Review – Twelfth Night, English Repertory Theatre at Oxford Castle, 30th July 2014

Twelfth NightMrs Chrisparkle and I were delighted to receive an invitation to attend the Press Night for the new production of Twelfth Night at the Oxford Castle, performed by the English Repertory Theatre company. When I were a mere lad scraping a degree at the nearby university, Oxford Castle was decrepit. A no-go zone, all locked up, probably the home to nefarious footpads and vagabonds – or so we fantasised at the time. A few years ago we dropped by and saw how it had been glammed up, all bars and restaurants and beautiful people. But somehow we never think to go there if we want a meal in Oxford. Probably because it was off my radar as a student, as a location it’s yet to re-establish itself in my heart.

Rachel WaringBut it really is a welcoming complex, full of happy people, eating and drinking in the warm summer sunshine of an early evening, with interesting attractions (Oxford Castle Unlocked looks fun) and, of course, the promise of open air Shakespeare. Evening performances of Twelfth Night take place in the Castle Yard, a courtyard with views towards the castle mound, and the action takes place on stone steps leading up, pyramid-like, to a small stage area at the top. It also includes the gated access to the mound, which has a useful path running along the side edge of the top stage area, and (presumably at the back, out of the audience’s view) a path that leads up to the top of the mound. At the foot of the pyramid is what can only be described as a long, narrow, oblong paddling pool, about a yard away from the front row seats. There’s an awful lot of water in this production – and the warning is that if you sit in the front row you possibly/probably will get wet. Not really fancying two and a half hours of shivering in slowly drying clothes, I suggested seats three or four rows back for Mrs C and me. “Nonsense”, she replied, “I don’t mind getting a little bit wet!” We’d been advised that there’s less chance of splashing the further right you sit, so we took the two front row seats that were furthest to the right of the stage. We didn’t get wet. However, we did get blinded by the lights that illuminate the paddling pool in the second act. I have to say, depending where the action was, that made it very difficult to look at the stage area at times. Can we suggest the lights are tilted down and away a little? Otherwise it provides a distancing effect of which Brecht would have been proud.

Jack TaylorThe occasional use of the castle mound as an acting area was very nicely done, with the audience having distant views of Orsino and Cesario larking around at the top, and also an exasperated Malvolio looking down (in more than one way) on the infantile proceedings below. Unfortunately there is clearly public access to the top of the mound from the other side, and a couple of times there were people at the top looking down at us with curiosity, including some (presumably inebriated) youths who bellowed out “oooh look it’s a PLAY” which rather shattered the Illyrian illusion. It’s also a shame that, in order to get into their starting positions at the beginning of the play and after the interval that you have to watch the cast filing out of their dressing rooms. Those not first appearing on the top area then have to walk across the stage, jump over a little wall (more of which later) and hide behind a garish beach windbreak thing so that they may enter Stage Left. As you’ve already seen them crossing in front of you, any amusement factor in their appearance (costume, props etc) is therefore lessened when they actually come on stage.

Steve BlackerThe play starts with quite a coup de theatre, going straight into Act One Scene Two (sharp intakes of breath from Shakespeare purists), with a very graphic depiction of Viola and Sebastian’s shipwrecking, using the paddling pool to full effect (and thus getting some members of the audience pretty wet from the word go). Sebastian and Antonio are virtually immersed in the ocean waves, and then spend the next twenty odd minutes by the side of the stage attempting to recover from their ordeal, whilst towels, apples and TLC are administered. It provides a very physical portrayal of near drowning. Meanwhile, Viola learns about Orsino from the priest(ess), who actually stands in for a number of the minor characters who have been cut from this version. It’s only then that Orsino gets to talk about music being the food of love. You could argue that switching the order of these two opening scenes gives Viola an added prominence; however I suspect the main reason is that they were extremely proud of their paddling pool idea and wanted it to have the biggest impact.

Nina BrightI was somewhat confused by the production’s overall vision of the play; its time setting for instance. The music playing whilst we wait for curtain up is all sea shanties from (I guess) the 19th century, although the cue for it to start is the piece of music everyone will recognise as the theme to Captain Pugwash. So you’re really in a nautical mood. But this isn’t The Tempest and actually the shipwreck is only a device to separate the twins so that Shakespeare can pen some Plautine mistaken identity material. And then, location; after that first scene, you could really be anywhere. Union Jacks abound, so I presume this Illyria is in the UK. When Feste sings, he has a penchant for Sinatra and Gershwin. When Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Feste observe Malvolio being duped by Maria’s letter, they’re dressed as Mexican gardeners – migrant workers I presume. I’m sure it’s a deliberate mish-mash of times and places, but I wonder if more of a unified theme running through it might have made the storyline a little clearer. I’m very familiar with the play but I still got lost occasionally with the plot.

Katharine MangoldA major problem with the setting is that, certainly from where we were sitting, when the actors have their backs to you, you can barely hear what they are saying at all. This was particularly noticeable with a few of the actors whose voices are perhaps not as strong as the others. Plus you get extraneous noise from outside the Castle Yard area; unsurprisingly with all the bars and restaurants a stone’s throw away. At one point it sounded like all the beer glasses had been collected from all the bars and were being trundled past on a hospital trolley. On the stone slab flooring, high heel shoes make a particularly brutal sound when nipping off to the ladies’ during the show. And when a trumpet practice started up from the windows of some neighbouring student accommodation (we presumed), we seriously wondered if this venue, atmospheric though it looks, is actually really suitable for open air performance.

David William BryanNevertheless, there was much to enjoy in this show, and there were several very successful scenes. Malvolio’s letter scene worked a treat, assisted by the onlooking cast giggling at the success of their duplicitous trick – actually it was funnier than the cross-garter’d scene (or maybe that was just because it was too painful to watch with those glaring lights in our eyes). I also really enjoyed the scene where Antonio is heartbroken because he thinks Sebastian has turned his back on him over the money he gave him (whereas of course, he’s talking to Viola/Cesario by mistake) – you really felt Antonio’s devastation at the perceived disloyalty. Before the play began, Jack Taylor, who plays Sir Toby, came out to explain to us that the cast have been beset with some accidents, including Alexander Jonas, due to play Sir Andrew, who was suffering from amnesia following an accident, so Mr Ben Waring had come up to Oxford that morning and had basically done his best to learn the entire part in a day. Understandably, he would have to have the book in his hand; but actually it was remarkably unobtrusive and Mr Waring did a terrific job. Mr Taylor himself had approached the stage on crutches so I don’t know what injury he had sustained. He certainly was a crowning example for the “show must go on” syndrome. It wouldn’t surprise me if that wall they have to jump over hadn’t claimed a few casualties. Maria thwacked her leg into it in her first exit of the evening, which left Mrs C and me wincing.

Daniel JenningsThere were two particularly superb performances. Rachel Waring as Viola was strong and clear, and managed to get all the humour out of the girl-dressed-as-a-boy routine, both whilst fending off the amorous Olivia and beginning to fancy Orsino. She is a very watchable actress as we remembered from her performance in the OSC’s The Merry Wives of Windsor last year (in which Jack Taylor was an excellent Falstaff). Daniel Jennings as both Feste and Antonio was also brilliant, making the clown funny (not always easy in Shakespeare) and genuinely touching as Sebastian’s rescuer. He’s obviously great at voices – I loved his interpretation of Sir Topas.

Ben WaringI also very much enjoyed Steven Blacker’s performance as Malvolio; he’s very good at the pompous and patronising aspects of Olivia’s steward, and his smiling was distinctly eerie. I always feel sorry for Malvolio when he’s locked up as a lunatic and think that Olivia lets the rest of her household off far too easily for the wrong that’s been done to him. I found his being teased in the paddling pool really very disturbing – I guess it’s an individual reaction as to whether you find this scene funny or not. For me it was painful to watch, as I felt it depicted real cruelty. Mr Blacker did a very good job of making you feel uncomfortable and guilty at having watched it. David William Bryan was an excellent Orsino, with a natural sense of authority but also really well conveying the playfulness of his relationship with Cesario. He also did the best gesture of the night, when Cesario implies that Olivia simply won’t find him attractive – his hands said “what, with this body?”, like an upper class version of The Fonz.

Aneurin PascoeNina Bright made a rather cute priest, playing the role subtly, with amusing nuances and some inventive interaction with the other characters; and Katharine Mangold was a beguiling Maria, clearly the catalyst for much of the boys’ bad behaviour and really proud of her mischief making. Aneurin Pascoe’s Sebastian suffered a bit from being one of the less strong voices and I couldn’t hear a lot of what he said at times, although he looked the part and definitely came across as distinguished nobility having a hard time.Annemarie Highmore Annemarie Highmore’s Olivia was also frequently too quiet and a little too laid-back in the role for my liking – although she did come to life when overcome with passion for Cesario. It’s hard to criticise Jack Taylor’s Sir Toby when he was clearly in pain but I confess I didn’t really get an insight into the character from his performance – he just came across as far too polite, which is not what you expect from a member of the Belch family. Ben Waring’s Sir Andrew was remarkably good given the circumstances – if he keeps with the role he will be great.

So, all in all, I’d say it was a typical Curate’s Egg of a show. It’s on at the Oxford Castle until 5th September, and I’m sure once it beds in – and the overall fitness of the cast improves – it will be a very entertaining production.

Review – Forbidden Broadway, Menier Chocolate Factory, 27th July 2014

Forbidden BroadwayAs soon as we saw that Forbidden Broadway was returning to the Menier, the booking was made in an instant. We saw it last time, in 2009, and thought it was a complete hoot. Well, it’s returned, as is just as hooty as it was before. It’s not the same show of course – it’s been completely rewritten, with loads more musicals to parody and loads more musical performers to tease mercilessly.

There’s no pretension, no back story, no hidden meaning to this show – it just takes the “four performers and a pianist” format, showers the stage with glitzy star lighting, has tinselly curtains on every available wall, and four entrances from which our performers can make continuous star appearances. Actually, given all the quick costume and number changes, this is less like a show and more like a showbiz triathlon. They must be the fittest actors in London.

