Yet More Theatre Reminiscences – September 1979 to July 1980

Another twenty, as there are a few student productions here.

  1. Death of a Salesman – Lyttelton Theatre, National Theatre, London, 21st September 1979.

image(685)Michael Rudman’s strong production of Arthur Miller’s fantastic play was an absolute treat. With Alf Garnett himself, Warren Mitchell, I saw how a gifted actor can shake off the role for which he was best known and totally inhabit a brand new role with consummate ease. It was a mighty, emotional and stirring performance. image(686)I also remember very strong scenes between Mitchell and Stephen Greif who was brilliant as Biff. Doreen Mantle’s Linda was very quiet and subservient in a manner that might be seen as old-fashioned today. But it was a superb production and I loved it.

 

  1. Hello Dolly – Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London, 26th September 1979.

image(683)image(692)image(693)One of the most memorable productions I can remember, I went with the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle because she was a huge fan of Carol Channing, and from this production I could certainly see why. If ever an individual performer dominated proceedings – but all for the right reasons – this was it. From the moment she stepped on stage Ms Channing exuded warmth, fun, style and a determination that we were all going to have a terrific party, and boy did she deliver. With an excellent supporting cast led by Eddie Bracken as Horace and Tudor Davies as Cornelius, this had glamour, musicality and a sheer showbiz swell. Largely copying the original 1964 production, we both loved every minute of it.

image(694)

  1. Bent – Criterion Theatre, London, 1st October 1979.

image(687)I saw this with my friends Sue and Nigel because Sue particularly wanted to see it. On reflection it was a landmark production, breaking many boundaries in its serious and sensitive examination of the persecution of gay men in Nazi Germany. That said, it had image(688)plenty of humour too and was superbly directed by Robert Chetwyn with an extraordinary cast led by Ian McKellen. Its most famous scene is the non-touching sex conversation between McKellen’s Max and Tom Bell’s Horst – maybe a salutary tale for the future, it may be the only way people can have socially distanced sex in future! A very fine and emotionally charged play.

  1. Evita – Prince Edward Theatre, London, 2nd October 1979.

image(772)image(773)image(774)Evita had been running for over a year before I finally got around to seeing it; fortunately Elaine Paige was still in the role and I have to say, she was magnificent – I completely understood and agreed with the hype. Harold Prince’s production was on a very grand scale, and you don’t need me to tell you what a great musical it is. Gary Bond was a strong Che, as was John Turner as Peron. I still think the original concept album with Julie Covington is the best recording though.

  1. – Ballet Rambert – New Theatre, Oxford, 13th October 1979.

image(766)This was my first visit to a dance show, having admired dance on TV occasionally but not really enjoying it. I went with my friends Mike and Lin to see this triple bill of works by Christopher Bruce (Night with Waning Moon and Sidewalk) and Siobhan Davies (Celebration) and really enjoyed it. Amongst the dancers were soon-to-become favourites Lucy Pethune, Ikky Maas, Catherine Becque and Christopher Bruce himself. This was the slow start of what would become a love affair with dance!

 

  1. The Undertaking – Fortune Theatre, London, 3rd November 1979.

image(718)

I decided to take a few days away from University to go back home, and whilst there decided to take a couple of London theatre trips. First up was to see this curious but actually fascinating little play at the Fortune, with Kenneth Williams as a strangely disturbing undertaker overseeing the arrangements for a weird funeral. It was an extraordinary cast led by Mr Williams, including Reggie Perrin’s CJ, John Barron, Luton Airport’s Lorraine Chase, Mrs Meldrew Annette Crosbie and The Rag Trade’s Miriam Karlin. I had dinner in Covent Garden before the show and whilst having a little walk around afterwards almost literally bumped into Kenneth Williams, who was wearing a very seedy mac and looked down his tremendous nose at me with disdain. I didn’t mind – it was a celebrity bump. I can’t remember too much about the play apart from the fact that I enjoyed it a lot.

  1. Not Now Darling – Savoy Theatre, London, 5th November 1979.

image(724)An all-star cast graced the stage of the Savoy Theatre in this revival of Ray Cooney and John Chapman’s 1967 farce that had also been made into a film in 1973. image(725)This was very much the Ray Cooney show, as he co-wrote, produced, directed and appeared in it! I think this was the first time that I had seen a preview – front stalls at the Savoy for just £5 can’t be all bad. I cannot remember that much about the show – I think perhaps it already felt a little dated but it was performed with incredible gusto by Leslie Phillips, June Whitfield, Sylvia Syms, Derek Bond, and others, as well as the aforementioned Mr Cooney.

image(713)

  1. Mother Goose – New Theatre, Oxford, 7th January 1980.

image(782)image(719)Missing out a return visit to the Palace to see Jesus Christ Superstar again, and a Christmas trip to the New Theatre Oxford to see A Night with Dame Edna again (this time the tour), my next theatre experience was my first pantomime as an (albeit only just) adult – Mother Goose. In fact, I think this was the only time I’ve ever seen this particular panto which has rather fallen out of favour. I went with my friend Jon and his girlfriend Wendy, and we sat in the balcony of the New Theatre, which is rather a long way from the stage – but nevertheless it was good fun. Mother Goose was played by John Inman, who was at the height of his TV popularity, with archetypal country bumpkin comic Billy Burden as Farmer Giles.

image(723)

