing on the telly. For me, the song’s got good bits and bad bits, but the bad just outweigh the good. Mrs C was impressed with the overall cuteness of the guys, and the Prince was texting the drummer for a date. It was the first song that we disagreed on, as I didn’t put it through but the others did. It was, however, my favourite of my non-qualifiers, if that makes a difference?

IrelandIreland – “Oh great I love this one” said Mrs C as it started up. We all listened with intensity to fathom out what it was she liked so much. Then it all started to fade away. Still, if the others could lust over Finnish boys, I could find a certain warmth in Kasey’s bosom. It’s an enjoyable song, but, sadly, the performance wasn’t really a match for it. Over the course of the three minutes Mrs C definitely fell out of love with it, as she didn’t vote for it, whereas the Prince and I did.

BelarusBelarus – Cheesecake, or “Ode to a Dessert”. I take this for what it is, a fun song with an upbeat tune and a cheeky rhythm, and I thought Teo did a good job with it. I am advised that this is a big hit with the Crown Prince’s chef, back at the Bedford Palace. It’s bright, it’s sunny…what’s not to like? Nothing, apparently, as we all put it through.

MacedoniaMacedonia – (as it appears that only the EBU are using the FYR bit now) – I’ve always found this an “officially” fab song, but Tijana seemed to hold back to the detriment of the performance. And, frankly, if I may be so bold, the hoodie dancer looked like a bit of a w***er. Mrs C described it the whole thing as “indifferent” and you can’t get more damning than that. HRH was wavering, not for the first time. In the end only Mrs C and I put it through.

SwitzerlandSwitzerland – Here’s a song that it’s just physically impossible to dislike. As a group I thought Seb and his boys were a little static, but the uplifting jollity of the whole thing overrides that. Princey had a right royal bop to this. Mrs C admires the song’s naiveté and charm. She’s not wrong. It was Si, Si, Si from us.

GreeceGreece – Oh no! RiskyVocalist! What are you doing! I was so stunned at how he messed up the beginning that I let out an expletive, for which I issue a retrospective apology to anyone offended. Fortunately the infectiousness of the song quickly took over and we were all singing away, loving it. Or was that just me? Very lively performance, although I’m not entirely sure about the trampoline. It’s only going to give Jedward ideas. Thumbs up from all.

SloveniaSlovenia – His Majesty noted a melodic similarity between this song and the Greeks’, and I think he may be on to something. I’ve always liked this song and think it out-Irishes the Irish entry. I wasn’t much struck on the look of the whole thing though – I didn’t like Tinkara’s Victorian dress much, not that I would fit in it anyway. I also thought the light show clashed with, rather than enhanced, the visual impact of the performance. I know, get me. I put forward these theories during Tinkara’s three minutes and got “whatever” looks from the others. We all put it through.

RomaniaRomania – Mrs C observed that Paula always has a very laid back style of performance – it’s Ovi who has the get-up-and-go. Nevertheless, she’s probably the most established star in the whole contest, with a vocal range as far as Everest. I found myself carried away by the overall happiness of this song and performance, and liked it more than I was expecting. It’s just huge fun. Meanwhile His Majesty was last seen scouring the Argos catalogue for circular pianos. Da da da.

So, with us largely all agreeing on which songs we liked and which we didn’t, two of us got 7/10 and one of us (me, naturally!) got 6/10 – if only I’d fallen for the ravishing charms of the Finnish lads. That’s it from the Northampton jury for this year – however you spend your Eurovision night on Saturday, make it memorable for all the right reasons. It’s going to be a really exciting contest, I haven’t a clue who will win. Thanks for reading!