Anna Jane CaseyA series of musical sketches rapidly follow each other, in which no holds are barred with the extent to which they ridicule, humiliate and lampoon our most beloved musicals. The traditional shows come in for their regular treatment – Phantom, Les Mis, Miss Saigon, Lion King; but we also have new kids on the block in the form of Book of Mormon, Once, Jersey Boys and Charlie (of the Other Chocolate Factory). Obviously, if you‘ve actually seen the show they’re parodying it makes it a lot funnier and a lot easier to understand. We realised that we’ve got a bit behind with our London musicals, and there were probably more shows featured that we hadn’t seen, than that we had. However, for the most part, this doesn’t matter because the sketches themselves are so funny and superbly performed that you can enjoy them regardless.

Ben LewisThere are also some extra numbers that don’t reflect any one particular show – there’s an homage to Cameron Mackintosh (which we understood completely), a showbiz love-in between Mandy Patinkin and Patti LuPone which nicely took the rise out of those gushing, artificial combinations of stars done purely for “entertainment” that you get sometimes – without actually realising that the two of them really are doing shows together in America; and a slightly odd number combining Hugh Jackman and Peter Allen which we didn’t follow at all. I’ve Googled it now, and discovered that Mr Jackman did a show about Mr Allen about eleven years ago – in America; but I think that’s a bit distant and esoteric even for the Menier. We enjoyed it though, as the teenage Mrs Chrisparkle had a crush on Peter Allen and there’s not many weeks that pass by without an enthusiastic burst from her in the shower of “I Go to Rio”. And of course, we had our traditional, brief appearance of Elaine Paige on the radio, cruel but hilarious. We can only think that EP must be a damned good sport.

Damian HumbleyThe majority of the sketches are pant-wettingly funny, and as a result of this show, we certainly now have no intention of seeing Once – any combination of all those elements must make for the most ghastly night at the theatre. Oh, that accordion. I loved the presentation of Miss Saigon as a shouting contest (that’s another show we haven’t seen) and Jersey Boys looked and sounded hilarious – for all the wrong reasons – again new to me, but Mrs C who saw it in America whilst on business assures me it was a perfect parody. Not sure I’ll ever be able to think of “Walk Like a Man” in the same way. The treatment of Book of Mormon was clever rather than outrageous – but then the original show is so wacky that it must be hard to devise a version that’s funnier than the original. There was a brilliant updating of Guys and Dolls’ Fugue for Tinhorns, a wonderful fantasia on Sondheim (Into the Words), a rather telling number about child exploitation on stage (whilst still keeping it light), a battle (literally) between Chita Rivera and Rita Moreno, and Wicked’s fantastic “Defying Subtlety”.

My two favourite sketches were the Lion King – primarily because of the fabulously stupid costumes and the excruciating (this time for all the right reasons) song about wearing the heavy headpieces; but most of all their treatment of Les Miserables, with the perils of the revolving stage and the incredibly funny rewrites to those favourites, On My Own, Bring Him Home, One Day More and Master of the House. To tell you what they did to them would spoil the surprise – but we were completely in tears of laughter.

Sophie-Louise DannNo matter how cleverly the whole thing has been written and assembled it wouldn’t work if it wasn’t for the four amazing performers – the showbizzy Anna-Jane Casey and Ben Lewis who can also do wry, and the wry Sophie-Louise Dann and Damian Humbley who can also do showbizzy. They’re all magnificent. In amongst all the rest of it, Miss Casey did a splendidly ditzy Liza Minelli which included simulated hows-your-father with the man sitting next to Mrs C – much to his delight; Miss Dann did an incredibly accurate Angela Lansbury, which soared musically and became much more of a genuine appreciation of the Grande Dame than a micky-take; Mr Humbley raised his Sweeney razor directly at me and threatened, and threatened closer, so I had to shrink further back and back in my seat; and Mr Lewis bestrode the stage like the Colossus he is and didn’t mind being referred to as the one we didn’t like in Candide. Not to forget the sterling work put in by Mr Joel Fram on the piano, whose entertaining musical arrangements can summon up any mood you want.

I said there was no hidden meaning to the show – but the final number which draws our attention to the effects of increased commercial sponsorship in the West End, whilst funny, is as hard-hitting as a jackboot in your privates. The fact that the season virtually sold out so quickly, has a two week extension at the Menier until the end of August, and is now scheduled to transfer to the Vaudeville later in the year, tells its own story. One of the funniest things you can see on a stage!

The super production photos are by Alastair Muir.

Review – Last Night of the Derngate Proms, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 13th July 2014

Last Night of the Derngate PromsWith the BBC Proms just around the corner – first night is Friday – what better way to wrap up this year’s classical season with the RPO than by having Northampton’s very own Last Night of the Proms. This is always a fun occasion, with a packed audience, lots of flag waving, and a programme full of old favourites so that there’ll always be something for everyone.

Our conductor this year was the jovial Owain Arwel Hughes, who conducted our Last Night of the Proms concert two years ago, and who we also saw take command of Fauré’s Requiem in 2011. He’s a very warm and friendly figure on the podium, enthusiastically communicating with his musicians, and with his shock of white hair and glasses perched on the end of his nose occasionally has something of a mad professor about him.

Owain Arwel HughesYou can’t get much more of a lively start than Rossini’s William Tell overture. It galvanised the orchestra into a buzzing frenzy for its famous last section, and from my seat I could clearly see our First Violin Favourite Mr Russell Gilbert’s bow deftly darting over the waist of his violin whilst those of his colleagues doubtless did the same. Before all that, there was, however, a beautiful cello introduction to this piece, superbly played as always by Tim Gill.

Next, we were to enjoy the first contribution to the evening by the Northampton Bach Choir – a terrific performance of Zadok the Priest, full of power, crispness and joy. We could already tell the choir were going to be on great form. Then it was time for Fauré’s Pavane, beautifully and delicately played by the orchestra, expressing all its 19th century French elegance. One aspect of the Last Night programme is that it has many more individual pieces than normal, on average much shorter in length, which adds to the variety of the evening. It can also sometimes be a little frustrating though, when you hear a short piece that by rights should be part of a larger one – as in the next piece, the Hallelujah Chorus from Handel’s Messiah. Again the choir gave it a really good performance, but you felt a slight twinge of disappointment that there wasn’t more from the Messiah for our entertainment.

Danny DriverThe last item before the interval, which certainly wasn’t an abridgement of anything else, was Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini. With “Hallelujah” still ringing in our ears, it was time for that laborious moving aside of all the chairs and then lugging the Steinway onto the centre of the stage. “Why can’t it be there from the start?” asked Mrs Chrisparkle with more than a little petulance. “Well there would be no room for the conductor” I suggested. “But the conductor will still be there during the piano playing” she replied. I had no answer to that. The First Violins had all huddled by the entrance stairs, as if they’d nipped out for a quick fag break. Once everything was in place, Mr Hughes returned with our soloist for the evening, Danny Driver. What an incredible performer he is. Mr Driver played with such precision and attack that it took your breath away. Amongst all the keyboard gymnastics of the Rhapsody, there’s one stand-out variation that’s extremely lush and romantic, and feels very different from the rest of the piece. Mr Driver put his heart and soul into it – and it was just sumptuous to listen to. Mrs C and I were overwhelmed by how good he was; and the orchestra also gave him superb support in what was overall a stunning performance.

After a very pleasing Cab Sav break in the interval we returned for one of my favourite pieces of classical music, Borodin’s Polovtsian Dances from Prince Igor. The female voices from the choir stood out particularly well, and whatever it was they were singing, it wasn’t Stranger in Paradise. I did have to stop myself – only partly successfully – from singing along to all the Kismet tunes. I’m only human, after all. It was a really stirring performance, and a great way to start the second half.

RPOThen we had yet another of my favourite pieces, Nimrod from the Enigma Variations. No other piece of classical music captures that warm, safe, noble feeling of deep friendship that you get in Nimrod; but like the Hallelujah Chorus earlier on, it definitely lost something by not being part of a full Enigma performance. Normally it has me choking back the tears, but not this time. A change of mood next for Parry’s I Was Glad, with the choir in full voice, and the orchestra nicely augmented by Alistair Young on the keyboard providing a full organ effect as if we were in a massive cathedral. Visually odd, aurally wonderful.

Into the home straight with the classic final sequence. Starting off with Sir Henry Wood, we had two movements from the British Sea Songs: Tom Bowling, with Tim Gill exquisitely teasing out the melody on his cello, and the Hornpipe, which, despite Mr Hughes’ plea to allow the instrumentalists to have “first go” before we all joined in, was instantly drowned out by a few noisy people in the boxes, one of whom may well have been the manic man from last year. Being an incorrigibly obedient person, I waited with my claps and stomps until Mr Hughes cued me in. Then it was straight into Rule Britannia, with just the chorus being sung by the choir – and by us of course. I couldn’t help notice that the man with the clear voice singing behind me made two classic errors – he sang “Britannia rules the waves” (shocking) and “Britain never never never shall be slaves” (dreadful). I’m afraid the Last Night of the Proms brings out all my pomp and circumstance. Next Jerusalem, favourite classical singalong song of mine since my English teacher used to love to play it on the organ at school assembly over forty years ago. Have you noticed, at Last Nights generally, you might get an encore of Rule Britannia, Land of Hope and Glory, or the Hornpipe, or all three – but never Jerusalem. I’d be happy to start a campaign for the inclusion of Jerusalem in the repeats.

Northampton Bach ChoirThe final scheduled piece was Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance March No 1, the aforementioned Land of Hope and Glory, where we impressed Mr Hughes with our magnificent lungs. Well not perhaps the manic man in the side stalls, whose voice clattered over everyone else’s; at first I thought we’d been joined by Zippy from Rainbow. But it wasn’t the end – they’d kept back a very appropriate encore for Northampton with a fantastic rendition of When The Saints Go Marching In, with the choir giving it everything and the orchestra loving every minute of it. A superb way to round off the evening.

