Review – Close Up, The Twiggy Musical, Menier Chocolate Factory, London, 22nd October 2023

Close UpI was having second thoughts about seeing this show because the opening a few weeks ago was greeted with a swathe of very iffy reviews. But I can never resist a Menier Sunday matinee, no matter what the show is; and all I can say is, gentle reader, never trust a critic. They (and I include my humble self here) don’t know what they’re talking about. Close Up – The Twiggy Musical is a complete winner from start to finish. In fact it’s rare to find a production that’s outstanding in virtually every department.

TwiggyFor the youngsters among you, Twiggy was the affectionate nickname given to the young (very young, as it turns out) Lesley Hornby back in the mid 1960s, a naïve girl from Neasden who was catapulted to stardom through a modelling career that has certainly lingered over the decades, as has the affection the British public have for this true sixties icon. Ben Elton’s book and lyrics take the form of a kind of a musical docudrama, with Twiggy herself (as performed by Elena Skye) narrating the story of her life,Cast all pleasingly punctuated by vignettes with her parents, Norman and Nell, her best friends Cindy, Sally and Kay, and the major influences on her life, including manager/lover Justin de Villeneuve and first husband Michael Witney. All this is set alongside a musical kaleidoscope of memorable 60s and 70s hits, played by Stuart Morley’s terrific band, and performed with gusto and emotion from the brilliant ensemble cast.

TwiggyIt’s full of funny asides, with loads of nicely judged interaction with the audience so that the fourth wall is in a virtual state of ruins. Elton’s script depicts Twiggy as her own worst enemy; for example, when everyone tells her that she should do X she always does Y (they told me I should leave him, so what did I do? I married him!) Whilst never shying away from the grim reality that frequently lurks barely beneath the surface – underage sex, mental health issues, business disasters, etc – the characters always remain positive and optimistic, always see the best in a situation, and always look to learn from harsh experience to make things better in the future. This helps towards creating a truly feelgood show, full of humour, emotion and life events that we can all recognise.

BabiesAll the creative team make massive contributions to the success of the show. Timothy Bird’s set is beautifully simple, with just a projection screen at the back of the stage and a white roll of film running out from it across the floor. Tim Blazdell’s video design utilises that screen and the back projection wall to terrific effect with contemporary images and films. Philip Gladwell’s lighting design is 100% fab, with psychedelic flashes and moods in all the colours of the swinging sixties, and Jonathan Lipman’s costumes are absolutely spot on in reflecting the daring styles, lurid colour combinations, outlandish fabrics and so on that made the 60s so special. Jacob Fearey’s stunning choreography is full of carefree abandon, love of life, and truly feeling the groove; the ensemble dancers fill the relatively small stage of the Menier with an overwhelming sense of exhilaration and fun.

TwiggyThe whole show revolves around Elena Skye’s performance as Twiggy. She completely looks the part, she has an engagingly honest relationship with the audience, and gives an excellent sense of a character who is frequently out of her depth, anxiously biting her lip, but always willing to give-it-a-go. She was by far the best thing about last year’s touring production of We Will Rock You and, if anything, she is even better in Close Up.

Norman and NellThere are also tremendous performances from Steven Serlin and Hannah-Jane Fox as her parents. Both are blessed with invigorating and expressive voices; Mr Serlin imbues Norman with true warmth and kindness throughout, and comes across as a Dad in a Million. He’s also a devil with those marvellous impersonations of 60s and 70s interviewers! Ms Fox conveys Nell’s sadness and frustration with her own mental health but also overflows with pride and shows how superbly she would encourage her daughter always to be the best she can. Aoife Dunne gives a hilarious performance as Twiggy’s occasionally foul-mouthed friend Cindy, whilst Beth Devine is also impressive as the ever-supportive Sally, Twiggy and Michaeland Lauren Azania AJ King-Yombo excels as her friend Kay, with a beautiful ability to cut the cr*p and tell harsh truths where necessary. Darren Day uses his terrific voice to great effect as Michael Witney, with very moving renditions of Without You and The Air That I Breathe – his Jekyll and Hyde transformations between sober Michael and drunk Michael work very well, and I almost – not quite, but almost – felt a drop of moistness in my eye during his final scene.

Justin de VilleneuveStealing every scene he is in is a tremendously funny and quirky performance by Matt Corner as Twiggy’s Svengali (they hated that word) Justin de Villeneuve. Taking the Mickey out of the character even before he’s on stage, Mr Corner gives him boundless arrogance and endless shiftiness; a brilliant portrayal of someone who blagged their way to success and had absolutely no qualms about creaming the top off other people’s achievements whilst all his own sparkle was a mere façade. Sally, Twiggy and CindySuperb.

The show runs at the Menier until 18th November, but there’s barely a ticket to be had; all I can suggest is that you keep an eye out for returns. Surely this must have a life afterwards! A show that sends you out of the theatre bristling with energy and that sense of privilege that you’ve seen something incredible.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Five Alive, let Theatre Thrive!

Review – Cowbois, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 24th October 2023

CowboisYou could almost taste the anticipatory buzz in the foyers at Stratford yesterday for the press night for Cowbois – Charlie Josephine’s rollicking queer Western, as the RSC has it. I’m not sure what John Wayne would make of it, but the first night audience loved it. Not unlike untitled f*ck m*ss s**gon play currently at the Young Vic, it’s exhilarating to see an established, familiar genre of entertainment – whether it be musicals set in South-East Asia, or Westerns set in the Wild West – turned on their heads so you can see them from a different perspective. And Cowbois certainly does that.

