Review – Tez Ilyas – Vicked, Underground at the Derngate, 5th November 2021

Tez Ilyas LiveThis was another show that we’d booked so long ago that it changed its name in the meantime. Two years elapsed between the initial booking and the actual event! And what was originally Populist became Vicked – although the title is only a serving suggestion of what the show contains – which is Another Evening in the Company of Tez Ilyas Doing his Thing. And a very funny Thing it is.

Tez IlyasTez Ilyas is one of the few performers that I feel comfortable referring to by their first name. Not Mr Ilyas, nor Mr I (which is how I normally refer to comics when I’ve already mentioned their name a few times), but Tez. And that’s because he forms such a sincere connection with his audience that you really feel like you and he are old mates. It’s partly the courtesy that he extends by always coming out on to the stage first for a little chat with us all before introducing his support act; it’s partly the fact that stays behind after the show for a photo and a chat; it’s partly that his delivery is so fluent and genuine that everything he says you believe is true. He refers to us as his Tezbians, which also grants us some familiarity rights. Within a few seconds of coming on stage, he’s brought up two lads from the front row who are from different groups but for all the world look like they’re brothers (and they really did). In that simple act, he brought us all together, united in one purpose, to make a judgment call on these two lads – and we remain united throughout the rest of the show. The audience becomes a very comfortable, safe place, and you just know you’re in for a good time.

Kate LucasAnd yes, we did indeed have an excellent support act in the capable hands (and plectrum) of comedy-musician Kate Lucas, whom we saw at a Screaming Blue Murder a few years ago. She’s like a coiled serpent with her easy, gentle appearance, delicately beautiful voice, and viperous lyrics to her brilliant songs. She sings us songs of acerbity and Schadenfreude, of revenge and malice, and the audience loves her for it. She even gets us to join in a singalong of dubious taste. It’s all very inventive and very funny, and it was great to see her again.

TezAfter the interval, Tez returned to the stage and gave us a good hour-and-three-quarters of top quality material, expertly delivered. This was the fourth time we’ve seen him live – the last time was at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017 – and he’s truly evolved as a stand-up of immense confidence, linguistic skill and an enviable ability to trade good-hearted banter with anyone and everyone. One minute he hits just the perfect note of self-deprecation, the next he’s on an outrageous attack against someone else and it’s such a cunning blend of humour that you never know what’s coming next. I loved his segment when he played NHS Top Trumps – identifying all the audience members who work for the NHS (there were five) and working out which one most deserved the Thursday Night Minute of Applause. Not only does this allow him to gently tease the audience, and himself, it also opens up the field of political satire, at which Tez excels.

Tez IAnd then, of course, there’s the whole subject of racism, which constantly crops up in his material somehow or another, and he plays it perfectly, using humour not only to show its ridiculousness and cruelty, but also how easy it can be to fall foul of it oneself. He does a wonderful deconstruction of the terms BAME and POC – no matter how politically correct those terms may be, they’re pretty awful. He jests of cultural appropriation when any other ethnic group is involved in terrorism; and he admits to being stumped when it comes to dealing with a cis straight white male who’s neither fat nor ginger. He has a brilliant way of turning prejudice on its head, that not only reveals so much about the human condition but also is just so bloody funny.

There are just a few more dates remaining on this tour – if you’re in any doubt about whether to go – OMA! It’s a humdinger of a show and seventy-two hours later I’m still laughing at it. Fantastic!

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 – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 22nd October 2021

Dan EvansScreaming Blue Murder time again, and our party of five braved the increasing Covid numbers to sit as safely as possible by locating the Underground’s new ventilation panels and plonking ourselves under them. Another full house, all expectantly awaiting the 8pm start for a cracking night of comedy. But, come five past eight, where was our loveable host Dan Evans? Still hurtling up the motorway, as it happens. A massive traffic jam held him up Brighton-way and he was never going to make it on time as a result.

