Review – Blue/Orange, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 24th November 2021

Blue OrangeWasn’t it F R David who said – and I think it was – Words Don’t Come Easy To Me? Of course, he was “just a music man”, and his “melodies were his best friend”, but his “words were coming out wrong”. It’s a common problem, and rarely seen more acutely than in Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange, which won both the Olivier and Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Play when it first appeared in 2000. Now James Dacre, Artistic Director of the Royal and Derngate, has directed a new production of the play which opened in Bath a few weeks ago, visited Oxford en route, and has now finally come to its spiritual home at the Royal and Derngate.

The set-up is deceptively simple. At an NHS psychiatric hospital in London, patient Christopher is itching to leave, having already spent 28 days in its care. Dr Bruce Flaherty, under whose supervision Christopher has been treated, isn’t sure he’s ready to leave, and asks Senior Consultant Robert Smith to sit in on a final consultation for his opinion. Both Robert and Christopher are adamant that he should leave – although for different reasons. Attempting to make Christopher reveal his true mental state, Bruce offers him an orange to eat and challenges him to tell Robert what he thinks its colour is. Blue, is Christopher’s response. And the fruit inside? Also blue. He also manages to make Christopher reveal that his father is Field Marshal Idi Amin of Uganda; perhaps unsurprisingly as he was known as Dada to his friends. Robert suggests that he and Christopher should have a private consultation together. But what is the outcome of that consultation? Are Robert’s motives for wanting Christopher to leave in everyone’s best interests? Has Bruce been as correct in his dealings with Christopher as he should have? And is Christopher satisfied with the way he has been treated? You’ll have to see the play to find out!

This is a cunning play that openly exposes all its secrets without the audience realising it, and then asks us to consider what we had heard earlier and understand it now in a different light. With only three scenes/conversations, all taking place within 24 hours, and all in the same consulting room, it very nearly observes the traditional unities of classical drama. Even the requirement for any cataclysmic event to happen off-stage is recognised, with the important hospital management meeting taking place in a different room whilst we’re all enjoying the interval. It’s fascinating to see the unities being observed in a modern play. It certainly concentrates the mind.

Nevertheless, the play takes a number of themes, from the obvious coping with life in the NHS, to power struggles between colleagues, racial equality within a range of relationships and situations including that of healthcare, and trust and deception. Joe Penhall has slightly revised the play for audiences twenty years on, and for the first time the role of Robert is performed by a Black actor, which changes the racial imbalance of the play in the other direction and adds a different level of complexity to the disagreements that all the characters face. There’s also this question of words. F R David was right, they don’t come easy, or at least the right words don’t. Bruce insists to Christopher that you can’t use the word crazy anymore, and schizophrenia is a complete no-no. He will later discover that there are many other words you can’t use, even when you’re quoting someone else.

There’s no doubt this is a very wordy play; and in the first Act in particular, the conversations become extremely intense, and at times you need to keep your wits about you to make sure you follow everything that’s said. However, after the interval, the wordiness gives way to a much more emotional involvement from all three characters, the interchanges become much livelier, and the intensity changes from intellectual to pure drama. You never really know which way the plot is going to twist, and then it twists again in its final moments. It’s one of those splendid plays that become even more splendid the more you think about it after curtain down. Hidden depths, character give-aways, secret agendas continue to become clearer as you reflect on what’s happened.

Simon Kenny’s simple but effective design reveals the grey, austere consulting room, its only features being three chairs, a bowl of oranges and a water-cooler. Deliberately harsh lighting emphasises the claustrophobic box nature of the room and adds to the strangely unsettling image presented to us. Composer Valgeir SigurÞsson’s haunting incidental music creeps in softly at odd moments to unsettle us even more.

The three characters are all given tremendous performances by a sterling cast. Ralph Davis gives an excellent portrayal of a rather dishevelled but strict doctor who works all the hours under the sun in his performance as Bruce, quickly getting aggravated when his patience is tried a little too far, not realising the traps that have been set for him. Giles Terera is every bit as excellent as you would expect as the outwardly pleasant, inwardly manipulative Robert, putting his research before his patient’s wellbeing, and switching from old pal to arch enemy on the turn of a sixpence. But for me the discovery of this production is the amazing performance by Michael Balogun, whom we last saw as Macduff in Chichester (at least until the glass floor shattered). Here he plays Christopher, channelling all the emotions of a mental health patient railing against the machine, and conveying all the aspects of this complicated character from the wide-eyed innocent to the courtroom cynic.

A very strong production of a very strong play. It continues at the Royal and Derngate until 4th December- after which, who knows? But I reckon it could fit very nicely into an intimate West End theatre.

Production photos by Marc Brenner

4-starsFour they’re jolly good fellows!

Review – Private Lives, Chichester Festival Theatre, 17th November 2021

Private LivesA wise man once said, and I know he did because I was there when he said it, “every time Handel’s Water Music is performed, someone hears it for the first time – think how lucky that person is.” Judging from the average age of the theatregoers at Wednesday night’s performance of Private Lives at Chichester, I would hazard a guess that none of them was seeing it for the first time. As far as we could work out, there were no younger people at all. Is Noel Coward now confined to being entertainment for the middle class and elderly?

I’ll leave you to ponder that question as I tell you about this inaugural production of the Nigel Havers Theatre Company that started touring a few weeks ago in Bath and will continue its rigorous schedule through to April next year, with a December break for Nigel to do his regular stint at the Palladium panto.

