Review of the Year 2019 – The Tenth Annual Chrisparkle Awards

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

Are you all sitting comfortably?

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

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

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

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

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

Classical Music Concert of the Year.

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

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

Best Entertainment Show of the Year.

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

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

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

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

Best Star Standup of the Year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Musical.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best New Play.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Revival of a Play.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best play – Edinburgh

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Individual Performance in a Play – Edinburgh

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

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

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

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

Best stand-up comedy show – Edinburgh

Ten shows this year gives this top three:

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

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

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

Best of the rest – Edinburgh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Local Production

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical.

Nine performances in the shortlist, producing this top five:

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

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

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

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

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

Best Performance by an Actress in a Play.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Performance by an Actor in a Play.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theatre of the Year.

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

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

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

Review – The Boy Friend, Menier Chocolate Factory, 12th January 2020

82066182_586465685233318_7914765277802266624_nHands up everyone who thought The Boy Friend and Salad Days were written by the same people? Oh, just me then. They really are frightfully similar in outlook; Sandy Wilson’s Boy Friend opened at Wyndham’s in January 1954, and Julian Slade and Dorothy Reynolds’ Salad Days opened in Bristol six months later. After the dark days of the Second World War, theatregoers were happy to celebrate an innocent 1920s era of charming young fillies and dashing young chaps looking to the future with hopes and dreams of super friendships and loving marriages. One’s only care was not getting caught by Madame Dubonnet’s (very slightly) disapproving gaze, or trying to conceal your aristocratic background so that people don’t fall in love with you for the wrong reason.

Dancing GirlsThat’s jolly Polly Browne’s problem; she can’t find a suitable boyfriend because he’s bound only to want her for her money, so she’s facing the humiliation of not being escorted to the Carnival Ball due to the minor fact that the boyfriend who was going to accompany her is entirely fictitious. Being left on the shelf at the grand old age of seventeen is an awful bore. Young Tony Brockhurst has a similar problem; bunking off Oxford and fleeing to the French Riviera without a word of explanation to Mater or Pater. He’s making do as an errand boy for the costumiers and is about to deliver Polly’s dress to Mme Dubonnet’s School for Young Ladies, when he espies her, and she espies him, and within three minutes they’re in love. Amazingly, because this is the musical theatre of the 1950s, Polly’s old man is in town, rekindling his thing for Mme Dubonnet; and Tony’s old folks are also sur la plage, getting into all sorts of embarrassing scrapes as decency will permit. Coincidence, much?

Tony and PollyMatthew White’s had the wizard idea of reviving The Boy Friend for the Menier, presenting it in its full original glory, as a breath of fresh air with a whiff of kindly romance and an homage to the Charleston. Just as the post-war theatregoers needed taking out of themselves, us 2020-types also need to have our minds taken off the horrors of Brexit and the threat of war in the Middle East; so this is immaculate timing. The production has taken the bold, and I think totally pukka decision to keep the three-act structure, so yes, to assembled gasps of surprise, we have two intervals just like they did in the olden days, when going to the theatre was the reason for the evening out rather than one of the things you managed to cram in before bedtime. The original production would have been a pastiche of 1920s shows, and by keeping the same flavour and nuances, you could say this works as a pastiche of a pastiche.

Hortense aloftPaul Farnsworth’s sunny set recreates the blue sky and the sandy beach, which, mixed with some wonderful period costumes – especially the all-over swimsuits – places us firmly in the mood for a beachball fight and cocktails on the terrace. Simon Beck’s bijou little band punches above its weight with its perky playing of Sandy Wilson’s cheery numbers and the terrific ensemble throw themselves so wholeheartedly into this delightful piece of nonsense that I was left with a stupid grin permanently etched on my face for a full two and a half hours.

Mme DubonnetIn the senior roles, Janie Dee is excellent as always as Mme Dubonnet, ostensibly perhaps a stickler for proper behaviour, but scrape the surface and she’s pure Goddess of Lurve all the way through. Littering her performance with wonderfully Frenchy breathiness, she’s both musically and comedically perfect. Matching her is Robert Portal’s chiefly dignified (but not always) Percival Browne as her long-lost paramour, exporting his British civility across the sea. I loved Adrian Edmondson and Issy van Randwyck as Lord and Lady Brockhurst; he, mischievously wandering the seafront in search of adventure, she, repressed and disgruntled until she gets sozzled; a brilliant partnership.

Lord and Lady BrockhurstAmongst the young things, Amara Okereke is charm incarnate as Polly, with an engaging, funny and strongly musical performance; she’s joined by Dylan Mason, perfectly cast as the unassuming and sincere Tony – together they make a properly lovely couple. There are fantastic song and dance skills from Gabrielle Lewis-Dodson as Maisie and Jack Butterworth as Bobby, erupting their Charleston all over the stage with a great sense of fun and a huge amount of expertise. Add to this, there’s great support from Bethany Huckle, Emily Langham and Chloe Goodliffe as Polly’s schoolgirl (really?) colleagues and Tom Bales, Peter Nash and Ryan Carter as their respective beaux. Running through the show like a naughty stick of rock is a fantastic performance by Tiffany Graves as the maid Hortense, all knowing looks, high kicks and seductive utterances.

Maisie and BobbyA bewitchingly delightful production in the safest of hands, this brought a sense of innocent joy into an otherwise dark January. I absolutely loved it. It’s playing at the Menier until 7th March. What are you waiting for, mes petits choux?

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

In a nutshell: Bright, funny and all-round delightful revival of Sandy Wilson’s landmark work; an exceptional cast means the smile never leaves your face.

