Review – Calamity Jane, Milton Keynes Theatre, 25th November 2014

Calamity JaneAs soon as I saw this touring show was coming to Milton Keynes, I knew I had to book straight away. Not only does it star one of our favourite performers, Jodie Prenger, but Mrs Chrisparkle was raised on a diet of Doris Day movies, with Calamity Jane being her favourite childhood memory. We only have to go out in a gentle breeze for her to suddenly burst forward with a chorus of “the windy city is mighty pretty….”, or to walk up a small hill for her sing “oh the Deadwood stage is headin’ on over the hills…” – I’m sure you get the picture. The young Miss Duncansby (as she was then) was never happier than when riding shotgun through those rough areas of New South Wales where she brought up, knocking back the sarsaparillas, dressed as a squaw.

Jodie PrengerFortunately times change, but her fondness for that old film and its songs is unshakeable. Consequently, it’s fairly amazing to think that, in all these intervening years, she’s never got me sat down to watch the film on TV, so I didn’t know what to expect from the story. If you don’t know the plot either, here’s a brief outline. Calamity Jane (Calam to her friends) is the tomboyest tomboy this side of the Black Hills of Dakota, and rides the stagecoach, shooting to warn off (I hope not to kill) those pesky Injuns with their arrows. She’s pals with Wild Bill Hickok, but has a yearning for Lt Danny Gilmartin that isn’t reciprocated. One day Calam has to ride into Chicago to bring back a famous actress that the men of Deadwood fancy something rotten, to appear at the Golden Garter saloon. Tom ListerNone of them has ever seen her, they only know her from her image in much lusted after cigarette cards. Thus Calam mistakenly brings back the wrong girl – a wannabe singer/actress – who gets found out, and it could have ended very nastily were it not for the fact that the wrong girl is a very sweet girl by the name of Katie Brown, who beguiles all the men, becomes best mates with Calam and indeed they end up sharing the same chalet. How does this menage à quatre sort itself out? That’s the show.

Jodie Prenger and Tom ListerI’ve rarely been in a theatre where the atmosphere of expectation and excitement was as tangible as it was in Milton Keynes on Tuesday night. The show opens with the curtain down, a banjo hanging from a hook in full view of the audience; on saunters Jamie Noar (I think) as Hank, takes down the banjo and gently starts to strum – and half the audience started humming along with him! I felt as though I was in another world. When the curtain eventually opens up it reveals the Golden Garter saloon, and it’s as Wild Westy as you could imagine. A shoddy little stage at the back, a plinky plonky piano up front, bare wooden chairs and balconies, and everyone dressed like they’re in a John Wayne movie. It’s a very convincing staging – the only criticism I would have is that there’s not a huge amount of space left for dancing, but the cast cope with that problem admirably.

Calamity Jane musiciansThis is a Watermill Theatre production, so you know what that means, don’t you? No separate orchestra or band, instead the cast members play the instruments themselves on the stage, integrating the acting and the music to perfection. The first time I saw this trick (in Chess) it didn’t really work that well for me – it made the stage very messy and created blocking problems. Since then I’ve seen it done a few times and they’re getting better and better at it. Indeed I recognised a few members of the cast from the similarly staged production of Fiddler on the Roof earlier this year – I guess if you have the skill of being both an actor and an instrumental soloist, you’re in luck where it comes to this kind of production. Suffice to say the musical performances were all terrific.

Phoebe StreetI must say that technically also this was a faultless performance by the cast. With all those instruments, loads of prop handling (guns, lassos, glasses, bottles), lots of choreography, special effects, costume changes and so on, they didn’t put a foot wrong. It must be rehearsed to within an inch of its life, yet it all still looks really natural. So, it was incredibly disappointing that the sound amplification in some of the big numbers let it down. To be honest, at times it sounded absolutely awful, especially before the interval. If it were an old hifi system, you’d say that the treble was turned up too much, creating a strange distortion. The instruments themselves sounded fine – but the voices could have been singing in a foreign language, it was that hard to make out the words. Sadly, this was most problematic for Ms Prenger, who’s got a belter of a voice and could have filled that auditorium without the need for a microphone.

Alex HammondDuring the interval I walked Mrs C over to the Merchandise stall and offered her a Calamity Jane mug, which she refused, a Calamity Jane hoodie, at which she looked daggers at me, and a Calamity Jane soundtrack CD which she said she would never play. Sigh; you just can’t help some people. Still she’s going to be most amused to find a Calamity Jane Stetson under the tree on Christmas morning.

Calamity Jane stageI don’t know if they tweaked some knobs during the interval but the voices were much clearer in the second half which was a huge relief. The amplification issue notwithstanding, nothing could detract from the standard of the performances, which were terrific and made the whole evening enormous fun from start to finish. Jodie Prenger has a wonderful stage presence and is the focal point for the whole show with her bubbly personality. She makes the most of all the comedy in the role, but is also very moving when it comes to the character’s inability to girl-up. Tomboy she may be, but inside she’s all woman. For me the highlight of the entire show was her incredible performance of Secret Love which gave me goosebumps – emotional, beautiful; it really soared.

Jon BonnerTom Lister as Wild Bill Hickok also gives a tremendous performance, mixing humour and pathos, and revealing a superb voice, particularly in Higher Than a Hawk, which had the audience so spellbound you could hear the proverbial pin drop. With Alex Hammond as Danny, the two leading men give a very entertaining “rivals in love” performance, and together with Phoebe Street’s charming performance as Katie, they’re quite a show-stopping foursome. The man sat behind me was really enjoying the show, getting totally carried away with the story. When Danny finally planted a smacker on Katie’s lips, he let out an involuntary “Go on, my son!” much to everyone’s amusement.

Martin McCarthyFinishing with an ending of almost Shakespearean comedy marriage dimensions, there are also very enjoyable musical and comic performances from Rob Delaney as Francis Fryer and Sioned Saunders as Susan. The rest of the cast all turn in excellent performances, and I was particularly impressed with Anthony Dunn’s hearty Henry Miller, Jon Bonner’s amusingly squeaky Doc, Paul Kissaun’s laid-back Rattlesnake and Christina Tedders’ bitchy Adelaid. Plus, as dance captain, Martin McCarthy as Joe is obviously keeping everyone on their toes with some really well executed dances, most obvious in the delightful curtain call which turns into a wonderful reprise-led hoe-down.

Rob DelaneyIt’s a really entertaining show that we both enjoyed tremendously. For me it was fascinating to see how all these well-known songs fit in to a story that I didn’t previously know; and the natural fun that comes from the story and the performances just seeps into your soul to send you home with a real feel-good feeling. The audience adored it – and I guarantee you’ll be humming The Black Hills of Dakota for days. There’s a long tour ahead, so you’ve plenty of opportunities to catch the show – it’s travelling all over England and Scotland between now and next July.

Sioned SaundersP. S. This was the first time I’ve ever seen a musical where the programme didn’t list the musical numbers. What’s all that about then? Makes reminiscing about it much harder, and you don’t know whereabouts you are in the show as it progresses. Minus mark for the programme writer! However, to make up for it, their marketing department did create this brilliant little trailer which should get your toes tappin’ in anticipatory glee!

Review – Maximum Rhythm and Blues with The Manfreds, Derngate, Northampton, 23rd November 2014

The ManfredsI didn’t realise the complexity of the whole Manfreds set-up. I still think of them as Manfred Mann, chart toppers with Paul Jones singing the crowd pleasing but not that intellectually-stimulating, 5-4-3-2-1, Do Wah Diddy Diddy and If You Gotta Go, Go Now. I didn’t realise that Paul Jones left the group in 1966 to be replaced by Mike D’Abo, although I knew he was a member of the band – somehow I think the two of them co-existed within the original group. Then I didn’t realise that Manfred Mann’s Earth Band (purveyors of such musical riches as Joybringer, Blinded By The Light and Davy’s On The Road Again) was a completely different band. Primarily that’s because I also didn’t realise that Manfred Mann was actually the name of the group’s founder, and original keyboard player, as well as the group itself. And here’s me thinking I knew about pop music.

Paul JonesI always considered it was a bit of an affectation for the group now to call itself the Manfreds, but I’m wrong, there’s a good explanation for this: a) the group’s original name was Manfred Mann and the Manfreds (the “Manfreds” bit was dropped at the request of the record label) and b) without Mr Mann touring with them (he doesn’t) it’s a bit cheeky to use his name. The current line-up includes original members Paul Jones, Mike Hugg and Tom McGuinness, plus Mike d’Abo, and new recruits, drummer Rob Townsend, bass player Marcus Cliffe and saxophonist/flautist Simon Currie.

