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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five alive, let music thrive!

Review of the Decade 2010-2019

Yes, I know that strictly speaking the decade doesn’t finish until 31st December 2020, but I’ve been banging out this blog for ten years now so it seemed appropriate to add a further stack of celebratory awards to those I dished out a short time ago. Who would have foreseen that from 1st January 2010 to 31st December 2019 I would have seen 1,248 live productions, and reviewed about 99% of them? No wonder my fingers are hurting.

So it is my absolute pleasure to revisit the Chrisparkle Award holders of the past ten years, to celebrate their work and, invidiously, to come up with Decade Awards for each category – which, as I’m sure you’ll appreciate, is the Highest Honour the Committee Can Bestow. I’m sure if any of the following double-winners were to prove their success by printing off the details, they’d be entitled to at least a 10% discount in Pizza Express. So it’s not to be sneezed at.

I’ll keep the Awards in the traditional order, so we’ll start with Best Dance Production.

Over the decade I’ve seen 69 dance productions; but the individual annual winners have been from a select group of performers. Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo won once, Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake has won three times, and the Richard Alston Dance Company has won six times. Pretty solid and consistent work there!

How do you compare those three companies/dances, each at their finest? Skill? You can take that for granted. Sheer enjoyment? Each is fantastically enjoyable in their own way, and I don’t see a way of comparing along those lines. So I consulted Mrs Chrisparkle, and her suggestion was to compare one’s emotional response to each. She’s a wise woman, and no mistake. Therefore, and taking each winning performance separately, the top three performances were:

In 3rd place, Richard Alston Dance Company, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 4th October 2016

In 2nd place, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, Milton Keynes Theatre, 23rd March 2011

And the winner is: Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, Milton Keynes Theatre, 4th February 2010

Swan Lake

Possibly one of the most difficult awards to judge has been our next category, Best Classical Music Concert. From the 50 concerts I’ve seen over the years, by far the majority of which were performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, they in fact won nine of the ten annual awards, with 2015’s award going to the Worthing Symphony Orchestra for that year’s Malcolm Arnold Festival Gala. How do these individual concerts shape up as far as the Decade Award is concerned?

In 3rd place, Alexander Shelley Conducts Scheherazade, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 14th April 2013

In 2nd place, Jan Mráček Performs Mendelssohn, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 18th June 2017

And the winner is: Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Nigel Kennedy plays Brahms, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 2nd June 2012

Nigel Kennedy plays Brahms

Now we come to the award for Best Entertainment Show of the Decade. You know what an Entertainment show is? It’s anything that doesn’t fall into any of the other categories. Over the past ten years we’ve seen 80 such productions and they’re a wide range of shows, so comparisons are onerous as well as odious. However, it’s interesting to see that of the ten award winners, two were Palladium pantos, two were Sheffield pantos, two were regular Burlesque Shows at the Royal and Derngate, one was a Strictly spin-off, one a mime artist, one a spoof comedy-musical, and the last was a celebration of Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday! Let’s see who wins:

In 3rd place, The Boy With Tape On His Face is Tape Face, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 7th November 2016

In 2nd place, Dick Whittington, London Palladium, 29th December 2017

And the winner is: Forbidden Broadway, Menier Chocolate Factory, 27th July 2014

Forbidden Broadway

Next is a Big One, so to speak, it’s the Decade Award for the Best Star Standup. Since 1st January 2010 I have seen and written about 301 comedy shows – not just star standups, but also Screaming Blue Murders, comedians at Edinburgh, Leicester and elsewhere. That’s a lot of laughter. The annual award was introduced in 2011, so we have nine previous champions contending for the title – eight, actually, as Dara O’Briain has won twice. So here goes with these awards:

In 3rd place, Sarah Millican, Outsider, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 2nd July 2016

In 2nd place, Rob Beckett, Wallop, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 3rd October 2019

And the winner is: Marcus Brigstocke, Devil May Care, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 31st October 2018

marcus-brigstocke-devil-may-care

And now on a more local level, here’s the Decade Award for the Best Screaming Blue Murder Standup. Our regular Friday (occasionally venturing into Saturday) evening comedy club at the Royal and Derngate continues to go from strength to strength and it’s very rare that a show isn’t sold out. We have seen some incredible comics there over the years, and I am delighted to announce the following gigs were the best we enjoyed:

In 3rd place, Paul Sinha, 2nd March 2012

In 2nd place, Daliso Chaponda, 28th April 2017

And the winner is: Markus Birdman, 8th November 2013

Markus Birdman

For the past three years there has been a Best of the Rest Standup Award – for performances from the Leicester Comedy Festival, Upfront Comedy clubs, Comedy Crate Edinburgh Fringe Previews and so on. Happy to announce that the Decade Award (although it should really be called the Three Year Award) goes to the extraordinary show that was: Just The Tonic Comedy Club with Johnny Vegas, Leicester Comedy Festival, Hansom Hall, Leicester, 25th February 2017

johnny-vegas

Time for another Biggie; the Decade Award for Best Musical. Please cut me some slack here, gentle reader. My favourite musical of all time, was, is and always will be A Chorus Line, and there was a terrific revival of it at the London Palladium in 2013. So, if I’m true to my word, that should win the Decade Award and the Best Actor Awards should probably go to its cast members. However, somehow, it’s not so straightforward. Over the past ten years I’ve seen 135 productions of musicals, and I’d like other shows to share in the glory. So, if you’re agreeable, I’d like to share this award between A Chorus Line and another show. Even if you aren’t agreeable, I’m still going to do it.

In the interests of giving everyone a fair crack of the whip, I’ve also separated the category into Best New Musical and Best Revival of a Musical, which is where we start:

In 3rd place, Half A Sixpence, Noel Coward Theatre, 29th December 2016

In 2nd place, Company, Gielgud Theatre, 2nd February 2019

And the winner is: A Chorus Line/My Fair Lady, Sheffield Crucible, 5th January 2013

A Chorus LineMy Fair Lady

And for Best New Musical of the Decade:

In 3rd place, Bend It Like Beckham, Phoenix Theatre, 10th February 2016

In 2nd place, The Book of Mormon, Prince of Wales Theatre, 2nd March 2013

And the winner is: Hamilton, Victoria Palace Theatre, 8th December 2018

Hamilton

Now it’s time for the Best New Play of the Decade. Over the past ten years, I’ve seen a whopping 557 plays, both new and old. As you can imagine, there’s plenty of stiff competition for these awards.

In 3rd place, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Derngate, Northampton, 24th March 2015

In 2nd place, The Lehman Trilogy, Piccadilly Theatre, 25th May 2019

And the winner is: One Man Two Guvnors, New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, 22nd October 2011

One Man Two Guvnors

Equally difficult to choose, here’s the top three for the Best Revival of a Play – Decade Award.