Looking ahead to next year’s season, there’s some great highlights but I note that there isn’t a Last Night planned for next summer; the final concert then will be an evening of John Williams’ film music. Hmmm. Not quite the same I feel. Bring back the Last Night for 2016!

Review – As You Like It, Oxford Shakespeare Company, Wadham College Gardens, Oxford, 12th July 2014

As You Like It 1978I’ve always liked As You Like It – but I hadn’t seen a production of it for many a long year. In fact, the only other time I’ve seen it performed by a professional cast was way, way back – the RSC at the Aldwych Theatre, on 7th September 1978, when my “2nd circle” ticket (don’t suppose I was happy about sitting that far away from the stage) cost a full £2. It featured such fantastic performers as Charlotte Cornwell as Rosalind, Cherie Lunghi as Celia, Charles Dance as Oliver, and the wonderful (and sadly never seen in the UK any more) Jane Carr as Phoebe; but the stand-out performance for me was Alan David as Touchstone. He made him really sneery; patronising the country rustics around him, and probably even more morose than Jaques.

As You Like ItSo it’s amazing to think it’s taken 36 years to see it again! And it was well worth the wait. For anyone new to the Oxford Shakespeare Company – where have you been the last ten years? You’ve missed some extraordinary shows. Set in the gardens of Wadham College Oxford, with your picnic and glass of Pimm’s, watching innovative and frequently hilarious productions of Shakespeare favourites (although not exclusively – their Importance of Being Earnest was about as good as it gets), it’s a huge privilege to return every year, and we always set aside two or three Saturdays in the summer in the hope that at least one of them will be warm and sunny – as indeed it was last Saturday afternoon.

Rosalind and CeliaAs You Like It is one of those Shakespeare comedies where tragedy and division lead to happiness and unity, resolved by one of those classic “let’s all eight of us get married” endings. The route to marriage includes having a girl dressed as a boy, being wooed by a boy as though she were a girl even though he thinks he’s a boy (but she is a boy of course – confused yet?) Given that in Shakespeare’s day there’d have been no women on stage anyway, just try and count the number of in-jokes he’s setting up. To add to this, we have an actor playing Audrey – and yes, I’d have to admit she wouldn’t be my type; and an actress playing Oliver Martext and Le Beau, although this time they are actually transformed into the female characters Olivia Martext and La Belle. I did wonder with a name like that if she was going to break into a funky rendition of Lady Marmalade – but no, obviously it was considered too out of character. You’ve also got brother set against brother – twice; and a choice of sideline commentators such as the rustic Corin or the ex-courtier Jaques. Indeed, all human life is there.

Ganymede's after OrlandoThe first twenty five minutes or so are played in one part of the garden, where we all sat on rugs and watched the events unfold in the usurper Duke Frederick’s court; and once he has banished Rosalind (and Celia goes along for the ride) we up sticks and move to the seated “stage” area (having of course already bags’d one’s seats on arrival) to watch the story continue in the Forest of Arden. This two locations game works really well and gives you the audience a real sense of change of location, which is handy in a production where so many roles are doubled (or indeed trebled) up, as you can associate different roles with different stage areas. Entering the forest was accompanied by a change in costume styles too, those beautiful and handsome clothes worn at court being replaced by anything from rags to a bad day at H&M. Actually, all the costumes are brilliant throughout. Mrs Chrisparkle and I particularly relished Celia’s transformation from elegant ballroom dress, all sash and plunging neckline, to bumpkin floral shift and hippy wellies.

JaquesAs it’s an Oxford Shakespeare Company production, it’s played for laughs wherever possible, but this isn’t as LOL as some of their recent shows – it just isn’t That Sort Of Play. You can’t laugh at Jaques in the way you can at Malvolio. You haven’t got partner-swapping like you have in Midsummer Night’s Dream. There isn’t a whole heap of double-crossing going on like in Merry Wives. It’s much more character driven, and the harsh realities of life seem a little more ominous in this play. Nevertheless, Rebecca Tanwen and Charlotte Hamblin as Rosalind and Celia make a terrific comic double act, both of them entranced with their own love-at-first-sight to the hilarious disdain of the other, expressing a host of emotions with very funny facial expressions. The light heartedness when Rosalind falls for Orlando makes an excellent, grim contrast to the imminent sudden chill when David Shelley’s Duke Frederick hears about Orlando’s heritage; a superb change of atmosphere brought about by Mr Shelley’s authoritative performance.

Ganymede and PhoebeI also enjoyed how they played with the pronunciation of “Rosalind”, specifically that difficult last syllable. My Oxford tutor (yes, I used to have one of those) always used to say on this subject, and regarding this play: “I do not find it in my mind to say wind, I find it in my mind to say wind”. Personally, I never thought that was particularly helpful. Perhaps I should explain that for the first part of that sentence you use a short “i” and for the second, a long “i”. No, I agree, I still don’t think it helps. Clearly mispronunciation of find, mind, and wind, not to mention Rosalind, had them rolling in the aisles four hundred years ago.

SilviusIf I do have a criticism of the production, it would be that some of the cuts are a little unfortunate. One of my favourite speeches in the play, Touchstone’s analysis of rhetoric, with the Retort Courteous, the Quip Modest and the Reply Churlish, and how peace can reign with sensible use of “if”, is missing. “Your If is the only peacemaker: much virtue in If”, says Touchstone, identifying the theme of compromise in the play. I think that was a missed opportunity. Of course, there have to be cuts, otherwise having eight actors play upwards of twenty-five people is never going to work. We lost some characters; Madame La Belle delivered some of the lines originally spoken by Charles the wrestler; Jaques missed out on gathering people round and saying “Tis a Greek invocation to call fools into a circle” and a few other scenes were shifted around. Old retainer Adam accompanying Orlando on his journey to the forest takes place during the court scenes in this production, rather than later on in Arden as Shakespeare had it; and actually that change works very well. But then, if you objected to these changes because you’re that much of a Shakespeare purist, an Oxford garden production possibly might not be for you.

Jaques and Duke SeniorNot only do the cast exhibit boundless energy, but they also have a great sensitivity to, and understanding of the motivations and personalities of the characters. For example, the shocked, grieved reaction by Rebecca Tanwen’s Rosalind at her treatment by the Duke her uncle is tangible and very moving. Later on, she really gets into the part of Ganymede – truly the blueprint for Blackadder’s “Bob” – and becomes a very fetching tomboy; no wonder Orlando goes along with the wooing game. Charlotte Hamblin expresses all Celia’s qualities of honour and loyalty as she sticks with Rosalind through the banishment, and then gives us a marvellous long-suffering act of a fish out of water, as she pretends to be Aliena, adopting a “don’t you know who I am” tone on arrival in the forest, then putting up with Ganymede’s impetuosities, and playing a splendidly irritated second fiddle until Oliver arrives on the scene.

OrlandoDavid Alwyn (excellent here last year in The Merry Wives of Windsor, sadly no puppets for him to play with this year) puts in another superb performance as Orlando, the thoroughly decent, honest and much wronged younger brother of the selfish and power-hungry Oliver. He gives a great impression of a soppy lovelorn when pining for his beloved Rosa-Rosa-Rosa-Rosa-Rosalind (you’ll have to see the show to get that joke), but also brings out Orlando’s heroic nature very successfully, with his magnanimity in wrestling victory and his generous behaviour toward the frail servant. Completing the courtly foursome is Alexander McWilliam (also an OSC stalwart, with his hilarious interpretation of Demetrius in A Midsummer Night’s Dream two years ago) playing three roles, although it feels like four characters; Audreyportraying the early Oliver as a brutal bully with a heart of ice who then transforms into the later Oliver bearing the cheeriest of smiles and bravely going weak-at-the-knees at the sight of Celia. He’s also Charles the wrestler (clearly putting in extra time at the gym) and, most significantly, the enigmatic character of Jaques. My memory of Emrys James’ performance as Jaques in that 1978 RSC production is that he was totally grumpy and bad tempered throughout. Mr McWilliam’s performance is superbly subtle – the text describes the character as melancholy and that’s precisely how he comes across: reserved, reflective, world-weary but not bitter, with an unsentimental grip on reality shown nowhere better than with the famous Seven Ages of Man speech. It’s a performance of so many facets that you simply can’t categorise it. With a role that’s easy to caricature, this Jaques is a real, complex person.

Rosalind to be wedDavid Shelley is very convincing as both Dukes, the usurper at court and the genuine one in the forest, where he is a generous and jovial sort, dispensing wisdom and shelter where it’s needed; and he’s also a very entertaining, if slightly eccentric, old shepherd Corin. George Haynes plays Silvius as a charmless teenager – Shakespeare missed a trick by not thinking of “whatever” as a retort; he’s also delightful – I think that’s the word – as the simpering but not to be underestimated Audrey, who I would guess will have many surprises for Touchstone on their wedding night. There’s a terrific performance by Rosalind Steele, first as Madame La Belle who forcefully reminded me of the young Penelope Keith, and then as the rather scary Phoebe, wanting no dalliance with the useless Silvius and lolloping in love after Ganymede, but portraying genuine heartache when she discovers that there really could never be a future for the two of them. And Rob Witcomb (yet a third OSC alumnus, a brilliant Doctor Caius in Merry Wives) gives us a very sophisticated and intelligent Touchstone – not that that stops him from being ravaged with lipstick kisses, of course – and a sad and moving portrayal of the seventh age of man in the form of Adam.Celia to be wed

Add to all that music, dancing, letters in trees, wrestling, and a real live barbecue, and you’ve got another great OSC show. It’s on until the 15th August and I unhesitatingly recommend it to you!

P. S. I had to adopt my grumpy tone with a few French students (I presume they were students) constantly muttering away throughout the whole play. Sing little birdiesThe first glance didn’t shut them up, nor did the second; and the third, my usually successful “lingering look” barely registered. So I was forced to turn round and say “will you be quiet please”, and they looked at me as if I was spoiling the play for them. They stayed quiet for about three minutes. I can only presume that one was translating for the others as the play progressed. “Qu’est-ce que c’est? Une femme habillée comme un homme? Nom d’un nom d’un nom! Sacré Bleu! Et maintenant? Un homme habillé comme une femme? Oh mon Dieu! Boff, des Anglais….”

