Review – The Provoked Wife, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 9th May 2019

The Provoked WifeWas there nothing that Sir John Vanbrugh couldn’t do? Architect of such national treasures as Blenheim Palace and Castle Howard, writer of such enduring Restoration Comedies like The Relapse and The Provoked Wife, political activist, even working for the East India Company in Gujarat. He must have been such a Smart Alec.

MusicLet’s get up to date with the plot: Lady Brute, tired of being ignored and despised by her waster of a husband, Sir John, decides to take a lover to spice up her life and to give him a virtual bloody nose into the bargain. She tries to instigate a liaison with Constant, a gentleman, whilst his friend Heartfree, who’s something of a misanthrope – especially against women, falls for Lady Brute’s confidante and niece Bellinda. To add to the mess, Constant and Heartfree are also pals with Sir John. The plot, as it so often does, thickens. Meanwhile, the vain and silly Lady Fancyfull, inspired by her companion Mademoiselle, also wishes to try her luck with Heartfree. Their plans all fall apart in a series of farcical meetings, with ladies hiding behind arbours, and gentlemen heeding the ever-familiar instruction to secrete themselves “into the closet”. But, as Browning was to ask 150-odd years later, what of soul was left, I wonder, when the kissing had to stop?

Sir JohnThe Provoked Wife was Vanbrugh’s second comedy, first performed in 1697, with what was, at the time, an all-star cast. The whole nature of restoration comedy, a natural rebellion against the Cromwellian frugality and puritanism of a few decades earlier, required as much careless wit, bawdy and foppery as you could cram into a few hours. Stock characters abound, their names proclaiming their characteristics; but even so, they have hearts too, and social disgrace means precisely that. Reputation is key, and when a character cries “I am ruined!” they’re not kidding.

Sir John in troublePhillip Breen’s new production for the RSC teems with life and laughter – until about the last thirty minutes. Not because the production goes off the boil, far from it; but because the villainous, murky side of Vanbrugh’s characters take control of the play. Up till then, it’s all knowing winks, powdered faces, nicking an audience member’s programme, and a wonderful selection of pomposity-pricking moments. However, despite its obviously comical – indeed farcical – main plot of wannabe sexual shenanigans and the hilarity of cuckolding a cruel husband, there’s a savage underbelly that makes you question whether you should be laughing at it; and that knife-edge is at the heart of all the best comedy, from Shakespeare to Ayckbourn. As the plot switches from major to minor, the effects of what’s been happening to these figures of fun, who are indeed flesh and blood after all, becomes apparent, and by the end there’s very little to laugh at.

Show that ankleMark Bailey’s simple set presents us with a solid proscenium arch complete with traditional overhangings and a useful curtain to hide behind. And an all-important back door, which is our glimpse of the outside world, the entry and exit point for all things comical or threatening; and even a way to demonstrate superiority (watch two self-important women try to struggle through it at the same time and you’ll see what I mean). Paddy Cunneen has composed some lively, cheeky tunes for our five on-stage musicians, who herald the end or start of scenes and accompany Lady Pipe or Mr Treble with their pompous warblings.

Lady BruteAlexandra Gilbreath’s Lady Brute is a brilliant portrayal of a woman coming out of her shell; wonderfully confiding, slow to react, discovering the truth of her own meanings as she’s speaking the words. She is matched by an equally superb performance by Jonathan Slinger as Sir John Brute, who sets the tone of the evening with a hilarious opening scene of grumbling and misogyny, and who rises to the challenge of playing the old drunk vagabond impersonating his wife perfectly. It’s their scene when we see his true brutal nature and his attempt to rape his wife where the play turns its corner; challenging and uncomfortable, but played with true commitment and honesty.

HeartfreeJohn Hodgkinson plays Heartfree with just the right amount of cynicism, i. e. not too much, because you have to believe that he genuinely turns from a callous cold fish to an unexpectedly affectionate suitor. Natalie Dew is a sweet and thoughtful Bellinda – mischievous enough to encourage Lady Brute to cast off the shackles of her miserable marriage, but virtuous enough to attract the attentions of Heartfree. Rufus Hound’s Constant is just that; played very calmly and straight, respectable but always with a twinkle in his eye as he looks for preferment. There are also some terrific performances from the minor characters, with Isabel Adomakoh Young’s Cornet a delightful fly in Lady Fancyfull’s ointment, Sarah Twomey a beautifully manipulative and mischievous Mademoiselle, Kevin N Golding a bemused Justice and Steve Nicholson a hilariously plain-talking Rasor. I was excited to see that Les Dennis is in the cast but was disappointed at how small his role as Colonel Bully is – just a little bit of drunk swagger in a scene or two; hopefully he’s keeping his powder dry for his appearance in the RSC’s Venice Preserved later this month.

Lady FancyfullBut it’s Caroline Quentin’s Lady Fancyfull that makes you beam with pleasure from start to finish. A vision of self-importance, who clearly pays well for flattery; she coquettishly protests modesty whenever she hears praise, and vilifies anyone who dares to contradict her own opinion of herself. In an age today where people often have self-esteem issues, here’s what happens when you go to the opposite end of the scale! Yet it’s a measure of the intelligence of Ms Quentin’s performance that when Lady F is shamed and mocked at the end of the play, her face-paint and wig cast aside, that you do feel some compassion for the wretched character. It’s a great comic performance and she brightens up the stage whenever she’s on.

The BrutesTo be fair, at a little over 3 hrs 15 minutes, the production does feel a trifle long, and leafing through my copy of the text, I don’t think they made any cuts apart from removing the epilogue. However, it’s a very entertaining and lively way to spend an evening; just remember never to provoke your wife.

Production photos by Pete Le May

Eurovision 2019 – The Grand Final

These final six songs are already guaranteed to be there on the Saturday night without any further possibilities of elimination. As the performance order is not yet decided I’m going to take them in alphabetical order. As usual, each preview will have its own star rating and its average bookmaker odds courtesy of, as at 17th April. And once again, I wrote these reflections before rehearsals started, so they’re very much impressions from the videos and listening to the recordings. Stick with it, you know you want to.