WesternThe plot could be taken from any Western story. The women of this obscure little town have been left behind by their men, out hunting gold. It’s been a year or more, they’ve not heard from them; they’re probably dead. All the women have to sustain them is their faith, their school teaching, their running the saloon, and a drunken sheriff. There’s a bounty on the head of one Jack Cannon, one half of the Cannon brothers, the slickest gunslingers in the West. The other half, Harry, is now dead and buried at the hands of Tommy, leader of Tommy’s Toothless Boys, whom Harry hired to hold up stagecoaches so that he and Jack could relieve them of $200,000 worth of gold coins. But Jack, being one of those slickest gunslingers, took out seven of the Toothless Boys – by which I mean shot them, not wined and dined them – and now everyone is seeking both revenge and cash. So when Jack wanders into town, the women are unsurprisingly all a-quiver. I hope you’re keeping up here.

Kid and castHowever, it doesn’t matter if you don’t grasp the plot – that really isn’t what the play is about. Never has that old saying to assume makes an ass out of u and me proved more appropriate. In the first act of the play, Charlie Josephine creates an environment where apparently cis straight women feel safe to give way to their inner selves; by falling in love with a trans man, or by starting to trans to a man themselves. Even the sheriff allows a new aspect of his personality to come to the fore. There is a beautiful, life-affirming moment when the Kid – farmer Mary’s son – meets someone he has always known as a woman but is now dressed as a man and with a male identity, and merely says “oh, ok” in complete unprejudiced acceptance. It gets a massive roar of approval and applause from the audience. Everyone is comfortable with their new outlook or identity – what could possibly go wrong?

The menWhat goes wrong is the return of their husbands in the second act. They’re still alive, against all odds, and when they turn up at the saloon to find a queer party going on, it’s no surprise that they’re taken aback. Seeking to return to the relationships they left, their only options are to either dominate and cow the women back to their previous suppressed lives, or to accept the new order. Jack quickly absents themself from the situation – again no surprise. But how is all this going to get resolved, and what happens when bandit Charley Parkhurst arrives, also looking for Jack, and Tommy and the Toothless Boys also show up? In the words of Harry Hill, there’s only one way to resolve this – fight!

Lillian and JackThe set-up, dialogue and unpredictable plot development in the first act are all outstanding. Charlie Josephine has created terrific characters, well-drawn, full of their own funny idiosyncrasies, and beautifully reflecting the staleness of lonely life in the town. There’s absolutely no reason, for example, why the conversations about the way Miss Lillian eats her breakfast grits should be so funny – but it is. And when Jack Cannon arrives on the scene, all eyes are upon them as – in my humble opinion – they are one of the most charismatic and spellbinding characters to appear on a stage for a very long time.

BathtubThe one downfall of the play is that the second act cannot live up to the high expectations set by the first. Primarily, Jack is absent for much of the act and the audience really misses them. And sadly, I can’t help but feel the writer missed a trick by making all the men either violent bullies or plain thick. Their toxic masculinity comes across as a blunt tool when all the other characters have such nuance. Whilst the wives all go on substantial personal journeys, the men remain static; what a hoot it would have been to have had a Brokeback Mountain moment in there too. But I guess that was not a priority for the writer – after all, it has been done before. But the trans element of Cowbois is what sets this play apart from pretty much any other play I’ve come across – and that’s a superb achievement.

Vinnie HeavenGrace Smart has designed an elegant, simple set, with the saloon bar towards the back of the stage, and a nicely hidden sunken bath towards the front, of which Jack and Lillian will – shall we say – take advantage. The costumes are excellent throughout; she has given Jack a few suitably eye-catching outfits, and the sheriff’s second act hat is a work of amazing millinery civil engineering. There’s some entertaining semi-country music from the small band of four musicians nestling stage right; and co-directors Charlie Josephine and Sean Holmes make maximum use of the theatre’s non-stage spaces for the shootout climax – even if it does go on a bit too long.

LJ Parkinson and castVinnie Heaven’s performance as Jack is a marvel. Cheeky, charismatic, and hugely likeable – not bad going for someone who’s only recently killed seven men. No wonder all the townswomen go weak at the knees. From the moment Jack arrives on stage you know that they’re in charge. But they’re not just a brash Lord Flashheart type, their performance is subtle, charming, brimming with both confidence and vulnerability. A terrific performance. Sophie Melville is also excellent as Miss Lillian, saloon landlady and Jack’s new love. As with most of the female roles, she particularly shines in the first act, with comic authority and conviction. I loved her double act with Emma Pallant’s deeply religious Sally Ann, disapproving of everything from sexual attraction to shooting to save your life. There’s a stonkingly fun performance from LJ Parkinson as nonbinary bandit Charley Parkhurst, cavorting around the stage with dangerous devilment. Lee Braithwaite’s transformation from Lucy to Lou is touchingly done, and, in our performance last night, the surprisingly mature and endearing Alastair Ngwenya smashed it as the Kid, as young people would say.

Quentin Letts won’t like it, but if you suspect you might, I reckon you’ll love it. It’s not perfect, but then it’s about people, and people aren’t perfect. Recommended!

