Review – John Bishop, Work in Progress, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 27th June 2014

John Bishop SupersonicI didn’t know much about John Bishop before going to see this curious little gig in Northampton’s Royal Theatre – yes the Royal, that charming Victorian powerhouse of culture and tradition, that seats a fraction of the larger Derngate auditorium – apart from the fact that he’s from Liverpool, has only relatively recently turned to comedy as a career, and has an accent the spitting image (if you can apply that phrase to sound as well as vision) of my late father-in-law’s. We’ve seen him a couple of times on telly and he seemed a good laugh, and I was very intrigued and excited by the fact that the gig would be so up close and personal, as he tries out new material for his arena tour later in the year. I associate “arena” with the performer being miles away so that you can only see them on the thoughtfully provided TV screens scattered about the place. But in the Royal, we would be in Row C of the stalls and he would be a mere few feet away. That’s what I call live entertainment.

Shows in the Royal always – ALWAYS – start at 7.45pm. It’s a tradition. If there’s anything on at the Derngate it will begin at 7.30 or 8.00; and the same goes for the Underground unless it’s the Screaming Blue Murder, which always starts at 8.15. It’s a timing system that runs like clockwork. So I was really surprised to see that John Bishop was due to start at 8pm. Half believing it was a printing error on the tickets, we arrived in good time just in case it really was a 7.45 kick-off. The bar was very busy – unsurprisingly, as every seat in the Royal had been sold, which I believe is a first since we’ve been going there. If we wanted to sit down with our pre-comedy Cab Sav (which we did), the only choice was to sit on the plastic children’s chairs at the bottom of the stairs, that are about a foot high and wide enough for one buttock. We weren’t alone. I expect a number of people had bad backs on Saturday morning.

Mr BThen came the tannoy announcement – apologies, but John Bishop is running late. Late? Unthinkable! He’d already had a quarter of an hour’s grace by being on at 8 and not 7.45. But no, late he would be, and rather like waiting at some busy arrivals’ terminal, we were told that he was now due to land at 8.45pm. The announcement came a few times, and every time, just like at an airport, the conversation would all suddenly hush as we listened for the longed-for confirmation that our flight had finally arrived. Maybe fog at Gatwick was to blame; cue for another Cab Sav anyway. By the time Mr Bishop would eventually come on stage, sweating with apologies and panting with embarrassment, we’d all had a skinful. That’s not a bad thing – sometimes comedy can use a bit of extra help if it’s not that great in the first place. Of course, Mr Bishop needs no such help.

Mr J BishopA downside though is that some people can get a little out of hand with the extra lubrication. No sooner had Mr B come on stage and started his apologies then the people in front of me, whose jawlines were firmly set in that “I’m not going to laugh at him” mode, started having a go at him about something he said last time he visited Northampton. “Are you still mad that Northampton Town beat Liverpool in the Carling Cup in 2010”, one guy challenged him, to a loud intake of breath and an “oooh” from everyone else. Mr B looked as though he couldn’t believe his ears. “To be honest, I’ve moved on” was his wonderfully deflating reply. But the group in front kept on trying to have little digs at him, which was, in all fairness, bloody rude and downright annoying.

As Mr B said, usually the format is that he comes on and does an hour or so’s worth of material and then there’d be some questions and answers at the end. However, a number of people in the audience wouldn’t let him get on with his act until they’d got some questions in and their presence acknowledged. Most popular was for him to tell us about his attitude to the England Football Team’s “performance” (as I suppose you might call it) in the World Cup. Mr B knew that he had lost the upper hand – being late put him at a slight disadvantage there – so he gave in and answered some questions. Thus we had a comedy sandwich, with Q&A’s as the bit of bread either side.

John-BishopHe says he needs these try-out shows to see if the material he’s got milling around inside his head is funny or not. I suppose that must be true, otherwise why would he break away from a family weekend at Glastonbury, allowing insufficient time to get to Northampton (he believed the Sat Nav, apparently – schoolboy error), offer to buy everyone in the audience a drink after the show to apologise for being late, and then drive all the way back to Glastonbury, just to do an hour or so’s comedy to a maximum of 500 people at just £15 a ticket. It’s hardly a cash cow, is it?

Well, just to let both you and him know, every scenario he discussed, every mental picture he painted, every joke he told (actually there was just the one) was comedy gold. Flights featured quite a lot in his material – both travelling in the Ryanair learjet to do a gig in Ireland, and his experiences of travelling First Class on Emirates. He considers the reasons why people might vote UKIP (if you voted UKIP you might be asked to explain yourself) and confesses to why he too might vote the same way. He ponders on the delights of having teenage sons, and how sharing a friendly tequila with a mate got out of hand. And then there was his joke – which involved a taxi and a Geordie lass. Can’t remember laughing harder or louder at a simple joke, ever.

John BMr B has a wonderfully relaxed, gentle style of delivery that reassures you with his confidence but that can also snap into quite an aggressive punch line if needed. A naturally funny, charismatic performer, we’d both happily see him again any time. He’s coming back to the R&D in September for another try-out show, and you might sneak a last minute seat if you’re lucky. Superbly funny.

P.S. According to the Northampton Chronicle, the bar bill for the free post-show drinks came in at around £1000. To be honest, Mrs Chrisparkle and I couldn’t bring ourselves to take advantage of his kindness – he’d already paid us back handsomely in comedy currency. Still, shows what a nice guy he is.

Northampton Wine Connection – Lots of Gin

Wine ConnectionThat sounds rather disreputable, doesn’t it, gentle reader? The truth is, I was passing by the wine shop the other week and thought I’d stock up on some basics (you have to every so often), and while I was there it was mentioned that they’d just widened their range of local and independently produced gin. It was the morning though, so I resisted the temptation to have an early morning gin tasting, as it would wreak havoc with my productivity. But, as it happened, I was in the same neck of the woods a few days later, and it was the afternoon, so I just popped my head in, and lo and behold an impromptu gin tasting took place.

Having the Wine Connection close by has made Mrs Chrisparkle and me turn into wine snobs. No longer are we happy to be fobbed off by a Wetherspoon’s special. No longer do I look at the top of the wine list and work my way down a little – I start at the bottom (and tend to stay there). Don’t get me wrong – we’re not looking to spend as much as possible on wine, far from it, a bargain is nearly always tastier – but we now have a de minimis quality threshold on our tastebuds, and if it isn’t reached, we tend to shoot each other sorrowful glances, as we put up with consuming calories and units but without the big taste payback. We’ve never yet tried anything from the Wine Connection that wasn’t absolutely superb, even in the cheapie range – so it’s that confidence in what they sell (as well as being a very enjoyable buying process!) – that keeps us coming back.

Warner EdwardsIt was the Wine Connection that introduced us to the local Warner Edwards range of gins a year or so ago, and their Harrington Dry Gin – “an exceptionally smooth gin handcrafted by lifelong friends Tom Warner and Sion Edwards in a barn in Harrington, Northants, including ingredients from their farms in England and Wales. A truly fabulous creation of which all of Britain can be proud.” That must all be true, as it says it on their label. But it is, it really is. It’s no good having a gin like that with a supermarket tonic either. I hadn’t realised that the tonic made such a difference to the gin. I thought they were all the same – apart from the obvious difference of “low calorie” or “full fat”. But it’s true – something underwhelming like Morrison’s own brand or something sledgehammery like Schweppes doesn’t do your decent gin any favours. Hence the recommendation for Fever-tree tonic. If we’ve just got shop brand tonic in, we’ll go with our Bombay Sapphire (which, when we discovered it eight years ago came as a fantastic alternative to the Gordon’s I’d grown up with). But the mix of Warner Edwards and Fever-tree is pretty sensational.

