Abba the Album – an Appreciation

Abba The AlbumSomething different, gentle reader. A few months ago I was asked to write an appreciation of Abba The Album for Vision, the magazine of the OGAE UK (British Eurovision fans fan club). I wasn’t sure if it was to be brief or lengthy, so I went for lengthy; and it turned out that the brief was for it to be brief. So I drastically shortened it for publication; and now that it has been been published I thought I would treat you to my fully unabridged thoughts about that particular long=playing record. So sit back and enjoy the memories!

Take A Chance On MeMemories…light the corners of my mind….. No that’s something completely different. But revisiting Abba the Album has been a real trip down memory lane. Its UK release was in early 1978, and I can remember buying it from our local Record House (don’t see those any more) and cosseting it all the way home before closing all the doors and windows to give it a full loud play on my top quality hi-fi of which I was so proud.

Thank You For The MusicIn many ways Abba the Album was considered the soundtrack to Abba the Movie, which 36 years on, I regret to say I still haven’t seen. The girl I was going out with at the time was desperate to see it, but I wasn’t over keen for some reason. By the time I’d finally given in and agreed to go, she’d got bored and I’d been dumped. Hence the film has never played a big part in my life. But the songs! They surely have.

Carefree AbbaIn those days, for no reason whatsoever other than to look flashy, single LPs would often be packaged like a double, with the front sleeve an empty dummy just to display the pictures and lyrics, and with only the second part of the sleeve actually containing the record. You youngsters who know nothing other than CDs or, Heaven help us, Mp3s, might find it hard to appreciate the tangibility and sense of true ownership that owning a record brought with it. And you had the excitement of watching the grooves as the record spun round on the turntable. The patterns it made told you in advance whether there’d be a strong regular drum beat, if it would be quiet and gentle, or whether it would be a hotch-potch of many different styles. You don’t get that kind of visual clue from a computer file.

Abba 1So when you put Abba the Album on for the first time and realised that the first track was absolutely massive it stopped you dead in your tracks. It broke all the rules for a pop group to have a track – particularly the first one on the album – as long as 5 minutes 50 seconds. That in itself was a challenge to the 17 year old me, my pop attention span already being moulded into a Eurovision-style sub-three minutes. But Eagle, that first track, hits you with that wonderfully relaxed and evocative instrumental introduction, suggesting wide empty skies, through which a majestic bird might fly, just as Fleetwood Mac’s Albatross had done about ten years earlier. Frida and Agnetha’s voices rise and fall in the eagle’s slipstream as they imagine sharing in its freedom. Apparently Bjorn had read Jonathan Livingstone Seagull and took the book as his inspiration for the lyrics. Rarely does 5 minutes 50 seconds pass so quickly.

AbbaIf you’re of a certain age, like me, where you were able to enjoy every stage of Abba’s career exactly as it was happening, it’s impossible to look back at their songs without remembering what they actually meant to you at the time. Eagle reminds me of visiting a friend’s house in the school holidays, mainly because he was trying to learn how to play it on the piano; quiet, happy, worry-free memories of no work and all play. Playing football in his garden, followed by afternoon tea in the drawing room. All very nice. The next track on the album has much more exciting memories though. In the summer of 1978 I took five weeks off between school and university and travelled to Canada, where I stayed with some distant relatives I’d never met before. I had a fantastic time – it seemed that every day of those five weeks held a new exciting experience for me. I felt so cosmopolitan. I remember being driven by my cousin all the way from Toronto to Virginia in one day – that’s one heck of a drive – and stopping somewhere in the middle of nowhere in the USA to fill up with petrol (I mean pump some gas) when a familiar sound came over the radio.

Abba Thank YouThat instantly appealing introduction to Take a Chance on Me had followed me to Virginia, and snuck up on me via some east-coast radio station; sixteen seconds of vocals before any instrument gets played. Much has been made of the relationship difficulties between the two couples as being an influence and catharsis behind their music. Whilst the tone and sound of this song sounds irresistibly happy, if you watch the classic “talking heads” video, Agnetha’s expression and plaintive plea for being taken seriously as a lover absolutely melts your heart. A little bit like the Beatles, Abba often had a “sweet and sour” taste to their songs. Take away the light-hearted tune and the verbal dexterity of the guys’ backing accompaniment, and the one-sidedness of the couples’ relationships is really clear – the girls are good to go, the guys really aren’t keen. It gives you a subtle insight into how two people can want very different things from the same relationship. And all this is covered over by a poptastic musical arrangement. Here’s a nice trivia moment for you: guess how many times the guys sing “take a chance, take a chance, take a chuckachance chance”? I counted 64. Rumour has it that that “chuckachucka” rhythm used to go through Bjorn’s head when he was out on a run and it became the inspiration for the backing to this song. Sounds perfectly plausible.