Production photos by Henri T

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – untitled f*ck m*ss s**gon play, Young Vic, London, 21st October 2023

Fuck Miss Saigon PlayDid you know how tanks got their name? You know, those big military vehicles that flatten everything in their path? That kind of tank. Well, whilst they were being originally designed, the developers had to keep the whole process a secret. So when someone asked them once what they were developing, someone said oh, er, yes, er… it’s a tank, picking the first, generally nebulous concept word out of the blue. And the name simply stuck. Do you know how untitled f*ck m*ss s**gon play got its name? Writer Kimber Lee had no name for it whilst she was originally creating it, and when someone asked her what she was writing, she said oh, er, yes, er… it’s untitled – but its f*ck miss Saigon! And she realised no other name would have the same kind of energy for what she was writing, so that name also simply stuck.

Mei MacMeet Kim. She has a dream; she wants to create a rice delivery service – Rice Now. She wants to marry Goro the fishmonger’s son. He believes in her dream; he wants to create a side dish to go with it – Rice Now, Fish Later. But also meet Rosie, Kim’s mother. She too has a dream – to get the hell out of the sh*thole (her description) in which they live, by marrying Kim off to some American and happily espousing the American Dream ever after. Fortunately for Rosie, meet Clark. He’s handsome, hench, a HIIT specialist, but primarily American. Rosie leaps at her chance and inveigles him into their humble home, he falls instantly in love with the beautiful Kim, and the next day, like a typical man, he’s off. Kim assumes they are married – there was a kind of a marriage ceremony that he didn’t even notice – but when he returns, he’s with his wife (gasp!) and they take Kim’s baby away from her (double gasp!!) to give him a life in the good old US of A.

Mei MacI’m not really spoiling the plot for you; the first part of Kimber Lee’s excellent play sets Kim in a Groundhog Day scenario of reliving life in Madama Butterfly, or South Pacific, or the dreaded Miss Saigon. There’s even a bit of M*A*S*H* and The World of Suzie Wong chucked in too. Kim is given the job of representing the all-encompassing southeast Asian female in Western culture throughout the 20th century. And it’s a hard lot: wooed, impregnated, abandoned, rejected. No wonder as the play proceeds Kim gets progressively more furious and frustrated. But time moves on, and Kim is now living in New York City, married to Clark; her brother Afi is engaged to the beautiful Evelyn, and their mother has prepared a swish, middle-class celebratory dinner party. And now it’s Kim’s turn to reject the accepted norms of society.

Mei Mac and Lourdes FaberesThe play is terrifically ambitious, taking the rise out of racial stereotypes but also taking the real lived experiences of those people deadly seriously too. At times – especially in the first part – it can be ecstatically funny. At others, it’s agonisingly painful. You can feel the writer developing her characters from their stock standard historical roots into believable modern people of today. It’s almost as though we’re discovering it all new, just as the writer and her characters are also discovering it – that lovely feeling when both the audience and the writer see the light at the same time. The play truly merits its unorthodox, inventive, haphazard title, its asterisks casting a fake veneer of politeness as a 21st century nod to decency.

Mei Mac and Tom Weston-JonesDirector Roy Alexander Weise has given this fascinating play a grand staging. The Young Vic splendidly configurated in the round, the huge empty central stage has more than enough space to suggest all manner of Asian and American homes, although it’s perhaps at its most evocative when as bare as possible. Loren Elstein’s costumes brilliantly reflect the traditional styles of Asia, the modern elegance of urban family living, as well as recreating the costumes of those well-known musicals.

Rochelle RoseIt’s superbly well acted throughout; Kimber Lee has given brilliant dialogue to each of her characters and the actors rise to the challenge of delivering it beautifully. A unifying thread throughout the play’s disparate structure is Rochelle Rose’s narrator, an elegant, dynamic, and humorous presence delivering a commentary on proceedings from the side – in fact from all parts of the auditorium, she’s very much on the move the whole time – including becoming a wisecracking but also embarrassed guest at the engagement party. Ms Rose is great in this role – authoritative yet confiding, and hugely watchable throughout. Tom Weston-Jones is excellent as Clark, tentatively mumbling loving words to Kim in an obscure language that includes words like origami, Toshiba and edamame, a terrific device by Ms Lee to show the linguistic disrespect of the west for the east.

Jennifer KirbyJennifer Kirby is also excellent at Clark’s wife and Afi’s fiancée, making the most of a fantastic sequence where Evelyn patronises Kim heavily but unwittingly, explaining how she knows the pain she’s going through, dripping with white middle class privilege with every sentence she utters. Jeff D’Sangalang gives us a delightfully earnest and kind Goro, and an up-and-coming ambitious Afi. Lourdes Faberes plays the “Asian musicals mother” roles with a blend of faithfulness to the originals but also a knowing wit, and is later transformed into the elegant dinner party hostess. But Mei Mac really steals the show as Kim, in all her incarnations and situations. With a beautiful feel for both the comedy and the sorrow of the character, it’s a terrific performance and one that lingers long in the mind after the show.

Jeff D'SangalangBold, innovative, unique. Yes, there are a few times when the energy sags a little, and the unavoidable repetition of the plot device to make its point may prove slightly frustrating for some. But I absolutely loved this play and its ambition. Congratulations to all, and hopefully it will have a life after the Young Vic run ends on 4th November.

Production photos by The Other Richard

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – Operation Mincemeat, Fortune Theatre, London, 21st October 2023

Operation MincemeatHere’s the first of three shows we saw over the weekend. Of those, one I had very high hopes for, the next I was expecting to be ok and the third I was worried about because of iffy reviews. However, never trust other people’s reviews (and that includes my own) – because the show I thought I’d enjoy best I enjoyed least, and vice versa.

