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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Are you all sitting comfortably?

 

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

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

 

Classical Music Concert of the Year.

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

 

Best Entertainment Show of the Year.

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

 

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

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

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

 

Best Star Standup of the Year.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Best Musical.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Best New Play.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

Best Revival of a Play.

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

Best Local Production

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

 

Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical.

Eight performances in the shortlist, producing this top five:

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

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

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

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

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

 

Best Performance by an Actress in a Play.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Best Performance by an Actor in a Play.

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Theatre of the Year.

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

Review – Fascinating Aida, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 10th October 2021

Fascinating Aida38 years – that’s how long Fascinating Aida have been going; it’s also how long it’s taken us to see them. Mrs Chrisparkle’s parents saw them in Sydney in the 1980s and loved them. Of course the personnel (or should that be the HR) has changed over the years, but Dillie Keane has stuck with it through and through – she created it, after all. Adele Anderson joined nine months later, and, at current staffing levels, the third Fascinator has been Liza Pulman since 2004 – It looks like she’s a keeper.

Dillie KeaneTheir timeless cabaret style act suits all venues and all occasions, so long as you don’t mind hearing the odd filthy word. That’s a major part of their appeal. Three relatively refined ladies, dressed with elegance, coiffured with style, accompanied by an apparently dignified gentleman at the Grand Piano (Michael Roulston), present entertaining songs spanning a range of options from pseudo-classical, West End chic to pub piano. But these ladies are neither Joyce Grenfell nor Dame Hilda Bracket (although I sense a little influence of both) – they’re bang up to date with political satire, menopausal misery, coping with Covid, sexual shenanigans and gender fluidity. Adele AndersonAnd the occasional use of the f and c words just seem totally appropriate with the content although not the style, which gives rise to extra frissons of humour.

This Northampton gig was originally scheduled for 4th April 2020 so it’s taken a full 18 months to come to fruition! But it was definitely worth the wait. A packed house (and I mean packed, you rarely see the Upper Circle at the Derngate auditorium so full) roared and cheered their way through a programme of songs, some familiar, some not so. Indeed, when they ended the first half with their greatest hit Cheap Flights, Dillie had to stop and start again because some audience members were clapping along a little over-exuberantly.

Liza PulmanMy favourites from their song sheet for the night was the opening number Fake News, which brilliantly encapsulates everything that’s wrong with the country today, the Bulgarian Song Cycle which pokes fun at both politics and pompous music, Suddenly New Zealand, which re-evaluates our pandemic holiday options (although might already be going a little out of date!), and Prisoner of Gender, which is a moving and powerful account of Fascinating AidaAdele’s growing up in the wrong body and her transition to a beautiful woman. Other fun songs were Is it Me or is it Hot in Here, Boomerang Kids and Lerwick Town, and a delightfully researched and very funny homage to our town of Northampton. I must admit, there was one song, Lieder, that left me completely cold, although I know I was in a minority of one (or maybe two, Mrs C didn’t get it either). And there’s also their wonderful paean to the noble art of Dogging.

The show went down a storm and everyone loved it. I can say no more than that! Enormous fun. The current tour started late 2019, was then interrupted by You Know What, and resumed a few weeks ago and is scheduled to go right up to June 2022. So there should be plenty of opportunities to grab a ticket!

4-starsFour they’re jolly good fellows!

Review – The Take That Experience, Buxton Opera House, 9th September 2021

Take That ExperienceI’ll be honest with you, gentle reader, the main reason I booked to see The Take That Experience on the last night of our week’s holiday in the Peak District was finally to take a peek inside the Buxton Opera House, a building I’ve known about for decades but never seen a show there. And I have to say it’s quite a curious place. The lavish gilt decoration inside Frank Matcham’s 1903 building, as it drapes itself around the proscenium arch and the balconies and galleries, gleams beautifully with true wedding-cake magnificence, full of luxury and grandeur. The flooring, however, as you make your way to your Stalls seats, is a dull grey lino, and the Stalls Bar has all the comfort and style of a 1960s urinal. If more than three people are waiting at the bar, the queue reaches outside and gets mingled with the queue waiting to go into the Ladies’ loo, so do be careful with your orienteering skills. So, something of a mismatch, but I’m glad I’ve now chalked it off my list of Theatres I Haven’t Visited Yet.

