India – Shimla

On the road to ShimlaThe journey from Haridwar to Shimla is about 180 miles, but it’s such a slow one. Our route took us via Dendrahen which was just a mass of roadworks that took ages to negotiate. We stopped off at a little café for a rest and a cup of tea thinking we’d broken the back of the journey, but little did I know how the rest of the journey would be a mass of twists and turns as we progressed from the Lower to the Middle Himalayas. This was the first time in decades that I’d felt terrible motion sickness in the car. It was excruciating. All I could do was shut my eyes and try not to see the horizon.

Welcome to the CecilSomehow we managed to reach Shimla without my throwing up, but it was a close thing. Our hotel for the first two days in Shimla was the Oberoi Cecil, a stately pile in the centre of the town and perfectly located for sightseeing. Unfortunately our journey took such a long time – a good ten hours – that we were hardly in a position to enjoy its bounteous pleasures when we got there. But we tried our hardest anyway. Mrs Chrisparkle had to attend a phone business conference as soon as we arrived so I supported her in the only way I knew – I picked up a book and went to the bar and had a bottle of Kingfisher. Hotel Cecil bar from aboveLater we enjoyed dinner in their restaurant, a very grand and regal affair with a marvellous atmosphere of Raj decadence. Looking back, however, both Mrs C and I agree that, overall, this is the least impressive of all the Oberoi hotels we’ve been to. Don’t get me wrong, that means it’s only superb. The bar shut unnecessarily early, and, whilst it was a thoroughly enjoyable stay, it just lacked the touch of Oberoi magic that you find in their other properties. Yes, I’m being incredibly picky.

HanumanThe next day we awoke rested and ready for a day’s sightseeing. Our guide was a very funny and knowledgeable chap by the name of Dinashkumar. First he took us a little way out of town to visit the Jakhu Hill Temple, with its huge statue of the monkey god, Hanuman, who keeps a watchful eye over the town below. It’s not surprising that this temple is dedicated to Hanuman as the area is totally overrun by monkeys, and you have to be very careful not to encourage them because they’re devious little buggers. Dinashkumar equipped us both with what he called a monkey-stick; it had the dual purpose of scaring them (or indeed pushing them) away if they got too close, and also acting as a walking stick to climb the path to the temple.Jakhu Gardens The views are magnificent; this was the first time we’d seen mountainous India, with its fresh air (indeed the lack of oxygen did have a literally breathtaking effect on our respiration), lack of crowds and (relatively) cold temperature. We looked inside the temple and Dinashkumar was very keen that we should have the full Jakhu experience, so he paid for us both to be blessed. It always makes me laugh that a blessing is a financial transaction in India. Hanuman keeps a lovely garden up in the hills above Shimla, and it’s very well worth taking fifteen or twenty minutes to slowly do the rounds and get all the great views.

Clarke’s HotelBack in the car, we descended back to town. A perfect spot for a morning refreshment – indeed, lunch if you fancied it (we didn’t – but I have a great recommendation for you later) – we took a pause at Clarke’s Hotel, the easily forgotten third Oberoi in Shimla. Built in 1898, in mock Tudorbethan style, it sits grandly at one end of the town’s famous Mall Road. We had a reviving pot of Earl Grey tea, and a very pleasant chat with the welcoming manager, Pooja. Her husband, Amardeep, is the manager of the Cecil, so together she said they are known locally as the Oberoi Mafia. The hotel seems like a great place to experience Oberoi service without paying Oberoi prices.

Scandal PointAfter a welcome rest, we walked up Mall Road, past a range of small shops – some of them barely one person wide. It has a very relaxing and stressless atmosphere; rather quaint and bijou, a little like how one would expect an Indian Polperro to look like. We had the statutory stop in a pashmina scarf shop; they were promoting a Diwali sale – baby pashmina scarves at two for the price of one. I’ve no idea to what extent it was a genuine sale, but the scarves are very attractive, soft and warm (although, be warned, when you get them home, they moult like crazy!) Dinashkumar pointed out the interesting central sights India flagat a meeting place – the wonderfully named Scandal Point. The scandal in question was the abduction of an English lady by the Maharajah of Patiala in 1892. One thing we did realise as we wandered around – there are so many Brits! Its place in the history of the British Raj in India means it’s enormously appealing to the more intrepid British tourist. Sadly, Shimla is choked with traffic, but nevertheless it’s still absolutely charming, and definitely worth the trek there.

Christ ChurchWe were just too late to visit Christ Church (it closes for lunch) so we thought we’d take the same dining opportunity as the vicar. On Dinashkumar’s recommendation, we went to the Ashiana Restaurant in the centre of the town. It’s located in what was an old British Victorian bandstand. We sat in the outside garden, had superb food, friendly service and a much-needed Thunderbolt beer. On the other side of the street is The Ridge, which consists of a beautiful viewpoint, with a statue of Indira Gandhi, and it’s also the site of Christ Church, a neo-Gothic structure consecrated in 1857, with a chancel window designed by Rudyard Kipling’s father Lockwood. In a rather sweet cross-fertilisation of faiths, you have to take your shoes off to enter the church; I don’t know of any other Christian church where that’s a requirement.

Domino’s PizzaMany of the shops are recognisable from home: Levis, Benetton, Wrangler – even Domino’s Pizza. I bought a thick warm shirt in BlackBerry, which I’ve washed a few times now and I’m very pleased with it; it’s a brand and a shop you can trust. After slowly wandering through the Mall Road area, we headed back towards the Cecil. I made a schoolboy error where the road passes the Army Headquarters. There’s a noble looking sculpture outside of four brave Indian soldiers with a flag, which I photographed, Army Headquartersthen turned around to photograph the entrance to the Army HQ just as a means of identifying where I was. Of course, I was instantly hollered at in no small measure and refused permission to photograph. Daft of me, I know the rules. I just forgot. We reached the Cecil in time for a nice afternoon nap, followed by drinks, dinner and more drinks. The highlight of the meal was a dessert of gluten-free vanilla and choc chip muffins. It may sound like a simple pleasure, but it was heaven to the coeliac in the family.

