Review – Harry Stachini and Emmanuel Sonubi – Edinburgh Previews – The Comedy Crate at the Lamplighter, Northampton, 24th July 2023

Comedy CrateAnother night, another Edinburgh Preview show. This time we relocated to the Lamplighter pub which has an excellent downstairs stage area and works very well as a comedy venue. There had been a relatively late change of cast for the lineup for this show, as is often the case with Edinburgh Previews, but fortunately those nice people at the Comedy Crate have a wealth of comedy contacts up their sleeve, so you never need worry that you’ll be shortchanged!

Harry StachiniOur first act was a new name to us, Harry Stachini, preparing his new Edinburgh show, Grenade. He’s a thoroughly likeable young chap with an engaging personality and his show is an easy-going, happy, laughter-filled hour centred on the notion that we all have a grenade in our lives on which we ought to pull the pin. For him, it was his long-term relationship with Jess (and their dog); for others it could be your job, your health worries, your relationship, or anything. Fascinating that the dog knew they were splitting up before either Harry or Jess did! The show also brings in several comedy nuggets such as his parents’ relationship, teachers’ experiences of dealing with difficult kids, and a dreadful secret that the Virgin Mary might not have kept from Joseph. Mr Stachini is a naturally funny guy, has great material – although, as with nearly all the comedians we have seen over these previews, he knows he needs to get a proper ending sorted! This will be a very good show when it gets to Edinburgh.

Emmanuel SonubiAfter the interval it was time for our relatively last minute change to the advertised programme, Emmanuel Sonubi, previewing his Edinburgh Show Curriculum Vitae. We saw Emmanuel on his first Edinburgh show last year, Emancipated, a very enjoyable romp through his life and times. Now he has a new show, full of brand new material, which also tells the story of his life and times but just from a slightly different perspective! He’s able to get a lot of comic mileage out of his larger than life physical presence, which he can either use to be intimidating, or to play the coquette, which is even funnier – stop looking at my magnificent triceps, stop, honestly, what are you like?! I loved his material about banging gym and wetting you up – who knew? – and he incorporates themes from his time in various careers including being a bouncer, musical theatre and working in IT. Very effective and funny use of music to open and end the show, and there’s loads of laughs in his act as a faux-humble man – you’ll just have to see his show to appreciate it. There’s not much here that needs tightening up for Edinburgh, and he went down a storm at the Lamplighter.

That’s me done for Edinburgh Previews for this year – the main event is looming north of the border in a week’s time. But there are still a few more Comedy Crate shows coming up over the next week or so!

Edinburgh Fringe 2023 Reviews – Jesus Jane Mother and Me, In Loyal Company, Edmonds, The Importance of Being… Earnest? Marcus Brigstocke: Cheese and Whine, and Sigmund the Viking: Valhalla Calling

Jesus, Jane, Mother & Me, Pleasance Courtyard.

Jesus Jane Mother and MeWhat a way to start your day at the Fringe! Philip Stokes’ blistering but delicately written play returns to Edinburgh after a successful 2022 season. In a moving, sensitive, and frequently terrifying play, Jack Stokes plays Daniel Valentine, a troubled young man with severe mental health issues masquerading as fan worship of the one and only Jane MacDonald. He takes us through his difficult journey through childhood and school bullying, with inadequate parenting and a zest for performance. As the play develops, you sense it’s going to have a tragic ending but you can’t quite put your finger on exactly how it will turn out until the final minutes. One of those plays where you laugh out loud and then kick yourself for having been so cruel. I had my hand over my mouth for the final, excruciating scene – truly brilliantly written and performed. An immaculate production.


In Loyal Company, Pleasance Courtyard.

In Loyal CompanyA powerful account of the real-life story of Arthur Robinson, a young man who signed up to join the army in 1941, and how he was eventually captured as a Prisoner of War by the Japanese and just about survived enough to tell the tale. The fact that it’s written and performed by his great-nephew David William Bryan adds to the personal and emotional aspect of the production, which successfully steers away from any sentimentality which could have weakened its impact. Hard-hitting, and with an athletic and intense central performance, this is a strong play that lingers in the mind way after the curtain has come down. A rare opportunity to come face to face with the horrors of war through a genuine personal narrative. Highly recommended.

Edmonds, Pleasance Courtyard.

EdmondsRemember the days when Noel Edmonds ruled the light entertainment roost? With references to Noel’s House Party, The Late Late Breakfast Show, Multi-Coloured Swap Shop and even going back to the days of Radio Luxembourg, the man himself invites us to share a special edition of Deal or No Deal, with a guest player from the audience (in our case, Cameron, who played a blinder) and a very intimidating incarnation of “The Banker” indeed. It’s a very amusing idea, and Edmonds himself is horribly accurately portrayed in all his faux bonhomie and hollow laughter. It is something of a character-assassination of the man, whether you believe he deserves it or not, but there are some very nice appreciations of Mr Blobby, Crinkly Bottom and memories of his experiences on the Tring By-Pass. Whilst it doesn’t overall contribute much to our greater understanding of the human condition, and at times it gets a little underpowered, it’s still an entertaining little show.


The Importance of Being… Earnest? Pleasance Courtyard.

Importance of Being EarnestThe Importance of Being Earnest starts straightforwardly enough, but when Ernest doesn’t make his entrance on cue, all hell breaks loose as a member of the audience is recruited to take his place. Then when Gwendolyne gets a bit squiffy on real bourbon, someone else steps in. And then another… and then another…. and then another. If you like to see members of the audience suddenly catapulted onto the stage to fend for themselves as best they can, you’re in for a field day. It is all done with a lightness of touch and some very funny recurring jokes – my favourite being that the actor playing Algernon cannot improvise for toffee and so when things go wrong all around him he continues to act as if everything is going fine. The cast do a great job of keeping the amateur actors afloat, and there is an abundance of laughter throughout. There are a few moments when the energy saps for some reason, and I couldn’t help but think that, very good as it is, it could have been a little snappier and more dangerous. Of course, no two shows will ever be the same and it does rely on the goodwill and commitment of the audience members to make it go with a swing. Good fun!