  1. Jubilee Too – Hampstead Theatre, London, February 1980.

image(780)I was invited to see this first night by cousin Gill, who was friends with the writer Stephen Jeffreys. Produced by Paines Plough, it contrasted the Queen’s 1977 Silver Jubilee celebrations with the political underworld of the time. The cast were Denise Armon, Alister Cameron, Kate Saunders (now better known as a writer), Trevor Allan and Robert McIntosh.  Gill and I went to the after show party. I felt very privileged to chat to the cast members! Stephen Jeffreys was very helpful when I contacted him a few years later for assistance doing my thesis and he gave me a number of interesting ideas to explore. Jubilee Too, however, in retrospect, wasn’t one of his great successes.

image(781)

  1. Serjeant Musgrave’s Dance – Oxford Playhouse, 23rd February 1980.

image(777)image(779)A student production, by the St John’s Mummers, of John Arden’s famous military parable, featured, as Musgrave, a young Jon Cullen who I knew instantly would go on to be a fantastic actor – and so it has proved, better known by his full name Jonathan Cullen. Can’t remember that much about the production though.

 

  1. Salome/The Orchestra – Morden Hall, St Hugh’s College, Oxford, March 1980.

This double-bill of one-act plays was quite the talk of the town, even though I say it myself (I was the Stage Manager for Salome). Oscar Wilde’s play was given a new translation from the French by my friends Sue (who directed it) and Nigel, whilst other friends (Mike, Pete, Steve, Doug and others) appeared in it. My friend Lin directed The Orchestra. Given my involvement in this show, it’s particularly annoying that I cannot find my programme or the official photographs. “A total triumph” (Daily Telegraph). (In-joke).

 

  1. Twelfth Night – Oxford Playhouse, 14th March 1980.

image(734)image(735)An OUDS production, notable for a few interesting appearances. At the time I was good friends with Mark Payton, who played Sir Toby Belch, and I think gave a pretty strong performance. In the fairly uninteresting role of Fabian was a young chap from New College by name of Hughie Grant (it couldn’t have been long before he dropped the -ie from his name). He attended a party held in Mark’s college room that I remember quite vividly. The music for this production was composed by a young Rachel Portman, whose Oscar for the film Emma I saw on display in her downstairs loo about ten years ago (long story). It was directed by Jeremy Howe, currently editor of BBC’s The Archers.

image(776)

  1. Middle Age Spread – Lyric Theatre, London, 10th April 1980.

image(783)image(784)Roger Hall’s Middle Age Spread had been a big hit in New Zealand and did quite well in the West End too. Bringing together The Good Life’s Richard Briers and Paul Eddington, the play centred on a headmaster having an affair with a young teacher. Messrs Briers and Eddington were a dream team who gave great performances, but I remember at the time thinking that the play itself lacked a certain spark – it attempted to be Ayckbournian, but it didn’t quite make it. Nevertheless, it was still a good show.

image(727)

  1. Accidental Death of an Anarchist – Wyndham’s Theatre, London, 14th April 1980.

image(741)Dario Fo’s superb farce was very much the toast of the town and was given a brilliant performance by the young spirited company, Belt and Braces. Gavin Richards starred in and directed the show, as well as having adapted Fo’s original play. It was fast, furious and very very funny.  Mr Richards went on to have a varied and very successful career in theatre, TV and film. But I also have great memories of the terrific comedy playing by Gavin Muir as the two constables. As you can see, I received one of the Maniac’s calling cards – it was all in the punctuation, if you remember! Fantastic play that certainly deserves a revival.

  1. Born in the Gardens – Globe Theatre, London, 16th April 1980.

image(750)image(751)Determined to see as much Peter Nichols as possible, having really enjoyed Privates on Parade, I booked to see his latest play, Born in the Gardens, a four-hander with an excellent cast. It concerned a mother and son who lived together in a crumbling old house. It was Peter Nichols at his saddest, with some very tragic characters but great performances from Beryl Reid, Barry Foster, Peter Bowles and Jan Waters. Like Maud in the play, I still often refer to the microwave as the Michael-Wave.

  1. Annie – Victoria Palace Theatre, London, 17th April 1980.

image(748)image(749)I didn’t really want to see Annie, and I know that a 19-year-old chap on his own probably stood out like the proverbial spare prick at a wedding, but I thought I ought to, just to satisfy my general knowledge. It is a disarmingly brilliant show that bludgeons you into submission to like the little girls. How could you possibly not enjoy such superb child performances? I’m not sure which cast I saw, so Annie might have been played by Catherine Monte or Tracy Taylor, but she was very very good. The show had already undergone a change of cast so the meaty roles were Stella Moray as Miss Hannigan, Charles West as Daddy Warbucks, and, best of all, Matt Zimmermann as Bert Healy.

  1. An Evening with Dave Allen – New Theatre, Oxford, May 1980.

image(764)image(765)The famous Irish comic Dave Allen took his one-man show to Oxford for a week, and I couldn’t believe that none of my friends wanted to see him. So I went alone, and he was fantastic. Nothing more to say!

 

 

image(767)

  1. Krapp’s Last Tape and Endgame – Oxford Playhouse, 18th June 1980.

image(760)image(761)A double-bill of two of Samuel Beckett’s intriguing plays; but not just any old double-bill. Directed by Beckett himself, this was the San Quentin Drama Workshop’s productions, presented by the Goodman Theatre of Chicago. The man behind the Drama Workshop, Rick Cluchey, played Krapp and Hamm in both plays, with Bud Thorpe as Clov, Alan Mandell as Nagg and Teresita Garcia Suro as Nell. It was fantastic.