Viceregal LodgeThe next morning we checked out of the Cecil, although we were still staying in the Shimla region for another two nights. Our first port of call was the Viceregal Lodge, built in 1888 in Jacobethan style for the Viceroy Lord Dufferin. Getting in to the building is something of a bureaucratic challenge, with set visiting times, set queuing locations (which you have to guess at), no photos permitted anywhere, quite a lot of barking custodians – and the first few rooms you walk around are pretty dull. But it comes into its own with its amazing sweeping staircase and it’s actually quite an interesting place to visit. The gardens are also worth your time – very beautiful and immaculately kept.

Deluxe SuiteOnce we’d left the Viceroy Lodge it was no more than a half hour’s drive to our next hotel – the majestic Wildflower Hall in the mountains above Shimla at Mashobra. On arrival we had the disappointing (I jest) news that our Premier Valley View Room had been upgraded to a Deluxe Suite. It’s like having your own apartment overlooking the Himalayas, easily big enough to be your permanent home provided you don’t want to cook and are View from the terraceprepared to do without most of your unnecessary nicknacks. It was one of those places that made your toes curl with pleasure. The building was originally Lord Kitchener’s Himalayan hideaway (although there’s not much there now that he would recognise) and it has an amazing jacuzzi that looks for all the world that you’re at the edge of civilisation and with one false step you could fall into the valley below. Cavalry BarMind you, with that view, what a way to go! There’s a very comfortable bar (The Cavalry Bar) where Rajat will prepare your pre-prandial gin and tonic, and a glorious restaurant (eat outside during the day, inside at night) where our favourite waiter Sachin made us very welcome and gave immaculate service.

Himalayan ViewThe highlight of our next day was the treat of a genuine walk (trek, hike, if you like, but it was really a walk) in the Middle Himalayas. The Oberoi provides their own naturalist guide, Rohini, to make sure you stay safe and on the beaten track, even though it feels like the most glorious adventure. The path we took was once part of an old silk route from Tibet. Rohini pointed out the local plant life, including the four main trees of the area, the Spruce, the Himalayan cedar, the Blue pine and the Green oak. We saw wild garlic, Daphne, Baby’s Breath, and many other fascinating wild flora. We heard a bell tinkling at one point, and discovered a lone pony, lost in the woods. It was slightly disappointing to discover he wasn’t wild; there’s a pony farm nearby and he’d obviously not followed the signposts home.

Himalayan SunsetOur walk covered just short of 3 miles and took about 2 hours 15 minutes, giving us maximum opportunities to take it all in at a very comfortable, holiday-like, pace. Even though the temperatures were no more than about 7 degrees centigrade, because the sun was so strong it didn’t feel cold at all; and sitting outside later, in a short-sleeved shirt, felt like the height of decadence. The Wildflower Hall is perfect for a relaxing break; we loved it and would go back without a moment’s hesitation.

India – Rishikesh and Haridwar

Diwali at the OberoiJust like our 2016 trip, our 2017 trip to India (October 18th – November 1st) started in Gurgaon, so that Mrs Chrisparkle could go to her company’s office there and catch up with all her Indian staff. Once again I had to fend for myself by the pool and the lunchtime buffet. As in the previous year, we stayed at the Oberoi; no grand upgrade this time like last time, but I’m never going to complain at any of the rooms at that hotel. Our Premier Room had a wonderful view of the front pool and was immensely comfortable as always. Our evening was spent relaxing in the Piano Bar; we decided we didn’t need a massive meal that night so we overdosed on their bar snacks and that was more than enough for us! The evening coincided with Diwali, but we were too tired to join any Delhi celebrations; and in fact we were surprised that the hotel itself was so quiet. But it’s always impressive to see the beautiful decorations that they place around the hotel to celebrate the festival.

Sunset by the GangesIt’s a good six hour drive, even without breaks, from Gurgaon to Haridwar, and to get to our hotel – the Aalia on the Ganges – you have to drive into Haridwar then out the other side and come back down the east bank of the river. When you come off that main road, you really feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere. Driving through farming villages with narrow roads (although in surprisingly good condition) you realise this is genuine Indian countryside, not teeming with people. Eventually our driver Mr Singh found the hotel, and we checked into our River Suite room. It was a comfortable room, with a door leading to a passageway, where the main wardrobes were kept, and then another door to our bathroom. We spent the next two days playing enjoyable games of “chase the gecko” who clung to the bathroom window for dear life.

Bar at the AaliaThe only problem with the room was that the aircon was a) extremely noisy and b) extremely cold. We decided to turn it off the first night but were gasping for breath a few hours later because it was so warm! You pay your money and you take your choice. The benefits of this hotel are not inconsiderable. You can walk down close to the banks of the Ganges and sit under canopies to watch the world go by. There are lots of sports too – but that’s not really our thing. There’s a pleasant, if understocked, bar – the usual problem in India of plenty of gin but no tonic; and the restaurant was extremely good value with delicious food. But it’s very quiet. After you’ve had dinner there’s absolutely nothing to do apart from go to bed.

Arrival in RishikeshThe next morning, Mr Singh drove us in to Haridwar, where we picked up our guide for the day, Satish, and we drove on to Rishikesh. It’s only 20 miles but the route is hilly and full of all kinds of traffic so it took a good hour and a half to get there. I’d always wanted to see Rishikesh, ever since I discovered it was where the Beatles met their guru. It’s a holy city – they all are when they’re on the Ganges – and you quickly realise it’s a magnet for tourists. Not only from the West, but also from all over India. As a result, it has quite a relaxed vibe to it, and is one of those rare places in India, where the locals don’t stare with fascination at a Caucasian face. There’s far too many of those everywhere.

Laxman BridgeSatish took us for a brief walk through the town, down to the first of two major pedestrian bridges that span the Ganges. This is the Laxman Bridge, built in 1929, when I sense there was less pedestrian traffic than today. It’s only six feet wide so you have to have your wits about you when crossing – and indeed pausing to take photographs, as the views are irresistible. At the other side, it’s a 2 kilometre walk to the other bridge, the Ram bridge (1986, bigger than the Laxman Bridge, but even narrower), in order to make a full circuit.

