Review – Patrick Kielty, Borderline, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 25th June 2022

BorderlineWasn’t it Chris de Burgh who said – and I think it was – Don’t let go, I want to know that you will wait for me until the day there’s no borderline. Always a hot topic in the island of Ireland, no matter what side you’re on. By my calculation – and I’m ready to be proved wrong – it’s been 6 years since Patrick Kielty has done a stand-up tour and my goodness you’d never have known he’d been away, from the polished performance he gave at the Royal and Derngate on Saturday night.

John MeagherBut I’m getting ahead of myself, as before Mr K came on stage we welcomed his support act, John Meagher. He’s a bright and cheery chap, bounding with energy and a terrifically confident and attacking (in a good way) style. He has some great material about his early years in Ireland, moving from the idyllic setting of County Mayo to the exact opposite in a town outside Newry during the troubles, a borderline situation indeed. And then a few years ago he decided to move to England in search of greater political stability… good luck with that, as they say. He gives us a fun insight into his new relationship where he’s clearly boxing way above his weight, and the audience at the Royal warmed to him and his excellent sense of humour. A funny but also appropriate introduction to the main event after the interval.

Patrick Kielty also gives us an insight into life in rural Northern Ireland back in the 70s and 80s. I loved his example of the fact that his tiny home village, sporting no more than 100 children, nevertheless had two primary schools, segregated into the two halves of the divide, where each set of youngsters was taught how to mistrust and dislike the other, with nonsensical observations like how wide apart people’s eyes are, or with which foot they naturally kick a football. Then, having brought up these kids in their cosy little cocoons, at the age of 16 they’re just chucked together and left to get on with it. What could possibly go wrong?

P KieltyAmongst all the recollections and observations about what it was like growing up in Northern Ireland, becoming an adult, coping with the sectarian murder of his father, starting his career and so on, he talks warmly of the Good Friday agreement, with particularly fond remembrances of Mo Mowlem – who sounds like she was a right scream. This might all sound like very heavy going material, but, with Mr Kielty’s words and delivery, most of it is downright laugh out loud funny, with just the occasional heart-in-mouth moments of awfulness.

Patrick KieltyAnd now – Brexit! The gift that keeps on giving has provided us all with another borderline to contend with; the particular inspiration for this show, and the additional difficulties and ridiculousness it creates. There’s plenty for Mr K to get his teeth into, and he doesn’t hold back. His conclusion is to ask oneself what’s so great about taking control, which was, of course, one of the main aims of the Brexit vote. And it’s true; there are things that we can all do so much better, and we’d be better off just doing them.

Patrick KieltyOn top of all this, there are some wonderful homespun words of wisdom from his aunt, hilarious observations on his married life and the interactions between the in-laws, coping strategies for his children being indoctrinated to support the English football team, and, above all, an enthusiastic and optimistic attitude that helps us all rise above the misery of daily politics. I’ve rarely heard so many individual rounds of applause for individual punchlines, which just goes to show how much we all appreciated his words. Immensely likeable, supremely confident, and with the most assured delivery, it’s a fantastic show. His extensive tour is now coming to an end, with just a week at the Soho Theatre in London left. Highly recommended!

Review – The Comedy Crate presents Edinburgh Previews with Ryan Mold and Josh Pugh at the Albion Brewery, Northampton, 22nd May 2022

Comedy CrateIt’s back to the cosy and welcoming surroundings of the Albion Brewery for some Edinburgh Preview shows courtesy of The Comedy Crate, and a double bill featuring Josh Pugh and Ryan Mold. These shows are, by their very nature, work in progress, so they will always be a little rough around the edges. The comics are there to make you laugh, but at the same time, you’re there to let them know what’s funny and what isn’t! It’s a two-way street.