Firstly though, what a delight to be able to return to the Fortune Theatre after decades of its hosting The Woman in Black. Not that that wasn’t a good use of its facilities, but, I mean, 34 years? Come on!! I’d forgotten its charming intimacy, its lopsided central aisle, its surprisingly plain interior and its elegant, daring and mildly saucy safety curtain. Next year the theatre will celebrate its 100th birthday; may I be among the first to congratulate it on still looking so young.

OM1Operation Mincemeat (the musical) is based on Operation Mincemeat (the wartime operation), which also gave rise to Operation Mincemeat (the film). One of the masterminds of the operation, Ewan Montagu, wrote an account of it as The Man Who Never Was, which led to the film, The Man Who Never Was. You would have thought that with all this history, dramatisation, adaptation and so forth that I would have heard about it. But neither Mrs Chrisparkle nor I had a clue about what to expect. And, on reflection, it would have been useful to have had some prior knowledge about the operation and what it entailed; may I suggest that a potted history about this 1943 deception ploy would have been a jolly useful thing to put in the programme.

OM2David Cumming, Felix Hagan, Natasha Hodgson and Zoe Roberts’ musical has been five years in the development, and has grown through a number of fringey productions to be quite the smash hit in the West End – and I can only applaud them for that achievement. However, despite its popularity, and with almost record-breaking numbers of extensions in a very short time, it clearly is very popular, I found it very hard to warm to or relate to this show. I really, really wanted to love it – but its charms just passed me by.

OM3Three members of that creative team are also in the cast; and I can’t help but wonder if might be one of the problems. I constantly got a sense of self-indulgence with the show; a, dare I say it, smugness about its approach. A couple of the performancers scream Look at me, aren’t I funny through everything they do, and I confess the show largely got on my nerves. Imagine if MI5 had been taken over by the Monty Python team; not so much the Ministry of Silly Walks, but certainly the Ministry of Silly Voices. Lacking proper characterisations, this MI5 is staffed by pantomime caricatures instead, and every opportunity to go over-the-top is taken. Natasha Hodgson’s Montagu, for example, adopts a gruff, knowing voice as she/he kicks back her/his chair and growls at the audience who go mad with appreciation in response. David Cumming’s Cholmondeley is a wet-behind-the-ears silly arse straight out of Jeeves and Wooster.  

OM4Whilst it aspires to Hamilton levels of verbal dexterity, it sadly lacks any of that production’s audio clarity. I could tell that there was a lot of comical content in the lyrics, but the shouty freneticism of much of the delivery just left me frustrated at not getting more out of it. It needs more light and shade, more changes of pace, more moments of reflection and the chance for the audience to get their thoughts together. It’s also slightly off-putting when an audience is full of returning fans, who know the show intimately, and constantly tell the new people they’ve brought along isn’t it brilliant. The show is by far at its best in its few moments of quieter emotion; the voices of Jak Malone in the role of Hester and Clarie Marie Hall as Jean shine through. That said, the opening number in the second act, Das Übermensch, a stunning imagining of German Nazis performing a showstopper, is a hilarious highlight.

I think I simply have a different sense of humour from that required to enjoy this show, and I fully recognise that it’s me who’s missing out. My guess is that this show is going to continue at the Fortune for quite some time yet – maybe not a Woman in Black degree of longevity, but I’m sure the investors will be very happy indeed.

Production photos by Matt Crockett

3-starsThree-sy Does It!

Almost a Review – The Inquiry, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 14th October 2023

The InquiryWhy almost a review? Well, I saw The Inquiry on its second preview last Saturday night, and usually you can tell when a preview show is pretty much already “there” in terms of having a finalised script, settled staging, confident performances, and sure-footed direction. Last month, we saw the second preview of Never Have I Ever at the same theatre, and, although I had my reservations about the play and its content, there was no denying the fluidity and confidence of the performers and production.

CastHowever, I really did not get that vibe from last Saturday’s performance. Writer Harry Davies – investigations correspondent at The Guardian – watched the show a few seats from us with his pen and pad in hand and a worried look on his face. Fine, reputable actors fluffed their way through scenes with a faltering hold on the script and an uncertainty that you would never associate with them. All of this suggested to me that there had been a flurry of re-writes and they were still coming to terms with them. Press Night was due to take place on Tuesday 17th, but a little online research suggests that it was cancelled, and checking the Chichester Theatre website today the next scheduled performance is the matinee on Saturday 21st. They haven’t even released any production photos, only the rehearsal pics. It doesn’t sound very  promising, does it? Let’s hope that most of the issues that were evident on the 14th will have been resolved by then.

CastSo, to review a preview, or not to review a preview? That is the question. Normally, if that’s the only way I can get to see a play that I want to catch, and provided it’s clear that it is indeed a preview performance that is being reviewed, so one should always make concessions to the fact that it might not yet be tip-top, I don’t see why not. And after all, it was a public, paying performance. So please bear in mind, the production that resurfaces on Saturday may well be a million miles from what I saw last Saturday. In fact, I rather hope it is. As a result, I don’t think it’s fair to give this show a star rating at the moment.

Deborah FindlayThe basis of the play is reasonably straightforward. Thrusting young MP and newly Lord Chancellor, the Right Honourable Arthur Gill is the subject of an inquiry into his dealings with Eastern Water, who appear to have had the unfortunate problem of poisoning their customers with contaminated water supplies. The subject is nothing if not topical. Leading the inquiry is Lady Justice Deborah Wingate, assisted by Jonathan Hayden KC. Gill himself receives advice from a trusted old friend, Lord Patrick Thorncliffe KC. Gill is hotly tipped to become the next party leader, and therefore the next PM. Still, things are looking bad with the inquiry, so it’s time to start playing dirty. Scandals, leaks, and lies abound – and will Lady Wingate ever be able to finalise her inquiry?