Kevin ShepherdThus it was that our first act, Kevin Shepherd, had to introduce both himself, the audience and his act all at the same time – and an excellent job he made of it too. We’d not seen him before, but he has a confident, relaxed style and an engaging manner, which worked well with his getting to know the front row punters, including regular Tom – whom it was decided would speak for the entire audience (and indeed town), and the family of recycling operatives. He had some excellent material which included the nitty-gritty of a drunk date, the majesty that is Bognor Regis, and how when you keep your mask in your trouser pocket too long you discover exactly how testicles smell (that was the truest observation of the night). He also made a number of references to life with his wife, which was perhaps unsurprising as…

Diane SpencerOur second act was the wonderful Diane Spencer, whom we’ve seen many times and never fails to delight with her posh but filthy persona. She also happens to be married to Kevin, which they never made obvious, but I expect a large number of the audience will have twigged. As she often does, she had lots of great material about sexual shenanigans including getting repetitive strain injury in bed and achieving a personal best. But there was a bit of an odd vibe in the audience, and a slight comedy reticence in the air; whether they were put out by Dan’s late arrival – he was able to take over the MC’ing after a while and was his usual jovial self – or whether our biorhythms were out of kilter I don’t know, but Diane did have to work perhaps a bit harder than usual to get the laughs. But she still got them.

Andre VincentOur headline act was Andre Vincent, a comedian of long standing reputation, and whom we’ve seen twice before. He started off with a brilliant gag about self-identification, but maybe it was because of the generally lacklustre audience, or indeed the two young women in the front row who didn’t laugh at anyone or anything, but his energy and comic inspiration seemed to go awol from time to time. His routine centred on two longish stories that he had told on both occasions we’d seen him before, and, although there were laughs a-plenty, somehow the whole thing didn’t go quite to plan. It happens. He’s a gifted comic and a naturally funny guy, but on this occasion, it didn’t quite soar.

Another Screaming Blue in the offing in November – already looking forward to 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 – No Time To Die, Northampton Filmhouse, 18th October 2021

No Time To DieAh, Mr Bond – we’ve been expecting you. For some time, as it happens; the best part of two years. Ah well, good things are worth waiting for, as I’ve said in almost every review over the last couple of months. If you are one of my wonderful loyal regular readers, gentle reader, you’ll know that I am currently undertaking a James Bond Challenge where I’ve gone back to Dr No and am working my way through the entire oeuvre. Currently I’m stuck between The Man with the Golden Gun and The Spy Who Loved Me, and I confess it’s been several months since I’ve strayed into the world of MI6. This review won’t be in the style of my usual James Bond Challenge posts, more an instant reaction to what we saw in the Northampton Filmhouse on Monday night.

James BondA retired Bond is approached by his old pal and CIA agent Felix Leiter, to help find scientist Valdo Obruchev who has been working on the Heracles project under direction of M, but has been kidnapped by SPECTRE villians. Heracles is a bioweapon containing nanobots that infect like a virus upon touch and are coded to an individual’s DNA, rendering it lethal to the target but harmless to others –  definition courtesy of Wikipedia. Spoilers abound online everywhere, so I’ll try not to add to them, apart from mentioning there are a number of villains and a number of potential Bond Girls in this film, and I have to say I did get a little confused trying to keep track of them all.

Madeleine SwannDespite the most up-to-date cinema techniques, and some fabulous gadgetry from Q – Bond’s Aston Martin has more tricks up its sleeve than the late Paul Daniels – there’s a distinctly retro feel to the film. Old colleagues and adversaries reappear. There’s a massive laboratory on a secret island that gets bombed to smithereens – where have I seen that before? There’s a pool of obviously radioactive water and anyone who falls into it dies a horrible death – that rings a bell or two as well. Bond visits the tomb of Vesper Lynd who dies in Casino Royale; and the film is bookended with verbal and musical reminders of We’ve Got All the Time in the World, the ironic accompaniment to the death of Teresa in On Her Majesty’s Secret Service. Above all, there is the return of Madeleine Swann, from Spectre, as Bond’s love interest, and a highly explosive and dramatic climax. All these elements (and there are probably many more) borrow from previous films. Of course, there are fresh themes too. Sexual equality in MI6 comes to the fore with the presence of new spy Nomi. Madeleine has childcare issues. But I was struck at how similar so much of the content was to so much of the content in the earlier films.

Miss MoneypennyVisually, it’s the usual treat for the senses. The car chases and motorbike scenes through the streets of Matera are absolutely brilliant – and it definitely comes across as somewhere you’d like to go for a relaxing holiday when all this has died down. Billie Eilish’s Grammy Award winning theme has been a significant commercial success in its own right, but to my ears is instantly forgettable.

