Review – Cinderella, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 23rd December 2015

CinderellaThree cheers for the Prince Charming and the Princess Starlight! OK, maybe I’m working backwards, but at least that got your attention. Sorry if I’ve ruined the ending for you, by the way; but if that was a surprise then maybe you shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a computer by yourself. And since when did the Princess Crystal become the Princess Starlight? It’s true that at just 2 hours and 5 minutes the cast fairly whizz through the show – maybe it’s the Starlight Express version? Anyway, here goes: Hip hip, hooray! Hip hip, hooray!… I’m sure we didn’t get a third cheer last night, but by then Mrs Chrisparkle and I had each polished off two large Shirazes, so it’s possible I am mistaken.

Charming and DandiniBetter than all the presents, all the turkey, all the mince pies, and all the tedious films on TV, Christmas doesn’t get better than a great panto. I love pantos. In fact, now that I have made out my spreadsheet of all the shows I’ve ever seen, I can confirm that in my 48 years of theatregoing I have now seen 21 pantos, only 3 of which were when I was a kid! Those 60s/70s pantos were complete magic to me, especially as they were at the London Palladium, which the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle always instilled in me was The Most Important Theatre In The World (and you didn’t argue with her!) So it’s great to see the tradition continuing today in splendid style and in the hands of some very expert practitioners.

Charming and StarlightThis year’s Qdos Panto at the Royal and Derngate is Cinderella; “the greatest pantomime of them all” boasts the programme. Not entirely sure that’s based on a Yougov poll, I suspect Jack and Dick would have something to say about that. And what about Abanazar? (Bless you). It is, nevertheless, a great show – lavishly mounted with fantastic sets, beautiful and funny costumes (Cinderella’s is beautiful, the Ugly Sisters’ are funny, not the other way round), well-staged musical numbers, many funny set pieces, and a talented and committed cast. Even so, I see David Cameron’s austerity society has reached Hardup Hall – Baron Hardup has been cut! Yes, this panto has no elderly, bumbling, stony broke father figure to make sense of the fact that Cinderella has to do all the hard work and they don’t employ a proper Downton-style staff. There’s no sense of poverty at Hardup Hall – it could just as easily be Money Manor or Cash Castle. Hashtag Just Saying.

Fairy GodmotherJohn Partridge leads the team as Prince Charming, an actor I have admired enormously ever since I saw him as Best Zach Ever in A Chorus Line. He has great command of the stage and has a glint in his eye that says let’s have some fun with this, but not to the detriment of the story. For while he is most definitely at home camping up the Princey character something rotten in the early part of the show, once he has found his Princess Starlight, he plays the loving romantic lead absolutely straight (no pun intended; well maybe a little pun). His voice is spot on and his energy contagious. You may have heard that he has a duet with Alison Jiear (the Fairy Godmother) that stuns you with its power and beauty. For once, you can believe the hype – that duet is very very good indeed.

Off the wallHe swaps identity with Dandini (as you do), in the shape of Sid Sloane from CBeebies, whom we saw in Sheffield’s Sleeping Beauty four years ago. He has a natural ability to get the kids on his side, and always keeps the show moving at a fun pace. Kudos to him (or should that be Qdos?) for getting through the “a shoe” routine with an immaculately straight face. Danny Posthill was our Buttons; despite his success on Britain’s Got Talent he was new to us (if you are my regular reader, hello again, and you’ll know we don’t see much TV – we’re always at the theatre) but he was full of fun and also a great hit with the kids. I really enjoyed his great sulk when Cinderella ditched him for the Prince. He did some excellent impersonations – his John Bishop in particular was absolutely perfect; and when he brought the kids up on the stage for a rendition of Old MacDonald, you could see how overwhelmingly happy they all were. He also trades a lot of joshing banter with Mr Partridge – hard to tell how much of it was scripted or not, but it certainly created a lot of good humoured corpsing. Alison Jiear – my comment heretofore regarding Britain’s Got Talent applies – makes a very traditional Fairy Godmother. In other Cinderellas I have seen, the FG has some kind of gimmick – Sheffield 2012 northern and cack-handed; Northampton 2012 worldly-wise and knowing; and Kettering 2011 Christine Hamilton (say no more). But Ms Jiear looks and sounds like a most respectable and personable fairy, without a foible in the world; she sings like a dream and exudes goodness wherever she goes. A paragon of a fairy.

