Review of the year 2014 – The Fifth Annual Chrisparkle Awards

Once again our esteemed panel of one has met to consider all the wonderful shows we’ve seen in the previous year so that we can distribute plaudits to the arts world in Northampton, Sheffield, Leicester and beyond! Actors, directors and producers, musicians, dancers and entertainers have all striven to make it to the 2014 Chrisparkle Awards short list, which this year relates to shows I have seen and blogged between 17th January 2014 and 11th January 2015. There’s lots to get through, so let’s start!

As always, the first award is for Best Dance Production (Contemporary and Classical).

I saw six dance productions last year, all of which I remember with much admiration and affection, from which I have struggled to whittle down to a shortlist of four. And here are the top three:

In 3rd place, the powerful and hard-hitting dance version by Matthew Bourne of Lord of the Flies, which we saw in May at the Birmingham Hippodrome.

In 2nd place, the marvellously inventive, comic and moving modern dance drama, Drunk, by Drew McOnie’s McOnie Company, which I saw at the Leicester Curve in January and again at the Bridewell Theatre in February.

In 1st place, a company absolutely at the peak of its powers, the stunning programme by Richard Alston Dance Company that we saw at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in September.

Classical Music Concert of the Year.

Of the five concerts we saw in 2014, these are the top three:

In 3rd place, the Night with the Stars gala concert, by the Worthing Symphony Orchestra aka the Malcolm Arnold Festival Orchestra, with soloists Julian Bliss and Martin James Bartlett at the Derngate, in October.

In 2nd place, John Williams plays Rodrigo’s Guitar Concerto, plus Stephen Goss’ Guitar Concerto and Gershwin’s An American in Paris, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Derngate in June.

In 1st place, Mozart’s Requiem, together with Alexandra Dariescu’s performance of Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 21, with the RPO at the Derngate in February.

Best Entertainment Show of the Year.

This is the all-purpose, everything else category that includes pantos, circuses, reviews and anything else hard to classify.

In 3rd place, The Burlesque Show at the Royal Theatre, Northampton, in January 2014.

In 2nd place, the amazingly entertaining and funny two hours of magic in Pete Firman’s Trickster show, at the Royal, Northampton, in November.

In 1st place, and I think I have categorised this correctly because you can’t call it either a play or a musical, but it is devastatingly funny, Forbidden Broadway, at the Menier Chocolate Factory in July.

Best Star Standup of the Year.

It was a very good year for seeing big star name stand-up comedians this year – we saw fifteen of them! Only a couple disappointed, so it’s been very hard to whittle down to a final five; but here goes:

In 5th place, Russell Brand in his Messiah Complex tour, at the Derngate in April.

In 4th place, John Bishop’s Work in Progress show at the Royal, in June.

In 3rd place, Paul Chowdhry’s PC’s World at the Royal, in October.

In 2nd place, Trevor Noah in his “The Racist” tour, also at the Royal, in January.

In 1st place, Russell Kane in his Smallness tour show at the Warwick Arts Centre in February.

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

Always a hotly contested award; Of the thirty-three comics that we’ve seen at Screaming Blue Murder last year thirteen made the shortlist, and the top five are:

In 5th place, the Plusnet man on the adverts, who cornered Mrs Chrisparkle and I into telling the entire audience how we met, Craig Murray (12th September)

In 4th place, a comedian whose made-up character of Troy Hawke reminded us of a filthy Clark Gable, Milo McCabe (26th September)

In 3rd place, the commanding, intelligent and ludicrous material of Brendan Dempsey (10th October)

In 2nd place, local lad the razor sharp Andrew Bird (16th May)

In 1st place, someone who took control of a baying audience in the funniest and most inventive way Russell Hicks (11th April).

Best Musical.

Like last year, this is a combination of new musicals and revivals, and we had fifteen to choose from. It was very tough indeed to pick between the top three, but somehow I did it. Here goes:

In 5th place, the ebullient and thoroughly enjoyable Guys and Dolls at the Chichester Festival Theatre in September.

