So How’s it Going?

The Real ChrisparkleHow’s Lockdown treating you, gentle reader? I hope you and yours are safe and sound, exercising “common sense” (whatever that is) and minimising risks wherever possible. There’s a whole beautiful world out there, where all your friends and relatives are waiting, The Arts are waiting for a kick-start, comics are preparing a barrage of new jokes for us (or they’d better be) and there are exciting places to discover – once it’s safe again. Until then, pull up the drawbridge, log into Zoom, and catch up with your DVDs and books.

Agatha ChristieI say “books” – as though that was a thing. I don’t know about you, but since Lockdown I have not been able to concentrate on reading AT ALL. I’m too easily distracted, I read a paragraph and instantly forget what I read. So for the moment, my Agatha Christie Challenge and Paul Berna Challenge are on hold until my reading Mojo comes back.

Just a little wine for the eventMrs Chrisparkle has discovered cooking! Who knew that there were other items of kitchen equipment apart from the microwave? So that’s great news. And fortunately, fine food always deserves a fine wine – that’s a bonus. As a downside, The Real Chrisparkle’s Facebook page has fallen foul of some odd computer hiccup and I can’t access it at all. So if you check that page every so often – I wouldn’t bother, nothing’s going to be happening there for some time, I fear.

Typical Eurovision Mayhem

Now that the Eurovision that never was is over, I need to find something else to write about. What I’m proposing, gentle reader, are alternate blog posts where I share some holiday snaps from the great places we’ve been to over the last [redacted] years, and retro theatre posts where I go back over all the shows I’ve seen in [also redacted] years of theatregoing. Not promising anything truly exciting or revealing; we’ll just see how it goes.

So, see you tomorrow with some holiday snaps from Buenos Aires. Take care!

Review – Josie Long: Tender, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 8th March 2020

Josie LongJosie Long? Isn’t she the one in Whose Line is it Anyway, asked my friend the Crown Prince of Bedford. Errr…no. That’s Josie Lawrence. It’s very easy to get your Josies mixed up. But, when pushed, I couldn’t elucidate further as to who Josie Long really is either. But now I know. Josie Long won the BBC New Comedy Awards at the age of 17, has a degree in English from Oxford University (me too!) and has done loads of stuff at the Edinburgh fringe ever since. However, recently her comedy career has taken a side-swipe, as she and her partner have had a little girl. From a simple pregnancy, much comedy lies ahead…

Josie LongTender is all about her discovery, in her mid-30s, of the joys of motherhood. I use the word joys inadvisedly, because the poor woman is absolutely knackered, frustrated, jealous of other people’s freedom – but she also wouldn’t have it any other way. Motherhood also cannot mask the real Josie Long who’s bubbling just under the surface – the left-wing activist who hasn’t lost her political affiliations and reasonings – and it’s a delight when, every so often, she cannot control flashing out an anti-governmental diatribe. Maybe pregnancy and politics do mix after all.

Ms Long is a comedy dream because she has such an engaging personality, a wonderfully confiding nature, and, you sense, a genuine interest in the wellbeing of her audience and a desire that we all have a good time. And she very much succeeds at this, with a show sculpted from a seemingly endless account of all the things that are wrong with motherhood, the country, the world, and especially fighting Climate Change, which is the other thing that keeps her going.

Meticulously scripted (the clip from the show that was part of the promotional material on the theatre website was absolutely word-for-word identical to the same sequence on Sunday night’s performance) although it doesn’t feel it, keeping up a lovely rapport with the audience, and with genuinely funny material throughout, this show is pure gold. Her UK tour continues into June and I couldn’t recommend her more strongly!

Five Alive, let Comedy thrive!

Review – Stewart Lee, Snowflake/Tornado, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 6th March 2020

Stewart LeeWe saw Stewart Lee seven years ago with his Much a-Stew About Nothing tour, and I really admired (and found hysterical) his unique style of deconstructing a show and turning it in on itself. I also noted his no-holds-barred stance of calling out any audience member who dares to check their phone… more of which later.  So when I saw he was touring again it was a no-brainer to book.

Snowflake and Tornado are (allegedly) two one hour shows that have been put together for the purposes of this tour, but they dovetail together so completely that they do indeed create one night of content. Tornado comes first – originating from a misdescription of his Netflix show that stayed online for two years; the description given was actually for the comic-schlock horror movie Sharknado, which gives Mr Lee lots of scope for imagining how the two could be combined, and it’s very clever stuff. Somehow into this madness he manages to involve Alan Bennett, in a brilliant scene where he re-imagines a Sharknado attack in a suburban Bennett semi, populated by typical Bennett pensioners. It’s a terrific flight of fancy, and, with Mr Lee’s disturbingly accurate impersonation of the Yorkshire National Treasure himself, was the absolute highlight of the evening.