Five alive, let theatre thrive!

Review – Mame, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 11th January 2020

82362779_768182660335758_272802926638923776_nIt was with high expectation that Mrs Chrisparkle and I, together with our friend, the Wizard of Warwick, took our seats in the Royal theatre for the Saturday matinee of Mame. It has come from the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester, which is rapidly garnering a reputation for top quality work, and critics and friends alike have heaped high praise on it. And it would be a welcome return to the Royal for Tracie Bennett, who started the fantastic journey of End of the Rainbow here back in 2010, one of the Made in Northampton productions that became a great success, with a West End and Broadway transfer.

CastIt’s been fifty years since Mame coaxed the blues right out of the horn on the West End stage, so a revival was more than due. With curious but useful timing, those nice people at Lost Musicals produced a staged reading of the original source play, Patrick Dennis’ Auntie Mame, last year, and a thoroughly enjoyable play it is too. In fact – I’m going to be bold here – I think it’s probably better as a play than as a musical, with no insult intended to the late great Jerry Herman, or the creative team from the Hope Mill. I was fascinated to realise that the musical is 100% faithful to the play. I’m sure that even the same lines are spoken in both the play and the musical; it’s like Jerry Herman took the play, wrote some songs, and simply dropped them into place whilst keeping most of the original as the framework. As a result, most of the songs commit what I think is the cardinal sin of musicals, they don’t move the story along. It’s plot development – song – plot development – song in a very start-stop manner so that the plot doesn’t really grow organically.

Mame and Young PatrickAnd that plot is very much a game of two halves. If you don’t want to know what happens, skip the rest of this paragraph. On Side One, young Patrick Dennis is brought to New York to live with his only relative, his Auntie Mame, who lives a swell, party existence and knows how to have a good time. She introduces him to her slightly outré lifestyle, and he reacts rather well to it. But the Wall Street Crash decimates Mame’s bank balance and it’s whilst she’s out attempting to earn a meagre living (never having had to work, she’s useless at it) that she meets Southern Gentleman and Plantation Owner, Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside. Beau is smitten with Mame, and she’s smitten with his income. They wed and go on an extended honeymoon, during which time Patrick starts to grow up, and Beau comes to a sticky end by falling off a mountain. Side Two sees an older Patrick fall in love with the ultra-twee Gloria Upson, who’s blessed by an enormously bigoted family and Mame realises they’re all quite unsuitable for Patrick, although he can’t see it. However, after a dreadful dinner party where home truths are revealed, and a “chance” (it was no chance) meeting with Mame’s new assistant, Pegeen Ryan, Patrick comes back into the bosom of his family and he and Pegeen live happily ever after.

Vera and MameDespite the fact that the music holds back the plot rather than pushes it forward, it’s still a thoroughly enjoyable show, with one famous showstopper number (the eponymous Mame) and a few other good songs; but I was surprised at how Jerry Hermanesque the whole show is. The stand-alone song Mame is the younger sister of the stand-alone, two years later, song Hello Dolly, in that it’s a full-on peaen to the wonderfulness of its title character. The well-known We Need a Little Christmas is a tweak away from Horace Vandergelder’s It Takes A Woman from Hello Dolly; Bosom Buddies is clearly the first version of I Am What I Am from La Cage aux Folles. Plot structure too; the story climax of Mame is the disastrous get-together with Patrick’s intended’s ghastly family. The climax of La Cage aux Folles comes with Georges’ and Albin’s son’s fiancé’s equally ghastly family having to be rushed out of the club in disguise; very similar plot devices involving ghastly prospective in-laws in disastrous social occasions. And I sense this is the tip of the iceberg where it comes to similarities between Mame and Herman’s other works.

such a partyNick Winston’s carefree and joyous production does the near-impossible by cramming athletic and dynamic choreography into the teensiest of acting spaces. Frankly, it’s a miracle that no one collides with each other because (it seemed to me) there was no quarter given as to the choreographic content and the skill of the dancers in the cast, whilst the Royal offers little in the way of extensive acting areas. To be fair, Philip Whitcomb’s set includes two doorways to the left and right of the stage that intrude considerably into the main area and make the centre stage dancing seem even more compact. I’ve never felt such a feeling of claustrophobia with the Royal stage as I did whilst watching that large cast work their way through the show’s big ensemble numbers. But they did it; and they did it magnificently.

IWe Need a little Christmasn addition to the choreography, the show looks and sounds as decadent and sybaritic as you would expect, with glamorous, showbiz cocktail parties, and a wealthy fox-hunt gathering (it’s ok, Mame saves the fox from being killed, phew). Alex Parker’s musicians are semi-hidden at the bottom of the big sweeping staircase at the back of the stage, as though Mame has a permanent house-band on hand (and why wouldn’t she?) The costumes are all superb – a great mix of classical refinement and showbiz indulgence – and there’s an exhilarating lighting design by Tim Mitchell.

unsafe manicuristTracie Bennett is every bit as fantastic as you might expect. Although she’s a petite lady, she doth bestride that stage like a Colossus, as Steven Berkoff once almost wrote. She slips from comedy routine to dramatic Torch Song with effortless ease and fully deserved the instant standing ovation that erupted on her curtain call. Just as she was Judy Garland ten years ago, she is now Mame Dennis. She inhabits those larger than life characters so minutely and so intimately that she takes your breath away.