John HeffernanIt’s a riveting situation. However, as performed on last Saturday night, it’s not a riveting play. In fact, I always got the sense that there was another play taking place in parallel, that we never get to see, and which sounds a lot more interesting than the one we’re watching. That may be because, whilst it’s called The Inquiry, we never get to observe that inquiry in action. All we see are the background negotiations, plans and rectum-protectum operations. I longed for a courtroom scene to inject a bit of true drama into the proceedings – alas, it wasn’t to be.

Malcolm SinclairIt feels as though the characters are all engaged in pussyfooting around the main meat of the issue, rather than tackling the important subject of people dying from their water supply. That’s because it’s seen from their perspective, rather than from Eastern Water’s and Gills’ victims’ angle. And, to be fair, I don’t think that’s what Harry Davies is attempting to achieve with this play. However, quite what it is he is trying to do also isn’t clear. Additionally, most of the characters are unlikeable; this has the unfortunate side effect of not making you care one way or the other about their fate. And I don’t think I’m giving any games away by adding that – certainly as it was written and performed on Saturday night – the inquiry won’t result in any long term change.

Nicholas RoweMax Jones has created a very antiseptic governmental office for most of the scenes; the boxes of inquiry documents that surround the stage suggest a monument of paperwork that has to be painstakingly gone through – but there’s hardly a box file on stage which implies the opposite, so that design element felt self-contradictory. Mr Jones does however give us Lady Wingate’s charmingly verdant garden terrace as a blaze of colour and calm, and as a beautiful retreat from the stark reality of governmental business.

Macy NymanJohn Heffernan is superb as Gill; a naturally smug politician treading carefully around the pitfalls of his somewhat vivid and busy sexual younger days, and happy to parry-riposte whenever he can to try to regain the upper hand. There’s also a terrific performance from the always reliable Malcolm Sinclair as his advisor Thorncliffe, as slimy and sleazy as they come, marvellously manipulative and condescending. Scenes between those actors are electric with tension. Shazia NichollsHowever, as at Saturday, the other actors still had some ground to make up, shall we say; but fingers crossed that they come through exactly as you would expect when it reopens.

One is used to seeing comedians perform Work in Progress shows, where they chuck new material at an audience to see what lands and what doesn’t. Saturday’s performance almost felt like the theatrical equivalent. As this is only almost a review, of a second night preview, it needs a whole lot of work to bring it up to scratch. But that’s the thing about theatre – miracles do happen.

Rehearsal photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Comedy Crate at V&B, Northampton, 17th October 2023

Line upBack at the Comedy Crate and my first time seeing a gig in the upstairs room at V&B in glitzy, cosmopolitan, downtown Northampton. A fun, intimate venue and top quality drinkies! What more could you ask? Well maybe some top quality comedy too, and they had that in abundance.

Pete TeckmanOur host for the evening was local lad Pete Teckman (I say lad – by the sound of it we both celebrated our 60th birthdays during Lockdown 1.0). He gets an easy rapport with the audience, and quickly got to know Amber, Joseph and Dan in the front row, as, indeed, we all did. Comedy newbie Amber gradually learned that it’s easy to give too much personal response to the niceties of the comedian on stage; Dan, on the other hand, never really came to terms with this concept. Pete treated us to some excellent material and kept the whole thing going with confidence and nicely turned self-deprecation.

Mary BourkeOur first act, someone we’ve seen many times and it’s always a delight, was Mary Bourke; brimming with attitude and always teetering on the edge of comedy disdain, she gave us her hilarious insights into life in Crouch End, dealing with consensual banter, winning the battle over a disabled parking space, and much more. Her timing is always immaculate; she radiates a tiny sense of danger which only adds to the comic frisson of her material. And, may I say, a beautiful use of similes – she’s a terrific wordsmith. A great way to start the night.

Hasan Al HabibNext up, and new to us, was Birmingham’s own Hasan Al-Habib, a young chap with a tremendous range of entertaining voices that he uses to great effect. Most of his material centres on his Arab appearance and heritage, playing on prejudices and cultural differences, which in an inexperienced hand could go awfully wrong, but Hasan nails it perfectly with delicate precision and a keen sense of identifying the funny side in everything.

president_obonjoOur headliner, and someone we’ve only seen in a Zoom gig before (thanks Covid) was President Obonjo, dictator of the Lafta Republic, a brilliant comic creation and a vision in intimidating combats. He is able to both take the rise out of your “typical” African dictator – an Idi Amin crossed with a Bokassa and a bit of Mugabe chucked in for good measure – and also cast a critical eye over current British democracy for comparison. I love the idea that he is based in St Albans, that just seems so bizarre; he also picked out good-natured Jordan in the second row for special “shared race” treatment, which worked superbly. And he quickly identified front-row Dan; I doubt he’ll ever get a visa to visit Lafta. Comedy CrateFearless, challenging, and incredibly funny; I also love the way he occasionally lets the façade drop a little to reveal the real person behind the mask. A tremendous end to a superb night.

It’s always a delight to be able to write up a comedy night that was a winner from start to finish. More Comedy Crate gigs coming up soon, with a new act new material night at Saints Coffee on the 25th, and a return to V&B on 5th December, with Roger Monkhouse topping the bill.