In 3rd place, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bridge Theatre, 13th July 2019

In 2nd place, King Lear, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 6th October 2017

And the winner is: The Bacchae, Royal and Derngate at Northampton Chronicle and Echo Print Works, 16th June 2012

The Bacchae

Let’s head further north for the next few Awards and consider those plucky performers at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Edinburgh Awards were introduced in 2014, and since then I’ve seen 266 Edinburgh Fringe performances. Let’s consider the first Award – Best Play of the Decade (well, six years):

In 3rd place, Trainspotting, In Your Face Theatre, 8th August 2014

In 2nd place, Us/Them, BRONKS, 25th August 2016

And the winner is: My Mate Dave Died, Sheffield University Theatre Company, 23rd August 2018</A>

My Mate Dave - scene

And now it’s the Best Individual Performance in an Edinburgh Fringe Play

In 3rd place, Chris Duffy, Fear No Colours, Tonight with Donny Stixx, 21st August 2018

In 2nd place, David Carl. Project Y, Trump Lear, 21st August 2019

And the winner is: Sam Redway, Knaive Theatre, Bin Laden: The One Man Show, 21st August 2017

Screenshot (1)

For the Best stand-up comedy show in Edinburgh Award, for four of the five years, the annual Award went to Spank!, with Olaf Falafel’s There’s No I in Idiot just edging it for 2018. So I’m simply going to award the Decade honour to Spank!, and in honour of many happy revisits to that grimy den in the Underbelly Cowgate, here’s a link to our first visit, which encouraged us to keep going!

Spank

Carrying on, now it’s the Decade Award for Best Of The Rest in Edinburgh:

In 3rd place, The Lost Musical Works of Willy Shakes, 20th August 2019

In 2nd place, Garry Starr Performs Everything, 24th August 2018

And the winner is: Margaret Thatcher, Queen of Soho, 9th August 2014

Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho

Best Local Production – which, in fact, equates to the Best University of Northampton Acting/Acting and Creative Students productions over the past four years; the honour goes to Blue Stockings, University of Northampton BA (Hons) Acting, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th March 2016

Blue Stockings

Now it’s time to get personal again, and consider the best performances of the decade. First, Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical. And the top three are:

In 3rd place, Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl, Menier Chocolate Factory, 28th February 2016

In 2nd place, Rosalie Craig in Company, Gielgud Theatre, 2nd February 2019

And the winner is: Imelda Staunton in Gypsy, Chichester Festival Theatre, 11th October 2014

Imelda Staunton as Rose

Now for the guys, Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical this Decade. The top three are:

In 3rd place, Dominic West in My Fair Lady, Sheffield Crucible, 5th January 2013

In 2nd place, John Partridge in La Cage Aux Folles, Milton Keynes Theatre, 12th August 2017

And the winner is: Charlie Stemp in Half A Sixpence, Noel Coward Theatre, 29th December 2016

charlie-stemp

Moving on – the end is in sight, ladies and gentlemen – Best Performance by an Actress in a Play this Decade.

In 3rd place, Penelope Wilton in Taken At Midnight, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 11th October 2014

In 2nd place, Tracie Bennett in End of the Rainbow, Royal and Derngate Northampton, 18th February 2010

And the winner is: Dame Maggie Smith in A German Life, Bridge Theatre, 4th May 2019

A German Life

And finally, Best Performance by an Actor in a Play this Decade (and they’re all Shakespearean roles which possibly says more about me than them!):

In 3rd place, Tom Mothersdale in Richard III, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 24th May 2019

In 2nd place, Derek Jacobi in King Lear, Donmar Warehouse Tour, Milton Keynes Theatre, 16th March 2011

And the winner is: Paapa Essiedu in Hamlet, Royal Shakespeare Company on tour at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 3rd March 2018

Hamletprod8

Thanks, gentle reader, for supporting and following my blog reviews. Here’s to the next decade!

Review of the Year 2019 – The Tenth Annual Chrisparkle Awards

Welcome once more to the artistic event of the year, that is the announcement of the annual Chrisparkle Awards for 2019. The whole team has diligently assessed each and every eligible performance (i.e. I’ve sorted through my spreadsheet) to create longlists then shortlists and then finally the ultimate prize for some worthy exponents of their arts. Eligibility for the awards means a) they were performed in the UK and b) I have to have seen the shows and blogged about them in the period 8th January 2019 to 13th January 2020.

Are you all sitting comfortably?

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

In 2018 the Committee decided to combine all the dance productions seen in the year, both at the Edinburgh Fringe and in other theatres, and again we have decided to continue this practice. That gives us eight shows to consider, and, as always, it’s been remarkably difficult to come to a conclusion.

In 3rd place, the beautiful and elegant Snow Maiden, as performed by the Russian State Ballet of Siberia at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in January 2019.

In 2nd place, the strength and artistry of the Balletboyz in Them/Us at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in March.

In 1st place, on their Farewell Tour, a superb programme by the Richard Alston Dance Company at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in October.

Classical Music Concert of the Year.

In very poor form on our part, we only managed to see three classical concerts in 2019, so it seems only fair just to announce the winner. And that is:

The enjoyable, crowd-pleasing but occasionally challenging programme in The Beauty of Tchaikovsky, performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in September.

Best Entertainment Show of the Year.

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

In 3rd place, the fascinating multimedia lecture by Mark Lewisohn to commemorate fifty years since the release of the Abbey Road album, The Beatles: Hornsey Road, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in September.

In 2nd place, not really a pantomime but a Las Vegas-style variety act with more filth than you poke a stick at, Goldilocks and the Three Bears at the London Palladium in December.

In 1st place, a true pantomime that brought out all the stops and had one of the funniest scripts I’ve ever seen, the magic that was Cinderella at the Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, in January 2020.

Best Star Standup of the Year.

Ten big-name stand-up comics qualify for this year, but it’s slightly easier than last year as a few of them under-delivered in their shows. Nevertheless, I still need a top five:

In 5th place, the understated, intelligent and emotional material of Rob Auton in his Talk Show, Underground at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in May.

In 4th place, the reflective and honest humour of Chris McCausland in his Speaking Blinder tour, together with excellent support from Jon Long, Underground at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in June.

In 3rd place, the brilliantly funny local lad Andrew Bird in the last night of his Ha Ha Time show, Underground at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in April.

In 2nd place, and a previous winner of the Best Star stand-up award, the manic and energetic hilarity of Russell Kane in his The Fast and The Curious tour, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in October.

In 1st place, someone who made me laugh so much that my chest physically hurt for hours afterwards, Rob Beckett in his Wallop show at the Royal and Derngate in October.

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

It’s been another great year of Screaming Blue Murder nights; from a long shortlist of twelve comics here are the top five:

In 5th place, soaring the heights of surreal hilarity, Harriet Dyer (4th October)

In 4th place, with an amazing gift for incorporating all the facts about audience members in his act, David Ward (27th September)

In 3rd place, the wonderfully faux-strict Mary Bourke (31st May)

In 2nd place, new to me, the fabulous wordplay of Mark Simmons (31st May)

In 1st place, on the best form I’ve seen him in ages, the incomparable Russell Hicks (22nd November)

Two years ago, the Committee introduced a new category – the Best of the Rest Stand-up Award, to take into account comedy acts seen at other locations, such as the Leicester Comedy Festival, Bluelight Comedy, Upfront Comedy Shows and Edinburgh Try-outs in various locations. However, this year we only saw a handful of additional comedy acts, at the Leicester Comedy Festival, so I’m just going to nominate a runner-up and a winner.

In 2nd place, Roisin O’Mahony and Chiara Goldsmith with their marvellously anarchic Edinburgh show from last year, Back to Back, at the Apres Lounge in February.

In 1st place, the comedy genius of being an agnostic teaching Religious Studies, the brilliant Kevin Precious in his Unholier than Thou, Upstairs at Kayal, in February.

Best Musical.

I saw thirteen musicals this year – a couple of which I went back to watch again, they were so good – so it was a tough choice to come up with a top five. But I did it!