The splendid photographs of the production are by Ben Galpin of Malvolio Media.

Review – Sweeney Todd, R&D Youth Theatre, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 11th July 2014

Sweeney ToddIt’s incredible to think that a show as powerful and perennially popular as Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd only chalked up a four months’ run at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane in its first London showing. I clearly remember accompanying the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle to that show. I loved it; I think some of the gruesomeness of the production brought out her squeamishness, but for decades afterwards she would never fail to delight at the thought that “privates is extra” when it comes to a pie made from a General. The cast was astounding – Denis Quilley, Sheila Hancock, Andrew C Wadsworth, Michael Staniforth all at the top of their game. It’s a show that’s stayed with me all my life since, and I know that Original Cast Soundtrack like the back of my hand. Since 1980, it’s had revival after revival and has also made its way into film. Mrs C and I enjoyed the very different 2004 Watermill production, where the cast all played their own instruments on stage (as has become a Watermill trademark). There’s no end to how this show can keep coming back in different guises – directors’ imaginations are the only limit.

Original Sweeney ToddIt’s a perfect show for the R&D Youth Theatre to tackle. Very challenging, with some iconic roles and demanding songs, lots of scene changes and comic business. The thought of this being performed by an amateur group would normally bring me out in a cold sweat, and as for Mrs C – well you simply wouldn’t get her out of the house to see it (we’ve seen some stinkers over the years, to be honest). But the Youth Theatre is no ordinary amateur group. In fact, I can’t think of them as amateur, they’re pre-professional. Yes this show was indeed a challenge, but one to which they rose and in many cases exceeded all expectations (and, having seen last year’s astonishingly good Spring Awakening, my expectations were very high indeed).

Beadle BamfordI’m sure you know the story – ace barber Benjamin Barker returns from Australia after being transported on a trumped-up charge, feeling more than a little resentful about how he’s been treated and how generally vile the world and its inhabitants are. He then re-invents himself as Sweeney Todd to seek revenge on those who caused his misery – Judge Turpin and Beadle Bamford in particular – but he also shaves the faces of gentlemen who never thereafter were heard of again. What happens next, well that’s the play, and he wouldn’t want me to give it away. I know, I’m quoting.

Youth TheatreAs soon as you entered the Royal auditorium, you realised this was a production with top quality standards. Carl Davies’ intriguing set lurked behind a torn backdrop, which split into an upstairs, which could represent Mr Todd’s tonsorial parlour and a downstairs housing the pie shop; but could also suggest the many other locations in the show. The excellent little orchestra under the direction of Fergal O’Mahony were squeezed into the tiny pit at the front of the stage and created a fantastic sound. We were spellbound watching how Joley Cragg darted about the place attending to all the percussion needs.

Lovett and ToddYou need a performer of some magnitude to carry off the role of Todd – and fortunately the Youth Theatre has Brett Mason, astoundingly good in Spring Awakening, and who once again filled the stage with his authoritative presence. Mr Mason’s gift is for acting through singing – give him a song and he will bring its meaning to life, crystal clear and full of emotion. It’s an ability that makes him perfect for this kind of role. I was very impressed with his moving “Barber and his wife”, and even more so with the brilliantly dramatic “Epiphany”. He was superbly matched by Amara Browning as Mrs Lovett, with her superb feel for the spitefulness, tenderness and comedy of the role, and who sang like a dream. Fantastically cheeky and irrepressibly self-confident Ms Browning is surely a star of the future. I was particularly impressed with the way both she and Mr Mason tackled complex songs whilst still acting with props – a skill that’s easy to underestimate. I loved her performance of “The Worst Pies in London”, singing whilst preparing pastry, chasing fleas and wielding her chopper. Similarly, Mr Mason effortlessly sang about Johanna whilst carefully preparing his razor, lathering and shaving his customers and deftly dispatching them, knowing that every pair of eyes in the packed Royal auditorium was going to be glued to that razor, and watching for the spurt of blood. We were not disappointed!

Brett MasonI was genuinely astounded when Michael Ryan, as Anthony, appeared and started singing “No Place Like London”. What a fantastic voice he has, and he gives a performance of such huge confidence and quality that I sensed he stopped the whole audience in their tracks. Surely here’s another performer who ought to have a terrific career ahead of him. He and Miranda Spencer-Pearson as Johanna made a great team, with their duets full of wonderful harmonies and looking absolutely perfect for their roles. I loved how Ms Spencer-Pearson expressed both the sadness and hopefulness of Johanna, the metaphorical caged-bird herself.

Pirelli and his groupiesThen there was another superb performance by Stephen Bennett as Tobias – proving himself skilled as a showman in “Pirelli’s Miracle Elixir”, convincingly portraying an overworked and rather bewildered waiter in “God that’s Good”, but most of all giving us a very touching and emotional “Not While I’m Around”, showing his love for Mrs L, and his distrust of Todd. Mr Bennett captured Tobias’ extreme innocence whilst never “downgrading” the character to the mere simpleton that the other characters would have you believe he is. Mrs C and I were stunned at how good he was. A very credible interpretation of the role – here’s yet another young man who’s going to do amazing things I’m sure.

Michael RyanAs the villainous Judge and Beadle, Matthew Parsons and Ryan McLean cut imposing and disquieting figures. It’s very hard for someone young to represent an old and gruff character like the Judge but I think Mr Parsons did as good a job as I could imagine anyone doing it – creepily lusting after Johanna, merrily pom-pom-pomming as he awaited his Todd-type makeover, and superbly harmonising in his songs. I do think “Pretty Women” is the great underestimated masterpiece of this show; a beautiful melody, clever lyrics and a subtle blend of the loving and the downright lascivious. Ryan McLean’s Beadle seemed a reasonable enough guy at first, until he clinically eliminated the caged bird Anthony had bought for Johanna. Sitting at the harmonium, singing “Parlour Songs”, he was the perfect embodiment of a viper masquerading as a spaniel. Intimidating, wicked and very believable, his is another voice that blended beautifully with the others.

God That's GoodCarrying off a difficult role with great aplomb, I very much enjoyed Bethaney Coulson’s performance as the Beggar Woman, bringing out the pathos and sadness in her collecting alms from Anthony and the short shrift she receives from Todd and Mrs L, as well as the rather tragic desperation of her side-line as a wannabe whore. Nathan Stroud was a very entertaining mountebank Pirelli, preening and pontificating to great effect, and I loved the innovative introduction of his two groupie girls, beating each other up in order to get the best profile shots as they pose with their star. The whole ensemble were terrific, venomously telling “the tale of Sweeney Todd” as they eyeballed us on the steps either side of the stage, brilliantly throwing themselves into being the rowdy and pie-smearing customers in Mrs Lovett’s shop, or incarcerated in Fogg’s asylum. The whole “City on Fire” sequence was fantastic.

EnsembleSo – another Youth Theatre triumph. I am in complete awe of these people. They act and sing amazingly well. And it’s wonderful that the Royal and Derngate give them support and resources so that they can have the thrill of giving performances like that at such an atmospheric venue as the Royal. The company goes from strength to strength. If you haven’t seen them before, you’re missing an absolute treat.

Review – Sir Tom Jones at Northants Cricket Ground, 9th July 2014

The CrowdFollowing on from last year’s Madness concert, this year Northants Cricket Club and the Liz Hobbs Group have brought us Sir Tom Jones, Welsh vocal superstar for many a decade, purveyor of positive coaching skills on The Voice, and boon to ladies knickers manufacturers around the world. I think it’s fantastic that we get these big names here in Northampton, so I booked on Day One to get two good seats for Mrs Chrisparkle and me, who have long been known for our ability to break out into “Why why why Delilah” in the shower or “Just help yourself to my lips” over the chip pan.

It’s easy to underestimate the time it actually takes to get into the cricket ground. This won’t mean anything to you if you’re not local, but we walked up the Welly Road and into Roseholme Road, expecting to enter the cricket ground from the southern end. Wrong. We had to walk all the way up Clarke Road to Abington Avenue from where we had to walk another two blocks away from the cricket ground simply to join the back of the queue of the people walking along the main road towards it. That was a bit frustrating, if I’m honest.

James WalshThen when we got to the ground we were harangued by charity collectors – shouting out demands for money in a manner designed to make you feel guilty if you didn’t donate. I hate being shouted at by a charity collector so didn’t donate, even though it’s an excellent local cause, and even though I had initially intended to. Note to collectors – brusque loudness can work against you. I expect the same charity will be present at the Dragon Boat Race on Sunday, in which case I will make a point of donating then (provided they don’t harangue me again). Once inside you had to have your bags checked – ostensibly to check you weren’t carrying any bombs or weapons I suppose but really so that they could take any food and drink off you so that you had to buy it inside (at inflated prices). Once actually in the ground, we joined the queue for the bar – which was at least well organised, by joining a queue from a choice of about ten and sticking to it – where we had the pleasure of paying £1 for a plastic “goblet” in which your beer would be served. The pound was redeemable at the end if you wished to queue to get it back; as if you would want to join a queue like that at 11pm. I know – I’m getting so curmudgeonly in my old age. I’m a great big grumpy old Hector.

Sir Tom JonesOur seats were the apex of a triangle – A1 and A2 in block A6. We were as far left of the stage you could be whilst ostensibly still being in the front row. It was very comfortable actually, and with an excellent side view of the stage; a bit like being in a box at the theatre – very private, bags of leg room, and a skewed view. We also had the big TV screen right in front of us. We didn’t manage to take our seats until 7.50pm so we missed Sarah Barker’s warm up act, but we got the majority of James Walsh’s act, lead singer with Starsailor. He was great! Excellent songs and a suitably modest approach to being on stage before the Great Man Himself. He thanked each round of applause with the one word, “chiz”. I’d forgotten how good “Four To The Floor” is.

