Review of the Year 2022 – The Twelfth Annual Chrisparkle Awards

It is my pleasure to welcome you again to the glamorous showbiz highlight of the year, the announcement of the annual Chrisparkle Awards for 2022. 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 17th January 2022 to 9th January 2023. Are you all sitting comfortably? Then we’ll begin!

 

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

This includes dance seen at the Edinburgh Fringe, as well as elsewhere in the country. We saw seven dance productions, and these are the top three:

In 3rd place, the anarchic inventiveness of Ukraine’s Ballet Freedom at the Edinburgh International Conference Centre, in August.

In 2nd place, the Balletboyz on a superb return to form with their Deluxe tour, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in May.

In 1st place, the Edinburgh Festival Ballet/Peter Schaufuss/Ian McKellen production of Hamlet at the Ashton Hall, St Stephens Church, Edinburgh.

 

Classical Music Concert of the Year.

We only saw one classical concert this year – The Royal Philharmonic’s The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in February. So I’m giving it an honorary mention, but without any competition, I can’t really call it the best classical concert this year!

 

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. Here are the top three:

In 3rd place, the always delightful Sheffield pantomime, Jack and the Beanstalk at the Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, in December.

In 2nd place, the most lavish of panto experiences imaginable, Jack and the Beanstalk at the London Palladium in December.

In 1st place, the most remarkable gala celebrating the life and work of a remarkable man, Stephen Sondheim’s Old Friends at the Sondheim Theatre, London, in May.

 

Best Star Standup of the Year.

Astonishingly, we only saw three big star standup shows this year – and these are they:

In 3rd place, the endlessly brilliant and always thought provoking Dara O’Braian in his So Where Were We tour, at the Milton Keynes Theatre, in November.

In 2nd place, the highly personal but always funny material of Patrick Kielty in his Borderline tour, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in June.

In 1st place, the irrepressible Omid Djalili in his The Good Times Tour, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in April.

 

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

In the past the Committee has given awards for the best Screaming Blue Murder Comedy Club stand-up, and last year this was combined with the Comedy Crate Stand up shows. There had also been a Best of the Rest award for various other comedy venues, Edinburgh Previews and the like. We’re now going to streamline these separate categories into one – The Best of the Rest! Out of countless comics we saw, a longlist of thirteen provided the following top five:

In 5th place, the always ebullient Aurie Styla (Upfront Comedy Club – May)

In 4th place, the hilarious and quick-witted Kane Brown (Upfront Comedy Club – October)

In 3rd place, the unpredictable and always brilliant Russell Hicks (Comedy Crate – March)

In 2nd place, the brilliantly inventive Mark Simmons (Comedy Crate – March, Comedy Crate Edinburgh Preview – July)

In 1st place, the sheer delight of Gerry K (Screaming Blue Murder – March)

 

Best Musical.

I saw sixteen musicals this year, a combination of new shows and revivals. One big disappointment, a few not entirely to my taste but that’s more my issue, and, as usual, the others were all varying degrees of excellent. Here’s my top five.

In 5th place, an old favourite given a tremendous treatment, the touring production of Hairspray that we saw at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in January 2022.

In 4th place, a show that’s only going to grow in stature through the ages, putting Sheffield on the map, Standing at the Sky’s Edge at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, in December.

In 3rd place, another old favourite looking as fresh as the day it was born, the touring production of Rocky Horror Show at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in July.

In 2nd place, a stunning production that lifted your heart and was jam-packed with fun, fully deserving its London transfer later this year, Crazy for You at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in July.

In 1st place, a show that rewrites the rule book for creating a meaningful revival, the spectacular and innovative production of Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club, at the Playhouse, London, in April.

 

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. We saw eighteen new plays this year, and I awarded five stars to ten of them, so this is a tightly fought battle! Here are my top five (with some incredible productions and plays just bubbling under) :

In 5th place, David Hare’s gripping and intelligent look at the life and work of Robert Moses, Straight Line Crazy, at the Bridge Theatre, London, in March.

In 4th place, a deftly structured and wittily written ghost story that terrifies and delights, Danny Robins’ 2:22 A Ghost Story, at the Criterion Theatre, London, in December.

In 3rd place, a truly original staging of a gripping family of refugees fleeing from Afghanistan, The Boy With Two Hearts at the National Theatre Dorfman Theatre in October.

In 2nd place, Anupama Chandrasekhar’s magnificent examination of the assassination of Gandhi, The Father and the Assassin at the National Theatre Olivier Theatre in May.

In 1st place, one of the best new comedies of the century, Steven Moffat’s The Unfriend at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester, in June.

 

Best Revival of a Play.

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

In 5th place, the RSC’s bold and innovative new production of Shakespeare’s Richard III at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, in July.

In 4th place, the emotional and powerful production – despite the rain effect – of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible, at the National Theatre Olivier Theatre in October.

In 3rd place, Tom Basden’s brilliant updating of Dario Fo’s hilarious Accidental Death of an Anarchist, at the Tanya Moiseiwitsch Playhouse, Sheffield, in September.