Take your time babyTwo tracks in, and you’ve already chalked up two fantastic songs. Next up is One Man One Woman, which you can see as something of a companion piece to Take a Chance on Me. Whereas “Take a Chance” sounds jolly but conceals potentially irrevocable differences within the couples, “One Man” sounds sad but the lyrics actually point forward to a potential solution to those problems – “You smile and I realise that we need a shake-up, our love is a precious thing worth the pain and the suffering, and it’s never too late for changing”. There’s no denying the real angst in Frida’s vocals though, and this is a highly emotionally charged piece of music.

ABBA in whiteI mentioned earlier how I associate many of these songs with particular memories. The last song on Side One (how 20th century to think of it in that way, but that was the original structure) is The Name of the Game. Before buying this album, I already had the single of The Name of the Game and I absolutely loved it. In early December 1977, when the days were short, dark and cold, a lonely me, in Oxford in order to take a terrifying university interview the next day, went into an old-fashioned sheet-music shop (sadly no longer there) in the High Street, and there I bought the sheet music for The Name of the Game. “I have no friends, no one to see, and I am never invited….” I took it back to the college room where I was staying overnight, a barren, cold and comfortless room, and I read through it, and somehow it gave me security. I couldn’t wait to get home a couple of days later to play it on the piano. So I associate this song with reaching out for comfort and support at a time when I was really scared. And it has stayed with me ever since. This is my favourite Abba song.

Name of the gameLike Eagle, it has the most superb instrumental introduction. To be honest, that’s the part I really love. If it were to stop when the singing starts, it would still be a great record as far as I’m concerned. It’s slinky and sexy but also very disconcerting. The constant 4/4 drum beats are almost like footsteps creeping up behind you; there’s a sense of claustrophobia, and being trapped; but then Agnetha’s pure clear voice comes out of nowhere to cut through this oppression. Back in those days, every guy my age I knew, myself included, was in love with Agnetha. And here she is singing so directly and honestly to you – it still goes straight to my heart whenever I hear it. There’s a lovely juxtaposition between the tentative message of confused love in the lyrics with the jovial video where all four members of the group are sitting round joking and laughing over some simple board game. But each one breaks off from the game to recite some of the lyrics and you realise they’re all in an equal state of confusion, despite looks to the contrary. It’s a stunning melody with heartfelt words and for me ranks amongst the best pop songs of all time.

Move onEnd of Side One. In the old days, you’d now have a physical break when you’d get up and turn the record over. A bit like the interval at the theatre, or half-time at a football match; only probably a lot shorter. To start Side Two you would expect a change of style perhaps – and it starts off with Move On. It’s a lovely anthemic tune which has for me qualities of a modern hymn; a very flowing rhythm and perceptive lyrics about the nature of life. I have to say though, Bjorn’s spoken introduction always sounds a bit creepy to me, and I think it’s one of those rare occasions where I’m not entirely happy about the arrangement. The piano and wind instruments sound thin and weedy, giving an overall impression that this isn’t as moving and as forceful a piece of music as it could be. So overall, I’m slightly on the fence with this one.

I WonderTrack Two is Hole in Your Soul, another track where the keyboards can sound a bit too syrupy for my liking. When the verse kicks off you feel that this is going to be a top quality bubblegum rock song, but when it comes to the chorus there’s a huge disappointment that they didn’t seem to quite come up with an appropriate tune. It just tumbles along, not getting anywhere. A definite pot-boiler.

Youthful AbbaThe Girl with the Golden Hair – Three Scenes from a Mini-Musical. I wonder what The Girl with the Golden Hair would have been like, had they made it? Abba’s Magical Mystery Tour perhaps? If you’re very old like me you might remember Keith West’s Excerpt from a Teenage Opera (1967) – that project never came to anything either. Apparently the Girl with the Golden Hair was to be a short story about a girl leaving her hometown to go out and become a star. It’s probably wise that they backtracked and never made it. The final three tracks on Abba the Album are all songs from this mysterious mini-musical that never was. In fact the previous track – Hole in your Soul – was a reworking of Get on the Carousel, another song from the mini-musical, that never made it to the album.