France – Bilal Hassani – Roi

Bilal HassaniYou can’t fault the message of this song, nor its heritage, being written by Madame Monsieur of Mercy fame. I rather like its very natural bilingual structure, and there’s no doubt that Bilal has great presence. I just wish the tune was more interesting! To be fair, the verse builds nicely, but just when you want the chorus to soar, it teeters and totters and fails to ignite. Not a patch, sadly, on Conchita’s similarly themed That’s What I Am. Jealous of those epaulettes, though. 40-1. **

Germany – S!sters – Sister

SistersWhat’s the German for Marmite? Not for the first time, Germany sends a song that divides people. When I first heard it, I instinctively disliked it, which is not a good thing for a Eurovision song where you need that instant capture. It’s ploddy; and while parts of it are alright, at other times it ranges from sickly sweet to caterwauling. Mrs Chrisparkle, however, on first hearing, thought it was pretty good! Maybe it’s a girl thing. It’s still my bet for coming 26th on the night. Was 125-1, now drifting. *

Israel – Kobi Marimi – Home

Kobi MarimiNearly every Eurovision chucks up a big ballad that would be perfect in a huge West End show, and Home is 2019’s prime example of the genre. Kobi has a rather stylised manner of singing which puts me off slightly, but, when all’s said and done, this is a very nice song. Perfect for karaoke. We know that it will be sung in 14th position on Saturday night, which isn’t that great a draw – only three songs from the last ten years in that position have had a top ten finish, whilst two have finished last. I sense this could struggle. 200-1. ***

Italy – Mahmood – Soldi

MahmoodTime for one of the year’s big hitters, Mahmood, who won this year’s San Remo Festival despite a spat of displeasure from the far-right minister Matteo Salvini, who basically told the singer the equivalent of you ain’t no Italian, bruv. However, Mahmood is having the last laugh, riding high in both the betting and in the international OGAE vote. The song has an unpredictable structure, with three repeated parts, any one of which you might think of as its chorus, which adds to its slight air of mystery. Three minutes of (what feels like totally justified) recrimination of an absentee father who preferred money to his son. Powerful stuff, performed with style. Was 8-1, now shortening slightly. *****

Spain – Miki – La Venda

MikiAnd it just gets better and better. The infectiously entertaining Miki presents the glorious La Venda, whether in a smart, polished studio version filmed on the streets, or in a raucous, fun-filled live performance backed by a girl marching band. The internal rhythms of the Spanish lyrics (for instance,“Te vives, alto voltaje, te traje buenas noticias”) help towards creating a fiesta-feel for this rather clever song about self-awareness and what happens when the blindfold falls. Personally, I have no idea why this isn’t the evens money favourite, and for me it’s one of the top three Spanish entries of all time. Was 100-1, now around 66-1. *****

United Kingdom – Michael Rice – Bigger than Us

Michael RiceI’ll be honest, I wasn’t very impressed with the choice of songs for the UK at this year’s national final, but, on the whole, the British public probably chose the best option. Michael Rice has a very good voice, but his style is totally not my thing, and it’s been decades since I’ve felt this distanced from my own country’s entry. I can only wish him well, as I’d love the UK to host next year – but if he won it would be a travesty. 150-1 **

Have a great time watching the show on May 18th, wherever you are – at home with some crisps, at a party, or in Tel Aviv. May the best song win!

Review – A German Life, Bridge Theatre, 4th May 2019

A German LifeJust like everyone else in the Bridge Theatre last Saturday night, at the moment that tickets for A German Life went on sale a couple of months ago, I was poised over my computer keyboard, with about five browsers open, desperately hopping from page to page to find the shortest queue so that I could book our tickets. The reason, of course, was that this was to be a solo performance by the one and only Dame Maggie Smith, in her first stage appearance in twelve years, and who knows if and when any of us would get the chance to be that privileged an audience member again? And it’s only on for five weeks! Panic!

Dame Maggie SmithI’ve seen a few memorable solo performances over the years; Edward Fox as John Betjeman in Sand in the Sandwiches, Michael Mears’ moving account of First World War conscientious objectors in This Evil Thing; Meera Syal’s Shirley Valentine; Leonard Rossiter’s Immortal Haydon; even an Evening with Quentin Crisp and Barry Humphries’ marvellous Dame Edna shows. But none of them can hold a candle to the great Dame Maggie, in almost 1 hour 40 minutes of total concentration and immaculate characterisation as Goebbels’ private secretary, Brunhilde Pomsel, who died in 2017 at the age of 106.

There sits Brunhilde, at her dining table, in her elegant, formal apartment, the set designed by Anna Fleischle but inspired by Fräulein Pomsel’s own rooms, talking candidly to an unseen interviewer about her life and times. And what life and times they were! She’d have you believe that she became caught up in the Nazi administration rather innocently and naively, caring more about Frau Goebbels and their delightful children, than any of the evil activities of the Third Reich. Naturally, we’re a little suspicious of her insouciance, but why would we disbelieve her after all these years? Many of her friends and acquaintances were Jewish, and she seems to take their gradual slipping out of circulation as some kind of sad inevitability.

What Christopher Hampton’s terrific script, drawn from Brunhilde’s own testimony, achieves most acutely is how easy it is for society to drift into fascism and hatred of one’s own fellow man. Of course, it couldn’t happen today, she says, much to the regretful laughter and uncomfortable buttock-shifting of the audience. There’s only subtle, moderate and implied criticism of her wartime activity, because, there but for the Grace of God go many of us, I suspect.

I had seen Dame Maggie once before on stage, in Edna O’Brien’s Virginia, back in 1981; it’s in the vague recesses of my memory but I think the play itself, the life of Virginia Woolf, underwhelmed me, although, as a 20-year-old chap, I probably wasn’t its target market. A German Life, however, is an extraordinary theatrical experience; a gripping narrative told with immense dignity and restraint by one of our finest actors. You can’t take your eyes off Dame Maggie’s face, with all her expression and stolid resilience slowly leaking through her eyes and her words. So much so, that you don’t notice the fact that the floor has slid extremely slowly towards you, so that during the course of the evening, she’s getting closer and closer to us; an extremely clever device that subtly keeps us locked in to the performance – although I’m sure we don’t need it.

I was struck by her vocal delivery throughout the entire performance. To emphasise both the age of the character, and how she’s thinking hard before she responds to her unseen questioner, she gives much more weight to an adjective in the phrase than the noun. It’s all about her describing what she saw and how she felt, more than simply naming it. She revels in the adjective; after a short pause, the noun is often thrown away. Once you cotton on to that style, it brings you even closer to the character and her vulnerability.

A technical masterclass from the 84-year-old Dame Maggie. The feat of memory, to recall all those lines, apparently effortlessly with no cues from other performers, is astounding in itself. But it’s so much more than that. Tour-de-force isn’t enough; it’s simply extraordinary. Unsurprisingly, the run is totally sold out, but some day seats are available from 10am. Get queuing!

P. S. Don’t be alarmed when Dame Maggie confesses that she’s lost her thread, it’s Brunhilde talking – you’re in very capable hands.

P. P. S. Talking of Edward Fox, it was (perhaps unsurprisingly) quite a star-studded audience as I spotted the renowned Mr Fox in the bar and Sir Trevor Nunn heading towards the toilets. All human life was there!

Production photos by Helen Maybanks

Eurovision 2019 – Semi Final Two

So here we are again, gentle reader, with a look at the eighteen songs that will battle it out in Semi Final Two. Received expectation among the fans is that this is the weaker of the two semi-finals, but I don’t agree – mind you, it’s been a long time since I’ve enjoyed the same songs as most fans. As before, you can also see an average of the betting odds, courtesy of (taking all the bookmakers who will give you the first four places each way, as at 14th April) and also giving each song a star rating out of 5. A reminder that I wrote these reflections before rehearsals started, so they’re very much impressions from the videos and listening to the recordings. Über die Brücken geh’n!