But the idea of this tasting was to broaden my gin buds, so Graham (for it was he guiding me through this spiritfest) suggested I first tried a little Warner Edwards because I knew it and I knew I liked it, and then I could compare it with a few new alternatives. It was to be something of a “man’s tasting” as they’d run out of tonic so I had to have it all neat. Ah well, the trials and tribulations of a self-denying seeker for the truth, tsk, just one of those things you have to put up with. The Warner Edwards was as warm and smooth and yummy as I remembered.

Two-BirdsSo for contrast number one Graham poured me a little Two Birds. It’s a London Dry Gin produced in Market Harborough, if that isn’t a contradiction in terms. My initial sniff was a delightful surprise. It was really light and fragrant, and made a considerable contrast with the Warner Edwards. You know how when you walk through a department store (especially with a lady) and assistants jump out at you with strips of card with perfume on for you to have a sniff – well the “scent equivalent” would be that the Warner Edwards smells rich, warm and mature whilst the Two Birds is young, floral and cheeky. It’s very satisfying on the tongue and just reeks of quality. Surprisingly, at 40% strength, it’s 4% less than the Warner Edwards. I was really taken with it. “Lovingly handcrafted in small batches, our Great British gin is delicately distilled and infused with the finest countryside botanics”. That’s the label again, not me, but who am I to disagree.

pinksterMoving on to a second gin-challenge, Graham suggested I tried Pinkster. As the name suggests, it’s pink! Not a pink gin in the traditional definition of gin and angosturas bitters, though. The source of its pinkness hits you the moment you let it near your nostril – raspberry. It’s really fruity! It actually took me ages to get round to tasting it because I was enjoying the raspberry aroma so much. Imagine a really adult Raspberry Mivvi, and you’re not far off. Not that it’s a sweet drink at all – there’s plenty of juniper in there to accentuate the dryness – but it’s just got an irreverent streak to it which made it really stand out. I think I missed out the full experience with this one by not sampling it with tonic, but nevertheless, it’s still a treat neat.

little birdAnd a third extra offering – another London Dry Gin called Little Bird, this one actually made in London. It’s another serious contender for your top quality G&T. Very smooth, very full in flavour, and very lingering. Taste is, of course, totally subjective, and whilst I enjoyed it very much and expect it would be great with some Fever-tree, I didn’t feel it had the subtlety of either the Two Birds or the Pinkster. Still you’d definitely choose it over the majority of other gins you might get offered.

Two Birds VodkaThere were a couple of extras to this gin tasting, both courtesy of the Two Birds stable. Firstly, they do a vodka. My experience of “good” vodka is limited to blue label Smirnoff (great with a mixer) and black label Smirnoff, good enough to drink alone; by which I mean with nothing added, not you quietly knocking it back by yourself all alone in a rotting garret somewhere. Again I sampled this one neat – and I’d say it was definitely one for the boldness of just having it on the rocks and to hell with the consequences. I could imagine hordes of Russian tourists all having a very boozy breakfast with this. AbsintheAnd, as if that wasn’t enough, Two Birds make their own absinthe. Yes, I tried the absinthe, all 70% of it, and it certainly makes the heart grow fonder. A complex blend of aniseed and wormwood apparently. It hits your tongue and it evaporates, and you’re left with a knock-out sense of something very powerful and rather mysterious. I blame the wormwood. Could it be used as a mitigating plea in court? I’m very sorry, Your Honour, the Wormwood made me do it.

I thought I’d treat myself to a bottle of something that I’d tried – and in the end I plumped for the Two Birds gin. But they were all extremely scrummy. There’s another wine tasting on Saturday night – a selection of Portuguese wines. Sounds beguiling! 11 Derngate, Northampton, is the place, and I shall be there! But in any case, the Northampton Wine Connection is always worth a visit, to broaden your wine horizons and to get that certain something you definitely won’t find in the supermarket.

The First (Maybe) Annual Effie Awards – Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 21st June 2014

Errol Flynn FilmhouseCan you believe it’s been a year since the Errol Flynn Filmhouse first opened its sumptuous auditorium to the cinemagoers of Northampton? It certainly changed how Mrs Chrisparkle and I think of cinema. No more those tacky venues that masquerade as candy stores designed to sell you a plastic bucket of coke, a basket of hotdogs and hamburgers, and a suitcase of popcorn, with the occasional cinema ticket thrown in for good measure. No more limiting yourself to American yoof “comedies”, blood ‘n’ guts horror-thrillers, and mainstream Hollywood blockbusters. The Errol Flynn provides us with somewhere in the centre of town that offers a wide range of films from all over the world designed to make you think, make you see life in a different way, and to give you some alternatives to the usual movie titles that monopolise every multiplex across the land.

First Effie AwardsAnd they treat you like adults too. Reclining leather seats, first class sound and picture systems, a quality choice of food and drink, with small tables to the side of each seat to place your real glass of wine or beer, or proper cup of tea or coffee. No wonder that the cinema has the honour of being Northamptonshire’s No 1 attraction on Trip Advisor.

First EffiesTo mark its first anniversary, regular customers were asked to vote in the first Effie Awards, to select the favourite films shown over the past twelve months in a number of categories. And on Saturday morning there was a star-studded ceremony (even if all the stars attending were only on screen rather than in person) to celebrate and announce the awards. So whilst we knocked back our Bucks Fizzes and nibbled at our Errol Flynn cupcakes, we were welcomed by our Master of Ceremonies, the Royal and Derngate’s Chief Executive, Martin Sutherland, and in turn he introduced several R&D/EF colleagues, who were holders of exciting-looking golden envelopes, to come forward to reveal the winners in each category.

12 Years A SlaveThe first category was Best of the Biggest Selling Films, and this was the category in which I had seen the majority of the nominees. I had voted for Behind the Candelabra, but, perhaps unsurprisingly, the winner was 12 Years A Slave, and it’s hard to deny this was an extraordinary film, albeit not an easy watch. Steve McQueen and the team were sadly unable to be there, but I’m sure they’ll be thrilled with the award to go alongside their Oscars. After each award was presented, we watched the official trailer for the film, as you can do now if you like:

It's A Wonderful LifeThe next category was Best Classic Film, and from a choice of notable black and white favourites, the winner was It’s A Wonderful Life, much to the delight of many in the audience. James Stewart was unable to be there to accept his award, for several reasons. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen this film, but watching the trailer reminded me of why it remains such a favourite.

Twenty Feet From StardomMoving on to the Best Documentary Film, and again agreeing with this year’s Oscar committee, the Effie went to 20 Feet From Stardom, which I haven’t seen but looked really entertaining in the trailer. It’s a look at those unknown backing singers who have supported the world’s most famous and best-loved music stars, and an understanding of their role in creating definitive performances and recordings.

War Horse The next category was Best Live Event. Not only does the Errol Flynn show a wide range of films, but it’s also noted for its NT Live/RSC live relays, where you can see a live theatrical, opera or ballet performance from anywhere in the world, almost as if you were there. We’ve not attended one of these yet, which is a sin of omission on our part – unfortunately they tend to start at 7pm which is just a bit early for us. Still, one day we will. Also considered for this category was the EF’s live Eurovision night, bringing the camp glamour of the Beloved Contest to the big screen and an excuse for a party. But the winner in this category was the NT Live presentation of War Horse, a production we still haven’t seen, but which hopefully will be touring in the near future.