Tom JonesEven when you leave home in 22 degrees Celsius, it’s easy to forget just how nippy it can be sitting down for three hours on a cricket pitch, particularly when you don’t have people left, right and in front of you. Even three layers wasn’t really enough for me and poor Mrs C, who feels the cold more than I do, only had two. I offered her my jacket constantly through the evening, which she constantly refused in order to save face. Ah, the jollities of married life. Sir Tom needed to be very good indeed in order to take our minds of the wind-chill factor.

Sir T JonesFortunately, he was. The man can sing. It’s hard to think of any other of his mid-1960s contemporaries whose voice has lasted as well as his. Paul McCartney? Cliff Richard? Well past their prime, vocally speaking. Engelbert’s nowhere in comparison. OK, maybe Mick Jagger is still a brilliant performer, but their styles are very different, and Sir Mick doesn’t normally need to bellow to get his song across. From 9.05 to 10.55 Sir Tom’s fine voice rang out over Wantage Road with more power, resonance and pitch accuracy than you could possibly imagine. It wasn’t long before the knickers started coming out – a group of ladies a few rows behind us delved deep and produced some pretty pastel panties and swung them aloft in time with the music. A few rows back a slightly larger lady produced an enormous pair of drawers with “I heart Tom” on them, and after some decorous waving, ran to the front and shoved them over the security fence to the bemusement of the St John’s Ambulance staff. The guys in the crowd thankfully fell short of whipping out pairs of Y-Fronts bearing the title “Help Yourself”. But during the course of the evening, several ladies ran in front of us, hurled lingerie towards the stage, which then got caught in the windy through-draught and got flung back at them.

Tom JTom did a very varied set – old stuff, new stuff; pop, rock, country, blues – you name it, all genres were there. We particularly loved the arrangement of Delilah (his band incidentally, were phenomenal) with lots of Spanish guitars and Latin influences – really creative and original. His earlier stuff was performed with a certain degree of reverence – It’s Not Unusual, for example, was a relatively quiet and dignified affair, but his more modern numbers, like Kiss, Mama Told Me Not To Come and Sex Bomb were flashy, raunchy and in-your-face. Of the other songs I knew, he sang The Green Green Grass of Home with great passion and sadness, and I’ll Never Fall In Love Again was also great – at least I think so, as I chose that as my “karaoke treat” of the night. It must be difficult to get the balance right of which old songs you perform and which you leave out, but I confess to being disappointed not to hear What’s New Pussycat, Help Yourself, Daughter of Darkness and She’s a Lady. And I guess the Young New Mexican Puppeteer has long had woodworm. Still, everything he did sing was incredibly good, and the crowd in general, and we in particular, had a fantastic time. Hats off to all concerned for a great night.

Review – Great Britain, Lyttelton Theatre at the National, 7th July 2014

Great BritainIf ever there was an award for an ironic title, this would have to be a contender. A satire on almost everything that’s wrong with the media in this country, and by extension, everything that’s wrong with the country too. From the very gifted pen of Richard Bean, this is not as laugh-out-loud funny as his One Man Two Guvnors (although few things are), nor is it as richly written as his The Big Fellah (although, again, few things are). But comparisons are odious (and no doubt I’ll make a few more odious comparisons when we see his “Pitcairn” in Chichester later in the year) and this is a very funny, very well performed but very nasty look at the reprehensible goings-on at “The Free Press”, a tabloid rag that got into phone hacking in a big way (this ringing any bells with anyone?)

Billie PiperProbably the most fascinating thing about the production is the secrecy with which it was prepared and rehearsed. The day after the result of the Rebekah Brooks/Andy Coulson trial the National Theatre popped up with a tweet to say that the play would have its first performance on the following Monday. That must be one of the best kept production secrets ever! No doubt, if the play had gone ahead whilst the trial was still continuing it may well have been in contempt of court. Its appearance in the schedules was so sudden that, even as at 7th July, one week after that first performance, programmes had still not been printed yet. We just had the free cast lists to take home with us.

Aaron NeilThe staging is relatively simple with the main set being the offices of the Free Press, but with screens frequently criss-crossing the stage with newspaper headlines projected on them to create other acting areas. The headlines serve to keep the story moving at a fast pace but also have a Brechtian effect of telling you what the scene would be about before it actually happened. Many of the headlines were funny – but I got the feeling that the production slightly over-relied on them. The Daily Wail (sic) “Immigrants do something detrimental to society” headlines started off as funny but went on a bit long – we got the picture. Grant Olding’s music cunningly works to increase tension and suspense in certain scenes, very much like a movie soundtrack.

Harriet ThorpeWhy do I describe this play as nasty? Because it’s populated with vile people who get up to vile practices to serve only themselves and the lining of their own pocket. They may hide behind a veneer of giving the public what they want, but that is a mere excuse for their behaviour. As you might guess, I’m not a friend of the tabloid press. Nothing they write can be trusted, no sneakiness is too underhand for their modus operandi, and they wield too much political power. It doesn’t matter who says what in the run-up to a general election, the winning party will always be the one that the Sun backs. And I don’t believe the editorial team at the Sun spend days analysing all the parties’ manifesti, weighing the pros and the cons, seeking out independent verification of facts and statistics, to come up with a well-balanced political verdict. No. It will be the party with the most effective mutual back-scratching potential where it comes to the newspaper “getting away with it”.

Jo DockeryYou can laugh during the show as you recognise the devious press tactics – indeed you can relate them to real-life incidents that are already well documented – but on the whole it’s the laughter of recognition, of “ah yes, that’s very clever”, rather than laughter at something that’s intrinscally funny. Personally, I didn’t and couldn’t laugh at the despicably prejudiced insults of the Finance journo Ellerington towards the solicitor Wendy Klinkard, who happens to be of restricted growth (and thus played by an actress of similar height), inventive though they were. The destruction caused by the phone hacking in the cases of Stella, the dying anorexic topless model, and Kieron Mills, accused of murdering his twin daughters, have your heart in your mouth as you watch their ghastly impact unfold. Because Richard Bean is a brilliant writer and he has a cast of amazing actors, there is certainly a lot to laugh at; and then it sticks in your throat as you realise you need a sanity check to laugh at some of that material. Alan Ayckbourn is the master of that skill – with one tiny line or little plot twist he can reveal a lifetime’s insight. But in this play you laugh, and then you just feel dirty for having done so. I’m probably coming over as too PC – too Guardian reader and not sufficiently News of the World (for yes! The Free Press is the NOTW in thin disguise) but no minority section of the community is spared from ridicule to some degree. In my head, I’ve kind of moved on from the 70s.

Kiruna StamellMaybe that makes me not the ideal person to see this play. I come with my preconceived ideas about made-up headlines and journalistic malpractice, and I see on the stage precisely what I would have expected to see. I found myself asking whether for all its biting satire this play was actually telling us anything we didn’t already know. I suspected that, alongside all its cleverness, it didn’t. We know these journos are governed by greed. We know they trample over little people in order to secure their story. We know that the truth is a side issue where it comes to writing their copy. I’d already guessed that someone like Paige Britain, the news editor at the heart of the story, would have to be personally both very charismatic and completely without scruples in order to be successful at their job.

The story certainly does have a good momentum, as error leads to tragedy and stupidity grows into evil. Structurally I felt that the play started as a fantasy on how to edit a newspaper at gutter level, but as it and its editorial team sink deeper and deeper into the mire, by the time Act Two comes along it’s no longer fantasy – it’s real. The play is a full-on parody of the News of the World’s demise, and you can recognise the real life equivalents in the fictional characters and plot development. For every “is your vicar on Gaydar” story there’s an allusion to a Milly Dowler or a Madeleine McCann which makes for uncomfortable watching that’s hard to laugh at. But the journalists are intent on their practice and so blunder on ruthlessly with their usual self-confidence. Actually there is a nice throwaway scene where one of the team suggests Jimmy Savile is a paedophile and the others all dismiss it as arrant nonsense, showing that even within a team of big-headed callous reprobates, they don’t know everything.

Oliver ChrisOn the plus side, I liked how the play shows quite how cap-in-hand senior politicians – Prime Ministers even – might behave with editors and proprietors; especially if they’ve got something to hide. If the ex-IRA proprietor of the paper wants the PM to do something, he gets it. If he knows an awkward secret about him, he gets it even quicker. In this play, there’s no question as to who is the most powerful person in the country. There’s probably a lot of truth in the portrayal of a leading politician essentially being blackmailed by a paper if they’ve caught him with his pants down.

Robert GlenisterThe play is at its strongest when it shows just how thoroughly useless some people at the top can be. When the editor at the Free Press is replaced with new blood in the form of Virginia White, much to the dismay of most of the staff, she proves herself to be aloof and only interested in her own pet subjects and projects. Watching this play I had absolutely no doubt at all that Virginia White/Rebekah Brooks (even the hair is the same, and she’s married to a soap star) had no idea whatsoever that phone hacking was taking place. She was too stupid to see it under her nose – or too clever to look for it; either way she’s useless. Even more of an intelligence void, Police Commissioner Sully Kassam is the most inept leader imaginable, expressing every thought so badly, and making the worst possible decision every step of the way, so much so that some gifted youtuber creates rap videos of his best gaffes. He’s also the worst cover-up merchant you could imagine, trying to claim his civil partnership with Maurice is still strong whilst loudly taking calls from his lover Bryn at the same time. He couldn’t cover up a blister with Germolene. You do hear of people being promoted beyond their sphere of ability – here’s a man to whom it has happened de luxe. When you realise that the people at the top are frequently dopes, a lot of the crap that happens underneath them makes sense.

Rupert VansittartAs in “One Man Two Guvnors”, the central character constantly addresses the audience, commenting on the other characters and also confronting us with our prejudices and chucking them back in our faces. Billie Piper turns in a fantastic performance as the arch-manipulatrix Paige Britain, parking all sensibilities to one side so that she can get a scoop, not remotely concerned about the carnage in her wake, and doing it all so glamorously and provocatively, that it’s not remotely surprising she gets away with it. Personally I found the character utterly repellent, but Miss Piper carries you along with her, so that when she justifies her bad behaviour, you’re complicit in what she does. She’ll never go down without a fight, and she doesn’t care who with. Mr Bean’s vision of Great Britain is complete at the end when Paige is rewarded for her “distinguished” career by having a successful chat show on American TV. Can you think of any other tabloid editors who have enjoyed great success with a TV chat show?

