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!

Review of the Year 2019 – The Tenth Annual Chrisparkle Awards

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

Are you all sitting comfortably?

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

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

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

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

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

Classical Music Concert of the Year.

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

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

Best Entertainment Show of the Year.

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

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

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

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

Best Star Standup of the Year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Musical.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best New Play.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Revival of a Play.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best play – Edinburgh

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Individual Performance in a Play – Edinburgh

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

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

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

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

Best stand-up comedy show – Edinburgh

Ten shows this year gives this top three:

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

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

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

Best of the rest – Edinburgh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Local Production

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical.

Nine performances in the shortlist, producing this top five:

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

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

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

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

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

Best Performance by an Actress in a Play.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Performance by an Actor in a Play.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theatre of the Year.

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

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

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

Review – Escape Route, Kyla Kares, Fringe Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year (BA) Acting and Creative Practice Students, The Platform, Northampton, 5th May 2019

Fringe FestivalMany of the shows at this year’s Fringe Festival came with trigger warnings. This show warned that it contained discussion about depression and suicide. I think, to be fair, that I also ought to give this blog review post a similar trigger warning. If you’re affected by suicide, or suicidal thoughts, please take care and breathe deeply before reading on.

Escape RouteSuicide. It’s a subject we have to talk about. The less we talk about it, the more people take their own life. As Kyla Williams tells us, in her bold and beautiful show Escape Route, suicide is the greatest killer of men under 40, but the statistics only tell us half the truth; although more men die at their own hand, many more women attempt suicide than men, which, it follows, means that many fail, maybe to be permanently injured or disabled as a result of their suicide attempt, or at least to continue to suffer the mental tortures that led them to trying suicide in the first place.

It’s a subject I’m willing to talk about, at length if need be; my friend’s sister took her own life many years ago by overdosing on paracetamol. There’s a sequence in Kyla’s performance where she describes the horrors of a “successful” paracetamol overdose, and I can confirm every word she says about how it causes a long, lingering, ghastly death. Two of my other closest friends have tried (fortunately, unsuccessfully) to take their own lives and I’m aware of the benefits of offering regular contact, and the open invitation to talk about anything. Just being there can save a life. Depression is a nasty business.

Kyla KaresWhilst there are a number of shocking, sad, even gruesome moments in the show, there are a number of elements that are wryly amusing – even thoroughly entertaining; for example, Kyla’s rendition of Peggy Lee’s classic Is that all there is? which I have to say was pure class. There are several extracts from verbatim accounts about how people live with depression which she invests with great character and emotion, using a wide range of voices and moods. She has a wonderful stage presence, and delivers her material with great conviction and commitment; and never has a red scarf been used for so many purposes with such creativity, subtlety and elegance.

Kyla makes no secret of the fact that this show is borne from much of her own experience, and it has been a difficult and sensitive journey bringing it to fruition. I can only say many congratulations to her for creating a very moving, powerful and honest show that may act as a catalyst to her and to her audience. And, always remember, keep an eye out for your friends.

Review – Unveiled, Myriad Theatre, Fringe Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year (BA) Acting and Creative Practice Students, The Platform, Northampton, 5th May 2019

Fringe FestivalThere’s probably never been a time like today that the wedding dress has had such a high profile and significance in our society. I think we forked out £80 for Mrs Chrisparkle’s wedding dress back in Nineteen hundred and frozen-to-death, and it was simple, elegant and lovely. Today you’re looking at £2000 for as much bling as you can cram onto a garment. Choosing the wedding dress from the shop is also major social event, where all the girls quaff prosecco and there’s a massive show-and-tell with the bride to be getting more feedback than she really needs. Heavens above, there was even a TV show called Say Yes to the Dress! Getting prepared for a wedding is stressful enough without adding to the drama and tension with all that hoo-ha.