Agnes lets ripHarriet Thorpe gives an enormously entertaining performance as Mame’s acting friend Vera, a cross between a Grande Dame of Thespis and a tipsy old sot. There’s excellent support from Lewis Rae as Lindsay, Mame’s legal adviser, and Hugh Osborne as Babcock, the grumpy manager of her late brother’s estate. Jessie May makes a great transformation as Agnes Gooch, portraying her as the dowdy drudge to which she naturally defaults and as the swinging sexpot that Mame and Vera create out of her – a very good comedy performance. Darren Day took the part of Beau, and looked and sounded every inch the Southern Gentleman, although he did seem to falter at times; having been brought quite recently into the cast I wondered if he was a trifle under-rehearsed.

having a danceTalking of swapping roles, hats off to Mark Faith, who gave nifty performances as Mr Upson and Uncle Jeff without making them into caricatures, as he had just one between this week’s run and last week playing Baron Hardup in Cinderella in Sheffield. There’s a busy guy! The rest of the cast also all give great support and I was very impressed with the dancing of the ensemble performers, especially Jabari Braham who stood out as exceptional. And of course, there’s a tremendous performance by young Lochlan White, who played Young Patrick in our matinee. Great work – and a great acting future for him I’m sure.

Mame and VeraA curiously old-fashioned show; compared with Guys and Dolls, say, currently on in Sheffield, Mame feels like almost a museum piece, even though it’s more than ten years younger. However, the show is given a great treatment by Nick Winston and his cast and provides terrific all round entertainment. Mame returns for one more week at the Salisbury Playhouse starting 21st January. Recommended!

Production photos by Pamela Raith

In a nutshell: Fun, flamboyant but strangely old-fashioned, this old musical gets a ravishing revival and Tracie Bennett is outstanding.

Four they’re jolly good fellows

Review – Cinderella, Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, 4th January 2020

81793069_472196653727224_2577297917417095168_nHaving been spoilt with a fantastic Guys and Dolls in the afternoon, eight of us came out again in the evening to relive our childhood with our annual visit to the Sheffield panto – this year, Cinderella. There is nothing quite like the Sheffield panto to cast off your worries for a couple of hours – and let’s face it, the country’s facing more than enough troubles at the moment, so we really need a stressbuster! Legend (it says so in the programme so it must be true) Damian Williams has returned for his twelfth season (we’ve seen nine of them) and I wondered how well it would work with him as an Ugly Sister, sharing the stage with another fat bloke in a frock.

Matt Daines and Damian WilliamsAnswer: it worked like a dream, because his partner in crime, Matt Daines, isn’t a fat bloke in a frock at all. Whilst he (she) was also vile and grotesque, his Melania was a very different kettle of fish from Mr Williams’ Donaldina, and they played off each other beautifully, leaving Mr Williams to do more of the interaction with the audience and Mr Daines to do more of the plot progression (such as it is.) He truly came into his own in the Strictly Come Dancing scene as Twice Daly – a very funny but obviously affectionate parody of The Great Tess. And we also had a very vibrant Buttons, in the form of children’s tv presenter Phil Gallagher, terrific with the kids and the adults alike, and a beautiful and extremely talented Fairy in the form of Joanne Clifton, who gave a display of dancing that’s rarely been seen at the Sheffield panto. As a result, there was hardly a moment to catch your breath between each hilarious or exhilarating scene.

CastAll the usual Lyceum Panto elements were there – the patter sketch, the Lyceum bench ghost singalong sketch, as well as some first-rate jokes – my favourite involved a photo taken in an Indian restaurant with the group REM, with the punchline: “that’s me in the korma”. There’s also a decent Baron Hardup (great work by Mark Faith), a proper “you can’t get your foot in the Crystal Palace” (I always miss it if that line’s not used) and a stunning aerial display act – Duo Fusion UK (Qdos take note, they were more magical and exciting than the aerial act in their highly expensive Goldilocks).

E HoskinsEvelyn Hoskins was superb as Cinderella, making the role slightly less wishy-washy than usual, a girl with gumption who could put her foot down if she wanted to. She had great duets with the gently self-effacing Prince Charming played by Oliver Watton, and Ben Thornton was a spirited Dandini, helping to keep everything moving along at the sharpest of paces.

Phil GallagherPlus over-enthusiastic dancer Lewis who kept having to be reined in, and the hilarious creation of Mildred, the extremely confident 8 year old, who kept stopping the show with her feminist observations about the plot – terrifically performed on our night by Darcy Beech (I think) of the Blue Team. And the poor chap in the third row who was nominated as Most Handsome Man in the Audience and had to wear a T-shirt bearing that same epithet for the rest of the evening. All enhanced by the fantastic musical support from the side boxes led by wildman James Harrison.

M Daines and D WilliamsBut as always, the evening belonged to Damian Williams, whose energy, irreverence, and willingness to make himself look as ridiculous as possible makes the Sheffield panto what it is. Already booked for Sleeping Beauty next year!

Production photos by Pamela Raith

Review – Guys and Dolls, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 4th January 2020

82276430_471085450481862_4812180997384699904_nOur traditional post-New Year weekend in Sheffield as a Christmas present to Lord and Lady Prosecco just got bigger. This year, also joined by Professor and Mrs Plum, Lord Liverpool, the Countess of Cockfosters and their assorted offspring, twelve of us descended on the St Paul’s Place Pizza Express before hitting the Crucible to enjoy this year’s Christmas show, Guys and Dolls.