William ChubbThe whole diverse cast give very entertaining and convincing performances. I particularly liked Robert Glenister as the offensively quick-witted and wide-boy-confident editor Wilson – Kelvin MacKenzie to a Tee. Jo Dockery is great as the butter-wouldn’t-melt Virginia White, horrified that the police are raiding the offices and shocked at her staff – rather like a posh mother dealing with the discovery her public school kids are playing truant. Her innocent cry, “what have we done?!” brings the house down. Oliver Chris is the essentially kind and no-nonsense Assistant Commissioner who gets drawn into Paige’s web beyond his ability to retain his integrity; Rupert Vansittart excellent as the flawed Tory leader with an open fly; and there’s great support from William Chubb, Kiruna Stamell and Harriet Thorpe. But the star for me was Aaron Neil as bungling Police Commissioner Kassam, who stole every scene he was in, and who created, with the help of Mr Bean’s splendid lines for him, one of the most genuinely stupid oafs I have ever seen in a play.

I liked this play – but not as much as I expected to or wanted to. It’s a very good play but it could have been a great one. Its subject matter is so grim that you feel you need to take a shower afterwards. Fortunately the cast play it with such zest and wit that it’s impossible not to enjoy to some extent – and your own acceptance of the tabloid press may well determine your own enjoyment level. Within a couple of days of tickets being on sale it had already secured its post NT run at the Theatre Royal, Haymarket, just like “One Man” did. With such a hot potato as its story line, I predict a great success.

Indochina – Laos – Luang Prabang

Clean toilets at Vientiane airportOur early morning flight from Vientiane to Luang Prabang was courtesy of Lao Airlines. To be fair, they don’t have a great reputation, and just a few months after we flew with them, one of their aircraft was involved in a crash with no survivors. There didn’t seem anything particularly wrong with our flight, although it was delayed, which gave me time to take this amusing photograph of a sign that encourages you to keep the toilets clean at Vientiane airport. Let’s just say, it’s not an airport where you’d choose to linger.

Hotel Xiengthong PalaceDriving to the hotel, the auguries were good. The town has a lovely relaxed atmosphere, like a Buddhist version of a clean mountain spa, with good walks, lots of temples and plenty of places for après ski. We couldn’t wait to investigate. Our hotel was the Xiengthong Palace, and entering it felt like heaven. It was such a beautiful sunny day anyway, and the place looked fabulous. The rooms are beautiful, the staff are friendly and the restaurant, the “Kitchen by the Mekong”, is just superb. A perfect place to dine on the terrace overlooking the river, with exquisite food and immaculate service – that highly sought after blend of politeness and friendliness that many attempt but few achieve.

Novices on the streetWe did a little independent recce before our guide, KL, came to take us on our afternoon tour. Luang Prabang feels like a wealthy, well-to-do village. It’s like a Lao Cotswolds, except that everywhere you walk you see groups of novice monks. We were instantly entranced with this beautiful place as we wandered about, and decided that this was definitely a place to come back to. We had to find somewhere for lunch, and we discovered the Tamnak Lao, which had some free places upstairs, not on the balcony (which looked really nice) but inside. Although we lost out on the view, it was still very comfortable and the food was great. I particularly relished my thirst quenching bottle of Beerlao.

Wat Ho Pha Bang Our afternoon jaunt started with a visit to the National Museum. It’s a stunning complex, with its opulent highlight being the Wat Ho Pha Bang, built to house the most sacred of the town’s religious icons, the Pha Bang. Its reconstruction had only been recently completed a short time before we were there which is probably why it looked so beautiful. The generous daubings of gold on a rich red background are enough to make Laurence Llewellyn-Bowen jealous. The complex also houses inter alia the Royal Ballet theatre and a statue of King Sisavang Vong. From the Wat Ho Pha Bang you take a stately walk down the broad path that leads to the National Museum itself, which features French and Lao architectural styles and royal apartments. Sadly they don’t let you take photographs, so you’ll just have to imagine it. To be honest, a lot of the exhibits were a bit on the – dare I say it – boring side.

SilkwormsTo take a break from the lavish religious buildings, we then visited the Ock Pop Tock weaving centre. Here you can see the traditional textile work of the Lao people created by modern artisans as well as watching them at work. You can also meet the silkworms, which is always an enjoyable, if slightly itchy, experience, as they wriggle and munch their way through their mulberry leaves getting fatter and producing more silk. Ock Pop Tock’s products are lovely, and it’s a great setting, but we thought it was all a bit on the expensive side.

Wat Xieng Thong mosaicsBack to Luang Prabang, our final visit of the day was to Wat Xieng Thong, a magnificent monastery with several highly decorative outbuildings, which feature mosaics on the external walls, depicting Buddhist scriptures. Boats decorated with nagasDespite some scaffolding inside, it’s still a fascinating place to walk around, and I found the boats, in the form of nagas, particularly interesting. Many of the Lao kings were crowned here in the ordination hall. That's a gong!It’s also got the most elaborate gong you’ve ever seen in your life – J Arthur Rank, eat your heart out.

After a much needed rest, we had dinner at the Kitchen by the Mekong. Mrs Chrisparkle’s concerns for a gluten-free meal were easily put to rest by the chef coming out to meet us and to discuss her precise requirements. Vintage cars outside restaurantThat’s what I call service. Dinner took the form of a multi-coursed banquet, and it was sumptuous. Afterwards we decided to stroll back into town again to see if we could find a suitable watering hole for late night wining – the dining had already been catered for. By night the town is brightly lit with fairy lights and warm glows emanating from bars and restaurants. A nearby restaurant parked vintage cars outside its doors, just because it could, to make it look cool. I think they moved them again in the morning. We then discovered the Opera House Wine Bar, Opera House Wine Bar drinkiesamusingly named as I don’t think there’s an opera house anywhere near. But the wine was classy and the atmosphere welcoming. We loved it. A fantastic place to people-watch and while away the final hours of the evening.

Next morning, after a spiffing breakfast, we joined our party for a Mekong river trip. Boat on the MekongThere’s a place you pick up boats just across the road from the Kitchen by the Mekong, and our little group headed off north east up the river out of town. The boats are very comfortable, with nicely varnished wood and rather plush airline-style seats. It’s a very relaxing experience, Water buffalojust watching the world go by, and a very rural world it is. Water buffalo and other cattle, fishermen alone in boats and fisherwomen wading into the river with baskets, Fisherman on the Mekongkids running around, it may feel like the middle of nowhere but there’s a lot going on. In some places the forest comes right to the water’s edge and you see these massive exposed root formations, looking like some unruly wooden stalactites.

Fishing with a basketOur first port of call on the river trip was the Pak Ou Caves. About 25km from LP, the boat moors up and you climb some steepish steps to discover two discreet little caves that contain a big surprise – they are thronging with tiny Buddhas. Roots into the MekongEvery available spare inch of surface will have a Buddha on it. Some wooden, some bronze; standing, reclining, some with orange sashes; but none of them are in good condition, as this is where the locals take broken and tatty effigies for it to be their final resting place, as it were. Pak Ou CavesIt doesn’t matter though – in fact their condition makes the place seem even more unworldly. On the opposite side of the river is a restaurant, whose name I’m afraid I can’t remember, set up to provide buffet lunches to hordes of tourists. It was very nice, but we were both amused and alarmed at how the toilet is basically an overhang into the river.Pak Ou silhouettes Imagine “walking the plank” on a boat except that the plank is enclosed, until you get to a hole at the end… I’ve probably said too much already.

The leisurely route back to LP was via Ban Xang Khong. It’s a very attractive little village, known for its crafts stalls and shops, where you can see the skilled local artisans creating their textiles and their art. Ban Xang KhongNaturally, you can itch at the sight of silkworms doing their thing too. The village’s speciality is the creation of a highly textured paper from mulberry bark. They make excellent pictures and greetings cards, and I confess Mrs C and I spent a few thousand Kips (that’s the rather cute name of the Lao currency) on some very arty cards. We were the only people wandering around the village – we did wonder how on earth those people actually make a living. But, to be fair, it looked very neat and well maintained so I’m sure there’s money in them there mulberry bushes.

Climbing up Mt Phou SiA minibus returned us to LP late in the afternoon in time for a freshen-up and then a walk up Phou Si hill to watch the sunset. Phou Si (pronounced “pussy”, to general childish amusement) means “Sacred Mountain” and there are 328 steps up to a viewingTuesday Buddha station where you get a fantastic view of the town and surroundings. There’s a Buddhist temple (naturally) halfway up, complete with resplendent nagas, and also a splendid Tuesday Buddha in his reclining state. Yes there is a Buddha Sunset from Mt Phou Sifor every day of the week. It’s worth the climb up Mt Pussy to see the sunset, even though there was quite a lot of cloud that night. Get there early if you want a good view – every single tourist in LP will be there as well.

Night MarketFrom there we walked down the other side and into the Night Market. As the name suggests, every night Sisavang Vong Road becomes an open-air market. It’s a fun walk, and I bought a Beerlao T-shirt, which made me look like a Lao Lager Lout. Not bad quality, actually. A lot of the stuff is tourist trash, of course, but they also stock all those arty artifacts that you can find in the craft villages, and it’s a pleasant way to spend a pre-dinner hour or so.

Luang Prabang by nightFor dinner we went to the Three Nagas. It looks quite posh, and the food was excellent, as always in Laos. They had an extensive wine list, with some fairly pricey options, so I started at the cheap end until I found something suitable. Smilingly they went off in search of my first choice (didn’t have any) and then my second choice (didn’t have any). Before I made my third choice I asked them which wines they did actually have in stock. All the expensive ones, quelle surprise. Still, we were on holiday, and the occasion cried out for a decent vino. Afterwards we wandered back to the Opera House bar again, for something equally palatable and this time a darn sight cheaper.