First up was Ryan Mold, with his WIP Generation Gap show. This is taken from the Edinburgh Fringe website and describes his show better than I can: “In the mid-80s, at 6 months old, my grandparents become my legal guardians. They showered me with love, but being guided through life by two 70-year-olds with simply no understanding of modern living was a mixture of confusion and embarrassment. I was having to take advice, navigate school and grow into a man from a generation who are clearly not up to date with the 90s trends of the internet, fashion and modern cooking. If I was ever to have a girlfriend, my grandparents’ thrifty car choice, mannerisms and “alternative solutions” would certainly not help!”

Ryan MoldIt’s a great idea for a show and Ryan shares a number of his childhood memories; the bizarre, the disastrous, and the hilarious. Effortlessly affable, he sets up a strong and confident rapport with the audience and it was a very enjoyable set. The structure of the show is absolutely in place; all that’s needed now is to bring in a few more recognisable and relatable experiences that make the audience react “yes! Absolutely!” This is quite a personal show, and you get the feeling that Ryan is sharing some very private moments, so the authenticity of his material is totally bang on. Work in progress indeed, but I’m sure the finished product will be a success. If you’re in Edinburgh over the summer, the show will be at Just the Tonic at the Mash House every day from 4th to 28th August except 15th.

After the interval, we welcomed Josh Pugh, with his show, Sausage, Egg, Josh Pugh, Chips and Beans. Again, here’s the description from the Edinburgh Fringe website: “English Comedian of the Year winner and star of Comedy Central Live and Dave’s Hypothetical. Tour support for Joe Lycett and ‘almost certain future star’ (Chortle.co.uk), Josh takes us through the past two years of his life, trying to have a baby and accidently losing Captain Tom’s birthday cards in his own unique and hilarious style. Amassing over three million views on his Twitter videos and regularly headlining the biggest clubs in the country Josh is ready to f*ck shit up this Fringe (as a friend).”

Josh PughWhilst I can’t comment on his ability to fulfil that latter promise, this work in progress show is already in very good shape and only needs a few very remote tweakings to become oven-ready, as the Prime Minister would have it. It’s a great title, which gives way to his first excellent joke, but doesn’t have any relationship with the content of the set, which takes the slow progress from Josh and Mrs Pugh’s initial desire to have a baby, through the rigours of set-time sex and the ignominies of IVF, to a final happy ending. Wrapped around this tale are several other excellent comedy gems, including the way he expresses how Covid is still “a thing”, but perhaps not quite what it was; and the conjecture of the people in the hospital meeting room next door to the room where he is engaged on producing his perfectly respectable official sperm deposit. You also wouldn’t employ him in a post office sorting room! Josh has terrific delivery and energy, and I’m sure his Edinburgh show will be a scream. He will be on at Monkey Barrel Comedy every day from 3rd to 28th August except 15th and 16th.

More Edinburgh previews on the way from the Comedy Crate, including two full-day line-ups and many other splendid comedy stars. All the details are here.

Review – Upfront Comedy Slam, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 8th May 2022

John SimmitI was shocked, I tell you, shocked, to discover that it’s been over four years since we last attended an Upfront Comedy gig at the Royal and Derngate. These shows are simply great fun – two acts before the interval and another two after, all hosted by DJ and ex-Dipsy Teletubby John Simmit. John got us all relaxed and in the mood for a good night out, but it was clear he wasn’t going to put up with any Will Smith/Chris Rock nonsense from the audience. He’s from Handsworth and you don’t do that kind of thing with someone from Handsworth without deeply regretting it afterwards. He also shared his recent discovery about why white guys dance the way they do and why black guys do it their way, and – choreographically at least – how ne’er the twain shall meet!