Ugly SistersI really enjoyed Rachel Flynn’s performance as Cinderella; she’s very bright and charming, sings beautifully and invests the character with genuine emotion, and quite a bit of humour too. Also, crystal slippers look great on her. I absolutely loved the scene between her, Princey and Buttons when they were singing on the wall; beautifully timed humour and slapstick whilst still singing to perfection – that sure takes some doing. Ben Stock and Bobby Delaney play the Ugly Sisters as really funny grotesques; they carry off their wonderfully awful costumes with great aplomb and play out their (understandably) sex-starved fantasies with just sufficient innocence to keep it decent. The scene where the Ugly Sisters forced Cinderella to tear up her invitation to the ball was so well done that I forgot myself and shouted out to Cinderella not to do it – much to Mrs C’s chagrin. The singing and dancing ensemble look, sound and move great – often with nicely pitched comic overtones – and the little babes from the Mayhew School of Dance were full of attitude and charisma and did a great job.

Charming, Dandini and courtSpare a thought for the sound engineer (Sam Poulton I believe), whom I bumped into after the show and who described himself as “thoroughly knackered” (or words to that effect). No live musicians means all the music and sound effects are at the beck and call of his knobs, if you’ll pardon the expression. Over 160 sound cues I think he said. Well there wouldn’t be a show without you, and it all worked seamlessly – so well done to you, sir.

Three ScampsWhat’s not to love? Great fun – we both thought it was among the best pantos we’ve ever seen. Great production values and some terrific performances. Fun for everyone. On until 3rd January, so you’d better get booking rapido.

Review – Sleeping Beauty, The Australian Ballet, Joan Sutherland Theatre, Sydney Opera House, 16th December 2015

Sleeping BeautyIt was fifteen years ago that Mrs Chrisparkle and I last went to the Sydney Opera House. We were in Australia to celebrate the marriage of her brother, Lord Leumeah, to the Countess of Camden. One evening, whilst they were enjoying their nuptials, we snuck off to the Opera House and saw the Australian Ballet perform The Merry Widow, and damn fine they were too. Fifteen years on, we found ourselves once again in a land down under, and, joined by my Lord and the Countess, now accompanied by their daughter and heir, the little Marchioness of Minto, we took the opportunity to return to the stunning setting of the Opera House – this time to see the Australian Ballet take on Tchaikovsky’s 1890 hit, The Sleeping Beauty.

Australian BalletIf you’ve been to the Opera House before, you know that one of the things you can do to make your evening extra special is book dinner in the Bennelong Restaurant, the fine-dining establishment that nestles at the front of the theatre, basically housed underneath the first nun in the scrum, if that’s how you characterise the building. The five of us enjoyed its pre-theatre sumptuousness, including a rather delectable McLaren Vale Somerled Shiraz, served in an elegant decanter. I had the carrot salad, roast lamb and the pine-lime, all of which tasted much more spectacular than they sound. They did however let themselves down by refusing to mix and match two items from the children’s menu onto the same plate. The Marchioness, like many a six-year-old, is quite a fussy eater. “The chef isn’t prepared to do it”, our waiter informed us. Pity. As a result, I wasn’t prepared to tip as generously as I normally would.

Amber ScottBut what of the show? This is one of those grand productions that has been formulating in the back of someone’s head for decades. The someone in question is David McAllister, Artistic Director of the Australian Ballet, who’s worked with the company, man and boy, on and off since 1983. Somewhat extraordinarily, this is the first full length work that he has choreographed for the company – in combination with the traditions of Petipa, of course. In the programme he explains that if he had commissioned anyone else to choreograph it, he would have been constantly interrupting and seeking changes, so clear is his vision for exactly how this work should look. So he had no choice but to do it himself. The production started in Melbourne, moved on to Perth, and finally had a three-week sell-out residency at the Sydney Opera House, closing on 16th December, which, as luck would have it, was the date on which we saw it.

Amber Scott againConsidering Australia is an innovative, “new” country, it’s maybe a surprise, but you can’t get more traditional than the Australian Ballet. They employ every classical trick in the book to keep alive the old performance traditions of Russian ballet down under: elaborate curtain calls, gentlemanly hand-waving any time a prima ballerina comes within a five feet radius of an inactive member of the corps de ballet, prolonged sequences of mime whenever they need to expand on plot development (a frown and two crossing hands means “no”; pointedly tugging at your ring finger means “I want to marry your daughter/princess/swan/nymph”.