In 5th place, and only watched it last week, the delightful revival of Sandy Wilson’s The Boy Friend, at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London, in January 2020.

In 4th place, another recent memory, the smart and slick revival of Guys and Dolls at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, in January 2020.

In 3rd place, the surprisingly hard-hitting but absolutely superb revival of Oklahoma! at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in July.

In 2nd place, it divided the critics, but I absolutely loved it so that I had to go again – and definitely the finest performance from a theatre orchestra in years – the revival of Man of La Mancha at the London Coliseum in May.

In 1st place, the other production that I had to see twice, and could easily have gone back yet again, the stunningly inventive and rewarding revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Company at the Gielgud Theatre, London in February.

Best New Play.

Just to clarify, this is my definition of a new play, which is something that’s new to me and to most of its audience – so it might have been around before but on its first UK tour, or a new adaptation of a work originally in another format. As I’ve looked back over the year’s drama, it became clear that this was an extraordinarily good year for most of the plays we’ve seen, and whittling the 19 possibles this year to a top five has been very difficult indeed. But here goes:

In 5th place, Alexis Michalik’s hilarious examination of how Cyrano de Bergerac was created, Edmond de Bergerac, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in April.

In 4th place, Katori Hall’s riveting modern classic, Our Lady of Kibeho, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in January 2019.

In 3rd place, Anthony McCarten’s finely written and beautifully acted The Pope, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in June.

In 2nd place, Laura Wade’s anarchic and compellingly hilarious The Watsons, at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London, in October.

In 1st place, the wide-ranging, character-driven and utterly fantastic The Lehman Brothers, at the Piccadilly Theatre, London, in May.

Best Revival of a Play.

I saw twenty-two revivals, with a shortlist of eight, and here’s the top five:

In 5th place, the hilarious yet savagely telling production of The Provoked Wife by the RSC in Stratford in May.

In 4th place, the superbly staged and performed double bill of Party Night and Celebration, also known as Pinter Six, as part of the Pinter at the Pinter Season, at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, in January 2019.

In 3rd place, Headlong’s witty and revealing production of Shakespeare’s Richard III, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in May.

In 2nd place, the gripping, sad, and mesmeric production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, at the Young Vic, London, in July.

In 1st place, the simply magnificent promenade production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bridge Theatre, London, in July.

As always, in the post-Christmas season, it’s time to consider the turkey of the year – and my biggest disappointment was the lame and rather unoriginal production of Caroline’s Kitchen at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in February.

Now we come on to our four categories specifically for the Edinburgh Fringe. The first is:

Best play – Edinburgh

We saw 22 plays in Edinburgh this year, and here are the top 5:

In 5th place, the cleverly written and smartly performed The Good Scout, produced by Boys of the Empire Productions (The Space @ Surgeon’s Hall)

In 4th place, the hilarious and beautifully realised Noir Hamlet, produced by Yasplz (The Space @ Niddry Street)

In 3rd place, David Carl’s amazing political satire, Trump Lear (Pleasance Courtyard)

In 2nd place, Marcus Brigstocke’s incredibly satisfying exploration of addiction, The Red (Pleasance Dome)

In 1st place, by turns hilarious and horrifying, the backwards exploration of a disastrous relationship, I Lost My Virginity to Chopin’s Nocturne in B-Flat Minor (Pleasance Courtyard)

Best Individual Performance in a Play – Edinburgh

As always, a really hard one to decide as so many Edinburgh plays are true ensemble efforts. Nevertheless, here are the top three:

In 3rd place, Craig MacArthur for Marrow (The Space @ Surgeon’s Hall)

In 2nd place, Javaad Alipoor for The Believers are but Brothers (Assembly George Square Studios)

In 1st place, David Carl for Trump Lear (Pleasance Courtyard)

Best stand-up comedy show – Edinburgh

Ten shows this year gives this top three:

In 3rd place, as last year, the best late-night comedy concatenation you’ll get in Edinburgh, Spank! (Underbelly Cowgate)

In 2nd place, last year’s winner returning with another ecstatically stupid and delightful show, Olaf Falafel – Knitting with Maracas (Laughing Horse @ The Pear Tree)

In 1st place, had heard so much about him, and every word is true – Ahir Shah: Dots (Monkey Barrell Comedy)

Best of the rest – Edinburgh

Very stiff competition this year means that a few great shows don’t make it to the top five:

In 5th place, the sharp, funny and sexy circus cabaret, Atomic Saloon Show (Assembly George Square Gardens)

In 4th place, back for another madcap, anarchic and simply hysterical show, Garry Starr Conquers Troy (Underbelly Cowgate)

In 3rd place, as last year, an absolute pun-fest version of Romeo and Juliet with Shakespeare for Breakfast (C Venues, C Viva)

In 2nd place, also as last year but without his Camels companion, the emotional but hilarious rollercoaster that is The Man, by Patrick McPherson (Underbelly Bristo Square)

In 1st place, one of those unexpected Edinburgh delights that filled you with unadulterated joy from start to finish – The Lost Musical Works of Willy Shakes (Assembly Rooms)

This year’s Edinburgh turkey, which somehow was a sell-out, was the cack-handed, under-rehearsed rubbish that was Come Dine with Mr Shakespeare (The Space on North Bridge)

Best Local Production

This would normally include the productions by the University of Northampton students, the Royal and Derngate Actors’ Company, the Youth Companies, local theatre groups and the National Theatre Connections. Apart from one show, again I only saw productions by the University students, so expect them to figure highly in the Awards!

In 5th place, from the Flash Festival, Not Aloud Ensemble’s important and beautifully performed Leviticus.

In 4th place, from the Fringe Festival, Rosemarie Sheach’s heartwarming and upbeat Can’t Quite Hit It.

In 3rd place, also from the Flash Festival, Workbench Theatre Company’s witty and character-driven production of Rise.

In 2nd place, again from the Flash Festival, Grapevine Theatre Company’s moving and memorable production of The Cost of Freedom.

In 1st place, from the Flash Festival, and because it is so hard to perform comedy well and this was well-thought out and brilliantly executed, Framed Ensemble’s hilarious production of Oh Arthur.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical.

Time to get personal. Ten in the shortlist, having eliminated some extraordinarily good performances but here’s the top five:

In 5th place, Alex Young as Sarah Brown in Guys and Dolls at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, in January 2020.

In 4th place, Zizi Strallen as Mary Poppins in Mary Poppins at the Prince Edward Theatre, London in November.

In 3rd place, Tracie Bennett as Mame Dennis in Mame at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in January 2020.

In 2nd place, Patti LuPone as Joanne in Company at the Gielgud Theatre, London in February.

In 1st place, Rosalie Craig as Bobbie in Company at the Gielgud Theatre, London in February.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical.

Nine performances in the shortlist, producing this top five:

In 5th place, Alex Cardall as Dougal in The Season at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in November.

In 4th place, a star is born, young Toby Mocrei as Dennis in The Boy in the Dress at the Royal Shakespeare Theare, Stratford-upon-Avon, in November.

In 3rd place, Hyoie O’Grady as Curly in Oklahoma! at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in July.

In 2nd place, Richard Fleeshman as Andy in Company at the Gielgud Theatre, London in February.

In 1st place, Jonathan Bailey as Jamie in Company at the Gielgud Theatre, London in February.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Play.

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

In 5th place, Caroline Quentin as Lady Fancyfull in The Provoked Wife, at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, in May.

In 4th place, Sharon D Clarke as Linda in Death of a Salesman, at the Young Vic, London in July.