Marcus Brigstocke: Cheese and Whine, Pleasance Courtyard.

Marcus BrigstockeAs we queue to get in to see Marcus Brigstocke: Cheese and Whine, the man himself greets us with a pen and a card for us to write down some of our current whines – trivial, personal and massive. And once on stage, the bulk of the show is spent with him taking some of our whines, analysing them for suitability and humour, and then, rather like a wine, choosing a cheese from an extensive and rather delicious-looking selection of fine cheeses on a table next to him, as the perfect accompaniment to that particular whine. A piece of that cheese is then offered to the whiner in question. As he himself admits, it’s a slight premise for a show. Mr Brigstocke is a naturally funny guy and can riff off whatever an audience chucks at him with effortless ease and hilarity. But I did feel this was rather an odd vehicle for him, and one which restricts his comedic abilities rather than releases them. No question, there were lots of laughs, but I still felt a bit underwhelmed by the show; normally Mr B blows me away but this was just very light entertainment.


Sigmund the Viking: Valhalla Calling, Underbelly Bristo Square.

Sigmund the VikingSigmund the Viking has seen the light and given up a life of plundering and pillaging for the more refined practice of yoga. He takes us through a few poses, including the excellent Business Pose that I think I’ll add to my list of domestic asanas. But will Odin let him get away with that change of lifestyle? A combination of very silly and very funny comedy, Sigmund is a great comic creation with terrific stage presence and warmth. I ended up having a battle to the death with him on stage – I won, but I didn’t kill him, it would have been a very short run otherwise. We were a very small but appreciative audience; it’s one of those shows where you have to completely throw yourself into it, and we enjoyed it very much. Possibly it needs a little more actual content, but it’s still a lot of fun.


Review – The Third Man, Menier Chocolate Factory, London, 23rd July 2023

The Third ManThe Menier is one of our favourite theatres, so we always like to catch their shows if they appeal to us. Everyone (even me!) knows the film of The Third Man, and a musical version penned by the creative team of Don Black, George Fenton and Christopher Hampton sounded too enticing for words. To top it off, it was to be directed by Sir Trevor Nunn. My theatrical heart spilleth over. But then came the reviews, and the word of mouth: not good. How could this be, a renowned gripping story with a bunch of creatives like that? Shurely shome mishtake! But the tickets were already bought and we just had to find out for ourselves.

HeaviesSo; The Third Man. Based on Carol Reed’s 1949 British film noir, set in postwar Vienna, where Westerns writer Holly Martins turns up at the invitation of his old friend Harry Lime and the promise of a new job. Trouble is, Lime died the day before Martins flew in. And his death all sounds a bit suspicious. So he stays to investigate, starts to fall in love with Lime’s girlfriend Anna Schmidt, and what’s at first suspicious becomes downright dark and dirty before long.

Viennese grimeEverything starts positively. When you enter the Menier auditorium, you never know what the configuration is going to look like, so it’s always exciting! You’re confronted by the blacks and greys of designer Paul Farnsworth’s set, which impress with their inbuilt gloom and despondency, rubbish piled up at a few corners, use of tattered newsprint, a mishmash of pavement coverings suggesting cobbled streets,  floorboards and one-time elegant designs. The costumes, too, are perfectly evocative of those grim times, with suits and overcoats in various stages of decrepitude depending on the wealth of the wearer. Trevor Nunn uses every single inch of the available space to suggest busy streets, with people rushing here, there and everywhere. In fact, those of us in the front rows are asked to make sure our possessions (including our feet) are well tucked in and out of the way of the actors. I didn’t dare to let go of my drink lest it accidentally got kicked halfway across the stage and into another quarter of old Vienna.

Wanna speak to our group?Tamara Saringer’s orchestra also gives you optimism for a good show to follow, as the opening strains of a kind-of version of Anton Karas’ famous theme lead you into the first scene, a scurry of grey Viennese characters busying themselves about their daily lives; lots of movement, lots to look at, lots that make you think – this is shaping up to be quite good! But then you start listening to the lyrics. Regrettably, they are as trite and repetitive as you can imagine. It’s as though they have been assembled to scrape the barrel of rhymey chimey phrases, designed to give an overall impression of something – Vienna? Poverty? Misery? but with neither depth nor emotion. In fact on the first occasion (yes there are more) that they rhymed Harry Lime with slime, Mrs Chrisparkle let out an audible snort of derision. Unfortunately the music is also extremely forgettable; when we came out, we couldn’t remember one bar of it.

Holly and AnnaSadly, no end of the talent that’s on stage or in directing, or in the music and lighting contributions can disguise the thinness and risibility of the material they have to work with. As the show progresses, you can admire and enjoy the performance level of the cast and appreciate the great use of the stage, and the pleasant playing and singing. But the show itself just gets boring. It’s puddingy, bland, soft and doughy. One could compare it unfavourably to blancmange but that’s hardly fair on blancmange. Such a shame and such a wasted opportunity.

HollyIn its favour, you have a hard-working and committed cast. Sam Underwood gives a good performance as Holly Martins, increasing in slovenly desperation to work out what happened to Harry. Natalie Dunne sings beautifully as Anna Schmidt – although she is a little inconsistent with the accent which is strongly Mittel Europa when she speaks and rather English rose when she sings. I really liked the double-act of Edward Baker-Duly and Jonathan Andrew Hume as the military police Major Calloway and Sergeant Paine; and I was dismayed to find the splendid Derek Griffiths so underused as the Porter.