Funny Indian signsRishikesh is charming; full of funny Indian signs, little shops, bathing places; and the main sight along this route is the Parmarth Niketan Ashram founded in 1942. It’s like a cross between an Oxbridge college (Indian style) and a small village. Full of people, gardens, study rooms; there are photographs on the walls of the Pope (understandable), Prince Charles and CamillaParmarth Niketan Ashram (also understandable) and Keith Vaz (perhaps a little surprising.) Alas we did not get to see the Beatles Ashram. Satish assured us that it has been left to wrack and ruin, and I’ve seen pictures of it since we were there and he’s right.

Bhuma Niketan AshramAfter a very brief visit, it was time to return to Haridwar, for a short tour of the town and to spend the evening watching the Aarti ceremony. Our first stop was at a beautiful Jain Temple, Shri Chintamani Parshwnath Jain Shwetambar Mandir, to give it its full name. It was only built in the 1990s, and has all the intricacy and elegance that you would expect. Bhuma Niketan AshramIt’s notable for its lovely circular inlaid floor. We also visited the Bhuma Niketan Ashram; which has all the appearance of a modern temple, and when you go inside, it’s like you’ve discovered its Disneyland equivalent. There are some steps up and a path that goes underneath the surface of the main temple frontage, and shows you scenes from Hindu scriptures in what I can only describe as Disney format. It’s quite incredible!

Ganges at HaridwarSatish then took us back into the centre of Haridwar, where we strolled around for an hour just taking in the street scenes – all the usual shops and mini-industries, market stalls and cows. We stopped at the Hotel Chotiwala – it’s a café really – for some tea and rest. It’s useful that there is a glass frontage separating the diners from the outside scene, as we spent our time there being stared at by monkeys thumping on the windows for attention. It was then just for us to wander round, observe all the pilgrims washing away their sins in the Ganges, and to get a good spot to watch the evening ceremony. One of the more amusing things about being in an area where people bathe in the Ganges, is their care to look decent whilst doing so. As we were wandering around, among the more unexpected items of litter in the area were discarded empty boxes of fresh underpants!

AartiLast year we witnessed the Aarti ceremony in Varanasi, and for scale and sheer showbiz, that one comes top of the game. The ceremony in Haridwar is much smaller; it all takes place on one side of the river bank, and is, as always, an excuse for family outings, picnics, and a general celebration, as well as a holy experience – although you get the feeling that the ceremony itself is nothing like as holy an experience as simply dipping into the Ganges. Eleven priests were involved; a lot of preliminary introductions which finalised in a series of chants to which the crowd replied, and, as it got darker, the priests performed with fire, Aartiand the crowd joined in with the tinkling of bells. It’s quite a moving experience, and despite the inevitable discomfort of finding somewhere lumpy to sit for several hours, the time flies by.

And that more or less was our Haridwar and Rishikesh experience. We returned to the Aalia for drinks, dinner and sleep. Tomorrow was going to be a very long and very tiring drive up into the Himalayas.

Review – A Christmas Carol, University of Northampton, Final Year BA (Hons) Acting Students, Isham Dark Studio, Northampton, 13th December 2018

A Christmas CarolAs my fellow blogger Mr Smallmind and I were arriving at the University buildings for this performance of A Christmas Carol it occurred to us how many theatres around the world over these few weeks must be giving us their own versions of this Dickens’ perennial favourite. It’s a very adaptable story; you can make it funny, or sinister, or musical, or quirky. This particular production must fall under the quirky heading.

Lyric ImpraimFramed by a narrator who opens and closes the show by blowing the dust off an antiquarian tome, she entices us in to the story-telling fantasy of the miserly old git Scrooge, whom no one likes and who treats everyone with contempt and cruelty; and how he later redeems himself after being confronted with his own selfishness and bitterness. I think we’ve all got a relative like that who we don’t want to meet at Christmas! But Scrooge’s irrepressible nephew Fred has other ideas, and year-in year-out he invites him to dinner; much to the relief of his wife and best pal when Scrooge, inevitably, doesn’t turn up. But you know all this already; as do the enthralled children from a local school who also saw Thursday afternoon’s matinee.

Amy Jane Baker and the Fezziwig PartyWhy quirky? Well, it starts with the cast mingling with the audience, giving out mince pies (which I can heartily recommend), chocolate coins and candy sticks. It was fun observing the kids trying to work out which cast member was standing in front of them, comparing their faces with the photos in the programme. And whilst there were a number of sequences when the action would take place with a backdrop of a particular Christmas carol (I guess the clue was in the title), the second act starts with a live gig from Ebeneezer and the Scrooges, including a rumbustious performance of Fairytale of New York. Dickens might have been turning in his grave; but then again, if he was counting the royalties, perhaps he wasn’t.

Harry OliverI found myself totally carried away with the narrative strength of this production, and thoroughly enjoyed the connection made between the cast and the audience. Musically it is very proficient and successful, with a cast peppered with fantastic voices, bringing us carols both celebratory and haunting. There are a couple of sequences where the whole cast take to the floor for some rather charming and effective dancing, too; congratulations to everyone for cramming 21 people into a tiny space and not bumping into each other.

Chris CutlerOf course, a vital component of any production of A Christmas Carol is the character of Scrooge, here played by Chris Cutler. Like a cross between van Dyck and the early Mick Fleetwood, visually he really stands out and therefore, you would expect, would be perfect to play the outcast role of Scrooge. And whilst I readily believed in the “nice” side of Mr Cutler’s Scrooge, humbly learning the lessons of the Ghosts of Christmasses Past Present and Future, being kind to the Charity lady and so on, I couldn’t quite believe that someone as seemingly mild mannered and naturally kindly as Mr Cutler could be a ferocious, miserly Scrooge; one that Mrs Cratchit would despise or that street urchins would run a mile from. When he was channelling his inner Pogue during the musical interlude, Mr Cutler felt really comfortable on stage. It would have been great if he could express even more vocal dexterity to really stamp his authority on the role of Scrooge. Nevertheless, he has a strong stage presence and is a nifty mover on the side; I sense he would really impress with physical comedy.

