Review – Doubt: A Parable, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 29th January 2022

DoubtIn these strange times of uncertainty, with contrasting opinions on the seriousness of the pandemic and how it should be handled, and our political leaders constantly being exposed as liars and scoundrels, it’s not inappropriate that we should turn to a parable for help. My OED defines a parable as “a saying in which something is expressed in terms of something else […] a narrative of imagined events used to illustrate or convey a moral or spiritual lesson”.

Father FlynnWhat better time for the Chichester Festival Theatre to give us – all too briefly – John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt: A Parable, winner of the 2005 Tony Award for Best Play and Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Ninety minutes of uncertainty and suspicion crammed into one act; the original cast apparently described the second act as the audience deciding who was right and who was wrong on their journey home. And so it still is; we sat in the pub for hours afterwards debating the whys and wherefores of it all.

Sister AloysiusThe play is set in a Catholic school and church in New York in 1964. Head nun and principal Sister Aloysius is a stickler for the old style of education – the children are all terrified of her and that’s exactly how she wants it. She takes naïve young teacher Sister James to task for being too enthusiastic and forward thinking in her teaching style; but also takes advantage of her honesty by asking her what she feels about the charismatic Father Flynn, who teaches the boys sport and who has taken a shine to one particular boy, Donald Muller. Sister Aloysius is convinced there is something unnatural about his interest in Donald, and seeks to expose it. Father Flynn is appalled at the suggestion; but then he would be, wouldn’t he.

Father FlynnLike feathers wafted from a torn pillow, gossip spreads uncontrollably; and once they’re out there, you can’t gather those missing feathers and stuff them back in the pillow. Is Sister Aloysius right? Is he a danger to the children? Or is Father Flynn right, and is his care purely pastoral? And what does Donald’s mother make of it all? I was going to say you’ll have to watch the play to find out, but there are no easy answers to these questions, and you’ll have to spend your own second act working it all out to your best conclusion. At the end of the ninety minutes, you simply don’t know what to believe. Sister Aloysius has the last word and the last gesture, as you would expect. Does she have doubt?

Mrs MullerIt’s a beautifully crafted and written play, with a sparse elegance, relatively simple plot line (but watch out for the twists) and riveting characters. Joanna Scotcher’s comfortless design reveals a world of Spartan harshness, where the patchy and scratchy gardens are precisely like those where the seed falls on stony soil; there’s another parable for you. The nuns’ plain black habits make a telling contrast with the colour of the Father’s vestments and his white sports kit, and Mrs Muller’s formal but smart outfit. Looming over everything at the back of the stage is a cross in reverse; light streams through a cross shape that has been cut out of a black background, suggesting that perhaps an absence of organised religion sheds more light on the world than its presence.

Flynn and AloysiusCentral to the whole production is a thrillingly controlled performance by Monica Dolan as Sister Aloysius; her clipped, well-chosen words cutting through any pretence of kindness or supportiveness. Listening to others’ opinions, her facial muscles quiver with anticipation at her next well-planned and killing rejoinder. Ruthless and driven, she didn’t get where she is today without enormous self-assertiveness. But are her actions justified in protecting the children? Maybe.

Three clergyShe’s matched by an excellent performance by Sam Spruell as Flynn, his relaxed eloquence and caring, measured tones making a complete contrast with Sister Aloysius, until his fury is lit by her accusations. Is his personal, hands-on style a reassuring presence in Donald’s life? Maybe. Jessica Rhodes is also excellent as Sister James, desperately hoping that the unpleasant situation would just go away so that life can be happy again. Is her innocent, generous attitude protecting the children? Maybe. And Rebecca Sproggs gives a brilliant performance as Mrs Muller, weighing the balance of good versus bad, seeing the situation from a broader perspective from outside this cloistered existence, with a sense of practicality and realism. Is she looking after her child’s best interests? Probably.

Two SistersA stunning production from Lia Williams and four superb performances make this a truly riveting drama. Sadly it was only scheduled for a very brief run at the Festival Theatre, where it closes on February 5th. Do yourself a favour and see it.


Production photos by Johan Persson

Five Alive, Let Theatre Thrive!

Review – Aisha and Abhaya, Rambert Dance Company, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 18th January 2022

Aisha and AbhayaIt’s been a very long time since we’ve seen some dance and we always jump at the chance to watch Rambert, one of the best Contemporary Dance companies around, with a massive reputation for excellence and innovation – always a pleasure, often a challenge.

With their latest production, Aisha and Abhaya, it was all challenge and not much pleasure. Pre-show marketing explained that this was a combination of dance and multimedia video, which can be a very heady mix when it dovetails beautifully. It can also enthral when the one creates a fascinating tangent from the other. However, in this show, both Mrs Chrisparkle and I failed to see the remotest connection between the live action and Kibwe Tavares’ video story of the two sisters – princesses, maybe? – attacked and refugeed, trying to survive in an alien environment. Mrs C was shocked by the violence in the video; but then again, refugees often have a violent story to tell.

Much more successful was the video backdrop to the live action, which took us through endless mysterious corridors, leading out into an abstract cityscape, and finally a nightmare dance scenario where identical figures fill the screen all dancing to the same movements. That was genuinely spectacular. However, if you were expecting a furiously frenetic, visually and musically exciting finale to the show – you’ll be disappointed, it ends with definitely a whimper rather than a bang. Several long seconds of an audience staring in silence at a blank stage with one thought between them – is that it?

The show, which fractionally exceeds one hour’s length, started at 7.30pm and it was 7.48 by my watch before we saw any live action – which, for a dance show, I have to say did try our patience somewhat. And when the dance started, whilst there’s absolutely no doubting the extraordinary skill and strength of the group of seven dancers, Sharon Eyal’s unattractive choreography had an alienating effect on me, with the dancers’ body spasms and jerks reminding one of one’s worst ever attack of gastroenteritis. To be fair, the second, shorter, dance scene towards the end of the show had more traditional, graceful movement and felt much more rewarding.

