Review – The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 12th March 2020

89403060_567660437170895_1161098001351966720_nIf someone mentions Charlie Chaplin then you get an instant image in your head – a grainy black and white picture of a little guy in an ill-fitting suit, bandy-legged, twirling a cane. Similarly, if you think of Stan Laurel, you imagine a tall weedy-looking chap, intellectually challenged, scratching his hair perplexedly, and almost certainly in the company of the tubby and smug Oliver Hardy. Apart from the era in which they did their best work, you wouldn’t necessarily put the two together. But that’s the basis of this production from Told by an Idiot, co-produced by the Royal and Derngate amongst others.

Through the lifebuoyWho knew that Chaplin and Laurel were on the same ship that sailed to America to join slapstick impresario Fred Karno’s successful troupe of comic performers, a journey that would change their lives for ever and would shape the direction of film comedy for decades? (Everyone put your hands down, that was meant to be rhetorical.) The show is set on their high seas journey to America, interspersed with re-enacted scenes from both the star performers’ lives. Chaplin’s poverty-stricken early days, Laurel’s initial meeting with Hardy (that comedy golf routine was probably the highlight of the show for me), their later-in-life reunion, and so on, are all acted out in little vignettes. There’s no sense of chronological narration to these scenes – they (presumably deliberately) follow each other in a haphazard order, some with great significance to their lives and careers, others less so.

Charlie in full throttleThe production is co-commissioned by the London International Mime Festival, and it’s fascinating to see an entire piece (90 minutes, no interval) performed almost entirely without speech (Chaplin’s drunken dad gets to sing a couple of songs), although the words on the projected screen – cleverly recalling how they got around the issue in the days of the silent screen – provide something of a communication get-out clause. Of course, Tape-Face (or whatever he is called at the moment) can do it – including getting members of the audience up on to the stage without uttering a syllable. The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel also has a couple of entertaining audience participation moments, so do beware if you sit at the front.

FarewellThe performances are all strong; Amalia Vitale gives a tremendous performance as Chaplin, every inch (despite their being not many of them) the clown, impersonating his gait and silently eloquent facial expressions down to a tee. Jerone Marsh-Reid, on the other hand, whilst delightfully suggesting Laurel’s imbecilic charm, doesn’t look remotely like him, which creates a strange sense of imbalance. This is also emphasised by Nick Haverson’s excellent visual impression of Hardy (amongst other roles), but of course that’s not Mr Marsh-Reid’s fault at all. Sara Alexander is the fourth member of the company, spending most of her time keeping pace with the action on her plinky-plonky piano, which works very well.

Nice pictureIf you’re sensing a slight lack of enthusiasm on my part, gentle reader, there’s a reason for that. Whilst I could appreciate the skill, the creativity, the charm, and the cleverness of this production and its performers, it didn’t move me in the slightest. Perhaps I was expecting something different – maybe something along the lines of the simple storytelling of The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk. There were moments in some of the scenes in The Strange Tale (not that it’s remotely strange, btw) where I didn’t fully understand the storytelling. Nor did the chatty people behind us, as we occasionally overheard. I’m also not convinced that the ship setting – nicely realised though it was – helped the show much; I felt it constrained it more than liberated it. The random nature of the acted-out scenes slightly irritated me too; although it was all done in the most charming way, to me it generally lacked focus.

AcrobaticsI must tell you that although she stayed awake – a good sign – Mrs Chrisparkle was bored throughout. I wasn’t, but I confess I did keep looking at my watch. I hoped for more laughs, more emotion, more je ne sais quoi. But then I never did care for Chaplin much; Keaton was much funnier. The audience reaction at the end was more respectful than ecstatic, which strikes me as spot-on; I absolutely respect the skills and artistry of the performers, but, for the most part, was a little disappointed in what this show asked them to do.

3-starsThree-sy does it!

Review – Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 10th March 2020

89071000_226884608705120_6218514948369154048_nEverybody’s been Talking About Jamie since it hit (and I mean hit) the Sheffield Crucible back in 2017. I’d heard great things about it but couldn’t fit it in to our busy schedules. However, we did see it in London in December 2017 and absolutely loved it. Since then it’s gone from strength to strength and is currently touring the UK until August whilst continuing to pack them in at the Apollo Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue. Touring, whilst retaining its West End presence, is something that normally only the big boys of musical theatre can achieve, which means that Jamie is now officially a Big Boy of Musical Theatre.

JamieYou’ll know the story of course, but in brief: Sheffield-based Jamie New (based on the real-life Jamie Campbell) is coming up to his 16th birthday. He knows – and everyone knows – that he’s gay; what they don’t know is his secret ambition to become a drag queen. Fortunately, his mum Margaret, and her best friend Ray support him completely in his quest to be The Real Jamie. However, there are drawbacks. His dad simply can’t accept his son’s sexuality, let alone his ostentatious appearance. His school arch-enemy, the bully Dean, does everything he can to scupper Jamie’s lifestyle. Even careers adviser, Miss Hedge, wants him to be a fork-lift truck driver – I think it’s fair to say she doesn’t entirely have the measure of him. The school prom is looming; will Jamie manage to realise his dream of attending the prom in a dress (and not just any old dress), or will the powers that be oppress him back into a gender-stereotypical conservative outfit that won’t offend the other school parents?

Loco and the girlsThe loving heart of this show is its message of acceptance and encouragement to be yourself – don’t give in to bullies and don’t be persuaded that you can’t realise your dream. None of these big ideas are forced or heavily delivered; it all flows lightly and naturally from the very believable characters. There’s nothing didactic or preachy about Everybody’s Talking about Jamie; it’s just school life (which we all recognise or remember), parent- and teacher-management which is an art we all (hopefully) develop, confronting down your bullies, and emerging shining at the end. And if you want to do it in a fabulous dress then no one’s gonna stop you.

Jamie and HugoThere are so many positives about the show, and this current touring production. Dan Gillespie Sells’ and Tom MacRae’s songs are still fresh, funny, telling and memorable; the book is witty, emotional in all the right places, and is populated with some great characters. Benjamin Holder’s band whack out the numbers with showbizzy panache, and Kate Prince’s choreography is lively, fun, and calls for some great set piece routines that knock your socks off.