In 2nd place, Dominic Cooke’s outstanding reimagination of Emlyn Williams’ The Corn is Green, at the National Theatre, Lyttelton Theatre, in May.

In 1st place, Anna Mackmin’s pitch-perfect revival of one of Alan Ayckbourn’s most telling comedies, Woman in Mind, at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in October.

As always, in the post-Christmas season, it’s time to consider the turkey of the year – and whilst I was unimpressed with both Sing Yer Heart Out For The Lads and Local Hero at Chichester, by far the worst thing I saw all year was The Sex Party at the Menier Chocolate Factory.

 

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

Best play – Edinburgh

We saw 52 plays in Edinburgh this year, 18 of them got 5* from me, which led to a shortlist of 11, and here are the top 5:

In 5th place, the brilliant thriller with a terrific twist, Closure, written by Faye Draper and produced by Ink and Curtains (Pleasance Courtyard)

In 4th place, full of contemporary relevance and an insight into modern day poverty, About Money, written by Eliza Gearty and produced by 65% Theatre (Summerhall)

In 3rd place, an extraordinary one-man play that leads you down some terrifyingly unexpected alleys, An Audience with Stuart Bagcliffe, written by Benny Ainsworth and produced by Triptych (Zoo Playground)

In 2nd place, the vivid and gripping story of the Hiroshima bombings, The Mistake, written and produced by Michael Mears (The Space on North Bridge)

In 1st place, the play I couldn’t stop talking about for weeks afterwards, the story of a unique relationship, Wilf, written by James Ley and produced by the Traverse Theatre Company (Traverse Theatre)

 

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 five:

In 5th place, Michael Waller for Candy (Underbelly Bristo Square)

In 4th place, Stephen Smith for Dog/Actor (Greenside @ Infirmary Street)

In 3rd place, Michael Parker for An Audience with Stuart Bagcliffe (Zoo Playground)

In 2nd place, Michael Dylan for Wilf (Traverse Theatre)

In 1st place, Samuel Barnett for Feeling Afraid as if Something Terrible is Going to Happen (Summerhall)

 

Best stand-up comedy show – Edinburgh

Eleven shows this year received 5* from me, but here are my top five:

In 5th place, a new name to me, and a brilliant find, Nina Gilligan with her Late Developer show (Just the Tonic at the Tron)

In 4th place, the always brilliant Mary Bourke with her Brutal Truth show (The Stand Comedy Club)

In 3rd place, one of our regular Edinburgh must-sees, Joe Wells with his I Am Autistic show (Banshee Labyrinth)

In 2nd place, on the best form I’ve ever seen him, Hal Cruttenden with his It’s Best You Hear it From Me show (Pleasance Courtyard)

In 1st place, and why have I never seen him before, Mark Thomas with his Black and White show (The Stand Comedy Club)

 

Best of the rest – Edinburgh

Very stiff competition as always, but here are my top five:

In 5th place, the brilliant improvisation that made up Shamilton, produced by Baby Wants Candy (Assembly George Square Studios)

In 4th place, the anarchic mischief of a nightmare club night, Kevin Dewsbury and Bexie Archer in Your Dad’s Mum (Underbelly Bristo Square)

In 3rd place, two complementary productions, Patrick McPherson’s Colossus and again with his twin brother Hugo in Pear (Underbelly Cowgate)

In 2nd place, one of the best sketch shows I’ve ever seen, the brilliant Tarot: Cautionary Tales (Pleasance Courtyard)

In 1st place, the best swansong ever, Colin Hoult’s The Death of Anna Mann (Pleasance Courtyard)

There were a number of contenders for this year’s Edinburgh turkey; Shakespeare for Breakfast was a big let-down due to the change of cast and writing team, but I think the most woeful was the misguided attempt at a League of Gentlemen-type story, Antiques (Greenside @ Nicolson Square)

 

Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical.

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

In 5th place, Carly Anderson as Polly in Crazy for You at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in July.

In 4th place, Me’sha Bryan as Celie in The Color Purple at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in October.

In 3rd place, Cleopatra Rey as Rita in Get Up Stand Up at the Lyric Theatre, London, in December.

In 2nd place, Marisha Wallace as Ado Annie in Oklahoma! at the Young Vic, London, in May.

In 1st place, Amy Lennox as Sally Bowles in Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club, at the Playhouse, London, in April.

 

Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical.

Here’s the top five:

In 5th place, Robert Lonsdale as Harry in Standing at the Sky’s Edge at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, in December.

In 4th place, Arthur Darvill as Curly in Oklahoma! at the Young Vic, London, in May.

In 3rd place, Fra Fee as Emcee in Cabaret at the Kit Kat Club, at the Playhouse, London, in April.

In 2nd place, David Albury as Bob Marley in Get Up Stand Up at the Lyric Theatre, London, in December.

In 1st place, Charlie Stemp as Bobby in Crazy for You at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in July.

 

Best Performance by an Actress in a Play.

Eighteen in the rather long shortlist, and here’s the top five:

In 5th place, Frances Barber as Elsa in The Unfriend, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, in June.

In 4th place, Samira Wiley as Angel in Blues for an Alabama Sky, National Theatre, Lyttelton Theatre, in October.