Follow the FoldGuys and Dolls was, is, and always will be, one of the great American musicals. Jam-packed with memorable songs, outrageous characters, a heart-warming plot and great dance opportunities, it’s guaranteed to bring a smile to the stoniest of faces and an entrechat to the most lumpen of feet. This is the fourth time I’ve seen the show, most memorably the first time in 1982 when I saw a preview of That Famous National Theatre production starring Julia McKenzie, Bob Hoskins, Ian Charleson and Julie Covington (so when I say starring, I mean starring). Least memorable was the 2007 touring production with Alex Ferns and Samantha Janus (as she was then). There was also a fabulous 2014 Chichester production with Peter Polycarpou, Clare Foster, Sophie Thompson and Jamie Parker. Comparisons are of course odious but irresistible; so I’ll try to ignore the earlier productions!

Sky and NathanIf you don’t know the story of Guys and Dolls, where have you been all your life? Inspired by the stories and characters of Damon Runyon, meet the sniffly song-and-dance artiste Miss Adelaide, whose symptoms get worse throughout the show due to her fiancé, Nathan Detroit’s, inability to commit. Detroit tries to organise an illegal crap game without Miss Adelaide’s knowledge – she wouldn’t approve – but the one thousand bucks, as demanded by the Biltmore Garage to host the game, he ain’t got. Meanwhile, at the Save-a-Soul Mission, Sergeant Sarah Brown is trying to attract penitent punters to her hymn gatherings, but without much success. Enter Gambler Maestro Sky Masterson, a man with charisma bursting out of his wallet. To meet the Biltmore’s demand, Detroit bets $1000 that Masterson won’t take a girl of his choosing on a date to Havana, Cuba. Masterson accepts; Detroit chooses Sarah Brown; and if you don’t know the rest of the story, I’m not going to tell you.

Luck be a LadyDesigner Janet Bird has created an intriguing set with walls that slide in and out of place, and with outer revolving tracks that suggest busy sidewalks, to leave a usefully empty space in the middle for crap games, Hot Box dances and mission hall meetings. Will Stuart’s excellent band are perched aloft, inside what looks like an attic bar (nice for them). Intricate choreographer Matt Flint, back from last year’s Kiss Me Kate, has risen to the challenge of creating those big set piece dance numbers that are often a feature of the Crucible Christmas show. The Crap Shooters’ Ballet followed by Luck be a Lady is powerful and hard-hitting, as it should be; even more entertaining is the marvellous Havana salsa scene, which tells an entertaining story of a couple out for the night, except that he dances with Sarah and she dances with Sky and by the end of the evening they’re having a full-blown argument – all to enticing salsa rhythms, of course.

In the Hot BoxRobert Hastie has assembled a tremendous cast who all give great performances throughout. Natalie Casey emphasises Miss Adelaide’s camp cutesiness with some wicked facial expressions and vocal deliveries and brings bags of fun to the role whilst still recognising the character’s genuine inner sadness. Alex Young is superb as ever as Sarah Brown, with her magnificent voice taking on Frank Loesser’s iconic songs with supreme ease, her eyes summing up all the imperfections of Sky Masterson’s character with an instant loving scorn. It’s a great portrayal of a good girl gone not necessarily bad, but revelling in her defences being down.

I Got the Horse Right HereThe remarkably versatile Martin Marquez (whose abilities range from musical comedy in Anything Goes, farce in Boeing Boeing to contemporary drama in Blasted) is a mature Nathan Detroit, hiding desperately from his responsibilities to Miss Adelaide. He’s a great singer and provides a more romantic interpretation of the song Sue Me than I’d previously encountered. Kadiff Kirwan impresses as the suave Sky Masterson and also sings and dances terrifically. I’d not come across his work before, but with a great stage presence, Mr Kirwan could definitely be One To Watch for the future.

Nicely NicelyThere’s another superb partnership between TJ Lloyd as Nicely Nicely Johnson and Adrian Hansel as Benny Southstreet; their rendition of the song Guys and Dolls is a highlight of the whole show and of course Mr Lloyd is brilliant in Sit Down You’re Rocking the Boat. I’d enjoyed Mr Hansel’s performance in Hairspray several years ago but Mr Lloyd is new to me – both actors lit up the stage every time they came on and I can’t wait to see them again in the future.

General CartwrightElsewhere in the cast there’s a kindly performance from Garry Robson as Arvide Abernathy, with a moving performance of More I Cannot Wish You; an enjoyably intimidating Big Jule played by Dafydd Emyr; and a spirited Hallelujah of a performance from one of my favourite actors, Dawn Hope as General Cartwright.

Marry the Man TodayPerhaps a slightly curious staging choice came at the end of the cheeky Marry The Man Today, when Detroit and Masterson appeared on stage and stopped Miss Adelaide and Sarah Brown in their vocal tracks; rather than having the two women enjoy their moment of girlish fantasies they were forced to face the reality of their husbandly destinies in person, which made the female characters feel subservient to their men. The Countess of Cockfosters wasn’t impressed with this staging decision and on reflection I have to agree.

Guys and DollsNevertheless, although it’s almost a three-hour show the time simply flies by. Guys and Dolls maintains the high-quality tradition of the Crucible Christmas shows with its spectacle, skill and artistry, superb music and dance elements and provides plenty to talk about it the bar afterwards. Recommended!

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Susie Dent, The Secret Life of Words, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 3rd January 2020

80953081_10157127751559141_4355186225003364352_nCountdown must rank as one of TV’s big successes, having been the first ever programme on Channel 4 back in 1982 and still broadcasting today. Over the years the format and the cast of characters have changed very little, and in 2012 8 Out of 10 Cats does Countdown was added to the schedules. Sitting in Dictionary Corner since 1992 (which is a jolly long time, if you think about it) has been lexicographer and etymologist Susie Dent, and she brought her The Secret Life of Words show to the Royal and Derngate last week.