Jamie and the castAnd then there are the performances. When I saw John McCrea play Jamie in London, I couldn’t imagine how it could be bettered; but this tour stars Layton Williams as Jamie and so I have to think again. I first saw Mr Williams in the New Adventures’ Lord of the Flies six years ago when you could already see he was a star in the making. He was superb in the ensemble of Hairspray the following year, and then he was a brilliant Paul in Kiss Me Kate at Sheffield – his Too Darn Hot dance had to be seen to be believed. No surprise that he absolutely owns both the stage and the role as Jamie; it’s a perfect opportunity for his dance, acting and comedic skills to come to the fore. Supremely confident and skilful; it’s a great performance.

Jamie and DeanI also loved Shane Richie as Hugo, the tired, disillusioned ex-performer who brings his drag creation Loco Chanelle out of retirement in order to encourage Jamie into doing what he wants. I had no idea he could sing and dance so impressively! There’s terrific support from Lara Denning as Miss Hedge, and Shobna Gulati as Ray, and George Sampson makes an excellent villain in the form of Dean, exuding nastiness from every pore. Garry Lee, JP McCue and Rhys Taylor form a great triumvirate of drag queens, a mixture of faded glamour and gruff mateyness. Sharan Phull is superb in the fascinating and assertive role of Jamie’s bestie Pritti, and the ensemble of school students gives us some stunning song and dance routines – a true joy to watch. But Amy Ellen Richardson as Margaret brings the house down with her moving and powerful rendition of He’s My Boy, which stops us all in our tracks and can coax a tear out of the most hard-hearted audience member.

Jamie and PrittiEverybody’s Talking about Jamie – and he and his show will be the talk of the town for the rest of the week. A brilliant portrayal of the power of the individual, this one’s never going to go away. A must-see!

P. S. I (briefly) met the real Jamie at last year’s West End Eurovision. He was wearing a headdress that almost touched the ceiling. I think he’s overcoming his shyness.

P. P. S. Writer Tom MacRae, who comes from Northampton, was in the Press Night audience – and Layton Williams invited him on to the stage to give a charming but empowering short speech about realising your dreams. Good man yourself, Mr MacRae!

Five Alive, let Theatre thrive!

Review – Rough for Theatre II and Endgame, The Old Vic, 29th February 2020

88183326_133168874749334_6195709823078629376_nA double-bill of Beckett plays is always going to be a challenge, but hopefully a good one. The current Old Vic production directed by Richard Jones comes with a terrific pedigree, starring Daniel Radcliffe and Alan Cumming in one reasonably familiar play and another rarely performed piece. Does it measure up to those high expectations? Read on, gentle reader…

Clov and HammI admit, I’d never heard of Rough for Theatre, neither piece I or piece II – they were written in the late 1950s, in French, naturellement. Fragment deux, that opens this production, is a 25-minute snippet where two bureaucrats examine the life, worth, anxieties and achievements of a man, C, frozen in a window frame, ready to leap (presumably to his death). During the process we learn a little about this man, but we understand much more about the characters of the two office men. A (Daniel Radcliffe), clearly superior, with a natural, relaxed authority, simple clarity of thought and speech versus B (Alan Cumming), flustered, neurotic, insecure, longing to bask in the glory of being in the company of A.

Rough for Theatre IIMessrs Radcliffe and Cumming bring this two-hander to life as a sparklingly unsettling comedy, savage in its contempt for the fate of the man about to jump, but also revealing the strange professional relationship between the two observers. Much funnier than it had any right to be, this little play has the ability to make you laugh, cringe, and appreciate how much we clutch at straws to make life bearable. A terrific opener.

HammAfter the interval we returned for Beckett’s Endgame, or Fin-de-Partie in its original French, that stalemate end to a chess game where no one can make a meaningful move, and there’s certainly no chance of winning. Me to play, Hamm may gleefully announce, but then what? There he sits, blind, imperious, inconsequentially veering from the bland to the bullying, and all for nothing. He whistles for his servant, Clov, who attends in a flash, but is sarcastic, resentful and unhelpful, attempting to return some of the cruelty that had been handed out to him. Preserved but useless, Hamm’s parents, Nagg and Nell, inhabit their dustbins in a corner of the stage, reminiscing about the good old days, with just an old dog biscuit to eat. You can take the chess analogy as far as you like; depending on your fondness for the game it might illuminate or obscure whatever meaning you feel Beckett has written into it.

ClovI’d never seen Endgame on stage before, but had only read it; and what feels like organised stasis on the page comes to vivid life in a way you couldn’t dream of in this stunning production. From the moment Daniel Radcliffe enters the stage and decides to open the curtains, it’s an amazing and spellbinding performance. He remembers he needs his ladder, hits himself for forgetting, then when he finally gets the ladder into place he climbs up it in a most extraordinary manner and, having opened the curtains, comes down in another, ridiculous and hilarious way; forgets the ladder, hits himself again, and so it goes on. It has the audience in hysterics. Throughout the play, Mr Radcliffe adopts a most uncomfortable, but riveting to watch, gait; bouncing, hobbling, sliding over every available surface. But much more than this, he invests Clov with a fascinating characterisation; sullen, bitter, frustrated, but alarmingly obedient and essentially impotent.

Nagg and NellAlan Cumming’s Hamm is a truly ghastly creation, sitting on his throne (a masterful piece of design work by Stewart Laing), his withered, dangly legs reflecting his loss of power. Marvellously smug, viciously cruel, he blathers on confidingly with observations of past life, confronting Clov with petty vindictiveness; in fact, it’s a superb portrayal of a grotesque man clinging on to the wreckage of life. His patronising treatment of his parents in the bin is riddled with sneering and malice, whilst they wait, innocently and pointlessly, for something to happen. The performances of Karl Johnson as Nagg and Jane Horrocks as Nell are a pure delight, as they blink their way out of the darkness in which they are kept, fondly holding onto distant memories of escapades on the tandem in the Ardennes, or rowing on Lake Como. It’s incredibly moving how they continue to look after each other even though their lives have now come to naught.

Hamm and ClovOne cavil – from Mrs Chrisparkle – Nell and Nagg’s dustbins could have done with being placed just a few inches higher on stage; someone’s big hair a few rows in front of her obscured her view of Ms Horrocks’ face throughout the play – which is a substantial and unfortunate element to miss in this production. However, with razor-sharp direction and pinpoint accurate performances, this double-bill converts two difficult-to-appreciate texts into two rivetingly funny and tragic pieces of theatrical magic. Two hours 15 minutes (minus the interval) of hanging on the edge of your seat for the next deliciously delivered line or piece of memorable comic business. We absolutely loved it.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Five alive, let theatre thrive!