Hodge and HaversI’m sure you know the set-up (unless you are one of my much prized younger readers!) Elyot (Nigel Havers) and Sybil (Natalie Walter) are on their honeymoon in Deauville, as are Victor (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart) and Amanda (Patricia Hodge). In fact, they’re in adjacent rooms in the same hotel. Elyot and Amanda are on their second marriages; and, here’s the rub, they were formerly married to each other. Imagine the horror when they bump into each other on their adjoining balconies. It doesn’t take them long to dump their new spouses and flee to Amanda’s posh flat in Paris. Will they live happily ever after this time, or will their old cantankerousness get in the way? And will Victor and Sybil stand for it? If you weren’t there for that first night that opened the brand new Phoenix Theatre in 1930, with Coward and Gertrude Lawrence as Elyot and Amanda, and some unknown chap called Laurence Olivier as Victor, I’m not going to tell you, you’ll have to catch this production and find out!

With its timeless story and glittering script, this is a deceptively difficult play to get absolutely right and a dangerously easy one to get quite wrong. It’s very easy for the star turns who inevitably play Elyot and Amanda to hog the limelight – Coward naturally made them the stars of the show and underwrote the parts of their new love interests to keep all the attention to Gertie and himself. So the play can feel quite unbalanced. In this production, it’s quite hard to imagine how Elyot and Sybil might have originally fallen for each other – I didn’t feel like they were natural bedfellows, so to speak; but you can easily see how Victor and Amanda did, which gives the story a little more depth.

Havers and HodgeThe show is 100% played for laughs, which is fair enough; but it does mean that you occasionally have to catch your breath when the arguments turn into plain and simple physical domestic abuse. Face-slapping, a 78rpm being smashed over a head, and a considerable punch to the chops all elicit slapstick laughs but it’s a startling shock to see how things were very different in 1930. From a technical point of view, by the way, the stage combat between Havers and Hodge is outstandingly realistic – fantastic work!

Simon Higlett’s design for Act One is functional but perhaps those balconies are not quite as glamorous as one might expect for such hoity-toity guests at a top class resort. The design of the Paris flat though is exquisite, a veritable flambé of velvety reds and art deco delight, and elegant furnishings without overdoing the decadent. In a nice touch, the accompanying music is all composed by Coward pre-1930, to give it an extra hint of veracity. You’d say Coward was being big-headed, but there’s no indication in the original text that the music played was his, so it’s generations-later, second-hand big-headedness!

P Hodge N HaversI think most people will have booked to see this to see for themselves how the two leads work, tussle and entertain together – and they do an absolutely splendid job. Nigel Havers cuts his usual refined figure and is a perfect voice for Coward’s witty, roué, spiteful charm. He is superb in those moments where the elegant façade shatters and the rather grubbier character comes to light – such as in his cowardly lack of resistance to Victor’s understandable aggression or when he gets his leg trapped after a spot of sofa-athletics with Amanda. Patricia Hodge is, of course, a natural for Amanda; she makes the character’s words come alive with effortless ease, and brings the house down with her complaint against Elyot’s love-making that it’s too soon after dinner. The pair share an immaculate stage presence and they work together like a dream.

Mrs Chrisparkle thought it was ageist of me to wonder how credible it is for two such theatre veterans to be playing roles that Coward would have imagined to be around thirty years old. I was only thinking out loud. But there is some relevance to the point in as much as Coward would have envisaged Victor being older than Amanda – that’s definitely not the case in this production. But it’s pretty easy to forget the age differences and take it all at face value.

Victor and SybilMs Walter and Mr Bruce-Lockhart give excellent support as the wronged other halves, Ms Walter in particular squeaking in frantic fury at the way she has been treated, only then to turn her ire on Mr B-L in the final reel. Aicha Kossoko plays Louise the maid with a sumptuous French accent. The very full midweek Chichester audience threw itself into enjoying the performance, with several long laugh moments and applause breaks for whenever Ms Hodge decided to sing. That rather old-fashioned, respectful matinee-style appreciation for a star performer or singing moment almost underlined how very dignified and classic the whole experience felt.

If the future for Coward is to attract older patrons to enjoy a nostalgia trip rather than encouraging younger theatregoers to discover his wonders, at least that’s good box office news for now, as this production is selling like hot cakes wherever it goes. Long term though, I’m wondering if his appeal will last. Things change, then change again; but Coward doesn’t, he’s constant as the northern star, being too recent to survive drastic updating but probably too historical to attract the young. Time will tell! In the meantime, this is a delightful production, riddled with expertise, delivered by several safe pairs of hands, and fully worthy of your theatre-going funds.

Production photos by Tristram Kenton

4-starsFour they’re jolly good fellows!

Review – The Magician’s Elephant, RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 15th November 2021

I’d like to start this review with an old joke that was doing the rounds at school circa fifty years ago:

Question: What do you get when an elephant defecates (shorter words were used at the time) on a bell?

Answer:  DUNG!

The Magician's ElephantOne of the most wonderful things about theatre is that different members of the same audience can watch the same show and have so completely different a reaction to it. The Magician’s Elephant opened a couple of weeks ago to a range of mixed reviews, from 2 stars to 4 stars. At last night’s performance quite a few people gave it a standing ovation. As we were leaving the theatre, we heard one woman say to her friend that she enjoyed it more than Matilda. On the other hand, as we left the auditorium for the interval break, we heard another woman say to her child, “well, they do say that the second act is better than the first…” Such a wide range of reactions, an experience you can only get in the theatre. And it was a complete joy to be back in the happy buzz of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre for the first time since The Boy in the Dress almost exactly two years ago, before all that horrible pandemic interregnum.

