Review – War Horse, New London Theatre, 30th December 2015

War HorseThe news that War Horse would finally be closing its stable door on 12th March reminded me of our sin of omission in still not having seen it yet, and prompted me to get tickets for the matinee on 30th December. This National Theatre production opened at the Olivier in 2007, came back in 2008 and opened at the New London Theatre in March 2009, where it has been faithfully hoofing it ever since. Everyone who has seen it says how moving it is, so I wanted to see for myself how much it tugs at the heartstrings.

AlbertBased (as I’m sure you know) on Michael Morpurgo’s much acclaimed novel, the play was adapted by Nick Stafford, who, I note, also adapted the Royal and Derngate’s The Go-Between a few years ago. Looking back, although I appreciated that Mr Stafford re-worked The Go-Between so that it was completely different from its earlier incarnations, I wasn’t that convinced that his adaptation worked; but then I am a great fan of the film and the book. I’ve not read Mr Morpurgo’s book, so I don’t have that baggage of comparison to deal with. But Mr Stafford doesn’t need me to tell him he has a winner on his hands here.

Arthur and RoseCovering the years 1914 – 1918, here’s the story in a nutshell. It’s all about Joey, a horse bought at auction for the extravagant sum of 39 guineas by Arthur Narracott, determined to outbid his brother, Ted. Arthur’s son Albert is given the foal to train and to nurture and a great bond is formed between the two. In a further act of rivalry between the brothers, Ted challenges Arthur that if Joey can be taught to plough in one week, Ted will pay Arthur the 39 guineas (which he badly needs). Otherwise, Joey will be given to Ted’s son Billy. But against the odds, Albert trains Joey to plough and gets to keep him. Then the war starts, and Ted sells Joey to the army. When Albert realises that the Lieutenant in charge of Joey at war has been killed, he lies about his age and enlists in order to look after the horse. But Joey is captured, and Albert cannot find him. Will the two be reunited? You’ll have to see the play to find out.

Young JoeyIf you’ve seen any promotional material about the play you will know that the representation of the horses and other animals is performed through large scale puppetry, courtesy of the Handspring Puppet Company. Three actors/puppeteers control the head, the body and the hind quarters respectively of each horse, and you quickly forget they’re there. They bring the animals to life with amazing resonance, and a genuine feel and understanding of not only how their bodies move, but also how they express emotions, like love and fear. The structure of the puppets allows them to gain enormous height on stage so that, despite the very wide and rangey feel of the stage, they eclipse everything else on view. Combined with dramatic lighting and sound effects, the puppet horses are simply stunning to see.

TopthornAs for the story itself, it portrays the bond between man and horse with great simplicity, dignity and affection. You get the feeling there hasn’t been a lot of affection or purpose in young Albert’s life to date, and as a result Joey becomes more or less everything to him. On the face of it, his joining up so that he can follow Joey to war, is at best reckless and at worst pointless. When he gets there, the play doesn’t shy away from conveying the horrors of the battlefield; and although there’s nothing too graphic, it nevertheless pulls you up short and creates a great contrast with the rural idyll of Devon that went before. This is what Albert is prepared to put himself through to be reunited with Joey.

JoeyCall me hard-hearted, but I did feel that the story got bogged down a little in the second act. The scenes that centred on the character of Emilie, the French farm girl who assists the German Officer Müller to look after the horses, for me, at least, dragged somewhat. Nevertheless, Müller is an interesting and strangely challenging character, showing that even Wartime Germans can be kind to animals and can love their families. And was it moving? Well, I did find it generally quite raw on the nerves, but nothing more; until the penultimate scene, when the floodgates opened. Fortunately, I was far from the only one in the auditorium reaching for the Kleenex. A woman in the row in front almost had to be helped out. Mrs Chrisparkle teased me for my emotional reaction; then a little while later confessed that she too had something in her eye. Yeah, right.

Ploughing victoryThere were some very good performances; it goes without saying that the three teams of puppeteers who portrayed Joey, both as a horse and a foal, and Topthorn, another war horse, were technically amazing. James Backway was brilliant as Albert, a very honest, open and idealistic portrayal of a young man willing to risk everything. Alasdair Craig made a very good job of teasing with our patriotic emotions by portraying Müller as a recognisably decent man. Simon Wolfe and Jayne McKenna conveyed the reserve and frustrations of Albert’s parents with very great credibility. And I did enjoy the performance of Alan Francis as Sgt Thunder; we’ve seen Mr Francis three times before as a stand-up comic at the Screaming Blue Murder nights in Northampton, and his comic delivery as a stand-up definitely proves itself to be a transferable skill where it comes to comic acting. Colm Gormley was a good Ted Narracott but I did find it difficult to understand everything he said. At one stage I thought he was talking about “pleb” – in fact he said it several times and it never made any sense. It was only in the subsequent scene where Albert was teaching Joey to “plough”, that I understood what he meant. That’s accents for you. One final big up for Ben Murray, as the “Songman”, acting as a unifying thread between the scenes with his very evocative and enjoyable folk singing.

Nicholls is deadAn emotional show, and I’m very glad we finally caught it. I believe the War Horses are being put out to pasture for a year or so after the production closes but there will be a UK tour sometime in 2017. You can’t keep a good Joey down for long.

Production photos by Brinkhoff/Mögenburg.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 8th February 2013

Screaming Blue MurderAnother two weeks and it’s back to the Underground for the latest Screaming Blue Murder. They’ve removed the rubber flooring that had been laid over the carpet there on that occasion, so maybe it really was Fetishist’s Week last time, as Mrs Chrisparkle had suggested?