In 4th place, the lively and inventive story of The Kinks in Sunny Afternoon at the Harold Pinter Theatre in December.

In 3rd place, the daring and emotional The Scottsboro Boys at the Garrick in December.

In 2nd place, the stylish and hilarious Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at the Savoy in September.

In 1st place, the stunning revival of Gypsy at the Chichester Festival Theatre in October.

Best New Play.

As always, this is my definition of a new play – so it might have been around before but on its first UK tour, or a new adaptation of a work originally in another format. An extremely difficult decision here as it involves comparing uproarious comedy with searing drama; but somehow I chose a final five from the nine contenders:

In 5th place, Alan Ayckbourn’s thought-provoking and very funny Arrivals and Departures, at the Oxford Playhouse in February.

In 4th place, the sombre and intense Taken at Midnight at the Minerva Theatre Chichester in October.

In 3rd place, the moving and beautiful Regeneration, at the Royal in September.

In 2nd place, the laugh-until-your-trousers-are-wet Play That Goes Wrong at the Royal in May.

In 1st place, the claustrophobic, immaculately staged and haunting The Body of an American Underground at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in March.

Best Revival of a Play.

Thirteen made the shortlist, easy to sort out a top nine, but really hard to sort out the top five:

In 5th place, the delightful Relative Values at the Harold Pinter in June.

In 4th place, the star-vehicle for Angela Lansbury but a strong production too of Blithe Spirit at the Gielgud in April.

In 3rd place, the atmospheric and brutal Dealer’s Choice at the Royal in June.

In 2nd place, the powerful yet funny Translations at the Sheffield Crucible in March.

In 1st place, the stunning, all-encompassing Amadeus at the Chichester Festival Theatre in August.

Brief pause to consider the turkey of the year – there were plenty of candidates this year, but in the end I plumped for the tedium-fest that was Wonderful Tennessee at the Lyceum Theatre Sheffield in March.

Best play – Edinburgh

In the first of three new awards, this category is for the best play we saw at the Edinburgh Fringe. It could be a comedy or a serious play, new or revival, grand scale or all perched on a couch. There were five serious contenders, and very tight at the top between two plays, but in the end I am awarding this new Chrisparkle award to Trainspotting performed by In Your Face Theatre at the Hill Street Drama Lodge.

Best entertainment – Edinburgh

The second new award is for the best show in Edinburgh that wasn’t a play – so it could be a musical, a review, comedy stand-up, magic, dance, you name it. And the winner is Margaret Thatcher, Queen of Soho at the Assembly George Square Gardens.

Best film

The last of the three new awards is for the best film I’ve seen all year, no matter what its subject matter. Twelve Years a Slave and The Imitation Game came close, but I’m giving it to Pride.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical.

Ten contenders in the shortlist, but the top four were very easy to identify:

In 4th place, Jodie Prenger’s’s spirited Jane in Calamity Jane at the Milton Keynes Theatre in March.

In 3rd place, the amazingly versatile and surely soon to be a star Debbie Kurup in Anything Goes at the Sheffield Crucible in January 2015.

In 2nd place, the wonderfully funny and sad performance by Sophie Thompson as Miss Adelaide in Guys and Dolls at the Chichester Festival Theatre in September.

In 1st place, probably the strongest central performance by any performer in a musical ever, the extraordinary Imelda Staunton in Gypsy at the Chichester Festival Theatre in October.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical.

Again ten fine performances in the shortlist, but here’s my top five:

In 5th place, for his sheer joie de vivre, the dynamic George McGuire for his role as Dave Davies in Sunny Afternoon at the Harold Pinter in December.

In 4th place, Alexander Hanson’s strangely vulnerable title character in Stephen Ward at the Aldwych Theatre in February.