Take That ExperienceWe’re quite partial to a spot of Take That; Mrs Chrisparkle, in particular, has been a bit of a secret fan since the early 90s. In fact, there’s no secret about it at all. The story that she was once heard shouting out I Love You Jason! may or may not be apocryphal, and may or may not have taken place at a Take That concert. In recent years we’ve seen Never Forget, which, try as we might, we never will, The Band, which was surprisingly superb, and the lads themselves at Milton Keynes. But we’d never before seen a straightforward, honest to its boots, tribute act.

Take That ExperienceIt does me no credit when I confess that I didn’t have much in the way of expectation for this show. But – guess what? – The Take That Experience does exactly what it says on the tin, providing two hours of high energy, top commitment and super skilful performance that had the pensioners of Buxton (and ourselves) on our dancing feet from the earliest possible opportunity. The show opens with “Gary”, “Mark” and “Howard” doing a few, mainly more recent, numbers, including a song that has recently become a favourite of mine, These Days, and a terrific performance of Shine fronted by “Mark”. Take That ExperienceThen we met “Robbie”, who, of all the performers, is perhaps the least physically like his famous counterpart but makes up for it with a magnetic personality, terrific rapport with the audience, and a very athletic and bouncy performance style. “Robbie” sang us a few of his solo songs; and then, after the interval, we went back in time to the original five-guy-group (welcome on stage scream “Jason”) for a thoroughly entertaining retrospective concert of all their greatest hits – every one an instantly recognisable winner.

Take That ExperienceIt certainly delivered a lot more than it promised, and we had a terrific time. If you love your Thats, you’re going to love this bunch. They’re on an extensive tour of the UK until the end of the year and I thoroughly recommend them!

4-starsFour they’re jolly good fellows!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Review – Anyone Can Whistle – Jay Records 2020 CD First Complete Recording

Anyone Can WhistleIn these theatre-starved times, every so often a little spark of light appears to remind us of what we’ve been missing since March. December 4th sees the official release of the first complete recording of Stephen Sondheim’s 1964 flop Anyone Can Whistle, timed to celebrate the great man’s 90th birthday. Recorded in 1997, this surreal, fantasy musical explores what can happen when a once-great American local community decides to mire itself in fake news, pretend miracles and corrupt leadership. Incidentally, in 1964, Donald Trump was a pukey youth of 18, medically deferred for military duty, and in 1997, he was a wrestling promoter married to Marla Maples. Can’t think why I’ve mentioned that.

 

Anyone Can Whistle 1964Before getting hold of this (fantastic) 2 CD set and doing a spot of reading around, my knowledge of the show was pretty limited. I knew the three songs that appear in the delightful cabaret show Side by Side by Sondheim, the fact that it was Sondheim’s second attempt to write both music and lyrics to a show, and that it ran for a stupendous twelve previews and nine performances. Was it simply an awful show? A terrible production, perhaps? With a cast led by Lee Remick and Angela Lansbury, you wouldn’t have thought so, although there were tales of unhappiness within the cast, poor reviews in the try-outs, plus the fact that none of the three leads had been in a musical before. Alternatively, you might be tempted to think of it as one of those way ahead of its time shows; however, the presence of two extended ballet scenes – straight outta Oklahoma – together with its very traditional three Act structure, suggests otherwise. The main problem is that there was nothing in the show for the 1964 audience to latch on to and recognise; no one with whom you would choose to identify. Today, in the almost post-Trump era, you can appreciate the satire of a grotesque leader who spins lies, and a populace desperate to believe in miracles. So, the show is both behind the times and ahead of the times – but strangely not of the times themselves. 1964 also gave us Funny Girl (Barbra Streisand was originally a possibility for the role of Cora but chose Fanny Brice instead); it gave us Hello Dolly and Fiddler on the Roof, massive crowd-pleasers one and all, with big showtunes or haunting melodies. Anyone Can Whistle – maybe because of the challenging nature of its themes and musical content – just faded away. Until now!

