The Revengers’ Comedies Parts One and Two – Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 11th July 2009
The Royal and Derngate’s 70th birthday celebrations for Alan Ayckbourn continued with his two part comedy The Revengers’ Comedies, performed in the studio Underground theatre by the Community Actors Group. We saw it on the Saturday where Part One was performed at the matinee and Part Two in the evening. An extremely funny play, performed to perfection by the group.
Man of the Moment – Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 5th August 2009
The last of the big three shows in the Ayckbourn celebration season was Man of the Moment, a blisteringly funny and savage play that starred Kim Wall, Matthew Cottle and Malcolm Sinclair, and directed by Ayckbourn himself. It put the finishing touches to a perfect season.
The Winter’s Tale – Royal Shakespeare Company at the Courtyard Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 15th August 2009
David Farr’s production of what I always find a difficult Shakespearean comedy starred Greg Hicks as Leontes, Kelly Hunter as Hermione, Darrell D’Silva as Polixenes Samantha Young as Perdita and Tunji Kasim as Florizel. The Courtyard Theatre was a temporary theatre to give the Royal Shakespeare Company a home base whilst the Royal Shakespeare Theatre was being redeveloped. Can’t remember much about the production but I think it was considered a success.
Romeo and Juliet – Oxford Shakespeare Company at Wadham College, Oxford, 22nd August 2009
Shakespeare’s lovers’ tragedy was re-imagined as a pair of warring Oxford families in the summer of 1959. Guy Retallack’s inventive production was very effective with fabulous attention to contemporary detail.
Forbidden Broadway – Menier Chocolate Factory, London, 23rd August 2009
The Smash-Hit Broadway revue came to London with a bang, and a fantastic cast of Anna-Jane Casey, Sophie-Louise Dann, Alasdair Harvey and Steven Kynman. No Broadway/West End musical is beyond ridicule in this wonderfully funny revue. It helps if you know the shows it lampoons, but even if you don’t it’s still hysterical. Absolutely brilliant.
The 39 Steps – Criterion Theatre, London, 31st August 2009
Patrick Barlow’s adaptation of the old wartime spy story had already been playing at the Criterion for three years before we finally got to see it. A fantastically funny spoof, performed with incredible gusto by John Hopkins, Stephen Critchlow, Stephen Ventura and Natalie Walter. A very successful production originally performed at the West Yorkshire Playhouse.
BBC Proms No 67 – BBC National Orchestra of Wales at the Royal Albert Hall, London, 5th September 2009
Jac van Steen conducted the BBC National Orchestra of Wales at this Saturday night Prom, with David Pyatt on horn. The programme started with Janacek’s Cunning Little Vixen suite, then the London Premiere of John McCabe’s Horn Concerto, Rainforest IV, and then after the interval, Dvorak’s Symphony No 9. A fantastic night of classical music.
Screaming Blue Murder – Underground at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 10th September 2009
This was our first ever experience of a Screaming Blue Murder show; hosted (almost certainly – I don’t know the line up that night) by Dan Evans, with three fantastic comics and two superb intervals. Once we started going to these shows we couldn’t stop – and we still regularly go twelve years later.
Last Night of the Proms – BBC Symphony Orchestra at the Royal Albert Hall, London, 12th September 2009
As I had done on many previous occasions, I entered the ballot for a couple of tickets to the Last Night of the Proms – and, lo and behold, we were successful! Here’s the programme: Oliver Knussen, Flourish with Fireworks; Purcell (arr. Wood) New Suite; Purcell, Dido and Aeneas closing scene; Haydn, Trumpet Concerto in E flat Major; Mahler, Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen; Villa-Lobos, Choros No 10 “Rasga o coracao”; Arnold, A Grand Grand Overture; Ketelbey, In a Monastery Garden; Gershwin (arr Forgie) Shall We Dance “They Can’t Take that Away from Me”; Piazzolla (arr Milone) Libertango; BBC Proms Inspire 2009 Young Composers, Fanfares for the Last Night; Handel, Music for the Royal Fireworks excerpts; Arne, Rule Britannia; Parry, Jerusalem; Elgar, Pomp and Circumstance March No 1; National Anthem; Auld Lang Syne. Probably a once in a lifetime experience.