Kevin JacksonBut they carry it off spectacularly well. A full, resonant orchestra rings out Tchaikovsky’s great tunes under the baton of Nicolette Fraillon (who at a distance looks alarmingly like Nicola Sturgeon). Simply magnificent sets and costumes by Gabriela Tylesova, where no extravagance is ever considered an extravagance too far, grace the stage. The set even gets its own round of applause at the beginning of Act Three.

Benedicte BemetAnd then there is the dancing, of course. For the most part, it’s exquisitely beautiful. In our performance, Princess Aurora was danced by Benedicte Bemet, a coryphée, and she’s certainly going places. It’s a demanding role and she danced with skill, grace and beauty throughout. Her Désiré was Kevin Jackson, one of the company’s Principal Artists, and he invested the role with great character and athleticism, really bringing the house down in his third act pas de deux. But for me the star of this show was Amber Scott, another Principal Artist, dancing the role of the Lilac Fairy. Elegance just radiates from her. I doubt she could open a tin of peas without doing it gorgeously. She’s just one of those dancers you just can’t take your eyes off. I was also really impressed with the pas de deux by Chengwu Guo and Ako Kondo as Bluebird and the Princess Florine. The five fairies who dominate the prologue were also danced with enormous grace and beauty. From my vantage point in the circle I couldn’t quite identify who was dancing which role – but I particularly liked the dancer in ice blue and the one in dark red. Another was dressed in flamingo pink and green, and when she whizzed around, she looked like a watermelon in the blender.

Gillian RevieThe Sleeping Beauty Waltz is, naturally, a highlight; danced, traditionally, with floral garlands, and I must say it was a stunning sight: beautiful control, sheer elegance. Our mean and nasty Carabosse was danced by Gillian Revie, a guest artist whom I remember from her appearances in the Royal Ballet in the 1990s. The dancers who surrounded her costumed as rats gave great support, but my only criticism of the dancing would be concerning some members of the corps de ballet. The girls were great, but some of the guys were rather heavy on the crash landings from time to time – I know, I’m very demanding. Watching the entire ballet, you realise that the drama comes to an end all too soon with the conclusion of Act Two;Garland scene Act Three is just an excuse for celebratory dancing for Aurora’s Wedding. This gives the ballet as a whole a slightly unbalanced feel – and with two twenty-minute-plus intervals, the show stretches out to almost three hours, which is a lot for a six-year-old Marchioness to take, not to mention two British tourists suffering from jetlag. But it really was a stunningly beautiful production, and the Opera House audience went wild with appreciation.

Chengwu Guo and Ako KondoAs implied earlier, the wine selection at the Bennelong Restaurant is pretty damn amazing. Buoyed up with confidence, I ordered a couple of glasses of fizz for the second interval from the circle bar. Oh dear. Any memories of the lavish, elegant fruit notes that might have lingered from our dinnertime Shiraz were eradicated by that glass of paint stripper. Lord Leumeah had a glass of white. Grudgingly, he described it as adequate, by which I interpreted that it was far from adequate. How very odd that the Opera House puts its inestimable name and splendid reputation to such lousy house wines?

Review – The Snow Queen, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 4th December 2015

The Snow QueenI remember when I was about 6, the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle bought me two old books of fairy tales from a second hand bookshop. One was by Hans Christian Andersen – because she was always taken with the beautiful sorrow of The Little Match Girl – and the other was by the Brothers Grimm. They were both Victorian books and full of grand old illustrations. I loved the Grimm stories because they had such memorable characters and twisted stories like Rumpelstiltskin; I always found the Andersen stories rather tame by comparison. Both books are now, sadly, long gone; and when I saw that this year’s Royal and Derngate Christmas play was to be The Snow Queen, I confess I couldn’t bring to mind anything about the story at all.