Anyone who knows me IRL (as the young people of today like to say) will know that I am fascinated by the derivation of words. Get me drunk and I will tell you about the fourteen ways of making a new word in the English Language without borrowing from foreign languages – I always was a wow at parties. Thus, I was keen to book for this show, as clearly were a large number of the good burghers of Northampton as there wasn’t a spare seat in the house.

Ms Dent takes us on a very entertaining linguistic lecture tour of her favourite aspects of the English language. It’s the most flexible and useful language in the world, which is why it is so prominent internationally. But it’s hard for foreign people to learn, with our unpredictable pronunciations (consider: though, through, cough, bough, enough) and our word order, which is instinctive to native speakers but has to be taught to students. That quick brown fox who jumps over the lazy dog is never a brown quick fox, even though in reality it’s the identical four-legged fiend. When Hylda Baker answered the phone in her sitcom Not on Your Nellie she would always say “This is the Old Brown Cow speaking” rather than the other way around.

So there’s loads of material for Susie Dent with which to amuse and educate us. One of her examples of folk etymology is forlorn hope (always one of my favourite derivations) – originally the Dutch Boer verloren hoop, the sacrificial troop of soldiers sent out in the front to get killed whilst the war was won by the backroom boys. New to me, and totally delightful, was the derivation of to “steal one’s thunder” – the annoyed retort of a theatre director in the early 18th century who had discovered that the next production in the same theatre had stolen his newly invented thunder-sound-making-machine used in his previous, less successful, play.

Ms Dent has a very relaxed and comfortable style; there’s little sense of academia in her presentation, it’s much more about the fun of language and things to spot for yourself. Perhaps surprisingly, she likes and encourages Americanisms; and above all recognises that language is a constantly evolving entity and the one thing you cannot do (like Samuel Johnson attempted in his dictionary) is to tie it down for all eternity. She doesn’t shy away from swear words; in fact we learn that the majority of swear words that we use today that concern sex were actually perfectly decent words century ago, because the big no-no in those days was profanity. There’s quite a lengthy exposé in the show about just how useful and flexible f*ck is as a go-to word for all sorts of situations, so don’t take the youngsters!

In an unofficial survey, we were all asked to confirm whether we said mischievous or mischievious; being well-educated types by far the majority plumped for the former, which surprised Ms Dent as her belief is that in twenty years’ time the latter will be the standard pronunciation, as we try to associate it with the word devious. On the pronunciation of scones and scones (you’ll know which is your personal default) we were pretty evenly split. And some audience members were still ridiculing each other on the way out at the end of the show for getting it wrong. (It’s scones, of course.)

Susie DentThe last fifteen minutes or so consist of a Q&A session where members of the audience can ask for Susie’s opinion on burning issues of grammar and etymology. We learned that she has no time for the old adage I before E except after C, and also that she likes one of my favourite forms of new-word-making, metanalysis, where a letter transfers from one word to another to create a new word, such as when a napperon became an apron, a norange became an orange and so on. Tawdry is my favourite example of this.* There was a terrifically phrased question about whether you should say less or fewer, which Susie rather glossed over as being largely unimportant. Surely it’s simply a question of singular and plural nouns? Less stuff but fewer things! No one mentioned split infinitives – I wish I’d asked about that one now, as I’m a stickler for tradition in that department. Save it for another day.

A fascinating evening of wordplay which informed and entertained. If she’s coming to a theatre near you, I’d definitely recommend it!

*Centuries ago, poor people used to buy their clothes from the equivalent of a church bring-and-buy sale in Ely. The church was dedicated to…? St Audrey, naturally!

Review – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Richmond Theatre, 29th December 2019

81706593_1080381688964233_4416643972898750464_nFinal show of the year, third panto of the year and second panto that we’ve seen at Richmond. We came back hot on the success of last year’s Peter Pan, with a deliciously villainous Robert Lindsay and the dancing sprite that is Harry Francis. And it’s a beautiful theatre with a lovely vibe, so why wouldn’t we return?

Wicked QueenThis year they treated us to Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. It was enjoyable, but it wasn’t a classic by any means. Whilst some aspects were excellent, others didn’t work for me at all. For example, you know that local rivalry panto theme, where the script includes the occasional reference to local towns so that they can take the mickey out of them? They did it to death. And in Richmond that comes across as rather snobby; all the local references (and there genuinely must have been more than a dozen – tedious when you’re not local) implied that those other places rated somewhere between grotty and criminal underworld, whereas Richmond is sweetly genteel. Provoked my inner socialist and got on my nerves, if I’m honest.

Wicked Queen againWhen we saw that this year Jo Brand would be playing the Wicked Queen we instantly jumped at the chance; surely, that’s a casting made in heaven? Surprisingly, and disappointingly, it isn’t. Whilst I am a huge fan of Ms Brand in her TV appearances, I was quite shocked at how out of place she seemed to be on a stage. Don’t get me wrong; she looked perfect, deployed that contemptuous stare and voice to full effect, and got a load of laughs in the process. But, for a comedy legend, I felt that her timing was off; and she had a tendency to recite her lines rather than act them. Her performance didn’t flow; it was like a collection of individual modules where she had a line here and a bit of business there and they were all sequenced so that she could go from one to the other, but you could see the break in concentration and commitment between each section. Her eyes said: “I’ve done that line, so now I have to stand over here and wait for the next bit”. Maybe further back in the theatre that might not have been so noticeable; but Mrs Chrisparkle and I were centre of the second row and it looked very obvious to us. I’m afraid I wasn’t convinced.