This is a joint production between Rambert and The Royal Ballet; and I have read that the first audiences at the Linbury Theatre were offered earplugs to protect them from the loud and relentless techno music by Ori Lichtik and GAIKA. In fact, the music was driving, pulsating and inspiring, to the extent that the show was probably more entertaining on the audio side than the visual. Sadly, for the performance on Tuesday night at the Royal and Derngate, there was no programme; and Rambert’s website unusually gives no information on which dancers were performing. Try as I might, I’ve been unable to identify them, which I think is a disservice to them. They were all excellent, no question.

Occasionally the harsh critic, Mrs C’s observation at the end was that it had all the charm and appeal of a rave at 10 Downing Street. For me, being able to watch top class (if nameless) dancers perform their hearts and souls out means I enjoyed it more than she did. But at £33.50 for top price seats to see, what, 35 minutes of live action maybe, I thought the price was a bit steep. I guess videography is expensive. Rambert are currently announcing their 2023 production of a dance version of Peaky Blinders – fingers crossed that it’s more en pointe.

Production photos are not mine, but taken from the Royal and Derngate website.

Review of the Year 2020/21 – The Eleventh Annual Chrisparkle Awards

No one knew when the Committee sat to determine the Tenth Annual Chrisparkle Awards in January 2020 what was to befall us all in the future months. In March 2020 theatregoing ground to a halt, only to resume fifteen months or more later, on a tentative basis. At the moment, no one quite knows what the future looks like in the arts world – all we can do is cross every available digit and hope that we carry on unscathed.

So it is my pleasure to welcome you again to the artistic event of the year, the announcement of the annual Chrisparkle Awards for 2020/21. Adding the first part of 2020 to the second part of 2021 very nearly gives us a full year’s worth of productions to consider. Now, this may be controversial, but I’ve made the executive decision to exclude online performances. I never really got on with the whole online arts scene and didn’t see that many productions, so whilst I know there was a huge amount of talent and effort put in during 2020 to keep the arts alive, I can’t really integrate it into the rest of the awards, so soz about that. Eligibility for the awards means a) they were performed in the UK and b) I have to have seen the shows and blogged about them in the period 14th January 2020 to 17th January 2022. Naturally, some awards have had to be withdrawn this year, due to a lack of shows – but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.


Are you all sitting comfortably?


The first award is for Best Dance Production (Contemporary and Classical)

In 2018 the Committee decided to combine all the dance productions seen in the year, both at the Edinburgh Fringe and in other theatres. However, that still only means we saw two shows this year, so I’m simply going to hand this award to Dance to the Music at the Cresset Theatre, Peterborough, in March 2020, the final show in Kristina Rihanoff’s final dance tour.


Classical Music Concert of the Year.

Only three concerts attended, all performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra. Again it seems only fair to announce the winner, which is their fantastic From The New World concert at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in February 2020, conducted by Kerem Hasan, with Romanian piano soloist Daniel Ciobanu.


Best Entertainment Show of the Year.

This means anything that doesn’t fall into any other categories – for example pantos, circuses, revues and anything else hard to classify. Six contenders this year, and here are the top three:


In 3rd place, the fun extravaganza that was Pantoland at the Palladium, at (obviously) the London Palladium in December 2021.

In 2nd place, the most entertainment that can possibly be crammed into a pantomime, the legendary Sheffield panto experience that was Sleeping Beauty at the Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, in January 2022.

In 1st place, the unique theatrical experience that created drama out of verse – T S Eliot’s Four Quartets at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in June 2021.


Best Star Standup of the Year.

Twelve big-name stand-up comics qualify for this year, and the following five all gave five star performances:


In 5th place, the intelligent and extremely funny insight into motherhood by Josie Long in her Tender Show, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in March 2020.

In 4th place, on fantastic form, the brilliant Tez Ilyas in his Vicked Show, Underground at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in November 2021.

In 3rd place, the inimitable and irrepressible Sarah Millican in her Bobby Dazzler show, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in November 2021.

In 2nd place, the sunny hilarity of Chris Ramsey in his 20/20 tour, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in September 2021.

In 1st place, always a pleasure to see a true master at work, John Bishop in his Warm Up show at the Royal and Derngate in March 2020.


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

For one year only (I think) the award for Best Screaming Blue Murder comic has also been extended to the Comedy Crate shows that we saw in the garden of the Black Prince in those pandemic summers. Out of countless comics we saw, a longlist of nineteen provided the following top five:


In 5th place, the intelligent and brilliant Dan Antopolksi (SBM – February 2020, CC – January 2022)

In 4th place, the sublime and supremely crafted Paul Sinha (CC – September 2021)

In 3rd place, the self-deprecating, but killer punch-lined Bennett Arron (SBM – September 2021)

In 2nd place, the incredible hospital DJ supremo Ivan Brackenbury (CC – September 2021)

In 1st place, the ridiculously funny and inventive thespian Anna Mann (CC – August 2021)


In the absence of other opportunities to see comedy festivals or Edinburgh try-outs, the Best of the Rest Stand-up Award is suspended for this year, as are all the Edinburgh Fringe awards.


Best Musical.

I saw twelve musicals this year, a combination of new shows and revivals. One stinker, one disappointment, one slightly meh, and the others were all varying degrees of excellent. Here’s my top five.


In 5th place, not a show I’m normally fond of, but this was given a terrific new production; Chicago, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in October 2021.

In 4th place, the funny but powerful storytelling of Gin Craze at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in July 2021.

In 3rd place, another blistering production that brought new relevance to an old show, South Pacific at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in August 2021.

In 2nd place, a beautiful show that is a warm breath of positivity and kindness, the brilliant Come From Away at the Phoenix Theatre, London in December 2021.

In 1st place, no surprise really as it is my favourite show of all time, and given a new production with choreography and direction that’s sympathetic to the original, the revival of A Chorus Line at the Curve Theatre, Leicester in December 2021.


Best New Play.

Just to clarify, this is my definition of a new play, which is something that’s new to me and to most of its audience – so it might have been around before but on its first UK tour, or a new adaptation of a work originally in another format. Nine contenders, easy to identify a top five, not so easy to decide the winner.


In 5th place, the RSC’s far from perfect but nevertheless fascinating insight into the history of slavery, The Whip, at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, in February 2020.

In 4th place, a strong play about stage censorship and much more, Indecent at the Menier Chocolate Factory, in September 2021.

