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

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

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 Naturally, some awards have had to be withdrawn this year, due to a lack of shows – but we’ll cross that bridge when we come to it.

 

Are you all sitting comfortably?

 

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

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

 

Classical Music Concert of the Year.

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

 

Best Entertainment Show of the Year.

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

 

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

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

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

 

Best Star Standup of the Year.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Best Musical.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Best New Play.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Best Revival of a Play.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Best Local Production

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

 

Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical.

Eight performances in the shortlist, producing this top five:

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

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

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

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

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

 

Best Performance by an Actress in a Play.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Best Performance by an Actor in a Play.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Theatre of the Year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review – Ahir Shah, Dress, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 27th November 2021

Ahir Shah DressWe saw Ahir Shah’s Dots show at the Edinburgh Fringe and enjoyed his cunning blend of intelligent and political comedy so much that he won the Chrisparkle Award for Best Stand Up in Edinburgh for 2019. Naturally we decided to book for his next show, Dress, particularly as we wouldn’t have to go all the way up to Edinburgh to see him!

For Dress, Mr Shah has made a reminiscence compilation of the various stages of the last 18 months or so, and is a personal account of his lockdown/pandemic journey. We’ve all had one of these, so it’s easy for us to identify with his sequence of highs and lows, reliving the emotions, idiocies and tragedies that the last two years have dealt us. He also reflects the pandemic through a political viewpoint, making no secret of his Labour leanings and his revulsion of All Things Tory.

Ahir Shah DotsHe’s pretty much up to date, with his speculation that who knew how cheap it was to buy a Tory MP – only 100k for Owen Patterson, and he’s a proper “Shropshire White”; you would have thought they’d run into seven figures at least. His dream is to be rich enough to buy a Tory and still have Communist kids; and, if lockdowns continue, being a house-husband is a thoroughly rewarding way of life (having done it myself I can completely concur). Having spent much of 2020 cooped up at home with a go-getting but work-from-home girlfriend, he discovered the joys of soup-making and repositioning ornaments, and was never happier. We all had our own ways of coping with lockdown!

He’s a very engaging and charming chap on stage; his voice has a warmth of plummy poshness that isn’t so much evocative of a Rees-Mogg, but reminds me more of the young Tom Conti in The Norman Conquests, tittering at his own naughtiness and getting away with murder because he suggests it so politely. He’s excellent at interacting with the audience, chatting effortlessly with property developer Remy and charity-entrepreneur Sam in the front row; only for them to realise they are old friends neither of whom knew the other was going to be there that night – true serendipity! He also reinforces the fact that there has to be an interval for no other reason than, in the post-pandemic financial situation, the venue needs the income from the bar. Culture thrives on our alcoholism. At least that meant he could sample a pint of local Phipps IPA.

Despite his frequent forays into the audience, Dress is a closely-constructed, deftly scripted routine, jam-packed with callbacks and delivered with terrific comic precision. It’s a very positive show; he tells us about meeting his dad outside Tate Modern for a socially-distanced reunion just as it started to become possible to do such a thing – and I have to say I found it quite an emotional tale. If you were there at the theatre, or if you’re here reading this, the one thing we have in common is that we have all survived this far somehow. Mr Shah’s message is to cherish that fact and consider what’s gone before as a dress rehearsal for what’s to come. Enjoyable, intelligent, reflective, and with plenty to laugh about. After a couple of months’ break, his tour continues at the end of January into March. Recommended!

Review – Paul Chowdhry, Family-Friendly Comedian, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 23rd November 2021

PAUL-CHOWDHRY-FAMILY-FRIENDLYPaul Chowdhry, the legendary sweet-talkin’ bastard, comes on stage and advises us that, if we’d seen him before here at the Royal and Deansgate (sic) in Live Innit (we had), or What’s Happening White People (we hadn’t – but he didn’t mention PC’s World, which we had), he’s now a completely different person from the one before. He has reinvented himself as a family-friendly comedian. And then he proceeds to lambast the front row with a series of what I presume are Hindi swear words and body-part slang terms. He was only teasing. He hasn’t changed.