Stranger by the LakeThen there was an award for the Best Film or Documentary Not in the English Language. I hadn’t seen any of the contenders, but the winner was the intriguing looking Stranger By The Lake, a French thriller that had been shown as part of the EF’s regular LGBT film club, Q-Film.

Inside Llewyn DavisThey had a category called Best Under The Radar Film – this category covers all those niche movies that could never commercially sustain a long run in Northampton but which really put the Art into Arthouse. Again, I hadn’t seen the winner – Inside Llewyn Davis – but it looks a complete treat from the trailer. Definitely need to catch this one.

PhilomenaThe final category was simply to select the Errol Flynn audiences’ favourite film of the year, and with some fantastic runners-up, the winner was Philomena – which again we haven’t seen although we really wanted to; every time it was shown we always had other commitments! Nevertheless, having seen the trailer again it really whetted our appetite to see it.

So there you have it, this year’s Effie awards, and the winners represent a very wide range of talent and achievement that’s both representative of the film industry as a whole and a credit to the Errol Flynn and the good taste of its audiences. It’s a bit late for New Year’s Resolutions – but a Mid Year Resolution for us should be to see more films! And I can’t think of a better place to see them.

Review – Happy Days The Musical, Milton Keynes Theatre, 16th June 2014

Happy DaysThe Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle always used to say to me, “If you can’t say something good about someone or something, say nothing”. Shame that she didn’t always practise what she preached, but nevertheless I get her drift. Taking her at her word, my review of Happy Days The Musical is hereby over. Thank you for your attention, and goodbye.

Heidi RangeStill here? Well then. Happy Days The Musical is being promoted “as seen on Channel 4’s The Sound of Musicals”, and that was one of the reasons why I wanted to see it, as it was a fascinating programme showing all the backstage/producer/director/choreographer problems that beset the project of mounting a full scale musical in today’s theatreland. It was kind of heart-warming to see producer Amy Anzel constantly bouncing back from disappointment after disappointment, and I was surprised, but delighted, to see that her dream of producing this musical actually came to fruition. A testament to determination.

Ben FreemanI also remember discovering that choreographer Craig Revel Horwood left the show after a few weeks, and that really should have set alarm bells ringing. Still – it had Cheryl Baker, from Bucks Fizz, something of a National Treasure; and being the big Eurovision fan I am, anything that has Cheryl Baker in has got to be good, hasn’t it?

Cheryl BakerWere you a fan of the TV show? I remember it being on when I came home from school, and enjoying the goofy characters, although 50s music has always been one of my bugbears – I really don’t like it. Richie Cunningham was a straight-laced good guy and it was kind of reassuring to the 14 year old me that a straight-laced good guy could still have fun with more rebellious pals – and get to know girls too – as well as be accepted by someone like The Fonz, an aspirationally roguish character with a heart of gold. And of course, who couldn’t love Laverne and Shirley?

James PatersonI’m not sure I realised in advance quite how much the characters – even after all these years have passed – are very much associated with the actors who originally played them. I never thought I’d like to see the stage show of Dad’s Army, because any actor playing it today is simply not the right person. You can’t replace Arthur Lowe or John le Mesurier. I thought Paul Merton taking on Tony Hancock was a mistake because only Hancock is Hancock. So why on earth didn’t I think that seeing a stage version of Happy Days that didn’t have Henry Winkler, Ron Howard, and the rest of the original team, would be a mistake?

Scott WaughStill, even if it’s hard to believe that new actors are playing those much loved old roles, I’m sure it would be entertaining, so long as it has some good songs, good choreography and a funny book? Maybe; we will never know, as they are all noticeably lacking on the stage of the Milton Keynes Theatre this week. I regret to announce that the only real laugh in Happy Days The Musical was when a moth almost landed on Richie Cunningham’s nose. I’d been following that moth for a while, actually, as it was much more interesting than the show, being eye-catchingly white and easily captured by spotlights. I wondered how closely it would muscle in on the action. Quite a lot as it turns out, during a “sensitive” scene between Richie and the Fonz,Emma Harrold where it fluttered peskily between the two actors much to the entertainment of the audience. I was sad to see it not reappear at curtain call. Yes of course, there were some moments in the show where you were meant to laugh, and some people did; like when Ralph Malph continually laughs at the name Farthing, because it sounds like Farting; when Arnold shies away from Chachi’s breath after a chilli dog; when someone says the Fonz didn’t like it when someone kissed his Pinky (that’s the name of his ex-girlfriend, you’ll be relieved to know); when someone refuses to go into the toilet for ten minutes after Arnold’s been in there. I could go on with examples of its glittering wit, but I’m sure you’ve got the picture. The book is by Garry Marshall. Yes THE Garry Marshall. Creator of all the Happy Days programmes and their spin-offs. Writer for Dick Van Dyke, Bob Hope, Lucille Ball; the TV series of The Odd Couple, and more. Just goes to show that no one gets it right all the time.

Ray GardnerBut it’s not only decent humour that’s missing – the plot is so wafer thin Mr Creosote could consume it without exploding. The guys have to raise money so that Arnold’s can continue to exist as an independent diner, and not get swallowed up by Ronald McDonald. There’s a plan that Fonzie should wrestle arch-enemies the Malachi brothers as a weird kind of fundraiser, but he knows he can’t do it because of his hurty knee; therefore he runs away so that he can still look cool. Richie and Ralph offer to wrestle instead; the Fonz returns, money is raised, happiness reigns ever after. There was one particular scene that I found excruciatingly embarrassing to watch – at the fair, where, as a prelude to the wrestling match, pie-obsessed Mrs Cunningham provides an exhibition of baking. Jason WinterI don’t know if the dancing went wrong or if the choreography was especially lame for that scene, but for a few minutes people were just waving pies around and looking self-conscious, and I just couldn’t watch. This led into the wrestling scene, with Ralph dressed in an unnecessarily tight Victorian wrestler’s costume, and once again I had to hide my eyes. But it didn’t matter – after about the first five minutes, I had already realised that this show was just not going to connect with me. There wasn’t any place where it and I had common ground. We were like two separate circles in a Venn Diagram, destined never to overlap.

Andrew WaldronThe songs, whilst being credible pastiches of 50s music, which as I have already admitted isn’t my thing, are nevertheless instantly forgettable and enunciated dreadfully. Mrs Chrisparkle and I were both convinced we heard some bad language in a couple of the songs – she definitely heard an F-word and I caught hold of a C-word and I’m sure they wouldn’t have been in the original lyrics. It’s one of those shows where, when the chorus start singing, if you can catch just one word in four you’re doing well. The music and lyrics are by Paul Williams. Yes, THE Paul Williams. “Phantom of the Paradise” and “Bugsy Malone”. “We’ve Only Just Begun” and “Rainy Days and Mondays”. Also goes to show that no one gets it right all the time. There’s a dancing song that sounds like it’s been gathered from the cutting room floor at Blood Brothers, and a dance scene with flapping gowns that’s been lifted out of Sister Act. You do get the feeling that it’s all very derivative.

Eddie MylesThe choreography? Unadventurous, half-hearted and lazy, I’m afraid. Yes, there are a few acceptable set pieces but much of it seems to start up and then just dwindle away. This is not a criticism of the dancing, which is probably the best thing about the show – in fact I felt really sorry to see someone as talented as Lucy Jane Adcock giving her utmost as Pinkette Tina, brightening up the stage every time she appeared. Maybe if Craig Revel Horwood would have stayed – but then I’m sure it would have been a very different show if he had.