Tim MedcalfElsewhere in the cast, there were many examples of terrific stage presence, and also beautiful clarity of vocal delivery which I always admire (I don’t always hear everything!) I loved the beguiling and atmospheric performance of Lyric Impraim as the narrator, who really drew me in to her story – and who is also hilariously cheeky as the urchin who brings back the gi-normous turkey that Scrooge orders. Bethany Ray gives a really strong performance as Belle, Scrooge’s one-time girlfriend, from whom he turns away in his search for wealth; also in her ensemble role, furthering the narrative, I found her superbly clear and full of expression that I really enjoyed. I was also very impressed with Tim Medcalf as Young Scrooge, and in his first scene with Belle I really believed that his heart was bursting for her.

Sarah AwojobiSarah Awojobi has a natural authority as the Ghost of Christmas Past, calmly and clearly imposing all sorts of embarrassments and horrors on Scrooge without turning a hair in her determination. Bethan Medi’s Ghost of Christmas Present stands out with her glorious Welsh accent giving the character a whole new dimension – and making her very different from her ghostly colleague. Harry Oliver portrays Bob Cratchit as to the manner born; the family man supreme, proudly engaging with all his little ones and running the house with as much kind nobility as his wife would allow – all very nicely done. There’s a very funny cameo from Esther Bartholomew as Old Joe (with terrific support again from Ms Impraim) and a very watchable performance from Joseph Mattingley as the constantly upbeat Fred and the jovial Mr Fezziwig. Fiona Moreland-Belle and Shemelia Lewis also have very strong ensemble presences and the stage always brightens up when they come on.

Michael GukasBut for me the two most impressive performers, and who I am really looking forward to seeing in future productions, are Amy Jane Baker, whose larger-than-life Mrs Fezziwig bubbles over with enthusiasm and who is also arresting with her story-telling delivery as part of the ensemble; and Michael Gukas, whose Jacob Marley is the epitome of cool despair and doom-laden warning. Mr Gukas can change the mood of a scene with just one exquisitely phrased sentence. A very strong performance.

Very excited to see what all these young actors will do over the course of the next year!

Rehearsal photos by Tomos Griffiths

Review – Timon of Athens, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 13th December 2018

Timon of AthensExcitement stirred in my Shakespearean breast as I realised I’ve never seen a production of Timon of Athens before; and, indeed, apart from having read it as part of my degree, me and Timon have never crossed paths since. This new production by the RSC would be the perfect way to rectify this omission.

It's a partyAs far as Shakespearean tragedies go, plot-wise it’s fairly straightforward. Timon, a nobleman of Athens, gives generously to his friends, who in turn fawn on him with flattery in order to be bestowed with even more goodies. When we first meet him, he pays the debt of an unnamed, imprisoned man, so that he may go free. He makes up a dowry so his servant can marry the girl of his dreams. He buys a ghastly painting so as not to upset the talentless artist. This is Timon’s version of a happy state of order. But when the truth emerges that his money has run out, he assumes he can rely on those friends to whom he has shown such generosity, to give some of it back. One good turn deserves another, right? He sends his servants out on a mission of mercy for some cash; but all to no avail. Timon’s orderliness becomes a state of disorder. The moral of the tale? Friendships bought with gold aren’t worth a penny.

Timon is the hostess with the mostestFaced with mounting debt and no way of paying it back, he finally realises how everything he has taken for granted, and on which he has based his existence, was all a lie. With a Sweeney Todd-like Epiphany, he invites his “friends” back for one more meal where he suddenly bursts into revengeful violence, and throws scalding water over them all (they used the more visceral and easily recognised blood in this production – we don’t know whose blood it is). Turning his back on mankind, and wishing death and destruction on anyone who gets in his way, he flees for the forest. Lear-like, he camps out and survives on a more vegan lifestyle, whilst continuing his war with his fellow man. Unlike Lear, though, who allows himself to be sheltered and returned to “civilisation”, Timon remains Misanthropos and resists all opportunity to return to Athens.

Digging a holeTimon’s an odd chap in the Shakespearean universe. Hamlet, for example, is liked by his family and friends, but, in return, is rotten to almost all of them. Othello is liked by everyone except Iago, and pays them back by being rotten to everyone except Iago. Lear is liked by most of his followers and family – so he banishes them. Macbeth is universally liked and universally evil. However, Timon is basically disliked. His so-called friends have no time for him in his hour of need, even though he has always treated them with overwhelming generosity, both in gold and in spirit. So when he finds buried gold in the forest (as you do), he sees no value in it for himself; and, after using it to taunt and trick both thieves and followers, ends up giving it to his steward. After that, there’s nothing left for him to do. Perhaps it’s no surprise he’s the only Shakespearean character (I think?) to announce his own, premeditated, suicide.

Darlings!It’s definitely a game of two halves; the programme discusses that the reason might be because the play is thought to have been written in collaboration with Thomas Middleton, who may have been responsible for the Athenian scenes of wealth and society. The final acts, set in the forest, have Shakespeare written all over them. It was probably written about the same time as Macbeth, but lacks that play’s dramatic intensity, basically taking one theme and doing it to death. Still, it’s fascinating to have the opportunity to see the play, and Simon Godwin’s vision for this enjoyable production dwells on the contrasts between lavish Athens and brutal forest survival.

Do you have it in gold?On arrival in the auditorium you are met with servants laying out a gracious banquet, and there’s gold as far as the eyes can see. Gold chairs, gold table, gold wall-hangings; when guests start to arrive, they are wearing gold suits, gold pyjamas, gold coats. A gold sheet is draped across the front of the painting; the jeweller teases us with some magnificent gold bling. When Kathryn Hunter’s Timon (yes, Timon is female in this production) makes an entrance in a stunning gold evening dress, you expect her to burst into a Shirley Bassey rendition of Goldfinger. Gorgeous Greek-style orchestrations from the musicians up above drift down and give you a vision of golden sunshine and golden beaches. We’re talking serious gold here. The later arrival of the creditors, all dressed in harsh, comfortless black, announces an end to the golden lifestyle, and, indeed, when Timon next appears, her golden dress has been muted to a (nevertheless still stunning) darker creation with only some little highlights of gold flashing in it. Very nice work from designer Soutra Gilmour there.