  1. Sisterly Feelings – Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, London, 2nd July 1980.

image(757)Alan Ayckbourn’s latest play was one of those clever occasions when a toss of a coin onstage determines which path the play will take. I can’t remember now whether it was Abigail or Dorcas who took Simon to the picnic, but I do seem to recall I saw the “Abigail under canvas” second act rather than “Dorcas at the races”. An exciting and fun affair, this had a tremendous cast with Dr Cameron himself, Andrew Cruickshank, Penelope Wilton, Michael Bryant, Michael Gambon, Anna Carteret, Stephen Moore and a young hopeful by the name of Simon Callow. Highly enjoyable.

  1. Private Lives – Duchess Theatre, London, 7th July 1980.

image(752)image(753)This Greenwich Theatre production of Noel Coward’s crackingly good play came with excellent notices but I found it rather stiff and starchy. Maria Aitken played Amanda and I think she made the character a little too unlikeable. Can’t remember much more about it, I’m afraid.

 

 

 

Thanks for sticking with this long post of theatrical memories! My next post will be back to the holiday snaps and some memories from a day in Dublin last summer. Stay safe!

Review – Dance to the Music, The Cresset, Peterborough, 2nd March 2020

88189364_1401628980017619_5250849449256681472_nThis was my first ever visit to the Cresset in Peterborough, even though it’s barely an hour’s drive away from where we live. On the plus side: there’s plenty of free parking, a useful bar/restaurant area, and friendly staff. On the minus side: it feels a bit like a sports centre and when you enter the Sovereign Hall for the show, it’s like someone’s quickly erected a makeshift stage at one end of an aircraft hangar. We were in row E and the seats are not particularly comfortable, there’s no rake until you get to row AA and the place doesn’t have much of an atmosphere. As a result, any show you see there is going to have to work really hard to get its entertainment value across. Fortunately, the cast of Dance to the Music do indeed work really hard!

Kristina RihanoffPerhaps I should come clean here, gentle reader, and explain (if you didn’t already know from my blog about Soo Yoga) that Strictly Come Dancing’s Kristina Rihanoff, who has masterminded (mistressminded?) this show also happens to be my yoga instructor, which made us want even more to come and see it. Added to which, a couple of weeks before the tour started, two of the dancers, plus host Jake Quickenden, joined us for a yoga session. So I almost feel part of the company!

Jake QuickendenBack to the show. It’s an informative, entertaining and spectacular journey through a century of dance, from the Charlestons of the 1920s to the shapes people throw on the dance floor today. Choreographed and devised by Kristina Rihanoff, it consists of a series of retrospectives celebrating various famous dance styles decade by decade, with a great choice of contemporary music and lavish costumes. Some of the music is pre-recorded, but much is also performed by the aforementioned host and singer Jake Quickenden; he of the jungle, X-Factor and Dancing on Ice – and he’s never going to let us forget it. Jake has a charming, likeable, relaxed style that quickly wins the audience over and he narrates the show with great humour and abundant cheekiness. He also gives us some great musical performances.

Jo BaiaoA fantastic highlight was Jake’s singing I Heard it through the Grapevine to a seductive rumba (I think it was a rumba – I’m not an expert!) by Kristina with lead dancer Jo Baiao. There’s also a terrific sequence to the music of the Andrews Sisters, with the whole cast throwing themselves into a jive/lindy hop routine. And I really enjoyed the disco section, and much appreciated the fact that they featured one of my favourite 70s tunes, Play that Funky Music by Wild Cherry. I’m not sure how often Peterborough swings to that particular soundtrack.

Aaron BrownOf course, there’s always that moment that everyone dreads, the audience participation section. Kristina reminds us of her Strictly Paso Doble triumph with John Sergeant, where her celebrity partner dragged the poor woman across the floor like a burglar with his swag. Jake scours the crowd for a chap willing to give it a go on stage with Kristina. Fortunately for us all, as this was the last night, he picked on a willing guy in the front row to whirl the cape onstage – and it was none other than Ben Cohen, Kristina’s dance- and life-partner! Whilst all the other guys in the audience breathed a sigh of relief, Ben promenaded a few classic Paso poses, much to everyone’s amusement.

Marcella Solimeo and Dylon DanielsIn addition to Kristina and Jo, we were also treated to the dance artistry of Aaron Brown, Angelina Anastasia, James Davies-Williams and guest stars Marcella Solimeo and Dylon Daniels. I must say I thought Marcella was especially enjoyable to watch, with great dancing mixed with a huge personality. There were also two local bonuses: local youth theatre Kindred gave us a great dance routine, including a very funny let’s make Jake look too old for this sequence; and then we also had the pleasure of Kristina’s young Bespoke Ballroom company, showcasing their talents. Both teams of young performers did themselves proud.

Angelina AnastasiaThis was – allegedly – the last time Kristina will dance her way around a stage; and was definitely the last night of this particular tour. Not sure if I believe it; once a performer, always a performer. Time will tell. If this did turn out to be the very last Dance to the Music, then I’m sorry you missed a treat.

Five alive, let dance thrive!

Review – Coppelia, Russian State Ballet of Siberia, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 28th January 2020

83889505_514489085853548_7127031167198429184_nIt’s a happy welcome back to the Russian State Ballet of Siberia, who graced us with their presence last year when we enjoyed their Snow Maiden. For 2020 they have returned with productions of Sleeping Beauty on Monday and Swan Lake on Wednesday, but we plumped for Coppelia on Tuesday, because we’ve only seen it once before and I did feel like I needed a refresher.