Snow QueenOf course, that doesn’t matter in order to appreciate this highly entertaining production, because the R&D Christmas plays always work wonders in the storytelling department, and this is no exception to the rule. Georgia Pritchett’s adaptation has simplified many of Andersen’s plot intricacies. Central to the tale is the partnership of best friends Gerda and Kai, who gets entrapped by the Snow Queen, herself desperate to find her own son that the wicked troll took. As his faithful pal, Gerda devotes herself to finding Kai, here with the help of a raven, a reindeer and a Gorbals Headbutter of a Red Riding Hood. Along the way they also meet Sleeping Beauty and her prince, waiting for Happy Ever After to kick in, and a wicked witch with a cake fixation. At times it feels as though you’ve wondered into a side plot of Into The Woods, as various fairy tale characters weave in and out of the story. I understand that the original fairy tale of the Snow Queen is the inspiration for Disney’s Frozen, which I also haven’t seen; so if you’re hoping that I will make any insightful links between the two, you’ll be sadly disappointed.

Kai and GerdaThe play begins with a rather dark and gloomy explanation of why the Snow Queen had become the wicked character that she is, losing her child to the villainous troll, so that she must obey his wishes in order to get her child back. You could say she was more sinned against than sinning, thereby showing that no one (well, nearly no one?) is completely evil. But as her need to regain her missing son gets stronger and stronger, so does her ruthless cruelty. The Snow Queen will only get him back if she can find a child who willingly comes to the Snow Palace; and as she has forced Kai there against his will, he doesn’t fit the bill. However, if he stays, and Gerda willingly comes to rescue him…. The plot thickens. Will Gerda find Kai and be reunited again, or will she fall into the Snow Queen’s trap and never be seen again? Well, obviously, I’m not going to tell you that.

Gerda and RavenFor a fairy tale really to work, you have to take the element of evil seriously. It’s not like a pantomime, where the villains are – well, pantomime villains actually. It would be no good having the Snow Queen merely another incarnation of Cinderella’s Ugly Sisters or Aladdin’s Abanazar. She’s genuine human flesh and blood, with a tortured mind needing to take that step from abused to abuser. However, as a result of all that serious scene-setting, making the audience appreciate the evil of the Snow Palace, there’s not a lot of fun to be had in the first fifteen or so minutes. To be honest I found the start of the play rather stodgy and worthy. Even once we’ve had our introduction to the characters of Gerda and Kai, I found I didn’t really warm to them much at first, despite the excellent efforts of the actors. I think the change of mood from a rather pompous and portentous opening to just a couple of kids goofing around was too strong and sudden to feel real.

RudolphPoor Kai, though. He really gets a rough deal in this play. Separated from his playpal early on and doomed to spend the next hour and a half in solitary deep freeze, I can’t imagine it’s a very rewarding role to play. Nevertheless, Jonny Weldon certainly brings the character of Kai to life and makes his plight particularly moving in the second act. Mona Goodwin rises to the challenge of making Gerda likeable, as the character’s a bit stiff and starchy at first, making her perhaps not instantly appealing. There are elements of Alice in Wonderland in her characterisation as she tries to make both adults and animals alike see sense; and as the drama progresses you genuinely fear for her safety in her quest to take back Kai. As the Snow Queen herself, Caroline Head lets you see both sides of her character: ruthless and cruel when it comes to teasing Kai, but essentially a devastated mother, desperate for the return of her long lost child. Would it have felt just a little more exciting if the Queen had been more of a villain and less of a victim? Possibly. But then this play has much more complexity than your average pantomime.

Happy Ever AfterThere were two comic performances that absolutely lit up the stage and frankly made you laugh your head off whenever the actors came on. Tosin Olomowewe as the Raven had a mischievous twinkle and a knowing wink, a damn high opinion of himself, wonderful comic timing and an instant rapport with the audience. It did help that Georgia Pritchett had given him nearly all the best lines; but I really loved his performance. The other star turn was from Richard Pryal as a gay and totally unselfconscious Rudolph, whose sole in ambition in life is to take charge of Santa’s sleigh (he’s a real fan, you’ll notice) and if it can be done whilst enjoying the company of muscly men, all the better. There are also excellent performances by Angela Bain as the Witch, and by Mairi Barclay as the Robber Maiden and the Princess still waiting for her Happy Ever After. And a big mention to Ti Green’s set – you’ve never seen such magic icicles!

Gerda, Robber Maiden and the RavenWhilst there are a few longueurs (especially at the beginning), once the humour and the quirky characters have taken over, it’s a charming and funny tale engagingly told in the best tradition of the Royal Theatre’s Christmas play. On until 3rd January!