Review – Curtains, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 25th February 2020

87361732_614958972684057_4884451827958939648_nUnlike most Brits, Mrs Chrisparkle and I had the pleasure (we’ll come back to that word) of seeing Curtains before its current UK tour, when we caught it at the Al Hirschfield Theater in New York in 2008 – I know, so cosmopolitan. I remember it reasonably fondly; Mrs C less so, and she took some convincing to see this first major British production. I recall I was perplexed at the time that the Broadway production didn’t transfer to the West End. With the benefit of hindsight, I think I understand why.

Jason ManfordCurtains comes with a massive pedigree: primarily its composer and lyricist, Kander and Ebb, whose back-catalogue shines with highlights such as Cabaret and Chicago, as well as The Scottsboro Boys, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and the movie Funny Lady. Fred Ebb died whilst writing Curtains, as did book writer Peter Stone, so Rupert Holmes (he of The Pina Colada Song, Him, and The Mystery of Edwin Drooooood) stepped in to complete the task. Nevertheless, all of us can have our off days, and, musically, you can’t deny that Curtains is a severe disappointment. No memorable songs, no songs that have taken a life of their own outside the show, no great tunes. We all know people who say, that whilst they like “the theatre”, they can’t stand musicals. To my mind, musicals are an incredibly versatile art form, capable of creating sheer magic on a stage, exploring characters, revealing truths, deconstructing dilemmas in their own unique way. However, Curtains is the kind of musical that people who hate musicals think all musicals are like. If this was the first musical I’d ever seen, I’d dismiss the genre as kinda woeful.

The CompanyThe trouble with Curtains is (and I’m talking about the bare bones of the show here, not this production) that it’s trying to be a number of things but fails at them all. It wants to be taken as a serious musical in its own right, but the songs simply aren’t up to it – in fact this is far and away the worst score by Kander and Ebb that I have come across. It wants to be a comedy whodunit, but it completely lacks suspense. In its attempt to parody/pastiche landmark musicals like Oklahoma! or Finian’s Rainbow, it concentrates on their trademark scenes, such as big hoedown stomps or dream ballet sequences, but, taken out of the context of their original shows, they just slow down the natural development of this show. It also makes the show feel immensely dated. Whereas in Cabaret and Chicago the music and the style instantly gives you a time-setting without having to spell it out, you forget that Curtains is meant to be set in 1950s Boston, primarily because there’s no obvious reason for it. Musicals and murder are timeless, so why isn’t this?

The CompanyChrisparkle’s first law of musical theatre is that each song should progress either the plot or our understanding of the characters, or at least the general setting of the show. There’s nothing more frustrating than a stop-start musical where the story takes a break each time an ensemble assembles to sing something. Unfortunately, so many of the numbers in Curtains consist of the audience passively viewing the performance (or rehearsal) from another show (in this case the fictional Robbin’ Hood) which have no meaning or significance for us the audience. Take, for example, the lengthy Thataway that closes the first Act; it’s all bluster and no content, a very repetitive tune that never soars even when you think it might. It’s just an excuse for some swirling skirts and cowboy high-kickin’ (which, to be fair, the cast perform extremely well). But there’s no drama to it, no character development, nothing with which to lead you into the interval with a greater understanding of what’s going on.

Jason Manford & Leah Barbara WestTalking of intervals, it didn’t help that, technically, the performance was a bit of a disaster. The interval climax big effect, where murder victim #2 is found suspended noose-first from the curtains, simply didn’t happen. The characters told us all to “look up there” (or words to that effect) but there was nothing happening “up there”. Then, after Jason Manford’s Cioffi yelled “blackout!” to signify the end of the Act, the curtain fell, only to part rise again to reveal what looked like a degree of backstage consternation at the fact that the effect hadn’t worked. First night in a new theatre, yes, sometimes things go wrong. It happens.

Jason Manford & the boysSurely there were some good things? Yes indeed. Let’s start at the top with Mr Manford. I’ve not seen him in a musical before, and I thought he was excellent. The characterisation of musical-loving Detective Cioffi, hankering romantically after the ingénue Niki Harris, fanboying the writers and the director, worked extremely well. The Broadway production we saw starred David Hyde Pierce in the same role and he camped it up rotten. Jason Manford’s performance, however, was much more nuanced, more considered and more believable. And of course he has excellent comic timing, which he used to great effect.

The CompanyRebecca Lock also gives a fine, beefy performance as the no-nonsense, hard-nosed producer Carmen Bernstein, chucking out savage one-liners whilst belting out her numbers; think Ethel Merman meets Joan Rivers. It’s just a shame that her one-liners weren’t a little funnier and less predictable, but that’s not her fault. Carley Stenson looks and sounds great as Georgia Hendricks, parachuted in to play the lead role when the actress who was going to play Madame Marian suffers a terminal first-night curtain call. Ore Oduba was good, if a little clinical, as Aaron Fox, the composer, and his voice was a little under-amplified in the singing department.

Samuel HolmesThere’s great support from the rest of the cast, especially Emma Caffrey as the show-off Bambi, and understudy Robin Kent who débuted the busy and important role of Bobby Pepper and did a terrific job. Capping it all, there’s a prize performance from Samuel Holmes as the flouncy director Christopher Belling, bitching his way around the stage, side-stepping blame and trouble like a slalom expert. I last saw Mr Holmes as Lord Farquaad in Shrek, where he stole the show; he really does this kind of spoilt brat incredibly well.

Rebecca Lock The other person who drags this show up by its bootstrings and does his best to redeem it, is choreographer Alistair David. An alumnus of so many brilliant lavish shows in Sheffield and Chichester, his dance routines for Curtains throughout are exciting, cheeky, and simply enjoyable. And it’s a testament to the great boys and girls of the dance team that they’re more than up to the task and make those otherwise bland set numbers watchable.