Moody AbbaWith the benefit of hindsight, wouldn’t it have been great if Thank You for the Music had been the final track on the album. It’s the epitome of a “goodbye” song. The end of a show, a concert, a party, a disco – it winds the night up perfectly. It sentimentally looks back on the past – the things Mother said, the girl’s history of bad joke-telling, the music we’ve enjoyed – and gives thanks for what we’ve got now; but crucially, it doesn’t look forward. There’s only yesterday and today in this song, no tomorrow. And that feels quite weird – probably another symptom of the group’s cohesion falling apart due to divorce. Even when this first came out, I remember wondering why they started the three songs from the mini-musical with the song that must obviously come as the finale. It uses the rather gloopy piano tones of the previous two songs, which gives a too-rich, over-ripe quality to the quieter arrangements; but then it becomes quite “pub singalong” in its choruses. There’s also something of a religious aspect to the song. If you were to say “thank you for the music, for giving it to me” who would you say it to? A singer/composer/musician? Perhaps – although Agnetha’s not really thanking other musicians for their work, she’s thanking a Much Higher Being for the gift of music, her ability to perform. Deep down, this is a prayer.

Abba with glitzy lettersSo where to go from there? I wonder (Departure) apparently, the penultimate track. That looks like an interim title for starters. Should they call it “I wonder”? Should it be “Departure”? Let’s go for the middle path of calling it “I wonder” but keep the Departure bit in, as that’s the role it plays within the structure of the mini-musical – the moment she leaves (wherever it is she’s leaving and wherever it is she’s going to). It’s a delicate little song of uncertainness and anxiety, and I’m not sure it stands alone particularly well outside of the wider context of its place within a musical. However, Frida sings it with great conviction and sincerity, and it is said that there is an autobiographical element to this song, having parallels with Frida’s leaving her young family to start her music career.

More AbbaFinal track, of both the mini-musical and the album, is I’m a Marionette. It’s quite a spiky and quirky song with lots of attitude and chances for both Agnetha and Frida to show off their vocal abilities. But energy saps in the middle with a rather boring instrumental section, and it ends in the same place that it started, with no sense of progress. If you seek out youtube videos of Abba performing this in Australia in 1977 (from Abba the Movie I guess) I reckon it would have been sensational live. However, on the album it feels a bit flat.

ABBA And that’s it! A game of two halves if ever there was one. In the first half, they hardly put a foot or a note wrong, with four really rewarding tracks. On Side Two things get a bit patchier. It really marks a midway point in their recording career – there’s less of a disco theme to the majority of these tracks than previously, and we start to catch sight of their darker side, which would develop over the next four years. On a personal note, I’d like to say thank you for both the music and the memories – it was great to be there at the time. The best of these songs will last forever.

Review – Merlin, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 18th December 2014

MerlinWe usually take our nieces, Secret Agent Code November and Special Agent Code Sierra, to the festive season play at the Royal in Northampton because it’s always a child-friendly but adult-friendly-too, non-panto production that takes a well-known story and brings it to life. When we sent out our invitation (in secret code of course) for this year’s offering of Merlin, the reaction was lukewarm. “Maybe we’ll pass this year” came the official response. Perhaps the story of Merlin, King Arthur and jousting knights just doesn’t do it for some 13- and 11-year old girls. But Mrs Chrisparkle and I aren’t deprived of our Christmassy treats so easily, so undeterred we sat in the middle of Row C last night, looking expectantly at the shimmering letters projected on the screen curtain, ready to be transported back to a fantasy world of myth and magic. And enormously entertaining it was too! Characters you can identify with, a funny script that still took the darker side of the story seriously, some very strong performances and it all looks and sounds fantastic.

Merlin as magicianI’m no expert on Merlin. I’ve never read Geoffrey of Monmouth’s Historia Regum Britanniae, (have you?) and I never saw the TV series starring Colin Morgan. I don’t even think I’ve seen Disney’s Sword in the Stone – I’m feeling a bit deprived now. So I’ve nothing to benchmark this Merlin against, but I would guess he’s slightly more the popular fiction version. Young Arthur, Merlin and Gwen are pals, larking around in the Court of King Uther, but all the fun has to stop when the King orders Arthur to leave Caerleon and head for Lothian, land of the unprepossessing King Lot, be victorious in joust and win the hand of his daughter, the fair Princess Scintillata, to ensure peace throughout the land. But what they don’t take into account is Merlin’s affinity for a spot of dark arts magic – which King Uther has made illegal. Will Merlin resist being able to do a Harry Potter? Will this help or hinder Arthur’s quest? I’m sure you know already, but I’m not going to tell you.