Javier JarquinOur first act, and someone we’ve seen many times and always enjoy, was Javier Jarquin, a Kiwi with Latin American/Chinese parentage, so there’s a conundrum if the Home Office want to send him home. Full of energy and attack, he has some truly fascinating material about the difference between it and that, and Mrs Chrisparkle particularly enjoyed his observations about how men just walk around the house pointlessly because, apparently, I do that (It isn’t pointless when I do it, just saying.) He always strikes up a great rapport with the audience and he got the show off to a terrific start.

shaziaNext up was that expert wise Brummie, Shazia Mirza, offering her wry observations on women’s position in society and the media, which included picking on good-hearted Chris in the front row, whom she named Bob, as representative of all elderly white men (he’s only 63) and why, basically, he has to be eradicated. She takes no prisoners with her tough talking satire, but brings you along with her argument in a way that makes you see subjects differently. To do that, and to be funny at the same time, is an absolute gift. However, when she was recounting a story about being on a Celebrity survival show with Bear Grylls, a rather extraordinary thing happened. I’m not sure why – a carelessly expressed phrase, or a mistimed facial expression, but she said or did something that absolutely killed the energy in the room. She worked really hard to get it back – but never quite made it. One of those strange things that sometimes happens with live comedy, even with experienced and fantastic comics like Ms Mirza.

Ms MoRealAfter the interval, our next act was someone new to us, Ms Mo’Real, or, as her parents think of her, Muriel. She complains about the wasters that share her flat and don’t contribute to the rent and bills – and there’s a great punchline to that setup. She looks twenty years younger than she is, and uses that to some great comedic effect too. Her very warm and kindly stage presence helps her killer lines to hit home very effectively. And Mrs C loved her sparkly socks. A very enjoyable act whom we’d love to see again.

Aurie StylaHeadlining the evening was Internet sensation (is that still an appropriate description?) Aurie Styla, whose personality bursts off the stage with enormous energy and fun. No longer content to live in a tiny London flat he’s moved to the Bedfordshire countryside where he has several rooms in a big house and a whole new rustic lifestyle that he’s coming to terms with. Fabulous interaction with the audience, his infectious humour fills the theatre with pure joy. A brilliant way to end the evening.

There’s promise of another Upfront Comedy offering in October – I shall keep a watch on the schedules!

Review – Omid Djalili, The Good Times Tour, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 23rd April 2022

Omid Djalili Good TimesIt’s always a delight to be back at the Royal and Derngate, this time for a top quality night of comedy starring one of my favourite comedians, Omid Djalili. We’ve seen him do stand-up twice before, and he’s always cracking good value; although he’s probably never had a finer moment on stage than his Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof – but that’s another story.

Boothby GraffoeBut first, support act Boothby Graffoe. I knew we had seen Mr Graffoe before but couldn’t remember when – and a quick check back revealed that it was when he supported Omid Djalili on his Iranalamadingdong tour in 2015. The two obviously work well together! Mr G has a very laid back style and a misleadingly unassuming stage persona. You’d think that in his youth he would have been ferociously hippy-like. He uses his musical props in more inventively than just as instruments; and his act his based on comedy songs that reveal some of the darker aspects of human nature. I say songs – really, for the most part, they’re musical fragments, but they do the job. Clearly no friend of Boris Johnson, so that’s fine by me. And his lullaby is like no other; it has to be seen to be believed. All new material, and some killer punchlines; we won’t be joining him in the hotel later.

Omid DjaliliOn to Mr Djalili, who’s still larger than life and a bundle of energy, and supremely likeable on stage. We’ve all learned a lot over the past six or so years, and you can see it in Mr D’s delivery. Indeed, the show is a celebration of the fact that we all survived, we’re all here and we’re all out for a good time (hence the title of the show). He was never a cruel comic – far from it – but today he seems warmer and mellower; everything he says comes from a kind place. Much of his always excellent material comes from the association between accents and offence; a difficult line to tread because Mr D is great at accents and impersonations, and he opens up a whole new line of satire with his vocal impressions of one famous person in the guise of another – I’ll say no more.

Omid Djalili 2Technically, the show has an impressive structure involving clever interactions with a multimedia screen, and there’s a beautiful callback with an audience member in the front row, whose name and place of residence had been earlier identified by Mr Graffoe. I always knew comedians talk to each other in the interval! There’s a genuinely moving but also hilarious homage to the late Sean Lock; and an investigation into the wit and wisdom of West Ham United football fans. When he asked if there were any Happy Hammers in the audience, I should have confessed that they are indeed my team, but I chickened out. My bad.