It's loveMrs C started to nod off during Ms Stenson’s performance of Thinking of Him – nothing against Ms Stenson at all, just the fact that the plot had stopped in order for her to sing an irrelevant song, and it’s a cue to the audience to take their mind off the story and let their minds wander. I tried to pull her back to consciousness a few times during the first Act but she’d already lost interest, and was only vaguely sentient at odd moments. She experienced more of the Second Act and even laughed at Mr Holmes’ retort to Bambi: “the only thing you could arouse is suspicion” (winner of Best Line in Show). I stayed awake, but, have to admit, felt pretty bored for much of the time.

The CompanyAlas, the most glittering of casts would have difficulty jump-starting this old banger of a show. After this week, the tour valiantly continues to Blackpool, Glasgow, Leicester, High Wycombe, Wolverhampton and Southampton. Go for the performances and the dancing; look away for the rest.

Production photos by Richard Davenport

3-starsThree-sy does it!

Review – Alone in Berlin, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 13th February 2020

86606617_2979103698774638_2012387805346398208_nHere’s yet another play, that’s an adaptation of a book and a film, that neither Mrs Chrisparkle nor I had heard of, read or seen. The original book, Jeder stirbt für sich allein, (Every Man Dies Alone) was published in 1947, written by Hans Fallada, based on the true Resistance story of Otto and Elise Hampel. Surprisingly, it wasn’t translated into English until 2009. That’s a long time for such a significant work to remain virtually unknown to the English-Speaking public. Alistair Beaton has translated and adapted the original book, and the result is this play, Alone in Berlin, which received its world premiere in Northampton, before embarking on a short tour.

Otto and AnnaIt’s a simple story. Otto and Anna Quangel live a humdrum but respectable life in Berlin. He, a carpenter, quietly goes along with the powerful Nazi regime in order to put food on the table; she, quietly but privately, opposes the regime. They have to break the news to their son Markus’s fiancée Trudi that he has been killed in action. Her coping strategy is to join a Resistance movement at work. This inspires Anna to want to do something practical to oppose the Nazis, but what? Her keenness for action brings Otto out of his rut, and he decides to start writing postcards with anti-Nazi messages and leave them in blocks of flats all around the city.

Escherich, Prall and StatueThis simple act of resistance carries on for some time. Local Gestapo officer Escherich must trace the perpetrator, and in turn he is under pressure for results from his boss, the SS Officer Prall. It’s inevitable that Otto and Anna will be found, and punished – but how did the Gestapo track them down, what will be the punishment, and what of the human collateral that suffers as a result? I’m not going to tell you that – or else there’s no point you’re going to see it.

Escherich, Statue and OttoLet’s concentrate on the good stuff. Firstly, at the blunt end, it reveals the unease of day-to-day living, with the enforced Heil Hitler greeting, and the threat of being reported if you don’t use it. There’s the casual hatred of Jews, and the fact that their lives and property are easy meat for abuse. If you want to just break into a Jewish person’s apartment and steal their goods, no one’s going to blame you for it. Whilst at the sharp end, it shows the brutality and mental instability of the Nazi officers who enforce the regime, with a shockingly unpleasant torture scene, masterminded by an SS Officer gleefully snapping fingers off his victim and giggling whilst he does it. These are people whose Mr Hyde aspect has been given full permission to run riot. We used to say, it couldn’t happen again, but don’t you be too sure.

Also, and, thankfully, more subtly, it reveals what happens when an essentially good person remains good whilst evil thrives all around him, and what happens when another essentially good person chooses to go along with the evil – which one fares better under those same circumstances? Otto, admittedly laboriously and ineffectually at first, starts composing his postcards because it’s the only thing an insignificant man can do. Inspector Escherich, however, a police officer of longstanding experience and presumably reasonably high repute, makes the decision to toe the Nazi line and satisfy his new masters’ cruelty. During his investigation he weaselly offers two suspects the chance of suicide as a means of his “solving the case” whilst not directly involving himself in the dirty details. Comparing the personal journeys of Otto and Escherich, essentially the brave versus the coward, was, for me, the most interesting aspect of the evening.

Otto, Statue and AnnaHowever, it does take a long time and a lot of effort to get there. Sadly, this fascinating story is told in an over-stylised and slow manner. The decision to narrate/interrupt the story by an angel statue that comes to life and sings, Cabaret-style, repetitive (very repetitive) lyrics that reflect the downfall of the age, is a curious one to say the least. By the time the war was in full swing, the decadence of the Weimar years was a thing of the past anyway, so this feels anachronistic. Should the angel statue represent a nostalgia for a better time? She waits on the sidelines and observes all the action so perhaps she is meant to suggest that what happens to Otto and Anna is fate. Maybe? Not sure. What she unfortunately does achieve is to minimise what should be growing tension. Tension grows out of a sense of real threat, but her presence is ethereal, invisible, mystic even, which, I would suggest, works against what the play sets out to achieve. Whenever the statue interrupts the flow of the play, down comes the suspense. Worse, it actually feels pretentious – and it doesn’t even have the benefit of being tuneful. I’m afraid I didn’t like that element to the production one bit.

Escherich, Kluge and StatueTo be fair, it wasn’t technically a great performance either. In a very unfortunate error early on, Charlotte Emmerson, as Anna, broke the news to Abiola Ogunbiyi’s Trudi, that Otto had died. Pause to take that in… isn’t Otto (Denis Conway) sitting next to her? Oh, she meant Markus…. and that left three actors with nowhere to go apart from carry on regardless, but the atmosphere had gone. As a result, I was never certain whether Ms Emmerson’s occasional dithering over the lines was a deliberate characterisation point about Anna, or whether she was simply under-rehearsed. There were similar incidents of ragged prop-handling, with Trudi searching for ages to find the photo in her bag, Escherich having difficulty getting the gun out of his coat pocket, and the statue fumbling with a postcard on the floor. Added to which, as the curtain fell at the end of Act One, a stagehand walked on stage left before the curtain had fully dropped. Have to say, I wasn’t that impressed.

Anna, Otto and TrudiThat aside, there are some very good performances to admire. Jay Taylor’s tetchy, and gradually increasingly unhinged SS Officer Prall, is a superb portrayal of growing evil. He’s like a sadistic, spoilt child, who’s grown too big for his boots and in a decent society would have been taken down a peg or two – but in wartime Nazi Germany, with status and power, he’s uncontrolled, off the radar, wicked. Horrific, but excellent. Denis Conway is also very good as Otto, particularly in the last quarter of the play when he starts to face the consequences of his actions. Those were genuine tears welling up his eyes. Abiola Ogunbiyi gives a clear and precise performance as Trudi, the only other character who develops during the play – from radical to housewife. And I really enjoyed the performance of Joseph Marcell as Escherich, increasingly faced with his own cowardice, trying to wheedle his way out of trouble – totally convincing.