In 3rd place, Monica Dolan as Sister Aloysius in Doubt, at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in January 2022.

In 2nd place, Nicola Walker as Miss Moffat in The Corn is Green, at the National Theatre, Lyttelton Theatre, in May.

In 1st place, Jenna Russell as Susan in Woman in Mind, at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in October.

 

Best Performance by an Actor in a Play.

Like last time, this is one of this year’s most hotly contested awards, with seventeen contenders in my shortlist, and here is the top five:

In 5th place, Arthur Hughes as Richard III in Henry VI Rebellion/Wars of the Roses/Richard III, at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, in May and July.

In 4th place, Simon Russell Beale as Borkman in John Gabriel Borkman, at the Bridge Theatre, London, in  November.

In 3rd place, Ralph Fiennes as Robert Moses in Straight Line Crazy, at the Bridge Theatre, London, in March.

In 2nd place, Shubham Saraf as Godse in The Father and the Assassin, at the National Theatre, Olivier Theatre in May.

In 1st place, Reece Shearsmith as Peter in The Unfriend, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, in June.

 

Congratulations to the winners, commiserations to the losers and thanks for your company again throughout the year, gentle reader. Let’s look forward to a 2023 crammed with theatrical brilliance!

Review – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Sir Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 6th February 2022

Royal Philharmonic OrchestraIt’s a welcome return to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal and Derngate for one of their increasingly traditional winter matinees! It was a very varied programme of British music, presented in front of a nicely full house – in part due to the presence of the Northampton Bach Choir, more of whom later. The stage jutted forward into the auditorium more than usual so as to accommodate the choir, but the RPO also filled the stage with more musicians than I’ve seen since before the pandemic – and it was wonderful to hear again the sound only a truly full orchestra can make.

Adrian PartingtonOur conductor for the afternoon was Adrian Partington, a dignified and avuncular-looking chap, with a deceptively laid back and unhurried style that nevertheless galvanised the orchestra into a very exciting and dynamic performance.

First off, we heard William Walton’s Portsmouth Point Overture, an instantly arresting piece that delights and surprises. The orchestra took the opportunity to throw themselves into its irreverence and nautical naughtiness and it was a fantastic start to the proceedings.

After a spot of on-stage chair reallocations and repositioning, our next piece was Edward Elgar’s Introduction and Allegro for Strings, Op 47. It’s another very arresting, very tuneful piece that demands full commitment from its string leadership, and First Violinist Tamas Andras and Second Violinist David O’Leary (I think – it’s hard to identify individuals when they’re masked!) put in a terrific performance.

The nature of the programme meant that the interval came rather early in the afternoon, as those first two pieces barely last longer than twenty minutes together. However, that was probably unavoidable considering the main item in the programme that took up all of the second half – Sir Karl Jenkins’ The Armed Man: A Mass for Peace. Both the composer and the piece were new to me, although having read Sir Karl’s Wikipedia page I realise I must have heard a good deal of his music as he has collaborated with some of the most significant figures in modern music.

Rebecca BottoneThe Armed Man is an extraordinarily thrilling piece of music, taking its audience on a journey from the beginnings of war, faith to see us safely through war, to the bloody reality of war, its devastating aftermath and the realisation that Better is Peace. It was a superb performance by all the orchestra, and the choir, full of highlights. I loved the gripping percussion throughout, from the ominous war-drumming at the beginning, to the occasional surprise outburst of drums and percussion to signify gunfire. Our soprano soloist, Rebecca Bottone, was sensational in all her contributions to the piece, but perhaps most eloquently and effectively in the Angry Flames section, a sung poem by Hiroshima victim Togi Sankichi; I don’t think I’ve ever heard the word “smoke” given such power and menace.

Northampton Bach ChoirCellist Jonathan Ayling received a particularly enthusiastic round of applause for his performance in the Benedictus, wringing more pity and sorrow out of a melody than you ever thought possible. As for the Northampton Bach Choir, they gave it their all as they always do; their singing of the opening section, The Armed Man, was truly haunting as it built with its repetitions, and I particularly enjoyed their performance of the Charge! Section – exciting, dangerous, riveting. Sadly The Call to Prayers (Adhaan) section was omitted for some reason, I can only assume that the Muezzin, Naeem Mahmood, was unavailable.

A thunderously enjoyable performance of a dramatic and intense piece; we loved it, and would love to hear it again! Hopefully it won’t be long before the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra make a return visit to Northampton.

P. S. I repeat my plea from the last Royal Philharmonic performance back in October 2021. Please can we go back to having old style proper printed programmes? I hate these digital things!

And here are the last lot of old theatre and dance memories! September to December 2009

  1. Separate Tables – Festival Theatre, Chichester, 26th September 2009

Rattigan’s masterpiece double bill of Table by the Window and Table Number Seven were brought to life by Philip Franks’ excellent production, starring Iain Glen as John Malcolm/Major Pollock and Gina McKee as Anne Shankland/Sybil Railton-Bell. The superb cast also included Stephanie Cole, Deborah Findlay, Josephine Tewson and John Nettleton. Traditional English theatre doesn’t get much more traditional or English!