Arthur and Gwen larking aroundYannis Thavoris’ set featuring wall to wall books gives the immediate impression of great learning and knowledge. Merlin’s world is a veritable library, providing the perfect environment for his magic experiments. The literary theme is continued by having props made out of book pages, like the lining on the back rest of the King’s throne, which is rather clever; and the way the library converts to the site of the jousting contest is simply inspired! Does it matter that some of the books are obviously those Readers’ Digest ones from the middle of the 20th century? Probably not. It is, after all, a play all about magic. The costumes are excellent, suggesting both nobility and sorcery, the special effects are fun – Mabinogion the dragon is particularly cute – and John Nicholls’ music is terrific. Not only the introductory and background themes, but also the songs that are interspersed with the dialogue throughout the play. They have great tunes and very enjoyable arrangements. It’s not often you come out of a play – that isn’t really a musical – wanting to hear the songs again.

Ready to joustElla Hickson’s script is an excellent blend of the serious and the comic, with the main characters providing a lot of incidental humour in their roles as teenagers becoming adults, and getting to grips with all those adult-type emotion-things. There’s a wonderful scene between Merlin and Viv, Arthur’s intended sister-in-law, when, discovering they have something in common, they almost kiss – but don’t – and he can’t quite work out why, and she knows full well. Poor Merlin – girls are always much more advanced at that age. Both Mrs C and I loved the use of modern language in the historic context – it makes for some very amusing juxtapositions; Merl and Art, what a team they make. There’s a moment when Merlin is being interrogated – by a tree, naturally – to prove his mettle, his self-will, his inner strength, his quest to become a real man; a rousing, encouraging, motivational speech, which ends with a thud and his being told “now bog off and save the world”. I bet you don’t see that in the history books.

Will MerrickWill Merrick’s Merlin is an excellent study of someone who grows in confidence and ability from a – shall we say – difficult start in life to a hero. Not only is he the boy becoming the man, he also makes the several jumps from commoner to wizard, from pal to royal advisor; in fact from Confused of Caerleon to Chief Consultant of Camelot. I loved how his sense of innocence transformed into a sense of duty. He’s a great contrast with James Clay’s Arthur, who is all young-hero-in-the-making in comparison with Merlin’s rather shifty anxiety. Mr Clay gives a very believable portrayal of a young chap to whom greatness will come if he’s man enough to deal with it. Francesca Zoutewelle’s Gwen is also a great study of a tomboy becoming a woman, in the constant company of a prince and a magician; a fun pal to have around but who might have some other charms too. She’s not exactly torn between two lovers but the hint of it is there.

Fergus O'DonnellThe whole cast are excellent. I remembered Fergus O’Donnell as a brilliant Malvolio in Filter Theatre’s Twelfth Night, and here he is full of decent kingliness as Uther and humorous bluster as King Lot, as well as an unsuspecting knight partial to a bit of cheese. I loved Charlotte Mills as the wonderfully appalling Scintillata, a calculatingly mischievous mantrap who’s had a list of suitors under her pillow since kindergarten; a vision in pink atop her tower, demanding knights spill blood over her (not literally, perhaps), but who changes her tune and her fortune and ends up closer to Xena, Warrior Princess than Barbie.

Many's the knightTom Giles gave a brilliantly camp comic portrayal of her French suitor, the buffoon Garotte, with a kilt like a mini-skirt, barking out orders and proving himself to be the cad and the bounder we had all along suspected. I also loved Imogen Daines’ spiky performance as Viv, presented as early Scots Goth, full of attitude but not entirely trustworthy; and her interpretation of a somewhat laconic Lady of the Lake was a delight. Katherine Toy fills in many of the minor roles, including making a wonderfully Jobsworth royal guard, and does fantastic work as Musical Director. When the cast all come on for their curtain call, there’s a sense of real surprise that there are only eight actors who together have presented so many characters and so much activity. They must work very hard – I don’t think any of them are going to put on weight over Christmas.

SistersI thought it was a magically fun show, hitting just the right note of festive caperings whilst respecting the story’s more serious heritage. I’d be happy to see it a second time, if only to listen to the songs again. It’s on at the Royal until 4th January and would be a perfect Yuletide alternative to panto for anyone who is a teenager, is looking forward to being a teenager, or who enjoyed being a teenager. Now that’s magic!