Thank You For the Music, A Celebration of the music of Abba – Hyde Park, London, 13th September 2009
We stayed over in London after the Last Night of the Proms and went to Hyde Park on the Sunday to see this celebration of Abba. A huge list of stars gathered to play Abba, with Bjorn and Benny also present for some of the songs. A great night out.
It was back in 2005 that Mrs Chrisparkle and I first succumbed to the charms of Mamma Mia. It had already been around for ages – it actually opened in 1999 – but when we finally got around to seeing it, we loved it. Thirteen years is a decent interval to revisit an old favourite, so we were looking forward to dipping our toes back in the theatrical waters of that Greek isle, where every musical sentiment has been distilled through Stockholm’s greatest Pop machine, to create a perfect show tune every time.
It’s easy to scoff at Abba, but they produced memorable songs of extraordinary quality and it’s a joy to hear them on stage. I wouldn’t rank them as highly as The Beatles, of course, but they had a similar ability to convey all sorts of moods. For every Super Trouper there’s a Winner Takes It All. For every Ring Ring, there’s an S.O.S. I remember being at school in 1976 and overhearing a conversation between two of the rougher and tougher older geezer boys who could intimidate you with one brief stare. It went something like: “What music you into?” “Dancing Queen by Abba. Have you heard the production on that single, it’s ****ing amazing….” “Oh yeah, you’re right, it’s ****ing brilliant.”
One of the great achievements of this show is to dovetail those songs into a credible narrative. It’s a finer piece of construction than anything you’d get at IKEA. I’m sure you know the story, but, in a Swedish meatball: Sophie is getting married to her boyfriend Sky (I presume someone on the creative team was a fan of Guys and Dolls) and wants her father to give her away. Trouble is, there were three guys who slept with her tearaway mum around the time of her conception, and she doesn’t know which of them is the original owner of the sperm responsible. So, unbeknownst to her mum Donna, she invites them all to her wedding, thinking she’d instinctively discover who’s the daddy. But it’s not as simple as that, and all three candidates start getting fatherly feelings. Nowadays Donna runs a B&B taverna but in those days she used to rip it up in an all-girl group called the Dynamos. Her two partners in musical crime come out for the wedding, thus legitimising the retro latex and platform boots look that forms a not insubstantial part of the show. Do Sophie and Sky realise their true love? Will any of the Dynamos get lucky? And who is the daddy? You’ll have to watch the show to find out.
It occurred to me that, stylistically, the show is now heading into a total retro spiral. The glam rock association with Abba comes from their Eurovision performance in 1974, which is, I suppose, how most people first came into contact with them. But for much of their career their stage and pop video appearance was very homely, very folky. When Donna and the Dynamos belt out Super Trouper they’re dressed like sex kittens from the Planet Zarg, but if you look at the picture of Abba on that album cover, they’re all dressed in formal white suits and the ladies are especially elegant and refined. That album was from 1980, long after glam rock was a thing of the past. When the original stage show of Mamma Mia appeared in 1999, it was already 25 years after Eurovision, so this style and look was already deeply retro. Today we’re another 19 years on – basically two generations have passed and we’re still revelling in that early 70s look. The show allows you to bask in the memory of those halcyon days. We can all get up and dance at the end to Waterloo without any concern for how ridiculous we might look – and then it’s all safely buttoned up and put away; a style that’s never going to hit the High Streets again, but which we all fall for hook line and sinker. It’s a pure nostalgia boost.