Manfred MannI always liked Manfred Mann growing up in the 1960s. They weren’t Premier League, like the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks and the Monkees (my blog, my rules), but they were definitely riding high in the Championship, along with Herman’s Hermits, Dave Dee Dozy Beaky Mick and Tich, and The Beach Boys. One of my earliest memories is amusing my parents by singing If You Gotta Go, Go Now (at the age of 5), obviously not having a clue about the “staying the night” overtones of the lyrics. One other song of theirs had great significance for me growing up, more of which later.

Mike d'AboI did wonder how well the original performers will have stood the test of time – not only in the continued appeal of their songs but also how well they are still able to perform. I had no need to worry on either count. At the age of 72, Messrs Jones, Hugg and McGuinness (and a youngster at 70, Mr d’Abo) are still fantastic musicians, able to belt a song out with enormous pizazz and vitality; Tom McGuinness is still great on his guitar and Mike Hugg masterful on the keyboard. As far as the songs are concerned, well, to be fair, some of the big popular songs of the Paul Jones era are lyrically quite weak in comparison to the later 60s songs – but they make up for it with their really rousing tunes and classic 60s punchiness.

ManfredsSo what of this latest tour? Personally, l had a fantastic night of it. Mrs Chrisparkle is less familiar with their oeuvre, and therefore found some it a little inaccessible. I liked the fact that it was staged as a traditional pop/rock concert – the band’s instruments all neatly laid out around the stage, the front men at the front, the backing guys at the back; an entertaining video screen behind them all which blended 1960s footage of the original performances with the guys as they are today; it was an honest presentation not trying to be clever like another concert we have seen recently. The group’s appeal is definitely to the older pop-picker; there were plenty of walking sticks and motorised wheelchairs in evidence – one was never going to get out of the centre stalls quickly for one’s interval drink. But it was a knowledgeable and appreciative audience, and the band played all the songs you could have hoped to hear and more. In fact there was only one number they played that I hadn’t heard before – which has to be a good thing, none of this “and now we’re going to play something from our latest album” nonsense. No! We want to hear the old stuff!

Ha Ha Said the ClownAfter Paul Jones led a musical introduction to all the members of the group, we went straight into one of my favourite Manfred Mann songs, Ha Ha Said The Clown – my dad also loved this song, and he would sing “Ha Ha said the clown, as his trousers fell down” much to my hoots of laughter. I loved the arrangement, with Paul Jones on the harmonica (at which he is still extraordinary), Simon Currie on the saxophone, and bright spiky vocals by Mike d’Abo. It’s a perfect example of the group’s later 60s style – a quirky, eccentric rhythm, lush unusual orchestration, subtle intelligent lyrics.

Fox on the RunAlternating lead vocals throughout the evening, next it was Paul giving us a rousing performance of Sha La La. I can’t say that it was ever a favourite; at the time I much preferred the similarly sounding Sha la la la lee by the Small Faces. Still, Paul used the song to get us all singing along and I did so, despite thinking it was a song not really worthy of my vocal cords. I much preferred joining along with Mike in the next song, Fox on the Run, with which I encouraged Mrs C to join in, except she looked at me blankly as she’d never heard it before; I’ve clearly been remiss in her 1960s musical education. Great song, really well performed. Paul then surprised me by singing Oh no not my baby, which I didn’t realise was a Manfred Mann song; I always thought Rod Stewart’s 1973 version was the original. In fact the original was by Maxine Brown way back in 1964, written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King. Although Rod Stewart’s version is one of my top three “Rod” records (all very much from his early days, I should add), I liked Paul’s softer, more heartfelt delivery of this great song.

My Name is JackThen came what I knew would be probably my biggest highlight of the night – Mike on vocals for My Name is Jack. I cannot think of this song without a shudder of emotions going through me. I remember it coming out in 1968, and found it a fun, singalong song that I really enjoyed. It was another of my dad’s favourites too. Then in January 1969, I went to my first ever Palladium pantomime with my mum, and they used this song as the opening number of the show – Jack and the Beanstalk – when all the villagers were going about their day to day business and introducing us to Jack, played by Jimmy Tarbuck. For me, going to the Palladium for the first time was a magic moment; and for the next few years, I would regularly reflect on the Palladium singers and dancers performing this song, and it became synonymous in my head for everything being all right with the world, knowing I was lucky to be enjoying a happy childhood.

Jack and the Beanstalk 1969Then on 1st January 1972 my dad died, and although I still felt positive about life in general (you do as a child) I also knew that life would never be the same. After that point, whenever I thought of My Name is Jack it filled me with sadness that those happy-go-lucky thoughts that I associated with it were probably gone forever. If ever I would put the record on I would end up in tears. In the end, my mum had to hide the record from me, so that I couldn’t play it. So, you see, this song has a major significance in my childhood memories. And even today, if I hear the song, it’s 50-50 whether or not my eyes will get a bit misty. But I do love the song, and was very happy to sing along with it at the concert – indeed it felt an honour, and by sharing that live experience with the performers I feel I might finally have laid to rest some ghosts.

Pretty FlamingoNext up, and very much a change of mood, we had Paul leading the vocals on Watermelon Man, the jazzy Herbie Hancock composition that Manfred Mann recorded in 1965; very laid back and sophisticated. After that we were instantly taken back into the commercial pop of the 60s with Semi Detached Suburban Mr James and Pretty Flamingo, followed by yet another change of mood with Build Me Up Buttercup – the song that Mike d’Abo co-wrote for the Foundations – but this time performed as a ballad. To be honest, I think I prefer it up-tempo, but nevertheless it was curious to hear it performed this way. At that point, Paul chose to deliver a rather long encouragement to go and visit the Merchandise stall in the interval, and I felt it was a bit desperate and embarrassing. I know he was trying to be tongue-in-cheek about what was on offer and what good value it was but it came over as excessive. Less is more, Paul! Back to the music, and the first half ended with an excellent performance by Paul of Smokestack Lightning, Howlin’ Wolf’s haunting bluesy classic that Manfred Mann covered in 1964.

I've been a bad bad boyAfter the break, the guys came forward a little and grouped in a semi-circle at the front of the stage to perform acoustic versions of some well- and less well-known songs, and it was a very intimate presentation. Paul sang I’ve been a bad bad boy, at the request of a couple who’d seen the band at a previous gig and were disappointed that the song was missed out of their repertoire that night! To be fair, it was never a Manfred Mann song, but credited just to Paul Jones (as was High Time, another song I really used to like, which they didn’t perform). Tom McGuinness sang the McGuinness FlintMalt and Barley Blues (yes, he was the McGuinness in McGuinness Flint) hit Malt and Barley Blues, which I used to have on a little cassette compilation played on one of those old early 70s oblong cassette players. Mike did a great version of Bob Dylan’s Just Like a Woman, Paul sang I’m Your Kingpin – the B side to Hubble Bubble Toil and Trouble, and the only song of the night that I hadn’t heard before; and Mike wrapped up this section with a stunning performance of Handbags and Gladrags, a song he wrote for Chris Farlowe in 1967 and which has tRagamuffin Manaken on a life of its own over the years.

After a charming keyboard interlude from Mike Hugg – sorry, didn’t recognise the tune – Mike d’Abo came back with a rousing rendition of another old favourite of mine, Ragamuffin Man, with which I sang along to my heart’s content whilst Mrs C looked on in bemused ignorance. Then came a song she did know – 5-4-3-2-1, a.k.a. the theme to “Ready Steady Go”, Mighty Quinnperformed to a fantastic lively arrangement, with Paul going great guns on the harmonica. Another softening of the mood followed with Paul’s vocals on Come Tomorrow, which led on to another McGuinness Flint song, When I’m Dead and Gone, which got one of the warmest receptions of the night. Home stretch now, with the lyrically surreal but very rewarding Mighty Quinn, which I really enjoyed; and Do Wah Diddy Diddy, a crowd pleaser par excellence, which is just as well as the guys treated us to about 20 minutes of it, so you’d better like it. Do Wah Diddy DiddyIt’s what Mrs C would describe as “dragging the arse out of it”. For an encore they came back with If You Gotta Go, Go Now, which was a great way to end the night.

I was really impressed with their continued ability to perform both vocally and instrumentally, and the concert demonstrated the group’s wide range of talents and output. A fantastic night of nostalgia, and, for me, a grateful opportunity to show my thanks for all their great songs that contributed to my childhood. The current tour ends on 6th December in Folkestone, so get booking – if you’re a Manfred Mann fan, you’re in for a real treat.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 21st November 2014

Screaming Blue MurderThe Underground was completely packed for the final night of this season’s (and this year’s) Screaming Blue Murder comedy nights – which meant people arriving late not only had the ignominy of being picked on by our host Dan Evans (in rip-roaring form) but they also had to stand around whilst new chairs were sourced from other parts of the building. Dan was also able to warm us up nicely by finding out all about the people in the front row, including Peter the rather bashful Civil Engineer, Charlie who was most definitely not his girlfriend, and two “beautiful couples” including a 25th birthday boy, who was given Jimmy Carr tickets as a gift – cue lots of entertaining jealousy humour from Dan.