 

Anyone Can Whistle Lee RemickLike 99.99% (recurring) of the world’s population, I’ve never seen a production of this show, but the release of this new 2 CD set gives you all the excitement and vibe of being about to witness an incredibly significant First Night – and all from the comfort of your headphones. Maria Friedman, Julia McKenzie and John Barrowman lead the cast in this sensational audio experience, with the late Arthur Laurents, who wrote the book, featuring as The Narrator. Along with the National Symphony Orchestra under the baton of John Owen Edwards, a glimpse down the cast list is like tripping back in time 25 years. As well as the leads, the names of musical theatre stalwarts like Matt Zimmerman, Stuart Pendred, Danielle Carson, Lori Haley Fox and Shezwae Powell pepper the cast, and the result is an incredibly rewarding, musically rich experience, full of surprises.

 

Maria FriedmanIf, like me, you come to the show fresh, from a position of ignorance, you’ll be completely stunned by what confronts you. You think you might know how a Sondheim musical can capture your heart, or your imagination, or your inner fears and concerns; but not this time. Mayoress Cora promotes a faked miracle so that her miserable, bankrupt town can become a tourist Mecca – how that plays out forms one of the two dramatic threads. The other is the rather insensitive notion of the Cookie Jar, the name given to a sanatorium for nonconformists (basically, an asylum); how the inmates (the cookies) are released into the community, with the result that no one can tell who is nonconformist and who isn’t. Whilst on the surface, the nonconformists are treated as though they are mentally ill, you could extend their significance to include any other section of the community who doesn’t abide by society’s norms. This is not comfortable subject material!

 

Julia McKenzieAs you listen to the music unfold the story, at times you have to pinch yourself to believe quite what you’re hearing; and it’s a challenge to the listener who hasn’t seen the show to imagine it progressing on the stage of your mind’s eye. The chaotic lunacy of some parts of the show put me in mind strongly of the Marat/Sade, Joe Orton’s What the Butler Saw, and Dario Fo’s Accidental Death of an Anarchist – even though Anyone Can Whistle predates these latter two. At the end of the first Act the cast round on the audience and mock them – prescient of Peter Handke’s Offending the Audience in some respects. Cora’s staccato lines in The Cookie Chase reminded me strongly of Mrs Lovett in Sweeney Todd. Additionally, the wonderful showtune-style orchestrations set up a vivid juxtaposition with the savage weirdness of some of the content. The three songs I already knew – Anyone Can Whistle, There Won’t be Trumpets and Everybody Says Don’t – all stand out, but, on a first listen, I was also really impressed by A Parade in Town, I’ve Got You to Lean On, and the reprise of Anyone Can Whistle as part of See What it Gets You which takes its meaning on to another level.

 

John BarrowmanThis is a fascinating and vital recording, and essential for any Sondheim fan, wanting to piece together all parts of the jigsaw puzzle that make up his career. Julia McKenzie is in full pantomime-villain form as the awful Cora; needy, whining, corrupt and totally transparent about it. She affects that tough, East-side hectoring voice that blasts her way through the big numbers and is in perfect contrast to the intimate but repressed characterisation of Nurse Fay Apple by Maria Friedman; what those two performers don’t know about interpreting Sondheim’s work isn’t worth knowing. John Barrowman is in fine voice as the smart-talking, charismatic, and credible Hapgood, who is mistaken as the new assistant at the Cookie Jar. This is going to require a lot of re-playing in order to get to the heart of this surreal, allegorical show – and I know it’s going to be thoroughly worth it!