Omid DjaliliMr D still packs the show with his recognisable trademarks: the ghastly but riveting Middle Eastern dad-dancing, irresistible stories that play on racial stereotypes, throwaway gags that take the mickey out of himself and us. And, on a personal note, I loved the fact that one of his jokes involved Stewart Lee getting a two-star review for his show, because that’s exactly what I gave him! Omid Djalili continues to take his Good Times Show on tour around the country (and Austria?!) throughout the rest of the year and indeed has a couple of weeks at the Edinburgh Fringe in August. Hugely funny and highly recommended!

Review – Comedy Crate at a Secret Venue, Northampton, 27th March 2022

Comedy CrateA Secret Venue, how exciting! We didn’t find out where it was until a couple of days before and I’m afraid I still can’t tell you where it was held, or else I’d have to kill you. On second thoughts, I don’t think it was that hush-hush. It was at the Albion Brewery in Kingswell Street, an attractive, atmospheric place, with excellent sightlines, proper chairs and a well-stocked bar. An excellent addition to Northampton’s comedy venues!

Jamie AllertonOur MC for the evening was Jamie Allerton, whom we saw hosting a Comedy Crate gig in the garden of the Black Prince, Northampton, last September. He’s a bright spark, a powerhouse of joie de vivre, who makes the evening go with a swing. He has a terrific rapport with the audience, getting to know us all, putting us at our ease, but with some surprisingly unexpected questions posed to us too! When he discovered that two members of the audience, with no association with each other, both worked with autistic adults, his questions to work out who was best at their job was inspired! A great host with huge energy.

SlimOur first act was someone new to us, Slim. I reckon that’s a nickname. That’s not to say he isn’t slim, but it’s just that I can’t visualise it on a birth certificate! He has some nice material about hating school plays – I’m sure he’s not alone there – and also his occasionally vengeful life as a London bus driver. I particularly enjoyed his sequence about imagining a Jamaican war correspondent. He has a warm, approachable style and very enjoyable material, and was a very good start to the evening.

Alexandra HaddowNext up was another new name to us, Alexandra Haddow, a native of Corby, now in exile in London. Lively and instantly hilarious, she has a lot of near-the-knuckle humour that she pitches perfectly. It’s a lovely idea to imagine if the kind of questions a woman faces when getting a coil fitted were also posed to a man getting Viagra. We loved her stuff about dating conspiracy theorists (having only endured the wayward beliefs of a similarly-minded taxi driver the previous day) and the problems of having to share a bed with your dad. Smart, likeable and extremely funny, we’d love to see her again.

Mark SimmonsHeadline act was the brilliant Mark Simmons, whom we’ve seen a few times before and he always hits the ground running with his wonderful throwaway style. You always get multiple jokes per minute with Mark, whether they be gently surreal, painfully punful or totally outrageous. He must have the quickest of brains to bring in so many inventive brilliant lines based on what he sees and hears in the audience. On top form as usual, and a superb way to end the show.

Plenty more Comedy Crate gigs in the offing; check their website for more details!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 25th March 2022

Screaming Blue MurderIt’s the final Screaming Blue Murder of the season, and in a last minute change of plan we welcomed James Dowdeswell as our MC. We’ve seen James many times before, as opener, as headliner, even online, but never as the MC, and he’s always great fun. News travels fast in the comedy world, and James’ opening gambit was to check if anyone was in from Wollaston, James Dowdeswellfollowing on from my review of the fairly disastrous gig a couple of weeks ago – so that was me instantly outed in the audience, owning up to being the writer! Fortunately this crowd was a friendly, easy-going bunch, and we responded well to James’ probing into our jobs and characteristics. He’s a very amiable, welcoming and funny chap, and we all felt completely at ease with him the whole evening.