Pierre NovellieAll the acts were new to us this week, and I reckon that’s the first time I’ve been able to say that in over three years, so we were very excited at the prospect. First act was Pierre Novellie, an imposing chap with a bushy beard and polite and friendly persona, the occasional “f word” notwithstanding. He had some nice material about the fact that, as he is of white South African heritage, racists assume he is “one of us”; and there was also some enjoyable stuff where he gives monotonous but appropriate lyrics to film scores. But I felt his approach was almost too gentle, and a lot of his material felt like padding, waiting for a punchline that might or might not eventually happen. He started his act with a good ten minutes about his name, most of which was quite boring I’m afraid. If he got some new material his act could go places – but as it stands, he’s paddling in the shallow end at the moment.

Lou SandersHowever, he was a comic genius in comparison with our second act, Lou Sanders. She looks like she’s going to be jolly, and she did have some good material in a quirky sort of way – her chat with an audience member being on Tinder was pretty good – but for some reason she didn’t build up a rapport and when she ran out of material a bit too early, something of a car crash ensued. She announced that she’d be doing her final joke, but it wasn’t that good and didn’t lead to much of a laugh; then she confessed she’d run out of things to say (they were written on her hand) and, realising she still had five minutes to do, panicked a little and it all came across as though she was begrudging us her time and attention. She had just started another joke she said would definitely be the last, when a heckle from the back put her off and she just decided she’d stop there and wouldn’t carry on. This created a surge of embarrassment-led sympathy from the front rows but she was adamant that there was no point in carrying on and that her act wasn’t for everybody.

Sean MeoThe headline act was Sean Meo, and at last we had a comic who knew how to be funny. An older chap, much more experienced, full of attack and vigour, who created an excellent rapport with the audience, using some extremely good material, delivered with terrific timing. Even so, I found one element of his act dangerously close to offensive, when he had some material about “midgets” (his choice of terminology), saying that we “tolerate” them, but don’t look at them and ignore them, which counts as disablist content in my view. Still, his masterful delivery and jokey blokey personality allowed him to get away with it, and he went down very well with the audience.

So not the best comedy night ever, but not the worst either. Let’s hope the great turn-out for last Friday’s show continues when the next season comes along in the New Year. Can’t wait!

Indochina – Cambodia – Siem Reap and Angkor Wat

Siem ReapAll too soon, an early morning start saw us leaving behind the welcoming warmth of the Raffles in Phnom Penh to take an Angkor Air flight to Siem Reap. Most people have heard of Angkor Wat, which is the major tourist attraction here – indeed in Cambodia, indeed in south east Asia, and probably in the top ten of the world’s greatest sights – but I certainly hadn’t heard of its brash little neighbour Siem Reap before. Well I can tell you it’s a complete gem of a place.

Raffles hotel poolIts name, rather belligerently, means “the defeat of Siam”, so you might expect it to be a warrior environment where, when the local lads get lairy, one says “Who you calling Siamese”, and it ends up with a head-butt and a trip to A&E. But of course not; this is Cambodia, one of the most relaxed, laid back and forgiving nations on this planet. The streets of Siem Reap are paved, perhaps not with gold, but with lovely restaurants and bars, entertaining boutiques, fashion bargains, and top quality hotels, of which the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor, is surely one of the finest. It also happened to be where we were lucky enough to be staying. Elegant, refined, with some stunning art works, and the most beautiful pool beside which we enjoyed a fantastic lunch. There was only one other couple there during lunchtime, and it felt very relaxing, extremely exclusive and enormously privileged.

Preah KhanChiefly though, Siem Reap serves as the gateway to Angkor Wat and the other Angkor temples. They belong to the classic period of Khmer art and civilisation and were created by a succession of Khmer kings who presided over an empire that dominated the region from 800 AD to 1430 AD. From the 15th century, the temples were more or less abandoned and forgotten by the world, although occasionally visited by travellers including the French naturalist Henri Mouhot who is Preah Khan carvingsattributed with their re-discovery in 1861. Today the area attracts a good 2 million visitors a year, and tourism is second only to the textile industry in the country’s economy.

Our trip to the entire site was split over two days. On the first afternoon we explored some of the smaller, outer, sites, whilst saving the Main Attraction for the next day. Our first destination was the temple of Preah Khan, built between 1180 and 1215 as King Jayavarman VII’s temporary capital whilst Hall of DancersAngkor Thom (of which more later) was being restored. Not only a temple, it also served as a monastery and religious college, and the complex extends over approximately 2 square miles. Originally dedicated to Buddha, it was later vandalised by Hindu rulers who removed the Buddhist images and replaced them with Hindu carvings. There’s a marvellous welcome into the site – you walk through an arch overseen by three faces, looking ahead and to the left and right. Atmospheric Preah Khan Once in, like with all these temples, you just wander round and take in the history and the exquisite carvings, and imagine what it would have looked like at the height of its power. Outstanding sights include the engraved line of dancers in the appropriately named Hall of Dancers, and the extraordinary tree roots that have formed around the buildings, showing how, over time, nature dominates what man has created. They are amazing to see.

Ta SomAfter that, we visited Ta Som. This small temple has been the subject of extensive renovation work, and when you see how one fig tree has completely strangled the stonework at one entrance, it’s not difficult to understand why it was so necessary. The temple was built by King Jayavarman VII at the end of the 12th century and was dedicated to his father Dharanindravarman II – these old Khmer kings were a bit of a mouthful. It’s one of the lesser visited temples, and we were lucky to see it.

Banteay SreiOur final port of call was to Banteay Srei, home to some of the best preserved sculptures of all the Angkor temples. Constructed between AD 967 and 1000, the name means Citadel of Beauty, and what makes it stand out is the use of pink sandstone. Unlike most other monuments in the area, it was never a royal temple, and there are hardly any plain surfaces without some elaborate decoration. Pink SandstoneThe main central sanctuary was dedicated to Shiva, and everywhere you find beautiful carvings which are a testament to the skill of the artisans and builders who created it. It’s a stunning sight and, extraordinarily, wasn’t discovered until 1914. Our guide was very keen that we should see this place, but, Hindu carvingsunfortunately, we had spent quite a lot of time at Prean Khan, and so by the time we arrived – it was closed! But, as I pointed out earlier, this is Cambodia; so our guide simply forced open the gate even though it was locked (not very securely, obviously), and we sneakily wandered around by ourselves as dusk turned to darkness. I must be honest and say that our illicit entry gave it an extra thrill; and to know that we were the only people there made it feel extra special. Exquisite carvingsThe guide shone his torch, and also we used our torch apps on the iPhones to help us find our way around. The moving lights of course had an unfortunate consequence, and it wasn’t long before a security guard suddenly appeared to see what was going on. But this is Cambodia; and once our guide had slipped him a few quid there was no problem. I’m not normally one to advocate an illegal act – but this was well worth the trespassing.

Getting darkOur journey back to the hotel was exciting, as it was now night-time, and we were driving through these small villages (although on relatively good roads), with no light other than that coming from the houses alongside the road. Despite its being pitch black, the area was full of activity – workers, families, children, sitting outside the houses, walking along the streets, engaging in animated conversation, preparing outdoor meals – all human life was there. It was as though the darkness had brought them to life like a colony of bushbabies.

Siem Reap by nightBack at the hotel, it was time to consider our evening meal. Having had a flashy (and expensive) dinner the night before in Phnom Penh, we thought we’d simply hit the streets of Siem Reap and (hopefully) find a good restaurant. One of our intrepid co-travellers had heard of Square 24, so booked it for all of us and it was excellent. We’d thoroughly recommend it – atmospheric, vibrant, and delicious. As in Laos, the local cuisine is delicate, tasty and rewarding – lovely, harmonised flavours instead of all those clashing ingredients you get in Vietnam.

Arrival at Angkor WatThe next day we were up early for The Big One – Angkor Wat. Of all the great sights in the world we have seen, this is one of the few that actually delivers more than you could possibly hope for – it’s a hugely satisfying place to spend a day, and in fact you could come back day after day after day and still have loads more to take in.Angkor Wat Most visitors just have the one day to sample it though, so if that’s you, make the most of your time and see as much as you can of this amazing place.

We think of Angkor Wat as being the entire complex, but in fact it is only one (albeit the largest) of the individual temples on the site. Arriving there is a beautiful experience, as you walk up a wide footway over the charming stretch of water surrounding it. You wouldn’t want to do it at night, Carvingsor if you’ve had one over the eight as there’s nothing to stop you from falling in the moat. Angkor Wat’s five great towers beckon you as you walk across this causeway, their reflections in the water teasing you forward. You share the walk with hundreds of other tourists, not to mention quite a few monks on a day out too, but the site is so vast that it rarely feels overcrowded.

