Review – Into The Woods, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 29th January 2015

Into The WoodsIs it me, or are they making films of stage musicals much better these days? Over the years, some of my favourite stage musicals have been made into absolute stinkers – a prime example being A Chorus Line, where they actually changed the story because they thought What I Did For Love worked better as a simple love song between two people rather than being about love for one’s career as a dancer. You did a lot of fantastic things, Sir Richard Attenborough, but I’m afraid that wasn’t one of them. But I found the film version of Les Miserables endlessly more watchable than the stage version, not that being sat in the front row of the dress circle of the Palace theatre with no leg room and with gout is that conducive to theatrical magic. Now into the mix comes Into The Woods, Sondheim’s fairytale fantasy made into an engaging and brilliantly performed film by a first rate cast.

James Corden and Lilla CrawfordI should state that I’ve never seen a live stage production of Into The Woods, although I have seen a DVD of the original Broadway production. I quite enjoyed it; Mrs Chrisparkle found it a bit “relentless” – her favourite word to describe something she doesn’t like because it just doesn’t let up and sometimes less is more. The show hit Broadway in 1988 and the West End in 1990, at a time when we didn’t go to the theatre much – how weird that feels today. The concept of the show is wonderfully inventive and original and appeals to anyone who, as a child, ever read or was told a fairytale; i.e. everyone. Unlike with A Chorus Line, I’m not an Into The Woods Purist; but if you are, you might be disappointed with some of the story tweaking, the dropping of several songs, making it slightly less violent and more family-friendly, which of course has nothing to do with its being made by Disney.

James Corden Emily Blunt Daniel HuttlestoneIn a mythical fairyland, four of our favourite childhood heroes all unite to make a new story. Jack (of Beanstalk fame) has to sell his favourite cow to raise money so that he and his mother don’t starve; Little Red Riding Hood has to visit her grandmother to bring her food (if she doesn’t scoff it all herself by the time she gets there); Cinderella has beastly step-sisters who mistreat her and try to prevent her from meeting the Prince at the Royal Ball (that’s a Festival in Sondheim-speak); and Rapunzel is trapped in a tower but will let down her golden hair for anyone who fancies a clamber-up. Meanwhile, the Baker and his wife despair that they can’t have children, and discover it’s because their neighbourhood witch put a spell on their property in revenge for the Baker’s father’s vegetable- and pulse-based kleptomania. But she will lift the spell if the Baker and his wife can provide her with a cow as white as milk, a cape as red as blood, a slipper as pure as gold and hair as yellow as corn. I’m sure you’ve worked out where this is going. So they all go into the woods; and eventually they furnish the witch with what she needs, the spell is lifted, the Baker and his wife have a child and they all live happily ever after.

Meryl StreepExcept that they don’t because in Sondheim’s world nobody lives happily ever after. The giant’s wife wreaks havoc (where there’s a beanstalk, there’s a giant, keep up), Rapunzel runs off, Cinderella and the Prince need marriage counselling and the Baker’s wife falls off a cliff. And lots of other people die too. Of course, all this could have been avoided if the Baker and his wife had been mature enough to accept their situation, maybe try a little IVF, or simply change their mind-set from childless to child-free and go out more. There again, there’s no end to what some people will do in order to have kids, as this story proves.

Johnny DeppThe film looks and sounds ravishing all the way through. Disney threw $50m at it, and it shows. There are some very nice special effects when the witch regularly appears and disappears, nothing too cosmic, just some elegantly done whirlwinds. Sometimes, as Robert Frost would have it, the woods are lovely, dark and deep; sometimes they’re utterly terrifying, the kind of place a lascivious wolf would lurk in order to chat up little girls. Musically it’s a treat for your ears from start to finish. The arrangements are sumptuous and the singing is clear, beautiful, funny, and quirky – all the right ingredients for this show. Into The Woods boasts some stonking good songs, including the main theme, an assorted fugue-like piece of fun which sticks in your head for ages afterwards (I woke up at 4.00am this morning with it running through my brain) and which you can use as a commentary on your daily chores (“into the shop to buy some food”, “into the kitchen to make some tea”, etc, etc, ad nauseam).

Emily BluntThe performances are pretty much uniformly superb throughout. James Corden continues to prove why he’s one of our best young actors with a funny, thoroughly believable and surprisingly moving performance as the Baker; and he also provides the narration. Desperate to meet the witch’s demands, he masterminds a cack-handed assault on the roving characters of the woods together with his wife, gaining items from them but losing them on the way too. It’s a bit like an extended, musical round of Jeux Sans Frontières, catching hold of the cape and the hair with one hand but dropping the cow with the other. Emily Blunt gives a wonderfully understated performance as the Baker’s wife with great comic timing and a terrific voice. The two of them become the perfect foil to the mad excesses of Meryl Streep’s witch, dominating proceedings with her sheer energy and attack – although Sondheim gives her some damn good lines to sing too.

James CordenThe two child performers are absolutely sensational. 13 year old Lilla Crawford plays Little Red Riding Hood like an old pro, completely stealing that first scene in the Bakers’ shop, as she discovers and devours cookies with the efficiency of a heat-seeking missile. When she’s interacting with the other main characters she’s equally as assured as the most experienced of actors. Similarly, 15 year old Daniel Huttlestone, who both warmed and broke your heart as Gavroche in Les Miserables, takes to Jack as a duck to water with his fine singing voice and confident cheeky personality. Anna Kendrick does a good job as the stereotypical Cinderella, putting up with the cruelty of her step-sisters and falling in love with the Prince, but with the added dimension of the role’s darker dénouement too.

Chris Pine Billy MagnussenOne of the best scenes in the film was the song Agony, performed by Chris Pine as Cinderella’s Prince and Billy Magnussen as Rapunzel’s Prince, each trying to out-prince each other as their duet gets progressively wetter, the further into a rocky waterfall they blunder. Both suitors are really well cast, Mr Pine having the terrific line about only being trained to be charming, not sincere; and Mr Magnussen doing a marvellously painful descent on Rapunzel’s hair. I confess, when Rapunzel’s tear dropped onto his eye and he could see again, my brain let out a huge soppy “awwwwww” – I just hope my mouth didn’t hear and follow suit. Mackenzie Mauzy is an excellent Rapunzel, changing from malleable daughter to being unable to forgive her mother – and under the circumstances why would you? – and Johnny Depp is a splendidly eerie and foppish wolf, planning main course and pudding before getting his own just desserts. Cinderella’s horrendous household is very amusingly portrayed by Tammy Blanchard and Lucy Punch as her villainous step-sisters and Christina Baranski as her brutally bossy stepmother (no Baron Hardup here).

Mackenzie MauzyThere’s also a lot of fun to be had spotting famous people in minor roles, like Annette Crosbie as Little Red Riding Hood’s granny, Frances de la Tour as the Giant’s wife, and Simon Russell Beale as the Baker’s father. But the biggest blast from the past – for me at least – was when Jack’s mother first appeared and I whispered to Mrs C “could that possibly be Tracey Ullman?” who I hadn’t seen since she was in Three of a Kind (whatever happened to David Copperfield) and since she drove away with Paul McCartney in the “They Don’t Know” video. And yes indeed it is Tracey Ullman and she gives a wonderfully warm and funny performance, with no care at all for the moralities of corporal punishment.

Tracey UllmanJust like when we saw The Theory of Everything last week, my only criticism of the film is that it just goes on a bit too long. Mentally, I did something of a “switch-off” when the witch became beautiful and the bakers got their child. Maybe I’m just a happy ever after kind of person who didn’t need to see all these people’s worlds subsequently fall apart. In the stage production that’s just the end of Act One. Knowing me, I probably needed an interval. When it became clear there was still some distance to go the film just started to tire me. But it’s a bold man who tells Sondheim he’s got it wrong, and I wouldn’t dream of it. All in all it’s a really enjoyable film with great performances and a feast of splendour for the eyes and especially the ears. Making this film guarantees that the show will continue to delight audiences for generations to come.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 23rd January 2015

Screaming Blue MurderHurrah for the return of a new year of Screaming Blue Murder nights at the Royal and Derngate. If you’ve not been before, for the price of modest main course in a restaurant you get three great comedy acts, two wonderful intervals and one fabulous host. One person who hadn’t been before was HRH the Crown Prince of Bedford, who was on a state visit to Northampton and accompanied us to the show. The prince has a tendency to sit in the front row at comedy shows, a foolhardy act which we tried to resist, resulting in the application of the grand old art of compromise, with our sitting in the second row with him on the central aisle so that he could engage in idle badinage with the comics should they invite him to do so.