In the battle of the sexes, this is a show where the women rule the roost. Three powerful women (the Dynamos) are up against three largely powerless and confused men (the possible fathers). You sense in marriage that the wilful Sophie would make mincemeat out of the hapless Sky. Sophie, her friends and the younger girls are all smart and sassy; Sky and his mates are all numbskull jerks. Much of the choreography is based on women taking the lead, frequently ridiculing the men; the same goes for the costumes. It’s the fully dressed Donna who chastises the swimming trunk-clad Sky, Pepper and Eddie, the latter so much so that his bagpipes droop suggestively. When Sophie changes into her wedding dress, she does so wearing a discreet and tasteful full-length undergarment. When Sky gets changed into his scuba suit he has to strip down to his underpants. It’s maybe no surprise that a good 75% of the audience are female.
I remember from last time how relatively straightforward the staging is – the old Greek taverna, either seen from the outside or from an inside courtyard. The clear blue simplicity of the backdrops suggests sun and sea. You could almost expect to find Shirley Valentine talking to a rock in the corner. This allows the colourfulness of the characters and their costumes to draw our attention – and several of the big set piece scenes make a huge impact. The scene where the guys dance with their big flippers on their feet is genuinely hilarious – it’s a brilliant routine by choreographer Anthony van Laast that makes them look like human versions of cartoon frogs; further evidence that the men are always made to look ridiculous in this show. The Voulez-Vous scene that closes the first act is as dynamic and exciting as anything you could wish to see on the stage, the dancers performing with eye-boggling energy; you go off for your interval drink dripping with feelgood factor. Does Your Mother Know is sung to an impishly humorous dance routine where the sexually optimistic lad Pepper bites off more than he can chew in his dealings with the glamorous cougar Tanya, who puts him in his place. And, of course, the finale involves outlandish costume changes, super fun dance moves and one of the most successful Eurovision winners ever. What’s not to love?
The energetic cast clearly have a whale of a time onstage and that enthusiasm carries on out into the auditorium. Helen Hobson plays Donna with a great combination of world-weary mother and good-time girl who’s not passed it yet. She has a terrific voice for the hi-energy numbers but really milks the pathos out of Winner Takes It All too. This is someone who sure knows how to put on a show. I also really enjoyed the performance of Emma Clifford as Tanya; think W1A’s Anna Rampton but with added joie de vivre. She gives us loads of fun with her sophisticated knowing looks and air of experience. As a fine contrast, Gillian Hardie plays the other Dynamo, Rosie; also loads of fun but with all the sophistication of Jimmie Krankie and the facial expressions of Angela Merkel. Her re-interpretation of Take a Chance on Me is without doubt one of the highlights of the evening.
Jamie Hogarth, Christopher Hollis and Jon Boydon are all very good as the three fathers but the roles are deliberately under-written so there aren’t so many opportunities for them to shine. Louis Stockil brings bags of cockiness to the role of Pepper in a very physically active and comedic performance – I’m sure he’d be a great clown as well as dancer. But maybe the star of the show is Musical Director Richard Weeden who gets the band to knock out superb arrangements of hit after hit for the best part of two and a half hours, never losing the energy or the sheer joy of the music.
It’s on at the Royal and Derngate until February 3rd, and then goes on to Wolverhampton, Sheffield, Hull, Portsmouth, Aylesbury and Manchester. A highly entertaining and energy-packed show that will leave you wanting more. No wonder it’s been such a worldwide smash.
P. S. Everyone knows the Abba songs. Everyone thinks they can sing. It’s fine for you to quietly sing along with the big noisy numbers in this show; no one will hear you, and Valhalla knows there are a lot of them. But really? Singing along to Our Last Summer? Slipping Through My Fingers? Yes, we’re all impressed that you know the words, people in the middle of row H last night. But next time you’re tempted to sing along during the quiet bits in a musical, please remember these wise words, and I mean them most respectfully: Shut the f*** up.