MonksOn arrival you are confronted with a miraculous gallery of bas-reliefs, depicting scenes from the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. The mass of intricately carved figures of warriors overwhelms you, as you identify soldiers, chariots and animals in a higgledy-piggledy scrum of combat. The blend of images seems to go on forever; you could easily spend an hour just observing the figures and following the stories carved out on the walls. Once you tear yourself away from this sight, you just wander around the complex, Templemarvelling at the structures and the sheer magnitude of the entire place. It was dedicated to the Hindu God Vishnu, so there are Hindu carvings everywhere. The Central Sanctuary towers over the whole place, giving the impression of a massive “temple-mountain”. Steep staircases take you up (and down) and you can walk around the galleries and admire the views both inside and out.

Ta ProhmLeaving from the back end of the complex, we made our way to Ta Prohm, which was a wealthy Buddhist monastery built around the year 1200, but is now most famous (perhaps somewhat sadly) for being the background for scenes in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. The way the jungle has encroached on the buildings, and how the tree roots have strangled the structures is extraordinary to see. It’s a slow walk around, as everyone stops for photographs of themselves with roots – very entertaining though.

Terrace of the ElephantsFrom Ta Prohm we headed towards Angkor Thom, which means “The Great City”, and it’s a stunning sight, made up of many different elements. We found the Terrace of the Elephants, a 300 metre long structure decorated with almost life-sized elephants in procession. They look really cute. We strolled around the Bayon, a temple with no fewer than 54 towers, some with mysteriously smiling faces, as well as military and other carvings. BayonThe number of individual buildings, temples, palaces and terraces in the whole complex blows your mind. We probably only saw a fraction of it, but it will remain as one of the most memorable days we’ve ever had.

We started the visit early, so even after all this time, we weren’t too late for lunch. We went to Sala Bai, yet another restaurant designed to give training and a career to street children, and, as always with these places, Easter Eggit was excellent. From there we returned to the hotel for some afternoon chilling, where we were confronted by the most enormous Easter Egg (it was Easter Monday) – that would have taken some eating. Later on we headed out for a night on Siem Reap town, where we strolled up and down the evocatively named “Pub Street”, ending up at the Red Piano for dinner. No DrugsAs the website says, “drugs and prostitution are strictly forbidden – also the perfect spot for your afternoon coffee and snack”, so you know it’s a classy joint. Actually it was huge fun – not Cordon Bleu perhaps but good for a laugh. The music they played, you may be interested to know, included Free’s All Right Now, Dire Strait’s Walk of Life, and a French song we really like, Philippe Cataldo’s Les Divas du Dancing (Google it).

Pub StreetThe next day was our flight home, but it didn’t leave until 4pm so we had time for another trip around town in the morning, visiting the Old Market, the souvenir shops and fashion boutiques, and laughing at the signs outside the Fish Foot Pedicure establishments. “Our hungry fish are waiting for your dead skin!” “If our fish cannot make you happy we’ll not charge”. Big promises there. We ended up at a lovely wine bar/restaurant where we treated ourselves to a final bottle of Cambodian red wine (it probably wasn’t Cambodian) and I had a great big pizza.Those trees Sorry to say I can’t remember the name, but it was on the corner by the Old Market – you can’t miss it.

And that was the end of our Indochinese Odyssey. Three weeks of extraordinary sights and meeting super people; the gentle relaxation of Laos, the gritty vibrancy of Vietnam, and the indomitable spirit of Cambodia. A great trip, and one I’d recommend to anyone.

Indochina – Cambodia – Phnom Penh

Leaving Chau Doc for CambodiaMeanwhile, back in Indochina…. a few weeks ago, gentle reader, I left you playing Hunt the Gecko all night in our hotel room in Chau Doc, not really the best preparation for our triumphal entry into Cambodia the next day. Nevertheless, we emerged from our sleep, ready to take in our final Vietnamese morning, and the exciting prospect of a four hour speedboat trip up the Mekong, into Cambodia, and on to Phnom Penh. What a stylish way to go from country to country! The boat belongs to the Victoria Hotel and they use it for day trips to the Cambodian capital as well as for proper international travel. There was plenty of room for us intrepid five to relax, stretch out and take in the beautiful scenery.

Vietnamese/Cambodian borderThere was no particular problem at the border crossing, although it was a slow process. Fortunately the hotel provided a guide who explained precisely all the forms we would have to complete, which booths to stand at, which fees to pay, and so on. We were expecting quite a major border post, considering it’s an international boundary on one of the world’s biggest rivers; instead, it was like a couple of garden sheds and a Portakabin, surrounded by a few obligatory shrines and a mangy dog. Bureaucracy took its usual unhurried pace, and, about an hour later, with ID’s confirmed and dongs exchanged for riels, we were back on the river. The rest of the journey was uneventful with nothing to do but observe river life, until, as often seems to happen on the Mekong, the boat broke down. En route to Phnom PenhThe Captain and the guide weren’t the remotest bit concerned though – I got the impression this happened all the time. The Captain did whatever is the naval equivalent of getting under the bonnet and wiggling a few connections, and off we went again. The Captain returned, somewhat smug at his engineering prowess, to his steering wheel. However, in doing so, he accidentally kicked over a bucket of iced water that had been keeping soft drinks cold for us so that the water went cascading all over the inside of the boat, splashing up the sides of our legs and ruining any delicate shoes that might have been worn. With a hundred sorries imparted to a few discomfited Brits, the Captain wasn’t looking so smug any more.

Arriving at Phnom PenhArriving anywhere from sea is an exciting view – we’ve been on cruises that have called at Valletta and Venice, for example, and nothing can prepare you for the exhilaration of seeing these places from the water, as the land gets closer. Well, arriving at Phnom Penh from the Mekong is a similarly amazing sight to behold. From some distance you get the promise of all these gilded temples with their pointy roofs and elaborate finials shaped like the “nagas” of Buddhist mythology, although they remind me more of birds of prey talons, or those very ornate fingernails Thai dancers have. The initial sensation is one of elegance, a treasury of history, a place where time has stood still so that these extraordinarily beautiful buildings can co-exist with recent functional architecture in a modern frenetic city. You can’t wait to get off the boat and explore the city.

Elephant BarBut first we checked into our hotel – and how fantastic it is. We were at the Raffles Hotel le Royal, and it’s probably the second most beautiful hotel I’ve ever stayed in (want to know which is the most beautiful? It’s the Oberoi Amarvilas in Agra). The bedrooms and the public rooms are immaculate, and they really get the service right too, being the perfect blend of friendliness and politeness. The Elephant Bar is a wonderful place to unwind at the end of an evening, the poolside terrace is exquisite, and the main restaurant simply fab – as we would discover the next evening.

Royal PalaceAfter lunch it was time to head back into town and meet our guide, Phaly (I think that’s how you spell it – pronounced Polly). She was an extraordinary person with a very personal understanding of the sorrowful history of Cambodia over the last forty years. We would learn more about that, and her own experiences, the next day. Meanwhile, on a happier note, our afternoon was spent visiting the Royal Palace, whose intricate spires and quirky shaped temples had welcomed us at a distance on the boat that morning.Royal Palace another view You would think that the Royal Palace might be centuries old, but actually it only dates from the mid-nineteenth century, and is the official residence of Cambodia’s reigning monarch, King Sihamoni. There are many buildings that make up the whole Palace complex, including the Throne Hall, the Pavilion of Napoleon III, the Dancing Pavilion and the Royal Treasury. As you would expect, they are adorned with stunning decorations and it’s all landscaped to immaculate smartness; there’s hardly a leaf out of place. Costumes exhibitionOne of the halls has a rather bizarre costume exhibition; not that you wouldn’t expect an exhibition of costume in a place like this, but some of the models made it look as though they’ve been transported from a tatty 1980s boutique that’s having a hard time shifting some old stock. Alongside the Royal Palace you can also find the Silver Pagoda, with its stupa that holds the ashes of the current King’s grandparents, its Equestrian Statue of King Norodom dressed as Napoleon III, and its Buddhist temple.

Wat PhnomWe then moved on to Wat Phnom, a very lively and happening temple built in 1373 to house some early Buddhist statues; now it’s a market and a meeting place as well as a place of worship. It’s very colourfully decorated, verging on the gaudy more than the tasteful. Very prevalent in Cambodia are the people near to temples selling caged birds – the idea is you buy a bird and then set it free – it gives you good Karma. One of our group decided to buy one of these wretched animals trapped in its tiny cage; she paid over her money and received the little cage, which she then opened – shook a little – Wat Phnom clockand the bird just dropped dead out of it onto the floor. I’m sure that didn’t do anyone’s Karma rating any good at all. Whilst I was trying to stifle a smile remembering Monty Python’s Norwegian Blue, our fellow intrepid traveller just marched straight back to the bird seller and demanded a fresh one. It all seemed very strange to me. The new bird flew away and Karma was restored. Outside Wat Phnom there is a big garden clock, set in the lawn adjacent to the temple. It still works – although I doubt it’s been there since 1373.