In 3rd place, Joanne Froggatt as Frances in Alys Always, at the Bridge Theatre, London, in March.

In 2nd place, Penelope Wilton as Valentina in The Bay at Nice, at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London, in April.

In 1st place, Dame Maggie Smith as Brunhilde in A German Life, at the Bridge Theatre, London, in May.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Play.

This year’s most hotly contested award, with an amazing seventeen contenders in my shortlist, and many superb performances bubbling under, but here is the top five:

In 5th place, Simon Russell Beale as Henry (and many other characters) in The Lehman Trilogy at the Piccadilly Theatre, London, in May.

In 4th place, Hammed Animashaun as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, at the Bridge Theatre, London, in July.

In 3rd place, Anton Lesser as Pope Benedict in The Pope, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in June.

In 2nd place, Wendell Pierce as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic, London, in July.

In 1st place, Tom Mothersdale as Richard III in Richard III, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in May.

Theatre of the Year.

For the fifth year running there’s no change in the Number one theatre but once again we have a new Number two! Continuing to present an extraordinary range of drama and entertainment, this year’s Theatre of the Year is the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, with London’s Bridge Theatre as runner-up.

I saw 183 productions in 2019, up on 2018’s numbers but still not as many as 2017. Thank you gentle reader for continuing to read my theatre reviews and for all your support. Already looking forward to another wonderful year of theatre in 2020!

And coming up very soon – the Chrisparkle Decade Awards! The best of the shows and performances from 2010 – 2019. The ultimate accolade!

Review – The Beauty of Tchaikovsky, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 22nd September 2019

Beauty of TchaikovskyFantastic as always to welcome the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra back to the Derngate Auditorium for this first of this season’s concerts, with The Beauty of Tchaikovsky, a (dare I say it) slightly limp title for a full-force evening of music. What next, The Loveliness of Liszt? The Marvellousness of Mozart? Come on, RPO Marketing department, make the titles a bit snappier!

Gianluca MarcianoNot that the title put anyone off attending this concert because empty seats were few and far between for this programme of four exciting and occasionally challenging Tchaikovsky pieces. Our conductor for the evening was Gianluca Marciano, whom we haven’t seen before, and who is attached to a number of orchestras in exotic and mysterious places like Belarus and Lebanon. Who knew he would be attracted to the glamour of Northampton? Mr Marciano is a smart, theatrical, bouncy chap in a shiny tail suit who really feels the rhythm surging through his bendy knees, as he reaches on tippytoes to get the attention of the furthest-away musicians. They respond very well to him too, as the RPO were on terrific form throughout the evening.

Gemma SummerfieldOur first piece was the Polonaise from Eugene Onegin, Op.24, an instantly recognisable, stately extravaganza with all strings ablaze, and a perfect way to start the show. Then it was time for our soloist, soprano Gemma Summerfield, who sang the Letter Scene from the same opera. Ms Summerfield looked fantastic in her stunning blue evening dress and – cliché time – has the voice of an angel. Her elocution is crystal clear (even if you don’t understand the Russian) and she sings with a full, rich warmth, oozing expression and attitude. This was her debut with the RPO but it’s a match made in heaven, so I hope they have a long and happy career together!

RPONext Mr Marciano took the orchestra through the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. My first thoughts were if this is an overture, how long is the entire ballet? But I was mistaken. There is no ballet, or opera, for which this is its overture. It is a stand-alone work, a kind of sonata that musically represents the entire Romeo and Juliet story. Although it’s one of Tchaikovsky’s best-known works, I hadn’t heard it before and I found it quite chewy in parts – not the performance, but the piece itself. It’s very in-your-face, highly expressive and the tragedy of the story really comes across in the toughness of the music, which the RPO conveyed superbly well.

RPO1-300x200After the interval we returned for a performance of the Fifth Symphony in E Minor, Op.64, a masterful sequence of tunes and moods which really brings the strength out of the strings and provides a very haunting horn solo. But the whole orchestra gave it all incredible commitment, and the robustness of the piece and the performance was a wonderful way to end the evening. Look forward to enjoying some more of the concerts throughout the season!

Review – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Film Music Gala, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 5th July 2019

Film Music GalaThis is the second time that we have seen the Royal Philharmonic perform a Film Music Gala at the Royal and Derngate; the first, in 2017, featured soloist Alison Jiear to sing some Bond themes and I Will Always Love You from The Bodyguard. No soloist this time, which was perhaps a shame, as some vocals add variety to a gala night, when the orchestra is performing a number of short pieces; eighteen this time, plus an encore.

Nevertheless, it was still a very enjoyable show, with the Royal Philharmonic on excellent form. This time they were under the baton of Pete Harrison, who was new to us; he’s used to conducting West End Show orchestras and Pop/Classic crossover concerts – and we were really impressed to learn that he conducted the Russian State Symphony Orchestra in Moscow playing the music of Pink Floyd. Now that’s eclectic.

Pete HarrisonMr Harrison is a warm and friendly chap, clearly with a great rapport with the orchestra which also conveys itself into the auditorium. The nature of this concert meant that he spent a lot of time with the microphone introducing the various pieces to us and/or commenting about them afterwards and he obviously really enjoys bringing this kind of music to a large audience; and, I must say, the Derngate was pretty packed, with concertgoers of all ages.

Some of the pieces they had played before in the previous concert, some were new to the repertoire. We started with the Main Theme to The Big Country, with its broad, bright suggestion of wide open spaces and heroic cowboys. Next was the end reworking of the Main Theme from Jurassic Park, more melodic than brash, but very welcome. After that came the theme from Legends of the Fall, bookended by some beautiful, reflective piano playing by Roderick Elms. Back to the bold and brash with Where Eagles Dare, but then much more reflective and evocative with Out of Africa.

Duncan RiddellThe concert continued with John Williams’ theme to Schindler’s List, then The Fellowship of the Ring, Gabriel’s Oboe (from The Mission), going into the interval with the triumphant 633 Squadron. After the break, we went back in history somewhat to Sir Arthur Bliss’ Things to Come march from 1936; then the bold and contemporary fun of Apollo 13 – the Last Frontier, and The Da Vinci Code – Chevaliers de Sangreal. Two much more well-known pieces followed – Lara’s Theme from Doctor Zhivago (no 1960s easy listening album was complete without a version of this) and the famous Born Free, from the film of the same name. Then something very different – Ashokan Farewell from The Civil War, with leader of the orchestra Duncan Riddell showing his mastery of the folk violin style.

The last pieces of the concert were the famous Raiders March from Raiders of the Lost Ark – which I thought sounded especially tremendous – then Jack Sparrow’s theme from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, and finally the main theme from Star Wars – a true crowdpleaser (and one we heard only a month ago in the RPO’s Planets show). For an encore they performed the Flying Theme from E.T. – and a very warm finish to the concert it was too.

Royal Philharmonic OrchestraMaybe not the most cerebrally demanding evening of orchestral music but this show’s prime purpose is to entertain with some great pieces of modern composition – and it certainly does that! The Royal Philharmonic will be back in Northampton on 22nd September with a programme of Tchaikovsky music. I’m expecting something very lively!