Dan EvansOur jovial host was the masterful Dan Evans, with his unerring ability to warm an audience up by mixing a few brief jokes with some teasing of the good sports in the first few rows. With a packed house (Lady Duncansby was too late to get a ticket) Dan had plenty to choose from, and so we were introduced to Rob from Wootton School, a lady with a “don’t go there” back-story about her marriage and a pharmaceutical consultant who couldn’t have been more mysterious if he tried. Actually he did try – a lot.

Tiff StevensonOur first act was Tiffany Stevenson, whom I remember from the TV series Show Me The Funny, which was a number of things including absolutely fascinating, but sadly hardly ever funny. She comes out with bundles of attack, oodles of confidence, and a lot of top quality material. She had some good observations about binge culture – whatever that might be – as well as maintaining that all men are gay (to a certain extent) because they love their own penis. I’d have thought the definition of gay was loving other men’s penises, but there you go. I’m delighted to say that I’m one of the few people on this planet who don’t know who the Kardashians are, but even so I could tell that her routine about them was highly entertaining. By the way, my autocorrect changed Kardashians to Lard Ashrams, which might not be that inappropriate, from what I understand. Miss Stevenson engaged with the Prince on the subject of age and hangovers, and I got the sense she quite fancied him. Very funny, very lively and pacey – a great opener to the evening.

Joe LycettSecond up was Joe Lycett, whom we have seen here before and whom I remembered as being very good value. A doyen of young middle-class camp, his engaging conversational style gets you on his side right from the start, and we spent a half hour or so of idle chitchat that didn’t really go places but nor did it matter. He ended his set, like he did in 2012, with an amusing account of a difficult email conversation – it must be his stock in trade. This time it was about having to pay 30p to use the toilets at Euston Station, a fee about which Mr Lycett was not unreasonably peeved. Extremely funny, and very popular with the crowd.

Roger MonkhouseOur final act was Roger Monkhouse; again someone I remembered with fond hilarity from his previous Screaming Blue appearance. I hope Mr Monkhouse wouldn’t be offended if I were to say that facially he reminds me of what E.T. would look like if he was a General Practicioner. He has a rather quiet, intellectual style that gives him a good sense of authority when talking about politics and Other Important Issues. He also ended up directing some of his material at the Prince – including apologising for the state we’ve got the nation into and that his generation is going to have to pay for. Often political stuff doesn’t go down that well in Northampton, but Mr Monkhouse certainly hit our collective funnybone – maybe because it’s a general election year we’re going to be more attuned to it in 2015.

A great start to the season – next one is on February 6th. You really ought to come!

Review – The Theory of Everything, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 21st January 2015

The Theory of EverythingOne thing’s for sure – Stephen Hawking is a very clever man. He’s known for his intelligence, his books, his theories, and – let’s be honest – for his survival instinct. When you hear it, everyone recognises that metallic artificial voice and knows about the motor neurone disease that changed a fit and able young man into a completely physically paralysed one. Personally, I can’t recall ever seeing a photograph of him as a young man, and I must admit that I’ve never thought about his private life at all. It’s as though his intelligence and disability are a mask that prevents us or discourages us from seeing – or even considering – the actual man underneath. My bad.

Eddie RedmayneFor that reason alone, The Theory of Everything is an extraordinary film because it lifts the lid on this private and unique individual and shows us the course of events that takes us from 1963 to the present day. It’s based on his first wife Jane Wilde Hawking’s memoirs so one can presume it’s all pretty accurate. We relive Stephen and Jane’s undergraduate days, their early married life together, the progress of both his career and his disease, their growing family, and the way they grow apart in the directions of Stephen’s helper/carer Elaine and their family friend Jonathan. In many respects it’s an ordinary family saga, just set against the background of a brilliant brain and a hideous wasting disease.

Felicity JonesMathematics and Science really are a foreign language to me. I haven’t tried to learn the basics of what Mr Hawking’s philosophy is about, because I know I simply wouldn’t be able to understand it. I know I wouldn’t grasp the concepts in his books. In the film I was entranced by the sequences when he is writing out his equations on a blackboard; reams and reams of hieroglyphics of which I couldn’t follow even 1%. They’re just patterns to me. So for me it was a revelation to relate these random, non-understandable concepts to a real man, his real hands writing the equations out on a real blackboard, flowing out from his real brain. It’s not just textbook theory – it’s Mr Hawking’s life-blood, full of passion, hope, and ambition. He wants to find the equation that proves the theory of everything. If that isn’t ambitious, I don’t know what is. Call me shallow, but it had never occurred to me that these (for want of a better word) sums actually stemmed from the mind of an individual person. I just took them as a given. I guess 1+1=2 was actually the brainchild of some caveman once upon a time.

Harry LloydAnother aspect of the film that shows the human dimension of the man, rather than just singling out his brilliant brain, is the fact that people with disabilities are interested in sex too. This isn’t so much Does He Take Sugar? as Does He Use Condoms? – with the answer firmly in the negative. As the Hawking family continues to grow with more and more children – and Hawking’s disability seems to get worse and worse – I bet I wasn’t the only person in that cinema who thought “well just how the hell did he manage it?” That was also the suspicions of their contemporaries, as idle speculation from Jane’s parents and family wondered if Stephen really was the father of their third child – with suspicions alighting on their friend Jonathan. But no, Stephen is definitely the father, and it’s the mark of a classy film that they don’t feel the need to give us the ocular proof.

angry croquetVisually it’s a stunning film, with lovely settings of Cambridge in the 60s as the backdrop to Stephen and Jane’s blossoming romance: the river, the university buildings, railings full of bikes, idyllic lawns. There’s a memorable scene where Hawking is led into a very old-fashioned looking laboratory by his professor in an attempt to galvanise him into some great thoughts and ambitions for his thesis. It actually reminded me of the Biology classroom at my old school, and it’s precisely the kind of place you would expect to see in a traditional institution like Cambridge.

RomanceBut the really impressive heart of this film is in the acting. Eddie Redmayne delivers just about as perfect a performance as anyone could imagine as Stephen Hawking. From his faux-embarrassed brainboxy young undergraduate, to the world authority that he is today, Mr Redmayne captures a remarkable balance between expressing Mr Hawking’s character and portraying the physicality of his progressive disease. Over the course of the two hours you see Mr Redmayne literally deteriorate before your eyes in a way that you would have thought it was impossible to act – you would think he was genuinely suffering with the disease too. The strength of his voice also fades as the film continues, and somehow, facially, he even manages to recreate Mr Hawking’s trademark swollen lip; I guess that’s down to some clever make-up. His performance is clearly driven by sincerity and respect for the person he is representing; it’s a genuinely unbelievable piece of acting. I thought he was great as Marius in the film of Les Miserables – but this is a career-defining performance.

Stephen and JaneFelicity Jones plays Jane as a complete powerhouse of strength. The young undergraduate who spins around in joyful freedom by the side of the Cam when Hawking is trying to explain some cosmological law develops into the young woman who doesn’t flinch from the heavy demands of being married to someone with motor neurone disease. There’s one splendid scene where Miss Jones attempts to persevere with her own classical poetry studies, so easy to ignore as irrelevant compared with Hawking’s discoveries. There she sits, at a table, books spread everywhere, getting increasingly irritated that she can’t concentrate on the research that she wants because of family demands; but then she reassumes her role as wife and carer without comment or argument. It really conveys the challenges and stresses of her life. It’s a very thoughtful, honest performance; and also her growing fondness for Jonathan is portrayed with quiet respectability, decency and genuine affection.