In 3rd place, Paul Michael Glaser’s funny, realistic and sincere Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof at the Derngate in April.

In 2nd place, Robert Lindsay for his sheer style and panache in Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at the Savoy in September.

In 1st place, Brandon Victor Dixon’s stunning performance as the principled, tragic Haywood Patterson in The Scottsboro Boys at the Garrick in December.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Play.

Twelve in the shortlist, but a relatively easy final three:

In 3rd place a wonderful comic tour de force from Sara Crowe in Fallen Angels at the Royal in February.

In 2nd place, the emotional but still very funny performance by Caroline Quentin in Relative Values at the Harold Pinter in June.

In 1st place, the strong, dignified performance by Penelope Wilton in Taken at Midnight at the Minerva Theatre Chichester in October.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Play.

Twenty-two contenders in my shortlist, and I whittled it down to this:

In 5th place, Aaron Neil for his hilarious portrayal of the useless police commissioner in Great Britain at the Lyttelton, National Theatre in July.

In 4th place, Rupert Everett still on amazing form as Salieri in Amadeus at the Chichester Festival Theatre in August.

In 3rd place, Kim Wall for his brilliant performance as the kindly Barry in Arrivals and Departures at the Oxford Playhouse in February.

In 2nd place (or maybe 1st), William Gaminara as Paul in The Body of an American Underground at the Royal and Derngate in March.

In 1st place (or maybe 2nd), Damien Molony as Dan also in The Body of an American Underground at the Royal and Derngate in March.

Theatre of the Year.

A new winner this year. For a remarkably strong programme, comfortable welcoming theatres, and a fantastically improved dining experience, this year’s Theatre of the Year award goes to the Festival Theatre/Minerva Theatre, Chichester, with the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, and the Menier Chocolate Factory, close behind.

It’s been a great year – and thanks to you gentle reader for accompanying me on the trip. I hope we have another fantastic year of theatre to enjoy together in 2015!

Review – The Scottsboro Boys, Garrick Theatre, 29th December 2014

The Scottsboro BoysThe Scottsboro Boys is based on a true story of racial prejudice and injustice in Alabama, a sequence of events that started in 1931. Nine black teenagers, none of whom knew each other at the time, were on a train going about their various business, doing or seeking work somewhere around Chattanooga, when they were accused by two white girls, also on the same train, of rape. The case became something of a cause celebre, with the boys adamantly protesting their innocence, but unfair trial after unfair trial found them guilty, even when one of the alleged victims withdrew her accusation. It wasn’t until 1937 that the rape charges against the four youngest boys were dropped, 1976 when the last of the defendants was officially declared not guilty, and, incredibly, 2013 before they were all pardoned. As the show reveals, the majority of them went on to lead variously tragic lives, in and out of prison, including suicide, manslaughter, and mental illness.

Garrick TheatreSounds like a bundle of laughs, doesn’t it? It’s taken us a very long time to see this show. It opened at the Young Vic in October 2013 to great success, and then transferred to the Garrick last autumn, where it is scheduled to stay until 21st February. So Mrs Chrisparkle and I were pleased to get the chance to see it whilst we still could. As we were enjoying our pre-show lunch, we were talking about what little we knew (shame on us) about the case of the Scottsboro Boys, and how we expected it to be rather serious and sad. “…And it’s a musical?” asked Mrs C. “How are they going to make a story like that into a musical, without ridiculing or belittling the people involved?” A good question.

Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendonThe answer is a stroke of genius. It’s not a serious, mournful sub-opera, but a song-and-dancey modern take on the traditional American Minstrel show, looking at its obvious potential for accusations of racism fair and square in the face, just as the American people themselves had to at the time. It follows the structure of the Minstrel show in great detail, with the performers sitting in a semi-circle, the characters of Bones and Tambo (named after their musical instruments) on the far ends each playing the fool, and with the whole thing MC’d by an interlocutor, in this case – unusually – played by a white actor, to strengthen the suggestion of racial injustice. It’s a bold strategy, but it really works, as, while revelling in the immense talent and skills of the performers, enjoying the comedy, and loving the music and dancing, nevertheless you spend a lot of the show considering how very un-PC all this is today.