Kluge and BorkhausenIt’s a great story of quiet heroism, but sometimes it struggles to get its voice heard over the stylised production and lack of tension. I was expecting more, sadly. Thank heavens for some good performances. Alone in Berlin plays at the Royal until 29th February, then continues to York and Oxford.

P. S. Mrs C didn’t like the harsh bright lights at the beginning and end of the show that blind the audience from the back of the stage. What was the point of them? She asked. Not a clue, I’m afraid. Is it fair on the audience to blind them like that? Ermm, no, I don’t think so.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

3-stars Three-sy does it!

Review – The Whip, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 11th February 2020

85037056_2640541812857072_4756856668946432_nOdd title, The Whip. The first thing it brought to my mind was that implement with which you punish horses, or people, into painful submission. The second thing was a walnut-topped chocolatey confection, which sadly was very wide of the mark. The prime relevance of the title refers to its main character, Alexander Boyd, Chief Whip of the Whig Party in 1833, when this play is set. And of course, a political Whip is named after that aforementioned instrument of torture, as they whip the other MPs into the subservient position of what the party leaders want.

BoydA quick pre-show flick through the programme shamed me into recognising my own ignorance when it comes to the history of slavery – and, as far this play is concerned, how Parliament – eventually – brought about its abolition in Britain. I had no idea, for example, that there was a 26-year gap between passing the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act and the Slavery Abolition Act. Nor that after abolition, the Government introduced a period of “apprenticeship” for the former slaves – where in fact they carried on precisely the same work, on virtually the same conditions; today we call them interns (just joking, or am I?) The only real difference is that the Slave Owners had been recompensed handsomely for loss of stock. These apprenticeships continued for a further five years. And I certainly didn’t know that the sums paid to the Slave Owners amounted to 40% of the national budget, and the necessary borrowing to account for this didn’t get paid off until – wait for it – 2015.

MaybourneIt’s clear that Juliet Gilkes Romero’s new play is not only an exposé of those miserable years but also reflects parallels to Britain today. It’s emphatically not an allegory of Brexit; if it’s meant to be, it does a poor job. But there are elements that go to show that nothing is new in the world of British politics. A major project, with popular support, takes many years to be implemented. As a result of the final negotiations, a few prominent MPs and other businessmen become extraordinarily rich, whilst the country’s coffers are plundered. It takes ages for the country to regain its feet financially, the whole process creates a starting point for further political upheavals. On second thoughts, perhaps it is an allegory of Brexit.

Boyd on the Front BenchWe meet Boyd, who has befriended and adopted a younger runaway slave, Edmund, and groomed him to greatness with the possibility of a Parliamentary career. Boyd’s a good man, a principled man, with his heart in the right place; but also a practical man, who knows you have to walk before you can run. We see him in the House of Commons, surrounded by a noisy rabble and a Speaker whose pronouncements are delivered exactly like John Bercow, and he stands out as thoroughly respectable. He engages a feisty young woman, Horatia, as his cook/maid, not only because she stands up for herself, but also because her daughter was killed in a cotton-mill accident, and he feels like she is the kind of person who should be given a second chance. Also involved is the eloquent and respected ex-slave Mercy Pryce, who addresses the crowds at Speakers’ Corner, and who works with Boyd to influence thought and opinion. Whilst Mercy strives towards justice for slaves and Horatia demands votes for women, just how much will Society sit back and let all that change simply happen? And will Edmund achieve the greatness that Boyd expects of him?

FuriesGiven that this is a fascinating time of history, with some remarkable people working hard to put right an inestimable wrong, which still has consequences for the world today, I was disappointed at how pedestrian and dull the first Act, in particular, turns out to be. It’s very wordy and turgid; it moves slowly and with a strange sense of worthiness. It lacks dramatic tension and that special magic. Maybe this is because the play has been constructed as a kind of Greek Tragedy; with four characters designated as The Furies, the classical deities of vengeance. There’s a scene later in the play when Boyd goes to the Commons and is beset by the Furies who bump into him and accost him and prevent him from achieving his goals. And, frankly, it looks ridiculous. Particularly as, for the most part, the Furies act as scene shifters and general gophers. It’s the Furies who, Chorus-like,  wind up the story by addressing the audience directly with details of how the national debt from paying the Slave Owners wasn’t in the clear until 2015. But unlike a Greek Tragedy, we don’t have some cataclysmic ending or a deus ex machina to draw a line under the whole proceedings. The mix of contemporary political drama and stylised Greek tragedy didn’t sit well and I’m afraid I couldn’t take the Furies seriously.

HoratiaPerhaps the main problem with the play – which is a brave problem and therefore to be admired – is that it is simply too ambitious, trying to tie up too many ideas, and trying to make too many associations, so that it stretches itself without resolving anything. Whilst it spends a long time establishing the characterisations of the protagonists, the story doesn’t progress much, and everything feels ponderous and cumbersome – like that really irritating table that descends and ascends throughout the whole evening as a centrepiece for many of the scenes. Never has a simple piece of furniture-shifting monopolised your sightline so much as to get in the way of telling a story.

Mercy and HoratiaFortunately, there are some very good performances that just about pull you through the long three hours of this show. The double-act, if you could call them that, of Debbie Korley as Mercy Pryce and Katherine Pearce as Horatia Poskitt, provide most of the energy of the play. Ms Pearce impresses with her spiky retorts and generally bullish behaviour so that the stage brightens up when she comes on. Ms Korley’s measured and dignified performance completely challenges your preconceptions about how an ex-slave would behave.

Hyde VilliersRichard Clothier’s Boyd is also full of dignity – until he’s brought low by duplicitous colleagues – and he gives a great portrayal of a flawed, but good man in the most trying of circumstances. He also has an extraordinarily rich voice that demands your attention. John Cummins’ Cornelius Hyde Villiers is a nasty piece of work, in politics for all the wrong, self-seeking reasons, but creates a very believable person out of what otherwise could be merely a pantomime baddie. David Birrell plays Lord Maybourne, the Home Secretary, as very comfortably pompous and manipulating, a man who is naturally your (indeed, anyone’s) superior. And Tom McCall’s Bradshaw Cooper is a very credible portrayal of a difficult, tetchy, driven politician, the type we’d all like to punch on the nose.