  1. Mixed up North – Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 1st October 2009

Out of Joint presented Robin Soans’ entertaining play: from the back of the playscript, “Trish leads a youth theatre group designed to bring Asian and white teenagers together. As the harassed and heavily pregnant director Bella struggles to share her artistic vision with a cast who thing acting is “gay”, the compelling stories of the young stars unfold.” I remember this as being an extremely good play and a great production.

 

 

  1. Mark Morris Dance Group – Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 21st October 2009

It was always a delight to see the Mark Morris Dance Group, here with a UK tour that comprised of Italian Concerto, Going Away Party, Three Preludes, and Grand Duo; all dances choreographed by Mark Morris. Fantastic entertainment.

 

 

 

 

  1. Talent – Menier Chocolate Factory, London, 1st November 2009

Moving over two evenings of excellent stand-up on the Derngate stage, with Alistair McGowan on 26th and Julian Clary on 28th October, our next play was Victoria Wood’s Talent at the Menier. This was the play that Wood originally wrote for herself and Julie Walters set in the 70s. When I booked it, it hadn’t occurred to me that the production would have actors pretending to be Victoria Wood and Julie Walters playing the roles of Julie and Maureen. The result was a ghastly mix up that I absolutely hated! I’m still surprised that it was directed by Victoria Wood; the characters should have taken on a new life rather than simply being re-enactments of Wood and Walters. Awful!

  1. Spring Storm – Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 3rd November 2009

Artistic Director of the Royal and Derngate, Laurie Sansom, launched a Young America season with two early plays by established and revered American dramatists, both performed by the same cast in repertory. First was Spring Storm, an early Tennessee Williams play, and it was magnificent.

 

 

 

  1. Prick Up Your Ears – Comedy Theatre, London, 8th November 2009

Simon Bent’s play about the relationship – fatal as it happens – between playwright Joe Orton and wannabe writer Kenneth Halliwell was based on John Lahr’s excellent biography of Orton (of the same name), and was brought to amazing life by most convincing performances by Chris New as Orton and Con O’Neill as Halliwell. Riveting throughout.

  1. Beyond the Horizon – Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 13th November 2009

The second part of Laurie Sansom’s Young America season was Beyond the Horizon, an early play by one of my playwright heroes, Eugene O’Neill. Fascinating to get a chance to see a relatively lost play – I loved it.

 

 

  1. Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 30th November 2009

Three more comedy nights followed, with Stephen K Amos on 16th November, Rob Brydon on 28th November and another Screaming Blue Murder on  26th November. After that, our next show was our first time seeing the RPO on one of their regular visits to Northampton, and this is another something that has become a regular feature of our theatre entertainment over the subsequent years. The RPO, under the baton of Nicolae Moldoveanu, and accompanied by the Northampton Bach Choir and the Daventry Choral Society, performed Bruch’s Violin Concerto No 1 and Beethoven’s Symphony No 9. Fantastic – and we were hooked.

  1. Rambert Dance Company, Comedy of Change Tour – Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 3rd December 2009

Rambert’s 2009 tour comprised Henri Oguike’s Tread Softly, Mark Baldwin’s Comedy of Change and Siobhan Davies’ Carnival of the Animals. A wonderful selection of challenging dance and crowd pleasers.

  1. Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs – Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 26th December 2009

We took our nieces, their parents and the inlaws to see Northampton’s big family panto which starred Linda Lusardi as Queen Lucrietia and Sam Kane as Prince Michael. Pete Hillier was Muddles, and Emily Shaw Snow White. A very enjoyable and glamorous panto. Great fun.

And from 1st January 2010 I started my blog, so if you want to catch up on any more old shows, simply go to the date index on the blog and read at your leisure!

Review – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Jamie Phillips conducts Elgar’s Enigma Variations, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 15th October 2021

RPO Enigma VariationsThis isn’t the first concert by the Royal Philharmonic at the Royal and Derngate since we started to emerge tentatively out of our lockdown cocoons, but conductor Jamie Phillips’ warm welcome to us all made it feel like it. Unlike the last concert, Spotlight on Strings, which had a reduced sized and socially distanced orchestra and audience, this time the Derngate stage took the full whack of the complete cast of musicians and there’s no denying it’s a complete thrill to listen to that number of people playing together again.

The aforementioned Jamie Phillips is a trendy sort of chap, with matching red glasses and socks, whose appearance put me in mind of Trevor Horn during his Buggles phase. He cajoles the orchestra to feel their way into the music with encouraging facial expressions and has (literally) a spring in his step for every new movement. You can see him a little like a young father who’s incredibly proud of his musical progenies, making sure each member of the orchestra gets their chance to shine.

Jamie PhillipsThe programme for the concert of English, Norwegian and German music was an entertaining mix of the familiar and not-so-familiar. We started with Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No 1 Opus 46,  opening with its glorious Morning Mood, then the sombre Death of Ase, the exotically beguiling Anitra’s Dance and finally the sinister and ultimately threatening In The Hall of the Mountain King. You got the feeling that each member of the orchestra knew this piece like the back of their hand, but even so the goosebumps began to rise with that last section, when the violins truly went into a frenzy of bowing. A perfect choice to start the evening’s entertainment.