Wedding DayI really enjoyed Harry Lloyd’s performance as Brian, Stephen’s university roommate and pal; bright, good-natured, funny, but supportive – the perfect credentials to be your best friend. The scene where Stephen tells him he is suffering from the disease and has two years to live is performed with utmost integrity. As the penny gradually drops, Mr Lloyd desperately faffs round trying to get his head around the fact that his friend won’t be around for long and that it will be a horrible death. Mr Redmayne meanwhile just calmly asks to be alone. It’s a perfectly acted scene. But Mr Lloyd gives great support throughout the whole film. There’s another dignified and mature performance from Charlie Cox as Jonathan, the choirmaster who helps both Stephen and Jane with the practicalities of life before slowly falling in love with Jane.

CambridgeHowever, for me the film isn’t an unmitigated success, because despite enjoying it – and thinking the lead performance was simply remarkable – I have to admit that I got a little bored by it. As Stephen’s condition worsens, and the difficulties he faces increase, I found there was a general glumness about the whole film that rather wore me down; and the last half hour or so felt a little bland and lacked a dramatic intensity, primarily because we know that in real life, the real Stephen Hawking is still alive and kicking and slaying cosmological dragons.

Charlie CoxI was also slightly irked that the film raises the question of Stephen only having two years to live, but never addresses the fact that this diagnosis was clearly wrong. Was the original doctor over-egging his pudding? Or is it an absolute miracle that Stephen Hawking is still alive? It’s a loose end I’d like tied up. I also felt the timescale was a little woolly throughout; it was hard to get a feel of the actual progression of years as the film went on. We know it started in 1963 but I couldn’t work out roughly what year any particular event might have taken place. Specifically I got confused by the car that Jonathan drives sometime after the third child has been born (when they go camping in France). It had a six digit number plate, meaning it was registered before 1963. But I believe we’re talking mid-80s when Hawking caught pneumonia in France. So either time had stood still, or Jonathan had a very old car.

Nevertheless, it is an excellent film that gives you an insight into the personal life of a very public figure, and it is crowned by a simply breathtaking performance by Eddie Redmayne. Highly recommended!

Review – Richard Herring, Lord of the Dance Settee, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 19th January 2015

Lord of the Dance SetteeI tend to think of Richard Herring in terms of Lee and Herring, his comedy partnership with Stewart Lee, whom we saw a while back and thought was absolutely ace; but a quick check on Wikipedia (so it must be true) informs me that their comedy duo-ship came to an end in 2000. So much for me keeping up with the times.

Anyway, I suppose this led me subconsciously to expect that Mr Herring’s act would be some kind of Stewart Lee Mark II. I don’t think I’ve actually seen or heard any of his TV and radio shows in the meantime, so booking for his tour was one of those acts of trust and hope. And so often that pays dividends. I can name many more comedians who we booked to see as virgins to their comedy style and who we subsequently really enjoyed, than those who disappointed. However, into every life some rain must fall, and thus it was that, despite Mr Herring’s bright, friendly, young-avuncular nature, and the fact that we were in a good mood ready for some rip-roaring comedy, we didn’t really enjoy his act much.

Richard HerringThere are some comics who get a good idea and then touch upon it lightly, before moving on in a scatter-gun approach and who don’t actually mine the optimum amount of comedy out of the idea. Then there are those who develop the idea further, make some clever observations, make you think twice about the world we live in, and make you laugh to a satisfactory degree to boot. Then there are comics like Mr Herring, who get an idea and absolutely batter it to death. No flimsy strand of potential jollity is left unteased out of his comic ideas, so that once he’s finally concluded any particular comedy module, its original idea is left bereft, a lifeless cadaver. His routine, for example, about “Dave Manager” goes on and on, taking what was a modestly amusing idea in the first place and then bludgeoning it to a pulp. He has another sequence of material where he constantly returns to the idea of an International Man’s Day. And again. And again. By the time he’s finished with it, you can’t remember why it was funny in the first place.

And that’s also, sadly, another problem we had – in that we didn’t find much of his material particularly funny to begin with. For me the show started promisingly, as a few subtle one-liners headed our way, him getting the feel of how the night was going to progress, and us getting acquainted with Mr Herring’s stage persona; but after about fifteen minutes I found that my natural smile at being the happy recipient of a comedian’s act had glazed into a fixed position that wouldn’t shift until it received some comic resuscitation. Mrs Chrisparkle laughed out loud a couple of times early on, but then afterwards I could tell from her body posture and generally lifeless reaction to the show that its entertainment value for her had upped sticks and was heading out of town.

Many HerringsIt’s only fair to point out that surrounding us were loads of people who were laughing their heads off. They were clearly fans having a terrific evening who found his particular style absolutely suited their comedy needs. So that was great, I was very pleased for them – and for him too. It was interesting to observe anyway, as the louder the audience response you knew the funnier the material was meant to be. The audience reaction became like a barometric guide to the evening, helpful when you don’t naturally find it that funny yourself. Basically, I sat for most of the show mildly entertained when he kept the material brief, but thoroughly irritated by it when he went into too much detail.

Bizarrely, for me one of the best parts of the evening was when he was exhorting us to buy the merchandise. When we saw Manfred Mann a couple of months ago, Paul Jones spent a long time describing each CD and each DVD and it all sounded embarrassingly desperate. Mr Herring described his DVDs with refreshing charm and modesty, and I’m sure the extensive line of fans queuing up afterwards to get him to sign DVDs will have a great time reliving old classics. Mrs C still finds the whole concept of merch promotion by performer a tad infra dig.

So all in all, I think you can sum it up as we just weren’t the right people for the gig. If you think you are the right person, then he’s touring nationally until June.

Review – The Sound of Music, Curve Theatre Leicester, 17th January 2015

The Sound of Music 2015Everybody loves The Sound of Music, don’t they? It was a natural choice for us to take our nieces Secret Agent Code November and Special Agent Code Sierra to see a show completely suitable for children. As indeed did the majority of the citizens of Leicester, judging from the number of children who were in Saturday’s matinee audience. All eager for a stage presentation of that sweet, wholesome musical film that generations have grown up with. Of course, the original stage version preceded the film by six years, but we don’t often think about that.

Do Re MiYou can smell that crisp, unpolluted Austrian countryside air. The delectable, yet innocent, Julie Andrews teaching children to sing Do-re-Mi. Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. High on a hill stood a lonely goatherd. Larks that are learning to pray. It’s the full package. Yes, of course there are Nazis, but you never really get the sense that they’re anything but plastic baddies creating a bit of an exciting chase towards the end of the film.

The Sound of Music 2007That used to be my opinion. Then on 9th April 2007 we saw the Palladium production starring Connie How do you solve a problem like Maria Fisher – except that it was one of the performances where Maria was played by Sophie Bould who normally played Liesl – and extremely good she was too. But the most memorable thing about that production was how, about three-quarters of the way through, the Palladium transformed itself into a Nazi rally, with huge swastika banners hurling down from the ceiling throughout the auditorium; and that simple device just took my breath away. It was really scary.

Maria and LieslSo there is definitely a blend of the sweet and the sour in this show. Mrs Chrisparkle and I once dressed up for a performance of Sing-along-a-Sound-of-Music at the Wycombe Swan. That experience certainly emphasised the sweet side of the story. Mrs C became a less than demure nun and I was a redoubtable, fully-kitted-out German Officer. The best dressed competition was tough for the ladies as the place was awash with nuns of all shapes and sizes. However, us German Officer lads were fewer and farther in between. Only half a dozen or so of us actually got on the stage to be voted on, and I think I was the only one who assumed any sort of character. I based my performance on Bernard Hepton in Colditz, only a bit more vicious. I got loads of boos and hisses. and won a rather lousy CD of cover versions of Sound of Music songs for my pains.