Review – Classical Masterpieces, Chloe Hanslip with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Derngate, Northampton, 4th May 2014

Classical MasterpiecesIt’s always a pleasure to welcome the Royal Philharmonic to our humble little town, and for this performance of Classical Masterpieces the Derngate auditorium was more or less full to the brim. Our conductor was Nicholas Collon, new to us, and he reminded me of… well, me actually, at something of an earlier age. It wasn’t his shiny suit – I don’t think I ever went down that line – but it was the hair that did it – fair, and scruffy, and lots of it. All I can say is, watch out Mr Collon, greyness is just around the corner.

You could tell he was enjoying the proceedings, though; constantly smiling, striking a relaxed pose, making sure all the different sections of the orchestra knew where they were and checking they were alright, a bit like a musical janitor. The orchestra had had something of a jiggle around – the violas and the cellos had swapped their usual places, but I guess as long as they knew what they were playing it shouldn’t be a problem. Mr Collon’s enthusiasm certainly caught light with the orchestra and with the audience who, after almost two hours of wonderful entertainment, responded with a very warm final round of applause.

Nicholas CollonBut I’ve ended before I’ve started. First on the menu was a performance of Schubert’s Unfinished Symphony. According to the programme notes he didn’t finish quite a few symphonies, so it’s a bit of a misnomer always to refer to his Symphony No 8 in that way. Still, there are definitely only two movements, which is one movement short of a picnic – symphonically speaking. It’s a very beautiful, warm, welcoming piece of music – a good choice to start off a varied evening of masterpieces. The orchestra attained a level of mellowness and mellifluousness that was jolly rewarding to listen to. All apart from the mobile phone that went off during the performance. It wasn’t one of those subtle, space age sounds – it was set to the old-fashioned 1960s “ring-ring” setting. Bit of a shame, that. I’m sure that’s not how Schubert would have chosen to finish it.

Next we had Max Bruch’s Violin Concerto No 1 in G Minor, with Chloe Hanslip as the soloist, on her “Guarneri del Gesu” 1737 violin. Not only is it a privilege to be able to watch and listen to such a gifted violinist but also to hear an instrument that is now 277 years old is just incredible. Ms Hanslip appeared, bright and enthusiastic, in a beautiful black and silver dress that showed her off very nicely indeed. She too has an endearing connection with the audience and the rest of the orchestra, frequently nodding around to make sure everyone’s enjoying themselves.

Chloe HanslipAs soon as she played her first few notes, there emerged that fantastic resonance of the characterful violin – speaking its own language of music rather than just merely playing notes. It sent a shiver down my spine. Ms Hanslip gave a tremendous performance, absolutely feeling the vibe right from the start. She played with verve and panache, and indeed, an incredible feat of memory to get all those notes in her brain in the right order without a whiff of a piece of sheet music. The orchestra gave her superb support, and when it was all over you had that sense of having witnessed something really special. When Ms Hanslip came back for her second well-earned round of applause, there was the customary bouquet of flowers waiting in the wings for her, which was brought on by a young chap in a Royal and Derngate uniform, who insisted on planting a huge sucker kiss on her as reward for the embarrassment of being on stage. I don’t blame him.

RPOAfter a pleasantly Merlot-filled interval, we returned for one of the all-time favourites in the classical world, Elgar’s Enigma Variations. We’d seen the RPO perform this before, and they had a lot to live up to. It’s such a magnificent work that can rend you apart with its emotions as it takes you on a wandering path past Elgar’s colleagues, friends and loved ones, stopping to share memories and point out foibles. No piece of music reflects love and friendship quite like the Enigma. Stand-out variations for me were WMB which was full of enthusiasm and humour, and Troyte, massively stirring and bold. I always look forward to Nimrod and have to steel myself lest it cause a little tear; but this time it didn’t quite move me as much as usual – it felt a little too romantic and not quite heroic enough for me. And my other favourite movement – the final one, EDU – sounded a little rushed and sloppy to me at the beginning, before everyone caught up with themselves and launched into that incredible melody. But these are minor quibbles – the whole evening was superb entertainment as always. Next up in this series – John Williams playing Rodrigo’s Concerto de Aranjuez with the RPO. Can’t wait!