Snowflake centres on Mr Lee’s doubt as to where he now fits in the comedy scene, given the country’s shift towards the right, which he perceives has made popular comedy shallower and much more of a sham commodity. Again, there is loads of excellent and cunning material, including an Enid Blyton parody and stabs at figures such as Tony Parsons and Ricky Gervais.

Stewart LeeHowever, this gig went seriously wrong for me. From the start I sensed that Mr Lee was much more aggressive than I remembered him. To be fair, the show started unfortunately, as there was obviously a mix-up with tickets held by some audience members that an usher was trying to sort out when Mr Lee walked on stage. He ignored their kerfuffle, but then when another lot of people came in late, he targeted them with total vitriol. It’s a well-worn trick with comedians over the decades to pick on latecomers, but I’ve never seen it done so nastily as by Mr Lee. I understand that is part of his stage persona, but you can go too far.

As the show developed, he called out another audience member for using their phone. “I was just checking that it was turned off” was his explanation; I’ve no way of knowing whether that was true. Then a few minutes later Mr Lee shouted again “TURN THAT PHONE OFF!!!” and I realised he was looking at me. I hadn’t touched my phone, so I looked blankly. “YOU! WITH THE GLASSES!” It was like that moment at school when you were picked on by the vicious teacher for something one of your classmates had done. Mrs Chrisparkle quietly muttered that it might have been my Apple Watch that had turned itself into life. “IS IT YOUR WATCH? DON’T MOVE IT THEN!!” he roared. “SORRY!” I replied, in a not sorry way, more in a Pardon Me for Breathing sort of way. Fortunately, he dropped the conversation then, because if he’d said anything more, I could feel the sarcasm rising within my breath. It wouldn’t have ended well. I would have been ridiculed, felt ashamed, and probably walked out. It would have been an ugly and very non-comedic moment.

But from then on, he lost me. Not only was I concerned about keeping my arm and hand absolutely still lest I offended His Majesty again, but I was also fed up with his whole approach. Look, I am experienced at seeing comedy shows. I get the idea of ridiculing the audience – a bit. But he took it to the nth degree. It reminded me of how James Acaster changed his style to become mean to the audience – and it simply alienates me. You don’t pay good money to be insulted. Moreover, on a few occasions he either lost his way in his act or pretended that he had lost his way, and then heaped all the blame on the audience for putting him off. And the more I sat there, not exactly fuming but with my critical facilities prickling, my main reaction was that I don’t need this kind of stuff in my life.

Stewart Lee againSomething else that completely spoils this show is his constant dissing of other performers. Yes, I understand that he ridicules the society that laps up Ricky Gervais’ style, and sees Phoebe Waller-Bridge as the ultimate innovator, as if no one had ever broken the fourth wall before. But when he lays it on with a trowel, it’s just too much. It’s rancorous, bitter and also feels a bit jealous. There’s an intensely tedious moment where Mr Lee ridicules the concept that Ricky Gervais “says the unsayable” by taking it literally. If he said the unsayable, the noise would come out like “ehh…eeee….cchchchchch…” etc. Point taken. Five minutes later, and he’s still making those childish noises? Most people around me were looking bored as hell. Mrs C had long nodded off – that’s her reaction to stage aggression. Mr Lee takes an idea and then batters it to death. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

But by concentrating so heavily on ridiculing other comics, their audiences and his own audience, the evening was just swimming in negative energy, and, frankly, I couldn’t wait for it to end. It’s a shame – Mr Lee is so creative and talented, is a master of the callback and the shaggy dog story, and makes relevant and insightful points to prick pomposity and hypocrisy. But, on the whole, that was an awful night at the theatre. Perhaps I just didn’t get it; perhaps I did and it was a lousy performance. As it’s Stewart Lee, I couldn’t possibly give him one star, there’s too much good content for that. Thank heavens for the Alan Bennett sequence.

Two disappointing for more

Review – John Bishop: Warm Up, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 3rd March 2020

John Bishop Warm UpIt’s not often that a Work in Progress show fills the massive Derngate auditorium, but then again, it’s not often that the great John Bishop comes to town. Actually, to my knowledge, it’s at least the second time he’s come to town. The first time we saw him, he was so late, he offered to buy the entire audience a drink. Even though that was in the smaller Royal theatre, it still must have cost him a bob or two. Forewarned is forearmed this time.