Perhaps there are some other good performances to save it? To be honest, there are, but the battle is already lost with the raw material they have to work with. Heidi Range plays Fonzie’s love interest Pinky Tuscadero. Reading the programme before the show, we knew that we recognised the name but weren’t sure from where. “Ah, she’s a Sugababe”, I discovered. “Great”, said Mrs C, “at least she’ll be able to sing”. And indeed she can; she delivered those dull numbers as well as anyone could be expected to. However, from a casting point of view, may I venture to suggest that I might expect Pinky to look a little… younger? Mrs C was more direct: “she looks like Joan Rivers’ granddaughter”.Henry Davis Could have been worse. Ben Freeman plays the Fonz, and I just didn’t warm to him at all. Maybe the role is too dated, but I just couldn’t take his “aaaayy”s seriously. It didn’t sound like the Fonz – it sounded like someone impersonating him. The character should be irresistibly charismatic; I’m afraid he wasn’t. Cheryl Baker is Marion Cunningham; again she has a voice you can depend on, and a delightful tendency not to shout, unlike so many of her colleagues. She looks the part, and nicely conveyed Mrs Cunningham’s maternal kindness to everyone in her orbit. But I was embarrassed at the constant alluding to Ms Baker’s Eurovision heritage. Which cocktail would she like to try? “Oh, I’m Making my Mind Up.” “There’s one I like – Bucks Fizz”. In a subsequent dance sequence, she rips the bottom part of her dress off, à la Dublin 1981. Talk about laying it on with a trowel. I started looking out for the “Record Breaker” references (thankfully there were none I noted). The audience loved the Bucks Fizz bits though – I’m sure we’d all have preferred them to ditch the show and just do some of the group’s back catalogue.

Sam RobinsonScott Waugh presents Richie Cunningham as a very earnest and wet-behind-the-ears chap; and whilst Jason Winter and Andrew Waldron give good support as Potsie and Ralph, and Eddie Myles as Chachi comes perhaps as close as any to giving a performance that would remind you of its TV original, when they come together as the Dial-Tones I felt they lacked energy and presence. James Paterson’s Howard Cunningham also puts you in mind of Tom Bosley’s original characterisation, and he has a fine stage presence; a lot of talent but nowhere for it really to go in this script. Ray Gardner, too, is good as Arnold; he was perhaps the only performer in the show that I felt confident would deliver the part 100%, everyone else made me occasionally nervous. Apparently, he’s the man in the world-famous Blackcurrant Tango advert that I’d never seen until I just Googled it. Filed under “I’m sure it’s not their fault but it’s what they were told to do”, Emma Harrold took Joanie’s youthful exuberance and turned it into something unexpectedly shrill and strident and I found Henry Davis and Sam Robinson cringingly embarrassing as the Malachi brothers, marching onto the stage to the musical accompaniment of something akin to Carmen, looking like Dastardly and Muttley about to do the Paso Doble.

Lucy Jane AdcockThe show got a semi standing ovation; about a third of the people in the stalls stood, but only because we’d been very politely asked to from the stage; the area where we sat on the right side of the stalls in particular stayed firmly in our seats. I’d already had to bribe Mrs C with a very expensive large Merlot which she said she needed if she was to endure the second half of the show; and she couldn’t actually bring herself to applaud once, at all, throughout the entire evening. And as we were leaving the auditorium and the band finished its last few bars, she said, as if a final verdict on the entire show, “waste of a good orchestra”.

I think it’s fair to say we hated it! It’s on the rest of the week at Milton Keynes, then Salford and Nottingham to wrap up the tour. Go if you dare!

Review – Relative Values, Harold Pinter Theatre, 14th June 2014

Relative ValuesI’ve seen some great Coward, I’ve seen some iffy Coward, but for the most part you can rely on him to provide you with a sophisticated comedy of manners, probably involving at least one maid, some aristocrats and an outsider to shake things up. His most renowned comedies are from the 20s to the 40s, and as he got older I think it’s fair to say that on the whole the quality went down – at least, that’s what my experience of Volcano tells me. Relative Values, however, is from 1951, when he still definitely had “it”, whatever “it” was.

Patricia HodgeEven though it had been six years since World War Two had ended, it was a time of austerity. There was still meat and sugar rationing; we think times are hard now – it must have been very much worse for that generation. “Things were changing” too, generally speaking. Five years after Relative Values, John Osborne gave us angry young Jimmy Porter as a reaction against the drawing room comedies of Coward and Rattigan. But actually – Relative Values is a forward-looking play for its time and has its finger on the pulse of the changing society. Countess Felicity is best friends with her lady’s maid and looks on her butler as a senior member of the family. Certainly, there are still reactionary stick-in-the-muds, as represented by Admiral and Lady Cynthia Hayling, Caroline Quentinbut the young Earl Nigel is moving with the times sufficiently to want to marry someone whose celebrity status derives from films and glossy magazines rather than country estates with horses and hounds. The traditional statuses of aristocrat and servant are further confounded by the realisation that, if Nigel and Miranda marry, the new Countess will be the sister of the present Countess’ lady’s maid. Still, noblesse oblige, and all that, and the only person to whom this is an insuperable problem is the maid herself. Cue for some fantastic comedy that blurs the lines between the classes and has the maid pretending to be an old family friend/companion – and that’s actually way funnier than it sounds.

Neil MorrisseyThis is a production from the Theatre Royal Bath (don’t they do some good stuff) that first saw light of day last year but only transferred to London for a brief run this spring. It’s the kind of play and production that sits so elegantly and beautifully in a West End theatre, a space it occupies as to the manor born. Looking at the photo in my French’s Acting Edition, designer Stephen Brimson Lewis has very accurately revived the original 1951 set, and all the costumes are suitably functional or sumptuous, depending on which character we’re talking about. Director Trevor NunnSteven Pacey has interspersed the different scenes with mock Pathé newsreels showing 1951 in the raw – some of the footage is real, but I recognised the narrator as Rory Bremner, who played Crestwell the butler until a few weeks ago. This all helps to contextualise the play to its time whilst still being eminently 21st century as it features members of the cast in its black and white clips. We’re not allowed to have two intervals anymore, so this classic three act play is broken up halfway through the second act, which is a slight shame as it not only reduces the impact of the tremendous line with which Coward ended Act One and which got a spontaneous round of applause, but also introduces the interval with much less of a cliffhanger.

Leigh ZimmermanNevertheless, it’s a fantastically entertaining show, with some absolutely superb performances. Patricia Hodge plays the Countess and she’s every bit as splendid as you could imagine. Cut glass accent with a sneaky touch of warmth to it, decorous eyes that have seen it all but are far too polite to react to indecorous behaviour, and unsurpassable comic timing all make for a memorable performance. Her maid and best friend Moxie is played by Caroline Quentin, who is fantastic as the no-nonsense but heart of gold servant – loyal, traditional but never servile; and whose conversation, when she’s upgraded to companion, is a stroke of comic genius. Her transformation from drudge to socialite is devastatingly hilarious. She brings the house down as she blisteringly patronises Lady Cynthia – one of the funniest moments I can remember in a play for a long time.