P. P. S. “Mamma Mia” is of course the expletive you utter when they tell you how much the programme costs. I sent Mrs C with a big handful of pound coins, 50p’s and other assorted financial shrapnel scooped from the depth of my pocket to purchase same whilst I organised the G&Ts. She came back with a programme, a 20p coin and a stunned expression. Still, she said, she was very grateful to the merchandise seller for accepting all her coins. So that’s the derivation of Stockholm Syndrome.
Production photos of the 2017 Cast Tour by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg
Something different, gentle reader. A few months ago I was asked to write an appreciation of Abba The Album for Vision, the magazine of the OGAE UK (British Eurovision fans fan club). I wasn’t sure if it was to be brief or lengthy, so I went for lengthy; and it turned out that the brief was for it to be brief. So I drastically shortened it for publication; and now that it has been been published I thought I would treat you to my fully unabridged thoughts about that particular long=playing record. So sit back and enjoy the memories!
Memories…light the corners of my mind….. No that’s something completely different. But revisiting Abba the Album has been a real trip down memory lane. Its UK release was in early 1978, and I can remember buying it from our local Record House (don’t see those any more) and cosseting it all the way home before closing all the doors and windows to give it a full loud play on my top quality hi-fi of which I was so proud.
In many ways Abba the Album was considered the soundtrack to Abba the Movie, which 36 years on, I regret to say I still haven’t seen. The girl I was going out with at the time was desperate to see it, but I wasn’t over keen for some reason. By the time I’d finally given in and agreed to go, she’d got bored and I’d been dumped. Hence the film has never played a big part in my life. But the songs! They surely have.
In those days, for no reason whatsoever other than to look flashy, single LPs would often be packaged like a double, with the front sleeve an empty dummy just to display the pictures and lyrics, and with only the second part of the sleeve actually containing the record. You youngsters who know nothing other than CDs or, Heaven help us, Mp3s, might find it hard to appreciate the tangibility and sense of true ownership that owning a record brought with it. And you had the excitement of watching the grooves as the record spun round on the turntable. The patterns it made told you in advance whether there’d be a strong regular drum beat, if it would be quiet and gentle, or whether it would be a hotch-potch of many different styles. You don’t get that kind of visual clue from a computer file.
So when you put Abba the Album on for the first time and realised that the first track was absolutely massive it stopped you dead in your tracks. It broke all the rules for a pop group to have a track – particularly the first one on the album – as long as 5 minutes 50 seconds. That in itself was a challenge to the 17 year old me, my pop attention span already being moulded into a Eurovision-style sub-three minutes. But Eagle, that first track, hits you with that wonderfully relaxed and evocative instrumental introduction, suggesting wide empty skies, through which a majestic bird might fly, just as Fleetwood Mac’s Albatross had done about ten years earlier. Frida and Agnetha’s voices rise and fall in the eagle’s slipstream as they imagine sharing in its freedom. Apparently Bjorn had read Jonathan Livingstone Seagull and took the book as his inspiration for the lyrics. Rarely does 5 minutes 50 seconds pass so quickly.
If you’re of a certain age, like me, where you were able to enjoy every stage of Abba’s career exactly as it was happening, it’s impossible to look back at their songs without remembering what they actually meant to you at the time. Eagle reminds me of visiting a friend’s house in the school holidays, mainly because he was trying to learn how to play it on the piano; quiet, happy, worry-free memories of no work and all play. Playing football in his garden, followed by afternoon tea in the drawing room. All very nice. The next track on the album has much more exciting memories though. In the summer of 1978 I took five weeks off between school and university and travelled to Canada, where I stayed with some distant relatives I’d never met before. I had a fantastic time – it seemed that every day of those five weeks held a new exciting experience for me. I felt so cosmopolitan. I remember being driven by my cousin all the way from Toronto to Virginia in one day – that’s one heck of a drive – and stopping somewhere in the middle of nowhere in the USA to fill up with petrol (I mean pump some gas) when a familiar sound came over the radio.