Looks like troubleThe Royal Shakespeare Company are never ones to shy away from a theatrical challenge – which is one of the things I most love about them – so this Timon has a number of roles which would traditionally be played by men, performed by women . Not only Timon herself, but the revolutionary Alcibiades, whose forces discover Timon in the forest, and Apemantus the philosopher. Flattering Lord Lucius becomes Lucia, and servant Flaminius is Flaminia. In its original version, Timon of Athens is incredibly male-oriented, so these changes create a much more realistic environment of both rich and poor lifestyles today. Another fiddle with the original text that works brilliantly well is having the three scenes where Timon’s servants chase up money from the “friends”, cut together so that they all appear on stage at once – an Alan Ayckbourn, How The Other Half Loves moment. Not only does it save time, it triples the impact.

Kathryn HunterA question I must ask myself: why have I never seen Kathryn Hunter on stage before? She’s superb. A pocket-sized dynamo who lends herself so convincingly to the opulence of those early acts and the wretchedness of the later scenes. She has an extraordinarily expressive voice, like a mix of yogurt and honey, that flows mellifluously until she peppers it with some staccato delivery that stops the audience in their tracks. She got a huge laugh for her one word: “oh!” when she first sets eyes on the ghastly painting. She had to briefly stop the show when one audience member laughed so much at her “would thou wert clean enough to spit upon” because Ms Hunter gave the line such unexpected power. A physically demanding performance, full of emotion and a fine balance between comedy and tragedy; you couldn’t take your eyes off her.

Patrick DruryThere’s great support from the fully committed cast; I particularly enjoyed Debbie Korley’s warrior-like Alcibiades and Nia Gwynne’s sarcastic Apemantus, who both put the pressure on Timon to examine herself and mend her ways. Patrick Drury’s steward Flavius hit the perfect note between obsequiousness and genuine warmth for his mistress, and there were some terrific characterisations from Anton Cross’ hapless thief, James Clyde’s self-centred Sempronius, Sagar I M Arya’s chancer of a painter and Ralph Davis’ wannabe Machiavellian poet.

Fun fun funIf you’re thinking that Timon of Athens is probably some minor work and you should save your Shakespearean pennies for better known plays, think again. This production is a feast for the eyes and the ears, and features a stand-out lead performance. It’s on at Stratford until 22nd February and I wholeheartedly recommend it!

Production photos by Simon Annand

Review – Aladdin – Adventures in the East, University of Northampton, Final Year BA (Hons) Acting Students, Isham Dark Studio, Northampton, 12th December 2018

AladdinIt’s a tall order – but also a vitally important one – to get the 3rd Year Acting Students to cast away all thought of serious theatre and throw themselves into the panto vibe. After all, it’s a regular source of fruitful employment! I believe last year’s group were the first to be asked to take on such a task when they performed Cinderella to a pack of excitable primary schoolkids. This year I had the pleasure of watching the new students perform Aladdin to more than 70 happy youngsters from Castle Academy, and judging by the kids’ reactions (which has to be your best gauge) they absolutely nailed it.

Amber KingIn fact, the biggest challenge the cast had was trying to work out how to get themselves comfortably back on script to continue with the show rather than allowing themselves to get lost in the children’s enthusiastic responses. That requires some strong stage authority, which I guess comes with experience, but for the most part they managed to get us back on track with the show whilst still allowing that all-important audience participation, without which panto is merely some adults playing dressing up and silly sods.

Samantha TurnerIt’s a brisk, funny script, with just the right amount of stock panto routines to please first-time theatregoers and old reprobates like myself. Total confession time – I am a complete sucker for a panto. I don’t care if it’s only the boys and girls who are meant to shout back at the stage, I can’t resist joining in without any sense of embarrassment at all (I leave the embarrassment to those around me).

Tonia ToselandThis was my first opportunity to see this cast of students at work and I was tremendously impressed. The University has a reputation of creating absolutely first class actors and, from this performance, my initial reaction is not only that that reputation is safe for at least another year but also that there isn’t one weak link in the whole cast. They all came across as extremely likeable (perhaps not Abanazar, but then he’s not meant to be!) with some great instincts for comedy and some excellent stage presence. I can’t pick out only the good names because everyone is good. However, there are some really impressive aspects and performances that I’d like to mention.

Daniel HuberyAmber King’s Sheherazade takes instant control of the show with her dynamic opening appearance, whisking us away to that magical land where panto is real. Samantha Turner is superb as Aladdin, with all that fresh-faced, innocent but impish enthusiasm required of a panto principal boy; and, as his/her love interest, Tonia Toseland is perfect as a dazzling Princess Jasmine, a heart full of goodness cutting a romantic dash as they both navigate their journey on their flying carpet (which I thought was remarkably effective!)

Nafetalai TuifuaOf course, there’s just as much comedy as romance (if not more) and I loved the three-part genie played by Beth Hâf Jones, Abi Cameron and Hannah Bacon in their myriad regional accents and with some enjoyable comic business. Sultan Daniel Hubery and Sultana Katie Glenn made a highly entertaining couple; I could see Ms Glenn as a dark tragedienne in some gloom-filled costume drama, whereas I think Mr Hubery would be a brilliant Baron Hardup! Kieran Jones had the joint pleasure and challenge of giving us his Twankey en travestie; a neat blend of the faux feminine and the wotcher mate that worked very well. Thomas van Langenberg oozed slippery wickedness as the evil Abanazar, and, in a minor role, I did enjoy Tyler Reece’s hard-nosed bouncer guard watching us all with his beady eye.

Tyler ReeceBut for me the star of the show was Nafetalai Tuifua as the irrepressible Wishee Washee; he really got under the panto veneer to become the truly playful pal with whom all the kids in the audience would want to be best buddies. I laughed along with all his enthusiasm, and when he proposed to Soapy Sophie (sorry, spoilers) I genuinely felt an emotional pull. Above all, he made me forget that I was an adult, which I reckon is quite a rare gift.

Great promise from this likeable young cast – I look forward to seeing them perform in more shows during the course of the year!

Review – Hamilton, Victoria Palace Theatre, 8th December 2018

HamiltonIt’s been 28 full days since we last went to the theatre so Mrs Chrisparkle and I were suffering severe withdrawal symptoms. But we’d been waiting a long time to see Hamilton – booked way back in January – and, what with all the hype, and great word-of-mouth feedback, we were itching to get into the Victoria Palace.