Ben MansfieldYou need a really good cast to balance the rest of the play when you’ve got two such superb performers acting their socks off, and, delightfully, that is exactly what we have. I’ve not seen Neil Morrissey live before but I’d forgotten what an excellent comedy actor he is – all those Men Behaving Badly days shared with Caroline Quentin seem an awfully long time ago, but they still have a terrific rapport together, and you can see he’s really enjoying himself too, which encourages the audience to do so too. Steven Pacey, superb in the Menier’s Charley’s Aunt a couple of years ago, has a fantastic mischievous twinkle in his eye as Countess Felicity’s nephew Peter, revelling in the hilarity of all the scrapes they get themselves into, and belly-achingly funny when he has his sexuality challenged by sudden proximity to the hunky leading man, staying just on theSam Hoare right side of cliché to maximise the humour. Leigh Zimmerman is perfect for the role of film star Miranda Frayle, stunningly tall and elegant, disdainfully making up stories about the poverty of her childhood, much to Moxie’s disgust – another example of the somewhat skewed look at class that Coward creates in this play. When she meets up again with old flame Don Lucas, dashingly played by Ben Mansfield, and Lady Felicity catches them “at it”, it’s only a matter of time before she’s a lamb to the slaughter and no mistake. There’s also excellent support from Amanda Boxer whose Lady Cynthia is as crusty as a vintage port, and Timothy Kightley, an excellent old stick of a retired admiral, who never quite knows when to shut up. Sam Hoare’s Earl Nigel is a chinless dimwit manipulated by every woman he meets, and Rebecca Birch is a nicely irreverent housemaid in the best Coward tradition.

The play and production delivered so much more than I was expecting of it. Mrs Chrisparkle and I absolutely loved it, and I’m so glad we snuck in to see it just before it closes next week. If you can get yourself down to the Harold Pinter Theatre (that’s the Comedy Theatre in old money) before Saturday 21st June, you won’t regret it.

Review – Dawn French, Thirty Million Minutes, Derngate, Northampton, 11th June 2014

30 Million MinutesWhen I saw that Dawn French was going to tour a solo show I knew instantly that I had to see it. Locally it was first scheduled to be on at the Milton Keynes Theatre, so I went to book it and I saw that the tickets were… £60! Really? Can I justify spending £120 for both of us to see a stand-up? I’ve never spent more than the high 30s for a comedian and they were Very Big Names Indeed. So I made a momentous decision – I didn’t book, based on a Value For Money judgment (just like I didn’t book for Kate Bush).

Then some weeks later it was announced that Miss French would be on at the Royal and Derngate. I wondered if good old “Bargain Northampton” would welcome her at slightly reduced prices. I quivered as I made my way to the Box Office Counter. “How much are you charging for Dawn French tickets?” The lady there was slightly bemused as she’s seen me there many times before and I’ve never asked such a thing. “£39.50. With your friends’ discount, £38.50.” Sold to the gentleman with the avid credit card. And people ask us why we love Northampton.

Dawn FrenchThirty Million Minutes is roughly the time that Dawn French has been around on this planet, hence the name of the show, and I kind of guessed that’s what the title would refer to. However, I wasn’t at all expecting the content of the show. I can’t say that it was an unexpected delight, or an unexpected disappointment – it was just completely unexpected! I thought it would be “just another” stand-up comedy show; even though I can’t remember her ever just telling jokes or doing a stand-up type routine, I still imagined this would be the timbre of the evening.

Thirty Million MinutesWrong. Thirty Million Minutes is like a live autobiography. 100% scripted, to the accompaniment of a video wall and sound plot, this is 2 hours 5 minutes (including interval) of soliloquised confessional. Initially I was disappointed, because I like my comedians to be loose enough to engage with the audience and go in different directions if that’s how the wind blows. When you’re chained to a running picture and sound commentary (as in Dave Gorman’s Powerpoint Presentation) there’s only one direction in which you can progress, and you just have to hope it’s what your audience wants. Well, that was one thing Dawn French need have no worry about. It was certainly one of the warmest and friendliest receptions for a performer I have seen for a long time. The audience (maybe 80% female?) was completely on her side from the start and constantly gave her encouraging laughs, sighs, murmurs, groans and supportive rounds of applause as the show went on, pretty much irrelevant as to whether the material actually warranted it. Because it was such a personal show, all the material was very female-centric, which felt slightly odd to me (maybe because Mrs Chrisparkle wasn’t with me that night, she was wheeling and dealing with the top brass in the USA, so I couldn’t tune in to her first-hand female appreciation). I also felt at times, particularly in the first part of the show, that it was a little over-sentimental, with several “aaaaahhh”’s for cute photos of little Dawn and her brother, with their mum and dad, and an affectionate round of applause for a photo of Eric Morecambe.

But you have to hand it to her, she was able to create a family feeling to the whole show, and by the time we were into the second half, it was like listening to a much loved but only rarely seen cousin, going through old photos and reminiscing together about what great times we used to have. A few drinks, a few laughs, and it’s like we never lost contact. There’s a very nice balance too, between the complete sincerity of what she shares of her private life, and the fact that she still doesn’t take herself too seriously, and happily points out her (not quite hourglass) figure, and the fact that she’s got man’s legs and no neck. And she can’t hold back from doing some ridiculous (but perfectly genuine) disco dancing – as indeed none of us can when the mood takes us.

Dawn French and Lenny HenryThe family recollections became deeper and more moving as the evening went on – with very enjoyable stories about the two grannies, the very sad account of her father’s death, her unswerving love for her brother and her mum, the very honest memories of marriage with Lenny Henry, her immense love for and pride in for her daughter, and her “wow-factor” for her new husband. Go back twenty years and imagine Michael Parkinson on his BBC show; these are the kind of private memories he could teased out of one of his best ever Saturday night interviewees. By the end you really feel that you’ve got to know the inner Dawn extremely well – you can share secrets with her, ask if she needs anything from the shops and maybe even your and her family could go on holiday together for a week or so. That’s the kind of relationship you now have. With all the supportive women fans in the audience, I’m surprised they didn’t all accompany Dawn to the Ladies’ Loo in the interval – that’s what girls do, right?

So whilst I was slightly uncertain of how much I was enjoying the show at the interval, and part of me still wanted her to be able to break off and engage one-to-one with a few of us, I really liked it by the end. But I can tell you the majority of the audience absolutely loved it all the way through. Well worth £38.50!

Review – Catch 22, Northern Stage, Oxford Playhouse, 10th June 2014

Catch 22Whether you’ve read the book or not, everyone knows the concept. You’ve got a problem, but you can’t solve it because the solution is the problem: that’s Catch-22. In Joseph Heller’s fantastic book, set during the Second World War, you can be discharged from the armed forces if you’re crazy. The trouble is, you have to apply for the discharge, which in itself proves you’re not crazy. Therefore you won’t get discharged. Simples.

Daniel AinsworthYossarian is the Everyman figure coming to terms with life as a Bombardier in the American forces, desperate to be sent home because of his paranoia about everyone and everything wanting to kill him. Weaving in and out of his life are his military comrades and superiors, and it’s his relationships with these people and his confrontations with authority that provide the main narrative of the book. A lot of it is surreal and ludicrous, and a lot of it is rather repetitive, which gives the novel a great sense of irony, but sadly these aspects don’t transfer that well to the stage.

Philip ArdittiDespite the fact this is Catch-22 (the play)’s first ever UK tour, produced by Northern Stage, this isn’t the first time I’ve seen it. Heller adapted it himself in 1971 but it never had a proper commercial release. However, some time around 1980, it was performed by students from Brasenose College Oxford, and I went to see it, because my friend Andy was playing Major Major. Very funny he was too, jumping in and out of windows in his constant quest to avoid responsibility. Alas, I don’t have any other memories of it, but I remember quite enjoying it, although it was way too long.