Barry DoddsBut first, a support act. Remembering that Mr Bishop didn’t have a support act when we last saw him, I was surprised that there was one this time. But indeed there was, in the jovial form of Barry Dodds, a Geordie from Gateshead (I thought Geordies could only come from north of the Tyne? Controversial!) full of appropriate apologies for not being John Bishop, but with a ton of fun material of his own. He has a great story about how he fooled a flatmate who liked to dabble with wacky baccy (and worse) – and it’s a good trick: put a bar of Palmolive soap in the microwave and watch it expand. It plays with the most balanced of brains, but when you’ve been on the illegal substances it can fair blow your mind.

I also really enjoyed his account of why he and his wife split up, and his rather gruesome but extremely funny story of what trainee doctors can get up to in the mortuary. Mr Dodds is a naturally funny guy with great timing and a comfortable confidence, and his short set was, truly, all too short. We’d love to see him do a longer set sometime.

John BishopAfter the interval, Mr Bishop wandered on, cup of Yorkshire Tea in hand, apologising for the fact that as this show was indeed work in progress, some of it might be a bit shit. And, really odd for a WIP show, it’s not going to be leading on to a big arena show later in the year – he had intended to do that, but then the plans got altered and the arena show has been postponed. But the WIP shows had already gone on sale, so Mr B felt obliged to give us some WIP comedy, even without a big show in the offing. You couldn’t make it up.

John BHe is the absolute master of relaxed, slow storytelling, every routine always having a killer punch at the end. He is so engaging, and confiding, that you feel like you are the only person he’s sharing these brilliant observations with, maybe over a convivial pint somewhere. He talks about things that we can all recognise, such as the compromises in relationships or how your attitudes change as you get older. One of his assertions, absolutely correct, is that men never change from the age when they meet each other. Whereas women develop and grow their friendships over the years, men always remain essentially kids; if they met when they were at school, then they’re still schoolkids when meet decades later.

John-BishopAnother absolutely spot-on observation is how a middle-aged man suddenly gets transported into a world of sexual and/or romantic fantasy if a woman talks to him nicely. You can just be on a flight and offered a drink by an air hostess and a world of possibilities opens up to you. I also loved his material about being the only Scouser on the ski slopes, his experiences of acting a sex scene (or not) with Sheridan Smith, and a brilliant sequence speculating about sex between the over 70s. He had us all in cascades of laughter.

He says he has one joke; and it’s the same joke he told last time he was here – but, to be fair, it is awfully funny. It’s the one about the accidental penectomy and the replacement surgery. If you know it, you know it. If you don’t, well I’m not going to tell you. During the course of the evening, he chatted with a couple of audience members who had earlier piped up for whatever reason; and, as with his last appearance here, he ended the show with a brief Q&A session. I mention that because the last question he was asked included a callback to an earlier piece of material, and Mr B’s answer included a callback to something another audience member had said – and it was a masterstroke. No wonder he called the show to halt at that point – it could never get better.

A great night of comedy and an absolute privilege to see a master of the art at work. His tour continues throughout the rest of the year, but many venues are already sold out. This comes as no surprise at all. Just brilliant.

Five alive, let comedy thrive!

Review – A weekend at the Leicester Comedy Festival, 22nd – 23rd February 2020

leicester-comedy-festival-logoThis is now the fourth year that a bunch of us have ventured into the Heart of Rural England (or so the county welcome signs say) for an overnighter at the Leicester Comedy Festival. For this jaunt, Mrs Chrisparkle and I were joined by Lord and Lady Prosecco, Professor and Mrs Plum, the Squire of Sidcup and the Wise Woman of Wembley, Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters, Prinz Mark von Köln, and Lady Headington. It was like herding The Aristocats. With an ambitious programme of seeing seven shows on Saturday and four on Sunday, which we almost achieved, I hadn’t quite realised how many of the shows I’d arranged were Work in Progress. One the one hand, that does give you a fascinating insight into the creative process. On the other hand, it does mean that some shows (or at least elements of some shows) can be a bit meh. Let’s dive straight into Round One.