That instantly appealing introduction to Take a Chance on Me had followed me to Virginia, and snuck up on me via some east-coast radio station; sixteen seconds of vocals before any instrument gets played. Much has been made of the relationship difficulties between the two couples as being an influence and catharsis behind their music. Whilst the tone and sound of this song sounds irresistibly happy, if you watch the classic “talking heads” video, Agnetha’s expression and plaintive plea for being taken seriously as a lover absolutely melts your heart. A little bit like the Beatles, Abba often had a “sweet and sour” taste to their songs. Take away the light-hearted tune and the verbal dexterity of the guys’ backing accompaniment, and the one-sidedness of the couples’ relationships is really clear – the girls are good to go, the guys really aren’t keen. It gives you a subtle insight into how two people can want very different things from the same relationship. And all this is covered over by a poptastic musical arrangement. Here’s a nice trivia moment for you: guess how many times the guys sing “take a chance, take a chance, take a chuckachance chance”? I counted 64. Rumour has it that that “chuckachucka” rhythm used to go through Bjorn’s head when he was out on a run and it became the inspiration for the backing to this song. Sounds perfectly plausible.
Two tracks in, and you’ve already chalked up two fantastic songs. Next up is One Man One Woman, which you can see as something of a companion piece to Take a Chance on Me. Whereas “Take a Chance” sounds jolly but conceals potentially irrevocable differences within the couples, “One Man” sounds sad but the lyrics actually point forward to a potential solution to those problems – “You smile and I realise that we need a shake-up, our love is a precious thing worth the pain and the suffering, and it’s never too late for changing”. There’s no denying the real angst in Frida’s vocals though, and this is a highly emotionally charged piece of music.
I mentioned earlier how I associate many of these songs with particular memories. The last song on Side One (how 20th century to think of it in that way, but that was the original structure) is The Name of the Game. Before buying this album, I already had the single of The Name of the Game and I absolutely loved it. In early December 1977, when the days were short, dark and cold, a lonely me, in Oxford in order to take a terrifying university interview the next day, went into an old-fashioned sheet-music shop (sadly no longer there) in the High Street, and there I bought the sheet music for The Name of the Game. “I have no friends, no one to see, and I am never invited….” I took it back to the college room where I was staying overnight, a barren, cold and comfortless room, and I read through it, and somehow it gave me security. I couldn’t wait to get home a couple of days later to play it on the piano. So I associate this song with reaching out for comfort and support at a time when I was really scared. And it has stayed with me ever since. This is my favourite Abba song.
Like Eagle, it has the most superb instrumental introduction. To be honest, that’s the part I really love. If it were to stop when the singing starts, it would still be a great record as far as I’m concerned. It’s slinky and sexy but also very disconcerting. The constant 4/4 drum beats are almost like footsteps creeping up behind you; there’s a sense of claustrophobia, and being trapped; but then Agnetha’s pure clear voice comes out of nowhere to cut through this oppression. Back in those days, every guy my age I knew, myself included, was in love with Agnetha. And here she is singing so directly and honestly to you – it still goes straight to my heart whenever I hear it. There’s a lovely juxtaposition between the tentative message of confused love in the lyrics with the jovial video where all four members of the group are sitting round joking and laughing over some simple board game. But each one breaks off from the game to recite some of the lyrics and you realise they’re all in an equal state of confusion, despite looks to the contrary. It’s a stunning melody with heartfelt words and for me ranks amongst the best pop songs of all time.
End of Side One. In the old days, you’d now have a physical break when you’d get up and turn the record over. A bit like the interval at the theatre, or half-time at a football match; only probably a lot shorter. To start Side Two you would expect a change of style perhaps – and it starts off with Move On. It’s a lovely anthemic tune which has for me qualities of a modern hymn; a very flowing rhythm and perceptive lyrics about the nature of life. I have to say though, Bjorn’s spoken introduction always sounds a bit creepy to me, and I think it’s one of those rare occasions where I’m not entirely happy about the arrangement. The piano and wind instruments sound thin and weedy, giving an overall impression that this isn’t as moving and as forceful a piece of music as it could be. So overall, I’m slightly on the fence with this one.