CoppeliaBased in Krasnoyarsk they bring an enticing whiff of the Steppes to our shores, blending innate elegance with technical expertise and a delightful observance of all the conventions of the Grand Russian Ballet. These conventions tend to get unrecognised by us Britishers, but I’m always amused and impressed by the performers’ ability to break off from a dance to take a spontaneous round of applause (always received with utmost humility) and I love the way they walk a wide circuit of the stage to receive gracious acknowledgement gestures from the dancers clinging to the edges. During the next week I shall wave graciously at Mrs Chrisparkle when she comes out of the shower. If it’s good enough for the Siberians, it’s good enough for us.

Swanhilda and her friendsIt was good to be reminded of the content of Coppelia, because it’s a charming and surprisingly funny ballet, with the age-old simple story of boy meets girl meets automated doll. Girl gets jealous but when she discovers her rival is no more than some painted wood, she tricks boy into believing that she is the doll. Truth is revealed, they flee from the ire of the Doctor who has made the doll, there’s a long wedding sequence and they all live happily ever after. No dying swans here. A university friend once pointed out the similarities between the choreography in the video that accompanied Toni Basil’s Mickey and Coppelia. How we scoffed and mocked him for his pretentiousness. But, on reflection, he’s completely right.

Corps de BalletScenery-wise, it would be fair to say the Russian State Ballet of Siberia travel light, but they make up for it with some wonderfully stunning costumes. The ladies are resplendent in beautiful dresses, a mix of bold and subtle colours and styles that bring their own vivacity to the stage. Similarly, the gentlemen are bedecked in smart tunics and strongly coloured shirts; Egor Osokin’s fantastic red military suit as the Burgomeister stood out, as did Ivan Karnaukhov’s Doctor Coppelius’ bright blue cloak creation. The whole thing genuinely is a treat for the eyes, and that’s even without considering the dancing.

The CompanyThe evening started curiously; the lights went down and then there was a long pause before anything happened. Some desultory applause started at the back of the auditorium and at first I thought it was a few disgruntled punters taking the mick. But no, they could see from their vantage point that Maestro Anatoliy Chepurnoy had mounted his podium, although in the front stalls we couldn’t see him. Suddenly his little head popped up over the railing, and with some encouraging hand gestures exhorted us into a rousing round of applause. More! More! his wavy hands were saying, so a few pantomime-style whoops and cheers came from somewhere behind me. Satisfied that we’d greeted the audience with the fervour they deserved, he decided to get on with the conducting.

Franz and SwanhildaDelibes’ score is crammed with luscious tunes all the way through, none more luscious than its opening number, the famous Mazurka which gets your feet tapping and your legs entrechatting. They’ve played about with the sequence of the music a little bit; nevertheless, it sounds great, despite the couple of duff notes played by the horn towards the end of the first Act. They’ve also removed some of the spookier aspects to the story, making Coppelius less of a Doctor Evil and more of a crotchety old fop. No matter, it works well with Alexander Gorsky and Gennady Malkhasiants’ revised choreography.

Elena SvinkoIn the lead role of Swanhilda, Elena Svinko is outstanding. She was a magnificent Kupava in last year’s Snow Maiden and once again she brings elegance, skill and a terrific presence to the stage. She uses her expressions to tell the story so well that we completely understand the character and motivations of Swanhilda. She also always looks like she’s having a really wonderful time on stage, which is always a bonus for the Russian ballet. She is matched by Marcello Pelizzoni as Franz, a fresh-faced youth with impressive agility and style, who’s also a superb storyteller. Was he really only born in 1999? That’s amazing – this young man is truly going places. Together the two leads created an excellent partnership.

Marcello PelizzoniI enjoyed Ivan Karnaukhov’s semi-villainous Coppelius, flouncing theatrically around the stage; Mariami Kuloshvili didn’t have a large role to dance as the Coppelia Doll but when she brought it to life it was very entertaining. Miryam Roca created a very vivacious Town Celebrity character, and she was nicely accompanied by Egor Osokin’s dignified Burgomeister. The Fairy was danced by Anastasia Osokina with all the grace and charm that we saw last year, and I particularly enjoyed the trio danced by Nerea Astorga, Sofya Eremina and Arianna Guastaferro. The six Corps de Ballet dancers who played Swanhilda’s friends were totally enchanting, particularly bringing out the character and humour in the scene where they break into the Doctor’s toyroom.

There were one or two slightly dicey moments; a male member of the Corps had a worried look on his face throughout the whole of one dance and when it came to an end he wore that relieved expression you see on a pensioner when they’ve reached the top of an escalator and congratulate themselves on having got that far. It may have been the same chap who in the second Act dropped his hat early on and then kept giggling about it with his friends. There was also a moment when I had to stop Mrs C laughing when Mr Karnaukhov got the hem of this cloak caught under the door to the Doctor’s studio, and you could see frantic shiftings of material from the other side in an attempt to liberate the offending garment, whilst dancers battled on regardless. Inevitable, when a company only plays one performance of a dance at a theatre, that these little issues will emerge. But, on the whole, it was a high-quality performance and everyone seemed happy with how it all went, especially once they’d found Mr Chepurnoy to join them for the final curtain. After their visit to Northampton the company continues its tour to Wolverhampton, High Wycombe, Wimbledon, Southend, Canterbury, Brighton, Halifax, Oxford, Leicester, Basingstoke, Swindon, Ipswich, Bournemouth and Sheffield. I always enjoy seeing these dancers – and I’m sure you would too.