Andy Barr: Collected Jokes, Poems and Thoughts 2010-2020 – Upstairs at the Firebug

Andy BarrThis was something of a curiosity. Emphatically not, as it happens, a Work in Progress show; quite the opposite in fact – Andy Barr’s Greatest Hits of the past decade. It is the nature of a festival like this that you take a punt on someone you don’t know – and sometimes it’s gold, and sometimes it’s myrrh. Mr Barr was new to us, and I spent the best part of the fifty minutes trying to get into his mind to gauge his persona – and in the end, he had erected so many distancing devices inside his show that I just couldn’t get there. In a nutshell, he does a deadpan delivery so well that you can’t distinguish the act (and the content) from his just having a really bad Saturday.

He nicely deconstructed the stereotypical Festival-type act by setting up a timer on his laptop which counted down 35 minutes of good stuff to be followed by 10 minutes of serious sad stuff (that would, allegedly, make him eligible for an award) and then finishing with 5 minutes of last chance guffaws. It’s a neat idea, and makes a great point about the artificiality of a stand-up act. The trouble is… it is meant to be funny though, and I just didn’t get it. To be fair, I liked his Greek mythology trilogy of poems, and I completely understood that his act was that he pretended to be totally unprepared whereas it was (probably) prepared to the nth degree. And there were a few elements that warranted a few gentle chuckles. But I didn’t understand the drinking, and I didn’t understand his serious sad bit. And there were no last-minute guffaws. Altogether very odd. In the end I couldn’t decide if it was me on bad form or him, so let’s call it an honourable draw.

Ali Brice: The Autumn/Winter Collection – Upstairs at the Firebug

 

Ali BriceAlthough it doesn’t mention it, this was a Work in Progress show, as Ali Brice pointed out to us early in his set. Here was another fifty minutes that didn’t do what I expected it to do – not that I really knew what to expect. The clues were all there in the pre-show blurb – giving himself an endorsement quote from a totally fictitious reviewer (nice touch) and saying it’s produced by another couple of people who are also, clearly, him. The genre was described as Alternative, Mime, but if you were expecting the next Trygve Wakenshaw, you’d have been disappointed.

I wasn’t, but I was still disappointed. During a later-in-the-day post-mortem, we all agreed that his continuous conversation with a chap in the second row, who, we worked out from their exchanges, is also a comic, was or is a flatmate, and obviously has some dubious sexual practices involving cardboard, made the rest of us feel excluded. It didn’t help that you suspected that this other chap was probably funnier than Mr Brice – perhaps the two could have swapped places. It also didn’t help when he did try to involve other members of the audience in his material (often a springboard to some comedy gems); it felt rather aggressive and confrontational. He asked me a question at one point and I obviously gave him an answer he wasn’t expecting (I wasn’t being tricky, honest) and he just cut the conversation dead because it wasn’t funny. Well, I have to agree with him there.

There were some nice ideas somewhere in the background, for sure, and he came up with the occasional flash of a brilliant turn of phrase. But it all felt rather… vacant. Not so much trying out some new material you’ve been practising in your bedroom, more that moment when you have to tell the teacher that your dog ate your homework. The one comic idea that he had carried through to any kind of conclusion, where he takes a photo of someone’s eyes with his phone then holds the phone up to his face to pretend to be them, was ruined by some clumsy phone handling and a rather crass punchline (or punch-image as it happens.) I’m afraid this one wasn’t for me.

Stuart Goldsmith: The Accident (Work in Progress) – Grays@LCB Depot – Lightbox

Stuart GoldsmithAnd now, as they used to say, for something completely different. If you know Stuart Goldsmith’s work and style, it will come as no surprise that this show, despite being billed as work in progress, was incredibly slick and Mr Goldsmith’s approach was confident, pacey, articulate, intelligent, and thoroughly well-planned and executed. The Accident in question (see title) was a time on holiday abroad when he was a kid and the family were involved in a car accident that left most of them with quite a few injuries. Mr G uses this as a thread that runs through the whole show although a lot of the material that he spun didn’t have an obvious connection to it.

The show is filled with his observations about life as a parent of two, now living in Bristol (favourite line of the day was probably I left the city I love for the woman I like) and his daily confrontations with trendy middle-class angst that he does so well. When it comes to constructing a detailed build-up to an intricate story, he is a master craftsman, and is always a pleasure to watch. If you’re a fan of Mr G, once he’s honed the show to perfection, you’re going to love it to pieces. Foolishly we arrived only about five minutes before the show started and had to stand at the back. Be warned; he’s popular.