Seven childrenThe new production of The Sound of Music at the Leicester Curve – which ended its season on the 17th January – repeated the dream team of the previous year’s Chicago, being directed by Paul Kerryson (his swansong before standing down as Curve Artistic Director) and choreographed by up-and-coming dance genius Drew McOnie. It was a beautiful production, and I’m glad we managed to see it on its final day. Al Parkinson’s sets were stunning, on a grand scale. The severe looking bars that dropped down to represent the hallowed gated cloisters of the Abbey, with coloured lighting coming from imaginary stained glass windows; and the huge painting that appeared to suggest the Reverend Mother’s office gave it a real sense of substance and occasion. The surprisingly natural looking green mountain where Maria first appears, with its big strong trees descending into place made you want to go for a hike; the grandeur of the inside of Captain von Trapp’s villa made you feel like you were worth a million dollars. The Nazi element was also effectively portrayed, with the subtle regular introduction of swastikas on armbands as the show proceeds, and when the von Trapp children are performing at the Kaltzberg Festival there was no escaping our row (E of the stalls) as we had two Nazi “heavies” at either end, observing us closely and making sure we weren’t going to assist in any escape attempt. As if.

16 going on 17Recently a number of otherwise really good musicals have been spoiled by the sound amplification. In some – Calamity Jane, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels – it was really hard to hear the words at all because of the over-amplification. Well, all praise to the people twiddling the technical knobs at the Curve because the sound quality in this show was just perfect. The star roles were sung with impeccable exquisiteness anyway; but the overall clarity and purity of the sound throughout the performance was amazing.

Maria and the CaptainMaria was played by Laura Pitt-Pulford, who was a magnificent Irene in the Curve’s Hello Dolly a couple of years ago. It was a faultless performance; the singing, the humour, the warmth, the anguish, were all perfect. Seeing her Maria was like meeting an old friend – there’s a lot you remember from when you last met but since then they’ve got a few new tricks up their sleeve too. By the time she’d finished singing the opening “Sound of Music” theme I had goosebumps everywhere. I loved her relationship with the children – especially Emma Harrold’s Liesl (so much better in this show than in the awful Happy Days) – and her growing relationship with the Captain was very delicately portrayed. Her Ländler dance with him, after which one of the children, Brigitta, tells her that she’s obviously in love her dad, was one of those deep down, genuinely lovely moments.

RolfIn the performance we saw, the Captain was played by Mark Inscoe (who normally plays Max, and who we last saw as a villainous Claudius in Hamlet the Musical). His was a very different Captain from any other I’d seen, in that he didn’t come across as particularly tyrannical at first. He didn’t raise his voice in belligerence or strictness; he just liked households to run like a well-oiled machine. In fact he was like one of those very quiet level-headed bosses who you know will handle a crisis well – firmly but fairly. In many respects it’s a much more believable presentation, but it does also mean that his leaving the dark side and becoming nice again isn’t quite so dramatic. This Captain definitely reserves his tough side for dealing with the Nazi sympathisers rather than disobedient children. I very much enjoyed his performance though, including how he doesn’t have much time for his reprehensible pal Max (played on this occasion by Matt Harrop, who warmed into the role during the course of the show) and having a lot of flirtatiousness with the glamorous Frau Schräder, (she’s just a Frau here, she’s a Baroness in the film), played with style and vivacity by Emma Clifford (although Mrs C wasn’t convinced by her accent).

Climb Every MountainThe other outstanding performance was by Susannah van den Berg as the Mother Abbess. Previously we’d seen her in a relatively minor role in Fiddler on the Roof where she was clearly hiding her light under a bushel. Her Mother Abbess is a fantastic creation – balanced, witty and not afraid to be cruel to be kind. When she sang Climb Every Mountain before the interval, those goosebumps came back in droves. A total musical treat. There was also excellent support from Hannah Grace, Rebecca Ridout and Kate Manley as the Sisters with opposing views of how you solve a problem like Maria; an intelligent performance by Jack Wilcox as Rolf who seems kindly enough to Liesl in the superbly staged Sixteen Going on Seventeen, but proves himself a turncoat at the end; and an excellently nasty portrayal of Nazi enthusiast Herr Zeller by Patrick Moy.

EdelweissAnd then, of course, there are the children. A captain with seven children…. what’s so fearsome about that? I always enjoy that line. The programme lists a choice of two or three names against each child character but with no photos so I’m afraid I don’t know which particular actors we saw in our performance. Suffice to say they were all excellent. I do think they were probably considerably older than the children they were playing – especially the character of seven-year-old Marta who seemed very mature – but they never put a foot or a vocal chord wrong throughout. You’re not meant to have favourites with kids, but little Gretl was outstandingly cute, and Kurt was impishly decent in his dancing with Maria. Their So Long Farewell was definitely a highlight of the show.

Frau SchräderAll in all, a superb production that looked and sounded absolutely great throughout. A very fitting send-off for Paul Kerryson, and a tribute to the wonderful theatre that he has steered artistically over the past few years. We all loved the show, and have been singing the songs with irritating regularity ever since!

Review – The Burlesque Show, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 16th January 2015

Burlesque ShowAlways keenly awaited, it’s the return of the Burlesque Show to Northampton for its annual couple of nights at the Royal, the perfect venue for such an intimate show. New to Burlesque? One thing you should know is that there are lots of providers of Burlesquerie out there, and you have to choose your supplier wisely. On our first ever trip to the Edinburgh fringe last August we attended a Best of Burlesque show, produced by Impresario Chaz Royal. It was not only the worst Burlesque we’ve ever seen, it was also probably the worst professional performance of any type I have ever seen, in 47 years of theatregoing. Well maybe second worst after the National Theatre of Zambia’s unintentionally hilarious Othello in 1979. Instead, my advice is to stick with the Burlesque Shows from the Ministry of Burlesque. They are so much funnier and classier.

Peggy SuedIf you’d seen last year’s Burlesque Show, you would perhaps be up for fewer surprises than usual, as there was some repetition. Not, however, in the form of our hostess, the bubbly and contortionally supple Miss Abigail Collins in her guise as Peggy Sued. She MC’d the evening with cheeky deftness, an eye to any naughty opportunities that came her way, and not a little bravery. Facially she reminded me of Jenny Éclair; however, bodily she was somewhat different. Imagine Jenny Éclair, legs stretched out at outrageous angles, clad in a skimpy leotard, balancing a cocktail glass on her forehead. That’s the nearest I can get to one particular lasting image from the evening. Or, imagine her supported (if that’s the right word) by two burly blokes from the audience (Geoff and Frank), part of one of her limbs resting on each guys shoulders as they wobble and move apart from each other, which could have resulted in yet a further drain on the resources of the local A&E. Or, think of her with ten hoops, each representing an ex-husband, lithely whirling them round her body in a rhythmic trance; that’s one helluva hoopla. She’s a very funny and skilful performer who held the whole show together with her irrepressible spirit and a sense of dangerous unpredictability. She also sparred sporadically with stagehand Arran, ostensibly a grumpy teenager with a penchant for backwards baseball caps, but in real life the show’s producer and better known as Burlesque Darling Miss Kittie Klaw, whom it would be great to see performing again.

Alexandra HofgartnerOur first act was Miss Alexandra Hofgartner, who gave us a spellbinding acrobatic act straight out of old fashioned variety, supported only by two thin sheets of material dangling down from the roof. It’s the kind of act that crosses all languages, all cultures, all classes, and can’t fail to entertain. Plus instead of a lean female athlete with barely any figure you have the splendid Miss Hofgartner, who is all woman. I wouldn’t normally comment or prize performers on the strength of their looks or sex appeal – but it’s different with Burlesque. An element of titillation is the name of the game.

Elliot MasonSecond was comedy singer and guitarist Elliot Mason, and this was the third time we’ve seen him at one of these shows. The first time we saw him I thought he was hilarious. The second time, which was six months later, he did precisely the same act and songs and I thought he was repetitious. Two years have passed since we last saw him and I am happy to recognise that he is essentially a very funny guy with a gift for making nonsense songs out of banal observations. I’m afraid Mrs Chrisparkle doesn’t quite get his sense of humour, but you can’t please all the people all the time. When he returned after the interval he sang his Identity Fraud song, which is a real crowd-pleaser.