Armenia – Srbuk – Walking Out

SrbukThe video shows Srbuk getting jostled by a number of burly blokes but I reckon she could handle herself in a pub brawl. She sports one of those no-nonsense voices that fits well to a robust song like Walking Out and I’m expecting this to be a strong start to the show. Not a chance in hell of winning the whole thing but will very creditably qualify. Was 66-1, now drifting. ***

Ireland – Sarah McTernan – 22

Sarah McTernanTo a thoroughly English ear like mine, Sarah McTernan’s strong accent mangles and strangles the already rather banal lyrics with some unexpectedly comic results that I’m sure you’ve read about elsewhere on the Internet. Let’s look at the plot of the lyrics: a house reminds her of a former lover – I think that sums it up. The backing vibe is very cool and this is almost a good song, but it lacks a killer bite and meanders and finally goes nowhere. 200-1. **

Moldova – Anna Odobescu – Stay

Anna OdobescuYou know the kind of song where you recognise the title and the name of the singer but for the life of you, you can’t recall anything about it? That’s Stay in a nutshell. Anna’s a good-looking girl, and the melody is quite enjoyable – mainly because you’ve heard variations of it hundreds of times before – I’m sure there’s a bit of Sanna Nielsen’s Undo in there somewhere. Mind you, she has a lovely dining suite. Very Multiyork. 250-1. **

Switzerland – Luca Hänni – She Got Me

Luca HänniFinally a song fully worthy of your attention. Swiss singing star and model Luca trips the light fantastic with this catchy singalong sensation. True, the lyrics are not the most inventive – and I’m reliably informed the words are not “going wild like an enema” – but the complete package is about as slick as you can get. If they can replicate that tango-y vibe on stage, this must surely give Switzerland’s best chance of victory for decades. Let’s hope he can dance and sing at the same time. Getting rowdy rowdy. Was 7-1, now drifting slightly. *****

Latvia – Carousel – That Night

CarouselHere’s one of those charming, sweet little songs that Eurovision occasionally unearths. Not world-shattering, not making a grand statement, and, certainly, not going to win. But it’s perfect for a smoke-filled, late-night cabaret environment, where you’re trying to remember where and who you are. Sabine has something velvety about her voice, and Marcis’ gentle guitar strumming make for a perfect combination. If you don’t like the acrobatic excesses of the Swiss entry, this may well be your cup of tea. I think it’s unlikely to qualify, but stranger things have happened. 250-1. ***

Romania – Ester Peony – On a Sunday

Ester PeonyRomania’s gorgeously gloomy and evocative video does its best to hide the slightness of its song. Ester bemoans the fact that she was dumped on a Sunday – as if it wasn’t just an insult to her but to God as well. I’ve no idea how she walked through that door with those shoulder pads. “There’s no way to forget that day”…”Loving you is a hard price to pay”… “Love’s not fair”… For heaven’s sake, Ester, would you listen to yourself? He’s not worth it. Move on. 200-1. **

Denmark – Leonora – Love is Forever

LeonoraNow it’s time for some rinky-dink sweetness with your pizzicato playmate Leonora, as she Romper Rooms her way through the high sucrose Love is Forever. Sitting on that enormous chair makes her look about two years old, which doesn’t feel quite right for a Saturday night’s entertainment. It’s the kind of song that says you’ll be my fwend fowever and fowever and when you die I’ll die and now it’s time for tea. And it’s partly in French, if it wasn’t already artificial enough. The really annoying thing is that it’s dead catchy. 80-1. **

Sweden – John Lundvik – Too Late for Love

John LundvikTime for one of the favourites; and if a number of this year’s songs are variations on last year’s Fuego, this one casts a respectful nod to last year’s Austrian entry, with its gospel feel (and high jury marks). Mr Lundvik is an enthusiastic chap, who loves a good air-punch, and there’s no doubt this is a quality performance; personally, I find the song rather repetitive and a trifle… unmemorable. However, it’ll have its best impact following the tweeness of Denmark and before the painful void that is to follow. 9-1. ***

Austria – Paenda – Limits

PaendaAh yes, a painful void. Paenda’s stood there, looking like she’s just about to nod off (and you know how catching that can be) when all of a sudden she starts singing with her breathy, squeaky voice and I realise that I am now of an age where, if I don’t want to listen to something, I don’t have to. It’s a shame, because I realise she’s put in a lot of work. She’s talking about Hugh, and I wish he’d come and settle her down. This doesn’t do it for me at all. 200-1. *

Croatia – Roko – The Dream

RokoHere’s another rather odd entry. It’s not a bad tune – and in fact, you can find yourself singing along to it at inconvenient moments. Roko is a well-presented guy, who’s obviously been taught from an early age that you can never be too well-dressed. He looks like he should be part of some Mediterranean Rat Pack outfit – the Dean Martin of Dubrovnik, perhaps? I dream of love, you dream of love, we dream of love. That’s how you conjugate the verb to dream of love in Croatian. 250-1. ***

Malta – Michela – Chameleon

MichelaThis starts promisingly, with a catchy introduction that sounds like someone’s farting into a vocoder. The verse catches up with us, and reveals Michela to be a wholesomely attractive lass with a good voice and nice phrasing. And then the chorus, when everyone realises that Karma Chameleon has already been recorded by Culture Club and that their version is far better – so they just leave a chorus that’s full of musical holes, and it gets right on my nerves. The fact that Michela’s got all her art-school types to help her with the video doesn’t do it any favours. You just get the feeling that this looks way better on paper. 20-1. **

Lithuania – Jurij Veklenko – Run with the Lions

Jurij VeklenkoYou think this is going to be another one of those dour Lithuanian male ballads where the singer laments being just too late for the last loaf in the shop, but tomorrow is a new day and maybe there will be enough dough to go around for everyone’s fair share of a sandwich. But then Jurij has a surprise hidden away in his vocal cords; I don’t know if it’s falsetto or just that he’s very comfortable in the higher range. There’s a secret political message hidden here for voters in Northern Ireland – run wild, run with Alliance. It’s thoroughly and completely nice, and there’s nothing here to hurt anyone. 200-1. **

Russia – Sergey Lazarev – Scream

Sergey LazarevIf it’s Sergey Lazarev, it’s bound to have a first-rate video; and, like a number of songs this year, it’s the video that draws you in and really makes the song sound full and lush. Remove the video, and you’re left with a little ditty of few words; although, hats off to the team for taking away the almost compulsory fire, higher, desire rhyming scheme and replacing it with fire, liar, and drier. But how is Sergey going to entertain us through this song’s undoubted longueurs? I think we should be told. Whatever he does, you know he’ll do it superbly well. 11-2. ***