Track Two is Hole in Your Soul, another track where the keyboards can sound a bit too syrupy for my liking. When the verse kicks off you feel that this is going to be a top quality bubblegum rock song, but when it comes to the chorus there’s a huge disappointment that they didn’t seem to quite come up with an appropriate tune. It just tumbles along, not getting anywhere. A definite pot-boiler.
The Girl with the Golden Hair – Three Scenes from a Mini-Musical. I wonder what The Girl with the Golden Hair would have been like, had they made it? Abba’s Magical Mystery Tour perhaps? If you’re very old like me you might remember Keith West’s Excerpt from a Teenage Opera (1967) – that project never came to anything either. Apparently the Girl with the Golden Hair was to be a short story about a girl leaving her hometown to go out and become a star. It’s probably wise that they backtracked and never made it. The final three tracks on Abba the Album are all songs from this mysterious mini-musical that never was. In fact the previous track – Hole in your Soul – was a reworking of Get on the Carousel, another song from the mini-musical, that never made it to the album.
With the benefit of hindsight, wouldn’t it have been great if Thank You for the Music had been the final track on the album. It’s the epitome of a “goodbye” song. The end of a show, a concert, a party, a disco – it winds the night up perfectly. It sentimentally looks back on the past – the things Mother said, the girl’s history of bad joke-telling, the music we’ve enjoyed – and gives thanks for what we’ve got now; but crucially, it doesn’t look forward. There’s only yesterday and today in this song, no tomorrow. And that feels quite weird – probably another symptom of the group’s cohesion falling apart due to divorce. Even when this first came out, I remember wondering why they started the three songs from the mini-musical with the song that must obviously come as the finale. It uses the rather gloopy piano tones of the previous two songs, which gives a too-rich, over-ripe quality to the quieter arrangements; but then it becomes quite “pub singalong” in its choruses. There’s also something of a religious aspect to the song. If you were to say “thank you for the music, for giving it to me” who would you say it to? A singer/composer/musician? Perhaps – although Agnetha’s not really thanking other musicians for their work, she’s thanking a Much Higher Being for the gift of music, her ability to perform. Deep down, this is a prayer.
So where to go from there? I wonder (Departure) apparently, the penultimate track. That looks like an interim title for starters. Should they call it “I wonder”? Should it be “Departure”? Let’s go for the middle path of calling it “I wonder” but keep the Departure bit in, as that’s the role it plays within the structure of the mini-musical – the moment she leaves (wherever it is she’s leaving and wherever it is she’s going to). It’s a delicate little song of uncertainness and anxiety, and I’m not sure it stands alone particularly well outside of the wider context of its place within a musical. However, Frida sings it with great conviction and sincerity, and it is said that there is an autobiographical element to this song, having parallels with Frida’s leaving her young family to start her music career.
Final track, of both the mini-musical and the album, is I’m a Marionette. It’s quite a spiky and quirky song with lots of attitude and chances for both Agnetha and Frida to show off their vocal abilities. But energy saps in the middle with a rather boring instrumental section, and it ends in the same place that it started, with no sense of progress. If you seek out youtube videos of Abba performing this in Australia in 1977 (from Abba the Movie I guess) I reckon it would have been sensational live. However, on the album it feels a bit flat.
And that’s it! A game of two halves if ever there was one. In the first half, they hardly put a foot or a note wrong, with four really rewarding tracks. On Side Two things get a bit patchier. It really marks a midway point in their recording career – there’s less of a disco theme to the majority of these tracks than previously, and we start to catch sight of their darker side, which would develop over the next four years. On a personal note, I’d like to say thank you for both the music and the memories – it was great to be there at the time. The best of these songs will last forever.