Betty Blue EyesNext we met Miss Betty Blue Eyes, a Burlesque performer of real wit and style. She performed two routines during the course of the show and they were both inventive, sexy and funny. In the first half she did a wonderful reverse-strip, where less and less of her became visible each time she appeared to take something off; an extremely clever way of going about things. For Eurovision fans, it put me in mind of the 2002 winner Marija Naumova from Latvia and her routine to her song “I Wanna”, where she changes from man to woman during the course of the number (and when she did her winning reprise, changed back from woman to man). For non-Eurovision fans, I apologise for that diversion. Miss B-B-E’s second appearance was an homage to Liberace, which included, inter alia, an unlikely performance on a tiny piano and a very long, flexible keyboard. She’s precisely what makes Burlesque a unique form of entertainment.

Rod LaverOur next performer was Rod Laver, and what he can’t do with a ping-pong ball is nobody’s business. In fact, what he can’t do with five of them is even more appropriate. He has a marvellously lugubrious appearance, looking as though he might have escaped from a very elderly and traditional orchestra somewhere, which makes the ludicrousness of his variety act even more entertaining. It’s a very funny act and always goes down well with the audience, even if he did do precisely the same act two years ago. And again, when he returns in the second half, with the aforementioned Alexandra Hofgarner, they performed the same Weimar Republic style cabaret act that they did two years ago – but it’s refreshingly funny if you haven’t seen it before. A couple of Mr Laver’s tricks went wrong, however, which was worth it to see Miss Hofgartner’s reaction; a mere flicker of her eyes suggesting increased levels of passivity but with added condescension.

Immodesty BlaizeMore traditional Burlesque came our way in the form of Miss Immodesty Blaize, a stunningly attractive and award-winning performer who stripped her way through two classic routines. This was probably Burlesque at its purest – if that’s not a contradiction in terms – and perhaps what anyone new to Burlesque might expect from the evening. Each of our three Burlesque belles had their own unique contributions to make to the show. Miss Blue-Eyes has the inventiveness, Miss Hofgartner has the attitude; and Miss Blaize knows how to look good wearing (and not wearing) a seductive Flamenco outfit.

Pete FirmanTop of the bill was the brilliant magician Mr Pete Firman, whom we saw in the last Burlesque Show but also in his terrific Trickster show here a few months ago. He wowed us with his trick where he gets a £20 note from someone in the audience, does despicable things with it, yet somehow it reappears and no harm is done. Getting to that final point includes a bag of monkey nuts and a lot of cajoling the members of the audience he chooses to help him. A bit of an uphill struggle with the guys he chose – but that only inspires him to be funnier with his chat. I’ve absolutely no idea how he makes that trick work – it defies all the laws of empirical science that you would normally take for granted. I’m just going to have to keep watching.

Fantastic entertainment for grown-ups. Long may the Ministry continue to provide us with our annual Burlesque-fest!

Review of the year 2014 – The Fifth Annual Chrisparkle Awards

Once again our esteemed panel of one has met to consider all the wonderful shows we’ve seen in the previous year so that we can distribute plaudits to the arts world in Northampton, Sheffield, Leicester and beyond! Actors, directors and producers, musicians, dancers and entertainers have all striven to make it to the 2014 Chrisparkle Awards short list, which this year relates to shows I have seen and blogged between 17th January 2014 and 11th January 2015. There’s lots to get through, so let’s start!

As always, the first award is for Best Dance Production (Contemporary and Classical).

I saw six dance productions last year, all of which I remember with much admiration and affection, from which I have struggled to whittle down to a shortlist of four. And here are the top three:

In 3rd place, the powerful and hard-hitting dance version by Matthew Bourne of Lord of the Flies, which we saw in May at the Birmingham Hippodrome.

In 2nd place, the marvellously inventive, comic and moving modern dance drama, Drunk, by Drew McOnie’s McOnie Company, which I saw at the Leicester Curve in January and again at the Bridewell Theatre in February.

In 1st place, a company absolutely at the peak of its powers, the stunning programme by Richard Alston Dance Company that we saw at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in September.

Classical Music Concert of the Year.

Of the five concerts we saw in 2014, these are the top three:

In 3rd place, the Night with the Stars gala concert, by the Worthing Symphony Orchestra aka the Malcolm Arnold Festival Orchestra, with soloists Julian Bliss and Martin James Bartlett at the Derngate, in October.

In 2nd place, John Williams plays Rodrigo’s Guitar Concerto, plus Stephen Goss’ Guitar Concerto and Gershwin’s An American in Paris, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Derngate in June.

In 1st place, Mozart’s Requiem, together with Alexandra Dariescu’s performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 21, with the RPO at the Derngate in February.

Best Entertainment Show of the Year.

This is the all-purpose, everything else category that includes pantos, circuses, reviews and anything else hard to classify.

In 3rd place, The Burlesque Show at the Royal Theatre, Northampton, in January 2014.

In 2nd place, the amazingly entertaining and funny two hours of magic in Pete Firman’s Trickster show, at the Royal, Northampton, in November.

In 1st place, and I think I have categorised this correctly because you can’t call it either a play or a musical, but it is devastatingly funny, Forbidden Broadway, at the Menier Chocolate Factory in July.

Best Star Standup of the Year.

It was a very good year for seeing big star name stand-up comedians this year – we saw fifteen of them! Only a couple disappointed, so it’s been very hard to whittle down to a final five; but here goes:

In 5th place, Russell Brand in his Messiah Complex tour, at the Derngate in April.

In 4th place, John Bishop’s Work in Progress show at the Royal, in June.

In 3rd place, Paul Chowdhry’s PC’s World at the Royal, in October.

In 2nd place, Trevor Noah in his “The Racist” tour, also at the Royal, in January.

In 1st place, Russell Kane in his Smallness tour show at the Warwick Arts Centre in February.

Best Stand-up at the Screaming Blue Murder nights in Northampton.

Always a hotly contested award; Of the thirty-three comics that we’ve seen at Screaming Blue Murder last year thirteen made the shortlist, and the top five are:

In 5th place, the Plusnet man on the adverts, who cornered Mrs Chrisparkle and I into telling the entire audience how we met, Craig Murray (12th September)

In 4th place, a comedian whose made-up character of Troy Hawke reminded us of a filthy Clark Gable, Milo McCabe (26th September)

In 3rd place, the commanding, intelligent and ludicrous material of Brendan Dempsey (10th October)

In 2nd place, local lad the razor sharp Andrew Bird (16th May)

In 1st place, someone who took control of a baying audience in the funniest and most inventive way Russell Hicks (11th April).

Best Musical.

Like last year, this is a combination of new musicals and revivals, and we had fifteen to choose from. It was very tough indeed to pick between the top three, but somehow I did it. Here goes:

In 5th place, the ebullient and thoroughly enjoyable Guys and Dolls at the Chichester Festival Theatre in September.

In 4th place, the lively and inventive story of The Kinks in Sunny Afternoon at the Harold Pinter Theatre in December.

In 3rd place, the daring and emotional The Scottsboro Boys at the Garrick in December.

In 2nd place, the stylish and hilarious Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at the Savoy in September.

In 1st place, the stunning revival of Gypsy at the Chichester Festival Theatre in October.

Best New Play.

As always, this is my definition of a new play – so it might have been around before but on its first UK tour, or a new adaptation of a work originally in another format. An extremely difficult decision here as it involves comparing uproarious comedy with searing drama; but somehow I chose a final five from the nine contenders:

In 5th place, Alan Ayckbourn’s thought-provoking and very funny Arrivals and Departures, at the Oxford Playhouse in February.

In 4th place, the sombre and intense Taken at Midnight at the Minerva Theatre Chichester in October.

In 3rd place, the moving and beautiful Regeneration, at the Royal in September.

In 2nd place, the laugh-until-your-trousers-are-wet Play That Goes Wrong at the Royal in May.

In 1st place, the claustrophobic, immaculately staged and haunting The Body of an American Underground at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in March.

Best Revival of a Play.

Thirteen made the shortlist, easy to sort out a top nine, but really hard to sort out the top five:

In 5th place, the delightful Relative Values at the Harold Pinter in June.

In 4th place, the star-vehicle for Angela Lansbury but a strong production too of Blithe Spirit at the Gielgud in April.

In 3rd place, the atmospheric and brutal Dealer’s Choice at the Royal in June.

In 2nd place, the powerful yet funny Translations at the Sheffield Crucible in March.