PalomaA friend advised me that I shouldn’t see this film until I’d seen all the other Daniel Craig Bonds in sequence (and of those, I’ve only seen Skyfall) and, whilst that was impractical and surely a film should always stand on its own merits, I completely get what he means – there will have been many nuances that I missed. Nevertheless, it’s a very entertaining and enjoyable film – at two and three quarter hours it’s more than a tad too long – and it throws up a very complicated problem for the next Bond movie, which is promised in the most final of final reels. There are a number of very significant fatalities in this film; I’ll say no more. Woman of the hour Phoebe Waller-Bridge was apparently brought in to smarten up the script and inject more humour into it; I can only say that without her input it would have been the least humorous of any Bond film I’ve seen!

NomiDaniel Craig is, of course, superb in the role of Bond; dignified, yet crusty, totally believable as an individual with none of that basic silliness that some earlier Bond actors gave us. I’ve still only seen a dozen Bond films but I’m sure that this film shows Bond at his least suave and most gritty. This was always going to be Craig’s last outing as Bond, and he certainly does him justice. Léa Seydoux is very charming and convincing as Madeleine, getting deep down into the emotions that you don’t normally associate with a Bond movie. Lashana Lynch is excellent as the no-nonsense Nomi, struggling to manage the inevitable competition and comparison she feels when Bond comes back to work, and I loved Ana de Armas as Paloma, Felix Leiter’s CIA assistant who gets the job done with refreshing ease and breeziness.

QFrom the recurring cast of characters, Ben Whishaw has really made Q his own; so much more hands-on than the Desmond Llewelyn characterisation, Q is now a genuine nerd effortlessly masterminding massive computer systems, taking Bond through precarious procedures with detailed precision. I still haven’t quite got a grasp on Ralph Fiennes’ M – he seems like a dark, distant mysterious bloke and I can’t see how he would motivate excellence in the workplace.

SafinWhich brings us to the villain of the piece (the main villain, that is), Rami Malek’s performance as Safin, the deeply disturbed son of parents murdered by Mr White (Madeleine’s father) on Blofeld’s orders. Seeking revenge against all things SPECTRE – and from there, the rest of the world – Safin is a vengeful psychopath, and Rami Malek excellently conveys his quietly unhinged rage against everything. He’s had mixed reviews on this performance; if you’re looking for a maniacally twisted, outrageous evildoer then you might find Safin dull as ditchwater. Instead, he’s traded venom for veracity in an understated performance that gets to the heart of the character. Basically, you can’t have both.

MAll in all, a pretty good Bond movie, and one from which there’s no turning back (or there isn’t until the next one comes along). Good characterisations, great chases, and an engaging – if sometimes perplexing – storyline. I normally need to watch a Bond film three times to understand it fully, and I’m sure it will be many years before I see this again! If you’re a Bond aficionado, you’ve probably seen it already, and I’m sure you enjoyed it.

Review – 100% Simon Brodkin – Troublemaker, Underground at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 16th October 2021

TroublemakerAt some point in the murky interregnum between Lockdown 1.0 and the present day, Simon Brodkin’s new tour was re-named Troublemaker, from its original title of 100% Simon Brodkin. Either title is good; they both sum up different aspects of the show that sold out at the Royal and Derngate on Saturday with the result that they popped in a 5pm show as well. The man is obviously doing something right.

Formerly better known as his chav character Lee Nelson, today Simon Brodkin is probably more recognisable for his stunts which you can find all over the Internet; showering Sepp Blatter with money, fitting a VW at the Geneva motor show with a cheat box, offering Theresa May a P45. He’s clearly a mischievous little imp, so I thought it was about time we saw him for ourselves. This show was originally scheduled for 25th April 2020. As I’ve said before, and no doubt I’ll say again, good things are worth waiting for.

Simon-BrodkinFor someone with a reputation as a naughty prankster, when he first comes on stage, you’re a bit surprised as to how ordinary he looks. No doubt that really helps him get into high security areas without causing any suspicion. With his black T-shirt, smiling face, clean-cut appearance, he looks like a polite and hard-working undermanager at your local Co-op. But that belies a brilliant mine of original material that frequently dallies with some pretty tricky subjects.

He starts the show by getting to know the front rows of the audience; always a risky business and you sensed that he wasn’t entirely sure what he would do if any of the audience turned difficult! But they didn’t and it wasn’t long before Mr B was in his stride with a very enjoyable and cleverly constructed show.

Outed by the KKK as a Jew – although he says he already knew – he has some fantastic and inventive material from a Jewish perspective – including how no one knows fear like a Jewish boy telling his mother he’s going to give up being a doctor to go into comedy. Mind you, he confesses, he was a dreadful doctor and it was obviously a good career change!