Phnom PenhAnd that concluded our afternoon sightseeing. Like all Asian cities Phnom Penh’s roads are a battlefield between car, cyclist and pedestrian, although it wasn’t as terrifying as Vietnam. We safely made our way back to Raffles for afternoon tea and a nap, before returning into town to try the FCC for dinner. That’s the Foreign Correspondents Club to you and me. Railway StationIt’s somewhere people rave about, but to be honest, we couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. My pizza was cold, and Mrs Chrisparkle discovered she had a big ugly black thing walking over her hand at one point, at which she let out a shriek, some good old Anglo-Saxonisms, and the big ugly black thing fled for its life.

Post OfficeThe next morning we all went for a leisurely walk around Phnom Penh’s old historic centre, to observe its fascinating mix of Khmer and French colonial architecture. We drove past the Medical University and the main railway station, which reminded me a little of the old Hoover building in Perivale. We saw Telecom Cambodia and the Children’s Hospital, where the streets were thronging with parents and children anxiously going in and out for appointments, then happily chatting about diagnoses and medications. A once elegant hotelWe saw what once was an imposing elegant building but with its façade damaged, its paint peeling from the surface, overrun with vegetation and surrounded by a collapsing corrugated iron fence – this was right in the heart of the city. Apparently it once was a very grand hotel, but once it had been attacked and had fallen into disrepair, it’s just been left to rot. We saw the Main Post Office, stately, as they often are; and a fruit and veg market, glistening with goodies and not as stomach turning as some markets can be.Regular market We visited the modern market hall, circular in design, with entrances north, south, east and west; and with outside rows of stalls lining the four entrance paths – it must look very elegant from the air. We took in the National Museum, with its four pavilions housing the most striking statuary – a beautiful building in itself and there are some amazing exhibits there.

Modern marketAfter all that edification, it was definitely time for lunch. It was yet another of these youth projects, Friends, and their Romdeng restaurant. It was possibly the most impressive of all these restaurants, that aim to train former street children, give them a career and also provide a splendid culinary experience. National MuseumThe food and service was great, and if it’s still on the menu, the chocolate and banana spring roll with strawberry sauce is To Die For.

Wherever you go in Phnom Penh, you cannot escape memories of the Pol Pot regime. These beautiful, kind, gentle people were subjected to the most brutal and cruel subjugation that virtually eradicated an entire generation.Hard work It’s very striking in Cambodia that you see many people aged around 25 or younger, and many 55 or older; but disturbingly few in between. They simply didn’t survive. Those that remain have few assets, as their property was seized or destroyed – our guide Phaly told us that she works to maintain the rest of the family and all eight of them sleep in one room. Her parents were killed when she was young and as a result, she doesn’t actually know her birthdate or age. Phnom Penh roadsThings one takes for granted in the west are precious commodities in Cambodia. Yet they don’t appear to resent the past, they seem to accept it in a very Buddhist way, and overall it’s a very peaceful, welcoming place, much more similar to Laos than to Vietnam.

Genocide museum - gibbetThus, having spent the morning taking in the sights and sounds of modern Phnom Penh, and the beauty of its archaeological and artistic heritage in the National Museum, it was time to turn to sadder things. The Tuol Seng Museum of Genocide is situated in a former school in the centre of the city, that was used as a prison by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge and has been left as a reminder future generations. Genocide museum - rulesIt’s a harrowing and haunting experience, but essential to understand the true nature of what went on and to admire the indomitable spirit of the victims. Outside you see a sign with the prison rules – designed to intimidate and bully the victims into acceptance of their fate. Inside, on top of the spartan beds in each cell lie instruments of torture; on some of the walls you see pictures of people who spent their last days in those cells; the white and yellow floor tiles are blackened with the spilled blood of the murdered. When you hear what actually happened it chills you to the bone. Pol Pot’s terrorists,Genocide museum - cells who gathered together all the intellectuals, the professionals, the teachers, the doctors – everyone except the farmers by the sound of it – and tortured and despatched them, were mere boys aged 12 to 16, encouraged to let loose their bloodlust on the terrified population. It’s extraordinary to think that this sector of the community – one that under ordinary circumstances society educates, assists and nurtures – should turn on its fellow citizens in such a barbaric way.

Genocide museum - victimsFor me the most memorable exhibits in the Genocide museum were the galleries of photographs of some of the people imprisoned and who knew they were going to lose their lives. The majority looked – unsurprisingly – devastated, broken and desperately sad. A few looked furious, arrogant, proud and determined not to give in. That spirit of defiance was awe-inspiring. Illustrations on the walls showed the torture methods they used and looked positively medieval in their cruelty.

SurvivorOut of all the thousands that passed through its gates, only seven people survived the prison experience. On the day we were there, one of them, Chum Mey, now into his eighties, was giving a talk to a group of students, as well as selling copies of his book, Survivor. It was an honour to meet him, but I also felt a distinct degree of discomfort at freely wandering round the prison where he had suffered such appalling hardship. He seemed very happy to meet tourists though.

Killing Fields - pavilionIn for a penny, in for a pound. Once we’d been well and truly humbled by our visit to the Genocide museum, it was time to visit the Killing Fields. It’s an appropriate end to the day, as you’re following the route of those prisoners who were shipped off from the Tuol Seng to be sent the five miles out of town to the deceptively peaceful setting of the former orchard at Choeung Ek, to be killed. It’s an extraordinary place to visit – for so many reasons. At its centre is a memorial pavilion, built in 1988, with glass panels around, and inside you can see approximately 8,000 skulls of victims found at the site. It is gruesome – but it’s also strangely dignified and noble.

Killing Fields - noticeThere is a sequence of tourists signs denoting the places where the trucks, bringing in the victims, would stop, and from where they would be led away for immediate execution; but when the numbers got too many, it became impossible to kill them all quickly enough so they needed a detention spot where the victims could await their death – and there is a tourist sign indicating that spot too. There is a sign marking where the Executioners’ office was; and finally the Chemical Substances Killing Fields - signsStorage room sign shows where they used to keep DDT and other such chemicals which would be scattered over the corpses to obliterate the smell and also to kill off any people who had accidentally survived their executions.

What affected me most was the frequent sight of bones and clothing just peeping out of the surface of the ground. Although there was an exhumation of the Jagged edge treemass graves in 1980, there hasn’t been the time or resources to perform a thorough clearing of the site, and no doubt everywhere you walk is only millimetres above a burial site. There’s a display cabinet showing some rags of victims’ clothes that came to the surface during rain whilst they were exhuming the mass graves. It’s a particularly pitiful sight, just to see the ordinary, everyday items that people were wearing on their most extraordinary of death days. The Khmer Rouge didn’t like to waste valuable bullets on these people Killing treeif possible, so they were frequently bludgeoned to death by using blunted hoes; and some trees on the site provide branches with very sharp jagged edges that were used as tools for decapitation. There’s another tree – The Killing Tree – against which babies were flung by their ankles. I think I’ve gone into enough detail.

victims' clothesIt’s so incongruous that such a ghastly place is a tourist destination, but, like Auschwitz, it’s somewhere you have to go and bear witness to the atrocities committed by man on man, in the hope that it might prevent it from happening again. We both felt that the Killing Fields were actually more upsetting than Auschwitz. Auschwitz is a site of enormous dignity and reverence. The Killing Fields had an ice cream stall, souvenir shop and a children’s playground nearby. There were ladies walking round selling pashminas. I guess life goes on.

enjoy lifeI can’t imagine anywhere more welcoming than the Raffles after such a harrowing afternoon. The juxtaposition of present day luxury and 1970s genocide is surreal. However, you can’t change the past and can only live fully in the present and look to the future. So for dinner that night we ate at the Raffles Restaurant Le Royal which was hideously expensive but a real celebration of enjoying life.

Review – Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, Charing Cross Theatre, 10th November 2014

Jacques Brel is Alive and WellI think I’d heard of “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” before I’d actually heard of Jacques Brel himself. The show first saw the light of day in 1968, off-Broadway, and gained something of a cult status as it clocked up a four year run in its initial production, plus the many other international versions that followed. But through my early years the work of M. Brel remained something of a mystery to me. Then about fifteen years ago my friend the Lord Liverpool introduced me to the album “Scott Walker sings Jacques Brel” and particularly the song Jacky, which famously was banned by the BBC because of its lyrics – you won’t want me to reprint them here. Suffice to say, I loved it – and the rest of the album, with my other favourite being the savage Next – more of which later.