In 3rd place, a fresh look at the Courtroom drama genre set in the 18th century, The Welkin at the National Theatre Lyttelton Theatre in January 2020.

In 2nd place, the amazing adaptation of Andrea Levy’s riveting examination of slavery, The Long Song, at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in October 2021.

In 1st place, the constantly surprising, crammed with mic-drop moments, White Noise, at the Bridge Theatre, London, in October 2021.


Best Revival of a Play.

I saw ten revivals, with an obvious top four; here’s the top five:


In 5th place, the inaugural production by the Nigel Havers Theatre Company, Noel Coward’s ever-youthful Private Lives at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in November 2021.

In 4th place, the clear and classy production of Blue/Orange at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in November 2021.

In 3rd place, Greg Hersov’s gripping and relevant production of Shakespeare’s Hamlet at the Young Vic, London, in October 2021.

In 2nd place, the emotional and telling production of The Normal Heart, at the National Theatre Olivier Theatre, London, in October 2021.

In 1st place, the mesmerising production of Samuel Beckett’s Rough for Theatre II and Endgame at the Old Vic, London, in February 2020.


As always, in the post-Christmas season, it’s time to consider the turkey of the year – and my biggest disappointment was the RSC’s The Magician’s Elephant in November 2021, which, like the lift that stops on every floor you don’t want it to, was wrong on so many levels.


Best Local Production

This would normally include the productions by the University of Northampton students, the Royal and Derngate Actors’ Company, the Youth Companies, local theatre groups and the National Theatre Connections. However, I only saw three shows that come under this heading, the three plays that were performed at the Royal and Derngate Northampton by the Third Year University Students in May 2021 – and the best of those was Loveplay.


Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical.

Time to get personal. Here’s the top five:

In 5th place, Faye Brookes as Roxie in Chicago at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in October 2021.

In 4th place, Lizzy-Rose Esin-Kelly as Diana in A Chorus Line at the Curve Theatre, Leicester in December 2021.

In 3rd place, Debbie Chazen as Moll and Queen Caroline in Gin Craze at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in July 2021.

In 2nd place, Carly Mercedes-Dyer as Cassie in A Chorus Line at the Curve Theatre, Leicester in December 2021.

In 1st place, Alex Young as Nellie in South Pacific at the Festival Theatre, Chichester in August 2021.


Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical.

Eight performances in the shortlist, producing this top five:

In 5th place, Samuel Holmes as Christopher Belling in Curtains at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in February 2020.

In 4th place, Miles Western as Bernadette in Priscilla Queen of the Desert at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in August 2021.

In 3rd place, Rob Houchen as Cable in South Pacific at the Festival Theatre, Chichester in August 2021.

In 2nd place, Julian Ovenden as Emile in South Pacific at the Festival Theatre, Chichester in August 2021.

In 1st place, Layton Williams as Jamie in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in March 2020.


Best Performance by an Actress in a Play.

Eleven in the shortlist, and here’s the top five:

In 5th place, Tara Fitzgerald as Gertrude in Hamlet, at the Young Vic, London, in October 2021.

In 4th place, Maxine Peake as Elizabeth Luke in The Welkin, at the National Theatre, Lyttelton Theatre London in January 2020.

In 3rd place, Tara Tijani as Young July in The Long Song, at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in October 2021.

In 2nd place, Cush Jumbo as Hamlet in Hamlet, at the Young Vic, London, in October 2021.

In 1st place, Llewella Gideon as Old July in The Long Song, at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in October 2021.


Best Performance by an Actor in a Play.

Like last time, this is this year’s most hotly contested award, with fifteen contenders in my shortlist, and here is the top five:

In 5th place, Ben Daniels as Ned in The Normal Heart, at the National Theatre Olivier Theatre, London, in October 2021.

In 4th place, Michael Balogun as Christopher in Blue/Orange at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in November 2021.

In 3rd place, Ken Nwosu as Leo in White Noise, at the Bridge Theatre, London, in October 2021.

In 2nd place, Alan Cumming as B/Hamm in Rough for Theatre II and Endgame at the Old Vic, London, in February 2020.

In 1st place, Daniel Radcliffe as A/Clov in Rough for Theatre II and Endgame at the Old Vic, London, in February 2020.


Theatre of the Year.

I normally nominate a Theatre of the Year but I think in this pandemic/post-pandemic era, every theatre that mounted a production is a winner!

Congratulations to all the winners and nominees – and thanks for sticking with me, gentle reader. Hopefully 2022 will be a full and exciting programme of stage success!

Review – Habeas Corpus, Menier Chocolate Factory, London, 16th January 2022

Habeas CorpusHere’s another show that’s been a long time a-coming. I booked to see Patrick Marber’s new production of Alan Bennett’s Habeas Corpus back in March 2020, roughly the weekend before Lockdown 1.0 kicked in. Fortunately those nice people at the Menier were very diligent about making sure I got the same seats I originally booked, now that the production has finally come to light and I must say the staff at the Menier have been brilliant with their customer care during this period. Hats off to you!

CastHabeas Corpus first opened at the Lyric Theatre in May 1973 with a most enviable cast: Alec Guinness, Margaret Courtenay, Phyllida Law, Patricia Hayes, Joan Sanderson, Madeline Smith, Andrew Sachs, John Bird to name but eight; each one a master/mistress of stage comedy. Patrick Marber’s new production also gets excellent comedy skills out of his cast which really keeps the pace of this play going – but more of the cast later.

Habeas CastMay 1973. There’s a Girl in my Soup was just ending its seven year run, No Sex Please We’re British was two years into its extraordinary sixteen year run. The sauciness of Ray Cooney was all the rage. The strapline to this production reads “a filthy farce from a less enlightened age”. From the moment Dr Wicksteed flamboyantly whips off his surgical mask, you know you have been transported back from relatively careworn 2022 to relatively carefree 1973 (the three-day week hadn’t kicked in yet). Perhaps it also symbolises the removal of the mask where it comes to relationships – no more decorum, let’s play it real and dirty. According to the programme, Alan Bennett wrote the play as “an attempt to write farce without the paraphernalia of farce – hiding places, multiple exits and umpteen doors”. As such it is pretty successful. The uncluttered stage at the Menier indeed has no doors, although it does have one hiding place – behind the coffin, that ostentatiously sits in the centre of the stage throughout the whole performance without any member of the cast realising there’s a coffin among them. I can only presume it’s another symbol – of everyone’s eventual death; and that maybe it’s the spur for everyone to get as much sexual shenanigans going as they can before the Grim Reaper steps in. A re-invention of Sondheim’s A Little Night Music song The Miller’s Son for repressed fifty-somethings, perhaps.

