Review – Alone in Berlin, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 13th February 2020

86606617_2979103698774638_2012387805346398208_nHere’s yet another play, that’s an adaptation of a book and a film, that neither Mrs Chrisparkle nor I had heard of, read or seen. The original book, Jeder stirbt für sich allein, (Every Man Dies Alone) was published in 1947, written by Hans Fallada, based on the true Resistance story of Otto and Elise Hampel. Surprisingly, it wasn’t translated into English until 2009. That’s a long time for such a significant work to remain virtually unknown to the English-Speaking public. Alistair Beaton has translated and adapted the original book, and the result is this play, Alone in Berlin, which received its world premiere in Northampton, before embarking on a short tour.

Otto and AnnaIt’s a simple story. Otto and Anna Quangel live a humdrum but respectable life in Berlin. He, a carpenter, quietly goes along with the powerful Nazi regime in order to put food on the table; she, quietly but privately, opposes the regime. They have to break the news to their son Markus’s fiancée Trudi that he has been killed in action. Her coping strategy is to join a Resistance movement at work. This inspires Anna to want to do something practical to oppose the Nazis, but what? Her keenness for action brings Otto out of his rut, and he decides to start writing postcards with anti-Nazi messages and leave them in blocks of flats all around the city.

Escherich, Prall and StatueThis simple act of resistance carries on for some time. Local Gestapo officer Escherich must trace the perpetrator, and in turn he is under pressure for results from his boss, the SS Officer Prall. It’s inevitable that Otto and Anna will be found, and punished – but how did the Gestapo track them down, what will be the punishment, and what of the human collateral that suffers as a result? I’m not going to tell you that – or else there’s no point you’re going to see it.

Escherich, Statue and OttoLet’s concentrate on the good stuff. Firstly, at the blunt end, it reveals the unease of day-to-day living, with the enforced Heil Hitler greeting, and the threat of being reported if you don’t use it. There’s the casual hatred of Jews, and the fact that their lives and property are easy meat for abuse. If you want to just break into a Jewish person’s apartment and steal their goods, no one’s going to blame you for it. Whilst at the sharp end, it shows the brutality and mental instability of the Nazi officers who enforce the regime, with a shockingly unpleasant torture scene, masterminded by an SS Officer gleefully snapping fingers off his victim and giggling whilst he does it. These are people whose Mr Hyde aspect has been given full permission to run riot. We used to say, it couldn’t happen again, but don’t you be too sure.

Also, and, thankfully, more subtly, it reveals what happens when an essentially good person remains good whilst evil thrives all around him, and what happens when another essentially good person chooses to go along with the evil – which one fares better under those same circumstances? Otto, admittedly laboriously and ineffectually at first, starts composing his postcards because it’s the only thing an insignificant man can do. Inspector Escherich, however, a police officer of longstanding experience and presumably reasonably high repute, makes the decision to toe the Nazi line and satisfy his new masters’ cruelty. During his investigation he weaselly offers two suspects the chance of suicide as a means of his “solving the case” whilst not directly involving himself in the dirty details. Comparing the personal journeys of Otto and Escherich, essentially the brave versus the coward, was, for me, the most interesting aspect of the evening.

Otto, Statue and AnnaHowever, it does take a long time and a lot of effort to get there. Sadly, this fascinating story is told in an over-stylised and slow manner. The decision to narrate/interrupt the story by an angel statue that comes to life and sings, Cabaret-style, repetitive (very repetitive) lyrics that reflect the downfall of the age, is a curious one to say the least. By the time the war was in full swing, the decadence of the Weimar years was a thing of the past anyway, so this feels anachronistic. Should the angel statue represent a nostalgia for a better time? She waits on the sidelines and observes all the action so perhaps she is meant to suggest that what happens to Otto and Anna is fate. Maybe? Not sure. What she unfortunately does achieve is to minimise what should be growing tension. Tension grows out of a sense of real threat, but her presence is ethereal, invisible, mystic even, which, I would suggest, works against what the play sets out to achieve. Whenever the statue interrupts the flow of the play, down comes the suspense. Worse, it actually feels pretentious – and it doesn’t even have the benefit of being tuneful. I’m afraid I didn’t like that element to the production one bit.

Escherich, Kluge and StatueTo be fair, it wasn’t technically a great performance either. In a very unfortunate error early on, Charlotte Emmerson, as Anna, broke the news to Abiola Ogunbiyi’s Trudi, that Otto had died. Pause to take that in… isn’t Otto (Denis Conway) sitting next to her? Oh, she meant Markus…. and that left three actors with nowhere to go apart from carry on regardless, but the atmosphere had gone. As a result, I was never certain whether Ms Emmerson’s occasional dithering over the lines was a deliberate characterisation point about Anna, or whether she was simply under-rehearsed. There were similar incidents of ragged prop-handling, with Trudi searching for ages to find the photo in her bag, Escherich having difficulty getting the gun out of his coat pocket, and the statue fumbling with a postcard on the floor. Added to which, as the curtain fell at the end of Act One, a stagehand walked on stage left before the curtain had fully dropped. Have to say, I wasn’t that impressed.