Next, we had Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor, Opus 64, with our soloist Irène Duval. Mlle Duval wears a serious demeanour in preparation for a piece, and it wasn’t long before she was treating Mendelssohn’s notes and phrases with admirable assertiveness. Her playing was – it goes without saying – astounding, but I would say she treated the first two movements with respect and determination, but let fly with the emotions in the final movement, where she made the vivacious and infectious tune truly swing. It was almost as though she had left the concert hall and we were now present at a huge celebration party. It was superbly enjoyable. It ended with an unexpected false coda; orchestra leader Tamas Andras got up to Irene Duvallead the orchestra off into the interval only to come face to face with Mlle Duval returning to perform an encore. “Oh you’ve come back!” he said in surprise, as his face grew redder and redder over the next five minutes, whilst she performed a piece I didn’t recognise. The admiration on the faces of some of the violinists at the quality of her performance was a joy to behold.

After the interval, we started with another piece that was not familiar to me – the Prelude from Delius’ Irmelin, his first opera. Not only had I not heard this piece, I hadn’t even heard of it. It’s delightful, wistful, fresh, and Spring-like, and the RPO’s performance was instantly appealing and beautiful.

RPOThen came the main event, Elgar’s Enigma Variations, always a thrilling, stirring and emotional piece. However, I have to say, I felt that the pace of the performance was enormously fast. There are movements in Enigma that can withstand a super speedy performance, but there are others where you really need to relax to let the piece breathe, like a fine wine. There was also a pause after Nimrod that made it feel as though it had been split into a two movement concerto. It emphatically isn’t that; it’s a theme followed by 13 variations each of which is a portrait of a character, and by definition, I think each portrait should carry equal weight. For me, the performance lacked a little in the emotional department, the attention being focused on power and pizzazz. The performance came in at just about 30 minutes; that’s just my little quibble.

The RPO return on 6th February 2022 for another concert. We’ll be there – will you?

P. S. I’d really love it if we could go back to having the old-style programmes. Digital downloads put the onus on us to use lots of printer ink and the paper gets so crumpled during the performance that you can’t really use it as a souvenir! Please can we go back to the old programmes? Please??

A few more theatre and dance memories for you from July to September 2009

  1. The Revengers’ Comedies Parts One and Two – Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 11th July 2009

The Royal and Derngate’s 70th birthday celebrations for Alan Ayckbourn continued with his two part comedy The Revengers’ Comedies, performed in the studio Underground theatre by the Community Actors Group. We saw it on the Saturday where Part One was performed at the matinee and Part Two in the evening. An extremely funny play, performed to perfection by the group.

 

 

  1. Man of the Moment – Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 5th August 2009

The last of the big three shows in the Ayckbourn celebration season was Man of the Moment, a blisteringly funny and savage play that starred Kim Wall, Matthew Cottle and Malcolm Sinclair, and directed by Ayckbourn himself. It put the finishing touches to a perfect season.

 

 

  1. The Winter’s Tale – Royal Shakespeare Company at the Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 15th August 2009

David Farr’s production of what I always find a difficult Shakespearean comedy starred Greg Hicks as Leontes, Kelly Hunter as Hermione, Darrell D’Silva as Polixenes Samantha Young as Perdita and Tunji Kasim as Florizel. The Courtyard Theatre was a temporary theatre to give the Royal Shakespeare Company a home base whilst the Royal Shakespeare Theatre was being redeveloped. Can’t remember much about the production but I think it was considered a success.

  1. Romeo and Juliet – Oxford Shakespeare Company at Wadham College, Oxford, 22nd August 2009

Shakespeare’s lovers’ tragedy was re-imagined as a pair of warring Oxford families in the summer of 1959. Guy Retallack’s inventive production was very effective with fabulous attention to contemporary detail.

  1. Forbidden Broadway – Menier Chocolate Factory, London, 23rd August 2009

The Smash-Hit Broadway revue came to London with a bang, and a fantastic cast of Anna-Jane Casey, Sophie-Louise Dann, Alasdair Harvey and Steven Kynman. No Broadway/West End musical is beyond ridicule in this wonderfully funny revue. It helps if you know the shows it lampoons, but even if you don’t it’s still hysterical. Absolutely brilliant.

  1. The 39 Steps – Criterion Theatre, London, 31st August 2009

Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of the old wartime spy story had already been playing at the Criterion for three years before we finally got to see it. A fantastically funny spoof, performed with incredible gusto by John Hopkins, Stephen Critchlow, Stephen Ventura and Natalie Walter. A very successful production originally performed at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.

  1. BBC Proms No 67 – BBC National Orchestra of Wales at the Royal Albert Hall, London, 5th September 2009

Jac van Steen conducted the BBC National Orchestra of Wales at this Saturday night Prom, with David Pyatt on horn. The programme started with Janacek’s Cunning Little Vixen suite, then the London Premiere of John McCabe’s Horn Concerto, Rainforest IV, and then after the interval, Dvorak’s Symphony No 9. A fantastic night of classical music.