But there’s also another significance to the wedding dress. If you’re ready, willing and able to get married and you’re fully happy about it, then, hurrah. But if you’re not, if you have doubts, maybe you thought that by now you’d love him, but you still don’t quite, or maybe you’ve started to go off him…. that’s when the wedding dress can take on an ogreish significance. Then there’s the miserable, caustic aunt, who always says you look fat in that dress, or you’re much too old for that style, and other confidence-boosting remarks. Why would you take her along to watch you try on wedding dresses? It’s just asking for trouble. You can tell one thing: this girl isn’t happy.

Myriad TheatreAnd that – presumably – is why we see Myriad Theatre’s Isabella Hunt, lying on the floor, writing words of distress over a plain white dress, before scooping another four wedding dresses off the rail, trying them on, taking them off and then generally writhing on the floor with them. In the end she stands in silence in the plain white dress that she has vandalised with graffiti. No comment (either by her, or, I sense, the audience.)

There’s an element of promise and expectation when you enter the room for this performance; the chairs each have an elegant number written on them, such as you might find in the seating plan for a wedding reception; and the floor is strewn with those delicate, colourful little odds and ends that people scatter on tables to give it a celebratory look.

Sadly, however, the creativity seems to stop there. Unveiled turns out to be nothing more than seventeen minutes of taking dresses on and off, writhing around the floor in agony, a very repetitive physical theatre element that I think represented a struggle (I stopped watching after the fourth time – it may have gone on for at least another half dozen times) and a few minutes of general spoken wedding/marriage angst. This is a very undeveloped piece, with few ideas that don’t go anywhere. An opportunity not taken, very disappointing, and a bit of a cheek to ask the general public to pay to see it.

P. S. Mrs C was not happy at paying £5.50 for 17 minutes of rather poor performance; that’s almost £20 an hour pro-rata and you can get much better value elsewhere.

Review – Godspeed, Far from Home Theatre Company, Fringe Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year (BA) Acting and Creative Practice Students, The Platform, Northampton, 5th May 2019

Fringe FestivalFor the last three plays in the Fringe Festival I was joined by Mrs Chrisparkle (it was a Sunday after all) dipping her toe into this festival for the first time. Fortunately for both of us, we started with a good one!

GodspeedFar from Home’s Godspeed, is an inventive and creative one-man play by and with Fox Neal as Ishmael Constant (which sounds like a mathematical law), trained by the military and space authorities to undertake a twelve-year journey to investigate a hole in the universe – The Anomaly. His quest is to go through the hole if possible and see what’s on the other side. He is to report back if he can; he is not expected to return home, so he’ll spend his final days like David Bowie’s Major Tom, sitting in his tin can far from the world. His only companion is a chatty, nauseously upbeat computer whom they christen Virgil; but Virgil isn’t entirely to be trusted. He gives Ishmael regular psychological health checks – and does Virgil detect that our hero might have an alternative agenda? Does that explain his attachment to his crucifix? And will he be able to get through the Anomaly and see for himself what’s there?

Far From Home TheatreInterspersed with this surprisingly exciting story are flashbacks to Ishmael’s childhood, with his warring parents – one religious, one not – and the effect of their unhappy divorce on him; and his time spent in the military, where he meets another trainee, Shay, who calls him her Space Cowboy, but refuses his offer of marriage because she has to go off on tours of duty without him. Mr Neal plays Ishmael centre stage for most of the time, keeping time with a recording of all the other voices in his story, a technical feat of high precision which he achieves brilliantly. Particularly impressive were the recordings of his parents’ muffled arguments, such as a child might hear behind a closed door, and the shatteringly effective last words that Ishmael hears from his beloved Shay.

Mr Neal invests Ishmael with finely observed characterisation; a frustrated, understated, angry, resigned and bewildered man who’s going to do his best for the world if he possibly can – whilst achieving his own private ambition as well. It’s a strong, gripping performance and he, together with all the other entertaining recorded voices from other members of the 3rd Year, keeps us totally engaged in his story from start to finish. This is another production that you could easily pick up and plonk down in Edinburgh where I think it would be a great success. Congratulations all round!