Wicksteed and ShanksAnd eventually the coffin does get used for something other than a makeshift bed or table, as it opens ceremoniously at the end of the play to welcome the philandering GP Arthur Wicksteed to his eternal rest. Faithful to the original Bennett, we see Arthur dancing furiously to save his life, and the scene does create a fitting bookend to the beginning of the play, where Arthur confides in us that he spends his whole time as a doctor telling his patients they’re going to live – when in fact they’re not.

Mrs SwabbAh yes – confiding. That’s how this whole play is structured.  Most of the time the characters are breaking the fourth wall and confiding in us, serially delivering asides in our direction. Their interaction with each other is comedy pantomime, but the truth is largely only shared directly with the audience. At first this is a very amusing convention, with cleaning lady Mrs Swabb acting as a game-show host introducing the characters, discussing their ages and hobbies; blink and you could be watching Double Your Money or Take Your Pick. But after a while, I really tired of this approach, although the characters definitely don’t! Bennett plunges us into a surreal world populated with people who are either not getting any sex, not getting enough sex or not getting the sex they want. During the course of the play, people change partners, get caught out, are confronted with reality; past sins catch up with them, future hopes are dashed. It’s a stark and unglossy view of life and love, and at the end, the outlook is bleak for everyone. For a sex comedy, this is a pretty surreal one.

Canon and ConnieSex comedies. They don’t write them anymore. New farces are also few and far between, and it’s fascinating that they are currently so out of favour; they worked so well for the likes of George Feydeau, Ben Travers and Brian Rix. So when you see a play like Habeas Corpus it really stops you in your tracks. Was it really “a less enlightened age”? It made me wonder if it was possibly more enlightened in some ways. There is nothing (nearly nothing) about Habeas Corpus that is remotely offensive, and none of its subject matter comes close to anything in the works of Joe Orton, for example. Sure, it’s all about sex and death, but then, isn’t Hamlet? If anything, looking back on a hit sex comedy from fifty years ago makes you realise that actually they weren’t that daring or that un-PC after all; if anything, you rather hoped it might be more outrageous.

Percy, Connie and CanonThe funniest – and probably filthiest – scene is where the doctor’s wife is mistaken for his sister; the latter has invested in some false boobs to make her look sexier and is visited by the man from Leatherhead who ensures (naturally) they have been properly fitted. Unfortunately he is (erroneously) extremely impressed by the doctor’s wife’s chesty presence and feels her up (to her delight) albeit with purely academic interest. Naturally the man from Leatherhead spends the rest of the play in his underpants, because – well, why wouldn’t you? The double-joke is that whilst the wife is turned on by the boob-fondling fitter, he’s only doing it from a purely professional point of view and has no interest in any subsequent sexual advances. Of course, the randy woman/meek man comedy combination is frequently the source of comedy gold – think George and Mildred, or Victoria Wood’s song about Freda and Barry. It’s timeless.

Dennis Connie and Mrs SwabbTimeless; but nevertheless there is something about this production that doesn’t work for me, and feels strangely irrelevant to life in the 2020s. Certainly one aspect is that today we don’t look on someone trying to hang themselves as a source of humour. That difference is very stark, and you feel very uncomfortable when presented with it on stage to laugh at. I also think the central figure of the cleaning lady, constantly commenting on the action, feels very much of a bygone era; that type of role was more or less killed off with the appearance of Dotty Otley/Mrs Clackett in Noises Off, or, again citing Victoria Wood, Mrs Overall. And then, you’ve got all those very artificial asides, which really do wear you down after a while!

 Starkey (Sir Percy), Kirsty Besterman (Constance Wicksteed) - by Manuel HarlanDespite all these niggles, it is still an entertaining and enjoyable show. It uses 70s pop music to great effect – I ended up singing Sweet’s Wig Wam Bam to myself for the rest of the day and I’ll never think of Hocus Pocus by Focus in the same way ever again. There’s an excellent central performance by Jasper Britton as Wicksteed, revealing his sexual peccadillos to us whilst concealing them from everyone else on stage; it’s a performance full of energy and impishness. Catherine Russell is also excellent as his wife Muriel, channelling her inner Patricia Routledge (there’s a lot of Hyacinth Bouquet and Kitty in there) with a frostiness that gives way to sheer sensual pleasure. Ria Jones, in her straight play debut, brings a huge amount of character to Mrs Swabb, a slave to her Hoover.

Wicksteed and FelicityDan Starkey is brilliant as the pompous and bossy Sir Percy, fighting his short-man syndrome, Matthew Cottle perfect as the frustrated and not terribly forgiving Canon Throbbing, and there’s an excellent supporting performance by Abdul Salis as Shanks, the man from Leatherhead, horrified at being used as a sex object. But everyone puts in a very good performance and keeps the show moving at a cracking pace. It’s fascinating to have the opportunity to see a comedy like this, firmly from a different era, but in a modern context; it informs our understanding of its own time better than it does of our current times; but, let’s face it, nostalgia is always irresistible!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

3-starsNice and three-sy does it!


P. S. Tomorrow, it’s the Eleventh Annual Chrisparkle Awards! Exciting – will your favourites be amongst the winners?

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 14th January 2022

Screaming Blue MurderHurrah for the return of the Screaming Blue Murder comedy nights at the Derngate, the first of the New Year and with a capacity audience which is how we like it. We were a bright and cheery bunch, keen for a good laugh, and up for whatever the Gods of Comedy decided to throw at us. I must say though, it was a surprisingly patchy night. The fantastic just about outweighed the not-so-fantastic – but more of that later.