Muddles and Snow WhiteFortunately, we were also in the company of Jon Clegg as Muddles who kept the whole show going at a cracking pace. His interaction with the audience and, particularly, the kids, works incredibly well; he managed to make the “one smart feller he felt smart” song with the kids on stage at the end genuinely funny. And, of course, he is a terrific impressionist. However – and this was a fascinating general observation – all the Brexit/Boris Johnson jokes and impersonations fell flat as a pancake. I can only assume that we’ve all had far too much politics for one year, and there’s absolutely nothing funny to laugh about in the situation the country has got itself. This audience, at least, had come to the Richmond Theatre to escape the woes of Whitehall, not to be reminded of them.

Nurse NancyJason Sutton gave it his all as Nurse Nancy, including some delightful corpsing during the scene where Muddles had to convey the increasingly difficult tongue-twisters between Nancy and the Prince. His (her) pestering of the poor chap in the front row as New Boyfriend Material worked very well – and he took it in good spirit too. James Darch cut a suave figure as Prince Harry of Hampton, and his singing and dancing with Mia Starbuck’s Snow White was probably the best thing about this panto – as indeed were the girls and boys of Babette Langford’s Young Set, who gave a stupendously good performance.

Prince HarryThere are two ways you can play the dwarfs; either with seven short gentlemen as the title suggests, or with seven full sized actors hobbling around on their knees. This production went for the latter option. I can never decide which side of the divide I fall on with this argument. Ideally, the roles should go to the people most suited to the job, depending on acting/singing/etc ability. But I also can’t help but feel that when a production doesn’t use actors of restricted growth, that it deprives them of one of their best chances of a good job in the entire year. Our Magnificent Seven, as the programme likes to call them, were full of spark and character, in excellent voice and probably the campest portrayal of the seven that I’ve ever seen; and I’m still trying to decide if that works or not. I have to say the kids in the audience didn’t give them the huge reception that in my experience normally greets the dwarfs – maybe they were disappointed at the stage pretence. You can’t fool kids at the panto.

Snow White and QueenOn the whole, this show didn’t quite hit the target – certainly nothing like the bullseye that was last year’s. In its favour, it got the level of adult humour versus appropriate for kids spot on, which neither of the other two we’d seen this December achieved (and let’s face it, Goldilocks didn’t even try). But it lacked a touch of magic, a sense of sincerity perhaps, that could have turned a good panto into a great one.

Production photos by Craig Sugden

Review – Goldilocks and the Three Bears, London Palladium, 28th December 2019

81610401_770345463461018_6658330238113546240_nFor the fourth year, the Palladium have resurrected their old tradition of a Christmas Panto season, and, financially speaking, it must be one of their wisest moves in decades. Oldies like me remember the halcyon days of Cilla Black and Jimmy Tarbuck, Ronnie Corbett and Terry Scott gracing the stage with their wickedly brilliant panto performances – and that kind of experience creates a love for theatre that (hopefully) never goes away. So impressed by our enthusiasm for the Palladium panto were they, that our friends the Squire of Sidcup and the Wise Woman of Wembley brought his dad (the Grand Old Duke of Kent) as a Christmas treat. And why not?

JulianThis year Qdos pulled out even more of all the stops for Goldilocks and the Three Bears. Goldilocks – you might ask – as a panto? Good question. Despite all the adult humour, variety acts and in-jokes of the past few years, the Palladium pantomime has always been exactly that – a panto. However, this year…. the astute amongst you will have twigged that Goldilocks isn’t really a panto. A fairy tale, maybe; but the two beasts aren’t necessarily the same. This year’s yuletide Palladium offering is many things: circus, magic, burlesque, song-and-dance, an all-round very funny and extraordinarily vivid Vegas-style extravaganza that I thoroughly enjoyed. But panto – it isn’t. For the surprisingly large number of kids in the audience for the Saturday night after Christmas – their parents obviously didn’t get the memo – there would have been very little of the spoken word element of the show that they would have understood.

PaulOf course, there’s always a comic frisson of the naughty bits that the adults get that the kids don’t. But in this case, the balance was so extreme that the only things the children would have got out of it would be the visuals. A very enjoyable magic act, great costumes, music and lighting, some (and I stress some) of Paul Zerdin’s ventriloquist act and – without question the best couple of minutes in the show – the amazing performance by Peter Pavlov and his troupe in the Dome of Speed – four motor bike riders criss-crossing each other in the dark that made your hair stand on end and elicited the best applause of the night. And maybe that’s enough to satisfy the kids – I’m not a parent. But I am glad not to have had to answer a string of very inquisitive questions on the way home from the theatre.

Paul and circus membersPutting all that aside, it’s a great show, with Palladium Perennial Julian Clary reigning supreme as the Ringmaster – you’ll already have supplied all your own jokes, but his are a good deal filthier. If you’re in need of a double entendre, you’ll always find Julian popping up with a warm hand upon his entrance. He’s a joyous presence, totally in command of the audience, a guarantee of a good night out before you even consider the contributions of the rest of the cast. In the role of arch-baddie (which is as near as you get to pantomime in this show) is Paul O’Grady as Baron von Savage, assuming malice with effortless ease; to the extent that maybe you’d like to see him put a little more effort in, although that really isn’t his style.