Review – Exposing Inequality, Unseen Truths Theatre Company, Fringe Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year (BA) Acting and Creative Practice Students, The Platform, Northampton, 3rd May 2019

Fringe FestivalThe suffragettes must have been amongst the bravest people in the world at the time. We’ve all seen that heart-stopping footage of Emily Davison being trampled to death by the king’s horse at the 1913 Derby. There were no winners that day; what is less well known is that jockey Herbert Jones lived the rest of his life haunted by that event – until he took his own life in 1951. But, like with most bad laws, a combination of protest, civil disobedience and strong people being prepared to be counted, eventually the law was changed so that women over the age of 30 started to get the vote in 1918; and that was reduced to the age of 21 in 1928, a few weeks after the death of suffragette Emmeline Pankhurst.

Exposing InequalityExposing Inequality focuses on an historical character that I’d never heard of before – Alice Hawkins. She, like Unseen Truths’ Jessica Harding, lived in Leicester, working in a shoe factory at the age of thirteen, quickly realising how much less she was being paid than the men who were doing precisely the same work. Pay inequality, extraordinarily, continues to this day – and this provides the main material for the play. But we also flashback to Alice Hawkins’ life; her early political involvement, her marriage to Alfred, her imprisonment for marching for equality, and her death in 1946 at the age of 83, which, considering how hard her life must have been, was some achievement in itself.

Unseen TruthsI remember the late Beryl Reid, when asked how she created her characters, used to say that she always started with their feet. If she knew how they’re feet felt – big, small, healthy, grotty, comfy shoes, tight-fitting shoes, etc – then she could work her way up to the rest of their bodies and their minds. Jessica Harding has also concentrated on the feet, lining up a series of shoes and boots along the front of the stage, which she dons for the different characters in her play. Sometimes she wears them ordinarily, as we all do, whether it be work shoes or fashion shoes; and sometimes she kneels down and just puts her hands in them and stomps them around like a child at play. Whilst initially funny, it gets a bit cumbersome as the scene continues.

And that was largely the problem I had with the whole play and performance – it tended to be cumbersome and heavy. Some of the scenes were simply too long, for example the fascinating and notable recent case of BBC journalist Carrie Gracie, who resigned from the corporation on the grounds of pay discrimination. Unfortunately, Ms Harding read out what I guess was the entirety of Ms Gracie’s resignation letter – and it was long! For the sake of factual completeness, we lost dramatic interest. Being bombarded with PowerPoint presentations full of graphs, facts and figures makes for a dull day at the office, let alone when you’re watching a theatrical experience. It was a shame, because Ms Harding is obviously a very bright spark with a strong stage presence and very clear and expressive voice; and her opening address filled me with confidence for a lively, quirky look at the struggle for equality for women. But sadly, that didn’t follow through and there were times when it was a little boring, I’m afraid. Some good ideas there but it lacked that special oomph.

Review – 42 Church Lane, Battered Lemon Theatre Company, Fringe Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year (BA) Acting and Creative Practice Students, The Platform, Northampton, 3rd May 2019

Fringe FestivalWhilst people are generally familiar with – and indeed love to trace – their family trees, there’s a growing interest in working out the genealogy of one’s home too. I spent most of the first twenty-six years of my life living in a pub that was estimated to have been built in 1535. We had a priest’s hole, and a ghost; buy me a pint one day and I’ll tell you all about what George the Ghost did for us.

But that’s for another occasion. Battered Lemon Theatre Company’s 42 Church Lane does exactly what it says on the tin; it gives you an insight into three periods of that property’s history – 1941, 2016 and 2027 (which, I know, isn’t exactly history, but you get my drift). Arthur comes home from the war early, injured, to the delight of his mother and sisters, although his little nephew Frank didn’t survive the Blitz. Megan and Jamie have just moved into their first place together, but already cracks in their relationship are beginning to show. Doctor Mia has taken advantage of the new privatised NHS to set up her own clinic at No 42, inoculating all and sundry with the MMR vaccine – and business has never been so brisk. But there are secrets, at every stage and in every age, and it would be best if they were never discovered.