Geoff ArnoldBack to 2014. Entering the Oxford Playhouse, on first glance it’s a very impressive set, largely featuring the shell of a bomber aircraft which they act in and around. However, the aircraft takes up so much space that it limits the opportunities for the cast to move around the stage freely, and where they do use parts of the aircraft as the scenery, although it’s rather clever, it doesn’t seem very natural to me. There’s a central acting space – the internal floor of the aircraft – that is on an adverse camber, and not particularly useful either in dimensions or in its angle. I think they’ve fitted the action to go with the set rather than design a set that suits the action – a “tail wagging the dog” scenario. It also means that there’s quite a lot of action that takes place at the extreme edges of the stage, which unless you’re seated centrally in the audience, you might not get to see.

Victoria BewickYou really can’t escape the length of the show. Three and a quarter hours. On a warm Spring night in the Oxford Playhouse with the air-con only working intermittently, that’s a form of torture. You can just about get away with three hours if it’s a musical, when you’ve got the variation of content and a sense of stop-start with each song that allows you to break away from your concentration every so often. But with a play? No. Not unless you’re making a deliberate point, like the National Theatre’s uncut Hamlet in 1976 with Albert Finney. No one ever does Shakespeare nowadays without a little shaving off the edges – it’s just too long otherwise. I went to see that Hamlet as part of a school party – it started at 7pm and finished at 11. At the time it was the “show to see” for the very reason that there were no cuts; its glory was in its completeness. But with Catch-22, I guess Heller just loved his book too much to abridge it further. Like a lovely rose, it needs a damn good pruning. Whilst the repetition in the speeches and plot may well accurately reflect the repetition in the book, I found the constant circular conversations, where characters repeat back the words they hear to the person who said them, frankly boring on stage.

Simon DarwenMany of the scenes are quite short and fast, presumably because there’s a lot of book to get through, which I also felt made it feel a bit rushed, and lacking in depth. Apart from Philip Arditti’s Yossarian, who is an almost constant presence on the stage, I didn’t really engage emotionally with many of the characters. That’s not to say you don’t get to know them – you do. Colonel Cathcart’s belligerence and double standards are very nicely portrayed by Michael Hodgson, Geoff Arnold captures the gentle Chaplain’s insecurities extremely well, and Daniel Ainsworth makes Nately’s idealism and decency very clear and strangely moving. But the whole show does suffer from the fact that there are so many characters portrayed by a handful of actors that inevitably a lot of it becomes a blur.

Michael HodgsonA few scenes really stood out for their dramatic or comic impact – I loved the scene where Yossarian was interviewed by the psychiatrist (Michael Hodgson again on cracking form) who clearly has more mental issues than his patient; and was amused (as I always am) by Major Major’s insistence on having no one enter his office whilst he’s at work, a nice mixture of the sane and insane subtly conveyed by David Webber’s thoughtfully understated performance. But there were other times where I felt the necessary impact was lacking – the constant knife attacks on Yossarian by Nately’s Whore, for example, seemed unthreatening, and, in the final scene, extremely underwhelming. There’s also a scene where Yossarian, just in his boxers, is sitting on top of the plane with Milo, discussing the potential market for chocolate covered cotton as a snack. Whilst some members of the audience were howling with laughter at this, I’m afraid it completely passed me by. Anyway, I have further suspicions about this scene, see ahead for details.

Liz KettleMy overall reaction to the production is that Catch-22 is probably best left as a novel. It’s a very worthy project and a lot of effort has clearly gone into recreating the spirit of the original on stage, but I’m not sure it’s really worth it. Probably Joseph Heller is the chief problem here – the play is just too long, and the book has too many minor characters that appear in the stage adaptation resulting in a feeling more of confusion than elucidation. I’m afraid a few people sat near me didn’t return after the interval and one lady actually left halfway through the second act, which is a slightly odd time to walk out, although I can imagine a number of reasons why she might have done so. After it finishes its run at Oxford, it still has Derby and Richmond to visit. If you’re going, I hope you enjoy it and I wish you luck.

Christopher PriceP. S. I’m going to put two and two (plus another two) together, and may or may not come up with six or something completely different; let’s see how it adds up. The first “two”: I was really surprised to find such a large number of schoolchildren in the audience. It looked as though several classes had come together for an evening at the theatre. Maybe it’s a set text and therefore will attract school trips. They were reasonably well behaved, so that wasn’t an issue. But they formed a significant percentage of the audience, and many of them looked pretty young to me. The second “two”: there’s an information note on the Oxford Playhouse website regarding this production that simply reads: “Age guidance 14+ contains some nudity” – well, there was no nudity in the performance I saw. And the third “two”? That scene on top of the plane that I felt lacked an impact. It started off with Yossarian at the edge of the stage, visibly getting an idea in his head, and then determinedly and purposefully undressing, chucking his clothes on the floor in a rampage – but then he went no further than his boxers, and climbed up on top of the plane; I believe, in the book, he sits naked in a tree. He had his conversation with Milo about chocolate cotton, and then that scene merged into the next one, with Doc Daneeka and his staff, where Yossarian donned a hospital gown over his boxers; and then that scene merged into yet another, now without the gown again, where he’s conversing with his girlfriend whilst she intimately caresses his upper torso. If my memory serves me right, then we snapped into the interval.

David WebberMy suspicion is that this performance was effectively censored, possibly because of the large number of under 14s in the audience, and that this was the “nudity” scene. Now, I’m not overly worried about not getting to see Mr Arditti in the buff, but what I am worried about is that this becomes a bowdlerized version of the artistic vision of the production, and if so it totally compromises the integrity of the entire production in my eyes. If they can do that, who knows to what length they will sacrifice their vision to attract the ticket costs of a younger audience. For one thing, at what point would he normally have put clothes on again? For the hospital scene? For the girlfriend scene? If that girlfriend scene normally takes place with his wearing nothing it puts a very different complexion on the audience’s perception of their relationship. And if the nudity was censored, was anything else? Did they remove swear words for example? Were any gestures changed? It’s like going back to the days of the Lord Chamberlain except that it’s the production company wielding the red pen. Once you start playing with a show to adapt it for different audiences, and not being open and honest about it, then you’re sinking in very muddy waters. As you can guess, censorship is one of my pet hates – in fact stage censorship was the subject of my postgrad research. I tweeted Northern Stage to ask these questions, but sadly haven’t had a reply. If two and two and two make six, I am left to conclude that there was something definitely afoot with Tuesday night’s show. However, if two and two and two make five, maybe the creative team have changed it permanently, deciding it works better this way. If you know, please tell me!

Review – John Williams performs Rodrigo’s Guitar Concerto de Aranjuez, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Derngate, Northampton, 8th June 2014

Rodrigo's Guitar ConcertoPut a big name on the bill, playing a show stopping piece of music, and the crowds come a-flocking. There was barely room for a standing piccolo in the Derngate, so many bums on seats were there, which is great news for everyone. I’m not surprised. I love Spanish guitar music – and Rodrigo’s Guitar Concerto is up there with the best. During the concert, I was reminded of the time when Mrs Chrisparkle and I were strolling through the late night alleyways of Madrid back in 1999, when we stumbled upon the Plaza Major at around midnight, to discover a guitarring busker sat in a corner playing Rodrigo’s Guitar Concerto with great feeling and charm. He beckoned us over to listen closer. For a few minutes we were in awe of his wonderful playing in a magical setting. It was just one of those perfect moments that will stay with us all our lives.