Anna, Otto and TrudiThat aside, there are some very good performances to admire. Jay Taylor’s tetchy, and gradually increasingly unhinged SS Officer Prall, is a superb portrayal of growing evil. He’s like a sadistic, spoilt child, who’s grown too big for his boots and in a decent society would have been taken down a peg or two – but in wartime Nazi Germany, with status and power, he’s uncontrolled, off the radar, wicked. Horrific, but excellent. Denis Conway is also very good as Otto, particularly in the last quarter of the play when he starts to face the consequences of his actions. Those were genuine tears welling up his eyes. Abiola Ogunbiyi gives a clear and precise performance as Trudi, the only other character who develops during the play – from radical to housewife. And I really enjoyed the performance of Joseph Marcell as Escherich, increasingly faced with his own cowardice, trying to wheedle his way out of trouble – totally convincing.

Kluge and BorkhausenIt’s a great story of quiet heroism, but sometimes it struggles to get its voice heard over the stylised production and lack of tension. I was expecting more, sadly. Thank heavens for some good performances. Alone in Berlin plays at the Royal until 29th February, then continues to York and Oxford.

P. S. Mrs C didn’t like the harsh bright lights at the beginning and end of the show that blind the audience from the back of the stage. What was the point of them? She asked. Not a clue, I’m afraid. Is it fair on the audience to blind them like that? Ermm, no, I don’t think so.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

3-stars Three-sy does it!

Review – From the New World, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 9th February 2020

85163339_812146899283763_4803852892588998656_nMrs Chrisparkle and I, together with Lord and Lady Prosecco, were fervently looking forward to last Sunday’s concert with the RPO, because it had such a fantastic programme of musical delights. Clearly half the town had the same idea, as I’ve rarely seen the Derngate auditorium so packed for a classical concert.

Whilst the pieces were old favourites, there were some new faces to meet. Our conductor was Kerem Hasan, new to us, and almost new to the entire world as he’s only 28 years old, Lord bless us all. He’s a warm, engaging and encouraging presence on the podium, deep into his music, generous to his musicians, and enthusiastic about giving us the best musical show he can. Another new face to us was the Leader of the Orchestra, Sulki Yu, although she has been with the RPO for a few years now. Despite her name, she’s bright and expressive and clearly sets a good example to her troops.

Kerem HasanThe first piece on the programme was the stunning Vltava sequence from Smetana’s Ma Vlast. This always reminds Mrs C and I of our first visit to Prague back in 1997, where it was a favourite of our host, a young Czech guy who clearly valued his homeland just as much as Smetana did. Those surging strings cascade through you like a hot massage, and you feel appropriately reinvigorated as a result. It would be great to hear the RPO perform the whole suite some time, but this was a beautiful and stirring start to our concert.

After the usual shenanigans of wheeling the Steinway into place, and the violins all going into a little huddle at the back of the stage (I’d love to know what they gossip about whilst they’re waiting), it was time for yet another new face – our soloist for this concert, Romanian pianist Daniel Ciobanu. Another 28-year-old; things have reached a pretty pass when you’re older than the combined age of both the conductor and the soloist. He’s a smart and trendy chap; fully in control of his surroundings and supremely confident in his technical ability. Along with the orchestra, of course, he played for us Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and it was simply fantastic. A faultless performance, full of passion and expression, revelling in all the delicate, fun bits, and majestically triumphing through the majestically triumphant bits. All from memory, of course; and you’re simply wowed by his incredible talent.

Daniel CiobanuAfter an interval Chardonnay, we returned for the main event of the evening, a performance of Dvorák’s 9th Symphony, From the New World. Written by the travelling Czech in New York in 1893, and inspired by a combination of Native American folk music, the freedoms of a young country, and the legacy of Longfellow’s Hiawatha, it is in fact as far away from a Yorkshire Hovis advert as you can get. But the fact that it adapts itself to so many different moods and motives, and remains a favourite throughout the ages, shows its true excellence. From that hope-filled dawn of the first movement, through the luxurious softness of the second, and the spiky defiance of the third, to the powerful resolution of the fourth, this was a performance of immaculate strength and fluidity. It took your mind off all our current problems and made you feel glad to be alive. Absolutely superb from start to finish – we all loved it.

That was the last of the 2019/2020 concerts – and it was great to end it with a bang! Hopefully we will hear news of the next season of concerts very soon.

Five alive, let music thrive!

Review – The Whip, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 11th February 2020

85037056_2640541812857072_4756856668946432_nOdd title, The Whip. The first thing it brought to my mind was that implement with which you punish horses, or people, into painful submission. The second thing was a walnut-topped chocolatey confection, which sadly was very wide of the mark. The prime relevance of the title refers to its main character, Alexander Boyd, Chief Whip of the Whig Party in 1833, when this play is set. And of course, a political Whip is named after that aforementioned instrument of torture, as they whip the other MPs into the subservient position of what the party leaders want.