Albania – Jonida Maliqi – Ktheju tokës

Jonida MaliqiJonida moans and groans her way through the song whilst Albanian countryfolk get trapped inside a crown of thorns and a lake turns to fire. It happens every day in Tirana. I’ve no idea how the top of her dress stays up under all that pressure; a veritable feat of engineering, and, anyway, it’s going to get completely ruined in all that rain. Jonida obviously never listened to her mother when she was young. “One day you live, the next you die, so much nostalgia, so little hope” – so many jokes, so little time. I don’t normally like lots of female over-emoting, but this is a good example of the genre. Eastern enough to feel exotic; western enough to be able appreciate the melody. 150-1. ***

Norway – KEiiNO – Spirit in the Sky

KEiiNOOutwardly, the signs aren’t good. A cliched title that’s been used before. A group name made up of capitals and small letters that doesn’t make any sense. A lengthy gargling of Sami in the middle of the song that reminds me of the contribution made by the late Luis accompanying Flamingosi’s Ludi letnji ples – but less funny. And when the song starts, it reminds you (well, it reminds me) of Greta Salome’s Hear Them Calling, that, outrageously, didn’t qualify a few years ago. But despite all that, this is still definitely one of this year’s highlights; impossible not to sing along with, especially the He-lo e loi-la bit. Was 33-1, now closer to 50-1. *****

Netherlands – Duncan Laurence – Arcade

Duncan LaurenceHere’s the favourite – and it’s not often that the favourite is a really classy song. Arcade has the ability to make you think it’s already an old, much-loved song even though it’s fresh off the block this year. Emotional, simple lyrics, combined with a strongly anthemic melody and a vocal of immense purity, I certainly wouldn’t be surprised (nor disappointed) to see Amsterdam 2020 as the final result of this year’s contest. The only thing stopping it will be if Europe fancies something uplifting and partyish rather than a serious look at the human condition. Time will tell. My comment about videos under Sergey Lazarev refers; the video for Arcade has an obvious attraction in some quarters, but Duncan will at least have to keep his trunks on. 8-5F. *****

North Macedonia – Tamara Todevska – Proud

Tamara TodevskaAfter many years of huffing and puffing, the Former Yugoslavian Republic of Mouthful becomes North Macedonia – and I for one am glad. And its first entry under its new nomenclature isn’t half bad. Tamara delivers an assertive song with powerful authority, and I’m surprised it isn’t more popular. Maybe it could have just a little more light and shade? Was 100-1, now more like 66-1. ***

Azerbaijan – Chingiz – Truth

ChingizChingiz has discovered Duncan’s plungepool but has had the decency to keep some togs on. However, some of his friends have a pretty wayward approach to fashion, creating a video that’s perhaps more about effect than content. When I first heard this, I thought Chingiz was rather rudely singing “shut up and diet”, but perhaps that was my own guilty conscience. A wet Azeri hipster, Chingiz has loads of personality which will help a lot. A little ploddy, but still with a great hook and, depending on how they stage it, this could be something of a dark horse. Was 66-1, now zoomed up to 9-1. ****

And there go all the songs for Semi Final Two. To which eight songs will we saying thanks, bye? According to the bookmakers, it will be Lithuania, Albania, Croatia, Austria, Romania, Latvia, Ireland and Moldova, and I see no reason to disagree with them. Remember to watch the second semi-final on BBC 4 at 8pm on Thursday 16th May – this time viewers in the UK can vote, so get dialling! Ten songs will go forward from both semis to the Grand Final on 18th May along with six others – the Big Five and last year’s winner, Israel. See you tomorrow for that final countdown – my favourite this year is still to come!

Review – Man of La Mancha, London Coliseum, 4th May 2019

Man of La ManchaI remember reading about Man of La Mancha when I was a teenager. It sounded very grand and I made my mind up that I must see it at some time when I was grown up. How has it taken all these years for me to see it?! The answer, obviously, is that this is its first professional production in the UK since the original London show at the Piccadilly Theatre in 1968. So, when I saw that Michael Grade and the ENO were bringing it to the Coliseum, I knew I had no choice but to book. All I knew about the show was that it was based on Don Quixote (which I’ve never read); there was a film starring Peter O’Toole (which I’ve never seen); and that, for many years after it closed on Broadway, it boasted the fourth longest run of any Broadway show (after Fiddler on the Roof, Hello Dolly and My Fair Lady) with a fantastic 2,328 performances. One can only imagine how that original production must have captured the imagination of the 1960s New York audience. Today, it’s Broadway’s 29th longest running show, but that’s still a pretty good achievement.

Kelsey GrammerThis was only my fifth visit to the London Coliseum, and each production I’ve seen there has sparked a little controversy. In 1975 the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle took me to see their production of La Bohème – my first exposure to live opera. The critics said it was boring. Then, in 1987, I took the young Mrs C (Miss Duncansby as she was) to see the ENO’s Carmen, starring Sally Burgess, which purists hated because of the updating. Fast forward to 2007, for their Kismet, one of my favourite musicals but a disaster of a production for numerous reasons. Even last year, their (in my view) outstanding Chess attracted huge criticism for the staging and the performances. And now, the much-awaited Man of La Mancha has opened to a swathe of two-star reviews almost across the board. Are they doing something wrong, do you think?

Kelsey Grammer and ensembleCervantes and his faithful manservant have been sent to prison awaiting the displeasure of the Spanish Inquisition. The other prisoners threaten to burn his manuscript so, to distract them, and to ask for their leniency, Cervantes asks them to play along with a charade – acting out the story of Don Quixote, and some of his adventures. Whilst he takes the role of Don Quixote, his manservant becomes Sancho Panza, “the Governor” – who’s the most dominant and senior of the group of prisoners – becomes the drunken innkeeper, another prisoner “the Duke” becomes Dr Carrasco, and soon all the inmates are playing a role in telling the story. Thus you get two concurrent plots; Cervantes surviving in prison, and will he be released, and the re-enactment of some of Don Quixote’s tales.

Danielle de Niese and ensembleJust to get the record straight, I’ll say this here and now – I regret not discovering this totally magnificent score many years ago. Crossing some classic showtunes with a Spanish, flamenco vibe, Mitch Leigh and Joe Darion created an absolute musical masterpiece. What particularly impressed me about it was the way it incorporates both major and minor keys within the same piece of music. Take, for instance, the opening number Man of La Mancha (I, Don Quixote). Its glorious chorus starts in major with its proud, certain, and proclamatory “I am I, Don Quixote, the Lord of La Mancha, my destiny calls and I go” to be followed instantly by the minor, more uncertain, “and the wild winds of fortune will carry me onward oh, whithersoever they blow”. Similar instances can be found throughout the score, and I, for one, am truly delighting in getting properly acquainted with it. If you haven’t heard it before, please find the original London cast recording on YouTube, starring Keith Michell and Joan Diener. It is sensational. And that’s not to take anything away from the new Coliseum cast either, because I think they’re pretty sensational too! And the orchestra under the baton of David White – good grief! Among the finest performances of a musical score I’ve ever heard. My toes curled with pleasure and I couldn’t take the smile off my face throughout the whole show.