Review – The Imitation Game, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 11th December 2014

The Imitation GameThere are secrets and there are secrets; but one of the best kept secrets in the history of mankind must be that of the wartime activity that happened within that innocent looking compound at Bletchley Park – the home of the code-breakers, whose success is believed to have shortened the length of World War Two by two years, saving an inestimable number of lives. Personally, I feel a certain affinity with the place. As the infant Chrisparkle, I spent my first five years living in the nearby village of Newton Longville; the Dowager Mrs C had a cousin who worked as a typist at Bletchley Park during the war – but of course we never really knew what she did; the Soviet spy John Cairncross, who also worked there, was the brother of the Master of St Peter’s College Oxford, my alma mater. Forsooth, Enigma is the life blood coursing through my veins.

CodebreakersAlthough Bletchley Park is now open as a museum (and a jolly good place to visit too), many secrets from its past still remain; and that’s probably right and proper, both to protect the innocent and in the interests of national security. But it’s also important that we can consider it a national shrine to the memory of Alan Turing, code breaker extraordinaire, computer creator, and victim of anti-homosexual legislation which required him to be chemically castrated and led him on to suicide. From today’s perspective it seems at best bizarre, at worst immoral and criminal, that he should have been treated this way by the country that owed so much to him; but, as Chapman wrote in 1654, the law is an ass and will always remain so.

Keira passes the testThe screenplay for The Imitation Game is written by Graham Moore and is based on the biography Alan Turing: The Enigma by Wadham College Mathematics Fellow Andrew Hodges, so it’s got a reliable pedigree. The title comes from Turing’s own words, his description of an experiment to define a standard for a machine to be called “intelligent” – which later became known as the “Turing Test” and which, even today, is an essential concept in the philosophy of artificial intelligence (according to Wikipedia anyway, so it must be true). Relaxing codebreakersInterweaving three timelines of Turing’s life – his schooldays at Sherborne, his working life at Bletchley Park and his final days at Manchester – the film tells his story clearly, compassionately and with a good deal of humour. In real life, Turing was doubtless something of a rum cove, too cerebral to waste time on friendships or personal relationships, and too literal to converse normally with his colleagues. This is amusingly portrayed in the scene where Turing is told by one of the chaps “we’re going for lunch” – with the unspoken implication “do you want to come too?” – but Turing only hears and deals with the fact that the others are going for lunch which is a mere statement that doesn’t affect him.

Alan Turing being restrainedNevertheless, Turing does have a close friendship with Newnham College alumnus Joan Clarke, a whizz at cryptanalysis, and to whom he was briefly engaged before admitting to her his homosexuality. Turing was definitely turned on by her intelligence – cue for another delicious scene where she is hilariously patronised when taking a test to see if she is brainy enough to work at Bletchley Park. One of the most intriguing things about the film is that it makes you want to find out more about some of the other people in Turing’s orbit at the time – like Joan Clarke, John Cairncross, Commander Alastair Denniston, and International Chess Master Hugh Alexander. Turing’s story has a very rich cast of supporting characters about whom one feels one ought to know something, and the film is definitely a good starting point to find out.

Charles DanceDespite the frequent flashes of humour, and the gathering momentum as the team get closer and closer to cracking the code, the main emotional sense from the film is one of sadness. For me, the two most poignant sequences showed the developing friendship between young Alan and his school friend Christopher Morcom, their messages passed to each other in code to help mask the necessary secrecy of the growing love between them – and how it ends; and the pathetic shell of a man that Turing becomes as a result of the enforced medication to reduce his libido, quaking with tears at the degradation he faces, an old man well before his time.

Alan and JoanThe film is beautifully acted throughout but boasts at its heart a real star turn from Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing. He absolutely gets that sense of edgy, uncomfortable, reserved intelligence, together with a dedication to his task, a justifiably high opinion of himself and a superior hollowness where his emotion should be. It’s only at the end, when he completely breaks down, that you see the years of repression spilling out, and it’s extremely moving. He is matched by a superb performance from Keira Knightley as Joan, irrepressibly and irresistibly upbeat, and determined to be seen as an equal in the misogynistic world of code breaking. Matthew Goode is excellent as Alexander, his nose put out of joint by Turing’s rise to power, congratulating his achievements with still a hint of resentment; and there’s a brilliant performance by Charles Dance as the no-nonsense Commander Denniston, permanently irritated by Turing’s lack of respect for his position, and always looking for a revengeful way to regain supremacy.