Robin Morgan: Work in Progress – Manhattan 34 – Downstairs bar

Robin MorganWe’d seen Robin Morgan once before at a Screaming Blue Murder a couple of years ago, and we liked his fresh, preppy style. So I thought it would be worth a punt coming to see his Work in Progress – how, indeed, is he progressing? Extremely well, as it turns out. Terrifically confident but not in a brash way – quite reverse in fact, he comes across as having an endearing innocence which allows him to get away with quite a lot of cheekiness. He’s great with the audience too, viz. the conversation he had with Lady Headington about tampons and the extended chats with Professor Plum about his vasectomy.

He’s incredibly proud about his appearance on BBC 1 (Wales, ahem) and is developing some great material about his mother’s affair (whether or not she had one), sex education, and the repercussions of having a vasectomy (to be honest, Prof. Plum proved to be of little help with some of his questions). He had a clever knack of turning the fact that this was a WIP show into something of a game, mutually agreeing with the audience what was good and what wasn’t. And he got the lot of us to recite the Lord’s Prayer, which freaked him out and which is some feat for a Saturday afternoon. We all thought he was terrific, and unanimously (I think) was considered the best show we saw all weekend.

Heaven Knows I’m Friz Frizzle Now – Grays@LCB Depot – Lightbox

Friz FrizzleDid anyone book this show thinking it would be about the Smiths? asked Friz Frizzle in his introductory moments to our first post-dinner show (Chutney Ivy, by the way, excellent). Answer came there none, because if you’re in the know you’ll already understand that Mr Frizzle is the best song ruiner in the business. We saw him as part of Late Night Jokes on Us a couple of years back and he was probably the most entertaining act we saw at Leicester that year. So we all agreed that an hour spent in the company of Mr F would be a wise move.

Sitting there innocently at his keyboard like a cross between a Church organist and Dangermouse’s pal Penfold, Friz takes a classic song from all our yesterdays, plonks it into a totally unrelated scenario, and punfully plays on the words with hopefully devastatingly funny effect. However; there is an unmistakable problem with Mr F’s act. If you don’t know the original song that he’s lampooning, the joke just flies way over your head and you’re left staring resentfully at those who do. That was the fate that befell Lady Prosecco, who sat there glumly for an hour. The rest of us, however, were laughing our socks off, as inappropriate lyric followed inappropriate lyric whilst still fitting perfectly into their respective songs.

I won’t offer up any examples of his mischievous mind because so much of the fun comes from unexpected surprises. Another unexpected aspect came when he opened up about his own mental health. Laughing about ruined lyrics feels terribly trivial in comparison with mental health problems, and, whilst it’s great that he felt able to share some of his experiences, and by so doing enables others to do the same, I can’t say that it sat comfortably in the environment of nonsensical musical comedy. Whether he needs to find a way of dovetailing that content in more subtly, or maybe creating a brand-new show that looks at mental health, and maybe combining the content with more specific mental health-based lyrics, I don’t know. And it certainly didn’t spoil the show; it just, somehow, felt a little out of place. Nevertheless, we all (nearly all) loved it and will continue to follow his career with great interest.

Mark & Haydn: Work in progress – Just the Tonic at BrewDog

Mark and HaydnI’ll be honest, gentle reader; there were about five acts on at roughly the right time for the 9.30pm slot in our programme, all of which looked good and would, I am sure, have been suitable entertainment for us all. The reason I chose Mark and Haydn was because Haydn is the spitting image of Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters’ son, The Honourable Davey, and I thought it would be a hoot to see him in action.

And, to be fair, I wasn’t wrong. With a WIP sketch show some of it will fall on stony ground, but some will land on good soil, spread forth and multiply; and I’d say a good three-quarters of this show had top quality material or at least tweakably top quality material. Generally strong points to the act were 1) the fact that the two guys are physically (and probably mentally) very different and they spark off each other superbly to create an exciting stage energy. Also, 2) I was very impressed by how much preparation had gone into some of the sketches, and that really paid dividends.

Among my favourite moments were Haydn spouting off some ultra-dramatic tosh whilst we see a projection of what Mark is tapping on his phone (funnier than it sounds); a high profile PowerPoint presentation that goes wrong (call me a child but I loved the revelation of Haydn’s internet password); and the pair of TV pundits pointing out some ridiculous observations on a football game. All of these took meticulous preparation and I applaud the guys for going to the effort – it really paid off. Good fun – and certainly One(s) to Watch!