42 Church LaneNot only is this terrific play beautifully written, but its construction is superb, with the way that its various scenes dovetail one another through the decades. One minute Megan and Jamie will be arguing only suddenly to become mother and daughter in the 40s. Another time wounded soldier Arthur will be teasing with his sister and then she becomes Dr Mia and he’s her journalist friend Alex. This might sound confusing, but with lighting cues and costume changes it’s all as clear as a bell. There’s even a scene towards the end where the words of 1941 become the words of 2016, as though you can actually hear the ghosts of the past haunting the present.

The excellent cast work hard to emphasise all the drama and tension of the plot. There’s a harrowing scene where one of the characters self-harms, and another when the horrors of war bring on an PTSD attack (surprisingly neither was mentioned in the trigger warnings). Books get ripped up, records get smashed and there’s a highly effective knock-at-the-door suspense (reminded me of the Porter in Macbeth) that affects two decades at the same time. The three scenes, where the abuse of trust that has been building is most noticeably revealed, from all three eras, are all performed with gripping tension and agonising sadness.

Battered LemonThe performances are excellent throughout. Amy Catherine excels as the hard-nosed pharmaceutical physician Mia, tentatively wondering whether there’s a future in the on-off friendship with Alex, whilst working nineteen to the dozen getting all the vaccinations done, and with her bedside manner slipping drastically under pressure. Samuel Jordan gives a fine performance as the cautious Alex and as the lame Arthur, thrilled to be home in the bosom of his family, no matter what it took to get there.

De-Anna Matthews cuts an essentially tragic figure as the out of place Ruth, mourning her child, being replaced at work, torn between family loyalty and a need to take some kind of revenge for Frank’s death. Erin Thorpe is excellent as the mother and the mentally abused Jamie, pathetically caving into Megan’s demands; and, perhaps with the stand-out performance, Shannon Couchman makes a devastatingly terrifying Megan, who switches from manipulative control freak to being a severely vulnerable victim herself, and also as the baby of the family Lily, curled up on the floor to listen to stories or playing hysterically with her cuddly toys.

Terrific performances, and a beautifully devised play. Congratulations all on a great job!

P. S. The Saffron Restaurant sells Indian, not Chinese food. #JustSaying!

Review – Paris la Nuit, Nostalgia Theatre Company, Fringe Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year (BA) Acting and Creative Practice Students, Hazelrigg House, Northampton, 1st May 2019

Fringe FestivalLocked away in the cold, dark, dank basement of Hazelrigg House is not the most comfortable of locations but I can’t think of anywhere more perfect for Nostalgia Theatre Company’s production of Paris La Nuit. Even the stale smell of cigarettes and vin de pays that greets you conjures up a murky, tawdry bar in an unfashionable district of the French capital, where Jean Clement plays jazz for his regulars until war comes and he signs up. But on his return years later, he is startled by the appearance of a young orphaned boy, Mathieu, living in his old bar. Traumatised into speechlessness, terrified of his shadow, he’s just trying to find a place to survive. Kind-hearted Clement can’t kick the boy out, so he gets him to wait tables in return for his bed and board. The friendship develops between the two as Mathieu comes to regard Clement more and more as a father figure, but is it a bond that can withstand Clement’s past catching up with him?

Paris La NuitFor a period feel, this absolutely scores ten out of ten. Rickety tables, odd vintage crystal wine glasses, Parisian pictures, open cigarette cases, plus a plinky-plonk piano and a bar that has seen better days – the attention to detail is formidable et magnifique. With memories of Piaf, and an impromptu performance of Charles Trenet’s La Mer, the whole performance has a Gallic charm and vulnerability that truly stands out. There are moments of humour too, such as in the boy’s reaction to Clement’s liaison with a lady of the night, and his earnest, scrupulous cleaning of the tables.