PoliceYou can see the amount of effort that has gone in to bringing this production to the stage and can only admire the skills of those who are working at their best. But those lyrics… how could they have written something so gloopy?



Production photos by Manuel Harlan.

Two Disappointing for Anything More!

P. S. Not everyone at the Menier on Sunday afternoon was disappointed with the show. The wannabe Gogglebox participants who sat behind us never ceased with their audible oohs and aahs and over-the-top vocal reactions to the most minor of plot developments or moments of adequate acting. They were either high on coke or friends of someone in the cast.

Review – Jo Caulfield and Paul Sinha – Edinburgh Previews – The Comedy Crate at the Northampton Town Centre Hotel, 22nd July 2023

Comedy CrateIt only seems like a moment ago that we were at that town centre hotel in Northampton, inventively named the Northampton Town Centre Hotel (I kid you not) to see Gareth Mutch and Tom Stade wow us with their Edinburgh Previews. And we were back there again on Saturday night to see Jo Caulfield and Paul Sinha do the same! Such is the appeal of both the artists and the event that they held two shows on that day – a 5pm teatime affair and an 8pm grown up’s gig – although I’m sure the material was pretty much the same for both shows. That said, you can’t be sure; as these are Work in Progress shows, they might have risked a few lines at 5pm that bombed and were never heard of again – as indeed might have happened at the 8pm show. Basically, you can look on these shows as a helping hand for the comedians whacking their show into shape, and a serving suggestion for the audience as to what the final product might look like.

Jo CaulfieldWe started off with Jo Caulfield, a very experienced performer in the world of comedy, preparing her new Edinburgh show, Razor-Sharp. Checking back, I think this will be the 21st time that she’s taken a show to Edinburgh, so I think it’s safe to say she knows what she’s doing – she’s as much part of the place as Arthur’s Seat itself. She admits that all her shows are basically her catching up on ideas and reactions to things that have happened to her over the past twelve months, so you always get a sense of a very personal connection with her material. And much of her material is inspired by the life and times of her husband, of whom I think it is fair to say, she is lovingly critical. She has a hilarious routine about going along to what her husband calls “a night out with the lads” much to their (the lads) uniform horror. Even though it’s a WIP, she’s assured, polished, and superbly caustic. For my own taste, occasionally I find she drifts into the almost cruel with some of her observations, but she does it so nicely that she gets away with it! She also gave a reading from her new book The Funny Thing About Death which I think was in preparation for an appearance at the Book Festival. It doesn’t dovetail into her Edinburgh show but hopefully it helped her decide on which passages she should read there. But if you’re a fan of Jo Caulfield then her new show will definitely be one to watch.

Paul SinhaAfter the interval we welcomed Paul Sinha, previewing his Edinburgh Show Pauly Bengali. We’ve seen Paul Sinha many times before and his is one of the most creative and telling comedy brains on the circuit. This show was like a game of two halves; in the first, we had some of Paul’s classic takes on being a gay Asian with Parkinson’s and his affiliation (or otherwise) with leafy Luton, and in the second, he concentrated on his experience with attending last year’s TRIC awards and his interaction, for want of a better word, with the awards’ sponsor, the one and only GB News. Proudly woke (and why wouldn’t you be?) he’s no friend of KGB News, and there are loads of comedy nuggets to appreciate including why he’s not on Mark Dolan’s Christmas Card list – and probably not Adrian Edmondson’s either. One thing you can say about Paul Sinha, he’s always delightfully indiscreet about people who don’t come up his standard. He has plenty of good words to say about Milo McCabe though – again, why wouldn’t you? Interspersed with all this he gives us some comedy songs on the bontempi and ends up with a comic assassination of someone I’d never heard of but who has clearly been stealing his jokes – which is always a no-no in the comedy world. It needs a little more shaping up and editing but I’ve no doubt that Pauly Bengali will be a big success in Edinburgh.

And there’s more to come – another Edinburgh Preview tonight at The Lamplighter; we’ll be there, will you?

The Points of View Challenge – The Tryst – Ivan Turgenev

Ivan TurgenevIvan Sergeyevich Turgenev (1818 – 1883)

Russian novelist, short story writer, poet, playwright and translator.

The Tryst, first published in Contemporary Magazine (Совреме́нник) in 1850, then in the collection Hunter’s Notes (Записки охотника) in 1852.

Available to read online here – please note, this is a different translation from that published in the Points of View volume.

This is the third of four stories in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Memoir, or Observer Narration. From their introduction: “The stories selected for this group demonstrate some of the different relationships a narrator may have to events and main characters; these relationships determine how he gains information. He may be a confidant of the protagonists; he may be merely an eye-witness to their actions; he may be a member of some group or community in which they’re generally known, in which case he behaves like the chorus in Greek drama.”

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!


The Tryst


Hunter's SketchesOur unnamed narrator finds himself resting in a birch grove in autumn. All around him are the beautiful, sensuous sights and sounds of nature at its most perfect; verdant, lush, almost over-ripe in its sheer stunning presence. He drifts off to sleep and wakes up later and spies a peasant girl sitting in this lavish environment – but she is crying, and her delicate white skin stands out against the green grove. The narrator remains hidden, but eventually, another figure enters the scene – an arrogant, posturing young man, whose “face, rosy, fresh, brazen, belonged to that category of faces which, insofar as I have been able to observe, almost always move men to indignation and, regrettably, are very often found pleasing by women.”