EdmundWe didn’t understand why Nicholas Gerard-Martin’s Purnell was portrayed as such a terrified, jittery idiot; and what I suspect was meant to be a largely comic scene, where he is primed for his Select Committee appearance, felt to me a bit embarrassing. And Corey Montague-Sholay’s Edmund was so refined, so reserved, so delicate and private, that I feel we never really got to know him.

Bradshaw CooperI’ll be honest with you – Mrs Chrisparkle slept through at least half of the first Act and a quarter of the Second Act, which does indeed prove one thing; in waking hours, the second Act is twice as entertaining as the first. However, being bored in the theatre is the ultimate drama crime, and I can’t help but think that a play with this riveting source material and timeless relevance should have delivered a hugely greater impact. However, I always say I prefer a brave failure to a lazy success, and, given the quality of some of the performances, I have to add an extra star to what I feel this show otherwise deserves. The Whip continues in repertory at the Swan Theatre until 21st March.

Production photos by Steve Tanner

3-starsThree-sy does it!

Review – Beautiful, The Carole King Musical, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 6th February 2020

Screenshot (7)As a kid, I was a massive, and I mean MASSIVE, fan of The Monkees, and the first time I would have tumbled across the name of Carole King – in collaboration with Gerry Goffin – would have been in the writing credits of the Monkees’ albums. I’m pretty sure that I had read somewhere that Goffin was sniffy about writing for the Prefab Four – which fact is made very clear in Beautiful, The Carole King Musical, currently on a considerable UK tour. Goffin and King may well have first come together as teenage sweethearts with one combined aim in mind, to write songs together whilst being in love – although you’re in no doubt that he only asked her to marry him because she was pregnant. But as the years go on, it becomes clear that King was the practical workhorse of the pair, whereas Goffin was the more artistic/ethereal/poetic contributor.

Carole at the pianoTheir most famous song for the Monkees, Pleasant Valley Sunday, is a perfect example of the difference between the two; her dream was to move to the beautiful suburbs, whereas his lyrics for PVS show how despicable and twisted he found that whole suburban dream to be. Although together they were able to create magic for other people, as a couple they were wholly unsuitable. She’s portrayed as stay-at-home, mousey, dowdy almost, whereas he’s a bit of a party animal, suggesting strip poker amongst their friends, and seeing other women behind her back. She’s concerned with bringing home the bacon and looking after baby Louise, whereas he’s not finishing his lyrics and fancies dabbling in LSD.

Kirshner's Music FactoryForgive me for coming at this review from an odd angle, gentle reader, but I wanted to highlight that Beautiful is not so much The Carole King Musical as The Goffin/King Songbook. The show charts their story together, from their first meeting introduced by a school pal, through great financial (and artistic) success, to their marriage breakdown, his philandering, his mental health breakdown (through drugs) and her going solo with the cathartic Tapestry album, culminating in a concert at Carnegie Hall in June 1971. Carole King’s career, however, has continued to span the decades and indeed, she’s still going strong today. And Gerry Goffin continued to chart his own career with other collaborators until his career started to peter out in the 1990s.

The ShirellesBy concentrating on those early golden years, this gives the show the opportunity to showcase all their most famous and best-loved songs, performed by the stars of the age; and that, alone, is enough to provide two-and-a-half hours of top quality entertainment and musical nostalgia. Where this show is really strong is in presenting a selection of fantastic songs, played by a superb (unseen) band, sung by a talented cast, delightfully choreographed by Josh Prince to reflect those incredibly dated but wonderful routines by the Drifters or the Shirelles, and with an incredibly successful combined design by Derek McLane (scenery) and Peter Kaczorowski (lighting).

It's all happeningHowever, as a narrative, I found the show strangely pedestrian. Whilst it does tell its story clearly, it feels very stop-start in its style. I’m no expert on Juke Box Musicals – I’ve not seen most of the famous ones – but let’s consider a few examples. Mamma Mia takes Abba’s songs and creates a brand-new story using the songs organically to move the story along – but it’s a story that has nothing to do with Abba themselves. Possibly my favourite of the genre, Sunny Afternoon, tells the story of the Kinks’ rise to fame, using their songs as a standard musical would do, commenting on their situation and moving the plot forward. Cilla the Musical told the story of the early career of Cilla Black using her songs as landmark points along the way, including showing how she recorded them. In all of these shows the songs progress the plot, and you get a sense of development.

Strip PokerHowever, in Beautiful, you have a pair of rival songwriters (Goffin and King v. Mann and Weil) where you watch one couple say we’re gonna write a song, then they write a song, then have it performed and see how successful it was, followed by the other couple writing a song, having it performed and seeing how successful it was, then back to Couple #1, then Couple #2, etc, etc and etc. Whilst it might well be an accurate presentation of what happened, that structure doesn’t make for what I would term a good musical. Whilst every scene (particularly in the first Act) ends with a great song, it feels repetitive and formulaic. Rather like how Gerry Goffin feels about Janelle Woods’ performance of One Fine Day, this structure holds back from really giving the audience a 100% good time.

The CompanyHere’s an example of how the show sacrifices a potentially dramatic moment simply to provide a good musical performance. When Carole King has moved to LA and is recording with her new producer Lou Adler, he wants her to sing You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman on the new album. She tells him she just can’t – it was a song she and Gerry wrote together and the memories and emotions are simply too painful for her. But he convinces her to give it a try and she agrees. Then Carole sings it perfectly and it’s a great performance – and there’s no sign that it was in any way a problem for Carole to do it. There’s no moment when she’s struggled through the tears, or when she’s overcome the lump in her throat. It’s just sing a song and then move on. A missed opportunity, I felt, and it made something of a mockery of the scene that went before.