Jean et MathieuSamual Gellard’s performance as Clement is authoritative, calm, measured, sensitive and you really feel you know exactly what makes him tick. Either his French accent is terrible, or, he’s doing a brilliant impersonation of someone from a region of France where the accent is terrible! Either way he still delivers much of the dialogue in fast, confident French, deliberately difficult enough to challenge any audience member who got A level French over forty years ago. But I was able to follow much of the dialogue, so kudos to both him and me for that. The unnamed young actor who plays Mathieu is absolutely brilliant, his facial expressions providing all the eloquence he needs to get his meanings across. And the two of them together provided some surprisingly touching moments. That must have been cigarette smoke in my eye.

At times I did find the story a little hard to follow; I wasn’t quite sure who it was who was catching up with Clement, and whether the money being extorted was simply a protection racket or a blackmail for something he’d done. But, at the end of the day, it really didn’t matter, and any fog in the storyline was a perfect reflection of the fog in his jazz bar. Two charming and convincing performances that waft you away to a distant world of the chanteuse, the raconteur and late night Pernod. Bien fait, mes amis!

Review – I Believe, OVM – Our Voices Matter, Fringe Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year (BA) Acting and Creative Practice Students, The Platform, Northampton, 1st May 2019

Fringe FestivalThere was advance additional information sent out to the audience members of I Believe. First – wear black party attire, because it’s a celebration of black excellence. I wore my black Levis, black Loïc Nottet t-shirt, and casual black tuxedo. Even if I say so myself, I looked pretty nifty for someone who’s got an AWFULLY big birthday coming up next year. Talking of which, the second advance notice was to bring ID. No ID, no entry, them’s the rules. I haven’t been asked my ID since the 1980s, but, as a naturally obedient chap, I brought my passport. Just as well, as it was the first thing that the no-nonsense nightclub manager asked for when I got to the front door. I knew she was going to be trouble later on.

Receiving that advance information helps give you expectations about what’s to follow, which meant, for me, that I was really looking forward to seeing this show. And what Na-Keisha Glenn and her OVM team have created is a very strong sense of occasion, using the basement nightclub at the Platform to its fullest extent, with rows of complementary drinks on the bar, proper loud R&B through the speakers, dazzling disco lights, gregarious welcome hosts Joycelyn and Azreal, snazzy MC Black Dynamite singing and dancing on stage, and “token white girl” Rosemarie giving it large on the decks. Although you knew it was an artificial situation, a play, it felt 100% real. So when innocent young Lisa turns up, and there’s a bit of a rumpus on the dance floor, and she’s escorted away, you really feel as though you’re watching a genuine event unfold before your eyes.

I BelieveLisa’s young. She’s naïve. She’s heard that R. Kelly is coming to Northampton and she cannot believe her luck that she’s going to meet her hero. She’s got all the merch. And she’s prepared his song I Believe I Can Fly to sing to him. Would we like to hear it? Of course we would. She’s got a great singing voice. She really could become a star. Especially if he spends some time with her.

Vignettes of a harrowing night out, with vicious bouncers, assault, violence and a terrifying abrupt ending which stuns us into silence, all framed by a fun party with mates to cool music in a sophisticated club, the stark contrast of the pleasure and the pain is very powerfully presented. After we clearly witness an abduction, with the victim kicking and screaming, and no one is helping her, I said to Joycelyn that I was worried about her and should we see that she’s ok, but Joycelyn replied that, no, she’s just a teenager kicking off… And that’s how easily violence and assault can be overlooked. Alongside these scenes we hear genuine radio news reports about the allegations against R. Kelly, as well as reading posters on the way out about how he has used his position of influence to abuse underage girls. Sadly, that naïve young Lisa is probably just one of many to have their innocence taken away so wickedly. As for Joycelyn and Azreal, in real life they’re two girls who have lived with R. Kelly for many years. No wonder our Joycelyn wasn’t bothered to step in to help someone who was clearly in trouble.