Review – The Planets: An HD Odyssey, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 7th June 2019

The Planets: An HD OdysseyThis is the first time that I’ve seen precisely the same concert twice. Three years ago, the Royal Philharmonic brought their Planets/Odyssey show to the Royal and Derngate and I didn’t realise at the time that it’s obviously constructed as an off-the-peg package. Watching it a second time, not only was the film accompaniment to the performance of the Planets identical, but also the other short classical works in the first half of the concert were exactly the same, played in exactly the same order, and, I think, with exactly the same expression. Even the audience’s reaction was the same, including the embarrassed chuckles at the words “Saturn – the bringer of old age”.

RPOgroupTherefore, gentle reader, there’s not a lot of point my re-writing my comments of three years ago because they still apply, so can I point you towards my review of their performance on 26th June 2016, and please just ignore my bitter post-referendum ramblings at the time (unless you still feel the same way that I do about that subject – that’s up to you).

Nick DaviesWe did, however, have a different conductor for this performance: Nick Davies, a dapper little chap, resplendent in his shiny black suit, revelling in his work, and generously giving the members of the orchestra all the attention and respect that they deserve. Funny how Mr Davies and John Torode of Masterchef fame are never seen in the same room together…. I think we should be told. We’d enjoyed watching Mr Davies conduct the orchestra here twice before, for two of the regular Last Night of the Derngate Proms concerts. He must be more at ease with the jolly/gala kind of nights than the seriously cerebral classical concerts.

Two extra observations in addition to my three-year-old review; this time round, I enjoyed all the film sequences much more. Yes, they can get a little repetitive, but you have to admire the artistry and the technological knowhow that got those images to that screen; pretty mind-blowing if you think about it. However, the screen itself is, frankly, a nuisance in the first half. Its constantly scrolling through messages with details of the RPO’s social media pages and an advert that you can buy the CD in the interval is unnecessarily distracting from the performance. Mrs Chrisparkle thought they should have somehow lessened its impact. A conversation in the Gents toilet I overheard in the interval was more blunt: “I wish they’d get rid of that ****ing screen!”

I’m sure this concert will continue to tour and turn up every few years in all the usual places. And there’s no reason not to go again, as it’s a very enjoyable treat for both ears and eyes.

Review of the Year 2018 – The Ninth Annual Chrisparkle Awards

Welcome again to the glittering excitement that is the announcement of this year’s annual Chrisparkle Awards. The whole team has diligently assessed each and every eligible performance (i.e. I’ve thought hard about them) to create longlists then shortlists and then finally the ultimate prize for some splendid practitioners of their arts. Eligibility for the awards means a) they were performed in the UK and b) I have to have seen the shows and blogged about them in the period 11th January 2018 to 7th January 2019.

Are you all sitting comfortably?

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

Last year the Committee decided to combine all the dance productions seen in the year, both at the Edinburgh Fringe and in other theatres, and this year we have decided to continue this practice. That gives us seven shows to consider, and it’s been remarkably difficult to come to a conclusion, but we have.

In 3rd place, the two hilarious and skilful programmes that made up the triumphant return of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo (The Trocks to you and me) at the Peacock Theatre, London, in September.

In 2nd place, the immaculate and riveting performances of the dancers from the Richard Alston Dance Company at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in October.

In 1st place, never failing to hit the mark on technique, emotion and sheer entertainment, Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake at Sadler’s Wells, London, in December.

Classical Music Concert of the Year.

We only managed five classical concerts in 2018 but the quality was, as usual, excellent, so it was extremely difficult to whittle it down to a top three. Nevertheless, the Committee insisted, so here goes:

In 3rd place, Alan Buribayev Conducts Chopin, with an exciting programme of Czech, Polish and Finnish music including Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 2 in F Minor played by Alexander Romanovsky, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in April.

In 2nd place, Michael Petrov Performs Tchaikovsky, including a magical performance of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No 4 in A Major, and Michael Petrov giving us a spellbinding performance of Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Rory Macdonald, at the Royal and Derngate, in February.

In 1st place, A Night at the Ballet, a superb programme of ballet music including Delibes’ Sylvia Suite and Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre, with Nathan Fifield conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, at the Royal and Derngate, in June. A clean sweep for the RPO!

Best Entertainment Show of the Year.

This means anything that doesn’t fall into any other categories – for example pantos, circuses, revues and anything else hard to classify. Very few contenders this year, and it looks remarkably like last year’s awards, but here’s the top three:

In 3rd place, the unstoppable Damian Williams starring in Peter Pan at the Lyceum Theatre in Sheffield in January 2019.

In 2nd place, the humour-enhanced reincarnation of the Burlesque Show at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in January 2018.

In 1st place, the utter filth and pure showbiz hilarity of Snow White at the London Palladium in December.

Best Star Standup of the Year.

Eight big-name stand-up comics qualify for this year, and it’s very difficult to judge because they were all excellent in their own way, so I can only rank them in the order that I enjoyed their show. I only listed a top three last year but this time I need a top five:

In 5th place, the beautifully constructed and thought provoking Choose Your Battles tour from Lucy Porter, Underground at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in April.

In 4th place, the fearless use of a range of awkward subjects brilliantly mixed up by Paul Chowdhry in his Live Innit tour, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in March.

In 3rd place, the quirkily intellectual and extremely clever Total Eclipse of Descartes tour by Rob Newman, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in November.

In 2nd place, and the winner of last year’s best Screaming Blue stand-up, the sheer delight of Daliso Chaponda and his What The African Said tour, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in February.

In 1st place, on unbeatable form, the fantastic Devil May Care tour by Marcus Brigstocke, at the Royal and Derngate in October.

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

It’s been a great year of Screaming Blue Murder nights; a longlist of seventeen comics brought forward a shortlist of seven and here are the top five:

In 5th place, hilarious and outrageous as always, Robert White (28th September)

In 4th place, for his ability to invest a room with such sheer happiness, Jonny Awsum (13th April)

In 3rd place, always expect the unexpected with the extraordinary Russell Hicks (16th February)

In 2nd place, a new name to me and a superb talent with refreshing material, Stefano Paolini (12th October)

In 1st place, again, a first timer at Screaming Blue (I believe) but what a gifted way of weaving comedy magic out of some tough material, Sean Meo (14th September)

Last year, the Committee introduced a new category; as we continue to see so many stand-up comedy acts in other clubs, such as the Leicester Comedy Festival, Bluelight Comedy, Upfront Comedy Shows and Edinburgh Try-outs in various locations, here’s the Best of the Rest Stand-up Award. Again, a long longlist of nineteen was whittled down to a shortlist of ten, and here’s the top five:

In 5th place, the sheer professionalism and endless inventiveness of Patrick Monahan, in the Edinburgh Try-out of his show, Goals, at the Comedy Crate Festival, Black Prince, Northampton in July.

In 4th place, the fantastic delivery and fresh material of Drew Fraser (Upfront Comedy) at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in November.

In 3rd place, the musical madness and effervescence of Friz Frizzle, Song Ruiner (Leicester Comedy Festival, Late Night Jokes On Us, Manhattan 34 Bar, Leicester) in February.

In 2nd place, the fantastic comedy character creation that is Barbara Nice (Upfront Comedy Slam) at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in February.

In 1st place, a solid gold discovery of great confident delivery and material, Kane Brown (Upfront Comedy Slam) at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in February.

Best Musical.

I saw seventeen musicals this year, and only – perhaps – three weren’t really up to scratch. So that meant it was a tough choice to come up with a top five. But I did it!

In 5th place, and still very fresh in the memory, the superb production of Kiss Me Kate at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, in January 2019.

In 4th place, the invigorating and hugely emotional revival of Barnum, at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London, in February.