NarratorAs a rule of thumb, I much prefer a brave failure of a production to a lazy success. However, gentle reader, it would be wrong of me to say I enjoyed something, and saw value and merit in something when neither was true. Thus, with a sad heart, I must report a serious crime to you. It happened on the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Theatre last night. It involved a waste of the audience’s time, the cast’s talent, the RSC’s resources and, above all, the unforgivable theatrical crime of creating an evening of sheer tedium. Yes, I’m afraid, The Magician’s Elephant is a bit of a stinker. Shame indeed, as Kate DiCamillo’s 2009 children’s novel of the same name sounds rather a hoot. An anarchically inventive story where a boy named Peter suspects his sister (whom his guardian has told him is dead) is still alive, and a fortune-teller foresees that an elephant will lead him to her. Lo and behold, at the opera house, a magician performs a trick that makes an elephant crash through the ceiling. Surely some coincidence? How and why did it happen? Will Peter be reunited with his sister? Did the Opera House have insurance?

Queuing for the elephantFrom such inspirational lunacy Nancy Harris and Marc Teitler have distilled a book, music and lyrics totally lacking in spark, humour or emotion and have created a piece that’s as heavy and slow as a brigade of pachyderms. The constant repetition of lines within songs is abominable, and simply kills the show even before you consider any other aspects of it. As soon as one character comes up with a sentence, it gets pummelled to death by singing it again, and again, and again. (And again.) As the show went on, I tried my hardest to refrain from shouting out “noooo!” and “aaargh!” and “someone come up with another line!” at sequences like: “Follow the elephant, follow the elephant, follow the elephant, follow the elephant, follow the elephant, follow the elephant, follow the elephant, follow the elephant” which was closely followed by “don’t follow the elephant, don’t follow the elephant, don’t follow the elephant, don’t follow the elephant, don’t follow the elephant, don’t follow the elephant, don’t follow the elephant, don’t follow the elephant” ad nauseam. Bear in mind that at this stage of the show I don’t think we’d even seen the elephant yet – another problem of the show in that it’s all talk but precious little action.

Count and CountessIf I had a pound for every time the injured Mme LaVaughn bemoaned “I was crushed by an elephant” to which the magician responded with “I only meant lilies”, I could charter a private jet to Bermuda. Well, not quite, but you get my drift. The repetitions throughout were so exasperatingly boring, it was though it had been written as a punishment; stay behind after school and write fifty times, I must not follow the elephant. To be fair, there is one good song, The Count who doesn’t Count, but it’s elongated beyond elasticity so that by the end the fun of it has been extinguished. But for the most part the songs are drab, dreary and forgettable.

Peter and LutzMother always said, if you can’t say something nice about someone, say nothing. Of course, as always, I will do my best to accentuate the good bits. This won’t take long. There is one very good performance by Jack Wolfe as Peter, who conveys a very real, wistful sense of loneliness, on a search for his missing sister to make his family complete again. He also has a great singing voice and an impish stage presence. I also enjoyed the performance of Miriam Nyarko as Adele, the feisty orphan with an inbuilt spirit of adventure/fantasist, possibly the only character who’s allowed to show a genuine sense of fun. Such a shame, then, that when the two are reunited as brother and sister (gasp! Who knew to look in the likeliest place to find her?) it’s a moment surprisingly devoid of emotion that registers no higher a reaction than an implied “oh, that’s nice”. Sam Harrison makes the best of the quirky Count Quintet and tries his damnedest to bring out as much humour as possible from his characterisation as a hen-pecked husband. Mark Meadows looks like he’s stepped out of another production as old soldier and Peter’s guardian Vilna Lutz, but that’s quite appropriate as the character is trapped in a post-war PTSD-style existence. It’s a shame that the production doesn’t integrate him more into the story.

Peter and the elephantAnd of course, there’s the elephant, who’s a technical treat and a slice of puppetry perfection; she looks pretty much like the genuine article and her trunk is carefully operated to cleverly express her thoughts. Sadly, the elephant only really has one thought, which is that she is sad and unwell and she wants to go home. Peter understands her plight and tells us that she is sad and unwell and wants to go home. In fact, he tells us several times. I think we understood it the first time, Peter. Sad and unwell and wants to go home? Yes. Sad and unwell and wants to go home.

Police ChiefElsewhere some of the characterisations go rather awry. Forbes Masson’s cartoony Police Chief is all light and no shade – all Keystone Kop where we could have done with the occasional whiff of Bergerac. Amy Booth-Steel’s narrator should have been a conduit between the Stratford audience she constantly chats with and a distant land of magic, but instead came across as rather smug and self-important. For our performance the role of Countess Quintet, usually played by Summer Strallen, was played by Alison Arnopp as a virtual copy of Queen Elizabeth from Blackadder 2. The endless screechy petulance wasn’t remotely endearing or entertaining even as a pantomime villain. Marc Antolin, an actor I always admire and who can create genuine magic on stage with his clown and movement skills, seems sadly restrained in his role as police officer Leo, and you only occasionally get a glimpse of his true talent.

LaVaughn Leo and MagicianThere are many underwhelming moments in this production; I choose only one to illustrate where it could have been so much better than it is. There’s a scene where Adele triumphantly gets to turn the tables on the wicked Count and Countess by strapping them down and hurling a bucket of elephant dung over them. It should be a moment where revenge is sweet and the baddies get their come-uppance. The dung should cover them and, much to their hilarious struggles to get away from it, they’re slopped with the stinky stuff. Everyone in the audience shrieks with disgusted delight. However. Instead, the Count and Countess, clearly no more strapped down than if a Christmas paper chain was securing them, get the bucket tipped over them to reveal it contains nothing more than a bit of few strands of grass or straw. It sits on the Countess’ lap and looks ridiculous. A true disappointment and an opportunity wasted.