Turing and NockI also very much enjoyed Mark Strong’s quietly assertive and wryly humorous performance as MI6 boss Stewart Menzies; and Allen Leech played John Cairncross almost precisely the same as he plays Branson in Downton Abbey, but seeing as how they’re both socialists in a world of nobility, I guess that makes sense. Topping and tailing the timelines of the story I was very impressed by Alex Lawther as the young Alan – repressed, tight-lipped, tentatively pushing at the open doorway of a burgeoning relationship – and Rory Kinnear is as eminently watchable as he always is as the apparently sensitive, but ultimately law-enforcing, Inspector Nock.

MenziesAn engrossing story of one of the most important aspects of the Second World War, lucidly told, and compellingly acted – we really enjoyed it. It also gives you a lot to think about secrecy, intelligence, loyalty and justice. This one’s going to be around for a long time – and it’s got to be in line for loads of awards!

Review – John, DV8, Lyttelton Theatre, Royal National Theatre, screened at Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton through the NT Live process, 9th December 2014

JohnThis was our very first foray into the world of live theatre screened direct to your local cinema. I’d heard both good and bad things about this form of presentation; that it’s just like being there in real life and that the camera angles are amazing; and I’d also heard that you just sit there and sigh “I wish I could be there in person”. Having experienced it first hand, on the whole I’d agree with the first statement. The camera angles are indeed amazing, and you get an excellent combination of both close-up and the wider full stage view; and because you hear the audience’s reactions and indeed see the audience settling down at the beginning, and leaving at the end, you really do get a sense of being there. And of course, all this for half the price of the train fare to get to London in the first place. The only mental sideswipe I experienced was at the end not being able to join in with the London audience’s applause – that really did emphasise the fact that you weren’t there. But, as like as not, if you hadn’t seen the NT Live coverage, you probably wouldn’t have seen the show either. So I classify the whole enterprise as A Very Good Thing. And also, presumably, someone somewhere has a nice recording of the performance so that it can be kept for all time.

Hannes LangolfWe’d seen DV8 once before, at the Wycombe Swan in 1997, performing Bound To Please, a curate’s egg of a show that took on the subject of age and beauty, with the bold highlight of the evening being the sexagenarian Diana Payne-Myers, elegantly and gracefully dancing naked in full balletic style. But the piece was hampered by a rather ham-fisted desire to turn against and humiliate the audience which wasn’t really necessary. We also saw their television film The Cost of Living, which I remember being rather entertaining and very positive. Although much of those shows is now a distant memory, I am convinced that John is a far superior work to either of them.

Hannes LLloyd Newson’s initial creative idea was to interview a number of men about their attitudes to sex and love, and to see what themes emerged as a result. What emerged was the remarkable character of John, his story, his relationships, his struggles. About half a dozen of the people interviewed are represented in this piece, but John is by far the most predominant. As this is a verbatim production – nice new buzzword there – all the lines spoken by the performers are precisely as John and the other men spoke them at the interview. As a result, it’s a 100% true production. The issues raised, the events experienced, the hopes and fears discussed are all real, identified and probed during the interviewing process. This gives the production an unbeatable integrity, acting out real lives through physical theatre, paying homage to genuine experiences and real people.

H LangolfIf you are one of those lovely folks who checks into my blog on a regular basis, gentle reader, then you will know my mantra that I much prefer to see a brave failure than a lazy success. I love to be shocked and challenged in the theatre – and if Quentin Letts considers this as sleazy, amoral and a national disgrace, that’s all the incentive I would need to go and see it. John is full of bold and brave subject matter, and takes it head on in a no-holds-barred exposé – and overall the production is much more a success than a failure. Andi Xhuma and Ian GarsideMuch has been made of the extended sequence of the comings and goings in a gay sauna, which of course will not be to everyone’s taste, but personally I rarely have a problem with seeing anything sexual on stage, and am much more likely to be offended by violence. There’s quite a bit of that in the first half of the show, as we see John’s early family life, which is damaged by a rapist of a father, a drug dependent mother and siblings in and out of trouble. John takes us on a journey of petty crime, drug addiction, and through a sea of girlfriends – very cleverly suggested by their dresses on hangers – eventually to prison and then an attempt at rehabilitation. His efforts to trace his long-lost son are beautifully told, and end with heart-breaking sadness. This whole sequence was storytelling by dance and physical theatre at its finest.