BoydA quick pre-show flick through the programme shamed me into recognising my own ignorance when it comes to the history of slavery – and, as far this play is concerned, how Parliament – eventually – brought about its abolition in Britain. I had no idea, for example, that there was a 26-year gap between passing the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act and the Slavery Abolition Act. Nor that after abolition, the Government introduced a period of “apprenticeship” for the former slaves – where in fact they carried on precisely the same work, on virtually the same conditions; today we call them interns (just joking, or am I?) The only real difference is that the Slave Owners had been recompensed handsomely for loss of stock. These apprenticeships continued for a further five years. And I certainly didn’t know that the sums paid to the Slave Owners amounted to 40% of the national budget, and the necessary borrowing to account for this didn’t get paid off until – wait for it – 2015.

MaybourneIt’s clear that Juliet Gilkes Romero’s new play is not only an exposé of those miserable years but also reflects parallels to Britain today. It’s emphatically not an allegory of Brexit; if it’s meant to be, it does a poor job. But there are elements that go to show that nothing is new in the world of British politics. A major project, with popular support, takes many years to be implemented. As a result of the final negotiations, a few prominent MPs and other businessmen become extraordinarily rich, whilst the country’s coffers are plundered. It takes ages for the country to regain its feet financially, the whole process creates a starting point for further political upheavals. On second thoughts, perhaps it is an allegory of Brexit.

Boyd on the Front BenchWe meet Boyd, who has befriended and adopted a younger runaway slave, Edmund, and groomed him to greatness with the possibility of a Parliamentary career. Boyd’s a good man, a principled man, with his heart in the right place; but also a practical man, who knows you have to walk before you can run. We see him in the House of Commons, surrounded by a noisy rabble and a Speaker whose pronouncements are delivered exactly like John Bercow, and he stands out as thoroughly respectable. He engages a feisty young woman, Horatia, as his cook/maid, not only because she stands up for herself, but also because her daughter was killed in a cotton-mill accident, and he feels like she is the kind of person who should be given a second chance. Also involved is the eloquent and respected ex-slave Mercy Pryce, who addresses the crowds at Speakers’ Corner, and who works with Boyd to influence thought and opinion. Whilst Mercy strives towards justice for slaves and Horatia demands votes for women, just how much will Society sit back and let all that change simply happen? And will Edmund achieve the greatness that Boyd expects of him?

FuriesGiven that this is a fascinating time of history, with some remarkable people working hard to put right an inestimable wrong, which still has consequences for the world today, I was disappointed at how pedestrian and dull the first Act, in particular, turns out to be. It’s very wordy and turgid; it moves slowly and with a strange sense of worthiness. It lacks dramatic tension and that special magic. Maybe this is because the play has been constructed as a kind of Greek Tragedy; with four characters designated as The Furies, the classical deities of vengeance. There’s a scene later in the play when Boyd goes to the Commons and is beset by the Furies who bump into him and accost him and prevent him from achieving his goals. And, frankly, it looks ridiculous. Particularly as, for the most part, the Furies act as scene shifters and general gophers. It’s the Furies who, Chorus-like,  wind up the story by addressing the audience directly with details of how the national debt from paying the Slave Owners wasn’t in the clear until 2015. But unlike a Greek Tragedy, we don’t have some cataclysmic ending or a deus ex machina to draw a line under the whole proceedings. The mix of contemporary political drama and stylised Greek tragedy didn’t sit well and I’m afraid I couldn’t take the Furies seriously.

HoratiaPerhaps the main problem with the play – which is a brave problem and therefore to be admired – is that it is simply too ambitious, trying to tie up too many ideas, and trying to make too many associations, so that it stretches itself without resolving anything. Whilst it spends a long time establishing the characterisations of the protagonists, the story doesn’t progress much, and everything feels ponderous and cumbersome – like that really irritating table that descends and ascends throughout the whole evening as a centrepiece for many of the scenes. Never has a simple piece of furniture-shifting monopolised your sightline so much as to get in the way of telling a story.

Mercy and HoratiaFortunately, there are some very good performances that just about pull you through the long three hours of this show. The double-act, if you could call them that, of Debbie Korley as Mercy Pryce and Katherine Pearce as Horatia Poskitt, provide most of the energy of the play. Ms Pearce impresses with her spiky retorts and generally bullish behaviour so that the stage brightens up when she comes on. Ms Korley’s measured and dignified performance completely challenges your preconceptions about how an ex-slave would behave.

Hyde VilliersRichard Clothier’s Boyd is also full of dignity – until he’s brought low by duplicitous colleagues – and he gives a great portrayal of a flawed, but good man in the most trying of circumstances. He also has an extraordinarily rich voice that demands your attention. John Cummins’ Cornelius Hyde Villiers is a nasty piece of work, in politics for all the wrong, self-seeking reasons, but creates a very believable person out of what otherwise could be merely a pantomime baddie. David Birrell plays Lord Maybourne, the Home Secretary, as very comfortably pompous and manipulating, a man who is naturally your (indeed, anyone’s) superior. And Tom McCall’s Bradshaw Cooper is a very credible portrayal of a difficult, tetchy, driven politician, the type we’d all like to punch on the nose.