 

Go to Jay Records to find out how you too can get your hands on a copy!

Review – The Beatles: Hornsey Road with Mark Lewisohn, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 18th September 2019

HR Hornsey and Abbey RoadIf any fact could be designed to make you feel really old, consider this: on 26th September 2019 it will be fifty years since The Beatles released the Abbey Road album. Fifty years! And here’s me thinking it’s still relatively new. And to celebrate, The Beatles: Hornsey Road with Mark Lewisohn seemed like the perfect event. And so did many other people, if last night’s packed rows on all three levels of the Royal Theatre have anything to go by.

 

HR Mark LewisohnHistorian, researcher and all-round Beatles aficionado Mark Lewisohn has put together this fascinating insight into Abbey Road (the album, not the zebra crossing, although that features heavily), relating it to the personalities of the individual Fab Four, their lives and wives, their writing output, their inspirations and the machinations that went into creating this landmark work. No stone is unturned in delving deeply into the creative process, which also includes a unique opportunity to hear the songs from the album as you’ve never heard them before – split into the various (eight) parts that were mixed on the studio’s state-of-the-art technical hardware, as well as highlighting the contributions of George Harrison’s all-important Moog Synthesizer.

 

HR Abbey RoadA major delight of this show – which you could consider to be a multimedia lecture – is the constant supply of quirky facts, irresistible photos, and background information; and if I tell you about them, it will spoil a heap of surprises for you. So I won’t. Suffice to say, amongst the entertaining and informative content, you’ll discover that the Daily Mail hasn’t changed its spots, how much George Martin was paid to orchestrate up some of the tracks, to what extent they enjoyed recording Maxwell’s Silver Hammer, what happened to John and Yoko in Scotland, learn the true identities of Mr Mustard and Polythene Pam, why the last note of Her Majesty is missing, the tantalising recently released news about why the group went Cold Turkey on the next album, and how Abbey Road was nearly called Hornsey Road.

 

HR Waiting for the Abbey Road photoMr Lewisohn delivers his extraordinary material with respect, authority and humility, leaving all the fireworks to John, Paul, George and Ringo. If you ever feel that you’ve wasted your life, it’s incredible to think how much they achieved at such a young age; take a second to think that by the time the group split, George, the youngest, was still only 26. The pressure to succeed, the overwhelming adoration, followed by, in the latter days, the media’s desire to knock them down (à la Tall Poppy syndrome) must have been unimaginable for four young men, and it’s no wonder that they occasionally fell foul of the law and got themselves into trouble.

 

HR Fab FourYou might think that this show is only for Beatles geeks. Not true. Such geeks (of whom I’m possibly one), will get a whole lot of satisfying information which will send them home with a full brain and a contented heart. But, provided you like the Beatles to at least some extent – and that’s surely 99.9% of the population? – you’ll be impressed by the research, the passion, the history and the human insights into what Mr Lewisohn considers (and I agree with him) the finest creative team of the 20th century.

 

HR Abbey Road fansThis was the first night of the tour, and between now and 4th December Mr Lewisohn will be sharing his discoveries in 23 more venues all over the country – and in Dublin. A memorable and highly rewarding show. You must go!

Review – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra Film Music Gala, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 5th July 2019

Film Music GalaThis is the second time that we have seen the Royal Philharmonic perform a Film Music Gala at the Royal and Derngate; the first, in 2017, featured soloist Alison Jiear to sing some Bond themes and I Will Always Love You from The Bodyguard. No soloist this time, which was perhaps a shame, as some vocals add variety to a gala night, when the orchestra is performing a number of short pieces; eighteen this time, plus an encore.