Victoria PalaceAnd that’s something that you may find easier said than done. If you’ve booked paperless tickets through Ticketmaster, follow their instructions to the minutest detail, lest you end up forlorn on Victoria Street and no doubt a few hundred pounds down on the deal. You must print out your confirmation email. You must bring ID (we took passports). And you must bring the card with which you paid for the tickets. If your card has changed in any way, contact them in advance so they can update the details. And if Granny from Aberdeen bought you the tickets as a Christmas present, unless Granny shows up with her card, you’re not going to get in. It’s one way of dealing with the touts, but I’ve seen a few sorry tales online where people have missed out because they didn’t read the fine print. You have been warned!

Ash HunterA word about the Victoria Palace: I remember how much the late Dowager Mrs C loathed that theatre. It brought out all the snob in her (and there was quite a lot of that). She associated it with the Crazy Gang, on whom she looked down from a very great height because they were “so common”. The first time we went there together was to see Carry on London in 1973 – a revue featuring members of the Carry on team including Sid James and Barbara Windsor – and she sat through it with gritted teeth. I loved it. But then I was only a kid.

Sharon RoseBut even she would be hard-pressed not to come away from the newly refurbished Victoria Palace without begrudging admiration. It’s a stunner. Beautiful foyers and bars, elegant ceilings, well-equipped bathrooms, and comfortable seats with a great sightline to the stage even from as far back as Row P of the stalls (which is where “Best Seats Available” allotted us). True, the leg room could be better; but as a work of art they’ve done a smashing job.

Aaron Lee LambertSometimes, when a show comes along with tremendous hype, you’re inevitably faced with some kind of disappointment. Maybe the story wasn’t up to much; maybe the songs weren’t that memorable; maybe the performances were lacklustre. Well, with a fresh replacement cast in place after one triumphant year in the West End, does Hamilton deserves its hype? Oh goodness me, yes. Hamilton is up there as one of the greats – no question. I believe that if I had been a 15 or 16 year old teenager, seeing this show for the first time, I would have instantly announced that it would be my favourite of all time.

Stephenson-Ardern-SodjeIf you don’t know what it’s all about, where have you been hiding? But, in brief: 1757 welcomes Alexander Hamilton, a soon-to-be orphan, born out of wedlock, with precious little to his name. He shows enormous promise in his teens as a political observer and writer of articles. By the age of 20 he has become Lieutenant Colonel and aide-de-camp to George Washington. Always a natural second-in-command kinda guy, we see his career (and his relationships) develop as he becomes first Secretary to the Treasury, then later founds the New York Evening Post. We see him alongside founding fathers Washington and Jefferson, but, as his rivalry with Jefferson’s Vice President Aaron Burr becomes too strong, Burr kills him in a duel. (Sorry if you didn’t know…. but it did happen 214 years ago, so it’s hardly a spoiler).

Jon RobynsWhat sets this show apart from your ordinary run-of-the-mill show about any historical figure, is the use of rap. Now, normally, that word would be enough to turn me right off. If you’re the same, take a risk and open your mind. This is a musical littered with great tunes, witty and intelligent lyrics with lots of word-play and internal rhymes that enhance the sheer sparkle of the songs and the storyline. Because so much of the show relies on the audience hearing every nuance of the lyrics no matter who is singing or speaking, it’s vital that it’s as technically perfect as possible. It is. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a musical show where the words were so clear, and the audio balance between the singers and the orchestra was so perfect. It was an absolute joy to hear. Two-and-three-quarter hours simply flew by.

Sifiso MazibukoIt was a day of supersubs, with a number of the major roles being taken by alternate performers and covers. Alexander Hamilton himself was played by “alternate” Ash Hunter, who gave a strong, confident and determined performance with a great singing voice. His other half, Eliza, was played by standby Sharon Rose with a blissful performance of devoted sweetness and emotion; there was one scene where their joint sorrow over the death of their son was so movingly done that it fair brought a tear to Mrs C’s eye, so it did. I, of course, was made of sterner stuff. There was also great support from second cover Aaron Lee Lambert as Mulligan/Madison and first cover Stephenson Ardern-Sodje as the tragic duo of John Laurens and Philip Hamilton.

Allyson Ava-BrownJon Robyns relished his regular solo appearances as King George, all smug and egotistical as he distastefully waves goodbye to one of his little colonies, posing the question, what happens now? which couldn’t be more relevant as we near the end of our own Brexit saga. Sifiso Mazibuko gave a good solid performance as the Everyman character Aaron Burr and Allyson Ava-Brown was superb as Hamilton’s sister-in-law Angelica, constantly ruing the one that got away. Jason PennycookeJason Pennycooke was every bit as watchable as you would expect in his dual roles as the effervescent Lafayette and the calculating Jefferson. But for me the top performance was by Dom Hartley-Harris as the charismatic George Washington, bold equally in war and at the despatch box, majestic of voice and riveting to watch. He’s come a long way from playing the Emperor in Aladdin in Northampton last Christmas.

Dom-Hartley-HarrisLin-Manuel Miranda’s personal achievement of writing the book, music and lyrics for this piece is quite astounding. His ability to create a running storyline, packed with incident and characters that you care about, is truly second to none. I can well understand why people go to see this show again and again, and I’m sure this will not be our last time. Be like Alexander Hamilton – don’t throw away your shot but come to the Victoria Palace and see for yourself this slice of theatrical history. Absolutely superb.

India – Jaipur

JaipurThis was the third time we’d been to Jaipur. The first was way back in 2006 on our first trip to India, when we crammed the Golden Triangle into six days of sheer excitement. The second was a fleeting drive through with Professor and Mrs Plum when we were both in India at the same time, in November 2015. That’s the thing about Jaipur, it gives great value for money. You only have to drive into the town and – bingo – you get an instant “pink hit”, with all the beautiful coloured buildings, the like of which you’re not going to find anywhere else in the world. Jaipur by nightIt’s such a vibrant, lively place, and it’s a pleasure to spend any time there. We thought we’d reacquaint ourselves with the big sights on a full day’s sightseeing on our second day. But for this first afternoon, we decided to try something completely different – a Bazaar, Crafts and Cuisine Walk through the old town that our travel agent arranged through Virasat Experiences.