Royal Philharmonic OrchestraIt’s always a pleasure to greet the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to our beloved local theatre, and they were on cracking form as usual. Our conductor was Alexander Shelley, who we first saw last year, and he’s an enthusiastic and benign influence, as he mounts the podium (so to speak) beaming with pleasure at the prospect of the performance, and very carefully communicating with the orchestra, indicating clearly what he wants from each musician as he proceeds.

First up was Elgar’s In The South. “Two harps!” Mrs C had exclaimed as we entered the auditorium. There were indeed two harps for this piece, which seems a little excessive in these days of austerity. They were whisked away at the end of the Elgar and never seen again, so I hope everyone involved thought it worth the effort. I’m sure it was, as it was a superb rendition of this elegant and beautiful piece, renowned for its solo viola theme which was movingly performed by Abigail Fenna. A very rewarding to start to the evening’s programme.

John WilliamsIn preparation for the Rodrigo, all the violinists moved back a yard or so to make way for our soloist, whose appearance was presaged by an orchestra gofer, carefully placing a short microphone stand and a footrest in front of John Williams’ chair. Enter Mr Williams, a very serene looking man, delighted by his welcoming applause and greeting individual orchestra members like old friends (which I’m sure they are). He took one look at the microphone stand and footrest and, with a miniscule snort, repositioned them as far as possible from their original location, much to the amusement of Mr Shelley. Once Mr Williams’ props were sorted, he then performed a lengthy tuning up session, to which he added little horrified glances every time a string was out of key, or a thankful look of relief every time the tuning was spot on. These things are important, of course; but that tiny procedure really added to the occasion’s sense of theatre, a building up of expectation and tension.

Alexander ShelleyThe Guitar Concerto is a stunning piece of music and Mr Williams played it with a classic, clean interpretation, gently nudging all the beauty out of its structure. That first allegro movement, that strikes me as the epitome of Spanishness – pure sunshine on a Seville orange, got a round of applause by itself (much to Mrs C’s approval, see earlier); further retuning after that movement slightly broke the spell, but then took us into the romantic yet melancholic adagio – no hint of a bland Manuel and the Music of the Mountains in this performance, it was sheer emotion – and then straight into the triumphantly jolly final allegro. It was all fantastic, supported beautifully by the orchestra, and I thought Tim Gill’s cello in the first movement was sensational.

Stephen GossBut that wasn’t to be our entire John Williams fix for the night. After our interval Cab Sav, we returned to see Mr Williams again as the soloist in Stephen Goss’ Guitar Concerto, which we’d seen at its debut performance two years ago. I think it’s fair to say that on that first performance we were a little underwhelmed by it, but this time round I warmed to it much more – although I still don’t think Mrs C quite gets its appeal. Last time I found the “Homage to Elgar” second movement rather derivative of the Great Man, but this time it felt to me much more individual. Full of drama and light and shade, the concerto gives the soloist a real chance to shine – not that Mr Williams needs any assistance. It received very generous applause in the hall, and it was a delight to see Mr Goss modestly taking the plaudits as well. John Williams has now recorded this piece with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, so I expect it will become a regular feature in their repertoire.

J WilliamsA considerable change to the evening’s Spanish guitar theme for the last treat, Gershwin’s An American in Paris. We were suddenly transported into the jazz age, with a colourful hotch-potch of tunes and sound effects blended together perfectly by the woodwind, and of course it’s a riot of fun for the percussionists who can quirk it up to their hearts’ content. Where Rhapsody in Blue is pure New York from start to finish, American in Paris gave Gershwin the chance to mix and match his influences which really adds to its natural energy. It was played with real gusto and entertainment, and I continually realised I was breaking into uncontrollable smiles throughout the performance, which is always a good sign. Just as I hadn’t realised that Rodrigo lived to the grand old age of 97 (thank you, programme notes), Gershwin only got as far as 38. One wonders what fabulous pieces of music lurked in the recesses of his brain that he never got to write.

A highly enjoyable programme of mixed styles and virtuosity, which delighted the packed audience, and the Royal Philharmonic did us proud. One more concert this season – the Last Night of the Proms next month – which will no doubt be a bundle of fun as usual!

Review – Dealer’s Choice, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 6th June 2014

Dealer's ChoicePoker. Perhaps the ultimate experience in taking a game of complete chance and creating one of extreme skill. From my later teenager years into my twenties, I would host poker nights with my school friends in our public bar (you knew the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle ran a pub, gentle reader?) John used to pretend to be Edward G Robinson (he’d have the hat to prove it); at the beginning of every game, as we were putting in our starter five pences (or whatever it was, this was a long time ago!) Craig would – without fail – say “you’ve got to be in it to win it”; if he had a good hand Gerry would always giggle uncontrollably; whenever the dealer chose five card stud we’d all say “man’s game”;Frankie we’d play Spit in the Ocean with the wild card being the one dealt the first time any of us said “spit” – which would always be Paul, and always on the first card; and nine times out of ten we’d play Baseball – threes and nines are wild, fours get you an extra card, a three up meant you had to match the pot before continuing, and a second three up meant you were automatically out. Another man’s game. It was all an elaborate routine. We knew these ridiculous rules like the backs of our hands; and we would start around midnight and go on until sunrise. Free beer on tap – jukebox on if we wanted – and the Dowager Mrs C would prepare us loads of cheese and ham toasties before she went to bed. Big kids playing at being tough adults. Great days.

AshPatrick Marber’s engrossing and somewhat disturbing play first hit our stages in 1995 at a time when Mrs C and I didn’t see many plays; and its (relatively) recent revival at the Menier Chocolate Factory took place just before we discovered that marvellous little venue, so this play was new to us. The scene is a rather downmarket little restaurant, run by Stephen, who’s more addicted to poker than catering. Not always a winner but not often a loser, he always has plenty of readies put by to draw on if necessary. His chef, Sweeney, and his waiters and general staff, Frankie and Mugsy, are regulars at his weekly poker nights, as is his son Carl, always on the scrounge for a paternal hand-out due to his excessive gambling. Add to this mix the mysterious Ash, a diner who won’t leave at the end of the evening, and you have six assorted guys assembled for a poker match in the second act. I won’t give away what happens which is partly very surprising and partly quite predictable, so you’ll have to watch the poker game to find out.

The Poker gamePatrick Marber really knows his poker players. I could recognise each of his six characters in my school chums who used to attend our regular nights. The brash, confident one who did ok; the one who seemed sensible then lost big time on ridiculously dangerous decisions; the loud, rather stupid one who continually got away with it; the quiet, reserved one who you never knew how well he was doing; the one whom all the others respected as the main player whether he won or not; and the nervous, difficult one, who was never satisfied. The running commentaries of the games that Mr Marber has his characters providing are virtually identical to the kinds of things we used to say, and reminded me so strongly of the nonsense we used to spout.

Kitchen and restaurantHe also knows his characters outside of the poker game. The text is full of great insights lightly observed; hidden depths about the characters are exposed in throwaway conversation, like the slightly antagonistic relationship between Sweeney and Frankie, under strain due to their currently living together (probably not in the Biblical sense), or their treatment of Mugsy, part pal, part victim, part stooge. The interplay between Stephen and Carl gives you clues about the behaviour of the third party in that relationship, the unseen wife/mother; and Ash’s intense pressure on both Carl and Stephen not only reveals his own bullying brutality but also Carl’s flimsy flakiness and Stephen’s inner weakness. So even if the plot isn’t that extensive or dynamic, the characterisation is fantastic, and you really get to know them warts and all.