In 1st place, the stunning, all-encompassing Amadeus at the Chichester Festival Theatre in August.

Brief pause to consider the turkey of the year – there were plenty of candidates this year, but in the end I plumped for the tedium-fest that was Wonderful Tennessee at the Lyceum Theatre Sheffield in March.

Best play – Edinburgh

In the first of three new awards, this category is for the best play we saw at the Edinburgh Fringe. It could be a comedy or a serious play, new or revival, grand scale or all perched on a couch. There were five serious contenders, and very tight at the top between two plays, but in the end I am awarding this new Chrisparkle award to Trainspotting performed by In Your Face Theatre at the Hill Street Drama Lodge.

Best entertainment – Edinburgh

The second new award is for the best show in Edinburgh that wasn’t a play – so it could be a musical, a review, comedy stand-up, magic, dance, you name it. And the winner is Margaret Thatcher, Queen of Soho at the Assembly George Square Gardens.

Best film

The last of the three new awards is for the best film I’ve seen all year, no matter what its subject matter. Twelve Years a Slave and The Imitation Game came close, but I’m giving it to Pride.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical.

Ten contenders in the shortlist, but the top four were very easy to identify:

In 4th place, Jodie Prenger’s’s spirited Jane in Calamity Jane at the Milton Keynes Theatre in March.

In 3rd place, the amazingly versatile and surely soon to be a star Debbie Kurup in Anything Goes at the Sheffield Crucible in January 2015.

In 2nd place, the wonderfully funny and sad performance by Sophie Thompson as Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls at the Chichester Festival Theatre in September.

In 1st place, probably the strongest central performance by any performer in a musical ever, the extraordinary Imelda Staunton in Gypsy at the Chichester Festival Theatre in October.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical.

Again ten fine performances in the shortlist, but here’s my top five:

In 5th place, for his sheer joie de vivre, the dynamic George McGuire for his role as Dave Davies in Sunny Afternoon at the Harold Pinter in December.

In 4th place, Alexander Hanson’s strangely vulnerable title character in Stephen Ward at the Aldwych Theatre in February.

In 3rd place, Paul Michael Glaser’s funny, realistic and sincere Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof at the Derngate in April.

In 2nd place, Robert Lindsay for his sheer style and panache in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at the Savoy in September.

In 1st place, Brandon Victor Dixon’s stunning performance as the principled, tragic Haywood Patterson in The Scottsboro Boys at the Garrick in December.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Play.

Twelve in the shortlist, but a relatively easy final three:

In 3rd place a wonderful comic tour de force from Sara Crowe in Fallen Angels at the Royal in February.

In 2nd place, the emotional but still very funny performance by Caroline Quentin in Relative Values at the Harold Pinter in June.

In 1st place, the strong, dignified performance by Penelope Wilton in Taken at Midnight at the Minerva Theatre Chichester in October.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Play.

Twenty-two contenders in my shortlist, and I whittled it down to this:

In 5th place, Aaron Neil for his hilarious portrayal of the useless police commissioner in Great Britain at the Lyttelton, National Theatre in July.

In 4th place, Rupert Everett still on amazing form as Salieri in Amadeus at the Chichester Festival Theatre in August.

In 3rd place, Kim Wall for his brilliant performance as the kindly Barry in Arrivals and Departures at the Oxford Playhouse in February.

In 2nd place (or maybe 1st), William Gaminara as Paul in The Body of an American Underground at the Royal and Derngate in March.

In 1st place (or maybe 2nd), Damien Molony as Dan also in The Body of an American Underground at the Royal and Derngate in March.

Theatre of the Year.

A new winner this year. For a remarkably strong programme, comfortable welcoming theatres, and a fantastically improved dining experience, this year’s Theatre of the Year award goes to the Festival Theatre/Minerva Theatre, Chichester, with the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, and the Menier Chocolate Factory, close behind.

It’s been a great year – and thanks to you gentle reader for accompanying me on the trip. I hope we have another fantastic year of theatre to enjoy together in 2015!

Review – Giselle, Moscow City Ballet, Royal and Derngate, 12th January 2015

GiselleThe Moscow City Ballet regularly tour in the UK – in fact I don’t think they ever go anywhere near Mother Russia – and this is the third time we’ve seen them at the Royal and Derngate. They normally perform two ballets in the same week – this week they’re doing Swan Lake and Giselle. Having seen some pretty ropey classical ballet here in Northampton on occasions, the Moscow City Ballet is more or less the only company currently touring where you can have absolute confidence that they will do justice to a big show with technical excellence. It’s entertainment on a grand scale. Whilst the sets are more practical than elaborate (to be honest the Big Bad Wolf could blow them down with a small sneeze), and the props have an element of fancy-dress shop about them, no expense is spared on the lavish costumes, so it all looks lush and plush. It’s a large company, so a big stage like the Derngate is a good match for a corps de ballet of 18 ballerinas, let alone their male suitors; and the performances benefit from a gutsy live performance by a full orchestra, under the baton of Igor Shavruk.

Fun Dance in Act OneFew things are more elegant, refined, and, let’s face it, anachronistic, than the whole culture of Russian Classical Ballet. Don’t get me wrong – I love it. I love everything about it; may it never cease. The skill, the artistry, the music, the Petipa-style choreography; but above all, the amusing little conventions. Ever since we first saw the Trocks, I cannot help but smile at all the tell-tale rituals that form part of a classical ballet performance. I love how a dancer will do a solo and then stop the flow of the performance to come back on for a round of applause. I love how the story-telling aspects of any ballet will inevitably include asking whether someone is married by pointing at their ring finger. I love how a “no” is indicated by a frown and two arms crossing each other outwards. And I love how the guys hanging around the edges of the stage floatily wave their arms in recognition and admiration whenever a more senior dancer gets anywhere near them. Wouldn’t it be great to adopt that practice in the office? Stand by the photocopier and whenever anyone wants to use it, wave magnanimously at them. When you’re asked if you want sugar in your coffee, frown and cross your arms outwards. I think this could have legs.

Giselle and AlbrechtMrs Chrisparkle and I have seen Giselle once before, performed by the Birmingham Royal Ballet, probably at least ten years ago, but I’d forgotten the story and structure. It’s definitely a game of two halves, with the first act being the story of how innocent, delicate, feeble of health Giselle is wooed by Duke Albrecht, thinking he is but a mere peasant boy; but also pursued by a gamekeeper called Hilarion. She falls for Albrecht but when she discovers He Is Not Who He Appears To Be, she loses her mind, has a heart-attack and dies. Limited scope for humour here. In the second act, we visit Giselle’s grave, where Hilarion mourns her death but he gets a dose of the Wilis (that’s the spirits of women jilted at the altar, if you were in doubt), who have a tendency to dance men to death in an act of choreographic revenge. That’s precisely what happens to the hapless Hilarion, but when they turn on Albrecht, also mourning at the grave, he gets an inner strength because the spirit of Giselle forgives him; thus he dances his way out of danger, and her spirit is released from the hold of the Wilis. And they all die happily ever after, you might say.

Death of HilarionIn the same way that you don’t go to Shakespeare for the madrigals, you don’t really go to the ballet for the story. You go to admire the beautiful dancing, the emotions, the pointe work, the angles, the stamina, the precision, the speed, the stillness, the balance… you get the picture. I really enjoyed their Don Quixote last year, but I would say the overall quality of the performance in this year’s Giselle is even better.

High emotionAny production of Giselle relies heavily on an excellent performance from the dancer playing that lead role, and on Monday night’s performance, Liliya Orekhova was outstanding. Innocence personified, incredibly elegant, she created beautiful clear lines, performed remarkable solos and made it all look effortless. But Mrs C and I were both also really impressed with Ekaterina Tokareva as Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, who absolutely commanded the entire second act with her amazing pointe work, and incredible stage presence.