Gina BeckThe album also features If You Go Away, but to be honest I always preferred Terry Jacks’ 1974 version, his follow up hit to “Seasons in the Sun”, (always enough to reduce a grown man to a deluge of tears), and which was itself an adaptation of Brel’s Le Moribond. But I realise now that in comparison to the originals, these Scott Walker renditions are really overblown, over-orchestrated and over-fussy. So when I saw that “Jacques Brel IAAWALIP” was having a revival at the Charing Cross Theatre I thought it was a perfect opportunity finally to acquaint myself with this cult show. However, I knew that it wouldn’t be Mrs Chrisparkle’s thing. If I’d said to her, “would you like to see a show based on the songs of a Belgian who died in 1978” she would have looked at me more than askance. But my friend HRH the Crown Prince of Bedford is another Brelhead, and so it was that he and I went to see the show last Monday night.

Daniel BoysI’d never been to the Charing Cross Theatre before. When I was growing up it was the Players Theatre Club, having been home to the original production of Sandy Wilson’s The Boy Friend in the 1950s. If my memory serves me right, in the 1970s members of the Players Theatre used to perform on the BBC’s Good Old Days programme (all together in your best Leonard Sachs voice: Once again, Good Evening, Ladies and Gentlemen!) But today it is its own little theatre in its own right, seating 250 at a push, and with a rather charming atmosphere, helped or hindered (you decide) by the regular rumblings of trains passing overhead, and with a comfortable bar/restaurant offering an excellent and filling pre-theatre dinner at a much cheaper price than is decent for such a Central London location.

Jacques BrelTo say the show has a simple structure would be something of an understatement. If, like me, you were expecting some kind of narrative, or some theme to the evening, you might be in for a disappointment. I had thought it would be a kind of Side By Side By Brel, with some Ned Sherrin style bonhomie taking us through his career and illustrating it with choice examples of his work. Alternatively, it might have been an early example of the Mamma Mia genre, where you have an original plot but into which the Brel numbers would have dovetailed perfectly. But it’s neither. You simply have a running order of 28 songs, performed by the cast of four, accompanied by Dean Austin’s splendid five piece band nicely integrated with the action, scattered around the set, which resembles a modest cabaret club. The cabaret feels spills out into the auditorium in fact, as the usual first few rows have been taken out and replaced with five cabaret tables, each with four chairs. His Majesty and I sat at one of these and I have to say that, although you really have to look up high, our proximity to some of the action was breathtaking. At times it was as though we were on the stage with them, or they were performing promenade style around us – Miss Gina Beck even poured us out a glass of water. There’s no particularly rhyme or reason to the sequence of the songs that I could make out, no attempt to create a real narrative strand; but that’s not a problem as each song is its own mini masterpiece of a drama, and there are plenty of opportunities for the cast to excel both musically and dramatically.

Eve PolycarpouThe structure of the show means that its success or failure lies completely with the quality of the songs and performances; and for me I can definitely say it was a resounding success throughout. The songs that I recognised, I loved; and those that I didn’t know were, almost without exception, exciting discoveries. The cast are a superb combination of young, pure and idealistic (Gina Beck and Daniel Boys – brilliant in last year’s High Society) and the more mature and experienced (Eve Polycarpou and David Burt – an excellent gangster in Kiss Me Kate and hilarious in Hamlet the Musical), giving a nice sense of balance to the production. The evening begins with Eve singing Le Diable (Ça va) in both French and English, creating a very moody and melancholic atmosphere, which leads into If We Only Have Love and the sumptuous Alone. The English lyrics, by the way, were written by Eric Blau and Mort Schuman who together created the original production of the show. Other first half highlights included a very original presentation of Jacky by David, with a laid back, reflective, self-satisfied first verse, which then gains triumphant self-confidence as the song progresses. David also performed a very emotional rendition of Fanette which I really loved; and the whole company joined together for The Desperate Ones – again with the performers right up close to us you could see their unflinching commitment to what they were doing which somehow made it even moving; these Brel songs can be very raw as you witness the passion and pain in the performers’ concentration. There was also a very perky performance of Timid Frieda by Gina and then David took us into the interval with a rousingly angry (as is traditional) version of Amsterdam.

David BurtAct Two began with the whole company performing Madeleine (HRH’s favourite) – a tune that I now realise was shamelessly ripped off in the song Veronique in the 1970s musical On The Twentieth Century. Act Two continued with some spectacular performances including Eve singing Ne me quitte pas in French, sat on the edge of the stage with her guitar, right in front of us – a right goose-bumps moment if ever there was one; Daniel and David doing a very funny version of Middle Class (during which David cheersed me with his champagne glass; Gina singing a very moving Old Folks, David providing a hilarious and immaculately timed Funeral Tango, Daniel performing a very touching Song For Old Lovers and the whole company presenting a highly disturbing and effectively staged Next (Au Suivant), the least romantic song about sex that you could imagine. There is some nice subtle updating going on with a few of the numbers, with Iraq and Afghanistan taking their place and even Nigel Farage muscles in on the action at one point.

Monsieur BrelI really enjoyed the show, but what was the reaction of a true Brel aficionado? The Crown Prince was extremely impressed with it, and was in fact on tippy-toe point of leading an ovation when a sudden wave of self-consciousness overtook him, which he regretted all the way back to the station. Despite the fact that it is now 36 years since Jacques Brel literally was alive and well and living in Paris, the show gives us another opportunity to appreciate his extraordinary contribution to 20th century music and is a fitting and lovingly performed tribute to one helluva character. The show is on until 22nd November and if you like your musical entertainment to be francophone and with a bit of bite, I can’t think of anything better.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 7th November 2014

Screaming Blue MurderIt was just about to happen yet again. Mrs Chrisparkle and I had taken our carefully selected seats on the aisle of the third row which is normally just far enough back to be out of participatory reach of the comics, but close enough to feel involved. However, recently there haven’t been quite so many people coming to the Screaming Blue Murder, and we’ve ended up as default front row, as everybody filed in and sat behind us. Same again this week. With one minute before “curtain up”, no one had sat in front of us. Sigh. I was practising in my head my responses to the usual questions a comic will ask the audience members. “What do you do here in Northampton?” “I tend to write about things I see at the Royal and Derngate”. But then – bliss, as a late arriving veritable coachload of punters (teachers at a local school) trooped in after scoffing down a rushed meal at the restaurant across the road and provided Dan Evans (MC) and the other comedians a feast of material for the rest of the evening.

Dan EvansIt was a welcome return for Dan, who’s not been well recently, poor lad, but he was back on fine form and warmed us up tremendously with new and old material and comedy gold badinage with the schoolteachers. It was the Assistant Principal (Maths) guy who made it so easy. Apparently he was sitting there with a face like a slapped arse, and from my angle looked as though he wanted the earth to swallow him up. There were other late arrivals too, whom Dan interrogated thoroughly before they’d even had a chance to locate some seats. Woe betide the Late Arrivals at the Comedian’s Ball.

Matt PriceOur first act was Matt Price, whom I thought we hadn’t seen before but as his routine developed, we both remembered him from our very early days at Screaming Blue Murder, before I started blogging, circa 2009. He has a terrific comic persona, that of an ungainly and somewhat overweight Cornishman with a tendency to sacrifice politeness for honesty. He saw the Assistant Principal (Maths) guy as a personal challenge, and despite giving us a hysterically funny set, it sounded like he failed. He did some nice sequences including white kids who think they’re black, which I have heard others do, but then matched with black kids who think they’re white, which gave it a very enjoyable balance. He told us of his experiences of performing in Broadmoor (which was what we remembered from years back), and a perfect one-liner involving an unfortunate sexual act with someone with a prosthetic limb. He went down extremely well.

Benny BootNext was Benny Boot, who we definitely hadn’t seen before. Australian, and extremely anarchic, he occasionally built up a really good comic momentum but had a tendency to throw it away with poor timing or inadequate punchlines. He’s the kind of guy you’d dread having as a friend because he will just say the most inappropriate thing at the wrong time, and leave you squirming with embarrassment – as he did when he just went into too much personal interrogation with one of our regular comedygoers who happens to be blind. Not sure how embarrassing it was for the blind guy himself, but enquiring deeply into the nature of his disability simply wasn’t funny – and he definitely lost the majority of the audience as a result. A perfect example of going down the wrong route.

Pierre HollinsOur headline act was Pierre Hollins, whom we have seen here before in 2010 and 2012. Pierre is good ol’ blokey bloke with hugely confident delivery and very funny material about everyday life and relationships. It was hard for his act to get going because one lady near the back developed a disturbingly loud guffaw which she let rip at least every twenty seconds. Mr Hollins played off it very well and it became the centrepiece for a lot of his routine. Once she started to get tedious, he carefully ignored her and got back on his own track again – very skilfully done. Again, he was very popular with the audience.