 

  1. Screaming Blue Murder – Underground at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 10th September 2009

This was our first ever experience of a Screaming Blue Murder show; hosted (almost certainly – I don’t know the line up that night) by Dan Evans, with three fantastic comics and two superb intervals. Once we started going to these shows we couldn’t stop – and we still regularly go twelve years later.

  1. Last Night of the Proms – BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall, London, 12th September 2009

As I had done on many previous occasions, I entered the ballot for a couple of tickets to the Last Night of the Proms – and, lo and behold, we were successful! Here’s the programme: Oliver Knussen, Flourish with Fireworks; Purcell (arr. Wood) New Suite; Purcell, Dido and Aeneas closing scene; Haydn, Trumpet Concerto in E flat Major; Mahler, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen; Villa-Lobos, Choros No 10 “Rasga o coracao”; Arnold, A Grand Grand Overture; Ketelbey, In a Monastery Garden; Gershwin (arr Forgie) Shall We Dance “They Can’t Take that Away from Me”; Piazzolla (arr Milone) Libertango; BBC Proms Inspire 2009 Young Composers, Fanfares for the Last Night; Handel, Music for the Royal Fireworks excerpts; Arne, Rule Britannia; Parry, Jerusalem; Elgar, Pomp and Circumstance March No 1; National Anthem; Auld Lang Syne. Probably a once in a lifetime experience.

  1. Thank You For the Music, A Celebration of the music of Abba – Hyde Park, London, 13th September 2009

We stayed over in London after the Last Night of the Proms and went to Hyde Park on the Sunday to see this celebration of Abba. A huge list of stars gathered to play Abba, with Bjorn and Benny also present for some of the songs. A great night out.

Review – Spotlight on Strings, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 16th June 2021

Spotlight on StringsIt’s heart-warming to welcome the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – or at least the string section – back to the Royal and Derngate for their first concert here in over 16 months; yes, who would have known that Dvorak’s New World Symphony on 9th February last year would have marked the last of the RPO’s classical treats for us all this time until it’s just about safe enough to put our (fully-masked) heads above the parapet?

In these uncertain times, it’s impractical (and potentially dangerous) for too many musicians to rehearse and perform together, let alone have a full audience in to enjoy their show. So this programme of three pieces of string music, performed by a group of 25 musicians, is the perfect way to try to reintroduce classical performance to our wounded live entertainment industry.

RPO StringsFor this socially-distanced performance we couldn’t take our usual seats in row H of the stalls but decided to plonk ourselves right down at the front – in any event, an interesting experiment to gauge the difference of sound (if any). Verdict: it’s not quite as rich a sound that you get further back but you do feel like one of the orchestra! Duncan Riddell, the RPO’s regular Leader, was in charge of letting the strings swing in a 75 minute, no interval, programme of music from all over Europe.

In the absence of a proper programme – presumably a Covid Cutback – it fell to Duncan to introduce the first piece. He started to welcome us, but not using the microphone stand on the middle of the stage. “Can’t hear you – use the mic” said someone from behind. So he did, but reluctantly as he said that now that he has used the mic no one else can – one of those Covid rules – and he had intended someone else to use it later. The performing arts are just full of Covid problems!

Duncan RiddellOur first piece was Edvard Grieg’s Holberg Suite, written in 1884 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the famous Danish-Norwegian playwright Ludvig Holberg (err…who??) Originally composed for piano, Grieg adapted it for strings the following year. I confess it was new to me, but it’s a delightful composition in five movements. For the Rigaudon final section, I was expecting something akin to the Norwegian Dance No 2 – or as I know it, Freddy and his Fiddle from the Song of Norway. But no, it was much more like the hornpipe in Pomp and Circumstance. Beautifully done though, with Duncan turning forwards into full performance mode for his virtuoso bits.

Next up was Mendelssohn’s String Symphony No 10, introduced by Principal Second Violin Andrew Storey;  a short, lively piece written in B minor, and all in one movement. Felix Mendelssohn was a bright kid and wrote this String Symphony in the 1820s when he was aged just 14. I thought the guys on the double bass added significantly to this performance, great stuff sirs!

RPO1-300x200Our last piece – the Headline Act if you like – was Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, introduced by (I think) Jonathan Ayling, Co-Principal Cello. It’s a wonderful 1880 composition, in four movements. It starts with a Sonatina style piece in homage to Mozart; then a well-known waltz is the second movement, an Elegie follows, and finally an ending that borrows from some Russian folk tunes. Allegedly Tchaikovsky liked this to be played by as large a group of string musicians as possible, but I’m sure he would have been thrilled to have these 25 players giving it their all as they did. It was absorbing, luscious and exquisite.

As a thank you for coming, they generously gave us an encore – the slow movement from Elgar’s Serenade for Strings. Hugely entertaining and a great return, the audience were thrilled to have the orchestra back, and the orchestra seemed to be thrilled to have the audience back. Win, win! It felt safe, comfortable, friendly and intimate – the personal chats from the individual musicians were a really nice touch that more than made up for the lack of programme! Above all, it was a great privilege to witness the return of the Royal Philharmonic to the Royal and Derngate. They are back again next Wednesday with The Music of Bond. We can’t be there, sadly, but that shouldn’t stop you!