Meryl O'RourkeOur first act, and someone we’ve also seen many times before, both as an act and as MC, was Meryl O’Rourke, always high octane, always full of cheeky vagina jokes. It’s been twelve years since we first saw her act, and the intervening years have perhaps made her humour slightly less filthy – and it’s up to the individual whether that’s a good thing or not! Nevertheless, we still get a great insight into her married life – an assortment of farting, snoring and very occasional sex. She also has great material about the contrast between the sexual expectations of today’s young people versus those of her youth – very recognisable! She ended with a terrific visual joke regarding her Marilyn Monroe facemask. A very safe pair of hands and very funny as always.

Tom TaylorNext up was an act new to us, Tom Taylor. His stage persona is a fascinating mix of the engaging and slightly aloof, and it works really well. Armed with a Bontempi – and not afraid to use it – he’s very silly and very funny. There’s a madcap surrealism to his material, knocking out musical non sequiturs and genuinely inspired jokes. Not afraid to go where angels fear to tread, we loved his take on the Holy Communion menu; you couldn’t possibly be offended by anything he said though as it was all done with a brilliant lightness of touch.

Gerry KOur headliner, and someone we’ve seen once before and absolutely loved, was Gerry K. He’s another comic who’s so adept at taking material that you think has the potential to be really iffy but then turns it around at the last minute into something incredibly funny. Constantly inventive and surprising, he misleads us surefootedly down a familiar route only to deliver something completely unexpected. We loved how he explained how Covid ruined his Christmas, his view about mansplaining, how a Covid test resembles a pregnancy test and dozens more nuggets of comedy gold. For an east London diamond geezer he’s brilliantly self-deprecating, and he gets away with it all because he’s so likeable. A fantastic end to the show and to the season.

I’m guessing Screaming Blue Murders will return in the autumn. We’ll be first in the queue.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 12th March 2022

Screaming Blue MurderIf you happened to be strolling around the village of Wollaston on Saturday night and wondered where everyone was, 47 of them were at the Royal and Derngate to see the Screaming Blue Murder as part of local resident Claire’s birthday bash. That’s over a quarter of the entire audience! The show had been sold out weeks in advance, which is unusual; and a few minutes before the show was due to start the audience was still quite patchy. Then in came the Wollaston crowd, swelling the ranks of all the front seats, which naturally are the last to be chosen. Boisterous and lubricated, they were ready for a good time – so long as the good time involved taking notice of them.

Dan EvansOur genial host Dan Evans certainly had his work cut out. I should say, for everything that followed during the evening, none of it was the fault of the people from Wollaston; if there was a fault, it was down to some of the comics who should have handled the situation better. But to have so many of the crowd all know each other does put everyone at a disadvantage, as they bring with them their own dynamic, their own “house rules”. Performers, staff, the rest of the audience; we all had to struggle to assert our ability to have a good night and not feel excluded. At first, the vibe was great while Dan was getting to know them all. We discovered, for instance, that Claire has quite a big house. Big enough for an indoor swimming pool (even if it was only 10m x 5m, depth unknown), into which many of the audience had previously immersed themselves. We were also alerted to the presence of Matt, an audience member who took the opportunity to interrupt whenever he liked. When Dan joshed with the crowd with jokes that concerned themselves, it was fun and laughter all around. However, when he started to do more general material, which at any other time would be gold dust, people at the front were less interested. Fortunately the people at the back continued to laugh, but you could tell this was going to be a difficult night. There was a moment when one of the ushers came forward to mop up some spilled drink at the front of the stage and someone made a rather cruel remark at her expense. It wasn’t big and it wasn’t clever. We cringed in embarrassment for her.