Ben Briggs: ZEIT-HEIST – The Cookie

Ben BriggsWe’re into the Sunday events now and our first show absolutely divided us. I’d not seen Ben Briggs before but had heard quite a lot about him, being a local (Northampton) lad done good. Technically there were a few problems for him; for one thing, the poor sod’s suffering from a hernia so had to limp up to the stage – not a good look and indeed he must have been feeling rubbish. Worse for us though was that The Cookie’s stage lighting had a nervous breakdown and started flashing lurid colours all over the place, with the result that for most of the show Mr B had a green face with a red outline. He looked like the Incredible Hulk with radiation sickness.

There’s no question that Mr B is a naturally funny man, who doesn’t shy away from tricky subjects like racism, and he has some routines with killer lines that he absolutely nails. He uses a brilliant retort in a sequence where an American confronts a Brit saying that without them, we’d all be speaking German. He’s also got a grotesque (but hilarious) routine about Egyptian tummy on a holiday where he hardly left the loo. He seemed alarmed that a lot of us in the audience were – shall we say – from the older generation. Honestly, no need to be alarmed; we’ve still got a sense of humour, promise.

This was a show that had some well-tried and rehearsed material and also some new stuff being road-tested. On the whole I thought it all flowed together pretty well. I have a sense that he’s the kind of comic who appeals to guys more than women; that certainly seemed to be the reaction from our party of twelve. I probably emitted more and louder guffaws at this show than I did at any other, so that’s got to be saying something! But he’s definitely not everyone’s cup of tea.

Kevin Precious: Teachers and Schools Work in Progress – Kayal Upstairs

Kevin PreciousHaving loved his Unholier than Thou show last year, it was a no-brainer to catch Mr Precious again with his new WIP show, Teachers and Schools. He’s a naturally funny guy with a gift of exposing the little things in life that we all recognise and find ridiculous. For his new show, he’s tackling the stupidities of life at school – primarily from the teacher’s point of view. It’s fair to say that this WIP is at a fairly early stage, but nevertheless there were still plenty of school-life recollections that rang ominous bells.

I particularly tuned into the ghastly thought of what lurks behind the staffroom door – I’m sure we all remember kids being bellowed at by a grumpy teacher for daring to put a foot or a nose past that all-hallowed hinge. On my last day at school a teacher actually invited me into the staffroom to tell me I’d got a place at university – and I still found myself unable to breach that scary portal. Mr P explores this and several other weird hang-ups that we all have of those “happiest days of our lives”, with intelligence, wit and the insight of knowing the secrets of the staffroom. Once he’s sorted the wheat from the chaff, and delved deeper into some of his ideas, I’m sure this will be another excellent show.

Matt Green: Nice Scarf – Kayal Upstairs

Matt GreenFor our last show of the weekend, we caught up with Matt Green and his Nice Scarf show – so called, because he comes on stage wearing a nice scarf. And why not? We’ve seen Mr Green a few times now, at a couple of Screaming Blue Murders and an Edinburgh Spank!, and he’s always slick, smart but self-deprecating, which is a good mix. He involved the audience quite a bit – specifically Mrs C and me and the Squire of Sidcup – and it was all very jovial and good-natured. Blessed with a cherubic appearance – of which he makes many a reference – this belies the toughness of some of his material, which makes it even more telling. It was largely well-tried and tested routines, but with a few new ideas; and it was all very funny and enjoyable – a perfect way to end the weekend!

So, what did we learn from our Leicester weekend experience?

  • If they’re well-behaved, a group of twelve people is perfectly manageable provided you allow them to do their own thing occasionally.
  • The move from paper tickets to e-tickets worked better than I expected. Just tell the ticket checker: “I’m part of the group of 12” and they let you in.
  • You can get too much comedy. The fizz flopped out of us when it came to attending the last show of both days – hence we saw 9 out of a planned 11 shows.
  • If you’re in the vicinity, Chutney Ivy is perfect for a superb Indian pre-theatre dinner; it’s a set meal so you don’t waste half your eating time choosing from the menu.
  • Only one of the venues we visited was accessibility-friendly. You’d have to plan very carefully if you had mobility issues.
  • For me, personally, don’t sit at the end of the rows in The Cookie because you have to sit skewed to watch the comedian, so that you irritate your vertebrae and as a result you trigger muscle pain for several days. Waaaaah!

We had a great time! Back again next year!