Four they’re jolly good fellows

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 – Richard Alston Dance Company, Final Edition, Royal and Derngate, 2nd October 2019

72349332_449177002383448_5472811477918285824_nYou can almost hear Frank Sinatra ringing in your ears… And now, the end is near, and so I face, the final curtain…. Yes, that sad moment we hoped would never come – next March the Richard Alston Dance Company shuts up shop for the last time, with decades of magical performances behind them that have contributed so much over the years to my personal enjoyment of contemporary dance.

Richard AlstonI first saw a Richard Alston piece way back in 1980 when Rainbow Ripples was part of a programme danced by Ballet Rambert (as they were then called) at the New Theatre Oxford, in the company of my friends Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters, even though they didn’t have those lavish titles bestowed on them at the time. My first encounter with the Richard Alston Dance Company was with Mrs Chrisparkle at the Wycombe Swan in 1998, featuring, as their star dancer, a young Martin Lawrance; and since then we’ve seen them no less than on fifteen occasions. These are sad times we’re dealing with here.

RADC Team of 2019To wrap up their glorious place in modern dance history, they’re undertaking one final tour – the Final Edition, which, after Edinburgh last week, visited Northampton this week. The programme on Wednesday featured two new pieces and the return of two old favourites, more of which shortly. But first, for the third year running, we opened with a Curtain Raiser, Flocking, from Two Thirds Sky in collaboration with the Creative Learning department at the Royal and Derngate and Northampton School for Boys.

Brahms HungarianFlocking, choreographed by RADC alumnus Ihsaan de Banya, with Laura Gibson and Lisa Spackman, is a short but beautiful piece that echoes the sights and sounds of a coastline, with the flocking of birds, the sounds of the waves, and the movement of flotsam and jetsam, all to Zoe Keating’s superb 2010 soundtrack, Flying and Flocking. The 25 young dancers were outstanding in their crisp, creative precision of movement, expressing the choreography (which reminded me of Christopher Bruce in many ways) with confidence and artistry. It was a truly impressive experience, and each performer gave it tremendous commitment. A fantastic way to start the evening.

DetourThe first of the company pieces was the return of Richard Alston’s beautiful Brahms Hungarian, a deceptively complex and witty mix of Hungarian gypsy dance with classical ballet moves – I’m sure I saw a nod to Le Corsaire in there somewhere. With the women in summery floral dresses and the men in trendy waistcoats, this dance has all the visual beauty you could want. Pianist Jason Ridgway deftly plays Brahms’ Hungarian Dances in their non-orchestrated version, which gives the whole dance an extra layer of elegance. The partnerships between the dancers all worked extremely well, but for me, the standout performances were, as they were throughout the whole evening, by Joshua Harriette (my One To Watch from last year) and Ellen Yilma.

MazurAfter an interval, our next dance was a revival of Richard Alston’s 2015 creation, Mazur, danced with enormous expression and gentlemanliness by Joshua Harriette and Nicholas Shikkis. Using the example of how Chopin’s Mazurkas reminded the composer of his homeland when he was abroad, it’s a dance about a meeting of minds between friends, maybe more, sharing what they have lost. Messrs Harriette and Shikkis brought great warmth and balance to this piece and the occasional flash of humour, whilst executing it with technical mastery; and once again the dance benefited from Jason Ridgway’s charming and expressive playing.

A Far CryNext up was Martin Lawrance’s new piece – and his final creation for the company – A Far Cry. In the programme notes he states that a far cry is “when you want to express its difference from something familiar” – and sums up his feelings of loss that the company is going to close. This beautiful dance emanates both sorrow and loss; the significance of the image of the fading burning sun on the backdrop towards the end of the dance was not lost on me. The choreography itself is a mix of the majestic and the manic; majestic when the dancers are confidently going through their steps, manic when they’re rushing around, rather like lost frenetic molecules, scrambling for survival. A very effective and compellingly moving work.

Brahms HungarianAfter a second interval, our final dance was Richard Alston’s new piece, Voices and Light Footsteps, danced by the whole company in ten movements to the music of Monteverdi – a mixture of orchestral, instrumental pieces and stunning madrigals. This time the women are in stunning satin evening dresses, whereas the guys are comparatively scruffy which I thought looked slightly odd. The dance itself is very haunting, very mellifluous; the dancers frequently break into small groups of three and these trios work together very creatively, suggesting relationships or themes that might not be there when just two dancers are partnered together. The combination of the music and the movement had a very relaxing effect, providing an almost cosy ending to the programme, and to the company’s work.

Martin LawranceIf you’re lucky enough to be near Brighton, Swansea, Bromley, Aldeburgh, Woking, Glasgow, Warwick, or the company’s home base at The Place, in addition to Bern in Switzerland – good for you, you have one last chance to see the company on this tour between now and November. Can’t deny it though – I’m gutted that this is the end. I’m sure that both Sir Richard and Martin Lawrance will continue to create fantastic new works in the future, but I don’t know where we’ll go to find them. To all the dancers, choreographers, designers and musicians who have given us such pleasure through the company over the years, I have just one word to say to you. Bravo!