Tania EdwardsOur first act, and someone we last saw way back in 2013, was Tania Edwards. She bases her material and stage persona on being rather posh, terribly middle-class, and deliberately bitchy with it. She discusses life with the husband who now works from home much to her annoyance, rather than the good old days when she hardly ever saw him. It’s very character-based comedy, and not many of the punchlines hit home. Changing tack, she took her attention to ridiculing the size of Claire’s swimming pool as being little more than a puddle. The non-Wollastonians in the audience hooted with laughter, the Wollastonians sat silently clearly unimpressed that one of their number had been criticised in this way. That atmosphere then spread throughout the whole crowd, and Tania didn’t find a way to regain the upper hand. As I said, this was going to be a difficult night.

andy-whiteFortunately, for the second act, in came the Cavalry in the reliable form of Andy White, who did exactly what the crowd needed – grabbed us by the nuts and took control. He had Wikipedia’d Wollaston during the break, thereby publicly recognising their importance in the show, and with fantastic, assertive material, he silenced Matt and delivered a barrage of brilliant observations and jokes, ranging from the Birmingham Christmas Market, through helping his wife to give birth to the horrors of home schooling. Every line hit home; the dominators were dominated, and it was a masterclass in how to turn an evening around.

Anthony KingSadly, our headline act, Anthony King, didn’t take advantage of the upswing that Andy had achieved. This was the fifth time we’ve seen him at Screaming Blue Murder shows, and in the past he’s always brought the house down with his lugubrious persona, and comedy songs with a touch of psychotic murder about them. This time, however, it just didn’t work. You could feel the energy drain from the room within a minute of his starting. Someone with his experience should surely have realised that his usual act wasn’t working so ought to have changed direction. But he didn’t. He continued, morosely, and the few laughs from those supportive members of the audience petered out. At some point during this disaster, you sensed that he had just given up, but was going to carry on regardless anyway. Drawing his act to an eventual conclusion he introduced his last song by saying “and now, to end my career…” to which a wag from Wollaston shouted out “that happened ten minutes ago” – and Anthony had no comeback. Mrs Chrisparkle and I were gripping each other’s hands with cringing desperation. And when the show finally, mercifully, finished, I’ve never heard so little desultory applause from the audience at the end of one of these evenings. It was an experience that I’m sure we’d all rather forget.

Still, hope springs eternal! The last in this season of Screaming Blue Murders is on 25th March, has a cracking line-up and is already sold out. Fingers crossed!

Review – The Comedy Crate at the Charles Bradlaugh, Northampton, 10th March 2022

Comedy CrateTime for another of those excellent comedy nights at the Charles Bradlaugh courtesy of those nice people at The Comedy Crate, who had assembled a terrific cast of funny people for our entertainment. We were a top quality audience too, which really helped the evening go with a swing!

Cally BeatonOur MC for the night was Cally Beaton, new to us, but a very safe pair of hands to run the show. She has an excellent ability to dovetail between the acts,  sometimes referring to the themes that the other comics had mentioned, and that helped the show flow very easily. One of the unifying themes of the evening was people who worked in shops and it’s amazing how something as simple as that can really catch on as a source of spontaneous comedy, and Cally mined it to the full. She has a great rapport with the audience and a very warm and friendly style, and kept the spirit of the show high octane throughout the evening.

Jack GleadowOur first act, and someone we’ve only seen online before, was Jack Gleadow, a likeable young chap with brilliant delivery and a very pacey set. He’s another guy who instantly connects with the audience, with his unassuming but knowing style. He incorporates short sound and musical accompaniments to some of his act which works a treat. Trust me, you’ll never listen to Hot Butter’s Popcorn in quite the same way again. We also loved his observations about Primark, and how they don’t apply to Argos. Very assured, very funny.

Arielle SoumaNext up, and someone else new to us, was Arielle Souma, who plays on having that most irresistible of qualities – a sexy French accent – and mixes it with some brilliant comedy material about relationships. It’s a clever blend of physical self-deprecation and supreme self-confidence, and you can never tell which way she’s going to go at any point! We loved her take on having a relationship with someone else after your spouse has died; and she turns racism on its head to great comic effect. A terrific stage presence, she went down a storm with the audience.

Russell Hicks againOur headline act, and someone I always try to see whenever possible, was Russell Hicks, that master of creating fantasy comic scenarios from absolutely nothing. He discovered comedy gold with front row Jed and his amassed pals scattered around the audience, such as generous host Carrack, and Amir Amir (so good they named him twice?) who was interested in taking Russell’s spare hotel room. There was also a front row character named Sticky Mouse and I can’t quite remember how he gained that dubious epithet. Mr H has an extraordinary talent to think on his feet; as a result the entire audience were in hysterics the whole time. Amazing work!