The girl, Akulina, is relieved to see the boy, Victor Alexandrych, but he brusquely tells her he will be leaving tomorrow with his master. Stunned into sadness, Akulina begs him to stay but he callously shows no interest in her feelings and tells her to stop talking nonsense. She gives him a garland of cornflowers, but he shows no interest in them. Desperate to hear a kind word from him, he disdains every opportunity to soothe her sorrow. He patronises her for her lack of education, says she cannot possibly imagine what life is like in glamorous Petersburg, says it’s impossible for them to marry and eventually shrugs his shoulders and walks off in silence, leaving the cornflowers behind. A chill comes over the birch grove; the leaves now seem dry and lifeless, and nature’s colours have turned grey. The narrator starts to approach Akulina but she runs off. His final comment on the incident: “I came home; but for a long time the image of poor Akulina would not leave my mind, and her cornflowers, withered long since, are still treasured by me…”

The incident that Turgenev describes is simple enough. A meeting between two young people, she is clearly in love, and he is only in love with himself. He never has any intention of behaving honourably to the girl and she is just left to rue her unhappy affections. But we see it all through the eyes of the narrator, and he is biased from the start – finding Akulina fetching and pure, and “very far from bad-looking”. Victor Alexandrych, on the other hand, “did not create a pleasing impression on me. He was, judging by all the signs, the spoiled valet of some young, rich seigneur.” And whilst there’s no doubt that the boy mistreats the girl in this tryst, you must wonder if the narrator has an ulterior motive in framing the story in the way he does.

Turgenev gives us a superb contrast between the description of nature at its most fecund before the meeting, and then dry and lifeless afterwards – which clearly symbolises the optimism and positivity about their relationship before the meeting, and how it is dead and buried after she has been so badly let down. I also like how he suggests that the narrator has been so affected by what he saw that even today, some time after the event, he still treasures the memory of Akulina. “Treasure” is a strong word!

Brief, thoughtful, and packed with gorgeous descriptions, this is a juicy nugget of the short story genre, that suggests just as much (if not more) than it actually says. Not exactly enjoyable, but certainly memorable and I really admire Turgenev’s construction and use of language.

The next story in the anthology is the fourth and final classified by Moffett and McElheny as memoir, or observer narration, Johnny Bear by John Steinbeck.

Review – The Empress, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 18th July 2023

The EmpressTanika Gupta’s The Empress first arrived at the Royal Shakespeare Company ten years ago directed by Emma Rice, but here we have a brand new production, now with Pooja Ghai steering the directorial helm. It’s also the first show at the Swan Theatre under the new leadership team of Daniel Evans, Tamara Harvey and Catherine Mallyon. Welcome all!

RaniThe Empress traces the varying fortunes of a handful of characters who emigrated to Britain from India in 1887. 16 year old Rani Das is an ayah – that’s a children’s nursemaid – to a well-to-do English family. Another is a young man named Abdul Karim; there’s also the politician Dadabhai Naoroji, and a wannabe lawyer named M. K. Gandhi (yes, that Gandhi). They all travel on the same ship – and one of the lascars (sailors) on board, named Hari, notices young Rani and pretty much falls in love with her on the spot. On arrival in England, Rani is instantly dismissed by her employers – no employment protection in those days – thus becoming homeless. However, Hari takes her to a boarding house (or should that be bawdy) run by the rough-exterior but kind-hearted Lascar Sally. But this environment is no place for Rani and she quickly absents herself – Hari tries to find her but with no success.

Karim, Victoria, SarahMeanwhile Karim has surfaced as a new young waiter for none other than Her Majesty Queen Victoria. The play then follows the adventures of Rani and Karim; for her the only way is down until she can start climbing back up, and for him the only way is up until the establishment start getting their revenge on him. If you’re familiar with the film Victoria and Abdul then you’re well acquainted with the story of their unusual friendship, and how she elevated him to being her munshi (teacher) – and to be honest, the film gives you much more detail and insight into their relationship than you’ll find in The Empress.

VictoriaHowever, what’s very entertaining is the way that Victoria is reinvented in this play as a rather mischievous person with a keener sense of humour than you might otherwise imagine. It’s that characterisation that makes the Victoria/Karim thread of the story more interesting than the Rani/Hari aspect. One ought to respond emotionally to Rani’s plight and share in her despairs and later joys – but, strangely, somehow, one doesn’t. I found her story in the first act, where she veers from disaster to disaster, oddly cold and unemotional, passive and detached. Her story becomes more interesting in the second act when she starts making a life for herself, re-introduced to Naoroji, building a place for herself in the world. There is a happy ending for Rani – but I confess I found it rather far-fetched.

On board shipBlending fact and fiction, there is a strong narrative here – in fact two separate strong narratives – but they’re crowded out by the production’s obsessive use of music. Background music appears almost everywhere. Yes, it’s beautifully played under the direction of Hinal Pattani, but it has the effect of mollycoddling the hard-hitting aspects of the story with an overwhelming wave of slushy sentimentality. The scene, for example, where Rani is deciding whether her future lies with the man of her dreams or forging her own political career is muted by this blanket of superfluous romantic music – it’s as though the conversation took place in a hotel lift in Mumbai.

Abdul KarimThe Empress is a slightly odd blend of straight drama, interrupted by a few musical numbers – I accept it’s just possible that an early version of Bless Em All could have been sung by sailors at the time but it just feels anachronistic – and a spot of dance fantasy too. Most of the time these musical moments feel very out of place. However, there is a scene towards the end, where Karim promises to bring India to Victoria as she could never get there herself; and it reminded me of one of those strange – but also strangely effective – dream ballet sequences in the likes of South Pacific and Oklahoma. Bharatanatyam dance – beautifully executed by Tanya Katyal, exotic sweetmeats, lavish silks, all the sights and sounds of India are visited upon Victoria who laps it up like an excited child. A vivid dream shortly before her death? Some kind of medically induced hallucination? Or just a stage device for a bit of music and movement? I’m not sure – but, bizarrely, it works.