The DriftersThere’s plenty of excellent performances on offer; for our performance Carole King was played by the alternate, Vicki Manser, and she has a great voice and totally looks the part. Adam Gillian played Gerry Goffin with a great mix of fresh-faced appeal and untrustworthy roué – again singing the songs superbly. Laura Baldwin and Cameron Sharp make a terrific couple as the feisty Cynthia Weil and the workaday Barry Mann. Susie Fenwick gets most of the laughs as Carole’s hypocritical mother and Oliver Boot is a firm but fair Don Kirshner. The ensemble give terrific support, but you have to single out (or should that be group out) Damien Winchester, Ronald Brian, Samuel Nicholas and Toyan Thomas-Browne as the Drifters, and Leah St Luce, Katrina May, Louise Francis and Mica Townsend as the Shirelles, both groups recreating that superb early 60s feel of elegance, glamour and over-the-top choreography.

The Righteous BrothersAfter Northampton, the extensive tour continues to Eastbourne, Woking, Bristol, Bradford, Cardiff, Sunderland, Wimbledon, Milton Keynes, Llandudno, Canterbury, Southend, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Glasgow, Nottingham, Manchester, Oxford, Cheltenham, Birmingham, Southampton, Dartford, Dublin, Newcastle and ending up in Leeds at the end of August. If you love these old 60s songs, you’re guaranteed a very enjoyable night out – and it’s a feast for the eyes and the ears, if not exactly a challenge for the brain!

Production photos by various photographers from various productions

Four they’re jolly good fellows

Review – Holes, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 1st February 2020

84924259_164463171649046_6065657246988107776_nHoles didn’t ring any bells with either Mrs Chrisparkle or me. As is often the case, we had neither heard of, nor read, nor seen either the book or the film that apparently the rest of the world knows about intimately. I’m sure you already know, gentle reader, that Louis Sachar’s 1998 book received wide acclaim, and, according to Wikipedia, so it must be true, has been ranked sixth in a survey to choose the all-time best children’s novels. To which I can only say: Gosh.

the castIt’s the relatively complex story of young Stanley Yelnats who was sent away to a kind of correction camp (it isn’t really a correction camp) for stealing a pair of sneakers (he didn’t steal them) that belonged to a famous baseball player. Stanley believes he comes from a cursed family, because one of his ancestors didn’t keep a promise to an old lady in Latvia. (Stay with me on this). The daily punishment at the camp is to dig holes, five feet wide by five feet deep. According to the mean Mr Sir who supervises the digging, it’s meant to build character. But, in reality, he and his boss The Warden are using the young offenders to dig for treasure that was stolen over a hundred years earlier by Kissin’ Kate Barlow, a sweet lady turned outlaw. Confused? There’s more. In a swipe of coincidence that would make Agatha Christie blush at its outrageousness, our hero Stanley is descended from the man whose briefcase containing title deeds was stolen. NO! Yes. I could go on, but that’s enough for now.

illegal loveFor a young person’s book/film/play, the story grapples with some very difficult and mature themes, from legal injustice to the harsh realities of labour camps, to racially motivated murder and being outcast for having a mixed race relationship – and I can’t argue with the fact that its heart is clearly in the right place. It’s also rather nicely moral – the good guys find wealth and happiness (not that the two necessarily go together of course) and the bad guys get apprehended. Also in its favour is that it tells its story clearly, with its three time threads (today, 1880s Green Lake, early 1800s Latvia) weaving intricately together to make sense of it all.

illegal loveHowever, for me, this play commits the worst crime that you should never, ever commit in the theatre. It’s boring. Sorry, there’s no other way of saying it. It starts reasonably promisingly, and the last ten minutes of the first Act perk up a little, and then last ten minutes of the entire play provide an enjoyable denouement. But everything else in between is as dull as ditchwater. With a full audience peppered very liberally with, I would guess, 8 to 12 year olds, at whom this play would be targeted, and who normally whoop and cheer a lot in the theatre, you would not believe the muted response applause as the curtain came down at the end of the first Act.

the puppetsEven the set and sound design are like a game of two halves. Simon Kenny’s backdrop – a wooden fence that splits into two to reveal a rugged skyline is a thing of beauty; and the wooden barrels that represent the holes are a clever touch that solve what is otherwise a tricky problem for a designer. But the rest of the props, furniture and, I felt, the puppets, are meagre and unimaginative, rather crudely constructed and, for me, lacking in that special magical animation that brings a puppet to life. There are a couple of scenes – at the beginning of both Acts – where the cast play instruments and dance, which gives you hope for plenty of live music distractions. But whenever music is deployed in the play outside of those scenes, it is recorded, slightly too loud and artificial-sounding, and doesn’t really add much to the production.

Stanley and ZeroI think the main issue – for us at least – is that there wasn’t a moment early on in the play where we connected with it. I can only assume that we the audience should be raging at the injustice of Stanley’s being apprehended and found guilty of a crime he didn’t commit, so that we firmly take his side in all the subsequent experiences at the camp. But it’s not as simple as that. The trouble is, Stanley himself doesn’t seem remotely concerned by his incarceration; he simply blames it on his ancestors. And through much of the first Act he is bullied and doesn’t stand up for himself – and rather than feel sorry for him, I found him irritatingly spineless for constantly taking the blame for things that others did. I didn’t sympathise or empathise; he just annoyed me. And if Stanley doesn’t care about what’s happening to him, well, frankly, why should we?

Stanley's showerSo, with a main character who is a bit of a weed and a surrounding cast of bullies, there is no one with whom we can identify. True, the stage does brighten up whenever Rhona Croker’s Warden comes on, with her scarcely veiled cruelty and threatening use of excuse me? – and when she gets her come-uppance at the end, it’s very satisfying. Leona Allen’s Zero is the only character to provoke any real interest; the only one to make some kind of a journey, the only one whose kind streak makes them appealing. The growing friendship between Zero and Stanley could have been interesting if there had been more opportunity to develop it – but they don’t make the most of it. The other performances are all very competent and proficient, but, at the end of the day, they couldn’t breathe much life into this rather stale and sterile text.

ArmpitI just couldn’t connect with this play. Perhaps it was due to the structure; whenever the story progressed a stage, we went either forward or back to another time thread where we had to pick up the tale where we had previously left it; as a result, although the structure is clever, it kills dramatic tension. I had to screw my courage to the sticking post and resist the temptation to leave at the interval – and I’m glad I stayed because the last ten minutes, when all the threads come together, are by far the most entertaining. But it needs more – a whole lot more – to elevate it out of a general sense of meh.