I Garside and A XhumaAnd then it very much becomes a game of two halves as the scene changes to the gay sauna in an instant, with no preparation for it, and nothing in the earlier material to suggest something like this might be on the cards. It’s just a very sudden change of scenery, emphasis, characterisation and subject matter. At first I found the change rather annoying, as I still felt I wanted to find out more about the John whose character had been built up so effectively by his own words and Hannes Langolf’s magnificent performance; then I found it intriguing to see if the extraordinary juxtaposition between the two threads would work; and then after a while I wanted to go back to the beginning again, as the length of the sauna sequence is simply out of balance with the rest of the performance. The first half of the show reflects John’s first thirty-plus years; in the second half John admits he’s only been to the sauna three times over a period of about six months, so the time spent observing the sauna activities carries an inordinate weight in comparison to the time spent accompanying John through his struggles.

H Langolf as JohnThere is a loss of momentum too, as John plays a much smaller part in the second half than in the first – presumably this is where the other voices who were interviewed get to play their part in the proceedings. Nevertheless, it was interesting to hear the day to day activities and concerns of the guys who run the sauna – including their constant battle with the evil and ubiquitous poo, which provided unexpected comic relief; and the sexual proclivities of the teacher were rather amusing – if extremely irresponsible and unwise. But you can’t overcome the fact that the sauna scene has a distinct Lack Of John about it. Nothing against the performers who took a more major part in that scene – it’s just that we’d built up a relationship with John and it was left mid-air. But then, such is the challenge of a DV8 piece – never expect it to comply with the norm.

In the saunaIt’s a really strong production. I loved the revolving stage, so that, in order to remain in full view of the audience, John has to keep pacing through doors and in and out of rooms, providing a visual metaphor of his progress through the stages and locations of his life. The combination of John’s speeches and the dance movement serves to emphasise both; staccato movements accentuating tough words, flowing intimate movements accompanying more personal and private moments. Hannes Langolf has a lot of words to say as John, and it is a testament to his personal fitness that his energy keeps high throughout the whole show, his accurate and demanding dance movements never losing power as his verbal dexterity continues to deliver John’s thoughts and experiences. We really feel as though we know John, and despite (maybe because of) his demons and his struggles, we really like him. Mr Langolf creates a real man out of this interview material.

Intimate momentLloyd Newson’s choreography has his performers depicting everything from the Neanderthal to the sophisticated and they do him proud. Whilst Mr Langolf is extraordinary in his physical presence, the rest of the cast also form an incredibly good ensemble. Ian Garside provides some memorable moments as John’s son and, along with Taylor Benjamin, as one of the sauna owners. Simple devices, such as the seamless removal of a t-shirt worn by one dancer and on to another give hints of intimacy; whilst the rapid undressing and dressing and undressing again and dressing again by various performers in the background whilst the sauna owners talked about their problems gave the impression of a constantly active and busy changing room, without having a large cast. The dance action/physical theatre is constantly engrossing throughout the performance, and even when the narrative itself loses strength, you always admire the skilful and creative movements of the performers.

Taylor Benjamin and Garth JohnsonIf you’re a fan of physical theatre and you like to be challenged this is an excellent production which will give you much to think about and admire, capturing the essence of an unknown person and doing him justice. Technically superb performances are the icing on the cake. To Quentin Letts I say grow up and get real. To be honest, unless you’re straight and you’ve never been confronted with intimate homosexual behaviour, you’re unlikely to be too surprised by anything you see. Years of attending Eurovision discos means Mrs Chrisparkle and I are old hands at that! And I did get an insight into how a couple of gay friends, who met at a sauna, might have started their long-lasting relationship. No names no pack drill! It’s not a perfect show by any means but its positives more than outweigh its negatives and I’d definitely recommend it.

Production photos are by Laurent Philippe, Gergoe Nagy, Kris Rozental and Hugo Glendinning.

Here’s a trailer that gives you a good idea of the show.

Review – Alan Davies, Little Victories, Derngate, Northampton, 28th November 2014

Alan DaviesI always enjoy seeing Alan Davies on TV – whether it’s on panel shows (not that we watch them much), doing a bit of stand-up, or appearing in Jonathan Creek, which we used to watch avidly in the early days, but then kind of went off it after a few years. Nothing wrong with Mr Davies’ performance in it though – I just thought the storylines were a bit duff.