Review – John Archer, Against the Odds, Underground at the Derngate, 21st February 2020

John Archer Against the OddsAs a prelude to what we hoped would be a weekend of riotous laughter at the Leicester Comedy Festival (more of which soon), Mrs Chrisparkle and I were joined by our friends the Squire of Sidcup and the Wise Woman of Wembley for dinner, drinks and an evening in the company of comedy magician John Archer. Mr Archer was recently on Britain’s Got Talent (apparently – we’re never in to see it.) However, clearly a lot of the good burghers of Northampton had watched his appearance because when we arrived twenty minutes before the show was due to start (normally plenty of time to get a good seat) we had to make do with the back row. Not a great position from which to observe close-up magic.

J ArcherHowever, that’s not really Mr A’s style – you didn’t need to be in the front few rows to watch any sneaky dexterity. Most of his magical feats were mind-based; predicting the numbers that people would choose to create a fantasy lottery ticket, for example, or which card from a selection, all bearing different words on them that an audience member would pick unseen. There was yet another very clever trick where he had £80 in an envelope, with four other worthless envelopes, and he manage to convince audience members to pick all the other envelopes except the one with the dosh.

John ArcherBut he’s not just a fantastic magician. He has a lovely, gentle comedy style – self-deprecating, whacking out short silly songs on a ukulele; playing slightly on the fact that he won’t see 55 again but there’s definitely life in this old dog yet. An intriguing and impressive act; there’s no way that you’ll work out how he performs those feats of magical intellect – and to preserve the mystery I’d really rather not know anyway. No gimmicks, no pyrotechnics; just good old-fashioned entertainment. Nothing more to add! John Archer is touring his Against the Odds show in various venues around the country between now and May. Very enjoyable!

4-starsFour he’s a jolly good fellow!

Review – Lou Sanders, Say Hello to your New Step-Mummy, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 8th February 2020

Lou Sanders Say Hello to your New Step MummyThis was another one of our take a punt and hope for the best bookings, as neither of us had ever seen (or even heard of) Lou Sanders before but I discovered she was nurturing a good reputation as one of our more promising new comedians and – honestly – that promotional photograph of her having a very intimidating-looking vape made me think seems like a nice girl – and so we booked.

And I was right. Ms Sanders took to the stage a little flustered and apologetic – she had nothing to be sorry for, she just defaulted to that general stance, probably because she’s very nicely brought up. She quickly became acquainted with Jane in the second row, whose birthday it was, and who was accompanied by her Auntie Sharon. We all sensed they were going to be trouble, but actually they were fine. Blame it on mere birthday exuberance.

Then she introduced her support act, Annie McGrath. Ms McGrath has a bright shiny stage persona, incredibly polite and slightly posh, with some fun material about the horrors of the old school reunion, encountering such frightful people like Emily and Lettice, and being aghast that the school still has a house called Isis. She also had the good fortune to go viral with a tweet – and yes, over ten years on Twitter and I’m still waiting for that to happen. She incorporates the tweet and its bizarre responses into her act, and why wouldn’t you? Very likeable and funny, and an enjoyable way to start the evening.

After a break for a second prosecco (we’re so rock’n’roll) it was time to welcome back Lou Sanders. A vision in pink – in fact an assortment of pinks – she appears as gentle as a pussycat, but you sense there’s a tiger lurking only just under the surface. She comes across as one of those genuinely honest comics who tells you the precise details of what truly goes on in their lives; if her stories are actually fictitious then she’s a damn good liar. Her priorities in life seem to be feminism, equality and a strong affection for dick. And Daddies, she’s definitely got a thing for them. There was a Daddy called Chris in the front row whom she singled out for some special treatment. As a Daddy (or at least of Daddylike age and appearance) called Chris myself, I was very grateful to have taken a seat a few rows back.

Lou SandersIncluded in her very entertaining set were how she had been given a man ban from her Personal Healer, Gill in the Pyrenees; plus letting us in on her coping strategies for living with large labia. You could never criticise her for shying away from any subject. It’s that combination of pussycat and tiger that really gives depth and contrast to her style. It feels like a very relaxed, loose, almost unstructured show, although I bet it’s structured to within an inch of its life, which is a very clever trick.

There was something about the evening that felt like it was just holding back a little; for instance, I can’t recall many belly-laughs, but then again it’s not quite that kind of comedy. Nevertheless, it’s still a very enjoyable and funny show. Lou Sanders’ tour continues through till June and is certainly worth catching!

3-starsThree-sy does it!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 1st February 2020

Screaming Blue MurderOur first time of attending a Screaming Blue Murder on a Saturday night – felt kinda weird because we’re already halfway through the weekend rather than it being a welcome curtain-raiser to those hallowed subsequent two days. Nevertheless, it was sold out yet again, and they’re still persisting on having the front two rows of the audience wrap around the comics’ podium, which has pros and cons. The pros are that there are more victims, I mean guests, for the comedians to interact with. The cons include… well, see paragraph 3.