Kelsey Grammer 2In addition to the score, I found Don Quixote’s adherence to the goals of courage, honour and nobility incredibly moving in these sad current times, where lying, cheating and ignominy seem to be celebrated and rewarded. We all accept that Don Quixote is a deluded soul but, boy, is his heart in the right place! In a bitter, selfish, criminal world, who wouldn’t prefer to maintain that hopeful air of grace? And it’s that heart-stirring emotion that carries us through the entire show, so that you come out of the theatre feeling like a better person than the one who went in. And that is the absolute magic of musical theatre. So, having said that, why has it disappointed so many critics?

dancersMrs C was much less forgiving about the staging and the whole production than me. I thought it was fine. James Noone has created a dark and comfortless prison environment created from a bombed museum, where cutpurses and vagabonds lurk behind antiquities. But when Cervantes, in his role as Alonso Quijana, as his identity as Don Quixote (keep up,) magically recreates the gallant and/or ignoble moments of our hero and his adventures, the stage setting takes on a noticeable brightness and vigour. The huge, portentous staircase descends occasionally from the gods, stopping the action with its significance – that it’s the only way in or out of the prison. Other moments where you have to use your imagination to see past the stagecraft include Don Quixote and Sancho Panza bestride two horses (two actors with horse masks – very Equus) galloping their way over the plains by means of stepping on wooden crates that have been placed in front of them.

Nicholas Lyndhurst, Peter Polycarpou and Kelsey GrammerMrs C really disliked both the staircase and the wooden crates. The staircase, she thought, simply held up the action for too long, and the crates just look amateur. In fact, and she has a point, she would have preferred to see a truly pared-down production, one on a blank stage with just the minimum of props, somewhere intimate like the Menier. And, indeed, you can just imagine how brilliant that imaginary production could be. However, and here’s the rub, you can’t really stage Man of La Mancha without a socking great staircase. And, by making it retract, so that most of the time it is hidden and unascendable, it increases the sense of isolation and powerlessness of the prisoners below. So, I’ve come to the conclusion that I like the staircase. But those crates… well, you can’t have real horses on stage, that’s obvious. And you do have to create the illusion of movement. And the amateurishness does go hand in hand with the fact that this is a bunch of prisoners enacting the story with whatever they can lay their hands on. I believe they used a similar device in the original London production. So I’m going to be generous about the crates too.

Man-of-La-Mancha-London-ColiseumOne of the criticisms levelled against this production is that Kelsey Grammer is miscast. I think that’s total nonsense. Mr Grammer is a stage performer of enormous experience and great presence, and with a surprisingly fine voice too. Yes, he may sometimes adopt something of an uncomfortable air about him; a slight distancing, or even awkwardness as he occupies the stage. But I think that’s a perfect characterisation of Cervantes/Quixote. Cervantes is a nobleman, unexpectedly laid low by the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, now required to huddle with lowlifes. Quixote sets himself as a man apart, by virtue of his honour and his purity of thought. Neither character is at ease with his surroundings, and I think that’s exactly what Mr Grammer’s performance conveys.

Danielle de NieseAnd yes, in this day and age, where we like to avoid giving offence if possible, and standards of what is acceptable today are very different from what was acceptable over fifty years ago, the production has kept the Abduction scene. It’s a very unpleasant watch, where the men in the inn/prison round on Aldonza in a cruel, taunting, teasing ritual designed to humiliate and terrify, which culminates in her being head-butted and rendered unconscious, in order for Pedro to rape her. There’s no other way of saying it. But musicals are not all raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. Although it is horrifying to witness, it would be wrong to sanitise it. This, sadly, is the reality of the lives these people lead. A major significance of this scene is that it’s highly critical of Don Quixote, who remains completely oblivious to her plight, his head still stuck up in the clouds in lofty pursuits.

Man of La Mancha Press ImageHowever, it’s Quixote’s striving for perfection, his crusade for the ultimate decency, which is the essence of The Impossible Dream. That song, that has been covered by hundreds of artists, has suffered from having its meaning weakened through overuse and familiarity. Audition wannabes will sing it on the X-Factor, etc, as an expression of “realising your dream”. But it’s not. The clue is in the title; it’s the impossible dream. It’s Don Quixote recognising his own delusion; that he’s channelling all his efforts into something that he will never achieve. The impossible dream, the unbeatable foe, the unrightable wrong, the unreachable star; none of them can be turned into reality. But that courage to be willing to march into hell for a heavenly cause is something we can adopt as a personal target, and if we do, the world will be better for this.

Peter Polycarpou and Kelsey GrammerI could go on, but I don’t want to outstay my welcome, gentle reader! In addition to Kelsey Grammer’s fantastic performance, there is a barnstorming portrayal by Danielle de Niese of Aldonza/Dulcinea, whose incredible voice soars and delights throughout the whole evening. There’s no more reliable pair of hands than those of Peter Polycarpou, who takes the role of Sancho Panza, with all its sentimentality and unsophisticated humour, and makes it believable and touching. Nicholas Lyndhurst is coolly menacing as The Governor, a colourless man who would snap your neck dead with one flick; and as the tipsy innkeeper humouring his deluded guest into thinking it’s a castle. There’s fantastic support from Eugene McCoy as the Legolas-like Duke, Minal Patel as the Padre, Emanuel Alba as the bright-as-a-button Barber, and Julie Jupp as the somewhat intimidating housekeeper. But everyone gives a fantastic performance in this truly ensemble show.

Nicholas LyndhurstIn a nutshell, Man of La Mancha touched that hard to define nerve in me that meant that I unexpectedly but unconditionally loved it. I know that’s not a good response from someone dispassionately trying to review it, but it’s the truth. Desperately now trying to sort out a date when we can go again. I think I can understand why some people might feel the production let it down – but it didn’t for me. Simply a fantastic night at the theatre.

P. S. Cast recording album please!!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Eurovision 2019 – Semi Final One

It’s been a couple of years since I’ve done a (relatively) in-depth preview of the year’s Eurovision Song Contest, so I though I should damn well pull my finger out and get something written – and this is the result. 41 European nations (we include Australia as Europe now – Israel has been for decades) will be convening in Tel Aviv to sort the wheat from the chaff in this year’s shindig – the 64th of such affairs, which must mean we’re all getting older. I’ve thrown my lot in with my trusty friends YouTube and Oddschecker to bring you the 17 songs that constitute Semi Final One on 14th May. We’ll take them in the order chosen by Israeli TV station KAN, and with each song you’ll find the average betting odds from all the bookmakers who will give you the first four places on an Each Way as at 17th April. I’ll give each song a star rating out of 5. I should perhaps add that I wrote these reflections before rehearsals started, so they’re very much impressions from the videos and listening to the recordings. Olé Olé and off we go!