Monks at Wat Xieng MouanThe next morning we were up with the lark to participate in the traditional offering of alms to the monks. KL, our guide, used to be a novice monk himself, and had great insight into the daily lives of these people. Drying sticky rice in the sunYou can give whatever alms you want to the monks as they wander past you, but the usual practice is to give them a piece of sticky rice. All round the town you see people preparing sticky rice cakes for the next day’s alms. KL bought us a clump of it (that’s the most suitable word I can think of for sticky rice in its “dried in the sun” format) and we sat by the kerb, Monks gathering almspulling bits of it off and offering it to the endless queues of monk-men and novice-boys shuffling past us. The offering was placed in a metal bowl, encased in a cloth cover, that each monk had attached to a strap that they wore over their shoulders. For all the world it looked like they were showing off their new man-bags. It was a curious procedure; there was hardly any eye contact from the monks as though there was a sense of embarrassment to it, although I expect that’s not the reason. Maybe they were bored with the same ritual every single day. Mind you, I wouldn’t be happy with a main meal of clumps of sticky rice accumulated from dozens of hands; you found yourself hoping they’d had all their inoculations because I can’t think of a more sure-fire way of spreading disease.

Emerald BuddhaOnce they’d gathered alms from all the tourists (and to be fair, plenty of locals too) the monks trooped back to their temple – in this case the Wat Xieng Mouan – and we followed them. Wat Xieng Mouan means “Monastery of the Amusing City” so some translator, somewhere, at some time, was having a bit of a joke. It’s a smart temple, with a very lavish emerald Buddha that looks like it’s been dunked in Listermint. Novice at the windowI wondered what life was like for these monks and novices. The monks are presumably used to their lifestyle, but some of the novices are very young and must have been removed from their home life – who knows if willingly or not – to live a life of religious devotion. Wistful noviceI caught this one boy looking out of a window in the temple with a look part wistful, part sad. I think back on him and hope he’s ok. Back outside, we walked round the temple and from the side we watched the senior monks preparing all the food they had been given and handing it out for their communal meal. Monks in the kitchenThey are very quiet, dignified, peaceful people, as you might expect, so we left them to enjoy their sticky rice in privacy.

Rickety bridgeWe got back to the hotel at about 7.30am to pack, check out and enjoy a final leisurely breakfast in the Kitchen by the Mekong. We even had enough time to return to the centre of LP for one last look at the rickety footbridge that spans the river. If you dare you can get halfway across and then start swinging it a bit, much to the disapproval of the locals, unsurprisingly. We were too scared, to be honest. Then it was on the bus to the airport via another major sight – the Kuangsi Waterfall Park.

Playful bearsThis is a beautiful park, notable not only for its eponymous waterfall, but also for its magnificent bear sanctuary. These big brutes, who would tear you apart as soon as look at you, frolic innocently in this huge compound where they are rescued and looked after. You can spend ages (we did!) watching their antics.Kuangsi Waterfall I’ve never seen so many bears in such perfect surroundings. The waterfall itself is stunning, and falls down onto terrace upon terrace upon terrace of beautiful blue pools. It’s a very popular site, with lots of hiking and swimming opportunities, and some very enterprising locals have set up a kind of picnic restaurant overlooking the waterfall, where Mrs C and I enjoyed the lunch that they’d brought in big chiller bags out of the boots of their cars.

Hmong VillageRelaxed and fed, it was on to the airport for our final leg but we had time to stop off at a Hmong village, and I have to say, this one wasn’t so clean and wealthy as Ban Xang Khong. Instead of feeling welcomed we felt quite threatened by the place and there was a lot of “heavy sell” tactics going on. Unfortunately, the items for sale were rather poor and shoddy, but we did end up buying something from a Ratcatcherslittle girl who was obviously going to burst into tears if we didn’t. My most memorable mental image of the place though is two boys sat by the roadside, doing nothing in particular, but with dying rats suspended by their feet from the boys’ bike handlebars. The village rat-catchers, I guess. Food for thought.

And that was it; goodbye Laos, and a one hour flight later we would be in Hanoi. Being Lao Airlines, it departed about forty minutes before it was due. Flight schedules in Laos are a bit like serving suggestions.

Indochina – Laos – Vientiane

WelcomeIf you started following my blog because you liked the travel entries, you must have been gravely disappointed recently. It’s all been about theatre and music and stuff like that and not a word about exotic foreign destinations. Sincere apologies for that – mea culpa (if you’re under 25, that’s Latin for My Bad). Fear not – I’m going to put that right – or at least that’s my aim.

Get your hands off my steamed bunWay back in the dim and distant past – March 2013 in fact – Mrs Chrisparkle and I were lucky enough to undertake a three week tour of Indochina, visiting Laos, Vietnam and Cambodia. They were countries we’d always hoped to see, and we’d heard amazing things about them from friends who had already been.

Vientiane street sceneLaos was first on our itinerary; an extraordinary little country, with wonderful, kind, friendly, relaxed people. The country itself forms a slim strip of land separating Thailand from Vietnam, and at one time was divided into three principalities – each a different “Lao”. I don’t know if there’s any truth in the story we heard that when it reunified in the mid-twentieth century, that’s when it became Laos – i.e. plural – because it was the three different Laos coming back together again. But I believe you’re still meant to pronounce it Lao, as in the second syllable of “allow” and not Laos as in louse, or indeed, to rhyme with chaos, as I erroneously thought when I was growing up. The people are Lao – that’s their race, their ethnicity; the language is Lao. The cuisine is Lao – and fabulous it is too. The beer is Lao. Everything is Lao.

Peaceful VientianeWe started off in the capital Vientiane for two nights. It’s a French looking name, not surprising with the area’s French colonial past perhaps, but if you think in terms of its being a francophone version of Viang Chan, it makes more sense. Vientiane must be the sleepiest, most laid back capital city in the world. Wide roads with a few cars occasionally sedately driving by. You can park almost anywhere. The South East Asian predilection for motor bikes is evident here, but so much more restfully than anywhere else. The local “ton-up” kids are more like “10 mph” kids. You can almost overtake them on foot. They will stop to let you cross the road, even though it’s their right of way, and always with a beaming smile. I bet they’re so kind to their grannies. A typical street will be a mix of shops, housing, and Buddhist temples and shrines, not all higgledy-piggledy and mish-mashed as in many Asian towns, but nice and neatly laid out and sitting in their own grounds. There seems to be bags of room for everyone, and the people are proud of their environment, keeping it clean and well maintained. I don’t believe we saw a scrap of graffiti anywhere.

Venerteal Disease - nastyOur hotel was the Green Park, and it’s conveniently located just slightly out of the centre but still no distance from the main sights. The rooms are in several blocks located all around the gardens, and it has a very atmospheric sense of being in the jungle, even though you aren’t. We did put up our mosquito nets though, just in case. There’s a nice little bar in the hotel lobby which was where we met our fellow travellers on the first evening – we were a select little group, one other English couple and a solo Swiss lady – and a first floor restaurant with a lovely terrace overlooking the grounds. The hotel has a complementary shuttle bus service to the centre of the town and back; and on the first afternoon, whilst everyone else was unpacking and resting from the long flight – Heathrow to Bangkok, then Bangkok to Vientiane, we couldn’t resist just leaving the bags where they stood and getting the shuttle bus to the town centre for a first walk around the town.

That DamThe bus drops you off at That Dam, which isn’t a manmade barrier to control water levels, but a large stupa that forms the centre of a roundabout. From there we just wandered around, partly following the map and partly our noses, enjoying the unique combination of peace and commerce that you can only find on a Lao street. Plenty of evidence of theDiscount for ladies local sense of humour too, as you can see from these photos. We took a path that led us down to the banks of the Mekong – the mighty river which would follow us all over the subcontinent during the next three weeks – and there we saw the horizon-stabbing statue of Chao Anouvong, King from 1805 – 1828, whose arm extends you a slightly spooky welcome. Local humourIn any other capital such a statue would be a real focus of attention, probably with swarms of traffic seething round it, like the Victor Emmanuel monument in Rome, or with a magnificent Versailles-like park surrounding it. In Vientiane however, it overlooks a completely empty road that goes nowhere. The combination of splendid bronze statue and barren surroundings is really quite eerie.

Chao AnouWe returned to the Green Park for a rest and an unpack, and decided to play it safe by simply eating in the hotel restaurant that evening. The food was fantastic. Lao cuisine is delicately spicy, full of harmonious flavours that really complement each other and tease your tongue with their deliciousness. Comparing it with other food styles I had previously tried, I would describe it as most similar to Thai, but even more so, if you know what I mean. It doesn’t have the brassy self- confidence of Chinese and it was considerably more appealing than the harsh tastes of Vietnamese cuisine we were to “enjoy” later.

Buddha ParkThe next day we were up bright and early for a full day’s sightseeing. First stop was a 16-mile drive out of town to Xieng Thuan, better known as Buddha Park. At first glance you might be excused for thinking this was some ancient religious site, or indeed that it had become a repository where several displaced Buddha statues from all around the country could be reinstalled and brought back to their original condition. Wrong on both counts. It is in fact a glorified Buddha Park statuestheme park, but absolutely fascinating nonetheless, and a useful introduction to the world of Buddhist statuary before you get to see the real thing. A highlight is a large reclining Buddha that is worshipped by locals; but in all there are about 200 religious statues here, not just Buddhist but Hindu too, with some very interesting combinations of the two religions. They were constructed between the 1950s and 1970s by one Luang Phu Bounleua Soulilat, a Lao guru, inspired by the teachings of a Hindu Holy man he met in a cave in Vietnam. Barbecued bananasYou couldn’t make it up. When the constitutional monarchy of Laos fell victim to Communist invasion in 1975, Luang Phu fled to Thailand, where he built another Buddha Park just on the other side of the Mekong. The man was obviously obsessed. Alongside the statues there’s also a big round structure that represents heaven, earth and hell, which you can go inside and peer in the dark at the characters that inhabit each level. The park is a fun place to wander around and – if you dare – it’s great for a spot of hide and seek. There’s a refreshment stall at the entrance – don’t bother with the usual sweets and chocolates, just go straight for the barbecued bananas. They’re gorgeous.