Dan EvansOnce again MC duties were in the capably hairy hands of Dan Evans, who had plenty to contend with in the front row. It was someone’s birthday. We never found out her real name, but she was given a card addressed to “Li’l Slut” so that became her epithet of the night. She’ll always be Li’l Slut to us. It turned out that half the front rows were part of the birthday party including a lady from Mexico who got upset (quite rightly) at the mention of Brexit. Furthermore, later we had the joy to discover Mike, hiding himself away some rows back, who sold jet skis. In Northampton. You couldn’t make it up.

Paul RickettsOur first act, and someone we’ve seen a couple of times before, was Paul Ricketts. He has a relatively laid-back style and is most at home when he’s bouncing directly off the audience. He had plenty of entertaining material for us, including his bitter resentment of anyone younger than him, observations about Luton Airport, and the very funny Four Stages of an Eastenders Actor. But here’s a thing; for some reason, a number of the punters seated around the stage felt the need to go for a wee during his act, and the only way you can get out of the Underground to get to the toilets from those seats is to march out directly under the performer’s nose – even to the extent of walking on to the stage area and off again. The first time it was quite funny, but by the time four people had separately heard the call of nature it became distracting both for Paul and for us. Nevertheless, Paul battled on regardless and gave us a good half-hour’s worth of fun.

Faye TreacyNext up was someone new to us although I know she’s got a show at the Leicester Comedy Festival coming up very shortly – Faye Treacy. She’s the 21st century’s answer to George Chisholm in that she presents a comedy act plus trombone. The novelty value of this alone is worth the ticket but, additionally, Faye’s musical madness is totally hysterical. Her trombone-influenced material is unbeatable; Trump’s brain music and her vegetable climax had us in stitches. The non-trombone material in between is also enjoyable, but deep down you really don’t want her to put her instrument down.

Dan AntopolskiOur headliner was someone we’ve seen once before and things didn’t entirely go to plan – Dan Antopolski. It can happen to anyone. This time Dan was as sure-footed as a mountain gazelle. His is a subtle, intelligent act that isn’t crammed with one-liners, and in fact often the funniest bits are the bits he doesn’t actually say – there’s clever for you. As such, when you look back over his act, it’s very difficult to pick out moments or topics that really touched the spot; it’s not that they don’t exist – they do – but there’s something ethereal about his whole approach that makes him and his material hard to pin down. I do remember – and really enjoyed – his routine about iPhone versus Samsung; as for the rest of his set – it was excellent but I’m blowed if I can remember any of it.

Next Screaming Blue is on 14th February. Prepare for lots of Valentines jokes. I’m afraid we can’t make it. But you should!

Review of the Decade 2010-2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swan Lake

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

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

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

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

Nigel Kennedy plays Brahms

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

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

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

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

Forbidden Broadway

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

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

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

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

marcus-brigstocke-devil-may-care

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

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

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

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

Markus Birdman

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

johnny-vegas

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

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

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

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

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

A Chorus LineMy Fair Lady

And for Best New Musical of the Decade:

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

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

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

Hamilton

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

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

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

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

One Man Two Guvnors

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

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

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

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

The Bacchae

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

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

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

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

My Mate Dave - scene

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

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

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

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

Screenshot (1)

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

Spank

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

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

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

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

Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho

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

Blue Stockings

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

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

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

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

Imelda Staunton as Rose

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

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

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

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

charlie-stemp

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

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

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

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

A German Life

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

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

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

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

Hamletprod8

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

Review of the Year 2019 – The Tenth Annual Chrisparkle Awards

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

Are you all sitting comfortably?

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

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

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

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

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

Classical Music Concert of the Year.

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

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

Best Entertainment Show of the Year.

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

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

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

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

Best Star Standup of the Year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Musical.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best New Play.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Revival of a Play.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best play – Edinburgh

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Individual Performance in a Play – Edinburgh

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

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

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

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

Best stand-up comedy show – Edinburgh

Ten shows this year gives this top three:

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

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

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

Best of the rest – Edinburgh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Local Production

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical.

Nine performances in the shortlist, producing this top five:

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

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

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

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

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

Best Performance by an Actress in a Play.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Performance by an Actor in a Play.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theatre of the Year.

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

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

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