SamOther recidivist performers are Nigel Havers as Daddy Bear, who’s perfected a nice portly swagger, Paul Zerdin, whose vent skills are terrific (although I really didn’t go for the baby puppet at all) and Gary Wilmot as Dame Betty Barnum, in charge of the local circus. I always look forward to seeing Mr Wilmot, because he’s a master song-and-dance man, and by all accounts this year’s patter song is a-ma-zing, but his voice wasn’t holding out well enough during our performance for him to tackle it, which was abitofashame.

Sophie and MattNew blood arrived in the form of the irrepressibly nice Matt Baker, who played the irrepressibly nice Joey the Clown. If they ever want to revive Barnum, he should be front of the queue of contenders, because his high-wire skills are superb. Janine Duvitski’s Mummy Bear is Straight Outta Benidorm, with her implications of BDSM nights of ecstasy; shame she wasn’t given a chance to be a little more three-dimensional. Lauren Stroud’s Baby Bear wins the runner-up Best Scene Award for her fantastic 42nd Street routine (I did tell you it wasn’t really a panto), and Sophie Isaacs is a suitably charming Goldilocks.

Julian and PaulWhat it doesn’t have: It’s Behind You! Oh No It Isn’t! A Ghost – Where? – and jokes for the kids. What it does have: daredevil motorbike riders, Julian Clary’s innuendos, an incredible orchestra, costumes and lighting, and Nigel Havers making a joke about Prince Andrew. We all laughed our heads off. And although I might have preferred something just a tad more traditional, it’s the Palladium panto, dammit, so what are you complaining about?

Back next year? Oh yes.

Production photos by Paul Coltas

Review – Noises Off, Garrick Theatre, 27th December 2019

81545680_1065869243748312_2955591279569797120_nSome shows never go away. Sometimes that can be regrettable; sometimes remarkable; on a few occasions, totally wonderful. Noises Off, I’m delighted to say, falls into that third category. Michael Frayn’s marvellous farce, that never progresses our hapless cast of TV B-listers past the first act of Robin Housemonger’s clearly pathetic Nothing On, stars TV’s Dotty “I can ‘ardly ‘old me lolly up” Otley – and she’s sunk her life savings into this “investment”. Will she get a return on her risk? Will she buffalo.

DottyThe date – 15th April 1982; I had a front row seat at the Savoy for the newly opened Noises Off, starring Paul Eddington and Patricia Routledge; and I thought it was one of the funniest things I’d ever seen or was ever likely to see. Four years later, and still at the Savoy, I introduced young Miss Duncansby (now Mrs Chrisparkle) to the joys of Stephanie Cole and Hugh Paddick in the cast; from then till now, we still love to intone our own posh-voiced ladies and gentlemen, would you please take your seats, as the performance will begin in one minute instructions, at the drop of a hat, whenever the moment sees fit. In 2008 we saw it again at the Milton Keynes Theatre, with Maggie Steed on fine form, and it had lost none of its spark. And now it’s back again, and so are we, revelling both in the comedy of today and the nostalgia of yesteryear.

LloydAnd it’s great to see that the cast of TV’s On the Zebras has-beens is still as useless as ever. At first we see them struggling through the Dress (“we’re all thinking of it as the Tech, Lloyd love”) Rehearsal before the opening at the Grand Theatre, Weston-super-Mare; then we see them at daggers with each other during a vengeful midweek matinee at the Theatre Royal, Goole; and finally in exhausted devastation during the final performance at the Municipal Theatre, Stockton on Tees.

Belinda and FrederickNothing On is clearly a dreadful little play, the last vestiges of the mildly titillating sex comedy genre that soared in the 60s and 70s with masterpieces (and I mean that) like Boeing Boeing, No Sex Please We’re British and There’s a Girl in my Soup. Today these have dated very badly – and in fact the recently planned tour of Boeing Boeing has had to be cancelled due to poor advance sales. Shame really, as it’s an exceptionally funny and beautifully structured play. I daresay Feydeau would have struggled to get bums on seats if he was writing nowadays. When Noises Off first hit the stage in 1982, that style was already on the way out, but still familiar, and thus ripe for Frayn to satirise mercilessly. I would not be remotely surprised if any twenty-something theatregoers seeing Noises Off today hadn’t got a clue as to what Nothing On was all about.

GarryApart from taking the mick out of those old sex comedies, Noises Off assembles a relatively ghastly cast of creative types with recognisable foibles, weaknesses, idiosyncrasies and so on. The faux-polite leading lady, the tense and irritable ingénu, the arrogant director, the well-meaning buffoon, the old sot; they’re all there, thrust together in a survival battle. And this creates Noises Off’s great strength; it’s utterly hilarious. Every possible theatrical disaster that could befall that woeful cast happens with dire consequences; to anyone who’s ever been on a stage it’s your worst nightmare come true. Physical pratfalls, mental and physical violence, drunk colleagues, nosebleeds, missing/not working/broken props/scenery, inappropriate affairs and jealous lovers all vie for prominence. And, whilst on the face of it, you might suspect it would be too forced, too unreal, too slapstick, too unsubtle to be taken seriously – in fact it’s such a superb piece of writing, requiring a high level of choreographically excellent performance, that only the most sour-faced misery-guts wouldn’t bellow with laughter ecstatically through it. That second Act, in particular, is simply a perfect nugget of comic genius. I was slightly sorry that this current production, directed by Jeremy Herrin, has done away with the visual “duck” joke in Act Two. If you remember it from previous productions, I’m sure you’d too be disappointed that it’s missing. If you’ve never seen it before then I’ll not explain it – suffice to say that it can be made even funnier.