Oberoi poolBut first – check in to the Oberoi in Jaipur. We stayed here in 2006 and it’s still a lovely hotel, although, to be super-critical, there are just one or two areas where it’s beginning to show its age. That’s inevitable, of course; the Oberoi in Delhi was closed at the time while it received a facelift to bring it back to the immaculate condition we’ve enjoyed there before. Maybe it’s time for the same to happen to the Rajvilas. We stayed in a Premier Room, with its amazing bath that appears to be open to the garden; we remembered from last time there’s Oberoi Raj Mahalno point having a bath unless you start running the water about two hours beforehand, because it’s so deep! We dined at the Surya Mahal on the first night but had the extra special treatment at the Raj Mahal on our last night. Absolutely stunning venue, superb food and service, and it was a real wrench to get up and leave our table at the end of the evening because we’d had such a lovely time. Our waiter Rakesh was absolutely the best.

Jaipur marketEnough food and drink memories, let’s get back to old Jaipur, and Pratik, our guide, who was a fun kinda guy who knew exactly when to be formal and polite and when to risk mixing it with a little matey banter. His itinerary was designed to show the heart of the people of the city; their way of life, their trades, their shops, their craftsmanship; and not to be afraid of trying a little to eat and drink on the way. So we spent the majority of our time in the old market area of Jaipur, around Tripolia Bazar Road. Jaipur market 2We saw the men who sold the big steel trunks – presumably very heavy but no airline is going to damage those in a hurry. We saw all the brassware, and the trinkets; we saw shrines, we saw the stores where they create the most elaborate wedding invitations (it’s de rigeuer for your invitations to be as sassy as possible in India).

DressmakerWe went inside an old haveli; we saw jewellers, and shoemakers, and dressmakers; we watched as a number of all-female parties bundled themselves into these tiny stores for one of them to try on wedding dresses and for the others to coo in approval. I tried some lassi (Mrs Chrisparkle wasn’t keen) and it was absolutely gorgeous. I didn’t bother with the betel leaf. We pretty much took a look at every trade on offer and it was all fascinating. Pratik was both very knowledgeable and very humorous in his descriptions and the few hours we spent together passed extremely quickly.

Amber FortNext day – and the final full day of our trip. We started off, like most tourists would, visiting the Amber Fort. It takes about forty minutes to drive there from the Rajvilas, and when you get near it looms out at you from the top of the horizon, like the God of Forts, as it’s so impressive and huge. You’ve got two choices for reaching the top – Amber Fort elephantstake a landrover like our guide Seema (dull) or ascend by elephant (touristy). You have to do the elephant thing really. There’s absolutely no dignity to it whatsoever as you fall back into your howdah, legs flailing about in the sunlight, more moron than Maharaja.

elephantsYour Heffalump-wallah (there must be a technical term for the man who leads your elephant) occasionally shouts instructions at you, which often include parting with cash for some reason, but it’s very hard to hear and we just play the Stupid English Tourist. It can get you everywhere, that act. After a not very comfortable but rather funny twenty minutes or so, your elephant sidles up to a kind of docking station where you have to jump off rapido, Where you get off your elephantthereby losing any final vestiges of dignity you might still have had left. Then it’s down some steps, avoiding eye contact to prevent requests for bakshish from hangers-on who did absolutely nothing to deserve it, and you’re in the main square at the entrance to the fort.

Diwan-i-AamOnce you get inside the complex you’re greeted by the amazing Diwan-i-Aam, the space for public audience, and the Sattais Katcheri, a beautiful space dominated by dozens of pillars and arches, where the scribes would write the revenue records. From the arches at the side you have a stunning view of the Maotha Lake down below, with the endless lines of elephants trudging up and down. Go through another gateway Aram Baghand you reach the pleasure garden, the Aram Bagh, and on the left, maybe the fort’s most eye-catching sight, the Sheesh Mahal, made up of thousands and thousands of tiny mirrors, glittering across the ceilings and walls. It’s a truly awe-inspiring construction.

Sheesh MahalThere’s an area inside where we couldn’t go – but could look through a gap – and Seema told us the man sitting inside working on restoring the pieces of glass comes from a long line of people who have done the same work for generations; he’s now continuing the restoration and also teaching others how to do it. It’s very important for the long-term future of the palace! Elsewhere at the fort you can find a collection of weapons, Sheesh Mahal 2beautiful inlaid balconies, secret views through star-shaped windows, and many other stunning aspects. It’s a glorious place to wander around at your own pace and just drink in the artistry and the history.

Star viewOn the way back into Jaipur, we made the customary stop to look at the Jal Mahal Palace in the middle of the freshwater Man Sagar Lake. The palace was restored in 2008 and now looks stunning and triumphant, a serene island in the middle of all that water. It’s a popular viewpoint and is always crowded with ice-cream and trinket sellers, but it’s really worth taking the time to enjoy the view.

Jal MahalJaipur is very famous for its jewellery, and it is almost compulsory to take time to visit a factory shop. When Professor and Mrs Plum came in 2015, we witnessed her purchasing a beautiful ruby ring, with which she is still very pleased. Mrs C is surprisingly uninterested in expensive jewellery (phew!) but nevertheless you never know when you’re going to see Absolutely The Perfect Item That You Cannot Refuse. So we trooped around this factory, and were treated to a description of the process that takes a rough gem and makes it into a beautiful item of jewellery. Interesting terminology; the man described one process as taking the unfinished item and giving it a “blow job”. I think he meant cooling it down. But I’m not entirely sure.

Jantar MantarOne more major sight to see – and one we remembered fondly from our 2006 visit – the Jantar Mantar. Only in India could you find a place with such a singalong name. And it’s a memorable and extraordinary place. The largest and best preserved observatory built by Sawai Jai Singh II between 1728 and 1734, it has sixteen instruments which can still be used for forecasting summer heat and the monsoon conditions. One of them is made up of twelve pieces, each one representing a sign of the zodiac, which is used by astrologers to draw up horoscopes; and it is traditional for people to have a photograph taken next to their zodiac sign. Jantar Mantar 2I did the touristy thing, and posed next to Taurus; Mrs C pooh-poohed the idea when I suggested she stood next to Sagittarius. Honestly; typical Sagittarian! Although there are other Jantar Mantars in India, there’s nowhere quite like this. It’s like an astronomical theme park, and it’s enormous fun to check the sundials and measure the angles of the stars. Fantastic!