Review – Murder in the Dark, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 16th October 2023

Murder in the DarkIt’s a big Hurrah! from me for the return of live entertainment to the Royal and Derngate, ever since it was discovered that they were one of those theatres with aerated concrete (also known as The RAAC Pack), and have thus been closed since the beginning of September. The Derngate is due to open on the 24th for NMTC’s Kinky Boots; no word as yet on the Underground, but my fingers remain crossed. But the delightful old Royal theatre reopened last night with Original Theatre’s touring production of Torben Betts’ Murder in the Dark. Congratulations to the R&D for opening the building sufficiently to allow the Royal to be used; they’re temporarily using the old upstairs Crown bar, so my advice if you want a drink too is not to arrive too late as it does make the whole process a little bit slower. But it’s a spectacular achievement to get the place open and functional under such difficult circumstances, and all the front of house were welcoming and helpful as always.

SetMurder in the Dark? Would that be a party game, where you have to work out who killed what over drinks and canapés? Or perhaps a whodunit, where the lights go out, there’s a scream, and when they turn them back on, Doctor X has killed Professor Thingy with the lead piping. As it turns out, neither. Torben Betts has created a comedy thriller-cum-horror-cum-ghost-cum-what the hell is going on here kind of show. Danny, once a successful pop star, now down on his uppers, and his girlfriend Sarah have arrived at Mrs Bateman’s exceedingly remote farm. Unintentionally, that is; it’s New Year’s Eve and he’s had an accident in the car – probably had too much to drink – and she’s kindly going to put them up for the night. His brother, son and ex-wife are also with them. There’s clearly a problem with the fuse box, as the electricity keeps coming on and going off. And that’s as far as I’m going to go with the plot – you have to come and see it for yourself to discover what happens next!

DinnerThe cast are uniformly excellent, with a terrific central performance from Tom Chambers as Danny, a perpetually tormented soul who’s afraid of the dark, afraid of the farm dog – in fact, he’s afraid of almost everything. He’s matched by a funny and frequently scary performance from Susie Blake as Mrs Bateman, a character who ought to be a simple, kindly old lady – but you wouldn’t trust her an inch. There’s a strong performance from Jonny Green as Danny’s son Jake, bitterly resentful of being ignored by his father all through his childhood. Laura White is excellent as Sarah, also ignored by Danny and desperate for WiFi, Owen Oakeshott is great as Danny’s angry but loving brother William and Rebecca Charles is also very good as ex-wife Rebecca, full of commonsense and practicality, and keeping her own secrets to herself.

Danny and SarahThere’s a request in the programme that audiences keep the secrets of the story to themselves so that future audiences can enjoy the show. Absolutely, wholeheartedly agree with that. It’s also a blessing; because if you were to ask me what the secrets of the story are, I’m not sure I could tell you with any true conviction — there are so many! It’s a complex set-up, and the complexities don’t get fully revealed until the last few minutes, so that’s hugely rewarding. I’m not 100% convinced that every single aspect of the story tallies up; in fact, I’m sure they don’t. But it’s an almost unique aspect of this play that it doesn’t matter if it doesn’t all make sense – it’s almost a desirable bonus!

DannyWhat does matter is that it’s an exciting, suspenseful story, with huge dollops of spookiness, presented on an eerie set, with scary sound and light effects, and some nice comic touches. It’s also completely unpredictable; when you think you’ve got it sussed, something else happens to prove you wrong, so it’s a constant guessing game where the author is always at least one step ahead of the audience. I also enjoyed a couple of obvious nods to at least two other plays, both of which will visit the Derngate auditorium early next year – I’ll say no more. Murder in the Dark plays at the Royal until Saturday 21st October and then continues its tour to High Wycombe, Birmingham, Derby, Salford, Southend, Cambridge, Malvern, Cardiff, Cheltenham, New Brighton, Richmond and Glasgow.

Production photos by Pamela Raith

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – A View from the Bridge, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 14th October 2023

A View from the BridgeYou know that old joke about a play being so good, not even a gifted director could ruin it? Welcome to Headlong’s A View from the Bridge by Arthur Miller, a co-production with Octagon Theatre, Bolton, Rose Theatre, Kingston and Chichester, where it’s currently playing at the Festival Theatre until 28th October. Miller’s grittily realistic play concerns New York longshoreman Eddie Carbone, a tough but kind-hearted cookie who loves and cares for his niece Catherine to the point of idolising her, trying to discourage her from taking a job because he can’t fact the fact that she’s growing up. He’s married to the long suffering Beatrice, whose two cousins Marco and Rodolfo have illegally immigrated from Italy and are living a quiet (ish), secret (ish) existence in Eddie’s apartment until they can procure either American citizenship or enough money to return home to Italy and raise a family there.

ChairgateMarco is the kind of man that Eddie can admire; hard-working, silent, a provider for his family. Rodolfo, on the other hand, isn’t; and when Rodolfo and Catherine start to have a relationship, Eddie’s having none of it. And what’s the worst thing you could do to immigrants that you have helped enter the country illegally? Eddie’s fate is pure Greek tragedy; his downfall coming as a result of his own blind actions and misplaced love. One of the most powerful plays written in the 20th century, it’s insightful, emotional, agonising, heartbreaking and totally believable.

Red HookConsequently, it’s strong enough to withstand the stresses imposed on it by Holly Race Roughan’s highly stylised, fanciful production. Out goes Eddie and Beatrice’s usual basic accommodation – Miller’s stage directions describe it as a worker’s flat – clean, sparse, homely – to be replaced by a garish red neon sign that simply reads Red Hook – the name of the migrant enclave where all the Italian longshoremen lived; just in case you were to forget where the play was located, I guess. Out goes Eddie’s favourite old rocking chair and in comes a swing seat, suspended from way up high, as if the family were recreating their own version of Jean-Honoré Fragonard’s masterpiece.