Na-Keisha GlennPerforming most of these roles is Na-Keisha Glenn and she is superb. A terrific singer, a strong stage presence, and a beautifully clear and expressive speaking voice, she is definitely One To Watch. Lesley ‘Rietta’ Cobbina, Nicolle Harris, and Elias Chambers provide great support as the rest of the nightclub performers. A unique entertainment with a forceful message, and unquestionably a highlight of this year’s Fringe Festival.

Review – Mein Hodenkrebs, Light in the Dark Theatre Company, Fringe Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year (BA) Acting and Creative Practice Students, The Platform, Northampton, 1st May 2019

Fringe FestivalIf you’re of a certain vintage, like myself, you might remember The Numskulls. They appeared in (I think) The Topper comic, and they were a bunch of little men who lived inside another guy’s body, and each week you could read their hilarious escapades as they channelled blood in and out of his heart in buckets, made his legs work, grew hairs out of his ears, gave him dumb thoughts, and so on. Light in the Dark Theatre Company’s Mein Hodenkrebs made me think of these little guys instantly.

Basically, you’ve got two concurrent series of events going on. Zak is mourning the death of his best mate, skulking in his room, having too much to drink and going out on the razz; having unprotected sex, accidentally acquiring a boyfriend, and ignoring the fact that one of his testicles is growing a lump. Medical examination reveals that he does indeed have testicular cancer, requiring chemotherapy. Has he caught the cancer in time, or will he end up dead like his mate? That story is shown completely in video, played on a big screen above the stage.

Mein HodenkrebsMeanwhile, on the stage, the four actors – Ben Loftus, David Wallace, Giacomo Galbiati and Kyle Lawson – play various roles in a series of scenes that show the journey of the cancer gene through Zak’s body; starting at the rectum, working its way via the lymph nodes to the lungs, and ending up with a grand, Eisenstein-like Battle of the Chemo. It’s a clever idea, and there’s no shortage of energy or commitment by the company into making every scene visually or linguistically eccentric. There’s also an attempt to weave the current political climate into the script, but that made it feel like it was on the fence between being a political satire and a comedy about the body’s defences. It works in part, although they do the idea to death. I did laugh at the ironic “exit means exit” line, though.

However, the live scenes – especially the big battle – went on a very long time, and I do think this show would have benefited from some severe pruning. The shrieking, falsetto voices that some of the actors adopted from time to time – reminiscent of Monty Python’s Hell’s Grannies – actually made it impossible to understand their lines. Some scenes simply came across as gross and puerile; you could understand the seed of humour buried underneath, but it was forced and rushed, and the humour never had time to land. The guys have a lot of ideas that they’re trying to express, but in the end they all got trampled on in a drive for excess.

Light in the Dark Theatre CompanyWhich is a shame, because the recorded video was absolutely superb. Crisp, funny, ascerbic, gruesome, and emotional at the end when Zak’s friend’s ashes are finally scattered. The blurry double vision to convey the sense of drunkenness was very effective, and kudos to the actor (not sure who it was) who was prepared to go bottom-out into the street whilst being filmed (much to the surprise of the passer-by). A shortened edit would be a perfect advisory video for guys to remember to check for lumps and bumps and not be scared of going to the doctor.

I always say that I prefer a brave failure to a lazy success, and there’s no doubt that there was plenty of bravery on show. There were some quieter, subtler characterisations that were more effective – for example, the boyfriend on the video, the Gollum guard, the Chief Sperm, and the sensible gene that wants to kill the cancer cell – performed variously (I think) by Messrs Lawson and Loftus. But good comedy is probably the most difficult thing for a group of actors to achieve – and I’m afraid this proved it. What makes someone laugh is very subjective, and the whole live action element was simply too frantic, ragged and maniacal for me.