The Edinburgh Fringe One-Weeker 2019 – (Some)Body, 24th August 2019

(Some)BodyNow for some thought-provoking and atmospheric dance, with Alyona Ageeva’s PosleSlov Theatre’s production of (Some)Body at C Venues – C Aquila – Temple at 15:25 on Saturday 24th. Let’s read the blurb: “Does a body make us human? Does it have a soul? What hides beneath nudity? What is nudity itself? Nudity is extreme openness and vulnerability and, at the same time, an incomprehensible power connected not only with sexuality. The magic of Eros, the compelling power of nudity, the way up and the way down, transcendence and co-creation, fragility and strength. Life, death, pain and love – all of this complex and unspeakable physical phenomenon is what we are researching in (Some)Body. ‘Hypnotic’ (Guardian). ‘Bold, sensitive and meaningful’ (FringeReview.co.uk). ‘Compelling’ ***** (BroadwayBaby.com).

We saw this company last year with their creative Sky Labyrinths and it was excellent. Check back around 4.30 pm to see if this production is too. By then the next preview blog should be available to read too.

A very interesting piece for number of reasons. At first the dynamic is full of impact and tension; but after a while you sense that there is no sense of progress or development. Choreographically it’s largely slow and stylised, and totally devoid of expression. In one sense, that’s disappointing, in another that’s what the whole show is about. Thought-provoking for sure; it could have gone even further.

The Edinburgh Fringe One-Weeker 2019 – For Only an Hour, 18th August 2019

For Only an HourFirst show of this year’s fringe that might be classed as dance – although it also comes under cabaret – For Only an Hour, at Dance Base, Studio 3, at 19:35 on Sunday 18th. Here’s the blurb: “‘Sanger is one of the most versatile artists on the British stage, as this performance amply demonstrates’ (Dance Europe, 2018). Danced to a hilarious medley of Angela Lansbury, Delia Smith and Bette Midler this one-man romp is a pseudo-glamorous jaunt through pop culture, queer art, childhood dreams and life-changing surgery. It may be entertaining, but it demands a punishing vulnerability of the performer with surprises at every turn. Supported by haunting music by Donna McKevitt, glittering queer garments by Andrew Walker, mentoring by Wendy Houstoun and a unique improvised lighting design by Jen Wren.”

The title, apparently, is taken from Jacques Brel’s Jackie – so that’s already got me even more intrigued. I’ve enjoyed Wendy Houstoun’s work with DV8 in the past so it will be interesting to see her influence on Mr Sanger. I’m expecting this to be pretty funny in parts, although no doubt mixed with lots of pathos. Check back when it’s finished shortly before 9pm to see what we thought of it. By then the next preview blog should be available to read too.

You can really see the influence of Houstoun’s work in this extremely entertaining, occasionally unsettling piece, performed with terrific aplomb and fluency by Phil Sanger, who, apart from anything else has a really beautiful voice; I loved his version of Jacky – Tacky – and his can-can is amazing! Very enjoyable!

Review – Matthew Bourne’s Romeo + Juliet, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 28th May 2019

Romeo + JulietHas there ever been an original work that has inspired more variations than Romeo and Juliet? From the Russian ballet of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, to West Side Story and a whole lot of other works, those star-cross’d lovers have influenced so many creative souls. And in language too – how many times have you heard that someone was “a bit of a Romeo”? I’m yet to meet “a bit of a Juliet”, although, considering Matthew Bourne’s new version, that might not altogether be a bad thing….

R+J in loveFollowing their successful Lord of the Flies, Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures company has continued its groundbreaking work with young dancers. Not only have some of that class of 2014 gone on to carve dance careers for themselves, but for more than a year now the company has worked with six young, local dancers in each of the locations where Romeo + Juliet will be staged, integrating them seamlessly into the professional cast. It wasn’t until the final curtain call that I worked out who were the local young dancers in our production – each and everyone of them gave a first-class performance and I have great hopes for what they will go on to achieve.

Set in the not too distant future, the Verona Institute is one of those vaguely intimidating establishments that may have originally been set up for the good of its patients (or its inmates, or its captives, you decide) but has gone distinctly off-message with the cruelty of its security staff and the strictness of its mentors. Think Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in cahoots with Hamidou the prison guard in Midnight’s Express and you get the picture. Only the kindly Rev. Bernadette Laurence, who happily encourages music, dancing and – let’s not deny it – sexual intimacy between members of her imprisoned flock, goes against the grain – albeit to no benefit to herself.

R+J Glitterball sceneSome adaptations are close to the original; others are not. This, being Matthew Bourne’s conception, takes the original Romeo and Juliet as a mere hint of a serving suggestion. There’s no sense of warring Montagues and Capulets, no prior love intrigue between Romeo and Rosaline, no apothecary and no poison. Tybalt, rather than channelling his violence towards massacring Montagues, concentrates on physical and sexual abuse towards Juliet, traditionally his cousin. Mercutio and Balthasar have a gay relationship; and Juliet kills Romeo, which, having thought long and hard about it in the hours since I saw the show, is a concept with which I still have a lot of problems.

R&JAll the hallmarks of a top-quality Matthew Bourne production are there. Lez Brotherston’s set is so evocative of a municipal/school swimming pool with its white shiny bricks, and its separate Boys and Girls entrances (to which no one pays any attention), that you can almost smell the chlorine. What makes it different is the prison-style barred doorways and gates that step up the sense of the young patients being shut off and incarcerated. Outside there’s probably an exercise yard. Why anyone would voluntarily check in, like Romeo’s parents appear to do with him, beats me. Remind me not to book into the Verona Institute; it isn’t anything like as appealing as it looks in the promotional brochure.

Brett Morris’ fantastic orchestra play those sumptuous Prokofiev melodies with power and eloquence. The score has been re-orchestrated for this production, choosing a different combination of instruments, in an attempt to modernise it, create an acoustic sound-world (so says the programme) and make it generally more relevant. It works very well; the music is stunning throughout and accompanies the dancing perfectly.