StagingOtherwise, the production looks good; simple, unobtrusive but authentic stage design from Rosa Maggiora and excellent costumes reflecting both the British and the Indian traditions at play. And the show benefits from having uniformly first-rate performances all round. Alexandra Gilbreath stands out as the surprisingly impish Queen Victoria, her grumpy frown (when used) belying her usually hidden inner charm. You really feel the anger and resentment when the officials, led by her unseen son Bertie, demand that she retracts the privileges she has granted to Karim – stressed and annoyed, she even mixes up her own pronouns of “we/our” and reverts to “I/my” in a very nice touch of 19th century misgendering. Francesca Faridany makes for a good sparring partner in the form of her lady in waiting, Lady Sarah, protecting Victoria from the inappropriate advances of her munshi and frequently getting into trouble for it.

NaorojiRaj Bajaj cuts a commanding and dignified figure as Karim and subtly shows us how he started to lord it over more minor characters as his fortunes rose – for example by politely patronising the artist whom Victoria has engaged to paint his portrait. Tanya Katyal is also excellent as Rani, a wide-eyed innocent youth who develops into a self-assured and perceptive woman. Aaron Gill gives a good performance as the rather reckless Hari, Avita Jay is a delightfully feisty Firoza and Simon Rivers is a strong, benign presence as the first British Indian MP Naoroji. There’s also excellent support from Nicola Stephenson as Lascar Sally, Miriam Grace Edwards as Georgina, Sarah Moyle in a number of roles including Rani’s unkind employer, and Oliver Hembrough as the lascivious Lord John Oakham.

HariRather like India herself, The Empress is a melting pot of narrative, style and imagination. Sometimes the story suffers from excess sentiment, sometimes it’s powerful and telling. But even when it’s at its weakest, it’s still rescued by excellent performances. Enjoyable, but somehow you feel it could just be a bit better than it is.  The Empress continues in rep at the Swan Theatre until 18 November 2023, and also plays at London’s Lyric Hammersmith between 4 – 28 October.

Production photos by Ellie Kurttz

3-starsThree-sy Does It!

Review – Gareth Mutch and Tom Stade – Edinburgh Previews – The Comedy Crate at the Northampton Town Centre Hotel, 13th July 2023

Comedy CrateHot on the heels of last weekend’s mammoth and super-successful Comedy Crate Weekender, we’re down for three more evenings of Edinburgh Previews this month, starting with Gareth Mutch and Tom Stade at the newly branded Northampton Town Centre Hotel (that’s the old Park Inn if you’re still working in pounds, shillings and pence). Whilst you couldn’t say that the room where the show took place was glamorous – and indeed our two performers started their acts by acknowledging as much – it is functional, comfortable, and adjacent to a good bar and excellent toilets so you can’t say fairer than that.

Gareth MutchFirst up was Gareth Mutch – a name new to me, preparing for his Edinburgh show Belter. He’s a big, likeable lad, nicely self-deprecating about his self-confessed “odd” shape, and he uses his relaxed story-telling style to deliver some fun material about someone he met on a train and a creepy front-row comedy club fan. Very much in Preview territory – as he would be the first to admit – so not every punch landed, possibly because we were an older demographic than he is targeting. He’s great at setting up a rapport with the audience and found just the one fellow vaper – good old Balpreet. He has excellent material concerning vaping, by the way, all of which was fresh and fun and which I can’t remember hearing mentioned by another comic, so it’s a good subject to develop! An enjoyable and entertaining hour which I’m sure will grow into an excellent Fringe show.

Tom StadeAfter the interval it was time for Tom Stade, previewing his Edinburgh Show Natural Born Killer. It’s to my shame that I’ve never seen Tom Stade before and boy, have I been missing out. Few comics can aspire to his clearly innate ability to be funny from the very start. I know it’s a cliché, but the man could stand on the stage and read a shopping list and it would be hilarious. There’s very little brushing-up required to make this show Fringe-perfect; he has an amazing rapport with the crowd, chatting with many of us including me (that’s Chris, 63) and my father-in-law aka Lord Prosecco, Bill, 80.) I mention the ages because it’s a vital part of this show – setting yourself in your formative decade and never growing up afterwards. He has brilliant material about the words you can and cannot use today – and it’s not in a GB News-type right-wing moany way but in an incredibly inventive, challenging way that sees the funny side of it all. Packed with superb observations, terrific asides, and way more than a laugh a minute. Can’t wait to see him again!

More Edinburgh Previews ahead – we’ve just booked to see Paul Sinha and Jo Caulfield on Saturday, should be great!

Review – As You Like It, RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 11th July 2023

As You Like ItThere’s currently a curious interest in theatre where the production is designed to draw the attention of the audience to rehearsal proceedings and backstage insights. A prime example is The Motive and the Cue at the National – and from December at the Noel Coward – which details the creative process that led to the Burton/Gielgud Hamlet on Broadway in 1964. Omar Elerian’s new production of As You Like It that opened at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre last month puts yet another perspective on a backstage approach to a production. Here we have a group of (they won’t mind me saying it) veteran actors, many of whom were in a production of the same play in 1978; and they have come together (with a few thrusting younger performers) to re-enact for us their 45-year-old performances.

Celia Touchstone and RosalindThey weren’t the only veterans at last night’s performance. Not only does this show clearly attract an older demographic, but I also clearly remember the 18-year-old me going to see this production when it moved to London’s Aldwych Theatre in September 1978. Look – here’s the programme!