Simon ClaytonAnyway, no Dan Evans this week – and I think this was the first time that we had seen all three acts and the compere previously, so I wondered how entertaining we would find the evening. No problem – all four were excellent. Our compere was Simon Clayton, a slightly larger-than-life, cheeky chap who easily gets you on his side. His interaction with the audience is very easy and natural, and being, like him, slightly well rounded in the stomach department myself, I find I identified nicely with a lot of his material. He kept it moving really well all evening. Physically, he puts me in mind of a more risqué Dangermouse.

Karen BayleyOur first act was Karen Bayley, who, I think it is fair to say, did more or less precisely the same act that she has done on the last two occasions she’s been here. Fortunately, it works very well. She usually appeals more to the female funnybone, sometimes to the slight isolation of the gents in the audience, but this time she seemed to play to both sexes more evenly. She always likes to choose a young guy in the front row to play up to – this time it was Tom, 28 – not as young as usual but he certainly went the desired shade of cerise.

Robert WhiteSecond act was Robert White – with his unusual comic combination of being gay and having Asperger’s Syndrome. I remember last time he kind of grew into the act and ended up being really funny. Well this time he went hammer and tongs into it from the start and was a complete riot. He uses his extraordinary brain function to great comic effect, inventing cuttingly funny lyrics on the spot to reflect the make up of the audience and his interaction with them. He too likes to pay attention to a guy on the front row – this time it was Simon who got the benefit of his “I’d Do Anything” routine – and it was brilliant. The crowd loved it.

Alan FrancisHeadline act was Alan Francis – and I thought he might have a difficult time after Robert White. But no – Mr Francis is as cool as a cucumber and had the audience in the palm of his proverbial. With that educated Scottish accent, he sounds like a smuttier version of Ronnie Corbett. His confidence is just perfectly pitched and his is an assured act. Excellent stuff with some very funny material.

One of the best line-ups we’ve had for a very long time. Packed again too, which is always rewarding, and everyone seemed to have a great night.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Derngate, Northampton, 2nd September 2011

A welcome return to the Screaming Blue Murder season at Northampton after its summer break. The numbers attending earlier on in the year had definitely dwindled, but it’s come back with a bang this month and with a healthy supply of punters to keep the show atmospheric and loud.

Angie McEvoyOur compère (indeed commère) was Angie McEvoy, who we saw here before, and she still makes for a feel-good hostess, gentle and appearing to be quite kind before going in for the odd savage observation. I like her style and she has some very good material, but when introducing the acts you feel she is distinctly not trying to outdo them, which I think is rather polite.

Alan FrancisOn to the acts per se. First up was Alan Francis, again a repeat visit, a very funny chap who nicely takes the mick out of himself, and does some excellent voices – his Roger Moore was great, although some of his other voices all sound like Ronnie Corbett. No matter, he has some great stuff, including a particularly funny routine regarding an obscene member of the Church of Scotland (which we had heard before but it’s still funny). Very enjoyable, lots of material and with good communication with the audience.

Tony CowardsThe second performer, and for me the star of the evening, was Tony Cowards. Using his slightly bizarre accent to great comic effect, and with a persona full of imperfections which make you identify with him, he surprises you with some really well thought out and fantastically delivered observations. I loved his description of the Swindon branch of Ann Summers; the solution to fancying women in boots; and how calling out “the w***er in the black” can be acceptable in one context and not in another. A great set that went down really well.

Josh HowieLast was Josh Howie. Sometimes when they set up the Headline Act to be a really great comic it can fall on its face and I’m afraid that was the case here. He had some clever and thoughtful observations but I found it to be a charmless delivery that missed the mark. He spent at least the first ten minutes discussing poo; it’s not one of my favourite subjects and it quickly palls. Mrs C told me after that she thinks there is only so far that one can take faecal matter in humour. He has some good ideas but in the final delivery they lack the twist of subtlety that can turn otherwise offensiveness into devastating humour – thus I found a lot of his material fairly offensive. I like the fact that he deals with tough subjects – for example, Judaism versus Islam – but instead of revealing something new about it, he just sounded a bit bigoted and offensive. Never mind, you can’t win them all.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Derngate, Northampton, December 3rd

Dave ThompsonWe knew this was a sellout because the day before Mrs Chrisparkle’s parents went to book their tickets, but were turned away in disappointment. Shame, as it was another excellent night, although not without its downside, which came chiefly in the guise of the first comic of the night, Dave Thompson. He wasn’t entirely bad; he had a few good lines, but generally speaking his act was (imho) very slow and very tasteless. We’re not a very sophisticated audience in Northampton but nor are we intolerant, so all the stuff about waving a limp wrist and saying “just moved to Brighton, does is show?” gets met with a stony silence. He just didn’t connect.

Meryl O'Rourke Anyway on to much brighter things with Meryl O’Rourke our second act who was frankly hilarious. Fast, on the ball, good interactions, dealt with potentially difficult front row extremely well, delightfully rude. Lots of good stuff here.

Alan Francis Final act was Alan Francis, a slower more thoughtful style, and with some political stuff that often doesn’t work well here but it succeeded with him. Nicely self-deprecating. This photograph of him must be very old indeed though.

Dan Evans was back compering and on excellent form. Looking forward to the new year’s season and I hope they keep with the Friday night dates, as you get many more people and the atmosphere is much buzzier.