More theatre memories? OK but they’re mainly dance! September 2000 to May 2001

  1. BBC Proms in the Park – Hyde Park, London, 9th September 2000

I wasn’t sure if I should add this or not, but then if I’m including Proms inside the Albert Hall, why not include Proms in the Park outside the Albert Hall! The perfect alternative to getting those hotly contested last night tickets, we enjoyed a beautiful day in the sunshine with picnic and champers, plus great entertainment from Bjorn Again, The Chieftains, Georgie Fame, Julian Lloyd Webber, Willard White and Angela Gheorghiu. All topped off by the BBC Concert Orchestra, and hosted (of course) by Terry Wogan. Fantastic!

  1. Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo – Milton Keynes Theatre, 12th September 2000

Every show by the Trocks is different, even if they do the same dances as before! This programme started with Les Sylphides; then after an interval, Cross Currents, Go for Barocco and The Dying Swan, finally ending up with Paquita. All as skilful and stunning as they are hilarious. The terminal fowl was executed, as usual in those days, by Ida Nevasayneva. Nothing more to say!

  1. Defending the Caveman – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 15th September 2000

Rob Becker’s beautifully written one-man play was toured the world over by Australian Mark Little, at the time best known for his appearances in the TV soap Neighbours. Defending the Caveman is a really clever show that highlights the differences between men and women, presented from a man’s point of view, but always respectful and entertaining. Great stuff!

  1. Rambert Dance Company Autumn & Winter Tour – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 6th October 2000

Back again for another helping of Rambert, with a slightly unusual programme of two longer dance pieces: Mats Ek’s She was Black and Christopher Bruce’s Sergeant Early’s Dream. Dream was performed to live music from the Sergeant Early Band. The fantastic (slightly smaller than usual) group of dancers included favourites Hope Muir, Glenn Wilkinson, Vincent Redmon, and Simon Cooper.

  1. Graham Norton – Lively – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 8th October 2000

After seeing Victoria Wood a few years earlier, this was our second foray into the world of stand-up comedy on stage, and Graham Norton’s comedy gig was absolutely excellent. He had the also excellent Jo Caulfield as his support act. At the time he was just gathering success with his So Graham Norton TV show – little did we know how he would grow to dominate the TV and radio for decades!

  1. Richard Alston Dance Company – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 24th October 2000

Our third trip to see Richard Alston’s annual tour, the programme featured a selection of Alston’s pieces set to classical musical. Waltzes in Disorder, with music by Brahms, was followed by Tremor, with music by Shostakovich, and finally The Signal of a Shake, set to music by Handel. The line up of dancers included Martin Lawrance, David McCormick and Diana Loosmore.

  1. Mark Baldwin Dance Company – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 14th February 2001

A four month gap till our next show, a Valentine’s night trip to the Wycombe Swan to see the Mark Baldwin Dance Company in a programme of works all choreographed by Baldwin: Danses Concertantes, The Bird Sings with its Fingers, and The State. This show was a collaboration with the full scale orchestra, Sinfonia 21. Among the dancers was Laurent Cavanna, whose work we had admired when he danced with Rambert.

 

 

  1. Jekyll and Hyde – Northern Ballet Theatre at the Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 30th March 2001

Another trip to see strong modern ballet with the contemporary twist of the Northern Ballet, in a dance version of the famous story choreographed  by Massimo Moricone. Jekyll was danced by Hironao Takahashi and Hyde by the late Jonathan Ollivier. I confess I don’t have too many memories of this.

  1. Moscow City Ballet perform Swan Lake – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 1st May 2001

Classical ballet on a grand scale, the Moscow City Ballet’s production of Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece had all the little touches you would expect from this company that brings the atmosphere of the true Russian ballet on its regular tours.

  1. Nederlands Dans Theater 2 – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 20th May 2001

Another visit to see NDT2 touring, at the time one of favourite dance companies – the youth department of the NDT. The programme started with Dream Play, choreographed by Johan Inger, to music from Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring; then Said and Done, a new dance from Paul Lightfoot and Sol Leon to the music of Bach; and finally crowd pleaser Ohad Naharin’s Minus 16, set to fun 1950s tunes. A brilliant and memorable night’s dance.

 

More theatre memories? More, you say? July to December 1998

  1. The Real Inspector Hound and Black Comedy – Comedy Theatre, London, 18th July 1998

A fantastic double bill of one act comedies written by masters of the genre when they were at their freshest and funniest. Stoppard’s Real Inspector Hound involves two theatre critics watching a whodunit when one of them bizarrely gets physically involved as a character in the play; Peter Shaffer’s Black Comedy is a comedy of errors (literally) when a fuse goes and plunges a group of people into darkness – yet of course, that’s the moment the stage lights go on and we see the confusion. Greg Doran’s brilliant production for the Yvonne Arnaud theatre had transferred to the Comedy for a season, and starred David Tennant, Nichola McAuliffe, Anna Chancellor, Gary Waldhorn and Desmond Barritt. We were in hysterics.