Interestingly, none of the actors on stage in Stratford was in that Aldwych show – although I did notice one leading actor from the 1978 production in our audience! I recall how I was bowled over by the production, and for many years it was probably in the top ten shows I’d seen. I have a feeling  that some of the music in the current production – the arrangement of Under the Greenwood Tree for example – is either the same as, or extremely similar to, the musical arrangements in the 1978 production. So for me, I also had a lot of opportunity to wallow in the nostalgia of the evening.

PhoebeAna Inés Jabares-Pita’s design primarily concerns itself with a rehearsal room, where the actors present the play, although with all the pictures and written sheets on the back wall it reminded me more of a police murder hunt case room. Of course, it’s a totally artificial presentation in many ways. As the cast gradually arrive on stage at the beginning, they natter with the audience until a stage manager gives the nod that the show is due to start. Then Michael Bertenshaw, who plays Oliver, addresses the audience to explain what’s about to take place. On more than one occasion, James Hayes (Touchstone) turns to the audience to remind them that he is a classical actor, implying that he’s scraping the barrel by appearing in this show – indeed, on one exit, he adds to Shakespeare’s text, “I’m wasted here”. You get the drift. For reasons known to others but not to me, a rock band slowly descends on the stage like a deus ex machina at the end of the first act – giving the cast a chance to have a bop and a boogie. The modern cage contraption that forms this piece of rigging is totally at odds with the bucolic charm we’re straining to imagine and it gets in the way. Admittedly it lifts early in the second act, taking Orlando with it – heaven knows why.

SilviusThere are some nice moments where the older age of the actors is deliberately at odds with the younger age of the characters – David Fielder and Celia Bannerman as Silvius and Phoebe, for example, put an interesting slant on young romantic love. And Rosalind’s reworked epilogue, which reflects the autumn of everyone’s years, is a neat piece of writing – although, I’m not sure it was completely necessary, the epilogue as written by Shakespeare contains ageless pieces of advice! However, I couldn’t help asking myself, beyond entertainment for entertainment’s sake – and of course, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, what actually is the point of this production? And I don’t mean that negatively – it’s great to get a new perspective, and for the most part it works. But I  got the impression that they were doing this production this way simply because they could; to be honest, it’s more “filler” than “killer”.

RosalindThere are some lulls in the proceedings too; the second act suffers from a lack of scenery and a lack of costume, and whereas it’s easy to imagine the Duke’s Court in the Rehearsal Room it’s far harder to envisage woodland glades. At the end of the show, the back wall gives way to reveal a beautiful tableau of the Forest of Arden – it’s as idyllic a presentation as you could possibly imagine. And it’s at that point that you realise that thatthe Forest – is the main thing that has been lacking in the show. The episodic nature of the later courtship scenes, with Silvius, Phoebe, Audrey and so on, are normally fun as they dart playfully all over the stage forest, but in this production this all feels very static – and I confess, I did get a little bored, which is the cardinal sin of the theatre. It’s also when the forest is revealed, and the actors move towards it that the sense of nostalgia is at its most acute; when their voices start to merge with the recorded voices of the past, it feels like they are genuinely going back in time.

Rosalind and CeliaThere are some splendid performances that really keep the show lifted. Geraldine James as Rosalind and Maureen Beattie as Celia are a perfect pairing, and the evening revolves around them completely. James Hayes brings tons of comedy to Touchstone, and Malcolm Sinclair proves himself to be a remarkably youthful Orlando. Robin Soans does a terrific good cop bad cop routine as the two Dukes – Senior and Frederick; and amongst the younger members of the cast, I particularly enjoyed Rose Wardlaw, especially as Le Beau, realising after a while that he was meant to be French, and Tyreke Leslie whose calm quiet voicing of the role of Adam was very touching.

OrlandoIt’s very quirky, at times it’s very funny, occasionally it’s rather moving, but most of all it’s very charming. Perhaps it’s fair to say this is more of an experiment than an actual production per se, but it succeeds on those grounds. Despite its faults it’s still very entertaining and I’ve never seen a Shakespeare play performed this way before, so that’s a first!

TouchstoneP. S. I did like the fact that, unusually (but like the 1978 production) they didn’t cut Touchstone’s speech about rhetoric, which culminates in his insightful observation, “Your If is your only peacemaker – much virtue in If”. Remembering this production when I was writing an essay about this play at university back in 1980, I pounced upon this line as the key to the whole play, which I determined was all about the art of compromise. I read my essay as my tutor listened in stony silence. His verdict at the end was the brief but damning comment: “Possible interpretation”. In other words, I got it wrong.

Production photos by Ellie Kurttz

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – The Comedy Crate Weekender, Northampton, 8th & 9th July 2023

Comedy CrateCorrect me if I’m wrong, gentle reader, but it’s six years since the Comedy Crate held their first weekend festival hosting Edinburgh Preview acts for the pleasure of Northampton audiences. It’s also the first year that Mrs Chrisparkle and I have been able to be present for both days – and it really is an incredible bargain – £40 buys you ten shows from a choice of twenty-five. Your comedy dollar stretches a long way here. 25 acts, 3 venues and loads of laughs. Everyone’s experience will be different, depending on their choices of shows – but here’s what we got up to!

Saturday 8th July

2 pm – Chloe Petts: If You Can’t Say Anything Nice (Black Prince)

Chloe PettsI’d heard a lot about Chloe Petts, so was naturally intrigued to see for myself! And her new show is a very enjoyable hour where she examines how she’s a nice person but nevertheless she has anger issues. She’s clearly naturally funny, with an engaging persona even if at time she tries to deliberately put you against her – for example, I loved how she singled out “men who sit in the front row at comedy gigs” as being the worst of the worst, but she also says she hates her own fans – but with a fair justification. I loved her routines about therapists and football, and she has some brilliant material about catching the bouquet at a wedding. Still work in progress, as all these shows are, and it needs a little tightening up and refinement, but I’m sure this will be one to watch when it comes to the Pleasance Courtyard Edinburgh.