R+J togetherThe dancers are all on excellent form, with some beautiful pas de deux from Paris Fitzpatrick and Cordelia Braithwaite as the eponymous couple, the powerfully menacing movement and presence of Dan Wright as the fearsome Tybalt, and a characterful and cheeky coupling of Reece Causton as Mercutio and Jackson Fisch as Balthasar. Daisy May Kemp brings humour to the role of the Reverend Bernadette, and there’s some superb and eye-catching work from Callum Bowman’s Sebastian, Hannah Mason’s Frenchie and Bryony Harrison’s Dorcas.

However, despite all these excellent ingredients, apart from Balthasar’s decline into zombie level distress after the death of Mercutio, I found it all strangely unmoving. The dance begins, Blood Brothers-like, with a melodramatic tableau of the dead Romeo and Juliet on their slab, so you already know it’s imbued with fatalism and isn’t going to end well. The dancing and choreography are spectacular to watch, the visual effects are very powerful (wardrobe must curse all that blood on those nice white clothes), and there are some amusing and horrific vignette moments that keep you thoroughly entertained. But at the end of the day, I feel this is too far away from the original Romeo and Juliet story to bathe in its reflected tragedy. Of course, as a Matthew Bourne creation, it naturally still towers over many other modern dance productions, simply by dint of its expansiveness, its inventive choreography and its overall vision.

R&J in glitterThe tour continues to Plymouth, the Lowry, Cardiff, Sadler’s Wells, Norwich, Birmingham, Canterbury, Southampton, Nottingham and winds up in Newcastle in mid-October. Bourne aficionados will want to see it as a matter of course, and will doubtless love its sheer spectacle; why wouldn’t you? Romeo and Juliet fans might be slightly more disappointed. It goes without saying that the terrific performances carry it through; but, knowing how astounding Sir Matthew’s dance works can be, something in me kinda wanted more.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Seasons in our World/Peter and the Wolf, Birmingham Royal Ballet, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 15th May 2019

Seasons in our World/Peter and the WolfIt’s been a couple of years since the Birmingham Royal Ballet danced their way onto the Derngate stage – and many years before that since we last saw them at the Birmingham Hippodrome. So it’s always a pleasure to have the opportunity to enjoy some first-rate dance and a quality live music performance from the Royal Ballet Sinfonia. For our performance, the company’s principal dancers were resting so it was an interesting chance to see some of the younger performers have their time to shine.

Seasons in our WorldThe first piece, Seasons in our World, was inspired by a poem by David Laing, Lord Lieutenant of Northamptonshire, no less, and balletomane to boot. Its rather complex birth was a result of several discussions and workshops between its three young choreographers, Laura Day, Lachlan Monaghan and Kit Holder, who are all members of the company. Ms Day wanted to create the Spring section of the work. Mr Monaghan, who is Australian, wanted to incorporate the dangers of a too-hot Antipodean climate into the Summer section, whilst Mr Holder choreographed Winter. They also collaborated with award-winning composer Cevanne Horrocks-Hopayian in creation of the accompanying music.

Karla DoorbarThe result is a very enjoyable, if difficult to follow, thirty-five minutes of elegant, delicate, even fragile choreography, performed with great skill and grace by the company. It’s a feast for the eyes, with shimmery, sensual costumes, stunning lighting, and clever interaction between the dancers and the see-through scenery panels. Dancers perform in threes, and in couples, and with some excellent solo work by Haoliang Feng (I believe). The Winter section offers a little more humour than the rest of the dance, with sequences where the dancers huddle together like freezing penguins; although their close work together reminded me more of the background characters in Christopher Bruce’s Ghost Dances (which is no bad thing). The music is very suggestive and full of mini-melodies that you think are going to take off but then they stop and move on to another theme; very evocative to listen to, but also very disconcerting, and with some surprisingly harsh percussion, no doubt there to reflect the potential harshness of climate.

Haolieng FengI enjoyed it, and I liked very much how Winter turned into next year’s Spring; but I couldn’t help but think it lacked a certain something. Maybe having three choreographers equals too many cooks? Certainly you wouldn’t say that the piece as a whole had one vision; but then, I guess, that wasn’t the idea in the first place. No question as to the quality of the dance though, it was elegant and beautiful throughout.

Peter and the WolfI still have the Music for Pleasure recording of Peter and the Wolf performed by the Little Symphony of London and narrated by Paul Daneman – I must have been about nine when I got it. I loved it – and as a result would pompously announce that Prokofiev was my favourite composer; and, the best part of fifty years later, he’s still very high up there in my affections and respect. Peter and the Wolf is awash with brilliant tunes, lush orchestrations, and creative recreations of animal interaction as portrayed by an orchestra. The slinky movement of the cat on the clarinet, the awkward grumpiness of the duck on the oboe, the featherweight frippery of the bird on the flute, the sinister stealth of the wolf are all beautifully realised; plus, of course, Peter’s youthful self-confidence on the strings and the swagger of the triumphal march at the end.

Gus PayneNaturally, it lends itself perfectly to the medium of dance, as the inventive choreographer Ruth Brill, also a member of the company – this evening’s entertainment is nothing if not in-house – expertly proves. Updated from its original pro-Soviet propaganda background of 1936, this production sets it in some municipal backyard, with a dirty old dumped armchair, a broken supermarket trolley, bin stores and some construction scaffolding. At first, I couldn’t see how that would work at all, but you very quickly realise that it fits like a dream. And the cast of characters bridge both this urban setting and the imaginary meadow setting of the original perfectly.