Nevertheless, it was still a very enjoyable show, with the Royal Philharmonic on excellent form. This time they were under the baton of Pete Harrison, who was new to us; he’s used to conducting West End Show orchestras and Pop/Classic crossover concerts – and we were really impressed to learn that he conducted the Russian State Symphony Orchestra in Moscow playing the music of Pink Floyd. Now that’s eclectic.

Pete HarrisonMr Harrison is a warm and friendly chap, clearly with a great rapport with the orchestra which also conveys itself into the auditorium. The nature of this concert meant that he spent a lot of time with the microphone introducing the various pieces to us and/or commenting about them afterwards and he obviously really enjoys bringing this kind of music to a large audience; and, I must say, the Derngate was pretty packed, with concertgoers of all ages.

Some of the pieces they had played before in the previous concert, some were new to the repertoire. We started with the Main Theme to The Big Country, with its broad, bright suggestion of wide open spaces and heroic cowboys. Next was the end reworking of the Main Theme from Jurassic Park, more melodic than brash, but very welcome. After that came the theme from Legends of the Fall, bookended by some beautiful, reflective piano playing by Roderick Elms. Back to the bold and brash with Where Eagles Dare, but then much more reflective and evocative with Out of Africa.

Duncan RiddellThe concert continued with John Williams’ theme to Schindler’s List, then The Fellowship of the Ring, Gabriel’s Oboe (from The Mission), going into the interval with the triumphant 633 Squadron. After the break, we went back in history somewhat to Sir Arthur Bliss’ Things to Come march from 1936; then the bold and contemporary fun of Apollo 13 – the Last Frontier, and The Da Vinci Code – Chevaliers de Sangreal. Two much more well-known pieces followed – Lara’s Theme from Doctor Zhivago (no 1960s easy listening album was complete without a version of this) and the famous Born Free, from the film of the same name. Then something very different – Ashokan Farewell from The Civil War, with leader of the orchestra Duncan Riddell showing his mastery of the folk violin style.

The last pieces of the concert were the famous Raiders March from Raiders of the Lost Ark – which I thought sounded especially tremendous – then Jack Sparrow’s theme from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, and finally the main theme from Star Wars – a true crowdpleaser (and one we heard only a month ago in the RPO’s Planets show). For an encore they performed the Flying Theme from E.T. – and a very warm finish to the concert it was too.

Royal Philharmonic OrchestraMaybe not the most cerebrally demanding evening of orchestral music but this show’s prime purpose is to entertain with some great pieces of modern composition – and it certainly does that! The Royal Philharmonic will be back in Northampton on 22nd September with a programme of Tchaikovsky music. I’m expecting something very lively!

The Edinburgh Fringe One-Weeker 2018 – John Partridge: Stripped, 23rd August 2018 I

StrippedNow it’s time for another favourite performer and someone that I have seen perform live several times, and that’s John Partridge: Stripped, at Assembly Checkpoint, at 18:30 on Thursday 23rd. Here’s the blurb: “Stripped is a new beginning. A reintroduction of myself. Life has a way of hardening you, at least mine has. This is my attempt at shedding those skins, saying goodbye to part of myself and embracing someone I knew a long time ago. Through film, music, poetry, song and dance, I share my story and in turn ask the audience to consider theirs. From boy to man, sexuality, sobriety, success, love and loss. My pictures, memories, moments. Featuring original music and choreography alongside the soundtrack of my life. Bowie, Bush, Buckley and more.”

I know that Mr Partridge has undergone something of a personal transformation over the past year and I think he looks on this show as part of that personal development. Hopefully we’ll get to see something of the real him and not just the actor hiding behind a script. Check back around 8pm to see what it was all about. By then the next preview blog should be available to read too.

More intensely personal than I had expected (even though I knew it would be intensely personal!) this is a heartfelt journey through the really important moments in John’s life and how he has fought through the dark times to still come out bright and sparkling on the other side. Musically fantastic, a great choice of songs including some very moving numbers written by him. An emotion-filled hour – and fantastic scones! Highly recommended.