Count Countess and AdeleA good Christmas show should be a thing of joy. What have the poor kids done to deserve this? Mrs Chrisparkle was itching to leave at the interval, which would have been a mistake for more than one reason. The interval lady was right, the second act is undoubtedly better than the first; for one thing, the plot actually progresses (whereas the first act is static and irrelevant) and there is some emotion (the first act is devoid of emotion). Regrettably, the emotion is pure schmaltz, but if you can somehow accept the tenet that the elephant is a symbol of a kinder, more wholesome society, then you might get something out of it. We couldn’t and didn’t. “Hate” is a strong reaction to a theatre production; I’ve only hated one other RSC show in the forty-five years since I first saw the company, and that was the recent Macbeth that became a prisoner to the misplaced vision of its director. But at least that had a vision, that you could disagree with. The Magician’s Elephant is rudderless, with a false sense of its own significance, and certainly of its own entertainment value. Couldn’t wait to leave.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

One wonders why they bothered

Review – The Long Song, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 23rd October 2021

The Long SongI’m not familiar with the works of Andrea Levy, but, judging from the riveting story told on the stage of the Chichester Festival Theatre last Saturday night, that’s definitely my loss. Fortunately Mrs Chrisparkle and I, together with seven of our nearest and dearest, were there for the final night of this short run but which, if there is any justice in the world, is not the end of the line for this production.

Cornet and GodfreyThe Long Song was Levy’s final novel, published in 2010; winner of the Walter Scott Prize for Historical Fiction, and a Booker Prize finalist. Suhayla El-Bushra’s adaptation takes us to 19th century Jamaica, to Amity sugar plantation and the birth of little July to her mama Kitty. We see how July was taken as a slave/maid to Caroline Mortimer, how she had her own baby, and how she saw her way through war, rebellion, the transition to freedom, and finally to old age – and somehow come out of it relatively unscathed. The play is seen through the eyes of Old July, as the refined young Thomas Kinsman encourages her to tell her story, suspecting she may be his mother – not that Old July would give away information so vital that easily – at least, not without several servings of cake.

Old JulyFrankie Bradshaw’s simple but highly effective set comprised of a backdrop of sugar cane, suggesting the fields outside the plantation house, through which workers can emerge after a hard shift, or fleeing victims can escape; and a large trap on stage that opened and closed to reveal a much-used dining table. Michael Henry’s incidental music for the show is just that – not over-emphasised, but appears in occasional short bursts that always leave you wanting more.

Caroline MortimerMuch of the play revolves around the household of Caroline Mortimer, with her well-to-do and pompous guests who look down on her almost as much as they look down on their slaves, and with Caroline’s own domestic servants, who include an unpredictable cook, a crotchety head servant, and young July trying her best to survive without making too much fuss about anything.

Ghastly GuestsScattered throughout the script are a few telling moments that say so much about the relationships between master and slave – better than words can ever express. For example, Caroline makes July her own by ignoring her real name and calling her Marguerite; that’s a simple way to dominate and eradicate a slave’s own identity. When two of the slaves are playing music to entertain Caroline’s ghastly guests, they meander tunelessly and talentlessly through some violin piece that just sounds appalling. But once they’re “below stairs” as it were, they pick up the tempo and rattle out some great music for each other’s pleasure. When “freeman” (much good it does him) Nimrod is being used as a scapegoat for murder (to cover up the suicide of Caroline’s brother) and flees for his life, all Caroline can think is not to kill him yet as he hadn’t finished doing her garden. When Caroline requires old Godfrey to endanger his life to fulfil her wishes, he won’t do it without payment – and he makes that abundantly clear to her. It’s these several minor details that highlight the dreadful reality of slavery and frequent instances of humour are used to reveal the humanity.

Robert GoodwinAnd there’s also the salutary tale of the new overseer, Robert Goodwin. Genuinely excited and inspired by the introduction of freedom for the slaves, he’s full of zeal for change and for treating the ex-slaves with respect. As his time in Jamaica continues, he falls in love with July – and it’s truly touching to see. But then he marries Caroline – because that way, he says, he can be with July more easily. But his zeal doesn’t last as he gets bogged down in what he sees as the workers’ unreasonable demands, and in the end he turns against them, and his own child’s mother, with full emotional cruelty.

July and NimrodCharlotte Gwinner has assembled a cast that acts together as a brilliant ensemble, but each of whom also gives a star performance. Llewella Gideon is simply superb as Old July; initially crusty, untrusting and grumpy, unwilling to dance to the tune of her upstart host; but as her memories unfurl, so does her true personality. Offering witty asides and knowing looks as her story is revealed before us, she has an amazing stage presence, a wonderful feel for comic timing, and also the gravitas to confront the harshness of her past. It’s an amazing performance.

JulyTara Tijani – on her professional debut – is also fantastic as young July, encapsulating all the worries of the enslaved with a nervous need to please, trying not to catch the eye of anyone who might harm her. But as July grows with confidence in company with Goodwin, so too does she blossom and inhabit that strange, uncertain world of a slave/servant with privileges and recognition. Olivia Poulet is brilliant as Caroline, totally wrapped up in her own needs and concerns, paying lip service to a modern, wannabe-enlightened manner of dealing with slaves, but still thinking only of herself. As her world starts to fall apart, she gives a great performance of someone clinging both to the wreckage and to the past. Leonard Buckley also gives a magnificent performance as the initially idealistic Goodwin, trying to force his own terms and conditions on the suspicious ex-slaves, falling head over heels for July but then failing to have the personal integrity to follow through on his promises.