The next gig at the Bradlaugh is on 14th April, but before then The Comedy Crate have an online fundraiser gig for Ukraine on Monday 14th, a new material night at the Wheatsheaf in Dallington on Tuesday 15th, and a special show on Sunday 27th at a secret venue in town. All the details can be found here!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 26th February 2022

Screaming Blue MurderTime for another Screaming Blue Murder – you know the traditional event: hosted by the wonderful Dan Evans, with three delightful acts and two marvellous intervals, an up-for-it boisterous full house of an audience, loads of laughs and, all being well, everyone out by 10:30 to get on with the rest of their weekend. In fact, it’s such a predictable entertainment that you could almost set your clock by it. Everything runs to plan, no one stays sober, everyone goes home happy.

Dan EvansBut is the course of true comedy always that predictable? Not so on Saturday night. It all started well. Dan bounded on with his usual energy (having bigged himself up on the microphone before it started) and spent the usual twenty minutes or so getting to know the audience. We encountered young Daniel, 18 – the most amiable skinhead you could ever meet – and his girlfriend Izzy, 17 (their ages are relevant, trust me); five cats-owning Health and Safety manager Jenna with her ghastly tale of someone who fell in a shredder; the aggregate lorry driver and the long-partnered couples who sat apart. All jolly stuff going nicely to plan.

Rachel FairburnTwo of the three acts were new to us; the other we saw quite recently. First up was Rachel Fairburn, new to us, with a likeable personality and a sister she hates; she’s not sure how, but apparently her Manchester accent is sexy (and, on the whole, I wouldn’t disagree). She has some telling and well thought-out material about OCD, and how it isn’t just a matter of liking things neat and tidy. Her set was going well and we were all laughing a lot when she introduced her next subject – serial killers.

She was just about to mine some comedy material out of the appalling Jeffrey Dahmer, when a young man in the audience became unwell – seriously so. Everything stopped; people were concerned. Rachel actually went to get him a glass of water, but it soon became clear this wasn’t going to resolve itself quickly. Mr Sound Man announced an early interval, and we all went outside in stunned silence for a drink whilst the paramedics attended to the poor chap. Ms Fairburn never got to finish her story or her set, and wasn’t seen again. We were immensely impressed with the way the staff handled the incident, and the speed with which the young chap was taken to hospital. Hopefully, all’s well that ends well. The unpredictability of a comedy night.

Toussaint DouglassBut the show must go on, and our second act was the excellent Toussaint Douglass whom we had seen last year at a Comedy Crate gig. He has a very warm personality, and some terrific material about having a middle class girlfriend, and the pros and cons of being in a mixed-race relationship. He has a great stage presence and delivers his excellent material with confidence and authority. He was able to turn the gig around back to being a good night out and not an oh dear I hope that guy is ok night.

Tom WardOur headline act, and someone else we hadn’t seen before, was Tom Ward, a guy with a thatch of impossible hair that he insists isn’t a wig, an innocent-looking selection of backing music tracks to his side and an incredibly mischievous personality to boot. Put the three together and you have a wonderfully anarchic half-hour. He poked fun mercilessly at Daniel for being a nonce (Daniel took it like a man), then later questioned the guy at the back why his girlfriend wasn’t with him. Dissatisfied with the answer, Mr W got his phone off him and rang her up for us all to listen to her reasoning. Result, it’s not looking good for the relationship. He ended with a brilliant version of Cher’s Believe that has to be seen and heard to be… well… believed.

What could have ended in an uncomfortable night for everyone ended in hilarity, thank Goodness. I felt sorry for Rachel Fairburn ending her set by not ending it, if you see what I mean. But at least we think the audience member was ok. Let’s hope so. Next Screaming Blue is on 12th March and is already sold out. See you there!

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!