Only one more Screaming Blue Murder left this season, in two weeks’ time. You’d be a fool to miss it.

Review – Pete Firman, Trickster, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 6th November 2014

TricksterI love magic. Deep down in my heart I know it’s not real, and that what Pete Firman was doing on that stage last night was simply being a Trickster (as the title of the show confirms), but wouldn’t it be great if it was genuine? If he was somehow an innocent conduit for things beyond our ken, who discovered that he had this gift to astound and surprise, but didn’t know how he was able to make these things happen? I want the world to be a place where magic truly exists. Mrs Chrisparkle, realist to her fingertips, looks on magic as a sub-genre of End of the Pier shows, or as just one element of a variety night on a cruise ship. How I managed to slip two tickets under her radar to see Mr Firman’s show, I’ve no idea. Years of practice I guess.

Actually, it was an easy no-brainer. We had seen Mr Firman before, as a guest in the most recent Burlesque Show at the Royal. Not just guest, he was top of the bill, and thoroughly excellent too. I’d expected his Trickster show to be part variety/revue and part magic, but no, it was just Mr Firman, his props, his ingenuity and his rapport with the audience that sustained the whole evening. There is a touch of the Eric Morecambe about him – you can catch it when he adopts that cheesy, toothy grin when he’s putting a brave face on something that isn’t quite quality; you can hear it in his vocal tones when being stagily mock-pompous about his skills. He is a naturally very funny and likeable guy, and, considering I normally quake at the thought of being picked on by a comic, if he’d invited me up on stage to help with a trick I’d have felt relaxed and at ease. He didn’t though, despite our being in Row C of the stalls. Swine.

Pete FThere was, however, lots of crowd participation throughout the course of the evening – I’d estimate that one in two of his tricks involved at least some element of an audience member getting up on stage with him or his coming down into the stalls to talk to people. That sense of involvement really helped the bond between audience and performer, making us one big happy family. Despite its not being a variety show, there is nevertheless a huge amount of variety within his act. Big scale, small scale; up close with a camera; mind reading, and then transferring the same thought to another person; even a trick outside the theatre (with which the whole the audience takes part), and another that took place over 25 years ago. For me though he had two particular corkers, the one that led into the interval and the one at the end. I could go into details about the tricks he performed but that would only spoil it for you if you haven’t seen it yet, and I wouldn’t do that to you, gentle reader, that wouldn’t be fair. So I’m going to be deliberately vague about exactly what happened.

Pete FirmanYou can sit there for hours and wonder, how did he do that? For the most part, “the way it’s done” is simply unguessable. Occasionally you think that if you’d somehow recorded it, and could play it back a few times, you’d be able to see the sleight of hand, the hidden prop, the way something appeared from off-stage. But that would ruin it, wouldn’t it? For the mind reading tricks, there has to be some form of mental suggestion technique involved, and we think we recognised a trigger action; not that that in any way explains exactly how the tricks were done. The “end of part one” trick involved Mr Firman getting a member of the audience to think of a number and then his guessing it, by means of a few pertinent questions and some elaborate statistics. It’s a delightful tour de force! I have a number in my head that I would always think of under such circumstances. It was the number of my locker at school, it would be the number of the box I would choose on Deal or No Deal if ever I was to appear on it (I won’t). It wasn’t the same number that our audience member chose. So if it had been me thinking of a number for Mr Firman to guess, I would have chosen that one, without question; and I just don’t see how the trick could succeed if it had been my number…But I guess that’s magic.

Pete FirmanSimilarly, that final trick left me having to collect my jaw from the floor. Unless the audience is full of stooges – and I don’t think that for a moment this is a magical version of One Man Two Guvnors – there’s only one possible way that trick could have been done; but I’m blowed if I can imagine how he physically managed to do it. If I wasn’t already returning to the Royal and Derngate this evening for another show, I’d be very tempted to see Mr Firman do the show again at the Corby Cube tonight just to firm up in my brain what I actually saw last night. It would be fascinating to observe what’s different between the performances, and even more so to see what isn’t.

A thoroughly enjoyable night’s entertainment that wowed even the cynical Mrs C and left me gobsmacked with mystery. If you love a bit of magic, he’s your man! Go see for yourself.

Review – Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook, aka from Squeeze, The “At Odds Couple” Tour, Derngate, Northampton, 3rd November 2014

At Odds CoupleI used to love Squeeze, they’re very much “my era”, but I haven’t played any of their music for years. My good friend the Sheriff of Shenstone is a big fan and has seen them a number of times over the years, but Mrs Chrisparkle and I have never seen them – and indeed I had to remind Mrs C who they were on our way to the theatre. “You know, Cool For Cats – Coooooool For Cats” – I saw a faint glimmer of recognition; “and so it’s my assumption, I’m really Up The Junction” – nothing. “Take Me I’m Yours, because dreams are made of this” – “Oh I like that one”, she perked up. I had a feeling I was going to have a great time and she was going to have a bit of a long night.

Cool For CatsAfter a long hard day at the office Mrs C has to rush around in the manner of what my late father would have called “a blue-arsed fly”, in order to get home, get changed, get fed and get out for a 7.30pm show. Still, we’ve got the whole routine down to a fine art now, and we arrived at the Derngate with about twelve minutes to spare – enough time to order the Malbecs and check out the Merch. However, when we got there we discovered that the start time had changed to 8pm. Sigh; all that rushing around for nothing. Still, it gave us longer to peruse the wine list (“I’ll have that one at the back with the white label”) and to consider the exclusive items on sale for besotted fans. “Do you want a Difford and Tilbrook tea towel?” asked Mrs C, in a tone that already answered her own question. Given that I try to avoid drying-up at the best of times it seemed impertinent to show an interest.

C DiffordSo with about twenty minutes before it started we made our way early to our seats. I was very surprised to find the stage hidden by the Derngate’s rarely seen (but sumptuously beautiful) purple velvet curtains. How delightfully old-fashioned, I thought. Normally when you go to a concert, the stage is already all open, and you can see instruments, music stands, microphones, and all the rest of it. Sometimes you have a music playing or a video show going to get you in the mood, like when The Osmonds performed. We’ve seen all the greats here, you know: The Osmonds, Glen Campbell, K T Tunstall, Petula Clark…. Each one a different variation of brilliant. And I remember that for each of those acts the audience was buzzing with excitement (yes even the octogenarians for Petula Clark) by the time the artist(s) finally came on stage. Us lot in the stalls would have been gagging for it (so to speak) with videos, music, warm-up acts, flashing lights… intense expectation….high excitement…..

Chris DHowever, the music playing whilst we were waiting for Messrs Difford and Tilbrook was a selection of mournful saxophone solos, that sounded like it was off a CD nicked from the local crem whilst the vicar wasn’t watching. Now I suppose if you’re into really serious, introverted, wrist-slitting jazz you might have enjoyed it. Not the kind of boogie-woogie Jools Holland type of stuff (which would at least have been semi-appropriate), this was the kind of saxophone jazz that might have been written by Mahler when he had the hump. It wasn’t helping the mood. Everyone was talking over it, checking their phones, sitting silently – anything but getting ready for a night of magical musical entertainment. The music finished; the lights went low; the curtain went up. And what did we see? A 1970s set, with hideous wallpaper, a floor cluttered with things like a carpet sweeper, old lampstands, a “changing screen” decorated with bits of posters, a grille that goes on the front of a car (yes honestly), some old wig stands and other bizarre 70s studio detritus. At the back there was a double bed, from which emerged two old blokes dressed like Wee Willie Winkie, à la Morecambe and Wise, who then sat briefly at a breakfast table, chatted a bit self-consciously, then came to the front of the stage and it was only then that I deduced that they were indeed Chris and Glenn whom we had come to see. I’ve never been to a concert before when the stars basically came on stage to bewilderment and silence, instead of the usual welcoming whooping and cheers. By the time we’d recognised them I think we were a bit embarrassed that we hadn’t welcomed them earlier and louder; and then we went all British and continued to receive them politely like the opponents at a village cricket match. I have absolutely no idea why they chose to start the show like this, or set it in this 70s bedroom scenario. Is it a reference to something they used to do way back when? If so it went way over my head.

ArgybargyBut it definitely was Chris and Glenn because they went straight into “Take Me I’m Yours” and it was fantastic. Stunning acoustic guitar work, with harmonies to die for, Glenn’s expressive tenor gives you all the characterisation and individuality that are the hallmark of their songs and Chris’s raspy bass comes in underneath to give it extra grit and power. Together they still sound amazing. I did however feel a little sorry for Mrs C at this point, because, as we had identified earlier, it was the one song she remembered of theirs that she liked, and it was done and dusted within the first five minutes – not a lot to look forward to.