In 3rd place, the stunningly technological revival of Chess at the London Coliseum that we saw in May.

In 2nd place, the visually and musically overpowering experience that is the new look Les Miserables, at the Curve Theatre Leicester, in November.

In 1st place, believe the hype, it simply blew us both away; Hamilton at the Victoria Palace Theatre, London in December.

Best New Play.

Just to clarify, this is my definition of a new play, which is something that’s new to me and to most of its audience – so it might have been around before but on its first UK tour, or a new adaptation of a work originally in another format. I’ve seen 14 such plays this year; one of which we left at the interval, but most of the rest were very good indeed. Here’s my top five:

In 5th place, Alan Bennett’s quirky, funny and sad examination of the current state of the NHS in Allelujah, at the Bridge Theatre, London in July.

In 4th place, the very challenging and in many ways absolutely bonkers A Very Very Very Dark Matter, at the Bridge Theatre, London, in October.

In 3rd place, a production which most other people didn’t seem to appreciate but I thought was masterful in so many ways, Kiss of the Spider Woman at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London, in March.

In 2nd place, the abstract, fanciful, and totally adorable, Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in April.

In 1st place, the heart-stopping, tragic, hilarious and exciting The Lovely Bones, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in October.

Best Revival of a Play.

I saw twenty revivals, the majority of which were absolute smashers. Eight made the shortlist; here’s the top five:

In 5th place, the immaculate characterisation and brilliantly realised humour of The Merry Wives of Windsor by the RSC in Stratford in August.

In 4th place, the powerful performances and clarity of story-telling of Timon of Athens, by the RSC in Stratford in December.

In 3rd place, the brilliantly clever updating of Tartuffe by the RSC in Stratford in September.

In 2nd place, the eye-opening and redefining version of Hamlet by the RSC touring to the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in February.

In 1st place, the fabulously funny and joyful revival of The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, by the RSC in Stratford in April.

A clean sweep for the RSC is pretty amazing! However, as always, in the post-Christmas season, time to consider the turkey of the year – and my biggest disappointment was the tedious and generally pointless production of Macbeth, also by the RSC in Stratford in April.

Now we come on to our four categories specifically for the Edinburgh Fringe. The first is:

Best play – Edinburgh

We saw 20 plays in Edinburgh, and here are the top 5:

In 5th place, the individual tour-de-force of and by Alison Skilbeck in Are There More of You? (Assembly Hall)

In 4th place, another gripping solo performance in Fear No Colours’ Tonight with Donny Stixx (The Space @ Jury’s Inn)

In 3rd place, the very funny and beautifully written Gayface, written by Chet Wilson (The Space on North Bridge)

In 2nd place, the anarchic and hilarious Holy Sh*t by Jack Fairhurst (Paradise in the Vault)

In 1st place, the play that had us in stitches for the first 75% and then tears for the rest of it, Sheffield University Theatre Company’s incredible My Mate Dave Died by Mike Alexander (Greenside @ Infirmary Street)

Best Individual Performance in a Play – Edinburgh

As always, a really hard one to decide as so many Edinburgh plays are true ensemble efforts. Nevertheless, here are the top three:

In 3rd place, Wilf Walsworth for My Mate Dave Died (Greenside @ Infirmary Street)

In 2nd place, Alison Skilbeck for Are There More of You? (Assembly Hall)

In 1st place, Chris Duffy for Tonight with Donny Stixx (The Space @ Jury’s Inn)

Best stand-up comedy show – Edinburgh

Only eight shows this year gives this top three:

In 3rd place, still as funny as ever but this year eclipsed by a couple of truly brilliant shows, Spank! (Underbelly Cowgate)

In 2nd place, a comic we have seen many times before but never on fire like this, the fantastic Abigoliah Schamaun in Do You Know Who I Think I Am?! (Underbelly Cowgate)

In 1st place, someone who tickled our funnybone in a way it hadn’t been tickled before, Olaf FalafelThere’s no I in idiot (Laughing Horse @ The Pear Tree)

Best of the rest – Edinburgh

A short list of ten provides this top five, which was agony to choose, so I decided to favour new talent over more established artists:

In 5th place, the always hilarious and increasingly popular Foil Arms and Hog, Craicling (Underbelly Bristo Square)

In 4th place, the emotion-packed and fantastically musical, John Partridge – Stripped (Assembly Checkpoint)

In 3rd place, always worth getting up early for a bizarre version of Taming of the Shrew with Shakespeare for Breakfast (C Venues, Chambers Street)

In 2nd place, a brilliant comedy find from the likeable Patrick McPherson and Zac Peel – Camels (Underbelly Bristo Square)

In 1st place, throwing away all the rule books, the brilliant Garry Starr Performs Everything (Underbelly Cowgate)

This year’s Edinburgh turkey, which was so awful we had to walk out at a convenient break (along with the majority of the audience), was Hillary’s Kitchen (The Space @ Surgeon’s Hall)

Best Local Production

This would normally include the productions by the University of Northampton students, the Royal and Derngate Actors’ Company, the Youth Companies, local theatre groups and the National Theatre Connections. However, of these groups, I only saw productions by the University students, so they sweep the board!

In 5th place, the 2018-19 3rd Year Students’ production of A Christmas Carol at the Isham Dark Studio in December.

In 4th place, Ytho’s production of O,FFS that they took to Edinburgh, but which I saw at the University in October.

In 3rd place, from the Flash Festival, Blue Shift Theatre’s production of Deciding What to do with Dad.

In 2nd place, again from the Flash Festival, Open Eye Theatre’s production of Drained.

In 1st place, the 2017-18 3rd Year Students’ production of Accused at St Peter’s Church in February.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical.

Time to get personal. Here are the top five, they were all fantastic in their own way:

In 5th place, Sharon Rose as Eliza Hamilton in Hamilton at the Victoria palace, London, in December.

In 4th place, Alexandra Burke as Svetlana in Chess at the London Coliseum in May.

In 3rd place, Rebecca Lock as Lilli/Katherine in Kiss Me Kate at the Crucible Theatre Sheffield in January 2019.

In 2nd place, Laura Pitt-Pulford as Charity in Barnum at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London in February.

In 1st place, Caroline Quentin as the Duchess of Hareford in Me and My Girl at the Festival Theatre, Chichester in August.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical.

Nine performances in the shortlist, producing this top five:

In 5th place, Ash Hunter as Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton at the Victoria Palace, London, in December.

In 4th place, Killian Donnelly as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables at the Curve Theatre Leicester, in November.

In 3rd place, Tim Howar as Freddie in Chess at the London Coliseum in May.

In 2nd place, Dom Hartley-Harris as George Washington in Hamilton at the Victoria Palace, London, in December.

In 1st place, Callum Francis as Lola in Kinky Boots at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in September.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Play.

Fourteen in the rather long shortlist, but here’s the top five:

In 5th place, Penelope Keith as Mrs St Maugham in The Chalk Garden, at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in June.

In 4th place, Sophie Stanton as Mrs Rich in The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, in April.

In 3rd place, Zoe Wanamaker as Meg in The Birthday Party at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, in February.

In 2nd place, Kathryn Turner as Timon in Timon of Athens, at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon in December.

In 1st place, Charlotte Beaumont as Susie in The Lovely Bones at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in September.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Play.

Another long shortlist, with eighteen contenders in my shortlist, but here is the top five:

In 5th place, a short appearance, but what a masterclass, Sir Antony Sher as Nicolas in One for the Road, part of Pinter One, at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, in October.