EdmundWe didn’t understand why Nicholas Gerard-Martin’s Purnell was portrayed as such a terrified, jittery idiot; and what I suspect was meant to be a largely comic scene, where he is primed for his Select Committee appearance, felt to me a bit embarrassing. And Corey Montague-Sholay’s Edmund was so refined, so reserved, so delicate and private, that I feel we never really got to know him.

Bradshaw CooperI’ll be honest with you – Mrs Chrisparkle slept through at least half of the first Act and a quarter of the Second Act, which does indeed prove one thing; in waking hours, the second Act is twice as entertaining as the first. However, being bored in the theatre is the ultimate drama crime, and I can’t help but think that a play with this riveting source material and timeless relevance should have delivered a hugely greater impact. However, I always say I prefer a brave failure to a lazy success, and, given the quality of some of the performances, I have to add an extra star to what I feel this show otherwise deserves. The Whip continues in repertory at the Swan Theatre until 21st March.

Production photos by Steve Tanner

3-starsThree-sy does it!

Review – The Personal History of David Copperfield, Northampton Filmhouse, 9th February 2020

DC PosterWhen I saw the trailer for this film a couple of weeks ago, my eyes turned away with horror. What on Earth were they doing with my beloved David Copperfield? It’s one of my all-time favourite books; and a TV dramatisation in the early 1970s was pivotal in my growing-up process. When the recently widowed Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle turned to the 12 year old me and asked if I’d mind if she ever remarried, my mind went to thoughts of Mr Murdstone (as I presumed all stepfathers are wicked like him) and I asked her please not to. As a consequence, she remained on her own for the rest of her life and I think never really forgave me for that. I was only 12 goddammit!!

Dev PatelI digress, as I so often do. But I felt like challenging myself into watching what was obviously not going to be a traditional, faithful re-telling of Dickens’ novel. How much of a purist would I be, when it comes to David Copperfield? Quite a lot, as it turns out. Armando Iannucci has picked up a copy of the book, ripped some of the pages out, sellotaped some of them back in the wrong order, drawn a few cartoons in the side margins, given it a good shake up and then made a film of it.

Anna Maxwell Martin, Dev PatelA deliberately quirky film at that. At first, I found I was really enjoying its freshness and unstuffiness. Then it occurred to me that I was actively hating it, with its comic-strip silliness, grotesque characterisations, omission of characters and storylines, and rather self-conscious cleverness. Then, towards the end, when I started to understand (I think) what the film was trying to do (I believe) it started to grow on me, and I ended up having a grudging admiration for it. That’s a pretty exhausting two hours for an audience member.

Dev Patel addressing the theatreThe film starts with Copperfield addressing an audience in a theatre; he’s clearly going to tell them his life story. The novel starts with the same words – the adult Copperfield introducing an account of his life and adventures to his readership. So, a few liberties taken there, but acceptable. However, when the adult Copperfield suddenly appears at the side of his new-born baby self, you know you’re going to have to widen your imaginations to take this all in. And sometimes it’s worth it, and sometimes it isn’t.

Paul Whitehouse and Anthony WelshMy sympathy with the film ran out with the development of the character of Mr Murdstone, played by Darren Boyd. As you’ll appreciate from my opening paragraph, I have a very firm understanding of what Murdstone is all about. He’s a cruel, ruthless, vindictive, utter swine of a man. However, whilst Darren Boyd’s Murdstone was comfortable with handing out the punishment and assuming control over the household – he was played like a pantomime villain. More Abanazar than a Bastard. Horrible? Yes. But a seriously evil, despicable specimen of toxic masculinity? Naaah. Or, Oh no he wasn’t, in pantomime terms. I couldn’t take the performance seriously because he didn’t.

Tilda SwintonI also wasn’t impressed (although I appreciate I am a lone voice here) with Tilda Swinton’s portrayal of Betsey Trotwood. Again, it was too cartoon-like; a grotesquerisation (I just invented that word) of a character who has her foibles but is essentially kind. You had to look very hard to find much in the way of kindness in Tilda Swinton’s performance. I sense the decision was made to accentuate the slightly unbalanced comedy of the character. But you don’t need Betsey Trotwood to be slightly unbalanced when you have Mr Dick by her side, who is unbalanced enough for both of them. By contrast, I thought Hugh Laurie’s Mr Dick was pretty much the best performance in the film, expressing his good-natured puzzlement at the way his brain worked, and his childish delight at the simple pleasures of life.

Hugh Laurie, Peter Capaldi, Dev PatelSimilarly, Peter Capaldi’s Micawber was purely played for laughs; you didn’t get a sense of his and his wife’s kindness or generosity with what little they had, but just that he was a money-centric reprobate who was only interested in Copperfield for what they could get out of him. As for Ben Whishaw’s Uriah Heep, he simply changed from ‘umble servant to embezzling boss without any sense of how or why he got there.