Chris DiffordAfter that first number some momentum had built up, but Chris Difford deflated it by going off to change out of his jim-jams, leaving just Glenn to perform Black Coffee in Bed, which I didn’t recognise but the man next to me was very pleased to hear it and a superfan in front of us went ecstatic. Then Chris came back and it was time for Glenn to get dressed (how bizarre is this opening sequence?) I can’t quite remember what song it was he played – again I think it was new to me – but Glenn only managed to rush on stage just in time to contribute his bit of guitarring skills to it. Really, a lot of unnecessary faffing around here.

G TilbrookI should mention the video wall. Yes, they had one – shame they couldn’t have used it as a warm-up tool – but the back wall of the 70s bedroom dissolved into a big screen for some of the numbers. On the whole the videos were good, either reflecting the lyrics of the song, with wistful cinematography that accompanied the sense of the song, or providing abstract patterns and shapes for others. There were a couple of problems though. It had that technical issue where the image on the screen is (sometimes) inverted, like a mirror-image. There was one song where the video showed Chris and Glenn in front of a boat, and its name appeared back-to-front; and another where we were hurtling from space down towards the UK and spiralling in until we got to a London location where the song was set – but unfortunately the image of the UK was back-to-front too, so that Kent appeared on the bottom left of the country and Cornwall on the bottom right. Made it look a little amateurish. Mrs C was irritated by the video that accompanied Pulling Mussels from a Shell – it was a clip of the group singing it presumably way back in 1980 but it wasn’t in synch with the live performance so the mouthings looked all wrong (but is she being picky here?)

East Side StoryAnd you know, there’s always a backstage person who comes on between songs and unplugs this guitar and plugs that one in, or who moves a microphone from here to there, all that kind of mullarkey – well, they’re always dressed in black aren’t they, so that you don’t notice them so much against the usual black background of a concert stage. However, our black-dressed lady was ultra-noticeable against the browns and beiges of the 70s set. When you don’t notice them, you don’t really give them another thought. But because we could see everything this lady was doing for them so obviously, I kept on thinking they ought to be audibly thanking her for helping, rather than just ignoring her. It didn’t look right – just more ham-fisted than it need have.

Glenn TI didn’t know most of the songs – I’ve only got three of their albums (although they are what I would consider to be The Big Three) – but I did recognise Slap and Tickle from the Cool For Cats album, the aforementioned Pulling Mussels (from Argybargy) and – not quite sure how I know it – the song Cowboys are my Weakness, which Chris said they wrote for k d lang but she didn’t like it. All the way through the audience’s reactions had been warm and friendly but never delirious – I think we were still stunned by the lack of warm-up. As we went into the final song before the interval Glenn asked us “hope you’re enjoying it” and our reaction was as though he’d asked us if the gateau with our afternoon tea was to our taste – “oh yes, very nice thank you”. Even the superfan had long subsided into quiet reflection. Slightly disappointed, Glenn added “well thank you for tolerating it anyway” and that’s when I realised that this gig wasn’t going down anywhere near as well as it should have done. We went out into the interval on a high though, with the marvellous Up The Junction, the only song, as the Sheriff of Shenstone will tell you, whose title doesn’t appear in the lyrics at all until the final three words. Good for pub quizzes that one.

Glenn TilbrookAfter our interval drinkies, we returned to our seats to discover they were still playing that wretched morose saxophone music. It may have been a suitable choice to inter a Soviet leader but not for a light hearted concert. Anyway, once the second half was underway we had more from the wonderful world of Difford and Tilbrook, with their superb guitar work and ever delightful harmonies. All the songs were performed to either two live guitars or one guitar and the keyboard, and, over the course of the evening, it’s probably fair to say that that same arrangement can sometimes make the songs themselves sound a little samey. Fortunately it’s “good same” and not “bad same”. From those that I would have liked to have heard but didn’t, I missed It’s Not Cricket (from Cool For Cats) and Another Nail in my Heart; but Glenn did a very soulful version of Tempted, and a thumpingly satisfying Cool For Cats, which I am delighted now to have seen performed live, so I can die happy. For an encore we had the very emotional and extremely sad Labelled with Love, (Mrs C’s comment: “repetitive”) and the upbeat Goodbye Girl. (Which is also quite repetitive). We did all stand for the last three numbers – but only because Chris told us to. “Stand for Mr Glenn Tilbrook!” he exhorted, and we all sat politely and applauded. “No, stand!!” he emphasised. Slowly we all got to our feet. Mrs C and I don’t like to be told when to give ovations, so we remained seated – but then I realised they were going to sing Cool For Cats so I leapt up anyway – and Mrs C gradually joined me.

It really was a very strange concert. The content was fantastic, but because of the distracting set and the fact that we never really got warmed up properly, it never soared. The presentation wasn’t very fluid, with the guys going on and off quite a bit, and you could see a lot of the backstage machinations through the entrance gaps at the side of the set, which were surprisingly distracting during songs. Still, it was great to see Messrs D & T, and to enjoy these wonderful old songs again; and there’s no doubt that they remain incredibly gifted musicians and writers. The tour continues until 19th November.

Review – Gone Girl, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, 2nd November 2014

Gone GirlThis is the second consecutive film we’ve seen at the Errol Flynn that has been a sell-out – the other being the splendid Pride. Directed by David Fincher, who made Seven (very good) and The Social Network (a bit tedious) and starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, whose Hedda Gabler we saw in Oxford a few years ago, this is Gillian Flynn’s own adaptation of her best-selling novel.

Ben AffleckHopefully this won’t give too much away: Nick Dunne comes home one day to find a glass occasional table smashed and on its side and no sign of his wife Amy. She’s the real life version of the fictitious Amazing Amy, heroine of a series of books written by her parents, thereby making her disappearance instantly interesting to the media. Imagine if A A Milne’s Christopher Robin was thought to be at the bottom of a lake somewhere, that’s the kind of thing. Nick is initially helpful with the cops, but they start to suspect him of her murder, and he doesn’t help himself by his ability to grin inanely when posing by a poster of his missing wife, or allow himself to be hoodwinked by a pretty journo into co-operating with an inappropriate selfie. As the case mounts against him – despite the lack of a body – he enlists the help of Ace Defence Lawyer Tanner Bolt. Add to the melting point a little infidelity, harassment of his twin sister, Amy’s unpredictable ex-boyfriend, and a couple of mud-raking gossip-mongering TV chat-show hosts, and there’s plenty for Detective Rhonda Boney to get her teeth into. And there’s also the fascinating unravelling story of what actually did happen to Amy.

Neil Patrick HarrisIt’s a gripping story, tightly told, with an excellent cast and some scary moments. As usual, I missed the first few minutes of dialogue as I couldn’t make out a damn thing they said whilst I adjusted to their muttering accents. I was also struck by how dark some of the scenes were – not in a moody, portentous way, but literally lacking in light. This was particularly noticeable in some scenes with Mr Affleck, where he often seemed to be lurking in gloom, almost as though he wasn’t entirely happy with our seeing how he’s ageing. I’m sure that wasn’t the motivation, but I did find the deliberate darkness rather irritating.

Rosamund PikeWhen you could see what Mr Affleck was doing, he was extremely good. Blundering hopelessly into traps set for him, and not only by the police, it’s a very credible performance of an ordinary guy trying to cope with devastatingly public difficulties way beyond his usual experience. Even though he’s a louse in many ways, you do take his side and he actually becomes quite heroic, which is an interesting manipulation of the viewer’s morals. Miss Pike, too, was very effective as Amy, filling in her diary-driven backstory, convincingly changing appearance from society girl to trailer park trashette as the plot thickens. At times there was more than something of the Fatal Attraction bunny-boiler about her, which added a nice sense of suspense.

Sela WardI was very impressed with Kim Dickens as the detective; suspicious, reasonable, firm but eventually powerless to see justice through to its proper conclusion; and I liked her badinage with her assisting officer, played by Patrick Fugit. Neil Patrick Harris plays Amy’s ex-boyfriend Desi with just the tiniest bit of the unhinged about him which makes you think the story might progress in a different direction. Carrie Coon gives the character of Nick’s twin Margo a lot of attitude, fiercely defensive of her brother and even more fiercely attacking him when he lets her down; and Sela Ward plays TV hostess Sharon Shieber with chillingly attractive venom.

Kim DickensIt’s a long film at two and a half hours, but it really does hold your attention all the way through; I wouldn’t say that the time flies by exactly, but it certainly doesn’t seem too arduous. What’s really aggravating is the uncertain ending! You’re crying out for some natural justice to win the day but it’s not going to happen. Still, it’s a realistic way of finishing the film, and you can always add your own supposition as to what might have happened next.

Arresting, exciting, with surprising plot twists and not a little disturbing; what more could you want from a thriller?