  1. Prom No 71 – BBC Proms, Royal Albert Hall, London, 10th September 1998

Passing over that year’s Pendley Festival production of Love’s Labour’s Lost, our next show was in fact a concert – and the first time that I’d a) been to a Prom and b) been inside the Royal Albert Hall. The BBC National Orchestra of Wales, together with the BBC National Chorus of Wales, conducted by Mark Elder and with Valdine Anderson, soprano, tackled a very entertaining programme. First was Stravinsky’s Scherzo Fantastique, then came Szymanowski’s Songs of a Fairy tale Princess and then Debussy’s Jeux. After the interval we were treated to a magnificent performance of Holst’s Planets. I was really excited to see my first Prom and have continued to enjoy classical concerts much more ever since.

  1. Explosive Dance – Royal Albert Hall, London, 15th September 1998

We were back at the Albert Hall the following week to see a dance extravaganza in aid of the Red Cross’s anti-personnel Landmines Campaign, dedicated to the late Diana, Princess of Wales. This was a very expensive show and we could only afford the cheapest seats which were way up in the gods. The view was so poor and distant that there was, frankly, little point in our being there.

It was an incredible line-up though, starting with a sequence from the line dancing show Bootscoot, Tamara Rojo and Dmitri Gruzdyev from the English National Ballet with a scene from Don Quixote, Antonio Marquez and Dancers, Antonia Franceschi and Matthew Hart dancing to Cry Baby Kreisler (that we had seen at a Dance Bites show in 1997), Deborah Bull and Ashley Page from the Royal Ballet dancing Walk and Talk; the Jiving Lindy Hoppers, Viviana Durante and Irek Mukhamedov from the Royal Ballet with a pas de deux from Manon; Club Salsa, A scene from AMP’s Swan Lake with Adam Cooper and Scott Ambler; Wayne Sleep and Dancers with Chaplin, Darcey Bussell and Igor Zelensky from the Royal Ballet with a pas de deux from Le Corsaire, and finally highlights from Riverdance. All types of dance were there, and it was a brilliant show – at least, it would have been, if we could have seen it properly!

  1. Richard Alston Dance Company – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 8th October 1998

This was our first ever visit to a programme of dance performed by the Richard Alston Dance Company, who would go on to be one of our topmost favourite companies for over twenty years. Little did we know! The first dance was Brisk Singing, to music by Rameau, then we saw Light Flooding into Darkened Rooms, and finally Rumours, Visions set to music by Benjamin Britten. Leading the company was the fantastic Martin Lawrance, and all the pieces were choreographed by Richard Alston. The start of a long dance love affair!

  1. Things we do for Love – Duchess Theatre, London, 12th October 1998

Always interested to see a new Alan Ayckbourn comedy, but I confess the details of this one are a little hazy. An engaged couple move in with one of their old school friends, with disastrous consequences. An excellent cast was led by Belinda Lang and Alexander Hanson.

  1. Good Grief – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 16th October 1998

Penelope Keith starred in this new play by Keith Waterhouse, adapted from his original novel of the same name. It’s about the fallout after June Pepper (Ms Keith)’s husband, a gritty no-nonsense newspaper editor, dies. I’m afraid I can’t remember much about it. The excellent cast also featured Christopher Godwin and David Firth.

  1. Popcorn – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 12th November 1998

Another play that had been adapted from an earlier novel, Ben Elton’s farcical Reservoir Dogs-style story about murderers and stationery was well directed by Laurence Boswell, with a cast that included John Bowler, Paul Brennan and Liza Sadovy. Again, my memories are scant but I do know that we enjoyed it a lot.

  1. Rambert Dance Company Autumn Programme – Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 3rd December 1998

A great programme here combining some new exciting work with an old favourite. First up was Three Gone, Four Left Standing, choreographed, lit, and with costumes by Rafael Bonachela; then we saw Jiri Kylian’s No More Play. After the first interval we saw Christopher Bruce’s Four Scenes, and then at the end it was the crowd-pleasing Axioma 7, choreographed by Ohad Naharin and with the full cast of dancers. This amazing team included so many of my favourite dancers: Laurent Cavanna, Marie Laure Agrapart, Paul Liburd, Hope Muir, Rafael Bonachela, Glenn Wilkinson, Matthew Hart, Vincent Redmon, Christopher Powney and Simon Cooper.

  1. Alarms and Excursions – Gielgud Theatre, London, 11th December 1998

For Mrs C’s birthday treat we saw this highly entertaining show written by Michael Frayn and described as “more plays than one”. Although the critics didn’t think much of it, we loved it, and also thought the cast – Felicity Kendal, Nicky Henson, Josie Lawrence and Robert Bathurst – were terrific. We still laugh at the memory of Ms Kendal at a business conference struggling to hold her briefcase, her coffee and her notes. Very funny.

  1. The Invention of Love – Theatre Royal, Haymarket, London, 30th December 1998

The excellent John Wood led the cast as A E Housman in this hugely successful National Theatre production, that won the Evening Standard award for Best Play and had already been running for over a year in the West End. It also featured the excellent John Carlisle and David Ryall, and featured a young Kris Marshall low down the cast list. Not too many memories of it, I must confess, but it sounds good!

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