The tour continues to Nottingham, Coventry, Newcastle-upon-Tyne, Plymouth, Liverpool, High Wycombe, Blackpool, Wolverhampton and Canterbury. But it wasn’t for me.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Two stars are better than one

Review – The Welkin, National Theatre at the Lyttelton, 25th January 2020

83684971_178834396801201_5813152937085501440_n“She must look to the Welkin, there is no earthly help for her now”, says the apparently well-to-do Mrs Cary about the wretched child murderer Sally Poppy in Lucy Kirkwood’s gripping and surprisingly humorous new play. The Welkin of the title was the word used to describe the firmament at the time (we’re talking Norfolk/Suffolk border in 1759). Halley’s Comet has just been discovered and is playing havoc with the plethora of folk superstitions and old wives’ tales. Whilst scientists and astronomers are making great steps forward, the women of this parish are fully occupied with their housework, as we see in the stark opening tableau that opens this play. Each of the women inhabits a small lightbox on the stage and is totally consumed by any one of a variety of domestic tasks – and it makes for an arresting start.

ElizabethBut into this – perhaps dull – routine comes the occasional call to become a Matron of a Jury. For some of the women, it’s a welcome relief, a chance for some gossip with the others, or some oneupwomanship in what is clearly a very class-ridden society. For others, it’s a disaster; for example, when is Mary Middleton going to get the chance to pull up her field of leeks before they spoil? And it’s Mrs Luke’s Grand Wash Day, godammit! But for midwife Elizabeth Luke it’s a duty that deep down she knows she must perform, even if she is more personally involved in the case than she’d like to admit. This jury has one, relatively simple, task. There’s no doubt that Sally Poppy killed young Alice Wax – or is there? But is she pregnant, as she contests? If she is, she cannot be hanged because that would mean also taking an innocent life. If she isn’t, then to the gallows with her. It takes twelve good women and true to interrogate her, examine her, and test her, to come up with a believable conclusion. However, finding twelve Matrons without an axe to grind, might be quite a task….

At home with the PoppiesIn one respect, The Welkin provides a fresh approach to that well-known genre, the Courtroom Drama. Fresh because we’re in the jury room, and don’t see the court at all; instead we witness all the deliberations of the jurors and their interaction with the accused. And it all leads up to the inevitable excitement, not of is she guilty but of is she pregnant? In addition to this, the play asks many fascinating and difficult questions about the role of women in society – both in 1759, and by association, today – including whether a woman can ever be trusted as an expert if there is a man around who has the same expertise too. The play also provides a new angle about whether women are ever fully in control of their bodies, or if they require the consent of men, particularly in relation to childbirth. If you come to see the play, I recommend buying the programme as there are a few insightful and informative articles in there which really enhance your appreciation and understanding.

The CastSet and costume designer Bunny Christie together with Lighting Designer Lee Curran have created a grey, colourless, featureless world, a sterile environment of plain sheets and workaday uniforms, bare walls and comfortless surroundings. The harsh lighting that encloses the boxed staging is stark and relentless, and creates something of a deliberate barrier between the characters and the audience. There’s a scene – in fact, a very funny one – where a disembodied voice from the back of the theatre invites all the Matrons to present themselves into the light, kiss the Bible and tell us a bit about themselves; this helps us enormously to understand who we’re dealing with. It’s almost as though our 18th century jurors meet A Chorus Line’s Zach for an audition. But Lucy Kirkwood likes to play with our imagination, and create modern links to the Georgian setting, most noticeably when the women all join together to sing, very hauntingly, Kate Bush’s Running Up That Hill. Normally, such an obvious anachronism would have me snorting with derision, but somehow, strangely, it works.

Telling Coombes what forIt’s a cracking ensemble piece with all the actors delivering some great performances that really get under your skin. Maxine Peake is hugely watchable as the openminded Elizabeth Luke, the only juror who seems willing to give the accused a fair hearing, much to the ridicule of some of the other Matrons. Ria Zmitrowicz’s cheeky but vicious Sally is a tremendous creation, denying the Matrons any sense of gratitude for having her life saved, confronting both weak and strong with her aggressive resentment and challenging behaviour. The always reliable Haydn Gwynne is excellent as the haughty Charlotte Cary, her frosty disdain of the scum Sally exuding from her fingertips – at least until her own secrets are revealed.

Emma and CharlotteI also appreciated the performances of Jenny Galloway and June Watson as the two older ladies, Judith Brewer and Sarah Smith. There’s a nicely underplayed running joke about Judith always feeling hot and wanting the windows open without ever having to say the word menopause, and there’s a delightfully ridiculous scene where they let blood from her toe to relieve her symptoms. At our performance, the role of Emma was played by Daneka Etchells and she encapsulated the character’s snide social climbing aspect beautifully. But the whole cast pull out all the stops to create a superb ensemble performance, and it’s great to see a play that’s so packed with strong female characters for a change.

Is she pregnantIn the end, revenge is a dish best served by proxy, and the Welkin doesn’t come to Sally’s aid – in fact, quite the reverse. But there is a form of natural justice in the end – albeit rough. At just under three hours the play is probably just a tad too long – I felt the last twenty minutes or so, even though they’re full of content, could have been a little snappier. Nevertheless, the play holds your concentration throughout and offers the potential for a massive amount of post-show discussion on the way home. We were both pretty impressed. It’s currently on at the National until 23rd May, and I’d thoroughly recommend it.

Production photos by Brinkhoff-Moegenburg

Four they’re jolly good fellows!

Review of the Decade 2010-2019

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Swan Lake

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

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

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

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

Nigel Kennedy plays Brahms

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

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

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

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

Forbidden Broadway

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

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

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

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

marcus-brigstocke-devil-may-care

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

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

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

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

Markus Birdman

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

johnny-vegas

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

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

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

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

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

A Chorus LineMy Fair Lady

And for Best New Musical of the Decade:

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

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

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

Hamilton

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

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

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

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

One Man Two Guvnors

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

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

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

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

The Bacchae

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

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

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

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

My Mate Dave - scene

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

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

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

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

Screenshot (1)

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

Spank

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

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

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

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

Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho

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

Blue Stockings

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

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

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

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

Imelda Staunton as Rose

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

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

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

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

charlie-stemp

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

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

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

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

A German Life

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

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

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

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

Hamletprod8

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