In 4th place, Ben Whishaw as Brutus in Julius Caesar, at the Bridge Theatre, London, in March.

In 3rd place, Jude Owusu as Tamburlaine in Tamburlaine the Great, at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, in September.

In 2nd place, Toby Jones as Stanley in The Birthday Party at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, in February.

In 1st place, Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet in the RSC’s Hamlet, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in March.

Theatre of the Year.

For the fourth year running there’s no change in the Number one theatre but we have a new Number two! Continuing to present an extraordinary range of drama and entertainment, this year’s Theatre of the Year is the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, with RSC’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre/Swan Theatre as runner-up.

Didn’t quite exceed last year’s record number of shows seen but still managed to do quite well with 178 productions in all. Thanks to you gentle reader for continuing to read my theatre reviews. Let’s look forward to another wonderful year of theatre in 2019!

Review – The Thirteenth Malcolm Arnold Festival Gala Concert – The Consummate Communicator; BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 14th October 2018

Thirteenth Malcolm Arnold FestivalThe annual Gala Concert of the Malcolm Arnold Festival is always a thing of beauty and a delight to the ear. Northampton’s famous son turned his hand to so many different styles of music, that it’s great to cherish this festival. It’s inevitably a source of great fascination to hear some pieces you haven’t heard before, and to admire his mix of quirkiness and solemnity. For this concert by the BBC Concert Orchestra, our conductor was Keith Lockhart, a dapper chap with a spring in his step who let the music do the talking. He spent most of his time perched atop a rather battered wooden podium that looked as though it had just come out of a shed, which didn’t really suit the glamour of the rest of the evening. When Mr Lockhart becomes engrossed in his music, his left foot starts to twitch and bounces around in appreciation of the music. When he gets really carried away, he does a series of jumps. Performance clearly oozes through every pore of him.

Keith LockhartOur first item was Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances – West Side Story, and, as far as I’m concerned, definitely the best way to hear these uplifting tunes. Somewhere, Maria and I Have a Love dominate these symphonic dances, and the percussion and harp demand to be heard in addition to the usual string and brass instruments. The BCO were clearly in the mood for a lively evening of energetic playing and this piece brought out their showbizzy side; the performance went down a treat with the audience.

Julian BlissNext, we met our soloist for the evening, the brilliant clarinettist, Julian Bliss. We’ve seen Mr Bliss perform at the Royal and Derngate three times before, once with the Royal Philharmonic, and twice with the Worthing Symphony Orchestra as part of the Malcolm Arnold Festival in 2013 and 2014. For this concert, once again he played us something different. First up was a Scherzetto for Clarinet and Orchestra by Arnold, taken from his film score for the 1953 movie You Know What Sailors Are. The film is probably best forgotten, but the scherzetto is a brilliant little musical joke; a tune that cocks its head to one side, pokes its tongue out and saucily lifts its leg up. Mr Bliss played it with all the panache you’d expect.

BBC Concert OrchestraThen he played the more thoughtful and introspective Clarinet Concerto by Aaron Copland – appropriate for this concert because Copland and Arnold were great friends. Two movements are joined by a cadenza, which Mr Bliss attacked with gusto. How he remembers all the nuances of the music – let alone the notes – without any sheet music beats me. It’s an engrossing piece and sometimes you wonder how the clarinet part and the orchestra part mesh together, but they always manage it. A very moving and rewarding way to guide us to the interval.

malcolm-arnoldAfter the interval, we had a short speech from Paul Harris, the Festival Director, giving us a little extra insight into the pieces and the reasons why they were chosen for this concert. After a brief hiatus where the leader of the orchestra forgot to tune his colleagues up until he got a nudge from the violins behind (I have to say, orchestra leaders are getting younger every year) we welcomed back Mr Lockhart and went straight into our final piece, Malcolm Arnold’s 4th Symphony. In 1958, Britain saw race riots which affected Arnold deeply; he was dismayed and upset that such a thing could happen. So when he was commissioned to write a symphony the following year, he decided to involve instruments and rhythms that would have been more associated with African and Caribbean music, but integrating them into the formality of a “western” symphony, to show how the two can happily co-exist.

BBC COThe result is a lively and wide-ranging symphony, given additional depths by the African and Caribbean elements. Mr Harris told us to watch out for Puerto Rican influences too, which is why the West Side Story piece fitted into the evening’s entertainment. I must say, I couldn’t really discern much of a West Side Story vibe, but I’m sure that’s my ears not working properly. Of its four movements, I much preferred the second (vivace ma non troppo) and the fourth (con fuoco – a lot of fuoco in fact.) There was a disturbing calm about the second movement – expressed beautifully by the orchestra– which reminded me of one of Arnold’s English Dances, but as though it had been fragmented, and half the notes removed to leave a ghostly hint of the original. The fourth was full of power and amazingly lush arrangements on which the orchestra truly went to town.

As always, the Malcolm Arnold Festival Gala Concert was a complete treat, and an essential part of the Royal and Derngate’s classical offerings of the year.

Review – Last Night of the Derngate Proms, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 15th July 2018

Last Night of the Derngate PromsAfter a year’s break, it’s a welcome return to the Last Night of the Derngate Proms, which, as our noble conductor Nick Davies pointed out, is also the First Night, but we shouldn’t let that bother us. We had the pleasure of Mr Davies’ company for the same gig back in 2013, so it’s obviously a job he enjoys. He has a warm, welcoming style and is happy to exchange a bit of banter with the audience, both informative and informal. As if this splendid evening of shameless patriotism couldn’t get any better, Mrs Chrisparkle and I were joined by Lord and Lady Prosecco, who need no lessons in how to enjoy themselves. The ladies of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra were all decked out in their colourful finery, to give a gala feel to the concert; and of course there were plenty of Union Jacks scattered throughout the auditorium to wave during the familiar exciting bits. And if the orchestra seemed a little hasty to get on and off the stage – as Mr Davies confided in us – orchestra leader Duncan Riddell was going on holiday immediately afterwards, and he clearly had a train to catch.

These concerts are always fashioned as a pot-pourri of Classic’s Greatest Hits, so it was particularly rewarding to see the thought and variety that had been considered for the running order this year. We started off with Vaughan Williams’ Wasps Overture, a lively, buzzy piece of music that immediately challenges the orchestra with its various themes and moods. Then we had the Intermezzo from Sibelius’ Karelia Suite, which the older members of the audience would remember as the theme to ITV’s This Week. Even if the music doesn’t give you that extra nostalgia boost, it’s a superb little piece that builds nicely to its triumphant theme. Great work from the strings and a big shout out to M. Nicolas Fleury, leading the French Horns and celebrating his country’s win in the World Cup earlier that afternoon.

Nick DaviesNext up was the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, a rousing, swirling dance that cries out for ballerinas and men in tights. Again, the orchestra members threw themselves into all its majestic jollity, transporting us all into the glamorous ballrooms tucked away in our imaginations. Great stuff. Then a big change of mood – George Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad, an elegant and pastoral piece that I’d certainly never heard before. Fitting for the Last Night of the Proms as it’s a big slice of Englishness, but with a contemplative nature that appeals to the mind as well as the heart.