Dan EvansWe welcomed back our usual genial host Dan Evans, who had his work cut out encouraging/controlling members of the audience who included Big Nana and her unruly family of Spencer/Browns, the Four Siblings, the man who drove the human waste truck and the Landed Gentry who open up their garden for charity. Not to mention the vociferous lady from the back who wanted to be a member of Big Nana’s family. Rather like the now defunct News of the World, all human life was there. But, as always, Dan handled it with deft aplomb and only the occasional downright offensive insult.

James BranOur first act was James Bran, whom we last saw here almost four years ago, and is a likeable chap with a rather thoughtful, quiet approach to comedy, which can make a nice change from the more frenzied style. He started off with the best exchange of the night, by boldly asking who’s been vaccinated (yay shouted by far the majority) followed by who’s not been vaccinated (a slightly more guilty yay muttered by a tiny few) to which a lady in the front row shouted out “twats!” which took the conversation in a very different direction from which Mr Bran had I think intended. A great moment of interactive drama. However, after that the energy started to fall, and I found that most of Mr B’s material didn’t really engage me. Although there were some good laughs it never soared. And at the end he did a long sequence about bananas which I’m afraid left us both completely cold. Maybe it’s important to have seen the YouTube video he’s referring to.

Daman BamrahNext up, and new to us, was Daman Bamrah, who cuts an imposing stage presence; it’s the first time I’ve ever seen a Sikh gentleman as a stand-up comedian, and Mr Bamrah knows that his personality and presence is something he can work to his advantage. His other great gift is accents, and his opening few minutes were comedy gold as he explores a beautiful audio/visual juxtaposition and when the joke lands, it’s firmly on us – brilliant. There were also some nice observations about growing up in Wembley and mispronouncing his name. Unfortunately, his subsequent material isn’t quite substantial enough to sustain this high watermark and after a while it felt rather meandering, and any punchlines weren’t quite sharp enough to properly hit home. He’s obviously a naturally funny guy, and I know he’s relatively new to the comedy scene, so with some better material he could be a strong contender.

Richard MortonOur headline act was someone we’ve seen twice before but not since 2012, comedy/music act Richard Morton. The evening needed to end on a high note and by jiminy did Mr Morton provide it. Starting off with some great interaction with the crowd, tempered with some entertaining self-deprecation, he then moved on to his guitar-based musical parodies which are just sensational. He absolutely gets the style right of whatever musician or group he’s playing with (so to speak) and his comedy lyrics are both hilarious and bang up-to-date. I loved his selection of pandemic songs, and the act culminated with a now the groups are old selection – and he was completely hysterical. We left the theatre on a comedy high!

The next Screaming Blue Murder is on Saturday 29th January. We can’t make it – but I’m sure you can.

Review – The Comedy Crate at the Charles Bradlaugh, Northampton, 13th January 2022

Comedy CrateIt’s been a good few years since we’ve seen comedy at the Charles Bradlaugh and – apart from the obvious pandy-problem – I wonder why it’s been so long. It’s an excellent venue for this kind of show; comfortable, with great sightlines, a well-run fully-stocked bar within ten seconds walk of your seat, and with those nice people at The Comedy Crate in charge of hiring the turns, you always get a great programme to enjoy.

Paul RevillUnusually for us, three of the four comedians who plied their trade at last night’s show were new to us. Our MC was Paul Revill, an engaging and friendly chap who brings a positive vibe to the stage, with that rare knack of interacting with the audience and encouraging our participation without terrifying us at the same time. He elicited details about the secret hair salon on Abington Street, the lads celebrating the birth of a baby and got me to suggest that we should welcome the first act on from our collective groins of love – you had to be there. Amongst his other material I loved his explanation of how a Quality Street could be an insult after Christmas over-indulgence. He kept everything going at a great pace and set us up superbly for the fun to follow.

Matt RichardsonOur first act was Matt Richardson, of whom I’ve heard but never seen, an energetic and riotously funny guy who takes some of the more delicate aspects of relationships and explores them without fear. I loved the idea that, once you get a girlfriend, you’re no longer in charge of your bedtimes – it’s so true! Brilliant observations about over-rated sexual practices, and (literally) hands-on material about how a man deals with a tampon. Mrs Chrisparkle remarked how it’s becoming more common for male comedians to do period jokes – which, let’s face it, is where angels fear to tread – and Mr Richardson did it with great aplomb and got it absolutely right, judging from the laughter coming from Mrs C. Great work!

Fiona RidgewellNext up, and another new name to us, was Fiona Ridgewell; another warm and engaging personality who uses her physical presence to excellent effect with observations about the usefulness (or otherwise) of having big nostrils and a long neck. She has great observations about what it’s like to be a member of an all-female household of three generations, and is very adept with interacting with the crowd, which was great fun. She also has a great sequence about the knock-on effect of being dumped by a boyfriend without explanation. Nicely self-deprecating and with loads of attack, she’s definitely one to watch!

Dan AntopolskiOur headline act, and the only person we’ve seen before – and always enjoyed – was Dan Antopolski, as sure-footed as a mountain gazelle with his brilliant manner of setting up an intellectually-based premise and then kicking it in the teeth. With so many hilarious observations about family life, it’s a pleasure to be entertained by someone who knows their craft inside and out. Superb.

The next Comedy Crate gig at the Bradlaugh is on February 10th – we can’t go, but you should!

Review – The Tragedy of Macbeth, Northampton Filmhouse, 8th January 2022

The Tragedy of MacbethAmongst the many amazing reasons why Shakespeare is still as big as it gets, is that he’s eminently adaptable. You can set Richard III in the 1930s or you can place Much Ado About Nothing in an English country house. You can make King John and Timon of Athens a woman and you can make the shrew Katherina a man. Or – and perhaps currently slightly out of favour – you can go back to the original and, as Joel Coen has done with The Tragedy of Macbeth, set it as Shakespeare wrote it.