Miss ClaraElsewhere in the cast, I really enjoyed the performance of Syrus Lowe as the delightfully-spoken and privileged Kinsman, carefully trying to work out how to pin old July down into telling the truth without pressing her too hard lest she withdraw co-operation. He’s also great as Freeman Nimrod, with his cocky turn of speech and arrogant conduct with the other slaves. Cecilia Appiah is excellent as the vain Miss Clara, playing up to her claim of prettiness whilst bullying the other slaves; Trevor Laird is a great Godfrey, the cantankerous old retainer who refuses to be pushed, and Rebecca Omogbehin breaks your heart as July’s mama Kitty. But the entire cast do a tremendous job and the story-telling skills are second to none.

Miss ClaraThere was a fairly unanimous standing ovation at the end of the performance which I was more than happy to join. Gobsmackingly brilliant from start to finish, this stunning show brings the day-to-day horrors of slavery into sharp focus and plays strongly on our emotions. I know that some members of our party (not me of course, ahem) had something of a tear in their eye at the end of the show. I’d love this production to be picked up and given another lease of life somewhere else soon – it so deserves it. Absolutely magnificent.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Five Alive, let Theatre Thrive!

Review – Home, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 23rd October 2021

HomeA double Chichester theatre day for a party of nine of us, which began with the compulsory lunch in the Minerva Brasserie accompanied by two bottles of Wiston sparkling English wine which is just yummy. I think if I lived in Chichester I’d rarely move from that restaurant.

Harry and JackDavid Storey’s Home (really? I didn’t know he’d been away – sorry, I made that joke countless times on Saturday; it wasn’t funny then and it isn’t funny now) originally opened at the Royal Court in 1970 with the enviable casting of John Gielgud and Ralph Richardson as Harry and Jack, Dandy Nichols and Mona Washbourne as Marjorie and Kathleen, and a young Warren Clarke as Alfred. It transferred to the West End, and to Broadway; it won both the Tony Award and New York Drama Critics’ Circle Award for Best Play. Gielgud wrote in his autobiography that he didn’t understand the play at all.

Marjorie, Harry, Kathleen, JackI was going to outline a plot summary, but the play is so slight that there isn’t much to say. Two men chat idly at a table in the garden of a big house; later, they are joined by two women and the chat continues. Much more central to the story is to work out exactly where the characters are – at Home, presumably, although what kind of home? – and to work out why they are there. Is it a mental institution? A correctional institution? Voluntary attendance or mandatory? Kathleen constantly complains that she is not allowed laces or a belt – is that for her own protection or the protection of others? Jack is always referring to a wide range of friends and family who have done this or done that – are they genuine or in his head? There are many questions to be asked about these four people, and – rather à la Beckett – answers are few and far between.

Kathleen, HarryThere’s no doubt that the play is delicately and intricately written; the opening conversation between Jack and Harry is a delightful interweaving of non-sequiturs and half-uttered thoughts, showing that though communication can seem simple, in reality, it’s anything but. A lot is said, but hardly anything is understood. Sophie Thomas’ marvellous set is a piece of precision faded-gardening, with its clumps of bleached flowers, dry dying patches of dusty lawn, hidden used drink cans, and so on. It’s a superb reflection of what could be a beautiful expanse of grounds, but it’s been left to wither – a perfect comment on the content of the play, in fact. Alex Musgrave’s complex lighting suggests the dappled effect of moving clouds obscuring and revealing the land, which you sense has a symbolic significance, but you’re not quite certain what.

Full castDaniel Cerqueira and John Mackay make a good partnership as Harry and Jack, both respectable and respectful of each other, with a mature, distant, middle-class friendship that probably isn’t based on anything other than their both being in the same place at the same time. They embody the stiff-upper-lip of the day, having survived the war and its unspoken horrors, and they do their best to rely on that British reserve to get through the day-to-day existence they’re now forced to endure. It’s no surprise that as the play nears its end that they’re both prone to tears.

AlfredThe partnership of Hayley Carmichael as Kathleen and Doña Croll as Marjorie is based on the more traditional friendship of two working-class women who understand each other well, with Ms Carmichael excellent as the gormless, giggling Kathleen who finds it hard not to show men her legs and Ms Croll strong as the hard-nosed Marjorie. All four actors work off each other extremely well – it must be demanding for them all to follow Storey’s frequently half-formed sentences and half-realised ideas and try to make sense of it all. Leon Annor gives good support as the chair-lifting, furniture-stealing Alfred, whose only dramatic purpose seems to be to disrupt the potential cosiness of the other four characters.

Jack and HarryIt’s a very good production, but, on reflection, time hasn’t been kind to this play, and you just feel you want more from the scenario than merely piecing together the clues that Storey gives you as to what’s going on. Maybe we’re simply more impatient today than fifty years ago. Maybe it demands (and no reflection on the cast) theatrical knights of the realm to give it an inner gravitas. At the end, you feel you’ve been teased with some dramatic titbits, but nothing has truly been revealed.

Production photos by Helen Maybanks

3-starsThree-sy does it!

 

Review – White Noise, Bridge Theatre, London, 20th October 2021

White NoiseLeo, Dawn, Misha and Ralph: four close friends from university. Leo and Misha, both of African descent, used to be an item; so were Dawn and Ralph, both of European descent. Now it’s Leo and Dawn living together, and Misha and Ralph partnered up. Their friendships have survived the change partners with ease, it seems. Each of them at different stages of their chosen career paths, some more successful than others. Leo and Ralph are both at a crossroads in their work – Leo in art, Ralph in teaching. The future is looking bright for both Dawn and Misha – Dawn as a lawyer, Misha as an online influencer. But they’re all cool with that, all acting as one big support group whenever they need each other. One day Leo is assaulted by the police in a racial attack. The trauma disturbs him deeply. He needs to find a way to work through and overcome it and comes up with a unique solution. But will the others go along with it?