Alys SheeKarla Doorbar’s Peter (yes, a female Peter because the character is “defiant, goal-driven, carefree, moving on instinct” according to Ruth Brill) is a trendy, Sporty-Spice kind of girl, clearly able to take charge of any situation. Gus Payne’s bird is dressed in blue with a flapping yellow jacket, which again represents both the animal and the trendy young urbanite. Alexander Yap’s wolf is in a grey hoodie, Alys Shee’s duck is welded to her headphones, Eilis Small is in black boots, Max Maslen’s Grandfather in comfortable loungewear and the hunters are all girls about town.

Alexander YapIt’s a very effective set of characterisations, and the choreography uses all the available space, on and off the construction site, with great inventiveness. Being really picky, there were a couple of moments though where the choreography just didn’t tie in with the narration. For example, Hollie McNish’s enjoyable and conspiratorial voice tells us “Peter, sitting in the tree, said “Don’t shoot!”” But she wasn’t sitting in the tree, she was down near where we imagine the pond to be. Koen Kessels’ orchestra did a magnificent job with Prokofiev’s score, and, quite apart from being a thoroughly enjoyable dance to watch, it was a true treat for the ears too. But the dancers were all on absolute top form and I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Eilis SmallIt has to be said; this is quite an odd combination of pieces, as Seasons in our World is rather difficult to follow as a narration, whereas nothing could be more straightforward in the story-telling department than Peter and the Wolf. And for a show that would naturally attract many children to the audience, I would imagine the first dance would perplex a number of youngsters, who would get fidgety as a result. For a young-at-heart adult like myself, the programme was an enjoyable mix of the challenging and the reassuring. After its couple of nights in Northampton, the tour continues to Shrewsbury, Malvern and Wolverhampton. Recommended!

Production and dancer photos from the Birmingham Royal Ballet website

Review – Ballet Black, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th April 2019

Ballet BlackAlthough Ballet Black was founded in 2001, I’ve never come across their work before, so when I saw they were having a night at the Royal and Derngate, this had to be the perfect opportunity to see what they are all about.

PendulumIt’s a small company with just seven dancers appearing in the three short works performed in the current tour. I don’t think they’re awash with cash either, so staging and props are kept to the minimum, but that concentrates the mind wonderfully on the quality of the dance and the choreography – and, in this production, some beautifully effective lighting and costumes.

ClickThe programme kicks off with a short work, Pendulum, choreographed by Martin Lawrance, whose work with Richard Alston I have long admired. Originally produced for the company in 2009, it features two dancers, Sayaka Ichikawa and Mthuthuzeli November, probing each other’s character and sizing each other up by means of collaborative dancing together and combative dancing apart. It’s arresting, powerful choreography set to pounding, vibrating abstract beats, which both excites and disconcerts the audience, not least with its surprise sudden ending. Pendulum tests the dancers’ skills to the limit and they gave it all the strength it requires.

Click 3No break, it’s straight into the next dance, Click!, which couldn’t be more different. Choreographed by Scottish Ballet’s Sophie Laplane, this is a mainly light-hearted work that examines the various meanings of the word Click – whether it be summoning attention with your fingers, changing from mood to mood, two people just clicking in a relationship, and so on. It’s a smart idea and is carried off with great panache by the five dancers. What really grabs your attention is David Plater’s superbly stimulating lighting design, bathing each of the dancers in their own strong colour that stays with them throughout the dance, whichever part of the stage they occupy. Isabela Coracy leads the group, like a yellow circus ringmaster, dictating the pace and the activity of the other dancers. There’s a wonderfully witty and quirky routine performed by Ebony Thomas and Marie Astrid Mence to The Mudlarks’ Just the Snap of your Fingers, which brought out all the fun of the dancers’ personalities, as well as a beautiful, emotional pas de deux by Cira Robinson and Jose Alves. I thoroughly enjoyed the different atmospheres conjured up by each of the dancers in the different elements of the dance.

Ingoma 7After the interval, the final dance is a new work choreographed by Ballet Black’s own Mthuthuzeli November – and the first time the company has commissioned a work by one of its own team. Ingoma (which translates as Song or Anthem, in Zulu) was inspired by the stories of the South African Miners’ strikes in the 1940s as well as Gerard Sekoto’s stunning painting Song of the Pick, which depicts a row of miners, each with their pick raised high above their heads, ready to work in unison for the gain of the white, pipe-smoking supervisor who gazes idly by. That particular stance is very effectively replicated in Mr November’s impressive and bold choreography.

IngomaI’d be lying if I said I fully followed the story of this dance, but it’s full of emotional and heart-hitting images and sequences. The dancers rap their rubber boots to create a soft thud that reminded me of their trudging through water; there are stunning tableaux, affecting moments between the miners and their womenfolk; and depictions of grief that have presumably come from the miners’ deaths. It’s a fully charged onslaught of the senses, perhaps made even stronger by the lack of obvious narrative. Scenes from lives over many years, perhaps.

Ingoma 4It’s always enjoyable to discover a new dance company – even if they’ve already been going for eighteen years! This is a satisfying triple bill creating a variety of moods and memories. The tour continues to June, visiting Bristol, Cambridge, Derby, Birmingham, Edinburgh, and the Linbury Theatre at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. Well worth seeing!

Production photos variously by Rick Guest, Mthuthuzeli November, Tristram Kenyon/The Guardian and Bill Cooper