Dev Patel, Rosalind Eleazar, Hugh LaurieThere was no Tommy Traddles; no Dan Peggotty or Barkis, willin’ or otherwise; Rosa Dartle was concatenated into the character of Mrs Steerforth. Creakle and Tungay have been moved from Salem House school to running the wine bottle factory. In a Bowdlerised quest to eliminate the darker sides of the book, Dora doesn’t die – she just asks Copperfield to write her out of the book, her father doesn’t die from a heart attack in his carriage, and Ham doesn’t die in his rescue attempt at sea. There’s many a missed opportunity to dig just a little deeper into Dickens’ text – but that’s not the point of the film, quite the reverse.

Hugh Laurie, Dev Patel, Tilda SwintonThe point of the film – as I see it – is Copperfield’s re-imagining and re-living his own experiences in a way that he wants to remember them, which isn’t necessarily how they actually happened. He doesn’t want to dwell on people’s deaths. He doesn’t want to wallow in the misery of the wine bottle factory. He doesn’t want to explore the motivations of people who don’t particularly interest him. On the other hand he does want to emphasise how lovely Agnes is (one of the better performances and characterisations in the film from Rosalind Eleazar), he does want to stress the heroism of Ham, he does want to reflect on his own friendship with Peggotty (presumably that’s why he’s not sharing her with Barkis). This makes Copperfield the essential egotist – and I can have some sympathy with that characterisation.

At home with the HeepsThere are some nice moments; the Trotwood household trying to keep Mr Wickfield away from the drinks cabinet, Micawber’s creditors trying to steal his rug from underneath the door frame, Mrs Heep’s heavy cake. There are some delightful cameos from Anna Maxwell Martin as Mrs Strong, Rosaleen Linehan as the hideous but helpless Mrs Gummidge, and a superb performance from Jairaj Varsani as the young David Copperfield. The one scene where the device of having the adult Copperfield intruding on his younger days really worked was in that very moving moment where Adult David tells Young David not to worry – everything will be alright. Which of us hasn’t at some point imagined what we would say to our younger selves with the benefit of retrospect? And then of course there is the central performance by Dev Patel – engaging, humorous, decent (on the whole) – everything in fact that you’d expect from a performance by Dev Patel.

Ben WhishawDefinitely a challenge for the purist – but it’s good to be challenged. A re-imagining of David Copperfield for today’s busy, instant return on investment, generation. You can imagine the creative team’s vision for the film. “Cut 950 pages to the quick and give me the bare bones, and none of that slow-building, motivation-observing nonsense. No sorrow, no guilt, just give me donkeys. I want to laugh at Dickensian characters and I want it now.” Well, I think they achieved that.

3-starsThree-sy does it!

Review – Lou Sanders, Say Hello to your New Step-Mummy, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 8th February 2020

Lou Sanders Say Hello to your New Step MummyThis was another one of our take a punt and hope for the best bookings, as neither of us had ever seen (or even heard of) Lou Sanders before but I discovered she was nurturing a good reputation as one of our more promising new comedians and – honestly – that promotional photograph of her having a very intimidating-looking vape made me think seems like a nice girl – and so we booked.

And I was right. Ms Sanders took to the stage a little flustered and apologetic – she had nothing to be sorry for, she just defaulted to that general stance, probably because she’s very nicely brought up. She quickly became acquainted with Jane in the second row, whose birthday it was, and who was accompanied by her Auntie Sharon. We all sensed they were going to be trouble, but actually they were fine. Blame it on mere birthday exuberance.

Then she introduced her support act, Annie McGrath. Ms McGrath has a bright shiny stage persona, incredibly polite and slightly posh, with some fun material about the horrors of the old school reunion, encountering such frightful people like Emily and Lettice, and being aghast that the school still has a house called Isis. She also had the good fortune to go viral with a tweet – and yes, over ten years on Twitter and I’m still waiting for that to happen. She incorporates the tweet and its bizarre responses into her act, and why wouldn’t you? Very likeable and funny, and an enjoyable way to start the evening.

After a break for a second prosecco (we’re so rock’n’roll) it was time to welcome back Lou Sanders. A vision in pink – in fact an assortment of pinks – she appears as gentle as a pussycat, but you sense there’s a tiger lurking only just under the surface. She comes across as one of those genuinely honest comics who tells you the precise details of what truly goes on in their lives; if her stories are actually fictitious then she’s a damn good liar. Her priorities in life seem to be feminism, equality and a strong affection for dick. And Daddies, she’s definitely got a thing for them. There was a Daddy called Chris in the front row whom she singled out for some special treatment. As a Daddy (or at least of Daddylike age and appearance) called Chris myself, I was very grateful to have taken a seat a few rows back.

Lou SandersIncluded in her very entertaining set were how she had been given a man ban from her Personal Healer, Gill in the Pyrenees; plus letting us in on her coping strategies for living with large labia. You could never criticise her for shying away from any subject. It’s that combination of pussycat and tiger that really gives depth and contrast to her style. It feels like a very relaxed, loose, almost unstructured show, although I bet it’s structured to within an inch of its life, which is a very clever trick.