Leo and DawnI didn’t know the decision that Leo made before seeing the show and I’m certainly not going to tell you here. But I can’t recall seeing a play where a plot turn took such an unexpected and emotionally loaded direction. It’s vital to the success of the play that you don’t know what’s going to happen so if you want to see the play, please avoid spoilers at all costs! Suffice to say, White Noise is packed with modern, relevant themes about racial equality, power tactics, mental cruelty, truth and decency, and just how far can you stretch a friendship. It examines the roles people take within relationships, where abuse can start, and how a victim can enable their abuser without it ever being a case of “victim-blaming”. It pitches idealism against reality and explores how one of those inevitably trounces the other. It deals with exploitation and self-exploitation. And it does it all with elegance, wit, style, humour and several moments where the audience gasps at what it’s seeing.

Shooting RangeThe Bridge Theatre’s versatile acting space comes up trumps as usual. Lizzie Clachan’s excellent and detailed set shows Leo and Dawn’s dishevelled bedroom on one side and turns to reveal Misha and Ralph’s stylish kitchen on the other. We also see Ralph’s functional shooting range, including a smartly designed pulley system that automatically delivers the used paper targets onto the stage. The acting space continues out from the stage onto an apron into the auditorium that really brings the action close to the audience. I also love how the production uses its technical know-how to increase the realism of the performance, as when Ralph monitors Misha’s social media reactions whilst she’s doing her show; his laptop clearly displays the phone number you need to ring in, and shows Misha performing live as the audience sees her – such elements make the production feel really up to date and truthful.

Misha and RalphSuzan-Lori Parks has written a stunning play with some fantastic speeches and mic-drop moments. It’s structured beautifully to allow us separate insights into the inner machinations of all four characters as well as watching the power-plays between them. The further the play develops, the more you fear for the wellbeing of the characters, and it builds to a tremendously exciting and dangerous climax such as you might expect from a top-rate thriller.

LeoThe four actors all give fabulous performances. From his opening monologue where he engages beautifully with the audience, we are completely on the side of Ken Nwosu’s Leo, no matter what life throws at him. Mr Nwosu delivers a rich and powerful performance, revealing all Leo’s insecurities, embarrassments, desires and fears. He takes us along on his journey, laughing and crying with him, willing him to grab what victories he can. Above all, he makes an outlandish situation seem totally credible. Absolutely superb.

MishaFaith Omole is brilliant as Misha, stunning us all with her showbizzy Ask A Black persona, whilst slowly realising her own self-delusions and that she might be part of the problem despite her outward show of independence and equality. Helena Wilson is also superb as Dawn, with immaculate timing and delivery on the character’s occasional killer lines that alter the course of relationships. Her revelations about the legal case that she’s wrapped up in come as a bolt from the blue, as do her misjudged, clumsy but tellingly insensitive moments in conversation with Misha.

DawnJames Corrigan is great as Ralph, a character who has had it all and slowly sees it ebbing away until he seizes an opportunity to regain status and power. He brings out all the sinister ruthlessness that’s lurking just beneath Ralph’s surface and horrifies us with what happens when absolute power corrupts absolutely and there’s nothing to hold you in check. RalphA brilliant performance of a complex character.

In a nutshell: simply outstanding. A play that says so much in a production that delivers it to the full. The season at the Bridge Theatre runs until 13th November, but I sense this is a play that is never really going to go away.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Five Alive let theatre thrive!

Review – Hamlet, Young Vic, London, 19th October 2021

HamletIt was by lucky chance that I saw that two sumptuously located seats in Row G of the Stalls had become free at the Young Vic for their much awaited Hamlet, directed by Greg Hersov and starring Cush Jumbo as the forlorn Dane. I always associate the Young Vic with Shakespeare, even though they’ve always offered a wide range of productions. I was a mere 16 year old when I saw the National Theatre’s Troilus and Cressida there, and Judi Dench and Ian McKellen’s RSC Macbeth when I was 18 just sealed it for me as a theatre where you can see great plays in great productions at – let’s face it – great prices. Over the course of fifty years or so, that philosophy hasn’t changed – and hurrah for that.

Norah Lopez HoldenFor many decades I’ve always considered Hamlet to be my “favourite” play, if you can have so facile a thing. It contains everything; suspense, vengeance, madness, humour, blistering scenes and complex characters. It even has an early version of The Mousetrap. I wasn’t familiar with the work of Cush Jumbo; my loss indeed, but more of that later. I was, however, familiar with Adrian Dunbar, being a firm fan of Line of Duty, and if I’m honest, gentle reader, casting him as Claudius/Ghost was what swung the decision to book. More of that later too.

Joana Borja, Adrian Dunbar, Leo WringerThere are hardly ever “straight” productions of Shakespeare nowadays. They are always either set in a different time or location, or with some other major aspect of the play somehow turned on its head. Watching a modern Shakespeare is a good way of finding out to what extent you’re a Shakespeare purist. On the whole, I think I’m pretty adaptable where it comes to the Noble Bard. Shakespeare is big and strong enough to look after himself, and if you see a production where they’ve taken more liberties than you can shake a stick at, well, there’ll be another production before long which will take the original from yet another unexpected angle. And Shakespeare always survives. With a play as solid and remarkable as Hamlet, no cheeky modern slant could ever ruin it, and indeed it may well shed light on how an old play can still have enormous relevance today.