Wilis everywhereTalgat Kozhabaev gave a really top quality performance as Albrecht, full of power and accuracy, tempered with grace and personality. He and Miss Orekhova are perfectly matched and their pas de deux were always impressively controlled whilst still full of life and emotion. I was also impressed with Artem Minakov’s performance as Hilarion, especially in the second act when his “death dance” was really stunning. In the first act pas de deux we thought Andrei Zhuravlev gave a great performance, even if his white tights made it look as though his legs had been tippexed all over. However, we did feel that Miss Yuliya Zhuravleva was perhaps a little under-warmed-up; not quite a pas de don’t, but rather tentative at times. Nevertheless, when she returned as one of the Wilis, she performed with incredible grace, strength and elegance. The corps de ballet were on great form throughout, and the overall effect of their work together and the images they created in the second act were magnificent.

Albrecht rescuedAs always, a very rewarding and exhilarating night of classical dance. You can’t go wrong with this really reliable company. They’re touring until April, and I’d thoroughly recommend them.

PS. Stop Press – Coming Very Soon – The Fifth Annual Chrisparkle Awards!

Review – Assassins, Menier Chocolate Factory, 11th January 2015

AssassinsThe musical theatre is a very broad church. Only a few hours ago I was writing about how Anything Goes is a brilliant show but ever so lightweight. Today I am writing about Assassins, also a brilliant show (in a different way) but as dark as dark can be. If Anything Goes can be likened to nibbling at a stick of candy floss (and I think it can), Assassins is like tucking in to a lump of nutty slack. It first hit the UK stage in 1992, at a time when Mrs Chrisparkle and I didn’t see much theatre, so it’s great to be able to fill in the gaps of one’s Sondheim knowledge. Up till now the only link I had between the notion of assassins and musicals theatre was a character called The Assassin, who sang “I’m an A double S a double S I N”, from Tim Rice’s long forgotten Blondel. I think I used to irritate Mrs C by singing it a lot. Fortunately it’s a phase I’ve grown out of.

EnsembleSondheim’s assassins are not really in the Tim Rice mould. The show takes several famous assassins (or wannabe assassins), all of whom had a crack at taking out an American President (and I don’t mean on a dinner date). The show gathers them together and makes them confront each other, even though in real life they lived at different times and places. Sondheim forces them to look at their motives, their modus operandi, and their influence on each other. They challenge each other, they support each other, they goad each other on; and, for the most part, they each come to a sticky end. All this jollity set in a nightmare fantasy fairground. Well, where else would you set such a show? In fact when you descend those old steps into the Menier auditorium it’s like going to Luna Park in Sydney – a thoroughly creepy experience. The place is littered with all sorts of fairground ephemera, including those huge open mouthed clown faces and a decrepit old dodgems car. You have pick your way quite carefully to your seat, which may include encroaching on the stage a little -which is in traverse for this performance, something the Menier lends itself to superbly well.

RehearsalsRegular readers (bless you), may recollect my mantra that I prefer a brave failure to a lazy success. Well, this is an extremely brave and innovative show, and I certainly wouldn’t class it a failure by any means. To be fair, you couldn’t call it Sondheim’s strongest score, and I can’t really remember any of the tunes; but it’s very enjoyable. However, when it was all over, Mrs C and I looked at each other and just felt completely baffled by the whole thing. If I were to be able to ask Mr Sondheim just one question about it, it would be the one word: “why?” It’s an incredibly niche content – not just murderers, but assassins; not just assassins but assassins of US Presidents. I can’t believe Sondheim had people knocking at his door begging for this to be the subject matter of his latest show. I can only put it down to a huge burst of creative eccentricity.

in your faceOne of the great things about the Menier is its intimacy. When you sit in row A, our usual chosen position, you’re within touching distance of the cast. Assassins has a cast of sixteen, the majority of whom are all on stage at the same time, and when they’re doing fairly intricate and powerful dance moves and gestures in that relatively small area, it feels incredibly close. There’s a lot of bringing your feet in as much as possible so you can’t trip anyone up (never send a murderer arse over tip is a good motto I feel); and there are some sequences when the cast sit on chairs staring out at the audience, which is an opportunity to see if you can out-stare them. They’ve practised that – they always out-stare you back. Much of Chris Bailey’s choreography is quite stompy (not a criticism, merely an observation), and as the cast stomp around you, you can feel yourself literally shaking in your seat. This is an all-round experience production – loud, vibrating, vivid, powerful and literally in-your-face. No one’s going to nod off during this show.

PInch in the Comedy of ErrorsWhilst there are some star names in the cast, it’s very much an ensemble piece, and it’s hard to identify any particular role that outweighs the others – apart, perhaps, from the central character, “the Proprietor”, played by Simon Lipkin, whose fairground (I presume) we inhabit. He spends most of the show standing up to the assassins and getting regularly shot by them, all the time masked in the most terrifying circus make up. If you see Mr Lipkin’s face in the programme, you’d never believe they were the same person. Imagine an elaborately painted clown’s face that has been left out in the rain for an hour or so, resulting in streams of contrasting colours trickling down and ruining his vest. It’s a long shot, but if you remember the RSC’s Comedy of Errors from the late 1970s, his appearance reminded me strongly of Doctor Pinch, the Schoolmaster. I really enjoyed Mr Lipkin’s performance – powerful, terrifying, intense; the stuff of nightmares.

Balladeer and ProprietorAnother slightly strange role is that of the Balladeer. For the first three-quarters of the show, he sings and strums his banjo on the sidelines, commenting on the action, like an Everyman figure; pivotal in the show numbers but neither, as far as one can make out, an assassin nor a victim. However, towards the end he becomes Lee Harvey Oswald, antagonised by John Wilkes Booth (who despatched Abraham Lincoln) into committing a crime you feel he had no reason to undertake other than that supreme sense of flattery when everyone knows your name. He’s played by one of our favourite performers, Jamie Parker; you always know you’re in very safe hands with him in the cast.

Catherine Tate Andy Nyman Carly BawdenThe majority of the male assassins are rather dour creatures. David Roberts’ Leon Czolgosz, the anarchist who assassinated President McKinley, could be mistaken for Lenin on a dark night, despairingly flitting across the stage in an angst-ridden quest for justice, until he goes all gooey eyed at his heroine Emma Goldman – it’s an unexpectedly amusing scene between them. I was very impressed with Harry Morrison’s performance as John Hinckley, who attempted to assassinate Reagan; a seething mass of vengeance under a barely concealed veneer of calm – so different from the Mr Morrison we enjoyed a few months ago in Chichester’s Guys and Dolls, which is, coincidentally, where was last saw Jamie Parker too.

Mike McShaneSteward Clarke’s Giuseppe Zangara, who attempted assassination on Franklin D Roosevelt, is portrayed as a vicious, angry victim himself – driven mental because of his constant stomach pains., Mr Clarke’s unnervingly wild eyes contribute to a very compelling performance, particularly when Zangara meets his electrifying death. Mike McShane, dressed as a rather bedraggled Santa Claus for a reason I couldn’t quite make out, takes the role of Samuel Byck, the unhinged wannabe assassin of Richard Nixon, whose murderous attempt was somewhat hapless and ended up with him killing himself instead. Mr McShane is a fine actor with a great stage presence, but I found his monologues where he is recording messages to Leonard Bernstein just a bit too long, and lacking in dramatic tension. It’s the only place where I felt John Weidman’s book needed some trimming.

Aaron TveitOn the other hand, a couple of the male assassins were much brighter characters. The always entertaining Andy Nyman (who we’ve seen at the Menier twice before – has he taken up residence?) plays Charles Guiteau (assassin of President Garfield), bouncing around the stage like an excited puppy. He’s obsessed with becoming Ambassador to France, and is clearly a maverick and a charlatan, and immense fun to watch. His death by hanging scene is a great piece of stagecraft, encompassing tragedy and hilarity at the same time. Broadway favourite Aaron Tveit takes the role of John Wilkes Booth, bestriding the stage, moustachioed like Van Dyck, cajoling and coaxing many a wannabe assassin into action. With controlled power, Mr Tveit gives us almost every emotion under the sun; never let him near an empty coke bottle. It’s a very enjoyable performance.