Pha That LuangWe headed back to Vientiane to visit Pha That Luang, the “Great Stupa”, not only an important religious building whose shape represents a lotus bud but also a symbol of Lao nationalism. It’s a very beautiful setting, with further temples beside it, all largely rebuilt in the 1930s. Nearby is the Haw Pha Kaew, once a separate temple but now a museum to Buddhist art. The rooms themselves are decorated with stunningly beautiful colours that take your breath away, let alone the interest of the artefacts themselves. Simply visiting those two sites could easily take you two hours.

PatuxaiFrom there we visited the Patuxai monument. Reminiscent of an oriental Arc de Triomphe in the centre of a beautiful park, this “Victory Gate” was constructed in 1964 to commemorate the fallen during the Lao Civil War. From the top there are fantastic views of the park below and the city – to get to the top you must walk up the steps inside and through a veritable bazaar that is housed within the building itself. Designed to catch the tourists of course, but nevertheless it feels very incongruous. The window openings are nicely obstructed with decorative modern wrought iron designs of Buddha and Lotus flowers, to stop you toppling forward and onto the square below.

Wat SisaketAfter lunch we continued to Wat Sisaket temple, the oldest temple in the city (1818), notable for its wonderful cloisters filled with over 2,000 images of Buddha, nearly all of which were dressed in a bright orange sash. As with so many of these temples the roofs, banisters, and walls are covered with decorative naga motifs – the mystic cobra with a dragon-type head and snazzy claws found in both Hinduism and Buddhism. After a few days of wandering around religious sites in Laos, I got very disappointed if I didn’t spot a naga or two in each place.

Food marketThere are a couple of markets in the city centre. Most interesting was the “everyday food market” – that’s not its title but how our guide described it – with its amazing array of exotic fruits, vegetables and spices, alarmingly side-by-side with buckets of frogs Bucket of frogs(and I can testify, they are indeed mad) and tortoises that we were assured were not for eating but were “placed near food for decorative purposes”. Hmmm. It’s one of those markets where you spend half the time breathing in the glorious scents and feasting on the sights, and the other half dry-retching.

Cluster bomb displayThat was the final part of our organised tour for the day, but before he dropped us off at the hotel, our guide suggested one more visit – the COPE Foundation’s headquarters, that just so happen to be on the other side of the road from our hotel. This is an amazing, thought-provoking and humbling experience. COPE stands for “Co-operative Orthotic and Prosthetic Enterprise”, and it provides prosthetic and rehabilitation services for Lao people who are the victims of “unexploded ordnance”. The sad legacy of recent years in South East Asia is that Laos is the most heavily bombed country in the entire world, Bombing mapand it is estimated there are still 80 million unexploded bombs there. A terrible price to pay for other countries’ wars. The danger to children playing is obvious. As well as helping to rehabilitate victims of these bombs, there are also those suffering from polio, leprosy and who have other disabilities. COPE is the only organisation in the country that supports these people.

As you walk into the Visitor Centre you are overwhelmed by a number of sights. A graphic model of a cluster bomb releasing its bomblets. A map showing, in blood red, the extent of unexploded ordnance in the country. Stacks and rows of prosthetic limbs are on display, along walls, in piles, even dangling from the ceiling. Dangling prostheticsAnd there will often be a young person who has benefited from the services of COPE there to tell visitors of how they were injured and how COPE has helped them. When we were there, there was a young man on duty, who moved stiffly and looked awkward. He had that recognisable look about him of severe pain mixed with bravery. We decided not to add to his woes by talking to him. But it’s a very moving place to visit – and to appreciate the great work that the Foundation does.

Novices at PatuxaiAnd that was our long first full day in Laos. For dinner we went to the Makphet restaurant, the first of many eateries we would discover over the next few weeks that have been specifically set up to teach local street children the art of running a business, by means of cooking and waiting and general restauranteuring. It gets them started in a proper job and with the hope of a decent future. The Makphet was very enjoyable and the food totally delicious, but it was here that we realised the Lao don’t have any concept of the “starter” when it comes to serving food. Everything came out in one go. Starters, mains, sweets, the lot. Lovely though. The next day we were to have an early morning flight to Luang Prabang, so we were well behaved and didn’t sample the nightspots of Vientiane. To be honest, I doubt there was a lot of choice.

Review – Story Hunt, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 29th June 2014

Story HuntA few years ago Mrs Chrisparkle and I went on a walk about Northampton entitled Town My Town, where a group of us, led by the R&D’s Storyteller Jo Blake Cave, encountered historical townspeople and learned about the area’s hidden past by means of a very clever narrative and the subtle introduction of additional characters as we walked around. I neglected to blog it at the time, which I regret now, because it was a very fine example of how you can take theatre outdoors and literally walk around with it. I shall never forget the shock when the man Jo sat next to on the church bench suddenly started to address us out of the blue. A veritable coup de theatre!

So, naturally, I wondered if Story Hunt would be more of the same – and indeed if any of the content in Town My Town would be repeated. It sounds a bit obvious just to say that they were “similar but different”, but in fact that’s just what they were. We wandered round the town, treading some paths less frequently trod – indeed we discovered two expanses of green in the town centre that we’d never stumbled upon before, during almost six years of living here – and heard some fascinating stories from the town’s history and about its notable inhabitants, and with some intriguing conjecture about the future too. Unlike Town My Town, there were no surprise meetings with people like a wild John Clare, the ubiquitous girl sitting in a Subway café or the avuncular barman at The Bantam pub. Instead there was greater interactivity between us the inquisitive locals, and our host, guide and storyteller Daniel Bye.

Outside All SaintsAny crossover in content between Story Hunt and Town My Town would be accidental, as the stories had been collected by Daniel and his director/partner in crime Sarah Punshon a few weeks previously, when they had set up a stall in the Market Square and asked passers-by to give their recollections of recent history and to relate any major incidents or stories of notable characters in the town’s past that they knew about. Daniel and Sarah went away and did further research, and came up with this unique collection of reminiscences. Even so, there were some elements that made both shows – the fire that swept through the town in 1675, the poet John Clare, and the wartime aircraft that ended up in Gold Street. But they’re all fascinating anyway, and the presentation was completely different, so it was good to be reminded of these people and events.

We met Daniel in the theatre as he strode over to meet our little group for the 5.30pm slot on Sunday – the last, in fact, of the scheduled twelve town walks. Daniel is an instantly likeable chap with a spring in his step and a boundless enthusiasm for his subject, and a voice as big as his personality. With his red trousers, blue trilby and colourful Icelandic cardy he’d stand out in any crowd – perfect credentials for someone who’s going to lead you through some busy streets. If in doubt – follow the hat. Within a few minutes of meeting him, he had already got our imaginations working and we were back in the 1950s, as the Derngate bus station was about to be demolished; and back in the 1920s too, wishing a determined wannabe beau ask out a young lady for the third time – this time with success. That would be typical of the little personal touches we would encounter all over town.

Daniel ByeIn many of the scenes we got personally involved as characters, which helped us to get closer to the action. I was to be Mr Graham, co-creator of a rather unsuccessful hot air balloon that came to a somewhat dismal end in the Market Square; and Mr Fowler, a political rival to Charles Bradlaugh at the (I believe) 1874 General Election. Mrs C became famous local MP Margaret Bondfield, elected in 1923 and the first ever woman Cabinet member. Naturally I was very proud of her; she was very modest at her success. I think we all took turns to be someone famous from the town at some point. As a result, you strike up conversations with your fellow walkers, so that, unlike a traditional theatrical play experience, where you sit down quietly, absorbing what happens on stage and not breathing a word until the interval, here you’re encouraged to respond and participate, exchange views with strangers and make joint discoveries as you wander around.

Playing with time is another method by which this entertainment took on a life of its own. We would stand at one location and within a few minutes would be transported maybe as far back as the fourteenth century, or to the Elizabethan or Victorian era, then right back to today and perhaps into the future too, as we considered the future for our imaginary eight year old girl companion, Sarah, as she made her way through the town, and her life, and considered her position in respect to the past; a very thoughtful, personal and yet tangential way of looking at our environment.

Daniel in full swingDaniel’s narrative style is very expressive and entertaining. He’s a bit like that very rare beast – a history teacher to whom you can relate. When he tells a story that involves personal tragedy, you feel that tragedy yourself; as when we tried to get under the skin of the man who, with his wife and son were plunged into water to prove whether or not they were witches – if they drowned, they were innocent, if they survived they were guilty. It was straight out of Monty Python and the Holy Grail, except that Daniel didn’t make it funny. He made it horrific; a very eerie and creepy tale that ice-cubed its way up my spine. This man survived the drowning, as he supposed, by praying hard to be saved and to be given a purpose in life by God. His family also survived the drowning, but they just confessed to a feeling of fear and horror when they were submerged; and therefore he concluded that his wife and son were indeed guilty of witchcraft because they didn’t pray. Earlier, outside the courtroom, we had heard another personal story, the tale of Elizabeth Pinckard, found guilty of the murder of her mother-in-law, despite the valiant efforts of one Dr Mash to prevent her being hanged by his somewhat incredible suggestions that the mother-in-law died by her own hand. It was presented in quite a light-hearted way, yet you were left to ponder the motivation of the good doctor for his whimsical notions.

In many of these scenarios, Daniel would take you to the edge of the story ending and then leave you dangling to draw your own conclusions. Then before you realise it, with his words hanging in the air, he’s moved on to the next location and you’re left trying to catch up with his waving hat before you lose sight of him. This really kept the whole thing moving and dynamic. It felt like an outdoors promenade theatrical performance – always a good thing in my book. And when it ends, and you eventually return to the theatre, and everyone says their goodbyes and disperses back out in different directions into the streets from which you’ve just arrived, it’s like a tidal wave of local awareness has come to a head at the theatre doors and then just slowly dissipates back into the environment.

An extremely enjoyable experience, and it’s great that the R&D continue to support smaller, more informal activities such as this as part of its remit. An excellent way to spend a Sunday afternoon, and if a Story Hunt comes your way, don’t hesitate to get on board!