3.30 pm – Matt Bragg: Has Nothing Wrong With Him (Black Prince)

Matt BraggWe’d seen Matt Bragg once before when he did a ten-minute slot in an otherwise car crash of a show at the Leicester Comedy Festival in 2019 and I picked him out then as One To Watch. Now preparing his debut tour, I can certainly agree with the title that Matt Bragg has absolutely nothing wrong with him at all, in fact this was a tremendously fluid, confident, and extremely funny hour. Mr Bragg’s accent puts you in mind of a younger Frank Skinner and the two bear fair comparison. Extremely engaging and likeable, he puts a fresh angle on some familiar themes, incorporating some excellent callbacks. I loved the story of the Japanese hating Grandad, and the idea of the type of people who name their wedding tables after places they’ve been on holiday – so true. To be honest, if you’re going to include a story about Auschwitz in a comedy routine it’s vital to nail it devastatingly, and that wasn’t quite there yet; the show also needs a stronger ending, but that will come. This isn’t an Edinburgh preview as such, although he is part of an Edinburgh mixed bill line-up that will definitely be worth seeing. I’m predicting Mr Bragg will go from strength to strength and be a big name in the future.

5 pm – Darren Harriott: Roadman (Charles Bradlaugh)

Darren HarriottMuch to my surprise this was the first time we’d seen Darren Harriott, although he already has a great reputation for stand up. Another very likeable and engaging personality, he has a relaxed but confident way about him that instantly puts you at ease and ensures you’re in for a good time. He explains how he has moved on from being a Roadman (Urban Dictionary is your friend) to being the real him. He also tells us about the ikkk – I think that’s the right spelling – which is the moment that you know that the person you’ve met has just turned you off bigtime for a minor etiquette transgression; look forward to one of the best callbacks of all time. He has some very enjoyable material about his experience on Celebrity Mastermind and why he is satisfied it will never get repeated on TV. When all his comedy ideas have gelled together this will doubtless be an Edinburgh hit at the Pleasance Courtyard in August.

7 pm – Thomas Green: End of Daze (Charles Bradlaugh)

Thomas GreenA last minute replacement, Thomas Green is new to me although he’s been on the comedy scene for a few years now, and his show End of Daze, although not going to Edinburgh, is touring the country from September. And if you’re going to see the show, you’re in a for a treat. He’s an outstanding comedian, hugely likeable, a superb communicator, deftly incorporating all the little elements that an audience throws at him, and we didn’t stop laughing the entire hour. The show is based on his Australian upbringing within a very controlling and strict church and how he eventually broke free and became a teacher in Nottingham (where else?) Mrs C was brought up in Australia, and also knows a lot about the church there so there was lots to recognise. There are some lovely moments, like the first time he saw snow (?) and the first time he saw a radiator! Absolutely loved this show and will definitely seek him out in the future. Highly recommended! Book tickets for his tour here.

8.30 pm – Josh Pugh: Existin’ La Vida Loca (Lamplighter)

Josh PughPurely as an aside, you can’t beat Josh Pugh for coming up with inventive titles for his shows! Battling the extreme heat of the upstairs room at the Lamplighter, which Mr Pugh would be the first to agree was not the most conducive environment to enjoying comedy, he nevertheless treated us to some terrific comedy ideas that will go to form his new show which is scheduled to be a Work in Progress when it reaches the Monkey Barrel in Edinburgh for the early part of the Fringe. Josh is a terrific wordsmith and always brings new observations to familiar situations. His new show is about coping with all the stresses and strains of life now that he and his wife have a young child in the mix. Early days for this Work in Progress but I have no doubt that this will be another cracker on the way.

Sunday 9th July

2 pm – Mark Simmons: New Jokes (Charles Bradlaugh)

Mark SimmonsI’m a real sucker for Mark Simmons’ brand of comedy – rapid one liners, but delivered at a gentle pace. Trying out all sorts of new material for his Edinburgh show at the Liquid Room, what makes him so effective a comic is the brilliant contrast between his charmingly mild-mannered appearance and delivery and the sometimes savage content of his punchlines. There’s plenty of new examples of this in his new show, which of course I won’t spoil for you, but if you’re a fan of his previous work you’ll certainly love the new stuff. It’s not to everyone’s taste – one gentleman left early, much to the surprise of everyone else in the room, apart from Mark himself, who was kindness itself in accepting that his style isn’t for everyone. Shame – he missed out on some terrific stuff! When Mark’s decided on the final bunch of new jokes for Edinburgh, it’s going to be a blast!

3.30 pm – Ian Smith: Crushing (Charles Bradlaugh)

Ian SmithWe’ve seen Ian Smith twice before, so I knew we were going to be in for a good time with his new show, Crushing, which he’s taking to the Tron (Monkey Barrel Comedy) in Edinburgh this year. Ostensibly about going with his hairdresser to smash a car up in Slovakia and watch it crushed by a tank – but there’s lots more to it than that. It’s a very funny collection of routines that are largely based on the idea of stress-busting solutions, plus the problems in life that create the stress in the first place. Mr Smith has a quirky, unpredictable style; there’s a sequence, for example, where he hosts the show from a spare seat in the audience. My favourite part was the story of the aggrieved employee in a vineyard who wrought a very protracted revenge on his employers. Loads of excellent comic ideas here, with a very strong delivery. It still lacks an ending, but as Mr Smith himself said, he still has three weeks….