There was something about the evening that felt like it was just holding back a little; for instance, I can’t recall many belly-laughs, but then again it’s not quite that kind of comedy. Nevertheless, it’s still a very enjoyable and funny show. Lou Sanders’ tour continues through till June and is certainly worth catching!

3-starsThree-sy does it!

Review – Beautiful, The Carole King Musical, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 6th February 2020

Screenshot (7)As a kid, I was a massive, and I mean MASSIVE, fan of The Monkees, and the first time I would have tumbled across the name of Carole King – in collaboration with Gerry Goffin – would have been in the writing credits of the Monkees’ albums. I’m pretty sure that I had read somewhere that Goffin was sniffy about writing for the Prefab Four – which fact is made very clear in Beautiful, The Carole King Musical, currently on a considerable UK tour. Goffin and King may well have first come together as teenage sweethearts with one combined aim in mind, to write songs together whilst being in love – although you’re in no doubt that he only asked her to marry him because she was pregnant. But as the years go on, it becomes clear that King was the practical workhorse of the pair, whereas Goffin was the more artistic/ethereal/poetic contributor.

Carole at the pianoTheir most famous song for the Monkees, Pleasant Valley Sunday, is a perfect example of the difference between the two; her dream was to move to the beautiful suburbs, whereas his lyrics for PVS show how despicable and twisted he found that whole suburban dream to be. Although together they were able to create magic for other people, as a couple they were wholly unsuitable. She’s portrayed as stay-at-home, mousey, dowdy almost, whereas he’s a bit of a party animal, suggesting strip poker amongst their friends, and seeing other women behind her back. She’s concerned with bringing home the bacon and looking after baby Louise, whereas he’s not finishing his lyrics and fancies dabbling in LSD.

Kirshner's Music FactoryForgive me for coming at this review from an odd angle, gentle reader, but I wanted to highlight that Beautiful is not so much The Carole King Musical as The Goffin/King Songbook. The show charts their story together, from their first meeting introduced by a school pal, through great financial (and artistic) success, to their marriage breakdown, his philandering, his mental health breakdown (through drugs) and her going solo with the cathartic Tapestry album, culminating in a concert at Carnegie Hall in June 1971. Carole King’s career, however, has continued to span the decades and indeed, she’s still going strong today. And Gerry Goffin continued to chart his own career with other collaborators until his career started to peter out in the 1990s.

The ShirellesBy concentrating on those early golden years, this gives the show the opportunity to showcase all their most famous and best-loved songs, performed by the stars of the age; and that, alone, is enough to provide two-and-a-half hours of top quality entertainment and musical nostalgia. Where this show is really strong is in presenting a selection of fantastic songs, played by a superb (unseen) band, sung by a talented cast, delightfully choreographed by Josh Prince to reflect those incredibly dated but wonderful routines by the Drifters or the Shirelles, and with an incredibly successful combined design by Derek McLane (scenery) and Peter Kaczorowski (lighting).

It's all happeningHowever, as a narrative, I found the show strangely pedestrian. Whilst it does tell its story clearly, it feels very stop-start in its style. I’m no expert on Juke Box Musicals – I’ve not seen most of the famous ones – but let’s consider a few examples. Mamma Mia takes Abba’s songs and creates a brand-new story using the songs organically to move the story along – but it’s a story that has nothing to do with Abba themselves. Possibly my favourite of the genre, Sunny Afternoon, tells the story of the Kinks’ rise to fame, using their songs as a standard musical would do, commenting on their situation and moving the plot forward. Cilla the Musical told the story of the early career of Cilla Black using her songs as landmark points along the way, including showing how she recorded them. In all of these shows the songs progress the plot, and you get a sense of development.

Strip PokerHowever, in Beautiful, you have a pair of rival songwriters (Goffin and King v. Mann and Weil) where you watch one couple say we’re gonna write a song, then they write a song, then have it performed and see how successful it was, followed by the other couple writing a song, having it performed and seeing how successful it was, then back to Couple #1, then Couple #2, etc, etc and etc. Whilst it might well be an accurate presentation of what happened, that structure doesn’t make for what I would term a good musical. Whilst every scene (particularly in the first Act) ends with a great song, it feels repetitive and formulaic. Rather like how Gerry Goffin feels about Janelle Woods’ performance of One Fine Day, this structure holds back from really giving the audience a 100% good time.

The CompanyHere’s an example of how the show sacrifices a potentially dramatic moment simply to provide a good musical performance. When Carole King has moved to LA and is recording with her new producer Lou Adler, he wants her to sing You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman on the new album. She tells him she just can’t – it was a song she and Gerry wrote together and the memories and emotions are simply too painful for her. But he convinces her to give it a try and she agrees. Then Carole sings it perfectly and it’s a great performance – and there’s no sign that it was in any way a problem for Carole to do it. There’s no moment when she’s struggled through the tears, or when she’s overcome the lump in her throat. It’s just sing a song and then move on. A missed opportunity, I felt, and it made something of a mockery of the scene that went before.