We’d never seen him live however, and I was confident that he would be able to fill the Derngate auditorium with laughter and merriment for a good two and a half hours on a Friday night. And that, indeed, is what he does, although I was expecting him to have a little more bite and attack. It’s more like an evening spent continuously smiling dotted with healthy amounts of laughter rather than the other way round.

A DaviesHe has a very relaxed approach to his art, with very un-showbizzy entrances and exits, and pacing around the stage as though it were a leisurely stroll with lots of stop and sit opportunities. There was some gentle mocking of the few latecomers, but nothing too savage, and nor were their cards marked for later in the evening. He seems to value the audience as company more than anything else. I really enjoyed his warm-up device, which was to ascertain the age range of the audience – I’ve not seen that done before. Firstly, he identified who was the youngest in the audience – it was someone born in 2000. Then he started calling out all the decades going back in time and if he called out the decade in which you were born you shouted out a big “hurrah”. The Eighties were quite popular, the seventies very popular, the sixties pretty popular too (Mrs Chrisparkle and I both shouted out our hurrahs – and he welcomed all the Sixties Kids as “my people”); then fifties – much smaller shout out, forties – very few and far between; and finally we identified the oldest person in the audience, born in 1935. A simple device, but very effective – you all know where you stand as far as your fellow audience members are concerned – you almost establish a pecking order amongst you – and you got an opportunity to do a shout out for fun too.

The show is called “Little Victories”, but it’s a title and topic that’s only very lightly touched upon. When Alan (and Mrs) Davies finally had kids, Mr Davies’ not-very-warm father had a somewhat aloof relationship with his new grandkids, and it obviously still irks Mr Davies (Jnr) that his father didn’t seem to care much about them. He tells a story about how his father once dismissed the grandkids with some ill-chosen words, and then, sometime later he gets his own back on his dad by tricking him into agreeing that he likes blackcurrant jam – I know it sounds like a non-sequitur, but it works. And this is what Mr Davies describes as a “little victory”. Not sure that I could identify many other little victories in the rest of his material though – but I expect they’re there if you look.

Alan Davies Little VictoriesTwo things stood out for me about Mr Davies’ act. The first is that his supremely confident delivery means he is not remotely scared of silence – he will use pauses in the flow of material constructively to emphasise elements of what he is saying; in other words, I guess, great timing. The other is that while some comics would spend their two and a half hours encompassing a wide range of scenarios, Alan Davies only discussed about four topics the whole night long. You could interpret that as a strength – going really in depth about situations and examining them thoroughly; or as a weakness, if those topics don’t particularly tickle your funny bone you might have quite a long wait until the next belly laugh.

Much of his material concerns the trials and tribulations of having two young children, which is probably going to appeal to parents more than non-parents. I very much liked the observation that anyone seen apparently mistreating children – giving them a clip round the ear, bawling the riot act them – is definitely going to be their parent and not some “stranger danger” character. Dotted throughout the evening are stories which end up with his daughter shouting out “you’re hurting me” because she knows it gets attention and is a potential minefield in public. A common problem – I remember my young cousin in Toronto at the age of three having sudden tantrums in shopping malls for no apparent reason other than sheer mischief, crying out “Don’t Beat me Daddy” much to his surprised daddy’s enormous embarrassment. There is also a very entertaining extended routine about Mr Davies getting stuck in a children’s soft play zone as he accompanies his rather scaredy-cat daughter through the padded climbing frame ups and downs, negotiating the seas of soft balls and unexpectedly scary slides.

Alan DBut as a non-parent I rather preferred his material about things with which I could more easily identify. He did some great material about the horrendous things that boys do at school, including brewing and nurturing farts so that they can be released at a time and place where they could wreak maximum havoc; and how school trips abroad simply turned into (apologies, gentle reader) wanking contests. He has a very funny sequence about how, in changing rooms, men hardly ever seem concerned that they’ve omitted to put on their pants although they’re perfectly happy to bend over to reach lockers for hours on end; and there’s a really funny (albeit not overly original) routine about the aches and pains of sexual intercourse when you reach more mature years. This is very much geared towards a man’s-eye view of life – I’m not quite so certain if it appeals equally to the ladies in the audience.

So, all in all, an entertaining night’s comedy, looking at the domestic side of life that will particularly appeal if you’ve ever had (or indeed currently have) a young family. Alan Davies is a shrewd comic who paces his material perfectly and creates a very enjoyable rapport with the audience – without your ever being scared he might pick on you too much. He’s got a few more dates in December and then comes back with a bang next March. Well worth a punt!