Cyprus – Tamta – Replay

TamtaCyprus came so close last year with Fuego, that they thought they’d have another stab with the same song. Actually, that’s unfair, there are other songs this year that sound even more like Fuego than this – yes, I’m looking at you, Switzerland. Tamta has a fetching look about her, although she clearly spends too much time in the boys’ showers. That diamante bra does look awfully uncomfortable; not that the other extraordinary costumes in the video look any better. Three minutes of mesmerising video images – oh, and there’s a song going on at the same time. She was born in Tbilisi, so she might get a few votes from Georgia as well as Greece. The song’s quite good in fact, and I’m sure it has them quaking in the nightspots of Limassol. Does she really sing “I’m sh*tting my body tonight”? Too much baklava, perhaps. Was 16-1, now drifting. ****

Montenegro – D Mol – Heaven

D molNow here are six young people immensely proud of their beautiful countryside. See them emote in the snow. Feel their hearts twang in the forests. Watch them “accidentally” form the shape of a treble clef by the sea. I lost count of the number of times each turned their head to the sun in their most forced sexiest possible manner. And when night comes, they plunder the Edinburgh Woollen Mill for some tartan scarves and sit around the camp fire. How appropriate. “I got used to feeling naked” goes the lyrics – so it’s not just Duncan Laurence, then. Who knew Little Red Riding Hood was Montenegrin? I’ve never seen anyone wearing so much make-up just to go on a walk with a horse. This feels like it comes from another age – but I can’t work out which age that would be. The Stone Age? Their effort is noted and appreciated. 250-1. **

Finland – Darude feat. Sebastian Rejman – Look Away

Darude feat. Sebastian RejmanThe creator of Sandstorm turns up unexpectedly at the Eurovision Song Contest with a song that isn’t immediate enough to create a strong impression on its first hearing, but boy does it grow on you if you give it a chance. I hope they can recreate the same stage effects in Tel Aviv, where the girl, first on, then in, the box and Sebastian act out their own mini-drama, whilst Darude’s knowingly pounding away at a keyboard. Simple and attractive, yet bleak and angst-ridden – Finland in a nutshell, really. And incredibly catchy too. “Is it in my head?” asks Sebastian; yes, it is, at around 4.15 every morning while I’m trying to go back to sleep. My favourite in this semi. 150-1. *****

Poland – Tulia – Fire of Love

TuliaHere we welcome four young ladies who assume an expression in the video that makes you think they’d never be happier than when they’re volunteering at the local morgue. At first you think you’re hearing a Polish version of I Am the Walrus, but then it goes even weirder. Tulia appear to have rounded up all the local retired folk for a compulsory three minutes of musical hell – and if they don’t get a standing ovation, the old people die. Them’s the rules. And then a double bed goes up in flames. Of course. The stuff of nightmares. By all accounts in real life they’re perfectly charming. They specialise in this weird vocal style that translates as “screaming sing”. I rest my case. 200-1. **

Slovenia – Zala Kralj & Gašper Šantl – Sebi

Zala Kralj & Gašper ŠantlAfter the forceful Poles, it’s time for the ethereal Slovenes. Zala’s voice is so laid back the words are almost coming out in reverse. She seems so uninterested to be there that she makes me uninterested to hear what she’s singing. “Just stay true to who you are and stop apologising to me” go the lyrics. I’m in no mood to argue. There is a vestige of a nice tune there, but it all just feels like too much hassle. This has all the appeal of nailing a dead rat to your front door to keep witches away. Was 50-1, now drifting slightly. *

Czech Republic – Lake Malawi – Friend of a Friend

Lake MalawiAfter a racket and then a drab song, this is going to shine through like a beacon of light. By far the best of the Czech national selection, Lake Malawi channel their inner Depeche Mode to bring us a slightly jokey, slightly self-conscious and occasionally sleazy love confession. In these miserable times it makes a really entertaining change to listen to something so deliberately lightweight. Beautifully constructed Insta-ready video. I don’t think it has enough oomph to be there in the final furlong, but it’s hard not to smile at it. Was 100-1, now more like 66-1. ****

Hungary – Joci Pápai – Az én apám

Joci PápaiJoci Pápai returns for a second go at Eurovision glory with this introverted and moving little song about his father. Read the English translation of the lyrics and feel that lump come into your throat. Musically, it’s a little repetitive and a trifle underwhelming, and there’s something about Joci and his style that doesn’t do it for me, but I sense that’s more my problem than his. It could be that his hairstyle makes him look like he has a vacuum cleaner attachment stuck up there. Or it could be that I prefer my Eurovision music to be shallower. 200-1. ***

Belarus – ZENA – Like It

ZENATalking of shallow, here’s a song that asserts itself with the certainty that you’re gonna like it, whether you do or don’t. “I’ll share what I’ve got”, sings ZENA (why is she in capitals?) as though she’s in a marketplace touting her wares. Trouble with this song is that, despite its wretched lyrics, it’s awfully catchy, and ZENA’s awfully cute. Oh, good grief, she’s 16. Ignore that last comment. Not much else to say really. 250-1. ***

Serbia – Nevena Božović – Kruna

Nevena BožovićThe video shows Nevena to be a bit of a temptress, although those knuckledusters look a trifle disconcerting. Her self-penned Kruna is a haunting tune that builds nicely into a strong finish. It’s just the kind of song that I’d never choose to listen to. She’s awfully intense through that performance. Is it too late to suggest taking a chill pill? Was 250-1, now coming in a little. **

Belgium – Eliot – Wake Up

EliotBit of an enigma, this one. I love that background electronic theme – very Gary Numan – that kicks in right at the start and carries all the way through apart from the choruses; and Eliot is another of these intriguing young Belgians in the tradition of Loic Nottet and Blanche who have a kind of fragile under-presence that genuinely disconcerts but you can’t help pay attention to them. Wake Up has a downcast air that makes you feel mournful and the lyrics set up a mysterious challenge that the song alone can’t resolve. Shame that the filming for the video started so early that all his pals only had time to put their vests on. I like this one, and I think it will do much better than many are suggesting. Was 80-1, now drifting. ****

Georgia – Oto Nemsadze – Keep on Going

Oto NemsadzeIt was going so well too, but here’s where this semi-final begins to take a turn for the worst. Meet Oto. Oto has an air of a man down at heel. He trudges through the seafront in his seven-league boots because Oto has a quest to keep on going. But I’m afraid he’s going on his own. I don’t believe this is meant to be funny, but a quick check of the English lyrics is utterly hilarious. “Keep on going. Keep on going forward! Walk much! Seek! Find! Keep on going! They sing somewhere! Sing heartedly! Wires! They are singing! Wounds! Sing after all! Varado, varado, varada rada hee. Varado, varado, varada rada hee.” From then on, it gets puerile. 300-1. *