5 pm – Matt Forde: Inside No 10 (Black Prince)

Matt FordeIt’s been a terrible sin of omission, but is the first time we’ve seen Matt Forde, even though he has an outstanding reputation for impersonations and political comedy (of which we’re very fond.) He hits the ground running straight away with a comic assassination of Rishi Sunak (fully deserved, imho), and he weaves loads of other political figures into his narrative. I really enjoyed his bumbling, pompous Sir Lindsay Hoyle, his pinch-voiced Keir Starmer, his bewildered Hamza Yusuf, and his quietly manipulative Mick Lynch. Topical, gritty and pulling no punches on any side of the political spectrum, I didn’t think Northampton audiences normally responded particularly well to political stand up in the past, but this was an exception. He’s still working out which elements of this work in progress show will end up in his Inside No 10 show at Pleasance Courtyard next month, but he’s got a lot to choose from!

7 pm – Nabil Abdulrashid: The Purple Pill (Black Prince)

Nabil AbdulrashidI’ve not seen Nabil Abdulrashid before and I wanted to see him on the strength of his appearance on Have I Got News For You a few weeks ago, where I thought he was devastatingly funny. There’s no denying he’s a big chap, which leads to a commanding presence on stage. His Edinburgh show description about The Purple Pill (Pleasance Courtyard) is that it is a “show about trying to be a good person while staying a badman.” I’m not sure that really reflects the material he delivered at this Preview, which I felt more concentrated on his family life, coping with two very different daughters, and needing to protect them from the big bad world outside, as well as his own mental health issues – no real detail there, except that he feels he has them, and has a lot of them. He’s a terrific wordsmith, with a tremendous lightness of verbal touch – he has a beautiful sensitivity to the nuances of the language. Occasionally challenging, particularly on the topic of latent racism, and it’s refreshing to hear about life from the point of view of a Muslim Nigerian in Croydon! Plenty of work still to do here, but I’m sure he’ll nail it.

8.30 pm – Abandoman: Future Fest (Black Prince)

AbandomanI really ought to learn my lesson not to put my hand up in an Abandoman show. I did it at his Preview show last year – and ended up on stage; and I did it again this year, ending up on stage and dragging poor Mrs Chrisparkle into the show as well. Fortunately my fellow Abandoman victims – I mean stage participants – did outstandingly well! The thing about Abandoman is that he is so unthreatening, completely puts you at your ease whilst you’re up there, that you should never be wary of taking part in one of his incredible musical experiences. In Future Fest, (Underbelly, George Square) he poses just three or four questions to the audience, and if you feel you’ve got an appropriate answer, he’ll give you a little interview on stage and then convert all the material you’ve provided into a hilarious rap song. He must have the most extraordinarily flexible brain and memory, and I can only assume that no two Abandoman shows are ever the same. A brilliant way to end a superb weekend of comedy – and a massive thanks to the Comedy Crate team for organising it so splendidly and seamlessly.

There are more Comedy Crate Edinburgh Previews coming up over the rest of July – we’re next up for Tom Stade and Gareth Mutch at the Park Inn on Thursday – see you there!

Review – Sinfonia Viva, Beethoven’s Symphony No 3, “Eroica”, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 7th July 2023

Sinfonia Viva - BeethovenIt’s a huge welcome to the Sinfonia Viva for their first classical concert at the Royal and Derngate – at least, I think it’s their first visit to the R&D, the orchestra was founded in 1982 but I confess I’d never heard from them before. And that’s to my discredit, as they’re a funky group of musicians who pack a punch with their showmanship. I’m not quite sure if all 38 of them were on the stage of the Derngate auditorium on Friday night, but they certainly gave a performance of power and passion.

Delyana LazarovaLed by enthusiastic first violinist Peter Liang, whose energy and commitment clearly influences the entire orchestra, our conductor for the performance was Delyana Lazarova, born in Bulgaria, but most recently based in Manchester where she has been working with the Hallé Orchestra. She brings determination and style to the podium, and gets the best out of the orchestra with some occasionally very artistic hand gestures.

The curtain-raiser piece in the programme was the Overture to L’ Amant Anonyme by Joseph Bologne, Chevalier de Saint Georges. L’ Amant Anonyme is the only one of Saint-Georges’ six operas to survive complete. I’d never heard of it, nor him; and if this work is also new to you, gentle reader, that’s perhaps no surprise as the first commercial recording of the piece was only released earlier this year. However, it’s a terrific piece of music, and I think I shall be hunting down that recording for my own collection! In three brief movements, it starts off as though it’s something you recognise, but then it takes unexpected turns, definitely going its own way, and it reminded me of what Bach’s seventh Brandenburg Concerto – if there were one – would sound like. Full of attack and verve and hugely entertaining.

Ariel LanyiOur second piece was Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 20 in D Minor, K466, with our soloist for the evening, Jerusalem-born Ariel Lanyi. At the age of 25, he clearly has musical maturity and professionalism way beyond his years. The concerto is a much-loved work, and Mr Lanyi and the orchestra played with first movement with straightforward clarity and precision. But it was with the second movement that I really felt the performance took off, as I melted away to the romantic melodies and pure emotion of the piece. Mr Lanyi incorporated a terrific cadenza in the final movement and it all ended with upbeat sweetness and light. The woman seated in front of me gasped an audible wow once it was over. Great stuff.

Sinfonia Viva orchestraAfter the interval Ms Lazarova introduced the main item of the evening, Beethoven’s Symphony No 3 in E flat, “Eroica”, Op 55. She explained the four movements as 1) the trials and tribulations of life, 2) a funeral, 3) rebirth, and 4) celebration, and I found that a very helpful guide to the work. I also enjoyed her comment that talking about music is like dancing about architecture – a good cue to get going! It was a powerful performance all the way through, vivid and exciting, but superbly controlled through the second movement and exhilarating at the end.

I do hope that the Sinfonia Viva decide to include the Royal and Derngate in their future schedules! They are a terrific addition to the theatre’s programming.