Jonathan LivingstoneGreg Hersov’s production takes a reasonable number of liberties, most of which I found refreshingly enjoyable. I only had one quibble with his vision for this production – no Fortinbras. Even though he’s listed in the cast list, the play ends with a mass of dead bodies and no Norwegian saviour to come and make sense of the rotten state of Denmark and start to put it back together again. As such, the play ends in gloom and destruction, with no hope for the future provided. I can’t help but think that Shakespeare would be (as the cliché goes) turning in his grave at that one – and that’s the purist in me.

Joseph MarcellApart from that, I liked the freshness and the modernity of this production. Hamlet is a big play (Shakespeare’s longest) so it needs to be pretty pacey to make it comfortable for modern attention spans. Sparky highlights amongst the minor characters help make it go with a swing, and this was one aspect in which this production really excelled. Joseph Marcell’s Polonius steals every scene he’s in with a perfect interpretation of that meddlesome, pernickety character. His pomposity is imbued with kindness (as when he’s giving Laertes laboursome advice) or self-protection (as when he’s gently humouring the “mad” Hamlet), and you can instantly recognise elderly relatives and acquaintances in his self-important mumblings. Absolutely brilliant.

Joana Borja, Taz Skylar, Cush JumboRosencrantz and Guildenstern are re-imagined as a couple of hippies, and Taz Skylar and Joana Borja capture a little youthful eccentricity (young versions of Polonius in a way), as they pose for selfies and lead Hamlet on something of a merry dance. They’re funny and a bit kookie, and it works really well. Leo Wringer’s Wray and Nephew-swilling gravedigger is one of those rare performances – one of Shakespeare’s grotesquely unfunny comic characters designed to lessen the horror of the tragedy, reborn as genuinely funny. Jonathan Livingstone is a very solid, reliable, traditional Horatio, whereas Norah Lopez Holden is a more modern, outspoken Ophelia, prone to sullenness, not frightened to be assertive, and (appropriately) unnerving in her madness. Jonathan Ajayi plays Laertes with a light throwaway style that works well in his early pre-France scenes but seems less appropriate when desperate for revenge against Hamlet for murdering his father.

Tara FitzgeraldGiving an immaculate, perfectly judged performance throughout, Tara Fitzgerald is brilliant as Gertrude, visibly shrinking into herself with the growing awareness of her awful misjudgement. Her vocal delivery is immaculate, her reactions to the events going on around her are spot on, and her death is probably the best I’ve ever seen for the role, pitched without sensationalism but completely realistically.

Adrian DunbarAdrian Dunbar’s Claudius is a strangely underplayed performance. He’s beautifully at his ease in conversational scenes, such as when he’s having his man-to-man chat with Laertes over an elegant tumbler of whisky, where his delivery is natural and flowing. However, when it comes to the soliloquies, he becomes all declamatory, as though he’s reciting it from a book in order to make the words sound nice but with little attention to their meaning. He completely looks the part, in his smart blue lounge suit, but when he was praying for forgiveness, I didn’t believe a word of it, I’m afraid.

Cush Jumbo and YorickAlso completely looking the part, is Cush Jumbo as Hamlet with her close shaven head, trendy black mourning outfits, and rebellious stance. Her interaction with those characters that she feels are her allies is a pally delight, with a genuine thrill at being reunited with Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, her close friendship with Horatio, and the memory of her childhood trust in Yorick. However, if you are Hamlet’s enemy, she is scathing. In answer to the age-old question, Is Hamlet mad? Ms Jumbo’s answer is definitely No – you feel this Hamlet is completely in control of their mental faculties and is calmly and determinedly working towards the desired aim of revenge. The casting works incredibly well, and you completely believe in her compelling delivery of the role. Her soliloquies expressed a clear understanding of their meaning and significance which lent a lot to this production being very easy to follow. A Shakespearean tragedian par excellence!

Leo WringerHamlet continues at the Young Vic until 13th November – returns only, I’m afraid. However, there are four live streaming broadcasts available from October 28th to 30th, so you can still get to see the show. And it’s worth it just to see Cush Jumbo!

P. S. Our performance got off to an unintentionally hilarious start. Just as Adesuwa Oni entered the stage as Barnardo on the battlements, someone’s phone/watch alarm went off in the audience to signify it was a quarter past the hour. Ignoring it magnificently but in coincidental response to the alarm, she delivered her opening line, “Who’s there?” Cue a considerable ripple of uncontrolled laughter from the audience. Great work from Ms Oni to carry on regardless, but if anything ever revealed why you have to turn off all your devices, that was it!

Production photos by Helen Murray

4-starsFour they’re jolly good fellows!

Review – The Normal Heart, Olivier Theatre, National Theatre London, 14th October 2021

The Normal HeartTwo well-observed ceremonies open Dominic Cooke’s riveting production of Larry Kramer’s semi-autobiographical  The Normal Heart at the Olivier. First, the cast come on stage in reverent silence as a flame is lit in memory of those who died, those who suffered, and those who lost; but also as an eternal hope for the future – and it burns throughout the entire performance. Second, the scene changes to a thumping gay nightclub where Donna Summer’s I Feel Love dominates the stage as the clubbers throw themselves into a vibrant tableau of sheer, carefree enjoyment where shirts are optional. The first couldn’t be more different from the second. The production instantly invites us to be judgmental; it’s in those clubs, and in the promiscuity that they enable, it implies, that the whole AIDS crisis started. In fact, I blame Donna Summer. If she hadn’t had created such an appealing dance track, all this death and destruction could have been avoided.