Macbeth and Banquo Here we are in 11th century Scotland, with the film shot in black and white to give it an extra sense of history and mystery. And here’s the movie’s absolutely winning element. It’s in the visual/sensory department that this film really works. Coen moves us from scene to scene with such seamless cinematographic tricks that 105 minutes flies by. Trudging through virgin snow, fading whites into greys into blacks, with flapping tent fabric that sounds like the ominous birds who metamorphose into the witches; a solitary witch standing against water who creates a reflection of more than one body; Moody moodlight flashing through windows and archways to form a line of pure white against the black of buildings, giving varying suggestions of confinement or expanse; a far off dagger I see before me that becomes the door handle to Duncan’s bedchamber; the unstoppable Birnam Wood coming to Dunsinane as almost floating foliage, followed by Macbeth opening a window and the leaves flooding uncontrollably in. I could go on, but that would create far too long a sentence. The stark, featureless castle offers no comfort chez Macbeth, and the whole appearance of the film frequently put me in mind of Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky, if that isn’t too Pseuds Corner.

MacduffThe script is credited to Joel Coen rather than Shakespeare, and it’s true that he plays around with the original a little bit, developing the role of Ross (Alex Hassell excellent in both loyal and turncoat guises, wearing an appropriately flappy bird-like gown) by making him not only the third murderer but also Fleance’s protector. The performances and characterisations (on the whole) are very strong and memorable. Neither pantomime villains nor unbelievably virtuous people here. Nobility and ignobility shine through; Bertie Carvel’s Banquo and especially Corey Hawkins’ Macduff bestride the screen like Colossuses, serving Brendan Gleeson’s dignified and super-trusting Duncan. Lady MacduffMacbeth’s killer incision into Duncan’s throat, and Macduff’s all my pretty chickens speech are amongst the film’s most memorable moments – as indeed is the method of dispatching young Macduff minor, thrown into a horrible deathly abyss.

Macbeth witchHarry Melling’s Malcolm is a sturdily decent young chap in whom Scotland can have some hope of a better future. Kathryn Hunter, the aforementioned female Timon, is outstanding as the Witches, constantly moving in and out of human form into something more abstract, her physicality lending a truly bird-like presence; and Stephen Root is effective as the Porter, a role that can make or break the tension of the story, his potentially tedious speech quickly handled to bridge the gap between the horrible deed and its discovery.

Macbeth and Lady MWhich brings me to the Macbeths. Denzel Washington’s Macbeth is a naturally quiet, unassuming kind of guy who may talk of vaulting ambition, but you never quite believe it. It’s an underplayed reading of the role, as though he’s already burned out before his spirit has caught fire, and I’m not sure to what extent he would inspire the likes of Banquo to follow him. Frances McDormand is a grim-faced Lady Macbeth who finds it hard to play the smiling hostess, and her descent into madness feels like an inevitable part of her character that was decreed right from the start. However, Witches perchMs McD revels in Shakespeare’s language and delivers her lines with verve and punch, whereas Mr W suppresses Macbeth’s emotions to the extent that some of the emphasis is lost.

Despite the occasional quibble I enjoyed this adaptation enormously, especially the ultra-noir atmosphere and visuals that never let up from the very start. A fine addition to the Shakespearean film collection.

Copyright for the images belongs of course to their rightful owner

Review – Waitress, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 10th January 2022

WaitressYou don’t need me to tell you how damaging Covid restrictions and lockdowns have been to the Arts, gentle reader. A case in point came a couple of weeks ago when the Toronto production of Come From Away decided it wouldn’t reopen after Christmas, thus prematurely ending a record-breaking run of 855 performances. And here in the UK, the West End production of Waitress was permanently closed in March 2020 after 13 successful months at the Adelphi Theatre due to the darned pandy. The UK tour had been scheduled to start in November 2020 but didn’t finally get started until last September. If anything proves that The Show Must Go On, I guess the tour of Waitress is a pretty good example!

JennaI’d never heard of the 2007 film on which the musical is based, but the show’s plot seems pretty much to follow the original story. Jenna is one of three waitresses at Joe’s Diner. Each brings her own individual personality to her job, but Jenna’s particular speciality is baking fantastically delicious and inventive pies. She’s trapped in an abusive marriage and longs to break free; and when she discovers there’s a big cash prize for a pie-baking contest, she sees that as a way of getting out of Earl’s clutches and back into freedom. However, she unexpectedly falls pregnant; and on meeting her new obstetrician, Dr Pomatter, they both realise there is an attraction. Do they have an affair? Will she leave her rotten husband? Does she win the pie-baking contest? You’ll have to see the show to find out!

Or alternatively, read on, as there are a lot of spoilers here! Scott Pask’s design beautifully recreates one of those timeless American Diners, all sass and over-eating, and any minute you expect Ritchie Cunningham to walk through the doors accompanied by Potsie and Ralph Malph. You sense this is not only the world of Happy Days, but also Grease, Footloose, or Hairspray, or any place where an ordinary kid can think big and make it to The American Dream. And what could be more wholesome than sweet homemade pies, crammed full of sugar, cream and all those delicious things we know we shouldn’t eat? OK, as she’s been told many times, Jenna may be no Sara Lee, but she sure does know how to create sweet comfort food. As wholesome as apple pie, just like Grandma used to make.

Dawn waitressBut it isn’t. That’s the façade. Sure, there are homemade pies, but there’s also domestic abuse, coercive control, medical malpractice and multiple adulteries. And for Waitress to tell its story to its fullest effect, this juxtaposition of sweet homeliness versus grim reality needs to be brought into the sharpest possible focus. And whilst there are telling moments, primarily in the scenes where husband Earl abuses Jenna, both physically and financially, for the most part the bittersweetness is blurred and sacrificed on the altar of musical comedy.

PomatterTake, for example, the role of Dr Pomatter. His character is presented as a tentative, inept, neurotic clown; medically he knows his stuff, but when it comes to personal contact he’s almost irresistibly childlike, and when Jenna plants a whopper of a kiss on his chops, he doesn’t say what about your husband and what about my wife and what about medical ethics, he just responds in that time-honoured tradition of thinking with his d*ck. And that always leads to trouble. Interestingly, almost the first thing that Jenna says to him is that she’s not happy being pregnant and she’d prefer not to be. Pomatter offers to refer her to someone who will perform a termination. Oh no, she says, semi-affronted, I’m going to have the baby, affirming traditional American Christian apple pie family values. But what’s key here is that Pomatter himself is not prepared to perform an abortion, but he is perfectly happy carry on an affair with one of his married patients. Curious morality where you can pick and choose at will.