It's all going wrongAlthough it’s a play that’s always attracted star performers, there are few plays that require greater ensemble skills and attitude, and the cast do indeed throw everything at it to make it succeed. Meera Syal plays Dotty as a rather sweet old thing, until her anger is riled, that is; Lloyd Owen’s Director Lloyd is a sorely-tried, hard-nosed kind of guy – very tired, very unhappy and more acerbic than I remember from previous productions. Lisa McGrillis emphasises all of Brooke’s vacant automaton acting to terrific effect, and there’s very nice support from Adrian Richards as the long-suffering Tim, the Stage Manager. But, for me, the best characterisations come from Sarah Hadland as the kindly and impossibly positive Belinda Blair, and Daniel Rigby as the tongue-tied, gently seething Garry Lejeune.

BrookeIt’s the perfect show for a holiday season; strenuously funny, and with plenty of excellent performances to admire; and you can pick and choose just how much you want to extrapolate from it about the nature of human existence to the extent that you can be bothered. Consider it deep, or consider it shallow, there’s loads to enjoy here, and I’m glad we caught it again before it closes on 4th January.

Production photos by Helen Maybanks

Review – Pippi Longstocking, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 18th December 2019

79710158_474590839861852_8894750933552988160_nThere’s a fine tradition at the Royal and Derngate of producing top quality children’s Christmas plays in the old Royal theatre, whilst the more glitzy pantomimes are running in the Derngate auditorium. Over the years they’ve produced some absolute crackers – I think Alice in Wonderland was my favourite – although last year’s effort, The Worst Witch, left Mrs Chrisparkle and me totally cold and we didn’t go back for the second Act – ironically, it went on to have a successful tour and even a West End run. What do I know?

Pippi and the castI had, of course, heard about the character of Pippi Longstocking, but I’ve never read the books (because I’ve never been a nine-year-old girl), nor seen the TV or film adaptations. She’s the creation of Astrid Lindgren, whose tall stories about the mighty Pippi entertained her daughter during the Second World War and were an instant hit when published in 1945. And it’s not hard to see why. After the turmoil and grief of the war, the cheeky but selfless girl who finds her own way in life but is essentially kind and friendly would make a welcome change from the daily misery everyone had experienced for the previous six years. Pippi is strong and fearless, blindly optimistic, doesn’t care to follow unnecessary rules or restrictive practices, but will do anything to help anyone in trouble, and just wants to spread joy. She’d be perfect as the new leader of the Labour Party.

castMike Akers has taken Lindgren’s characters and setting, and mixed up a few of the stories to create this charming musical play that starts with Pippi being shipwrecked, her father being blown overboard, and then her moving into the Villa Villakula where her next door neighbours are the straight-laced Mayor and Mrs Settegren and their dutiful but repressed children Tommy and Annika. The three children become friends, which is where the trouble starts. Pippi causes mayhem at school, at a coffee morning, and, worst of all at Mayor Settegren’s annual fete (worse than death) that he’s been planning meticulously for months. The authorities insist that Pippi be taken away to a recognised children’s home where she will be properly brought up. But do you think Pippi will take that lying down?  Me neither.

ship ahoyI love small productions that are modestly staged with more emphasis on the audience’s imagination than on lavish but obvious props and scenery. Katie Sykes’ design includes a circular platform raised to create a space for the musicians to sit inside the “O”, a big wooden triangle that represents Little Town’s one three-storey skyscraper, and a big set of ladders (which can represent anything from hills, hidden lookouts, a ship’s topmast, a tree, or even a big set of ladders). When Act Two opens to the sight of Pippi and her friends relaxing on a South Sea island, with lobsters, gulls and a hilarious seahorse for company, it’s our imagination that fills in all those gaps. In reality, we discover that they’ve encamped at the bottom of the garden, and in fact our imagination has played a trick on us. Very nicely done.

cast againOne of the strengths of this production is its very enjoyable music, played with versatility and pizazz by the members of the company as they blend from character to character. Stu Barker’s songs all capture the spirit of adventure and optimism, and you can see that the cast have enormous fun performing them. The music integrates beautifully into the text and, as in any good musical, each song drives the story along so that you get a better understanding of the characters and plot development, and we don’t come out of a song in the same place that we went in.

Mr NilssonLeading the cast as Pippi is Emily-Mae who creates a giant impression on the audience with her effervescent sense of fun, innocent determination and tremendous song-and-dance skills. Those high kicks are pretty amazing! Alex Parry’s Settegren is a hilarious portrayal of a pompous killjoy whose response to things going wrong is to go into a great big sulk. Matthew Churcher and Philippa Hogg give great support as the posh kids Tommy and Annika, who are bored with being good children and are desperate to have adventures (providing they’re not too extreme). Scott Brooks is excellent in all his roles, but I particularly enjoyed his partnership with Hanora Kamen as the two inept police officers. Ms Kamen is also an excellent bossy teacher who’s not afraid to tell off any kids in the audience – so you’d better behave! But the entire cast work as a great ensemble and give everything they’ve got to make it a fun night.

Pippi and her friendsAt our performance, we were surrounded by many, many incredibly excited children who were absolutely bowled over by the show; their energy fed back to the cast who, in turn, rose to the challenge and fed excitement back to the kids. A real two-way experience! When Pippi leaves Northampton on New Year’s Eve, I see this isn’t the end of her adventures as she’s coming to the Theatre Royal York for a summer show in 2020. Charming, funny, beautifully performed, a truly feelgood show that it would be impossible not to like. Hip hip, Pippi!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan