Review – The Man in the White Suit, Wyndham’s Theatre, 4th December 2019

78805364_413366169569965_2790514872973000704_nA few months ago I saw that this show was coming to Wyndham’s and I thought it might make a decent matinee treat for the Squire of Sidcup and me, as he’s a big fan of Stephen Mangan and I just like seeing plays. Then came the news that the show was closing early due to poor sales – and I realised that our timing was lucky, and that we just managed to squish ourselves in to see it, before it closes on Saturday.

Kara Tointon and Stephen ManganThe Man in the White Suit is based on the film of the same name, a 1951 Ealing Comedy starring Alec Guinness. According to Wikipedia, so it must be true, the British Film Institute named it the 58th greatest British film of all time. Naturally, I haven’t seen it. But I can absolutely imagine how this comic scifi tale, about an inventor who creates a fabric that neither stains nor wears out, could really have brought a sense of ludicrous hilarity to the post-war gloom. Of course, the final twist is that the fabric does deteriorate after all, and pretty rapidly too. This whole construct was not new; I remember seeing Leonard Rossiter in Feydeau’s The Purging, as part of The Frontiers of Farce at the Old Vic in 1976, where he played the manufacturer of unbreakable chamber pots. They broke – to hilarious consequences.

in the pubThe Man in the White Suit film appealed to the working-class/trade union themes of 1950s comedy, the I’m All Right Jack generation that poked fun at both the Trotskyite union leaders and the toff company owners alike. Today, we have a different range of political strife to contend with; but there’s still a great divide between the haves and the have nots. There’ll always be a difference between the Brendas of this world, all hard-working labour and protecting workers’ rights, and the Birnleys, who pompously proclaim their exploitative achievements by dint of inheritance.  And in the middle, there’s the little man whose talent pulls him out of the great working masses but never brings him to the height of management; exposing him in limbo with nowhere to go. Whilst I can see the relevance of TMITWS’s story to today, its attempts to accentuate the modern relevance feel rather clunky. Some of those knowing but oblique modern references might have been better left out, and let this tale stand simply as the period piece it is.

Stephen Mangan and Richard DurdenNevertheless, there’s a lot of fun to be had, and the cast take on their task with brightness and enthusiasm, concentrating on the horseplay and plentiful slapstick moments. Director Sean Foley, who has a knack of creating amazingly successful work and amazingly disastrous work with equal measure, once more brings his eye for physical comedy, humorous effects and general lovability to his own adaptation of the original script. Michael Taylor’s set is incredibly versatile, not only cunningly creating a pub or restaurant scene together with the research laboratories, factory and the Birnleys’ stately residence, it also reveals pop out extra spaces, folding out of walls; for example, the superb 1950s sports car scene, and Daphne’s bedroom are surprising and delightful as they unfold.

Stephen Mangan as a waiterCentral to all this ludicrous mayhem is Stephen Mangan, who cuts a lovably foolish figure as Sidney Stratton, the inventor who nearly always mucks things up. Whether it’s his explosive laboratory experiments, or spilling drinks down his (or anyone else’s) lap, he always stands up for decency in the face of exploitation, and also wants the quality of everyone’s lives to be improved by scientific development and progress. He’s hard-working on stage, bumbling from one physical disaster to another, striving to talk his way out of a series of mess-ups; and it’s a very funny performance.

Kara TointonKara Tointon plays Daphne Birnley with the plummiest of accents, most vividly reminding me of the cut glass tones of the young Mrs Thatcher, deliberately pinpointing both the posh and the patronising. Daphne’s a young woman who knows her own mind, and whilst Ms Tointon is feeding us a stereotype, she’s quite believable all the same. There’s also a fabulously funny performance from Richard Cordery as Birnley, all northern pomp and circumstance, blundering his way through the proceedings; the archetypal fat cat with an interest only in himself (and protecting the virtue of his daughter).

Sue JohnstonI’d been looking forward to seeing Sue Johnston on stage, as I’m a great admirer of her ability to perform understated comedy (The Royle Family) and intelligent drama (Waking the Dead), but her role as Stratton’s drudge landlady Mrs Watson is very uninspiring and she had precious little decent material to get her teeth into. Similarly, Richard Durden’s Sir John is a pantomime villain who steps in to ensure the mill-owners scoop off the highest amount of cash from any deal. I did enjoy the musical spots from Matthew Durkan as Jimmy Rigton, together with his band as played by Oliver Kaderbhai, Elliott Rennie and Katherine Toy, creating a suitable musical accompaniment to the plot. This doesn’t quite make it a musical as such, but just lends some period character, much as the skiffle group do in One Man Two Guvnors.

singersIt’s a fun show; but it is enormously silly. At the interval, I couldn’t decide whether it was awfully brilliant, or brilliantly awful – somewhere between the two, I guess, lies the truth. I doubt whether this production will see the light of day again, but don’t go away with the feeling that it’s an out and out failure – far from it. Above all, the feeling that you take away is that you’re watching a live action cartoon, featuring broad brush characters with stereotypical characteristics working hard for your laughter. There’s no slipping on a banana skin sequence but if there had been, it would have been wholly in keeping with everything else. I’m glad I saw it.

pub singalongP. S. A theatrical first for me, in that after curtain down the audience was required to participate in a planned evacuation practice. Relatively easy for us, as we were near the end of a row right by some doors leading out into the safety of the open air. Interesting to hear all the emergency alarms though, and to see the ushers and bar staff all manning the doors and directing people to safety. Good that they do it – I’m just surprised that this is the first time in over fifty years of theatregoing that I’ve experienced such a thing!

Production photos by Nobby Clark

Review – Mary Poppins, Prince Edward Theatre, 30th November 2019

78301642_2527791120603364_8509818595637723136_nWhen I heard that the musical of Mary Poppins was to be revived with Zizi Strallen and Charlie Stemp in the main roles, I knew it was a no-brainer that I had to book – even if the show is perhaps not entirely suited for a gentleman on the wrong side of 55 (the very wrong side). But I thought the undoubted magnificence and spectacle of the production, combined with what was bound to be at least two fantastic performances, would outweigh any concerns I had for actually enjoying the show as such. Was I right? But first – isn’t the Prince Edward a delightful theatre? This was only my third ever visit, and the first time since I took the young Miss Duncansby (as she was at the time) on a date to see Chess there in 1986. Où sont les neiges d’antan?

Banks familyThere are a few finicky little ways that Mary Poppins musical varies from Mary Poppins the film, and if you’re a Poppins Purist, they might get under your skin a little. It annoys me that Let’s Go Fly A Kite appears far too early in the show, and I don’t particularly like the changed lyrics to Supercalifragilisticexpialidocius – I know, I need to get a life. For most people under the age of [enter whatever you think is a reasonable age here] these quibbles are of absolutely no consequence at all. But if it interferes with your nostalgia, then it can be quite a challenge for the older audience member. The musical also makes Mary Poppins a little bit more mysterious, a little more supernatural. In the film you take the fact that Mary and Bert have known each other in the past, and will look forward to some point when they meet again in the future, rather at face value. In the show, however, it feels like they’re enigmatic overlords from a different time space continuum crossing each other’s paths like wayward comets.

CompanyAs you would expect from a lavish Cameron Mackintosh production, Mary Poppins (the show, as well as the character) looks gorgeous. From the front cloth that overspills to the sides of the auditorium, showing all the night-time windows of London, to the dolls house frontage of Cherry Tree Lane that opens out into the main rooms of the Banks residence, Bob Crowley’s design is immaculate, stunning, and takes your breath away. Graham Hurman’s twelve-piece orchestra, rather conventionally housed in a pit in front of the stage, throw themselves into those magical Sherman Brothers melodies with very pleasing enthusiasm. George Stiles’ and Anthony Drewe’s additional songs dovetail nicely into the originals, especially Mary Poppins’ prim Practically Perfect and Miss Andrew’s sadistic Brimstone and Treacle.

Step in TimeIn the lead role, Zizi Strallen gives a stellar performance; she looks the part, she sings perfectly, and she brings to life Mary Poppins’ magical qualities of appearing from nowhere, knowing what you’re thinking, indulging in fun but having absolute rules that must be obeyed, and so on. There’s some nice onstage magic (literally), as when she continually takes large items out of her carpet bag; and when her powers overcome Miss Andrew so that the latter consumes her own brimstone and treacle, it’s a highly satisfying moment! Ms Strallen is mesmerising in the role. It’s also a delight to see Charlie Stemp back in a musical, as Bert the Sweep, leading some spectacular dance numbers, including the famous “dancing around the proscenium arch” act, which still looks great. And, of course, a huge cheer for the wonderful Petula Clark, still performing at the age of [let’s not mention it] as the Bird Woman.

IPetula Clarkt’s slick, it’s powerful, it’s spot-on with all its technical prowess, and it looks and sounds magnificent. So why did I feel strangely disconnected to it? Am I really now too old to enjoy this kind of show? I deeply hope not. But for me it lacked an edge, a bite; an element of true magic. When Ms Strallen sang “all around the cathedral the saints and apostles look down as she sells her wares….” the music didn’t emotionally swell and I didn’t get that lump in the throat I was expecting. And I know this is going to make me sound like a miserable old curmudgeon, but the child actors playing Jane and Michael were so incredibly efficient and accurate in their characterisations that they made them too unlikeable to get pleasure from their performances. Whilst I absolutely appreciated the strengths of the entire production, I was really shocked that it left me surprisingly cold. I’d been really looking forward to it, too! I disappoint myself!

Mary and the ChildrenI should add that there are some lovely supporting performances, for example Claire Moore is fantastic as the horrendous Miss Andrew, and I really enjoyed Amy Griffiths as the put-upon and unsure Mrs Banks. In any case, I’m sure this production is going to do great business for a long time to come, and if you’ve kids this is going to be a knock-out success for them. Don’t listen to a miserable git like me whose heart is obviously getting stonier by the day!

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – The Season, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 28th November 2019

The SeasonWhat is it about New York that inspires such creativity? If you’ve never been there, you imagine the bright lights, the yellow cabs, the wisecracking cops, the Broadway shows; Macy’s and Bloomingdales; the art deco elegance of the Empire State Building, the upright nobility of Lady Liberty, carriage rides around Central Park. You imagine all the movies, all the TV series, all the plays that have their roots there. You imagine you are part of one giant creative hub. Go to New York and you will make your fortune, become a star, make your dreams reality.

DougalWhereas, of course, if you’ve been there, you know that the truth can be somewhat different. Yes, all those fantasies are possible; but if you’ve not much money, are working unsociable hours in a coffee shop, sleeping on a friend’s sofa, you can put all thoughts about glamour and showbiz out of your head, and like as not you won’t be welcome in Macy’s.

RobinFantasy meets reality in Jim Barne and Kit Buchan’s new musical, The Season, appearing for a couple more days at the Royal and Derngate, a co-production with the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich, where it has already played. Dougal has flown from his home in Northampton (and why not) to New York for a weekend to attend the wedding of his long-lost Dad, who left the matrimonial home months before Dougal was born, to seek his fortune in the Big Apple. Dad is marrying Melissa, decades his junior, the old rascal. Dougal has romanticised the opportunity finally to meet his father to a heart-palpitating extent; he has fantasised about discovering an extended family, being part of somewhere glamorous, and doing all the things that a boy and his dad should do.

In New YorkHe’s met at the airport by Melissa’s sister Robin; she’s been tasked to do this, just as she’s been dogsbodied to get the wedding cake from the bakers, buy her sister’s last-minute wedding stockings, and, one senses, a lot more. But Robin has a busy schedule of her own. Her reality is the Bump and Grind coffee shop; and if she doesn’t work, she doesn’t get paid. Managing the over-enthusiastic puppy that is Dougal is the last thing she needs. But over the course of the weekend life changes for both, in part due to his high-pressure tactics, in part due to her need to escape her doldrums. His fantasy becomes overtaken by reality, and her reality gains a glimpse of fantasy. But in which direction will the future turn? I’ll say no more about the plot, but let’s just say that neither of them could have predicted the outcome.

IAt the Chinesen many respects The Season reminded me strongly of that old Marvin Hamlisch musical, They’re Playing Our Song. Both have two characters, set in New York, where an incompatible couple find themselves attracted to each other and we see them deal with the consequences. And in both shows, the future for the two people is uncertain. But there is an element of melancholy in The Season, absent from the more showbizzy TPOS, that gives it depth and reflection. You sense there is so much in The Season that is left unsaid; there is eloquence in those gaps that really encourages your imagination to work hard to get a full appreciation of these two people’s lives.

Robin at homeAmy Jane Cook has created a brilliant set, with a centrepiece of New York bright-light signs, a stage strewn with subway signs, and a inventively used revolving stage to help give a sense of progress through the city, but which also subtly tells some stories of its own; the sequence of drinks and food trays that emerge from behind the set, for example, that explain the night at the Plaza, fills in so many details without a word being said. Grant Walsh leads a trio of musicians who provide a fabulous soundtrack to the developing story with a depth that would suggest many more people backstage.

Dougal in the hotelTori Allen-Martin and Alex Cardall create a perfect onstage partnership, with their characters’ clear, opposing personalities driving the show on with great power and vigour. Ms Allen-Martin’s Robin is a deeply troubled soul but you only get to realise this on a dripfeed basis as the show progresses; and we all get to enjoy her revenge by credit card activity. Mr Cardall is a bright, happy stage presence; an innocent abroad who takes a childlike pleasure in the simplest of activities – in fact, someone we could all learn from. The scene at the beginning of the second Act perfectly portrays the difference between the two characters; one confused, horrified, nauseous and exhausted, the other as though he were auditioning for a Kellogg’s Fruit and Fibre advert. The pair of them are both hilarious and alarming in turn; over the course of two hours you feel you’ve got to know them intimately as friends and, frankly, you worry about them.

Robin plus cakeSocial media is already demanding The Season 2 – will we find out what happens to Robin and Dougal? I rather like the fact that all their experience is contained within one weekend; that it’s one big finite flourish of experience that they can take home with them and use to enhance their separate lives. But a sequel would be good too! Hopefully this isn’t the end of the line for this fascinating couple. A fantastic little nugget of musical delight.

Review – The Boy in the Dress, RSC, Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 27th November 2019

78499535_547894199335799_2318101661920264192_nHotly awaited comes this brand-new musical to the Royal Shakespeare Theatre with a pedigree as long as a dachshund. David Walliams’ book (his first) has been adapted for the stage by Mark Ravenhill (of Shopping and F***ing fame), with music and lyrics by Robbie Williams and Guy Chambers. Directed by RSC Supremo Gregory Doran, heading the cast is the inimitable and versatile Rufus Hound, with a fabulous (and I do not use the word lightly) set by Robert Jones and a delicious-sounding band led by Alan Williams. All well and good so far!

DennisAnd indeed, it’s all well and good for the most part. I’ve not read Mr Walliams’ book but a quick flick at a synopsis suggests that the musical is very true to the original and is a story with its heart fixed firmly in the right place. 12-year-old Dennis is the top scorer in the school football team, but his life has been shattered by his mum walking out on the family home and leaving him with just his dad and older brother John. Whilst Dad sits around indulging in comfort food and John is out doing his own thing, there’s a big mum-shaped hole in Dennis’ life. Dad has burned all the photos of her, save one that was accidentally rescued by Dennis, where she’s wearing that yellow dress that he always associates with her. One day, whilst buying this week’s Shoot! magazine in Raj’s corner shop, Dennis spies an edition of Vogue with a beautiful yellow dress on the cover and he can’t resist buying it. Hoping to gain the attention of the most desirable girl in the school Lisa James, Dennis allows her to dress him up in her new fashion creation, an orange sequined dress; and he loves it. But how will this go down with his friends, family and headmaster? You’ll have to watch it to find out!

ExpelledIn these days where schoolchildren are being taught (quite rightly, imho) that there should be No Outsiders, and society seems to be getting less and less tolerant, this feels like a timely addition to the debate about the human condition. I’m sure there are more plays that examine what it’s like to be a cross-dresser, but this is the first I can remember since Robert Morley and John Wells’ A Picture of Innocence back in 1978, and certainly the first involving a child. Its message of acceptance is simple and clear; it doesn’t erroneously conflate it with homosexuality, and beware of anyone who doesn’t accept you as you are, because they’re likely to be hypocrites. I always guessed that a certain someone would have a guilty secret; I was right.

Lisa James and DennisAt its best, this is an irresistibly charming production, with some great flashes of humour, both spoken and physical. The prancing arrival of the posh boys’ football team has you hooting with derision. When Lisa James peeks through Dennis’ bedroom window and he asks how she got there, the hilarious simplicity of the answer almost stops the show. Then there are some great set pieces of music and dance; the Disco Symphony sequence, for instance, is brilliantly staged and the audience raises the roof in response.  The football matches are represented with some fantastic footballography, creating a balletic effect out of the beautiful game. And its impishly sudden ending is something I don’t think I’ve ever seen in a musical.

HawtreySo it’s a smash-hit, right? Well, no, not quite. I really wanted to love this show from my toes to my fingertips but there were elements that for me let it down. The show wavers between being played very straight and serious in some parts and as pure pantomime in others. The lump-in-the-throat provoking If I Don’t Cry, where Dennis explores his reaction to his mum’s departure, and A House Without a Mum, where the whole family comes to terms with their new status, are full of heartfelt emotion and true humanity. On the other hand, all the scenes with the ebullient shopkeeper Raj, or Darvesh’s outrageous mother, or Mr Hawtrey’s A Life of Discipline number, are pure pantomime, and the balance between the two sometimes feels a little uneasy. Of course, sometimes we have up days, sometimes down, and having a variety of styles reflects that. It’s just that the heartfelt sequences work so well and the pantomime sequences don’t always achieve that.

Darvesh's mum and companyThe story is great, and the tunes are perfectly agreeable. However, some of those lyrics – oh, good Lord. I appreciate that the show is designed to appeal to children – the suggested age for David Walliams’ book is 8- to 12-year-olds. But that doesn’t mean the words have to be dumbed down. For example: the chorus of the Headmaster’s song, I Hate Kids, blandly goes (if I remember rightly), “I hate kids, I hate kids, I really really really hate kids”. Doesn’t give us great character insight, does it? Particularly as in other scenes the headmaster is happy to declaim “Degenerate!” whenever he sees Dennis, which is a rather sophisticated word. Many of the songs throughout the show are sadly littered with inane and uninspired lyrics, and opportunities for more telling words are sacrificed in the quest for a rhyming couplet – learning/learned, turning/turned comes to mind.

RajAnd then there’s the character of Raj. It panders to every Asian shopkeeper racial stereotype under the sun, and I felt sorry for Irvine Iqbal being asked to gurn his way through a sequence of embarrassing musical clichés which wouldn’t have made the first draft of a Goodness Gracious Me sketch. Not giving too much away, I hope, but when he donned his sari I truly wanted to look away. That really didn’t work for me at all. And whilst I enjoyed Natasha Lewis’ performance as Darvesh’s Mum (she does have the best line in the show after all), it seemed clear that the adult Asians are portrayed as outrageous/grotesque figures of fun whilst most of the adult Caucasians are portrayed as ordinary, recognisable human beings. If you want to see lovable Asians on stage without patronising them, can I recommend a revival of the excellent Bend it like Beckham?

Dad with DennisDespite these not insubstantial issues, there’s no doubt that the show is immensely enjoyable, largely down to a fantastic performance from a gifted cast. For press night, the role of Dennis was played by Toby Mocrei, and he was exceptional. Full of authority, a face that conveys innocence, cheekiness, sadness and that wonderful feeling when you get the attention of the most attractive girl in the school, plus the voice of an angel (yes, Messrs Williams and Chambers aren’t the only ones who can use a cliché), the audience as one rose to give him a most deserved standing ovation at the earliest opportunity. Dennis is a dream role for a child actor and Toby was the star of the night. There are four actors playing Dennis, as there are for the role of Darvesh; ours was Ethan Dattani, also full of confidence, plaintively and affectionately reassuring Dennis that his cross-dressing didn’t make a shred of difference to their friendship in a rather emotional little scene. He also very nicely batted away his mother’s embarrassing pitchside kisses.

Jackson Laing as DennisAs one of three actors playing Lisa James, Tabitha Knowles is another supremely confident young performer; her Lisa creates a strong bond with Dennis, whom she proudly displays in the shops and at school as though he were her extravagant new pet. She also has a great singing voice, nice comic timing and a very engaging persona. And Alfie Jukes’ John is a nicely underplayed Neanderthal dumb-nut, who’ll do anything for a Magnum. I hardly recognised Rufus Hound as Dad, an unhappy, down-at-heel man who doesn’t need any further complications in his life and is insufficiently in tune with his feminine side to come close to understanding Dennis’ fondness for dresses – at first. But when he opens his heart and accepts his son, I swear a bit of grit must have got in my eye and I had to activate my tear duct.

CompanyElsewhere there’s an effective pantomime-villain performance from Forbes Masson as Mr Hawtrey, strictly one-dimensional and played for laughs, and a nicely loopy performance from Charlotte Wakefield as the useless French teacher Miss Windsor. And I loved Ben Thompson’s very human operation of Oddbod, the dog who farts when he gets excited. There’s one lovely moment when he lets one rip and then looks accusingly at the audience as if to ask, “come on, which of you did that?”

I wanted this to be a great show; I guess I’ll have to make do with it being a very good show. But I’m sure it’s going to be a terrific hit with Christmas families and school parties. It’s playing at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 8th March 2020, but I’m sure that’s not the last we’ll see of sharp-shooting Dennis and his shimmying gown. And, on press night at least, the evening belonged to young Master Mocrei.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan.

Review – The Watsons, Menier Chocolate Factory, 27th October 2019

74306319_2427278470864361_3012065319213596672_nOne of the big hits of last year – but which left me cold – was Laura Wade’s Home I’m Darling, a clever construct that merged the 1950s with the present day, but which for me lacked substance, characterisation and conviction. I’m perfectly prepared to accept that I’m out of kilter on that one. I’d already seen another of Ms Wade’s plays, Posh, as performed by the University of Northampton Acting Students and a jolly good fist they made of it. Having enjoyed that, I thought I’d give Ms Wade another chance with The Watsons, a co-production between the Menier and Chichester Festival Theatre, both of whom I pretty much trust to come up with good productions and performances. And whilst you can see certain elements linking both plays – messing around with time, fooling the audience into thinking one scenario is happening when in fact another is secretly operating over and above it – I’m delighted to say that Home I’m Darling isn’t a patch on The Watsons, which is currently convincing me is one of the best new plays written in the 21st century.

EmmaIf you want to miss any spoilers, skip this paragraph, although if you’re interested in seeing the play, you may well already know its trick up its sleeve. The Watsons is an unfinished book of Jane Austen’s; she started writing it in 1803 and shelved it after a few chapters. We don’t know why she stopped writing it; and the play is Laura Wade’s method of exploring this mystery and imagining what story might have evolved from the bare bones that survived. Emma, the youngest of the Watson girls, returns to the family fold much to the interest of local society, and the curiosity of her brother and sisters. Will she be courted by young Lord Osborne, whose family own the posh house? Or might she fall for the dignified poverty of Mr Howard the clergyman? Or, heavens forfend, will she choose the dashing cad Tom Musgrave? Just as she’s about to consider favourably an offer of marriage, Laura, ostensibly a maid but actually the author, crashes into the story and stops Emma from underselling herself. Once Laura has crossed the divide between Jane Austen’s characters and real life, her adaptation task is made so much harder, as the characters themselves demand a say in what happens… and the result is, literally, anarchy.

CastYes, it’s a play about the creative process – something I always find extremely rewarding – bringing the creator herself up close and personal in conflict with her characters and plotline. The play gives Ms Wade a chance to explore the differences between reality and fiction; there’s delight when the characters realise they will never die, for example, but a shock when they discover they will never progress; much to the horror of ten-year-old Charles Howard, who realises he will always be a boy and never get to discover what’s hidden inside ladies’ underwear. There’s also a lot of fun to be had by bringing both the modern world and the theatre world into the characters’ lives, and each funny little idea that Ms Wade writes into the text is only ever used once, which keeps the play constantly inventive and evolving.

Mise en sceneDespite the idea of a writer confronting his characters not being 100% original – Laura herself mentions Pirandello when chatting to David the producer on her mobile – the construction of this play is so fresh and so tight, and so beautifully carried out by a cast who do not put a foot wrong, even by the most minor of the 19 roles that pack out the tiny Menier stage, that the production is a complete joy. Ben Stones’ design helps to accentuate the differences between Austen’s era and today, with simple touches like the minimalist plastic red chair that Laura sits on to workshop the story with the cast who are all seated opposite her in regency white. I had to chuckle when I saw that her coffee cup bears the symbol of the Sheffield Crucible’s Centre Stage Loyalty club.

Emma and LauraEven when their characters are developing way beyond what Jane Austen might have expected of them, each of the nineteenth century cast plays it absolutely straight, which intensifies the hilarity all the more. Only Louise Ford, as Laura, is allowed the space to reflect and speak in the modern manner, much to the amazement of her Georgian counterparts. It’s a beautiful performance, laden with responsibility towards Austen, the characters, the audience, everyone; delivered with embarrassed uncertainty and occasional goofiness. She is matched by Grace Molony’s Emma, at first miffed that her chance of a fine marriage has been thwarted, who grows into a delightful 200-year-old rebel, with a perfect blend of the demure and the cunning.

Elizabeth and EmmaPaksie Vernon is excellent as the put-upon Elizabeth, Jane Booker tremendously haughty as Lady Osborne, Joe Bannister hilariously tongue-tied as her uppercrust son, Laurence Ubong Williams marvellously roguish as cad Tom, Sophie Duval delightfully pompous as Mrs Robert, Sally Bankes brilliant as the surprisingly political Nanny, and with the rest of the cast all turning in superb supporting performances. At our show, young Charles was played by Isaac Forward and he was effortlessly fantastic.

on the phone to DavidThe run of The Watsons at the Menier continues until 16th November – but it’s completely sold out. I’m not surprised. Surely a West End transfer must follow; this is far too good a play and production to end here. I don’t do star ratings – but this gets a 5*!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – A View from the Bridge, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th October 2019

72458640_558168685003851_1621455574212280320_nIf asked the perplexing question, What’s Your Favourite Arthur Miller?, I think most people go for The Crucible option, with perhaps a solid minority plumping for Death of a Salesman. However, way back in 1988 I took the young Miss Duncansby on a date night to see the National Theatre’s production of A View from the Bridge directed by Alan Ayckbourn and starring Michael Gambon as Eddie Carbone – and it remains one of our all-time most memorable theatrical experiences. The pre-wedding anxieties faced by the Carbone family resonated very strongly with our own familial disasters in the lead up to ours. I could fill you in on the details, but that’s probably best kept for another time.

Nicholas Karimi as EddieJuliet Forster’s storming production for the Royal and Derngate, together with York Theatre Royal, arrives with many plaudits from its Yorkshire run – and quite right too. Fantastic performances, clear, lucid storytelling, usefully flexible stage design, and a story just as strongly valid today as it was in 1955. The Bridge in question is Brooklyn Bridge, which spans from smart Manhattan to down-at-heel Red Hook in Brooklyn, where immigrant labourers offload the cargo from the ships. Eddie and Beatrice play host to her cousins Marco and Rodolpho who have arrived illegally from Italy where there is neither work nor money. It’s just one of many such arrangements throughout the whole of Red Hook, and there’s only one code of conduct: you don’t snitch to the authorities. But when Rodolpho and Beatrice’s daughter Catherine become romantically entwined, Eddie’s jealousies and prejudices come to the fore.

Eddie and CatherineIn today’s Brexity times, immigration is a very live issue, and anything that makes us think harder about the personal problems facing immigrants and society’s attitude towards them, must be a good thing. But I was very much struck in this production how Miller was exploring not only the general subject of immigration, with questions of loyalty and family relationships, but also those perhaps more modern topics of mental health and what it is to be a man. There are four principal male characters in this play – Eddie, the family provider; Alfieri, the authoritative high achiever lawyer; Marco, the workhorse; and Rodolpho, the creative artist. Whilst Eddie would, naturally, see himself as being the pinnacle of manhood, he respects the lawyer although is “man enough” to question his opinion, and he respects the head-down, hard worker for grafting all the hours God gives to send money home to look after his children.

Lili Miller as Catherine Nicholas Karimi as Eddie and Pedro Leandro as RodolphoBut he has no respect for the artist, whose strengths lie in other directions – in the arts, in entertainment, and in surreptitiously winning the hearts of all the ladies. To Eddie, Rodolpho simply ain’t right. But Miller shows us that all four of these people are “proper men” in their own ways and in their own right. The only one who fails to abide by the common code at the end of the day, is Eddie – and you sense his mental health is far from stable, with his wild and unpredictable behaviour. That’s why this play translates perfectly as a modern version of a classical tragedy, with Alfieri as the chorus and Eddie as the tragic hero. Whilst the more cerebral Alfieri and Rodolpho use their intelligence and know that conciliation is the successful way forward, it’s not the same for the more physical Eddie and Marco. When Eddie demands that Marco makes good the dishonour he cast on him, and Marco seeks vengeance for the betrayal, there’s only ever one outcome in this clash of the alpha males.

CastRhys Jarman’s set is stark and comfortless, with the Carbone’s furniture arriving out of a packing case that descends from the sky, just like the crates the longshoremen unload from the ships – an Ikea ex machina, if you like. But the simplicity of the set is its strength. Even Alfieri’s office is represented by sitting on an old tea crate; and worrying prominence is given to the pole-mounted telephone stage right, always visible, but only used once, for the ultimate act of betrayal. Sophie Cotton’s opening scene background music is intriguing and atmospheric, and I was sorry not to hear more of it.

Nicholas Karimi as Eddie and Lili Miller as CatherineAt the heart of this superb production is an immense performance by Nicholas Karimi as Eddie. At first, I thought he might be a trifle young for the role – Miller’s stage direction stipulates that he’s forty years old – but those thoughts quickly passed as I realised that his relative youth intensified the creepier aspect of Eddie’s love for Catherine. Dogmatic, unreasonable, and with a finely expressed sense of his own self-doubt, Mr Karimi is hugely watchable throughout the whole play and conveys all of Eddie’s wild emotions with a mixture of great control and maniacal turbulence.

Robert Pickavance as AlfieriAlso threading through the production is Robert Pickavance’s tremendous portrayal of Alfieri, which elevates what could otherwise be quite a humdrum role into a genuinely tragic framework. Mr Pickavance takes instant control of proceedings, with his thoughtful, considered delivery directly slowing down the pace of the busy first scene. He has a fantastic stage presence, and it’s a commanding performance. Laura Pyper plays Beatrice with loving concern for both her husband and her niece, providing a voice of moderation in a volatile household. In her professional stage debut, Lili Miller is excellent as Catherine as her character journeys from trusting innocence to the sad realisation that she is being controlled and, you may feel, emotionally abused.

MarcoAs the vulnerable outsiders offloaded like cargo into the Carbone house, Reuben Johnson and Pedro Leandro create a very effective couple as Marco and Rodolpho. Mr Johnson’s impassive expressions convey the worries and the silent heartache he has in leaving behind his wife and children; because he is the kind of man who cannot talk about his feelings, those emotions build up angrily inside. His final showdown is a great expression of aggression mixed with justice. Mr Leandro is terrific as Rodolpho; it’s tempting to make the character overly effeminate or camp but this Rodolpho is a beautifully precise portrayal of a man whose strengths and abilities take him outside the usual herd; strengths that make the longshoremen laugh, that attract Catherine, that repel Eddie and that make Marco protective of him.

Not gonna lie – on the performance we saw, the stage fight at the end was incredibly clumsy and unconvincing, but everyone can have an off night. That aside, it’s a riveting, thought-provoking drama that explores many of mankind’s worst aspects. Timely, slick and with tremendous performances, this production continues at the Royal and Derngate until October 26th, but really deserves a life hereafter.

Production photos by Ian Hodgson

Review – Nigel Slater’s Toast, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 9th October 2019

71742678_379481756289212_2561666422598008832_n“So… Nigel Slater. Have you heard of him?” I asked Mrs Chrisparkle, shortly before we set off to the theatre. “He’s a chef, isn’t he?” she replied. “Yes, indeed” I said, confident as I had only Googled him a couple of hours earlier. To be honest, I hadn’t a clue who Nigel Slater was. Obviously important enough to have a play written about his toast, at any rate. And when you enter the Royal auditorium, that’s the first thing you notice – the smell of deliciously crisp, tasty toast. Torture for the coeliac Mrs C, who hasn’t had decent toast since 2004.

The CastIt is a trifle odd to watch a play, adapted from the autobiography of someone you’ve never heard of, and for a while I kept on thinking that I was missing something, some kind of grand identity reveal that would give added purpose to this otherwise rather private play. But I never felt the benefit of that reward. Instead for me it was a kind of voyeuristic experience, observing the childhood and upbringing of a famous person without truly understanding why I was doing it.

Mum and NigelThat said, it’s a very enjoyable, totally charming and incredibly slick production that uses its kitchen set to remarkable ends – with a very creative use of those floating island units we all envy in kitchen showrooms, although if you saw how they presented Getting Married Today in the recent production of Company, it won’t come as that much of a surprise. We meet 8-year-old Nigel helping his mother in the kitchen, devouring the wise words of Marguerite Patten; it’s obvious from the very start that Nigel has a very serious interest in cookery, this is not merely food-play. We then follow him through life’s experiences, including his first sight of a naked man (at a surprisingly young age), the confusion over boy sweets and girl sweets, the loss of his mother, his father’s remarriage and his first steps towards adulthood, both at work and in discovering his sexuality.

Spaghetti BologneseHenry Filloux-Bennett’s adaptation is beautifully written; a delicate soufflé of words and emotions that bind perfectly and rise just as they should. Throughout the play there are occasions when nothing is actually said, but the expressions and the actions of the performers give it greater eloquence than words ever could. And, having lost a parent myself at a young age, I found its whole portrayal and understanding of childhood bereavement completely believable – and young Nigel really reminded me of myself, which was quite a shock. Plus: real cooking! Whilst some of the earlier food preparations in the play are presented, by necessity, à la Blue Peter, whatever it is that Giles Cooper cooked in the final scene – definitely involving mushrooms – wafted gloriously into the auditorium. Sit in the front row and you might get some flapjacks; the rest of us take lucky dips out of several bags of sweeties. I plumped for a roll of Fizzers, which are alarmingly noisy to open in the theatre, particularly when one hand is holding a glass of Malbec. To be frank, Fizzers and Argentinian Red aren’t the best food/wine pairing.

Top of the FormCentral to the success of this production is a superb performance by Giles Cooper. His very clean-cut image is perfect for the young Nigel, and I remember that shorts and long socks look from my own childhood. Perfect clarity of diction, childlike (as opposed to childish) expressions and reactions, the disappointment when plans go wrong, routine behaviours, and much more – it’s a very full and credible performance of a child’s existence, and the growing awareness of life outside the kitchen as he gets older.

Auntie JoanBlair Plant is also excellent as Dad; very formal, sometimes finding it difficult to exercise his parental skills to the best of his ability, but also wheedling like a child when he wants everything his own way. The other members of the cast take several roles. Katy Federman gives a great performance as the kindly Mum, an almost idealistically perfect mother figure, balancing her love for her child and wanting the best for him, with her own failing health – she’s also great fun as Doreen, Nigel’s first employer. Samantha Hopkins is terrific as the loathsome Joan, with whom Dad falls in love (well, in lust, really), a lascivious chainsmoking strumpet with a need to compete for affection. And Stefan Edwards is great in all the other male roles – the surprisingly uninhibited gardener, Nigel’s goofy schoolmate, and Doreen’s ballet-dancing son.

ToastI wasn’t sure what to expect from the production, but I certainly wasn’t disappointed. It’s a lively, honest, creative play that shows the boy turn into the man. I’m sure if you’re already familiar with the man in question, you’d get even more out of it! Toast is touring into December, so if you’re near Richmond, Brighton, Salisbury, Manchester, York, Chesterfield or Crewe, you can see The Rise and Rise of Young Nigel for yourself – tickets available here. Very slick, very enjoyable – recommended!

Production photos by Piers Foley

Review – Calendar Girls The Musical, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 8th October 2019

72330356_976166089402553_323391701446033408_nCalendar Girls is one of those stories that never seems to go away. First, there was the reality – the death in 1998 of John Clarke, which inspired his widow Angela to create the famous naked Women’s Institute Calendar for 2000; and again for 2004, 5, 7 and 8. Then came the 2003 film starring Helen Mirren and Julie Walters that won Best Film at the British Comedy Awards. 2008 saw the premiere of Tim Firth’s play at the Chichester Festival, with a feisty cast including Elaine C Smith, Sian Phillips, Lynda Bellingham and Patricia Hodge – we loved it. When we saw it a couple of years later at the Royal and Derngate, however, it had turned into a bit of a stinker; in those days I used to give a Chrisparkle Award to the Worst Play/Production of the Year (I’m not that childish or cruel nowadays), and I’m afraid it won first prize.

SARAH-JANE-BUCKLEYHowever, in 2015 Tim Firth joined forces with Gary Barlow of Take That fame to pen Calendar Girls The Musical, which opened in Leeds that year, then received a West End transfer in 2017 and started touring in October 2018. A year later, it has finally arrived in Northampton, and we thought we’d give those daring ladies another try.

PHIL-CORBITTIt’s now a very different entity. From the very first moment when Phil Corbitt’s John walks through a country gate and starts singing wholesomely and romantically about Yorkshire, you’re caught up in a world of country goodness, Mother Nature, solid family/friendships, and a feeling that all’s right in the world. In fact, those opening moments reminded me strongly of the beginning to Oklahoma!, a lone rural soul extolling the virtues of his beloved homeland. Mr Corbitt’s voice is warm and reassuring; Mr Firth’s lyrics are heart-warming and emotional; Mr Barlow’s melodies are strong, evocative and rewarding. And that very much sets the tone for the entire show. The performances are all very strong – particularly musically; the adaptation of the original is inventive, funny and moving; and the tunes range from the enjoyable to the memorable. Mrs Chrisparkle felt she heard shades of Blood Brothers; I sensed elements of The Hired Man. If we’re both right, that has to be a winning combination.

REBECCA-STORMI must admit, I had low (maybe no) expectations of this show, but I was completely wrong. It’s a blast from start to finish, whether that’s through the upbeat characterisations of the Women’s Institute members, or through the strength of the relationships portrayed between all the characters, or through a variety of high comedy scenes. It also gets the emotional sadness of John’s declining health absolutely right, which prepares us for Annie’s brave bereavement and her subsequent way forward, largely due to support from her irrepressible bestie Chris.

LISA-MAXWELLWhereas the play seemed interminably slow to start, the musical just gets on with it, which is a virtue all of its own. It also, extremely successfully, brings out the characters of Danny (Chris’ son), Tommo (Cora’s son) and Jenny (Marie’s daughter), who are all at school together and clumsily formulating relationships of their own. Scenes with the younger actors balance nicely with the older cast to give a fuller picture of the village environment. If I remember rightly, the play rewards us with the always hilarious taking-the-photographs scene about halfway or two-thirds way through; whereas the musical uses this as its near climax, if you’ll pardon the expression. The musical version of the naked photoshoot remains hysterically funny with inspired use of buns and some members of the cast throwing care to the wind with what they might or might not reveal.

JULIA-HILLSThe performances are universally excellent throughout. Sarah Jane Buckley is brilliant as Annie; musically, her delivery of the song Scarborough, where she starts to show anxiety about how life can carry on with an incapacitated John, was the show’s highlight for me. Rebecca Storm’s Chris is a hearty, confident type, full of support for her friend; Julia Hills’ repressed Ruth is a brilliant portrayal of an older woman putting on a brave front – again, another musical highlight is her hilarious (yet sad) My Russian Friend and I where she shares the source of her consolation.

TYLER-DOBBSGreat to see Ruth Madoc on fine form as older headmistress Jessie, with just the right level of status-oriented pomposity but with warmth and humour shining through; Lisa Maxwell gives a great performance as bodily-enhanced Celia, and Sue Devaney is fantastic as always, as vicar’s daughter Cora, trying to encourage son Tommo to do as I say not as I do. On which subject, Tyler Dobbs is superb as Tommo in what I suspect is his first major professional role. Danny Howker is a nicely innocent Danny, and Isabel Caswell is a nicely knowing Jenny, which makes them a perfect pairing. But the entire cast do a great job in bringing this emotionally-charged but never maudlin – and frequently hilarious – musical to life.

SUE-DEVANEYHighly recommended; after Northampton, the tour continues to Blackpool, Chester, Bath and Chichester. Tickets – if there are any left – are available through the tour website here. It received a deserving standing ovation on its first night in Northampton – I can only suggest you book to discover for yourself why.

ISABEL-CASWELLP. S. I can’t work out why this show seems to appeal almost exclusively to women. On Tuesday night I doubt whether the packed house of 1200 theatregoers had more than 20 men. Maybe men are still too scared to witness emotion? Who knows? Have a word with yourselves, guys, you’re missing out on a lot of fun!

Review – The Woman in Black, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 30th September 2019

72325020_2554237014656850_852794451297304576_nIf you’ve not seen The Woman in Black before, then, unless you’re under, say, 21 years old, what have you been doing all your life? She’s been menacing the West End for thirty odd years, intimidating The Actor who has been hired to help bring Arthur Kipps’ (no, not that Arthur Kipps) tale up to scratch so that he can perform it to a few family and friends and exorcise his memories.

KippsOn an almost empty set, with just a wicker basket, a clothes rail and a rather ominous door, Kipps starts to tell us about his experience as a young solicitor, visiting Eel Marsh house in its lonely location at the end of a murky, mysterious causeway, to examine the papers of the late Mrs Drablow. He’s not very good as a performer, so The Actor whom he has engaged to direct him, brings him out of his shy nervous shell so that he starts to relive those days. As the story develops, the Actor plays Kipps, and Kipps plays everyone else. It’s a play that works almost totally on the imagination, and is so much the stronger for it. Indeed, there is a programme note by the director that reveals if they had more money to spend on the original budget, it could have been a much more lavish production, which would almost certainly have killed it dead.

The ActorThis is the fourth time I’ve seen this play, the last time being in the same venue seven years ago. It’s a play you can go back to, time and time again, because each time you see it, you get a little extra out of it. It might get scarier; it might get funnier; it might get more serious; it might get more flippant. The truth is, all these aspects are written into the late Stephen Mallatratt’s terrific adaptation of Susan Hill’s book. I’m wondering though, if there have been a couple of recent “updates” to the text – that leave something to be desired. I may be wrong, but I don’t recall Crythin Gifford being located in the county of “ahem-ahem-ahem-shire” (which sounds unnecessarily vague). And when The Actor repeats his claim that he’ll make an Olivier out of Kipps yet… well, a hundred years ago, which is when the production is meant to be set, Oliver would have been 12. Someone hasn’t thought that through properly.

Kipps and ActorPutting that aside, it’s a gripping play, with constantly surprising staging and lighting effects that you will, have no doubt, find unsettling! It also benefits from two highly accomplished performances in this new touring production. Robert Goodale’s Kipps grows from a respectful but timid little man with no sense of occasion into a confident, virtuoso performer, presenting a full cast of characters with great versatility and creativity. I particularly enjoyed his sullen, world-weary Keckwick the pony-and-trap driver, and Jerome the pompous local representative. Daniel Easton plays The Actor with a decent blend of actorly arrogance and genuine self-discovery. Looking and sounding for all the world like a young Hugh Bonneville, Mr Easton completely makes you forget that he’s playing an Actor playing the role – very impressive.

Kipps in characterThe Woman in Black always attracts a large number of school crowds, and last Monday’s performance was no exception. However, I’m delighted to report, that these children were way better behaved than those we encountered in 2012. Screaming was kept to a minimum, and all the phones were put away. They’ve either got some really sadistic teachers or were simply much more involved in the play than in the evening out; either way, win-win.

It's not going wellThis production is touring to 22 more theatres up and down the country, continuing right through to May 2020. Check their website to find the venue closest to you. No excuse not to see it then!

Production photos by Tristram Kenton

Not Quite a Review; or Half a Macbeth is better than None – Chichester Festival Theatre, 28th September 2019

71563150_757734678019221_7876332965544853504_nOne of the big attractions of this year’s Chichester Festival has been the prospect of John Simm as Macbeth. One of my favourite actors, he was brilliant in Sheffield’s Betrayal a few years ago and packed a whacker of a punch in one of the recent Pinter at the Pinter season productions. With Dervla Kirwan as his Lady M and Christopher Ravenscroft as Duncan, what could possibly go wrong? So it was with excited feet that Mrs Chrisparkle and I, together with our friends Lord Liverpool, the Countess of Cockfosters and Professor and Mrs Plum, dodged the raindrops down to the Festival Theatre last Saturday night. We had already enjoyed the new production of Hedda Tesman in the afternoon, and were looking forward to a bit of Out Damned Spot and Infirm of Purpose over the course of the evening.

Duncan on that glass floorAmong the most notable aspects of this production is its glass stage. Set a little bit on high, it consists of several panels joined together which allows for an extravagant lighting plot to create multitudinous effects; and also you can see the rough earth beneath, perfect for opening up grave space with all those deaths. However, sadly, I can’t really review this production for you, gentle reader, because we only saw the first half. Macbeth’s hired murderers were just about to do Banquo in when one of them placed his foot at what must have been a million-to-one wrong angle and KERSHATTERCRASH! the glass panel beneath him cracked into a million tiny shards. At first we all thought it was a magical effect. Maybe each time Macbeth hath murdered sleep, a fairy dies on a glass panel. But no. Once Banquo had sunk into the ground and the Weird Sisters (I blame them) gave us a moody tableau, the lights went up for the interval and a host of backstage and front of house staff huddled around the offending glass panel looking severely worried.

Absolutely ShatteredUndeterred, we went out for our interval Tempranillo, where a slightly perplexed audience was mingling, half in hope and half in disappointment. We wondered how quickly they could get Autoglass to come out and repair…. probably not until Great Birnam Wood shall come to Dunsinane, which is Monday at the earliest. After a longer than usual interval we resumed our seats and awaited developments. The offending panel had by now become a star feature of many a theatregoer’s selfie; the usual warning against taking photos had gone right out of the window.

Lady MEventually someone, I believe the theatre’s deputy executive officer, who was obviously otherwise watching Strictly at home but was on emergency callout,  came on to the stage and apologised but the show just couldn’t go on – it simply wouldn’t have been safe for the cast and she wasn’t prepared to take that risk. We all applauded – it was clearly the right decision. Audience members would be welcome to transfer their tickets to another performance, or, (as in our case) receive a full refund – sadly Chichester is just too far for us to pop down midweek.

MurderersJudging from the first half, it wasn’t shaping up to be the best Macbeth I’ve seen, but it certainly wasn’t the worst. Mr Simm was a trifle light on the evil side but I think that was building up. Ms Kirwan was a little over-pretty in her characterisation and, generally throughout, there was a lot of declamation, a little like the respectful delivery you’d expect at a worthy middle-class school production. Christopher Ravenscroft is, however, a very dignified and beneficent Duncan, although I was surprised how huggy everyone was with him. Not so much Yes My Liege on bended knee, more like Come here me old mucker.

Macbeth and Lady MOn the good side, the staging for Duncan’s last-night dinner, behind the screen whilst the Macbeths were plotting his murder, was incredibly effective. However, the screen was, I fear, overused, and when some of Lady Macbeth’s words appeared written on it as she was speaking, I couldn’t contain myself from bursting out “Oh What???” in barely contained fury at the gimmickry of it. The best performances – as at half-time – were definitely from Stuart Laing’s loyal Banquo and Michael Balogun’s precise and upright Macduff. However, as I haven’t seen the rest of the play, please ignore all my comments as to the show itself!

Weird SistersA great shame. I trust the manufacturer of glass panels is insured against coughing up what I would imagine would be at least a £40,000 claim for refunded tickets. Once again, the Scottish Play turns out to conceal a nightmare up its sleeve. Nevertheless, there’s always a silver lining; now that the Minerva Grill has stopped doing their late-night sharing food platters (BOO!!!!) we had longer to linger over our late-night curry at the Marsala City – highly recommended!