Jenna is not the only character in an unfulfilled marriage. Her married colleague Becky ends up having an affair with married Diner manager Cal (because of his strong hands, apparently). As we’ve seen, Pomatter gets tempted elsewhere, and when we meet his charming and helpful wife who helps deliver Jenna’s baby, he seems even more of a scoundrel than before. In another juxtaposition – and this one much more successful – we see the partnering up of third waitress Dawn with nerdy geek Ogie, and they are a perfect match, with their complementary eccentricities and outlandish interests. Ogie’s quirky song Never Ever Getting Rid of Me is the only example in the show where the whole true musical comedy genre actually works.

SugarOtherwise, the musical content is functional if a little bland. Ellen Campbell’s band takes a back seat tucked in a far corner of the stage in more ways than one, in that although they are featured as part of the diner’s seating capacity, they never really make their presence felt. However, the big number, She Used to be Mine, is a stand-out moment where Jenna reflects on the disappointment of her life and is the emotional turning point for her finally to take responsibility for her future.

The production sports some great performances. I’m always excited to see Sandra Marvin, one of my favourite performers, and here she’s perfect as the larger-than-life Becky, with her infectious sarcastic laugh and extraordinary ability to inject life into any song. She’s matched with a delightfully kookie performance by Evelyn Hoskins as the offbeat Dawn, tentatively but creatively picking her way through the world of online dating, her wide-eyed amazement and thrill at the tiniest task (like filling up the mustard and ketchup bottles) coming over as a total joy.

OgieI really enjoyed George Crawford as over-enthusiastic weirdo Ogie, ruthless in his determination to secure Dawn for himself, despite her initial horror at the prospect. No one pulls the wool over the eyes of Scarlet Gabriel’s Nurse Norma, and she very nicely conveys the character’s growing contempt for Pomatter’s indiscretions. And there’s a superb performance from Tamlyn Henderson as the abusive Earl; neither pantomime villain nor overtly vicious, but subtly undermining and a very credibly self-centred louse. Keeping all his wife’s earnings to waste in the bar without the slightest guilt, wheedling selfish affection out of her with a promise that she’ll love him more than she will the baby, whilst still congratulating himself on the prospect of being a father – the legend lives on, he tells himself, with misplaced arrogance. It’s all about him, and Mr Henderson conveys that perfectly.

BeckyThe first night in Northampton was pivotal in many ways; not only was it the local press night, but it marked the new casting of Chelsea Halfpenny as Jenna, instead of Lucie Jones who had played it in the West End and on tour and is now going to perform in Wicked. But Ms Halfpenny didn’t play the role on the first night; instead, Jenna was played by ensemble performer Aimée Fisher, who has an excellent voice and gave a very strong and likeable performance. Busted’s Matt Jay-Willis plays Dr Pomatter with a convincing blend of fumbling fool and medical expert, but with the addition of chancing his arm to keep his secret affair alive. It’s an odd characterisation and I could never quite decide whether we were meant to find him lovable or despicable. Both, probably.

waitressesThere were a couple of moments that put me in mind of Avenue Q at its most comical excesses; Dawn and Ogi romping away to Civil War sex, and Pomatter indulging in what can only be described as cake cunnilingus. But somehow the production doesn’t quite balance the frothy light musical comedy element with the more disturbing dark content. I think this is one of those shows that you either get or you don’t get – and on the whole we didn’t get it. As a scrummy delicious fruity pie, it was nice enough, but it didn’t leave me wanting more. I’ve heard from more than one source that this a show that’s primarily targeted at women, and indeed, famously the creative team is exclusively female, so maybe I’m not the target demographic. I also know that many people see this show several times, so it must be doing something right for somebody! The tour continues all the way through to August.

Production photos by Johan Persson and Matt Crockett3-starsNice and three-sy does it!

Review – Sleeping Beauty, Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, 2nd January 2022

Sleeping BeautyJust short of two years since I booked the tickets – they do say good things are worth waiting for but that kinda takes the biscuit – eight of us finally managed to get up to Sheffield for one of the year’s most important traditions – the Sheffield panto. There is no better way to end/start the year (delete as appropriate), and at Christmas time the Lyceum Sheffield is the only theatre that comes close to the Palladium for that expectant buzz in the lobby and bar, and that frisson of excitement in the auditorium as the show is about to begin. If they could capture that thrill and bottle it, well, they’d have a bottle-full of really good thrill.

The full castHaving missed out on the joys of Damian’s Pop-up Panto last year, it was great to see a proper panto again with a recognisable story, a good fairy, two young lovers, a kid’s gang leader, an evil baddie and a bloke in a dress. Even before it starts, the band members, tucked away in the side boxes, exude massive energy as they bash out the traditional Bring Me Sunshine, and from the moment National Treasure (I’ve decided that’s what she is, deny it at your peril) Janine Duvitski came on stage as Fairy Moonbeam and gave us a proper excited Ello?! we knew we were in for a treat.

Damian_Williams_and_Ben_ThorntonBen Thornton was a great favourite as court jester Jangles, who not only required us to shout Hiya Jangles! every time we met but also insisted on the secret gang sign, a noisy wibbly-wobbly flickering hand behind your head which I’d swear was an homage to Lithuanian Eurovision band The Roop (Google them).  Hannah Everest was a charming Beauty (that’s Princess Caroline) and together she and Dominic Sibanda as the Prince (that’s Prince Michael of Moravia Oooooh) made an excellent romantic couple. One of the most entertaining aspects of the whole show was watching Mr Sibanda try to keep a straight face during nearly every interaction he had with nearly every cast member. He certainly had a lot of fun up there.

Lucas_RushLucas Rush was a brilliant baddie in the form of Carabosse, reinvented as a gender-fluid bad fairy who wouldn’t have looked out of place in the Rocky Horror Show or Cabaret. Fantastic interaction with the audience, really goading us to jeer at him (we obliged) and he mocked us for it (very well). It was a delightful twist that at the end of the show Carabosse seeks our forgiveness and ends up in a relationship with Nurse Nellie, explaining well, it is the 15th century you know.

Sleeping Beauty at schoolBut it wouldn’t be the Sheffield panto without our Damian. This is Mr Williams’ fourteenth year of playing the Dame at the Lyceum, but every year he brings fresh, larger than life, inventive fun to the role. Nurse Nellie’s boyfriend for the night was Jordan in the second row, who becomes the butt of some predictable, some not-so-predictable jokes throughout the evening. He is given the job of choosing the moment when he can press a button that will set off a huge confetti explosion; and in a truly hilarious coup-de-theatre, the explosion goes off just as we’re mourning the apparent death of the Princess, thus annihilating the pathos and gloom of the moment in a stroke that’s part Ayckbourn and part sheer theatrical anarchy. Poor Jordan.

Prince and PrincessI also particularly enjoyed the schoolroom scene, where Carabosse turns up as a teenage mother, and there was a brilliant joke about Robbie Williams selling insurance; and the introduction of the mystic Golden Axe which will enable the Damian WilliamsPrince to fight his way to the Princess’ bedchamber – only it’s hidden away so he has to use his Silver Chopper instead.

It’s a laugh a minute – more often that in fact, your face hurts from laughter from start to finish. We’ve already booked for Jack and the Beanstalk next December. Have you?

Production photos by Pamela Raith

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Review – Pantoland at the Palladium, London Palladium, 30th December 2021

Pantoland at the PalladiumAh, the Palladium panto. Such stuff that dreams are made on. I can’t tell you just quite how excited I get at the prospect of going to the Palladium, splashing out the cash on a bottle of champagne (hey big spender), and revelling in all the festive fun. A lot of it is nostalgia, of course, although, in the Julian Clary era, the Palladium panto isn’t really for kids, whereas when I were a lad it definitely was. But as soon as you enter that auditorium, we all turn into big kids. And hurrah for that! And whilst on that note, I really liked the tribute to pantos of the past with all the posters that surround the Palladium stage, dating back way even earlier than when I started going there – that gave me a true nostalgic glow.

The CastTaking into account the necessary Covid constraints, Pantoland at the Palladium is a remarkable achievement. Originally scheduled for the Christmas of 2020, it was a vehilce to get together a typical Palladium big show with the limited time and resource commitment of dipping in and out of lockdowns. It had a handful of performances and then had to be shelved, like nearly everything else. So it’s good to see it back again this year, with a little change of personnel, but still in its guise as not so much a pantomime, more a revue of Pantomime’s Greatest Hits.

Julian ClaryWith such a star cast and with all the glitz and glamour of a Palladium panto show, does it matter that it’s not actually a pantomime? In my opinion, actually it does. Whilst I enjoyed it enormously – you’d have to be so hard-hearted and devoid of a sense of humour not to – it lacked the purposefulness and narrative drive of a proper story. Julian Clary tells it like it is right from the start, when he says there’s no baddie to boo, no Paul O’Grady cackling away evilly and loathing the sight of any children in the audience. This, apparently, is because we’ve had enough sadness, we just want to laugh. But the absence of someone to boo really does reveal a great big hole in the show; it’s part of the tradition, and without that character, there’s no element of redemption – or at least revenge.

The Tiller GirlsThat said, it’s an excellent show, with all the usual suspects doing all the usual things, much to our usual delight. And there are a few extras, just to shake it up. Extra #1 is the appearance of novelty act Spark Fire Dance, where Dave Knox turns himself into a human Catherine Wheel on stage sending fire and fireworks in every direction. It’s a terrific act that takes your breath away, and reminds you of the novelty acts of 20th century pantos more than those from more recent years. Extra #2 is (are) The Tiller Girls, a mainstay of London Palladium shows from the 1960s. Without doubt it was fun to see them again, but they didn’t sit easily with the concept of pantomime, with which I don’t think they’ve ever been associated in the past. Yes, they’re pure Palladium, but not panto.

Donny OsmondExtra #3, who needs a paragraph all for himself, is Donny Osmond. DONNY OSMOND!! From the moment he comes on stage at the beginning of the show, the audience goes wild at him. The shout of WE LOVE YOU DONNY! picks up on-and-off from various parts of the audience throughout the show. Certainly the group of ladies behind us was ecstatic to see him. And what a trouper, with a terrific sense of humour, and no sense whatsoever of being too big for his boots, indeed, quite the opposite. And yes, he sings Puppy Love. And Crazy Horses. And Love me for a Reason. And Let Me In. And, in a memorable duet with Julian Clary, Any Dream Will Do from Joseph. His voice is fantastic – he’s probably a more mature and expressive singer now than he ever was in the teenybop years. If you lived through the 70s and remember how huge The Osmonds were, it’s a true treat to be able to see him, in such good voice and in such good humour.

Paul ZerdinThe usual suspects do their usual turns; Paul Zerdin and Sam do their brilliant vent act, which includes Sam leering at a lady in the front row (“once Puppet, never look back”) and having a couple from the audience wearing face masks (no, not those face masks) and acting out a domestic tiff on stage, powerless to prevent Mr Z from airing their most embarrassing dirty laundry. Gary Wilmot does his various dame routines, including his confectionary sketch and his piece de resistance, his patter song including all the stations of the London Underground – just an amazing feat. Gary WilmotNigel Havers comes on for absolutely no reason whatsoever in various stupid costumes, because, well, Nigel Havers. Jac Yarrow and Sophie Isaacs good-heartedly represent the young couple who always get married in every pantomime, despite the endless ribbings of Julian Clary, deriding their talent, their looks, their age, and so on. Mr C does keep the whole thing going though, as a unifying force, because, well, Julian Clary. In a big comedy number, Julian and DonnyMessrs C, Z, W and H come together for their Twelve Days of Christmas song, which, obvs, gets more and more ridiculous as it progresses.

Huge fun, great sets and costumes, fabulous music, and tried and tested panto routines make for a great night out. But I hope next year they return to doing A Proper Panto. I would have given it one star fewer because of the lack of narrative and purpose; but, at the end of the day, when all’s said and done, and taking a wider view – DONNY OSMOND!!!

Production photos by Paul Coltas

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