The guysIn the bizarrest of all updatings, Elijah Holloway’s Louis frequently transforms himself into a ballet dancer, pirouetting nicely en pointe, drifting in and out of the action; but to no discernable purpose whatsoever. Six of us spent the weekend racking our brains trying to work out the intent behind the presence of the dancer; but nothing we thought of made sense. No criticism of Mr Holloway, but whenever he turned up I found it most rewarding simply to look away from him.

AlfieriI’m normally flexible where it comes to gender-blindness in casting, but in this instance, the decision to cast Nancy Crane as Alfieri is, I think, a mistake. Again, nothing against Ms Crane, who delivers a strong performance as the lawyer, always on stage, acting the role of the Greek Chorus, constantly commenting on the action and the inevitability of its outcome. However, there’s no way that a man like Eddie Carbone would ever confide in a woman, lawyer or otherwise. The whole essence of the character is that he has a very set (old-fashioned) opinion about traditional gender roles. Men work; women keep house. Men socialise outside work; women look after babies. Eddie would never trust a woman with his deepest thoughts. He doesn’t even trust his wife or niece with those thoughts, let alone a female lawyer.

EddieIt also removes one of Miller’s carefully constructed male role-models. So much of the play is concerned with what it is to be a man; be it an unskilled labourer using his strength, or a creative artist using his talent, or an intelligent learned man using his brain, these are all ways in which a man can earn a living and provide for his family. Of course, this is not the case today, where making a living is equally applicable to both men and women. But in 1956 things were different.

CatherineDespite all these disruptions, antagonisms and distractions, Miller’s play still shines through and, in the second act particularly, arrests the audience with its riveting dialogue, growing suspense and undercurrent of violence. Much of this success is also due to the superb performances by all the members of the cast. Rachelle Diedericks’ Catherine quickly grows from a wide-eyed innocent girl into an independent young woman who knows her own mind and will not be diverted from her own wishes. Tommy Sim’aan is excellent as Marco, conciliatory at first as he tries to influence his brother into more discreet behaviour, but growing in anger as Eddie’s disrespect increases, until his fury is uncontainable. Luke Newberry gives a relatively subtle performance as Rodolfo, which keeps the audience guessing as to his true motivations for his relationship with Catherine. Nancy Crane makes for a calm and empathetic Alfieri, and there is good support from Elijah Holloway and Lamin Touray in the minor roles.

Jonathan SlingerJonathan Slinger gives a very fine performance as Eddie, his mental instability gradually growing as he can no longer keep his feelings of jealousy surrounding Catherine and scorn for Rodolfo to himself. It’s an excellent portrayal of a classic tragic hero, on an immutable course towards self-destruction. But perhaps the best performance of all is by Kirsty Bushell as Beatrice, agonisingly torn between her love for Eddie and being horrified at his behaviour, trying to do her best for everyone, no matter what it takes, and no matter what cost to herself.

Eddie and BeatriceA View from the Bridge has it all. The meaning of respect, loyalty, trust, and tradition; strength and bravery, assertion in one’s own beliefs; and love, in all its aspects and incarnations. What it doesn’t need are ballet dancers and swings.


Production photos by The Other Richard

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – Comedy Crate at the Charles Bradlaugh, Northampton, 12th October 2023

Comedy CrateA slightly odd night of comedy with the Comedy Crate at the Bradlaugh on Thursday, with a hit and miss line-up and a curiously under energised audience. Our host for the night was Jesus lookalike Jay Handley, whom we saw at the British Comedian of the Year heat at the very same venue last year, when he was a huge hit. This time, he started the show with some curiously misplaced material about the homeless which I think took some of us aback. He was on firmer ground with chatting to audience members, including Jack the folk/blues band manager, Jay Handleyand creating a mock argument about the worthiness of the charities that two different audience members worked for, only to discover they were married, leading to a delightfully embarrassed reaction sequence.

Our first act was Peter Brush, whom we’d seen once before at a Screaming Blue Murder night seven years ago and enjoyed, although I thought his act might turn out to be a little underpowered for the audience. How wrong I was – he absolutely smashed it, in the modern vernacular. Mr Brush is a retiring, quiet-looking, young-Peter Brushfogey type, who packs a brilliant punch with his unexpected punchlines. Beautifully self-deprecating and deliciously misleading, story after story landed perfectly showing that being mild-mannered does not result in bland comedy. I particularly loved his observations about Essex girls, turning a stereotype on its head to terrific comic effect, and his hilarious routine about what you can do with a toaster. First class!

Jenny HartNext up was someone new to us, Jenny Hart. Here’s where things start to get tricky. To accentuate the positive, she has a strong stage presence, excellent comic timing and is clearly a naturally funny person. She’s an out and proud transwoman – quite right too! – and integrates every aspect of that as an essential part of her routine. However, her material was not at all my cup of tea. I really don’t think I’m a prude, but I found the content of her set very crude, somewhat aggressive, and often in very dubious taste, with a couple of stories that I thought were totally unsuitable for sharing. Maybe I was way too sensitive for her material; to be fair, on the few occasions where she delivered some throwaway lines unrelated to her pre-prepared material, she made me laugh a lot. The chap in front of me absolutely loved her, and there were a few sections of the audience who were laughing riotously at her. But I’m afraid I couldn’t wait for it to end.