Rory O'HanlonBut I’m jumping ahead of myself because the show started with his support act, Rory O’Hanlon. We knew we’d seen him recently but couldn’t quite place when – turns out it was in the back garden of the Black Prince three months ago. He’s a terrific comic, with a typical Dublin gift of the gab, and with some very funny material. Sadly – for us – 90% of his act was what we had heard in August, so we were left to admire his comedic skills rather than actually laugh out loud at the material, as we had done the first time. Presumably he was new to everyone else as he went down a storm in the audience. With a very serendipitous turn of events, he had been bad-mouthing how horrible Coventry is, when a group of rowdy chaps turned up late and made their way to the middle of the front row. Where have you come from, asked Mr O’H. Coventry, came the answer. Thus a major part of the groundwork was set for the whole evening.

Paul Chowdhry Live InnitAfter the interval, and the Coventry guys had got even more tanked up, Paul Chowdhry must have looked down on the rowdy Sikhs in the front row waving their lagers at him, and thought this is going to be a doddle. Time and again, during the course of the evening, he went back to them to take the mickey in the way that really only Mr C can. Ridiculing their speech, their behaviour, their protestations of sobriety, everything; it’s amazing how he can be so directly aggressive to individual audience members – and they love it. And so do the rest of the audience. If you go to see a Paul Chowdhry gig, so much of your time with this extraordinarily skilled and quick-witted comic will be spent with him trading the most dangerous banter with the audience, getting away with murder, spreading the comedy of offence far and wide, and, against all odds, it works so well.

Paul ChowdhryTwo things help here; one is Mr C’s superb mimicry skills, which allow him to populate his chat with a range of stereotype accents, from his posh Susan and Giles voices, and his Neanderthal Dave voice, to a full panoply of Asian imitations. His voices can be hectoring, whining, intimidating, offended, and so on; in other words, all the emotions, in all the races. The other is that he attracts such a wide variety of audience members from all races, all ages, and, particularly useful, all family groupings. Nothing can give him more scope than an extended Asian family of parents, aunties, uncles, kids, grannies and so on. As he pointed out, the lockdown rules where you could only meet six people at a time were specifically for white people. For Bengalis, six people constitutes the queue for the bathroom.

Paul ChowdhryThe show wasn’t just a sequence of audience interactions with no interconnecting theme other than insults; not quite, at any rate. As part of the show, Mr C dwelt on everyone’s lockdown and pandemic experiences, including how we now do our best to suppress a cough, which, in the good old days, would have been an open invitation for the most wallowed-in, phlegmatic and catarrh-filled airway clearing exercise – as he frequently and very audibly demonstrated. He does a brilliant take-down of those who take their vaccination advice from Nicki Minaj – probably worth your ticket price alone  – and he fantasises about a Saudi Arabian version of TV’s Naked Attraction.

Paul Chowdhry on stageIf you’re like us, you’d probably think, “I know that Paul Chowdhry is a master of the comedy of offence, and I’m going to appreciate it for what it is, and not get offended”. Wrong. Despite our best efforts, we were offended on at least two occasions, and, as Mr C also tells us, it’s as white people being offended on behalf of others – whilst those “others” are probably not in the least offended. If it’s good to be challenged in the theatre, I can’t see why it shouldn’t be good to be challenged by comedy too.

Paul CAs when we saw Live Innit, I think it’s fair to say that I enjoyed it more than Mrs Chrisparkle. Whilst still laughing lots, she finds Mr C’s repetitive and aggressive style a little overwhelming – or her killer description, relentless – whereas I either don’t notice it, don’t mind it, or just find it funny. It’s a boy thing, innit. His tour is nearing its end, with a few more dates until Nottingham on 16th December. And, despite the title, don’t bring the kids.

Review – Jayde Adams, The Ballad of Kylie Jenner’s Old Face, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 20th November 2021

Jayde-AdamsI booked this show on a risky punt when it first went on sale, when it was pretty much at the height of the pandemic and I hadn’t booked a show for months, and I really needed the sense of having something new to look forward to when it was all over – not that we’re there yet. I hadn’t actually heard of Jayde Adams before; in fact, I’d still seen nothing new about her by the time we went to see Saturday’s show.

Ballad of Kylie Jenner's Old FaceBut that was my bad, as Ms Adams clearly has a devoted following, and a history of extravagant stage performances as was revealed in the opening part of The Ballad of Kylie Jenner’s Old Face, the significance of which title only became revealed as the show neared its end. I didn’t actually know who Kylie Jenner was either, but fortunately Ms Adams includes an explanatory segment for the over 50s in the show, which was damn useful. I did know the Kardashians were grotesque, but this really helped me understand just how grotesque they are.

The show is basically a comedy TED talk (or lecture, as we used to say in the old days) where Ms Adams grapples with her love/hate relationship with both the word and the concept of feminism. She loves it when it means what it’s meant to mean, and hates it when it is misappropriated by the likes of Beyonce and Jay-Z, as she revealed in a hilarious sequence describing a certain stage performance that took place (literally) Under That Word.

jayde-adams-serious black jumperShe also brings in the magical power of the Serious Black Jumper as part of her material (no pun intended). Having been advised that no one took her seriously when she was camping it up in catsuits, she donned a serious black jumper to gain gravitas and found that people’s reactions are so different. And it’s true! She gives us a number of examples of influential people wearing a serious black jumper and it certainly helps you take them seriously; especially when viewed side by side with the same person in mufti.

I mustn’t give the impression that this show is in any way po-faced or academically serious. It isn’t. It’s jam-packed full of laughs. Jayde Adams has a terrific interaction with the audience and a wonderfully natural comic persona, that’s part strong and self-assured, and part vulnerable and uncertain – just like most people really, so we identify with her easily (even us chaps).

Jayde AdamsTo conclude she ties feminism in with the concept of confidence, and gives us a healthy and positive definition of gaining confidence rather than relying on the outward fripperies of the likes of the Kardashians. It’s a powerful and overwhelmingly positive message and you leave the theatre buoyed up with dignity and optimism. And also having had a really good laugh – what more could you want? It’s always refreshing to enjoy intelligent, thoughtful comedy, and this show has it by the bucketful. This was almost the last night of the tour, just one more show left at Leicester Square – but she’s writing more material, so hopefully she’ll be touring again soon!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 19th November 2021

Screaming Blue MurderIt’s odd how the same format of three fabulous acts, two wonderful intervals and one marvellous compere can create a different vibe from show to show. There was something odd and ill at ease about October’s Screaming Blue Murder, but last Friday’s show was a crackeroony of a night. Host Dan Evans was on fine form indeed with his welcomes and entr’actes, mining the comedy out of the front rows, including Texaco Josh who was 29 but looked 13, Oundle Will who was 17 and looked 17, and Farmer Alice who, according to Dan, had to get up at 5am every day just to fill out all the refund forms, thus receiving the biggest laugh of the night.

Dan EvansAn innovative line-up featured two female comics and one male, which may be an indication of some progress where it comes to equality in comedy. We’d seen all the acts before, some more recently than others, and it’s interesting to see how they mixed and matched the same material we’ve seen before but to different effect.

Juliet MeyersFirst up was Juliet Meyers, whom I was expecting to use the C word within the first couple of minutes as she always does, but this time she didn’t – maybe she thought we were posher than we were. It wasn’t until she made a disparaging remark about our beloved Prime Minister, at which point Front Row Tom got up in a magnificent display of what appeared to be disgust which I think took us all slightly aback, only to get to the door to turn around and say by the way I agree, Boris Johnson is a massive c*nt (I may be paraphrasing). After that we were all relieved and Ms Meyers had the green light to use the C word as much as she wanted, and then everything fell nicely into place. Front Row Tom returned (he’d only nipped out to the loo), and Juliet got on with some great material about dogs’ unconditional love, Brexit in the canine world, and why men have become more tender in the bedroom. Great stuff.

James SherwoodNext up was James Sherwood, who reminds me of what David Mitchell would look like if he was just relaxing down the pub. He has a great interaction with the audience, very wry and dry, gently laconic and I really enjoyed his material regarding sex versus drugs and the pros and cons of both. He split up his act with a few musical jokes at the keyboard, which are his trademark, but for some reason they didn’t quite hit home in the way they have in the past. Nevertheless a good fun set.

Jenny CollierOur headline act was someone we’ve seen twice already this year, Jenny Collier, and I feared that listening to the same material again so soon after hearing it before would be a little disappointing. Not a bit of it. Ms Collier has honed this routine to perfection, working on the just the right words and intonations to make it as funny as possible – and she went down a complete storm. She is one of those comics who plays beautifully on her rather sweet and innocent appearance and contrasts it with the unexpected power of her material; a posh versus filthy balance, which she gauges perfectly. She uses her experience working in the NHS to great effect; has a great joke about a gag reflex; tells us about all the new Welsh words she learned this year; and ends up with a riotous routine about providing a stool sample. Left us all wanting a lot more – fabulous work.

That was the last Screaming Blue Murder for 2021, but, if we have unearnéd luck, we’ll all be back in January. See you there!

Review – Sarah Millican, Bobby Dazzler, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 11th November 2021

SarahMillican_BobbyDazzlerShe may be from South Shields, but I think we should welcome Sarah Millican in as one of Northampton’s adopted daughters, as her Bobby Dazzler show last night was the first of three that she will be performing at the Royal and Derngate (18th and 21st November shows still to come) as well as having had a couple of secret gigs in their Underground studio to hone the show into perfection as Work in Progress nights. Much more of this and she’ll be supporting the Cobblers and pronouncing Cogenhoe correctly.

Gearoid FarrellyShe came on to do a little welcoming warm up before introducing her support act, Gearoid Farrelly. A name new to us, he’s a cheeky chap from the Emerald Isle, with a confiding style and ebullient personality, who spun some entertaining tales of seeing Shania Twain in Dublin (not to be recommended apparently, although primarily not because of Shania Twain) and how a gay man’s insecurities come to the fore when having to deal with a “real man” in a DIY store. Good delivery, heaps of confidence and he did a great job.

Sarah MillicanWhen Sarah Millican returned she encountered a bit of a problem – a loud, drunken woman in the upper boxes who had no compunction about constantly engaging in conversation with her. Not a heckle, nothing spiteful, but an absolute bloody nuisance. Several times she stopped Ms Millican in her flow and it really sapped the energy of the audience and made us feel uncomfortable. She wasn’t deterred by Sarah’s put-downs or admonitions, but, fortunately, she was eventually encouraged to sober up somewhere outside (preferably at home) – pity that didn’t happen sooner rather than later.

Sarah MillicanOnce that was out of the way, it left Sarah Millican free rein to discuss all her favourite usual topics – the things that happen to a woman in her mid-40s, interaction (both domestic and romantic) with her husband, fondness for confectionary self-indulgence, and the confidence to be herself, which she transmits to the audience, boosting our self-confidence too.

Sarah MThere’s probably no other comic in the world who’s so comfortable discussing the most private aspects of the human body – especially the female of the species. We’ve all got bodies, we’ve all got bits and bobs of various shapes and sizes, and Sarah Millican has no inhibitions when it comes to using them as items of mirth. Not content with leaving it there, she lingers over the smells, textures and general misfunctions that flesh is undoubtedly heir to. As a result, her material reflects everyone’s experience, and the laughter she creates is that of personal recognition. No human condition is out of bounds, resulting in the laughter frequently extending into groans of delighted disgust and general ewww, while Ms Millican, her face a picture of innocence, waits for us to regain our composure.

Sarah MillicanThe show is precisely scripted, with well-planned callbacks and deft use of mots justes, all apart from one section, where she invites the audience to share their moments of pandemic madness. One woman learned how to sew; another slung her husband out of the house. But my favourite was the man who chucked his job in as an operations director because after three and a half months he still didn’t understand what the job meant, and went back to his old job – as an operations manager. We also learned about Sarah Millican’s special and perhaps tongue-in-cheek involvement with the Couch to 5K App – and what it would be like to have yourself spur you on with faux-encouragement.

A hugely enjoyable comedy night out in a pair of the safest hands in the business. Sarah Millican’s tour continues right the way round to December 2022, would you believe, but I’d get in there quick with your booking if I were you!

Review – Tez Ilyas – Vicked, Underground at the Derngate, 5th November 2021

Tez Ilyas LiveThis was another show that we’d booked so long ago that it changed its name in the meantime. Two years elapsed between the initial booking and the actual event! And what was originally Populist became Vicked – although the title is only a serving suggestion of what the show contains – which is Another Evening in the Company of Tez Ilyas Doing his Thing. And a very funny Thing it is.

Tez IlyasTez Ilyas is one of the few performers that I feel comfortable referring to by their first name. Not Mr Ilyas, nor Mr I (which is how I normally refer to comics when I’ve already mentioned their name a few times), but Tez. And that’s because he forms such a sincere connection with his audience that you really feel like you and he are old mates. It’s partly the courtesy that he extends by always coming out on to the stage first for a little chat with us all before introducing his support act; it’s partly the fact that stays behind after the show for a photo and a chat; it’s partly that his delivery is so fluent and genuine that everything he says you believe is true. He refers to us as his Tezbians, which also grants us some familiarity rights. Within a few seconds of coming on stage, he’s brought up two lads from the front row who are from different groups but for all the world look like they’re brothers (and they really did). In that simple act, he brought us all together, united in one purpose, to make a judgment call on these two lads – and we remain united throughout the rest of the show. The audience becomes a very comfortable, safe place, and you just know you’re in for a good time.

Kate LucasAnd yes, we did indeed have an excellent support act in the capable hands (and plectrum) of comedy-musician Kate Lucas, whom we saw at a Screaming Blue Murder a few years ago. She’s like a coiled serpent with her easy, gentle appearance, delicately beautiful voice, and viperous lyrics to her brilliant songs. She sings us songs of acerbity and Schadenfreude, of revenge and malice, and the audience loves her for it. She even gets us to join in a singalong of dubious taste. It’s all very inventive and very funny, and it was great to see her again.

TezAfter the interval, Tez returned to the stage and gave us a good hour-and-three-quarters of top quality material, expertly delivered. This was the fourth time we’ve seen him live – the last time was at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017 – and he’s truly evolved as a stand-up of immense confidence, linguistic skill and an enviable ability to trade good-hearted banter with anyone and everyone. One minute he hits just the perfect note of self-deprecation, the next he’s on an outrageous attack against someone else and it’s such a cunning blend of humour that you never know what’s coming next. I loved his segment when he played NHS Top Trumps – identifying all the audience members who work for the NHS (there were five) and working out which one most deserved the Thursday Night Minute of Applause. Not only does this allow him to gently tease the audience, and himself, it also opens up the field of political satire, at which Tez excels.

Tez IAnd then, of course, there’s the whole subject of racism, which constantly crops up in his material somehow or another, and he plays it perfectly, using humour not only to show its ridiculousness and cruelty, but also how easy it can be to fall foul of it oneself. He does a wonderful deconstruction of the terms BAME and POC – no matter how politically correct those terms may be, they’re pretty awful. He jests of cultural appropriation when any other ethnic group is involved in terrorism; and he admits to being stumped when it comes to dealing with a cis straight white male who’s neither fat nor ginger. He has a brilliant way of turning prejudice on its head, that not only reveals so much about the human condition but also is just so bloody funny.

There are just a few more dates remaining on this tour – if you’re in any doubt about whether to go – OMA! It’s a humdinger of a show and seventy-two hours later I’m still laughing at it. Fantastic!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 22nd October 2021

Dan EvansScreaming Blue Murder time again, and our party of five braved the increasing Covid numbers to sit as safely as possible by locating the Underground’s new ventilation panels and plonking ourselves under them. Another full house, all expectantly awaiting the 8pm start for a cracking night of comedy. But, come five past eight, where was our loveable host Dan Evans? Still hurtling up the motorway, as it happens. A massive traffic jam held him up Brighton-way and he was never going to make it on time as a result.

Kevin ShepherdThus it was that our first act, Kevin Shepherd, had to introduce both himself, the audience and his act all at the same time – and an excellent job he made of it too. We’d not seen him before, but he has a confident, relaxed style and an engaging manner, which worked well with his getting to know the front row punters, including regular Tom – whom it was decided would speak for the entire audience (and indeed town), and the family of recycling operatives. He had some excellent material which included the nitty-gritty of a drunk date, the majesty that is Bognor Regis, and how when you keep your mask in your trouser pocket too long you discover exactly how testicles smell (that was the truest observation of the night). He also made a number of references to life with his wife, which was perhaps unsurprising as…

Diane SpencerOur second act was the wonderful Diane Spencer, whom we’ve seen many times and never fails to delight with her posh but filthy persona. She also happens to be married to Kevin, which they never made obvious, but I expect a large number of the audience will have twigged. As she often does, she had lots of great material about sexual shenanigans including getting repetitive strain injury in bed and achieving a personal best. But there was a bit of an odd vibe in the audience, and a slight comedy reticence in the air; whether they were put out by Dan’s late arrival – he was able to take over the MC’ing after a while and was his usual jovial self – or whether our biorhythms were out of kilter I don’t know, but Diane did have to work perhaps a bit harder than usual to get the laughs. But she still got them.

Andre VincentOur headline act was Andre Vincent, a comedian of long standing reputation, and whom we’ve seen twice before. He started off with a brilliant gag about self-identification, but maybe it was because of the generally lacklustre audience, or indeed the two young women in the front row who didn’t laugh at anyone or anything, but his energy and comic inspiration seemed to go awol from time to time. His routine centred on two longish stories that he had told on both occasions we’d seen him before, and, although there were laughs a-plenty, somehow the whole thing didn’t go quite to plan. It happens. He’s a gifted comic and a naturally funny guy, but on this occasion, it didn’t quite soar.

Another Screaming Blue in the offing in November – already looking forward to it!