Dino Fetscher and Ben DanielsI jest of course; but this is no jesting matter. The Normal Heart takes us on an intense journey from the first days of otherwise healthy young gay men showing unusual symptoms of infections and cancer, through growing awareness that there seems to be an inexplicable “gay plague” causing havoc, resistance from a homophobic establishment to investigate it, finally to gruesome deaths in the close-knit gay community and beyond. Between 1981 and 1984, the years covered by the play, the annual number of AIDS related death in the US went up from 130 to 3,500. Global numbers would continue to rise every year until they reached a peak of 1.9 million in 2004 before they would slowly start to fall. Of course, that was all in the future for the original production of The Normal Heart which opened on Broadway in 1985. To its first audiences, this must have been like a snapshot of the time, just dipping a toe into the vague and confusing world of the mysterious virus which was still perplexing scientists – at least, those prepared to spend time investigating it.

Liz CarrToday we have the benefit of almost forty additional years of understanding; and it’s almost impossible to watch this play without making comparisons (most of which are unfair, but we’re only human) with the Coronavirus pandemic. Given how rapidly vaccines have been developed to combat Covid, there’s a stark contrast with the (lack of) gravity that met the early days of HIV. There’s a stunningly impactful scene where Dr Emma Brookner, the only medic/scientist taking this new condition seriously, has her application for research funding rejected on grounds of its being “unfocused”. Of course it was unfocused. They didn’t know what was causing it!

Ben Daniels and Dino FetscherThere are two main threads that combine to create the powerful content of the play. One is the simple (and very effective) storytelling of the progress of the virus and the birth of the Gay Men’s Health Crisis organisation that was set up by Ned Weeks (Larry Kramer in real life) in an effort to raise awareness of the condition and to try to find a way to fight it. The other is the growing relationship between Ned and influential journalist Felix, and Felix’s gradual decline in health as he too falls foul of the virus. Thus you have at the same time both a broad picture of the effect of HIV on a whole community, and also a close-up view of how it effects two individuals; two amongst many, of course. Like all diseases and illnesses, the bottom line is the fear that grips ordinary people facing an extraordinary death, and this play conveys that fear superbly (and tragically) well.

Liz Carr and Ben DanielsBut this is a complex play which also raises other themes and questions. I liked how the play explored the problems and the feelings when an individual starts a pressure group (or a company, or a resolution, or anything similar) and then for whatever reason is voted out and excluded from its future, as happens to Ned. The play also shows how humans are reticent to take action to save themselves because that very action is, in itself, undesirable. Dr Brookner implores Ned to influence gay men into abstaining from sex because she’s convinced it’s the only way of ensuring they stay alive. Unsurprisingly, as an option, this was always going to go down like the legendary lead balloon. Compare this with the actions that some activists are suggesting today are the right way to deal with climate change. We know that it’s something that must be dealt with, but none of us actively and individually wants to do those self-denying things. Basically, people never know what’s best for them.

Robert BowmanVicki Mortimer’s almost empty set is the perfect blank canvas to paint our own imagination of all the different locations in the play; in fact, the lack of scenery is a strength that concentrates our minds on the words, the actions, and the immense performances of the incredibly good cast. Central to all the proceedings is a superb performance by Ben Daniels as Ned; a strong, determined character, full of passion for his cause although initially less certain about his own private passions. Angry at injustice, he portrays brilliantly that ability to pick the wrong fights and create division where unity is needed – he explodes against his brother (an excellent performance by Robert Bowman) for his perceived lack of support, against the mayor’s representative Hiram with whom he should be ingratiating himself, even against the one person who fearlessly and single-handedly does her best to get to the heart of the problem, Dr Brookner. It’s a stunning performance.

Elander MooreDino Fetscher is also superb as Felix, the journalist that Ned courts for publicity for his cause and ends up courting him back for a relationship. As Felix slowly gets consumed by HIV, Mr Fetscher’s strong performance conveys his fear and desperation, as well as his physical decline, but never loses his mental clarity and determination. In another memorable scene, Messrs Daniels and Fetscher perform together supremely well as they both lose control with angry frustration, ending with Ned hurling on the ground all the nutritional food that he has carefully bought to nurse Felix back to health, because Felix cannot bring himself to eat. The combined desperation, sadness and fury with which both characters deliberately wound each other is painful but incredibly telling to watch.

Danny Lee Wynter and Luke NorrisLiz Carr is tremendous as Dr Brookner, delivering her medical advice with unsentimental directness, determined to work all hours of the day and night in an attempt to save life – and not caring what raw emotions she treads on to get there. Luke Norris is great as the closeted Bruce Niles, treading a fine line between giving the cause all the support he can without nailing his colours completely to the mast. There are excellent supporting performances from Daniel Monks as committee member Mickey Marcus, scared for what repercussions his activism will have on his job, and Danny Lee Wynter as the always cheerful, always hard-working Tommy Boatwright.

Daniel MonksRarely have I heard so many barely-suppressed snuffles of crying from audience members as in the last five minutes of The Normal Heart (maybe Blood Brothers comes close). The standing ovation (from a midweek matinee audience) was instant and virtually unanimous, and recognised the awful truth of the AIDS crisis which deprived so many young people of their older years, so many partners of their loved ones, and all of us of so many creative talents and much-loved performers over the years. It’s a long play – it’s advertised as two hours forty minutes, but our performance lasted pretty much three hours – but it has a lot to say. A remarkable work given an immaculate production and memorable performances. One of those productions where you may come out of it as a different person from the one you went into it. The run at the Olivier is until 6th November – don’t miss it.

Production photos by Helen Maybanks

Five Alive let theatre thrive!

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

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

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

 

 

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

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

 

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4-starsFour they’re jolly good fellows!