Driving backAnd that was the end of our final day in Jaipur. The next morning we drove back to Delhi, where Mr Singh had arranged for us to have a massage in a place he recommended. It was very good – we both opted for an Indian Head Massage combined with back and shoulders. As is always the case with me, I fell asleep during the massage, so relaxed did I feel. However, I was rudely awakened at the end when the man who had been pummelling me decided to wash my hair in the most boiling water you can imagine. I felt like my scalp was on fire. They obviously breed them tough in Delhi.

on the roadOne more night in Gurgaon before being transferred back to the airport for the flight home – another fantastic trip to India ticked off the list. Next year we’d be back again!

India – Ranthambhore

RanthambhoreThe drive from Agra to Ranthambhore is about 180 miles and including the odd comfort break and photo stop takes a good six hours. So it was no surprise when we arrived at the Oberoi Ranthambhore that we simply wanted to unpack and have a rest. However, we didn’t take into account just how beautiful Our roomthe hotel was going to be, and how friendly all the staff were, and how we wanted to explore the grounds, and how we just wanted to gawp in amazement and gratitude that this was where we were going to be spending the next two nights.

LakshmiOn arrival we were greeted by the hotel manager, a charmingly hearty lady named Ratna, whose enthusiasm for her job and her hotel spreads infectiously throughout all the staff. The next day we would meet her Customer Services Manager – Lakshmi, the elephant. Yes, this hotel has its own elephant, on duty for a couple of hours every morning to wave visitors off on their morning tiger safari, or to welcome them back safely afterwards. The hotel also has its own naturalist, The groundswho gives a different lecture every evening about the local flora and fauna. Normally that kind of thing strikes dread into the hearts of Mrs Chrisparkle and me, but he was actually a really interesting and funny presenter, and you wouldn’t want to miss his talks before going in for dinner or drinks every evening.

MusiciansA helpful, funny and friendly young lady by name TJ took us to our room. I say “room”; it was – as they almost all are – a luxury tent. I expect some are a little more luxurious than others, but ours had absolutely everything you could possibly wish – and all exquisitely furnished with that special Oberoi taste. Dinner could be taken in the restaurant or out in the sunken courtyard – outside was just too irresistible – and the wordsCampfire drinks “feast” and “veritable” come to mind. And whilst they have a comfortable looking old-fashioned Last Days of The Raj type bar, nothing could keep us away from having a drink outside round the campfire, listening to local musicians. It was simply heavenly. The Oberoi in Agra remains my favourite hotel in the world – but the Vanyavilas in Ranthambhore runs it a very, very close second.

Blue bullIt may come as a surprise, but the reason we took two nights to stay in Ranthambhore was not simply to drink gin round the old campfire and be spoiled rotten in the restaurant. We were booked on two tiger safaris, one in the morning, and one in the afternoonStork. For a relatively tiny place, there’s a huge local industry that stems from the Ranthambhore National Park; home to much wildlife including the famous Bengal Tigers. The hotel lobbies are full of people recounting their “we saw a tiger! It came up right this close!” stories to anyone who will listen; the other people with whom you share your jeep will doubtless have been on other safarisOn the jeep and will explain precisely why the one you missed was the one you really should have been on. But do the maths; Ranthambhore National Park is home to (at the time) sixty tigers. It covers a vast area which is split into ten zones. That works out as 6 tigers per zone. The park advises each jeep which zone it will visit on each safari trip.Crocodile So you will only visit one zone at random. Each zone is large enough to drive around for hours on end, so in a two to three hour drive you’re probably only ever going to be in the vicinity of one tiger, two at a push. And your job, or your driver and guide’s job, is to go find him!

Out and aboutWe visited zone 6 in the morning, an area with a lot of open grassland, which, when you think about it, is probably not the kind of terrain a tiger is going to mooch around in. We saw plenty of blue bulls (Nilgai), deer, storks, antelope, and some extremely tame Rufous TreepiesRufous Treepie who will eat from your hand. But no tigers. It was a fascinating experience though, and after we popped back to the hotel for lunch, and to feed Lakshmi some apples, camera whore that she is, we went out again with renewed vigour for our afternoon safari. still watchingThis time we called on zone 4, which is much more stereotypically jungly; at times I thought we might bump into Mowgli. Again, plenty of nilgai, antelopes and crocodiles silently floating in the lakes, but no tigers.

JungleWe did all the right things – stayed silent whenever possible; watched for their tracks, signs of a kill, their faeces (sorry if you’re having lunch) – and we found all these. We were very hopeful at one stage because the peacocks had flown into the trees and were making nervous cries – a sure sign that they didn’t feel safe on the ground, so maybe a tiger is prowling and they’re getting the word around to all their peacock pals. But no tigers.

Safari companionsEven so, it was a magical experience. Just parking up your jeep in a jungle and silently observing all the life going on around you was absolutely brilliant. And as the light started to fade, and sunset started to loom, the views took on an exciting life all of their own. SunsetStaying late behind in the jungle, maybe being one of the last vehicles to leave, felt surprisingly daring. I really loved it. So did my chiropractor, when I returned to the UK a few days later. Spending six hours getting tossed around in a bumpy jeep isn’t great for your back, so please be careful! However, I’d do it again in an instant – and hopefully spot my first tiger.

The elusive tigers of RanthambhoreWhen we left the next morning, there was an apologetic letter for us to read on departure, personalised, and on Oberoi Vanyavilas notepaper: “Thank you for visiting Ranthambhore and staying at the Oberoi Vanyavilas. We are sorry we were unable to meet you in the jungle. But we hope to see you again soon. Warm regard, Tigers of Ranthambhore.” On the reverse was a splendid pen and ink drawing of a tiger, signed by the hotel’s naturalist. I suspect he might have something to do with it.