Next we were introduced to our soloist for the evening, Soprano Katerina Mina. In a stunning blue evening dress she coquetted through Franz Lehar’s Meine Lippen from his operetta Giuditta, which was also new to me – it only had a few performances in the theatres of Vienna and Budapest in the mid-1930s and never reached London or New York. It’s a great little tune and Ms Mina was delightfully knowing and cheeky all the way through. The final piece before the interval was the Prelude to Act 1 of Wagner’s Meistersinger, which you might consider to be the German equivalent of the Pomp and Circumstance of Elgar; a Teutonic pageant of musical masterfulness. A fantastic way to lead you into your half-time Chardonnay.

Katerina MinaAfter the interval we started off with Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla, another fizzy crowd pleaser. There’s an art to composing the perfect overture, and in this concert we had two of them. Then we welcomed Katerina Mina back to sing Vissi d’Arte from Puccini’s Tosca. I know it gets trundled out all the time but I think this is one of the most moving pieces of classical music ever written, and Ms Mina sang it with beautiful eloquence infused with tragedy. Absolutely stunning. Then we had Elgar’s Chanson de Nuit, a rather French title for a rather English composition; a lovely, stately ode to romance with just a tinge of Stiff Upper Lip, again beautifully played by the string section. We ended this sequence of music with a lively Slavonic Dance by Dvorak – No 8 in the first set; impossible not to be both shaken and stirred with this smile-inducing, fast paced dance that constantly switches from major to minor and back again.

That’s when Mr Davies gave us our cue that we could start to “join in”. Henry Wood’s heartfelt but introverted Tom Bowling and the always chirpy Hornpipe from his Fantasia on British Sea Songs got us started with the rhythmic clapping – but the audience started too loudly, as usual; then two verses from Rule Britannia, sung by Katerina Mina in a Sgt Pepper jacket and Napoleonic hat, following straight into Jerusalem (my favourite) and then ending up with Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance No 1 and a rousing double portion of Land of Hope and Glory. We’re here for the music, said Mr Davies, and what’s not to like about that? A very happy crowd went home having wallowed in some of the best classical tunes there are. Huge congratulations to everyone involved!

RPOP. S. I didn’t much enjoy the Last Night of the Derngate Proms two years ago. It followed hard on the heels of the Brexit vote and the jingoistic fervour in the audience was overpoweringly abhorrent. Two years on, things have calmed down a bit and the patriotic fun in this year’s show was just about perfect.

P. P. S. Lord Prosecco says he was “just passing” the stage door when he bumped into the beautiful and charming Ms Katerina Mina, still dressed like an extra from Waterloo (the historical movie, not the Abba song). A Facebook selfie was taken to prove it. Not remotely jealous at all. No sirree.

P. P. P. S. Hope Duncan got his train.

Review – A Night at the Ballet, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 24th June 2018

A Night at the BalletWhoever it is at the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra who has the job of planning the content for their concerts must have an enjoyable but challenging task on their hands. To create an evening purely of ballet works – with such a range to choose from – must have been more endearment than endurance. Their latest concert, A Night at the Ballet, was jam-packed with punchy tunes and glorious melodies; all from the hands of four 19th century men who put ballet music centre stage (or should that be centre stave).

Unusually, we had no soloist to offer us a virtuoso performance of some great dramatic musical landmark; but I guess that’s typical of ballet music. If it’s designed to accompany a stage performance, it needs to be performed by no more people than you can fit into your average theatre orchestra pit; all hands on deck, and no room for a specialist as you might expect in a symphony or a concerto. Instead, we had the Royal Philharmonic on top form, this time under the baton of Nathan Fifield, a conductor new to us; he’s currently the principal conductor with Nashville Ballet and this is his debut performance with the RPO.

Nathan FifieldMr Fifield is a smart, dashing, clean-cut young gentleman (is it me, or are conductors getting younger nowadays) but with a genuine sense of the beauty of the ballet and delivering some well-chosen and thoughtful observations on the pieces that the orchestra were to play. He doesn’t seem to be one of those authoritarian conductors who impose themselves on the orchestra; he seems much more to be one of the lads, albeit with the extra task of being in charge.

Our first piece was the vivacious Dance of the Comedians from Smetana’s Bartered Bride. A fantastic way of getting the evening underway, with its triumphantly upbeat rhythms giving the orchestra a perfect opportunity to show their mettle. As well as the swirling violins, the brass and percussion also made a huge impact. It’s one of those pieces of music that, when you read the title on some paper, you’re not sure if you’ve heard it before; and when you do hear it, you’re full of the satisfied comfort of recognition and wonder why you don’t play it more often.

Next up, Mr Fifield introduced us to Delibes’ Sylvia Suite and Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Suite. He told the story of how Tchaikovsky was so impressed at Delibes’ work (and so unimpressed with his own) that if he’d heard the Delibes before sitting down to write Swan Lake, he’d never have bothered. Fortunately for the rest of mankind, that didn’t happen. I didn’t think I knew any of the Sylvia Suite, but of course I was wrong – this is an evening of Ballet’s Greatest Hits, after all – and the celebrated Pizzicato has been a mainstay of TV and radio adverts since the introduction of Independent Broadcasting. I know where Tchaikovsky is coming from, mind; that Sylvia Suite is a thing of true beauty. The grandeur of its opening and closing movements was stunningly performed by the RPO and the lightness of the Pizzicato is simply impossible not to smile at. But I was most impressed by the almost cumbersome and definitely eccentric Valse Lente, with what seems to have too many notes for its bars; I thought that was really engaging and enjoyable. Again, a fantastic job by the strings.

Mr Fifield said we should compare the Delibes and the Tchaikovsky. Hard to do, because (to me at least) Swan Lake is such a familiar piece of music – possibly one of the most engrossing and gripping works in the musical catalogue of all time. Mr Fifield conducted some parts of it – most notably the Valse and the Scene: Pas d’action – a little more slowly than I am used to hearing it – possibly the pace at which it is most frequently danced. I felt that whilst this enhanced the simple beauty of the melodies and the richness of the orchestra’s performance, it lost a little of the drama. But that’s just me. Daniel de Fry’s harp work was just sensational throughout and I particularly loved the Hungarian dance and the final Mazurka – which I was humming to myself all through the interval.

RPOgroupThe second half started with some more Delibes – this time the Prelude and Mazurka from Coppelia, and again, you are reminded just how famous some of these stonking great tunes are. Another really rousing performance from the RPO; I could imagine the lavishly dressed dancers in my mind’s eye. Next came the item that I had been looking forward to most: Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre. This has been a favourite of mine since I was a very small child and in fact I even learned to play it on the piano when I was about 16 – I just about managed to scrape through it. Duncan Riddell’s magnificent violin playing brought out both the harsh eeriness and the light playfulness of the piece; I also loved the strident xylophone playing. A sheer joy throughout.

For a finale Mr Fifield brought us his own personal favourite ballet music – Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Suite. It sure contains some stunning tunes but I have to say I still prefer Swan Lake! Again Mr de Fry’s golden touch on the harp was magnificent, and the performance by the whole orchestra of the Adagio was absolutely first class. So much so, that it outweighed the rest of the suite’s content, and the audience weren’t really sure that the concert had finished after the performance of the final waltz. Once they were absolutely convinced now was the right time to applaud, they certainly let rip.

It was definitely one of our favourite concerts from the Royal Philharmonic from all the years we’ve been coming to see them. It was just tutu good. Next month – the Last Night of the Derngate Proms, an excuse to get out your nationalist flags. It will also be the same day as the World Cup Final, so if England are still in the tournament…. I just hope no one mentions the B word.