The DriftersThere’s plenty of excellent performances on offer; for our performance Carole King was played by the alternate, Vicki Manser, and she has a great voice and totally looks the part. Adam Gillian played Gerry Goffin with a great mix of fresh-faced appeal and untrustworthy roué – again singing the songs superbly. Laura Baldwin and Cameron Sharp make a terrific couple as the feisty Cynthia Weil and the workaday Barry Mann. Susie Fenwick gets most of the laughs as Carole’s hypocritical mother and Oliver Boot is a firm but fair Don Kirshner. The ensemble give terrific support, but you have to single out (or should that be group out) Damien Winchester, Ronald Brian, Samuel Nicholas and Toyan Thomas-Browne as the Drifters, and Leah St Luce, Katrina May, Louise Francis and Mica Townsend as the Shirelles, both groups recreating that superb early 60s feel of elegance, glamour and over-the-top choreography.

The Righteous BrothersAfter Northampton, the extensive tour continues to Eastbourne, Woking, Bristol, Bradford, Cardiff, Sunderland, Wimbledon, Milton Keynes, Llandudno, Canterbury, Southend, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Glasgow, Nottingham, Manchester, Oxford, Cheltenham, Birmingham, Southampton, Dartford, Dublin, Newcastle and ending up in Leeds at the end of August. If you love these old 60s songs, you’re guaranteed a very enjoyable night out – and it’s a feast for the eyes and the ears, if not exactly a challenge for the brain!

Production photos by various photographers from various productions

Four they’re jolly good fellows

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 1st February 2020

Screaming Blue MurderOur first time of attending a Screaming Blue Murder on a Saturday night – felt kinda weird because we’re already halfway through the weekend rather than it being a welcome curtain-raiser to those hallowed subsequent two days. Nevertheless, it was sold out yet again, and they’re still persisting on having the front two rows of the audience wrap around the comics’ podium, which has pros and cons. The pros are that there are more victims, I mean guests, for the comedians to interact with. The cons include… well, see paragraph 3.

Dan EvansOnce again MC duties were in the capably hairy hands of Dan Evans, who had plenty to contend with in the front row. It was someone’s birthday. We never found out her real name, but she was given a card addressed to “Li’l Slut” so that became her epithet of the night. She’ll always be Li’l Slut to us. It turned out that half the front rows were part of the birthday party including a lady from Mexico who got upset (quite rightly) at the mention of Brexit. Furthermore, later we had the joy to discover Mike, hiding himself away some rows back, who sold jet skis. In Northampton. You couldn’t make it up.

Paul RickettsOur first act, and someone we’ve seen a couple of times before, was Paul Ricketts. He has a relatively laid-back style and is most at home when he’s bouncing directly off the audience. He had plenty of entertaining material for us, including his bitter resentment of anyone younger than him, observations about Luton Airport, and the very funny Four Stages of an Eastenders Actor. But here’s a thing; for some reason, a number of the punters seated around the stage felt the need to go for a wee during his act, and the only way you can get out of the Underground to get to the toilets from those seats is to march out directly under the performer’s nose – even to the extent of walking on to the stage area and off again. The first time it was quite funny, but by the time four people had separately heard the call of nature it became distracting both for Paul and for us. Nevertheless, Paul battled on regardless and gave us a good half-hour’s worth of fun.

Faye TreacyNext up was someone new to us although I know she’s got a show at the Leicester Comedy Festival coming up very shortly – Faye Treacy. She’s the 21st century’s answer to George Chisholm in that she presents a comedy act plus trombone. The novelty value of this alone is worth the ticket but, additionally, Faye’s musical madness is totally hysterical. Her trombone-influenced material is unbeatable; Trump’s brain music and her vegetable climax had us in stitches. The non-trombone material in between is also enjoyable, but deep down you really don’t want her to put her instrument down.

Dan AntopolskiOur headliner was someone we’ve seen once before and things didn’t entirely go to plan – Dan Antopolski. It can happen to anyone. This time Dan was as sure-footed as a mountain gazelle. His is a subtle, intelligent act that isn’t crammed with one-liners, and in fact often the funniest bits are the bits he doesn’t actually say – there’s clever for you. As such, when you look back over his act, it’s very difficult to pick out moments or topics that really touched the spot; it’s not that they don’t exist – they do – but there’s something ethereal about his whole approach that makes him and his material hard to pin down. I do remember – and really enjoyed – his routine about iPhone versus Samsung; as for the rest of his set – it was excellent but I’m blowed if I can remember any of it.

Next Screaming Blue is on 14th February. Prepare for lots of Valentines jokes. I’m afraid we can’t make it. But you should!