Simon BrodkinIn the course of the show, not only does he give us some insights into those famous stunts, but he also explores what life would be like if you were cryogenically frozen and came back in 200 years time, having to look after the kids when his wife was away for a week, a brilliant put-down of the protesting parents who don’t want their kids to learn about LGBT rights, how well you know your best friend; and there’s also a new definition of Pooh-sticks to contend with.

To be fair, it’s a fairly brief show, with two forty-minute chunks of Mr Brodkin and a comfortable interval in between. But it’s absolutely packed with laughs and I was surprised and impressed at how good he is! His tour carries on into December but with a few extra dates in the new year too. Well worth catching!

Review – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Jamie Phillips conducts Elgar’s Enigma Variations, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 15th October 2021

RPO Enigma VariationsThis isn’t the first concert by the Royal Philharmonic at the Royal and Derngate since we started to emerge tentatively out of our lockdown cocoons, but conductor Jamie Phillips’ warm welcome to us all made it feel like it. Unlike the last concert, Spotlight on Strings, which had a reduced sized and socially distanced orchestra and audience, this time the Derngate stage took the full whack of the complete cast of musicians and there’s no denying it’s a complete thrill to listen to that number of people playing together again.

The aforementioned Jamie Phillips is a trendy sort of chap, with matching red glasses and socks, whose appearance put me in mind of Trevor Horn during his Buggles phase. He cajoles the orchestra to feel their way into the music with encouraging facial expressions and has (literally) a spring in his step for every new movement. You can see him a little like a young father who’s incredibly proud of his musical progenies, making sure each member of the orchestra gets their chance to shine.

Jamie PhillipsThe programme for the concert of English, Norwegian and German music was an entertaining mix of the familiar and not-so-familiar. We started with Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No 1 Opus 46,  opening with its glorious Morning Mood, then the sombre Death of Ase, the exotically beguiling Anitra’s Dance and finally the sinister and ultimately threatening In The Hall of the Mountain King. You got the feeling that each member of the orchestra knew this piece like the back of their hand, but even so the goosebumps began to rise with that last section, when the violins truly went into a frenzy of bowing. A perfect choice to start the evening’s entertainment.

Next, we had Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor, Opus 64, with our soloist Irène Duval. Mlle Duval wears a serious demeanour in preparation for a piece, and it wasn’t long before she was treating Mendelssohn’s notes and phrases with admirable assertiveness. Her playing was – it goes without saying – astounding, but I would say she treated the first two movements with respect and determination, but let fly with the emotions in the final movement, where she made the vivacious and infectious tune truly swing. It was almost as though she had left the concert hall and we were now present at a huge celebration party. It was superbly enjoyable. It ended with an unexpected false coda; orchestra leader Tamas Andras got up to Irene Duvallead the orchestra off into the interval only to come face to face with Mlle Duval returning to perform an encore. “Oh you’ve come back!” he said in surprise, as his face grew redder and redder over the next five minutes, whilst she performed a piece I didn’t recognise. The admiration on the faces of some of the violinists at the quality of her performance was a joy to behold.

After the interval, we started with another piece that was not familiar to me – the Prelude from Delius’ Irmelin, his first opera. Not only had I not heard this piece, I hadn’t even heard of it. It’s delightful, wistful, fresh, and Spring-like, and the RPO’s performance was instantly appealing and beautiful.

RPOThen came the main event, Elgar’s Enigma Variations, always a thrilling, stirring and emotional piece. However, I have to say, I felt that the pace of the performance was enormously fast. There are movements in Enigma that can withstand a super speedy performance, but there are others where you really need to relax to let the piece breathe, like a fine wine. There was also a pause after Nimrod that made it feel as though it had been split into a two movement concerto. It emphatically isn’t that; it’s a theme followed by 13 variations each of which is a portrait of a character, and by definition, I think each portrait should carry equal weight. For me, the performance lacked a little in the emotional department, the attention being focused on power and pizzazz. The performance came in at just about 30 minutes; that’s just my little quibble.

The RPO return on 6th February 2022 for another concert. We’ll be there – will you?

P. S. I’d really love it if we could go back to having the old-style programmes. Digital downloads put the onus on us to use lots of printer ink and the paper gets so crumpled during the performance that you can’t really use it as a souvenir! Please can we go back to the old programmes? Please??

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

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