Australia – Kate Miller-Heidke – Zero Gravity

Kate Miller-HeidkeAfter Georgia’s representation of the Grim Reaper, here’s Australia’s version of Daffy Duck. Kate Miller-Heidke is a huge star in Australia – so what, you may ask, is she doing on top of a giant blancmange with a voice like she’s just stubbed her toe? A perfect example of what happens when someone says “let’s write a great Eurovision song” instead of “let’s write a great song”. This is precisely what Estonia did last year, but with much less class. So many excellent songs in the Australian final, then they went and chose this atrocity. Was 66-1, now more like 33-1 (bizarrely). *

Iceland – Hatari – Hatrið mun sigra

HatariAfter watching a depressed bin man and then a blancmange on speed, it’s time for Iceland, and things aren’t getting any better. Sometimes Eurovision elevates eccentricity to an art form, and I think that’s what’s happening here. Remember the vibe that surrounded Lordi in 2006, scary monsters on stage and all that jazz? I think Hatari (the Haters) are going for the same effect a decade on. In its defence, it stands out. And it will gain some votes through sheer bloody-minded mischief. But, at the end of the day, this is a repulsive mess with a lead singer whose voice sounds like an amplified fly has got caught in his throat. Zombie dance of the Icelandic dead. I know they’re nice to their mothers, but no thanks. 14-1. **

Estonia – Victor Crone – Storm

Victor CroneFor a brief respite from GBH of the earhole, here’s that nice Victor Crone to prove that not only SuRie can go down a storm. It’s a jolly, positive little number, with a very simple (too simple?) and predictable (too predictable?) chorus that’s very nice but in the final analysis might just be a little… bland? Country showbiz. 150-1. ***

Portugal – Conan Osiris – Telemóveis

Conan OsirisIf you thought you’d already seen the worst this semi-final can offer, think again. Here’s Conan, too ridiculous even to be a Barbarian. Dressed like the dying swan but with added facial bling, the music – I choose the word ill-advisedly – plinky-plonks and twangs its way through a sea of pretentious nonsense. Occasionally his mate decides to shake his feathery thing, but all this is good for is contempt. If you’re interested, not that you should be, the lyrics are about killing cellphones. Don’t tell me it’s a satirical comment on today’s social media society; it’s utter sh*te. Not merely the worst song in the contest, but among the five worst songs the contest has ever produced. They’ve really made a little go a very short way. Was 33-1, now, sensibly, drifting. *

Greece – Katerine Duska – Better Love

Katerine DuskaThis is a great example of the kind of song that really ought to be better. Another video that suffers from pretentiousness (although there’s a vast difference between this and say, the Portuguese or Icelandic entries), the song borrows quite a lot from Leona Lewis’ Bleeding Love, and Katerine’s voice has a twisted, muscular nature that doesn’t do it for me. Over-stylised and overblown; but not as offensively awful as some. Was 22-1, now drifting slightly. **

San Marino – Serhat – Say Na Na Na

SerhatAnd to round the evening off, it’s a welcome back to Serhat with a more uplifting song than his previous attempt in 2016. Say Na Na Na really ought to be a Ralph Siegel song, because it’s light, trite and a delight. The song really benefits from the entertaining video, but how are they going to recreate all those dancers on a stage for six? If they do this well, this could sail into the final. But, equally, it could fall flat on its arse. That’s the magic of Eurovision. I hated this at first – and maybe the rest of Europe will too. 250-1. ****

So that’s the line up for Semi Final One. Seven songs won’t qualify; according to the bookmakers they will be Georgia, San Marino, Serbia, Belarus, Hungary, Poland and Montenegro. I think that maybe Belarus will make it at the expense of Finland (sadly) and if Serhat owns it, then San Marino might stay in and Australia won’t make the final for the first time. Although they really shouldn’t, I think Iceland and Portugal will somehow get through to the finals, which ought to make us all question our societal sanity. Semi Final One is on BBC4 on Tuesday 14th May at 8pm, and I’ll be back shortly with a preview of Semi Final Two. See you soon!

Review – Escape Route, Kyla Kares, Fringe Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year (BA) Acting and Creative Practice Students, The Platform, Northampton, 5th May 2019

Fringe FestivalMany of the shows at this year’s Fringe Festival came with trigger warnings. This show warned that it contained discussion about depression and suicide. I think, to be fair, that I also ought to give this blog review post a similar trigger warning. If you’re affected by suicide, or suicidal thoughts, please take care and breathe deeply before reading on.

Escape RouteSuicide. It’s a subject we have to talk about. The less we talk about it, the more people take their own life. As Kyla Williams tells us, in her bold and beautiful show Escape Route, suicide is the greatest killer of men under 40, but the statistics only tell us half the truth; although more men die at their own hand, many more women attempt suicide than men, which, it follows, means that many fail, maybe to be permanently injured or disabled as a result of their suicide attempt, or at least to continue to suffer the mental tortures that led them to trying suicide in the first place.

It’s a subject I’m willing to talk about, at length if need be; my friend’s sister took her own life many years ago by overdosing on paracetamol. There’s a sequence in Kyla’s performance where she describes the horrors of a “successful” paracetamol overdose, and I can confirm every word she says about how it causes a long, lingering, ghastly death. Two of my other closest friends have tried (fortunately, unsuccessfully) to take their own lives and I’m aware of the benefits of offering regular contact, and the open invitation to talk about anything. Just being there can save a life. Depression is a nasty business.

Kyla KaresWhilst there are a number of shocking, sad, even gruesome moments in the show, there are a number of elements that are wryly amusing – even thoroughly entertaining; for example, Kyla’s rendition of Peggy Lee’s classic Is that all there is? which I have to say was pure class. There are several extracts from verbatim accounts about how people live with depression which she invests with great character and emotion, using a wide range of voices and moods. She has a wonderful stage presence, and delivers her material with great conviction and commitment; and never has a red scarf been used for so many purposes with such creativity, subtlety and elegance.

Kyla makes no secret of the fact that this show is borne from much of her own experience, and it has been a difficult and sensitive journey bringing it to fruition. I can only say many congratulations to her for creating a very moving, powerful and honest show that may act as a catalyst to her and to her audience. And, always remember, keep an eye out for your friends.

Review – Unveiled, Myriad Theatre, Fringe Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year (BA) Acting and Creative Practice Students, The Platform, Northampton, 5th May 2019

Fringe FestivalThere’s probably never been a time like today that the wedding dress has had such a high profile and significance in our society. I think we forked out £80 for Mrs Chrisparkle’s wedding dress back in Nineteen hundred and frozen-to-death, and it was simple, elegant and lovely. Today you’re looking at £2000 for as much bling as you can cram onto a garment. Choosing the wedding dress from the shop is also major social event, where all the girls quaff prosecco and there’s a massive show-and-tell with the bride to be getting more feedback than she really needs. Heavens above, there was even a TV show called Say Yes to the Dress! Getting prepared for a wedding is stressful enough without adding to the drama and tension with all that hoo-ha.