More AssassinsThere are only two female assassins, both of whom acted in collaboration with each other in two separate attempts to assassinate Gerald Ford: Lynette “Squeaky” Fromme, played by the excellent Carly Bawden (unforgettable as Eliza in Sheffield’s My Fair Lady), and TV favourite Catherine Tate as Sara Jane Moore. Carly Bawden is wonderfully irrepressible as Fromme, balancing no-nonsense serious threats with totally loopy adoration of Charles Manson; and Catherine Tate is hilarious as the rather inept and definitely thick Moore, taking her son and her dog to the assassination, hurling bullets manually at the President when the gun doesn’t work (which is one of the funniest things I’ve seen on stage in a long time). If you like Catherine Tate’s TV show, you’ll love her in this – Sara Jane Moore would fit perfectly into her repertoire of weird and wacky characters. Mind you, I’d better be careful what I say about Moore and Fromme as they’re both out on parole now.

Watch those gunsA big theatrical experience, with a great band, costumes, make up, and set; more gunshots than you would normally expect in a lifetime at the theatre; and a colourful finale that cleverly covers the entire stage and some of the seats in a sea of blood (don’t worry, it’s an illusion, you don’t get wet). A very high impact production and, rarely for me, one of the occasions when not having an interval feels strangely appropriate. Whilst there is some humour, it’s not what you’d call a Musical Comedy; and I can’t say that you leave the theatre on a high – we left it rather shell-shocked at what we’d seen. But it’s certainly a stunner. It’s on at the Menier until 7th March, but if you haven’t booked, it’s too late as the whole of the rest of the run is sold out. There’s got to be the potential of a transfer, surely – but it needs to be kept intimate, so as to preserve the claustrophobic power of the whole thing. Congratulations to the Menier, another winner!

Production photographs by Nobby Clark

Review – Anything Goes, Sheffield Crucible, 3rd January 2015

Anything GoesIf you’ve followed the first part of our annual post-Christmas Sheffield shindig, you’ll know that Mrs Chrisparkle and I, together with Lady Duncansby and her butler William enjoyed a riotous afternoon of panto comedy with Dick Whittington. After hotel check-in, a brief nap and woofing down a Café Rouge Salad Paysanne and Coupe Rouge, it was time to return to the Crucible to see Daniel Evans’ production of Cole Porter’s Anything Goes. About ten years ago, Mrs C and I took the Dowager Mrs C to see Trevor Nunn’s version at Drury Lane. I think she quite enjoyed it – I think we both found it a trifle dull. In many respects, it’s the kind of musical I usually don’t like much – lots of set pieces, very slight story, a stop-starty structure; designed to be entertaining for its two and a half hours duration, then disappearing into the ether once it’s over – pure stage candy floss. I like my musicals to have a bit more oomph, some depth, and some tragedy mixed in with the comedy.

Debbie KurupIn a nutshell, Anything Goes is the simple tale of person a) being in love with b) but b) is engaged to c) and d) quite fancies a) too. A)’s boss e) is travelling to England on board the SS American but so are b) and c) and even though a) might well lose his job over it, he doesn’t get off the ship so that he can tell b) how much he loves her. Meanwhile f) and g) are on the run from the law and the whole lot of them end up on board ship; and 165 minutes later, they all live happily ever after. Not a lot to it really. To be fair, there is a fascinating sub-theme running through the show regarding the cult of celebrity – which is here seen as very amoral. When a) is suspected of being Snake-Eyes Johnson (Public Enemy No 1), rather than be terrified of him or want him captured and taken off the ship, the passengers all want his autograph and he gets to sit on the Captain’s Table. But when he is revealed as just simple a), he goes from hero to zero in a split-second. Apart from that, it’s a plot as slim as Mr Creosote’s wafer-thin mint.

I Get A KickThe thing is, Cole Porter knew how to write a choon. Depending on your definitions (and taste), this show contains at least six show-stoppers, five of them before the interval, which makes for a slight sense of imbalance. I Get A Kick Out Of You was one the first Cole Porter songs I loved – and that was because of Gary Shearston’s moody 1974 pop single, remember that? It’s the first song you hear in Anything Goes and it never feels to me like a show-opener, because it’s too mid-tempo, too I’ve considered the situation and this is the position I’ve arrived at and not enough opening gambit. But it’s a terrific song. Actually, I’m not really sure if any of the songs have that much connection with their alleged role in the show, they’re much more like individual celebrations of song-and-danciness. You could pick them up and plonk them down anywhere you like and they’d still work. And that’s actually what has happened. A number of them were originally in other Porter musicals – for example, Friendship was written for DuBarry Was A Lady, and It’s De-Lovely for Red, Hot and Blue – they’re generic musical numbers that can slot in anywhere. It’s no wonder you just get that slight feeling that the actual show structure is somehow compromised.

Zoe RaineyI may be giving you the impression that I didn’t enjoy this show very much, but nothing could be further from the truth. It’s an outstanding production. It all looks and sounds so ravishing that no one could be immune to its charms. The cast play their parts with such verve and gusto that you get carried along on a sea of delight that masks any weaknesses in the plot.

Zoe Rainey and Matt RawleRichard Kent’s design is awash with primary colours and both Mrs C and I admired the very clever curve of the flooring upwards at the back of the stage to suggest the length of the ship carrying on way into the distance. Then there’s Alastair David’s choreography. Once again he has come up trumps with some incredible set pieces, just like he did with My Fair Lady and Oliver! The extended tap-dancing sequence to accompany the title song just before the interval is simply superb. It brings out the best in the ensemble boys and girls – extraordinarily good throughout the show – and it’s one of those theatrical moments that just lifts you to a new high; their energy transfers to the audience and fills you with more sweetness than any air freshener.

Stephen Matthews and Zoe RaineyThe whole cast are uniformly excellent. I’ve not seen Debbie Kurup before – she plays Reno Sweeney (d if you’re following the synopsis in paragraph 2), the nightclub singer who gets caught up with all sorts of shenanigans assisting her pal Billy (a) and ends up marrying posh nobility in the form of Evelyn (c). She is a fantastic entertainer. Terrific stage presence, wonderful voice, great dancer and incredibly watchable. Surely she will become a big star one day. I particularly loved her spirited rendition of Blow Gabriel Blow, another song you could more or less scoop up from any lesser show and plant as a show-stopper wherever you like. Matt Rawle plays Billy Crocker, the young Wall Street broker in love with Hope Harcourt (b) – he’s also a very talented musical performer whom we really enjoyed as Che in Evita; he glides effortlessly through this role, pattering his way expertly through You’re The Top and It’s De-Lovely.

Hugh SachsZoe Rainey – excellent in the Royal and Derngate’s Dancing at Lughnasa in 2013 – makes for a stylish, emotional Hope, making the best of her engagement to Evelyn and attempting to parry the ripostes of her mother Evangeline, played by Jane Wymark, on splendid form as usual. Then there are three very funny chaps: Stephen Matthews is a brilliant Evelyn – the epitome of the show’s Wodehousian origins (P. G. co-wrote the original book) – his great comic timing working wonders with the song The Gypsy in Me (which was originally sung by Hope – see how the songs just get criss-crossed or mixed and matched). Simon Rouse gives good bluster as Elisha Whitney (e – hope you’re keeping up) with some nice physical comedy when he gets his glasses nicked and holds out hope for a passionate experience with Evangeline. And Hugh Sachs gives a thoughtfully understated comic performance as Moonface Martin, Public Enemy No 13 and (f).

EnsembleWe loved Alex Young as Erma (g) – a real gutsy performance, full of fun. She really shines in this kind of role, just as she did in High Society a couple of years back. She’s obviously made for Cole Porter. And there’s another fantastic performance from Bob Harms as the Captain (we saw him in Pippin when he was understudying Matt Rawle and he was sensational) – Ghost and Mrs Muira great song and dance man with a terrific feeling for the comedy. If you’re old enough to remember Edward Mulhare in The Ghost and Mrs Muir, I’m sure that’s the look he was trying to achieve.

Alex Young and sailorsEnormous fun, performed with panache and flair throughout, this is has sure-fire winner written all the way through it like a stick of rock. After it leaves Sheffield the SS American is embarking on an extensive UK tour till October 2015. For sheer enjoyment this is hard to beat – I predict a lot of happy theatregoers this year!