Review – Holes, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 1st February 2020

84924259_164463171649046_6065657246988107776_nHoles didn’t ring any bells with either Mrs Chrisparkle or me. As is often the case, we had neither heard of, nor read, nor seen either the book or the film that apparently the rest of the world knows about intimately. I’m sure you already know, gentle reader, that Louis Sachar’s 1998 book received wide acclaim, and, according to Wikipedia, so it must be true, has been ranked sixth in a survey to choose the all-time best children’s novels. To which I can only say: Gosh.

the castIt’s the relatively complex story of young Stanley Yelnats who was sent away to a kind of correction camp (it isn’t really a correction camp) for stealing a pair of sneakers (he didn’t steal them) that belonged to a famous baseball player. Stanley believes he comes from a cursed family, because one of his ancestors didn’t keep a promise to an old lady in Latvia. (Stay with me on this). The daily punishment at the camp is to dig holes, five feet wide by five feet deep. According to the mean Mr Sir who supervises the digging, it’s meant to build character. But, in reality, he and his boss The Warden are using the young offenders to dig for treasure that was stolen over a hundred years earlier by Kissin’ Kate Barlow, a sweet lady turned outlaw. Confused? There’s more. In a swipe of coincidence that would make Agatha Christie blush at its outrageousness, our hero Stanley is descended from the man whose briefcase containing title deeds was stolen. NO! Yes. I could go on, but that’s enough for now.

illegal loveFor a young person’s book/film/play, the story grapples with some very difficult and mature themes, from legal injustice to the harsh realities of labour camps, to racially motivated murder and being outcast for having a mixed race relationship – and I can’t argue with the fact that its heart is clearly in the right place. It’s also rather nicely moral – the good guys find wealth and happiness (not that the two necessarily go together of course) and the bad guys get apprehended. Also in its favour is that it tells its story clearly, with its three time threads (today, 1880s Green Lake, early 1800s Latvia) weaving intricately together to make sense of it all.

illegal loveHowever, for me, this play commits the worst crime that you should never, ever commit in the theatre. It’s boring. Sorry, there’s no other way of saying it. It starts reasonably promisingly, and the last ten minutes of the first Act perk up a little, and then last ten minutes of the entire play provide an enjoyable denouement. But everything else in between is as dull as ditchwater. With a full audience peppered very liberally with, I would guess, 8 to 12 year olds, at whom this play would be targeted, and who normally whoop and cheer a lot in the theatre, you would not believe the muted response applause as the curtain came down at the end of the first Act.

the puppetsEven the set and sound design are like a game of two halves. Simon Kenny’s backdrop – a wooden fence that splits into two to reveal a rugged skyline is a thing of beauty; and the wooden barrels that represent the holes are a clever touch that solve what is otherwise a tricky problem for a designer. But the rest of the props, furniture and, I felt, the puppets, are meagre and unimaginative, rather crudely constructed and, for me, lacking in that special magical animation that brings a puppet to life. There are a couple of scenes – at the beginning of both Acts – where the cast play instruments and dance, which gives you hope for plenty of live music distractions. But whenever music is deployed in the play outside of those scenes, it is recorded, slightly too loud and artificial-sounding, and doesn’t really add much to the production.

Stanley and ZeroI think the main issue – for us at least – is that there wasn’t a moment early on in the play where we connected with it. I can only assume that we the audience should be raging at the injustice of Stanley’s being apprehended and found guilty of a crime he didn’t commit, so that we firmly take his side in all the subsequent experiences at the camp. But it’s not as simple as that. The trouble is, Stanley himself doesn’t seem remotely concerned by his incarceration; he simply blames it on his ancestors. And through much of the first Act he is bullied and doesn’t stand up for himself – and rather than feel sorry for him, I found him irritatingly spineless for constantly taking the blame for things that others did. I didn’t sympathise or empathise; he just annoyed me. And if Stanley doesn’t care about what’s happening to him, well, frankly, why should we?

Stanley's showerSo, with a main character who is a bit of a weed and a surrounding cast of bullies, there is no one with whom we can identify. True, the stage does brighten up whenever Rhona Croker’s Warden comes on, with her scarcely veiled cruelty and threatening use of excuse me? – and when she gets her come-uppance at the end, it’s very satisfying. Leona Allen’s Zero is the only character to provoke any real interest; the only one to make some kind of a journey, the only one whose kind streak makes them appealing. The growing friendship between Zero and Stanley could have been interesting if there had been more opportunity to develop it – but they don’t make the most of it. The other performances are all very competent and proficient, but, at the end of the day, they couldn’t breathe much life into this rather stale and sterile text.

ArmpitI just couldn’t connect with this play. Perhaps it was due to the structure; whenever the story progressed a stage, we went either forward or back to another time thread where we had to pick up the tale where we had previously left it; as a result, although the structure is clever, it kills dramatic tension. I had to screw my courage to the sticking post and resist the temptation to leave at the interval – and I’m glad I stayed because the last ten minutes, when all the threads come together, are by far the most entertaining. But it needs more – a whole lot more – to elevate it out of a general sense of meh.

The tour continues to Nottingham, Coventry, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Plymouth, Liverpool, High Wycombe, Blackpool, Wolverhampton and Canterbury. But it wasn’t for me.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Two stars are better than one