But there’s also another significance to the wedding dress. If you’re ready, willing and able to get married and you’re fully happy about it, then, hurrah. But if you’re not, if you have doubts, maybe you thought that by now you’d love him, but you still don’t quite, or maybe you’ve started to go off him…. that’s when the wedding dress can take on an ogreish significance. Then there’s the miserable, caustic aunt, who always says you look fat in that dress, or you’re much too old for that style, and other confidence-boosting remarks. Why would you take her along to watch you try on wedding dresses? It’s just asking for trouble. You can tell one thing: this girl isn’t happy.

Myriad TheatreAnd that – presumably – is why we see Myriad Theatre’s Isabella Hunt, lying on the floor, writing words of distress over a plain white dress, before scooping another four wedding dresses off the rail, trying them on, taking them off and then generally writhing on the floor with them. In the end she stands in silence in the plain white dress that she has vandalised with graffiti. No comment (either by her, or, I sense, the audience.)

There’s an element of promise and expectation when you enter the room for this performance; the chairs each have an elegant number written on them, such as you might find in the seating plan for a wedding reception; and the floor is strewn with those delicate, colourful little odds and ends that people scatter on tables to give it a celebratory look.

Sadly, however, the creativity seems to stop there. Unveiled turns out to be nothing more than seventeen minutes of taking dresses on and off, writhing around the floor in agony, a very repetitive physical theatre element that I think represented a struggle (I stopped watching after the fourth time – it may have gone on for at least another half dozen times) and a few minutes of general spoken wedding/marriage angst. This is a very undeveloped piece, with few ideas that don’t go anywhere. An opportunity not taken, very disappointing, and a bit of a cheek to ask the general public to pay to see it.

P. S. Mrs C was not happy at paying £5.50 for 17 minutes of rather poor performance; that’s almost £20 an hour pro-rata and you can get much better value elsewhere.

Review – Godspeed, Far from Home Theatre Company, Fringe Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year (BA) Acting and Creative Practice Students, The Platform, Northampton, 5th May 2019

Fringe FestivalFor the last three plays in the Fringe Festival I was joined by Mrs Chrisparkle (it was a Sunday after all) dipping her toe into this festival for the first time. Fortunately for both of us, we started with a good one!

GodspeedFar from Home’s Godspeed, is an inventive and creative one-man play by and with Fox Neal as Ishmael Constant (which sounds like a mathematical law), trained by the military and space authorities to undertake a twelve-year journey to investigate a hole in the universe – The Anomaly. His quest is to go through the hole if possible and see what’s on the other side. He is to report back if he can; he is not expected to return home, so he’ll spend his final days like David Bowie’s Major Tom, sitting in his tin can far from the world. His only companion is a chatty, nauseously upbeat computer whom they christen Virgil; but Virgil isn’t entirely to be trusted. He gives Ishmael regular psychological health checks – and does Virgil detect that our hero might have an alternative agenda? Does that explain his attachment to his crucifix? And will he be able to get through the Anomaly and see for himself what’s there?

Far From Home TheatreInterspersed with this surprisingly exciting story are flashbacks to Ishmael’s childhood, with his warring parents – one religious, one not – and the effect of their unhappy divorce on him; and his time spent in the military, where he meets another trainee, Shay, who calls him her Space Cowboy, but refuses his offer of marriage because she has to go off on tours of duty without him. Mr Neal plays Ishmael centre stage for most of the time, keeping time with a recording of all the other voices in his story, a technical feat of high precision which he achieves brilliantly. Particularly impressive were the recordings of his parents’ muffled arguments, such as a child might hear behind a closed door, and the shatteringly effective last words that Ishmael hears from his beloved Shay.

Mr Neal invests Ishmael with finely observed characterisation; a frustrated, understated, angry, resigned and bewildered man who’s going to do his best for the world if he possibly can – whilst achieving his own private ambition as well. It’s a strong, gripping performance and he, together with all the other entertaining recorded voices from other members of the 3rd Year, keeps us totally engaged in his story from start to finish. This is another production that you could easily pick up and plonk down in Edinburgh where I think it would be a great success. Congratulations all round!

Review – Exposing Inequality, Unseen Truths Theatre Company, Fringe Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year (BA) Acting and Creative Practice Students, The Platform, Northampton, 3rd May 2019

Fringe FestivalThe suffragettes must have been amongst the bravest people in the world at the time. We’ve all seen that heart-stopping footage of Emily Davison being trampled to death by the king’s horse at the 1913 Derby. There were no winners that day; what is less well known is that jockey Herbert Jones lived the rest of his life haunted by that event – until he took his own life in 1951. But, like with most bad laws, a combination of protest, civil disobedience and strong people being prepared to be counted, eventually the law was changed so that women over the age of 30 started to get the vote in 1918; and that was reduced to the age of 21 in 1928, a few weeks after the death of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst.

Exposing InequalityExposing Inequality focuses on an historical character that I’d never heard of before – Alice Hawkins. She, like Unseen Truths’ Jessica Harding, lived in Leicester, working in a shoe factory at the age of thirteen, quickly realising how much less she was being paid than the men who were doing precisely the same work. Pay inequality, extraordinarily, continues to this day – and this provides the main material for the play. But we also flashback to Alice Hawkins’ life; her early political involvement, her marriage to Alfred, her imprisonment for marching for equality, and her death in 1946 at the age of 83, which, considering how hard her life must have been, was some achievement in itself.

Unseen TruthsI remember the late Beryl Reid, when asked how she created her characters, used to say that she always started with their feet. If she knew how they’re feet felt – big, small, healthy, grotty, comfy shoes, tight-fitting shoes, etc – then she could work her way up to the rest of their bodies and their minds. Jessica Harding has also concentrated on the feet, lining up a series of shoes and boots along the front of the stage, which she dons for the different characters in her play. Sometimes she wears them ordinarily, as we all do, whether it be work shoes or fashion shoes; and sometimes she kneels down and just puts her hands in them and stomps them around like a child at play. Whilst initially funny, it gets a bit cumbersome as the scene continues.

And that was largely the problem I had with the whole play and performance – it tended to be cumbersome and heavy. Some of the scenes were simply too long, for example the fascinating and notable recent case of BBC journalist Carrie Gracie, who resigned from the corporation on the grounds of pay discrimination. Unfortunately, Ms Harding read out what I guess was the entirety of Ms Gracie’s resignation letter – and it was long! For the sake of factual completeness, we lost dramatic interest. Being bombarded with PowerPoint presentations full of graphs, facts and figures makes for a dull day at the office, let alone when you’re watching a theatrical experience. It was a shame, because Ms Harding is obviously a very bright spark with a strong stage presence and very clear and expressive voice; and her opening address filled me with confidence for a lively, quirky look at the struggle for equality for women. But sadly, that didn’t follow through and there were times when it was a little boring, I’m afraid. Some good ideas there but it lacked that special oomph.