Jordan BrookesOur headliner was Jordan Brookes, also new to us, and what an unpredictable nugget of comedy gold he is! Breaking all the established rules by discarding the microphone, sitting among the audience, dragging a chair around the stage for every purpose apart from sitting on it, his is a fresh, constantly surprising, anarchic style, but never alienating us from either his material or his personality. As to that material, he’s one of those extraordinary performers whom you love to see and laugh at everything he says – and then the next day, you can’t remember one word of it. It’s a great way of ensuring you want to see him again! A superb ending to a slightly lopsided night of comedy.

More Comedy Crate gems to come next week when they take over V&B’s wine bar in Northampton on Tuesday. Can’t wait!

Review – The Hypochondriac, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 3rd October 2023

HypochondriacA new production of Moliere’s final play, translated and adapted by Roger McGough, with a rhyming script like the original? Sounds a complete hoot. And at times, it is! And at times, it isn’t. Of course, Tuesday night’s performance was a preview, so one must make all sorts of allowances. In fact the first person to enter the stage was Sheffield Theatres’ Associate Artistic Director, Anthony Lau, who reminded us that this was indeed a preview and that things were still taking shape; as well as the fact that Oliver Birch, the show’s composer, had stepped in to play Cléante at the last minute due to company sickness, script in hand, so that the show could go on. This made me very worried as to what I was about to receive. However, let me state here and now that Mr Birch is indeed one of the show’s highlights with a delightfully funny and confident performance, and were it not for the fact that he had to occasionally check the script you’d never know he was an understudy.

Edward HoggThere’s quite a Moliere-shaped gap in my theatre experience, which was one of the reasons I was keen to see this production. Tartuffe, of course, reappears everywhere, most successfully recently with that brilliant RSC adaptation set in Birmingham. I had to read Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme as part of my French A Level; I don’t think I enjoyed it much. Moliere’s Wikipedia page lists 36 plays under the heading Major Works, so you can think of him as being pretty much level pegging with Shakespeare as far as output is concerned. Le Malade Imaginaire (1673) was his final play; largely because, one night whilst playing Argan, the eponymous hypochondriac, he had a coughing fit during the performance and died later that night of a haemorrhage. You couldn’t make it up.

Chris Hannon and Zweyla Mitchell dos SantosMoliere’s original is a sprawling, unfocussed play.  Argan argues with his maid Toinette, his doctor Purgeon, his wife Béline, and his brother Beralde; he arranges for his daughter Angélique to marry a man she doesn’t like without knowing that she wants to pursue another suitor (Cléante). Eventually he becomes convinced that there is nothing wrong with him, and celebrates this fact by wanting to become a doctor himself. All this is broken up with little songs and dances (such was the way of Moliere’s comedies-ballet). There’s little pretence to making any serious points – it’s all done for the comedy. And Roger McGough’s adaptation is largely faithful to the original storyline and to the concept of rhyming, singing and primarily doing it for the laughs.

CompanyColin Richmond has created a tremendous set, reflecting Argan’s salon, piled high with receipts and notes, with stacks of paperwork tumbling almost out of the sky. The costumes are classic 17th century French bourgeoisie; the harpsichord compositions feel like they could be lost works by Charpentier who wrote the original music for the play. However, McGough’s translations are distinctly 20th century, if not 21st; and whilst the enforced corny rhymes amuse at first, it doesn’t take long for them to pall. The trouble is, your ears get so used to expecting the rhymes that your brain starts to disengage from the words themselves and their meanings. And as soon as you recognise a rhyme, you’re waiting for the next one, and so on; becoming obsessed with the speech rhythm but not the content.

Edward Hogg and Jessica RansomConsequently, it quickly becomes tiring, especially as there is no depth to any of it. The triteness of the lyrics was a major problem with the recent production of The Third Man at the Menier Chocolate Factory. In The Hypochondriac, that triteness is taken to a new level. McGough manages the musical element of Moliere’s original by creating his own little passages of originality, such as the speech all about the benefits of having an interval – cue time for the Interval; or indeed what would Moliere do here? or a verbal reference to the Scaffold’s very own Lily the Pink, at which everyone laughs in I see what you did there kind of recognition, but is as far away from the 17th century setting as you can get. A little bit knowing and clever-clever for my liking.

Garmon Rhys and Chris HannonEdward Hogg is a wily, wiry, whiny Argan, a self-obsessed wretch who likes to manipulate but is easily manipulated himself. It’s not a domineering performance; even though the play revolves completely around Argan, it doesn’t feel like the production sets Mr Hogg up as its main source of energy. That comes more from the other members of the household: Jessica Ransom’s insincere Béline, Saroja-Lily Ratnavel’s flustered Angélique, Zweyla Mitchell dos Santos’ irrepressible Toinette, and perhaps best of all Chris Hannon’s boisterous Beralde. Garmon Rhys steals the show with his beautifully over-the-top performance as unsuitable suitor Thomas Diaforius, reciting his compliments from memory and flourishing his ostentatious bow like a stampeding rhino.

Saroja-Lily Ratnavel and Jessica RansomIf you’re expecting anything subtle or poised, I think I’d recommend booking for a different show. It’s certainly fast and furious; but on Tuesday night it felt rather ragged and a little over-hectic; hopefully it will gain a little more slickness over time. I have to say the audience gave it a massive cheer at the end. Some good performances, some overplayed enthusiasm and some tiresome language creates something of a mixed prescription for me. I can only be grateful that doggerel doesn’t quite rhyme with b*gger all.


Production photos by Manuel Harlan

3-starsThree-sy Does It!