Stephen and AshIt’s a great production, with evocative sets by Helen Goddard depicting the barren kitchen, lurid but comfortless office and featureless restaurant. The set for the basement poker game is dominated by the centre table where the game is played, the only escape being the narrow brick-walled stairway upwards. The atmosphere of a series of fast-moving, high-stakes games is created by an almost cinematographic rapid mime of the various stages of a game – it reminded me in part of Guys and Dolls’ Crap Shooters Ballet, albeit mainly seated. In the first act there’s also an unnerving sound and lighting plot; when characters move between the kitchen and the office it’s sometimes matched with a loud click and stark lighting changes. But above all, a character-driven play needs a great cast, and that’s certainly what we have here.

StephenCary Crankson is a brilliant Mugsy. He’s a kind of Everyman figure, downtrodden but trying hard to make the best of himself, with the limited resources he’s got – both financially and intellectually. Irredeemably positive, bobbing back up to the water level no matter how much he’s drowning, it’s a really funny performance, but also emotionally vulnerable. There’s a moment towards the end of the play when you think another of the characters is going to tell him something that will really damage him; the woman to my left must have felt so protective towards Mugsy that she actually said out loud “oh no, please don’t”. You know a drama is working when the audience can’t keep their reactions to themselves. Throughout the whole play, Mr Crankson’s vocal ticks and physical demeanour combine to paint a very vivid picture of this underdog, and it’s a wonderful, memorable performance; and it helps that Mr Marber gives him all the best comic lines.

CarlWe’d seen Oliver Coopersmith before in the Sheffield Crucible’s excellent production of The History Boys where he was brilliant as the difficult loner Posner; and once again he’s superb in this production as Carl, the nervy, obsessive gambler who blames everything and everyone else for his own inadequacies. He really does do ungratefully awkward very well. Richard Hawley absolutely captures Stephen’s almost-but-not-quite authoritative nature, compromised by his own personal and financial involvement with his staff as a result of the poker games, a hard man to some extent, but irrationally foolish when pushed. Ian Burfield makes for a very unsettling Ash, civil only to a point, professionally cool until his own financial dire straits turn him into a professional menace. I really enjoyed the performance of Carl Prekopp as Sweeney, deftly doing the food prep for the evening shift at the restaurant whilst agonising over his decision to miss the poker game so that he will have some money left to take his daughter out the next day; and Tom Canton is an excellent Frankie, with just the right blend of vanity and jack-the-laddishness to make you almost believe his own fantasy of cleaning up at the poker tables in Vegas.

The whole castA riveting production with some stellar performances, and another excellent addition to the “Made in Northampton” file. It has one more week at the Royal, and then will be playing at the Oxford Playhouse until 21st June. Definitely worth seeing.

P. S. I booked this show at the beginning of the year before its title had even been announced. In poker terms, that’s like staking £30 on the first deal in a five card stud. Such is my faith in the Royal and Derngate! And, as usual, they didn’t let me down!

Review – Pygmalion, Milton Keynes Theatre, 31st May 2014

PygmalionPerhaps one’s first reaction to the prospect of seeing a production of Pygmalion might be slightly jaded. That old play? My Fair Lady without the songs? Does it have any relevance today? Haven’t I seen it many times before? Those were among my sneaking suspicions before curtain up last Saturday afternoon. But this is a fresh, funny and very relevant production, born at the Theatre Royal Bath, that charmed and chuckled its way through two and half hours of 100 year old comedy, and Mrs Chrisparkle and I both loved it.

Alistair McGowanYou know the plot– Colonel Pickering bets that Professor Higgins can’t transform flower girl Eliza Doolittle from little cockney sparrer to eloquent beauty, the test being that no one suspects her true origins and identity at the ambassador’s garden party. Higgins works hard, Eliza works hard; he wins the bet, but only congratulates himself (and Pickering of course) on his own amazingness rather than recognising Eliza’s contribution and self-improvement; believing that he thinks nothing of her, she leaves. It doesn’t sound like that much of a story put that way. But Shaw created some fantastic characters, not only in Higgins and Eliza, but also Eliza’s dustman dad, and the sympathetic and extremely wise Mrs Higgins. The interplay between these characters still sparks off terrific comedy as well as thoughtful, emotional drama.

Jamie Foreman & Rachel BarryFor instance, Act Three, where Higgins and Pickering take Eliza to one of Mrs H’s “At Home”s, still has your toes tingling with its examination of class distinction and seemingly inappropriate behaviour. Although the word “bloody” no longer has the impact it did in 1912, you still get a frisson of naughtiness when Eliza exits with it triumphantly on her lips. The whole “Gin was Mother’s milk to her” and “what I say is, them that pinched it done her in” sequence is so beautifully constructed to juxtapose perfect enunciation with gutter language that its enormous powers to surprise and delight remain undiminished. I can still remember the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle reciting this speech word perfect, such was its notoriety early in the 20th century. This scene is performed beautifully, and had the audience in hysterics. Very charmingly, during a short pause in this scene, you could hear a young child in the audience – who had been very well behaved to that point – unable to contain herself as she laughed out loud “this is SO funny!” The rest of the audience laughed back in appreciation. It was a great reminder that these famous and regularly performed plays are always new to someone.

Alistair McG and the ladiesCasting Alistair McGowan as Henry Higgins is a stroke of genius. When I think of Higgins I think of Rex Harrison and then maybe some other younger versions of the same characterisation. But Mr McGowan is unmistakably Mr McGowan; and although he doesn’t stray into the impersonation field, it does mean he puts on some very good cockney voices when he’s throwing back people’s words at them, as he annotates their speech patterns at Covent Garden in the rain. It becomes a slightly “in-joke” – everyone knows he’s Alistair McGowan, renowned for his funny voices, and there he is doing them, but it’s all part of the play. But it’s not only the voices that impress, it’s his mannerisms and bearing. I’ve always thought of him as being a bit of a scruffy urchin, with a very bendy physicality to him which allows him to impersonate others so well. Here he uses that informality to great effect, coming across much more as an errant schoolboy than as an esteemed professor. When he’s under pressure, he hops from side to side, jiggles his hands in his pockets, can’t make eye contact with his mum – most unlike Rex Harrison. It’s a very different reading of the role from the norm – and it works really well.

Jamie Foreman & Alistair McGowanRachel Barry is a very fine Eliza, both as flower girl standing up to the toffs, and as heartbroken lady dealing with the fall-out of the wretched professor’s bet. Her comic timing is immaculate in the “At Home” scene, and her resilience at the end, when faced with her understanding of the truth, is admirable. Jamie Foreman steals every scene he is in as Doolittle, his huge cockney brashness wheedling to get some cash out of Higgins as he tries to “sell” Eliza, and then dismally accepting his new found richesse, which sees him ascend into the grand surroundings of Mrs Higgins’ drawing room. Rula Lenska gives a dignified, but twinkling-in-the-eye performance as Mrs H, accepting no nonsense from her disappointing son but trying to carry on with the established behaviour expected of her. There’s also excellent support from Charlotte Page as the rather scary but essentially kind Mrs Pearce, Anna O’Grady as the somewhat petulant but very modern Clara, Jane Lambert as a rather tragic Mrs Eynsford-Hill, confessing her relative poverty with embarrassment whilst still keeping up appearances with the trappings of wealth, and Lewis Collier as a splendidly nincompoop Freddy, laughing at anything and everything.

David Grindley’s straightforward production allows Shaw’s text to do all the talking and proves that it still has a lot to say about class and relationships. Lots of fun, and definitely worth catching, if you can get to Canterbury this week, with Plymouth and Norwich still to come.