Brandon Victor DixonBut that’s the point – it’s that telling juxtaposition between what’s appropriate on a stage and what occurred in 1930s Alabama that is the driving force behind this show. Whilst the content is disturbing, the style is pizzazzy, and the challenge for the audience is to appreciate both equally. It’s full of surprises. There’s a moment near the end when some of the characters are telling the audience directly what was to become of them in the years and decades to follow. One character says he became a cop so he could finally find out what it was like to hold and use a gun – cue genuine laugh from the audience. Then you find out what he did with it and it was one of those Ayckbournian moments when your laughter gets caught in your throat. The ever-present unnamed lady, watching the action, occasionally adding gestures and reactions, seems an irrelevant and unnecessary add-on for much of the time until you finally realise her significance, which beautifully links the whole Scottsboro saga to the rest of the fight for racial equality in America.

Bones and TamboIt’s not surprising this is such a great production. The music and lyrics are by Kander and Ebb, creators of such masterpieces as Cabaret and Chicago (although Mrs C will point out they also wrote Curtains which we saw on Broadway in 2008 and which she, in particular, hated). Scottsboro Boys was actually one of the last shows they worked on together, as Fred Ebb died in 2004, and composer John Kander had to complete the lyrics to a few of the songs himself. Those songs have beautiful melodies but hard-hitting lyrics which bring you up short, as you might expect from the sweet/sour structure of the whole show.

Scottsboro BoysThen you have direction and choreography by Susan Stroman, who put together the amazing Contact that we saw in 2002 (perhaps we should draw a veil over the fact that she also worked on the Menier’s Paradise Found – not an easy show by any means but within some rewrites of being good). Phil Cornwell’s orchestra recreates that American Dixie sound beautifully, with plenty of banjo twanging and high-falutin’ fiddling, and it’s all set on an eminently useful blank stage, with just some very versatile chairs that can link together to suggest any structure you want (plus they’re also good for just sitting on.) The backdrop consists of a couple of massive picture frames suspended without the aid of a spirit level, nicely suggestive of having to look at life through wonky angles.

Brandon V DixonAdded to all that, you have an amazing cast made up of some of the finest singers and dancers you could ever hope to grace any stage. Colman Domingo and Forrest McClendon play Mr Bones and Mr Tambo, dressed to the nines like a Robertson’s Golly, combining great physical comedy with verbal dexterity to recreate the traditional Minstrel show roles but doubling up as sheriffs, lawyers, attorneys and guards to emphasise the funny/serious contrast. They are an incredible double act. James T Lane, wonderful as Richie in A Chorus Line, continues to show his amazing dance skills as Ozie Powell; and gives a really heart-breaking performance after his character survives being shot by a guard. Keenan Munn-FrancisWe both really enjoyed the performance of Keenan Munn-Francis as the youngest boy Eugene Williams, showing terrific song and dance skills as well as great comic timing – he’s definitely going to be Someone To Watch. But in fact all the cast perform with great commitment, juggling the dual aspects of tough injustice with sheer entertainment.

Julian GloverVeteran actor Julian Glover, whom I have admired ever since I saw him play Coriolanus at the RSC in 1978, gives a powerful performance as The Interlocutor. A southern gentleman dressed all in white with a touch of the Uncle Sam; slightly manic, physically still strong but with a sense of slight fragility, playing the show-must-go-on role of Master of Ceremonies, whilst occasionally stepping out of his bonhomie to become savagely aggressive to his colleagues, it’s a brilliant performance. But for me the star of the show was undoubtedly the splendid Brandon Victor Dixon as Haywood Patterson – a brilliant stage presence, great voice, and with amazing powers of communicating the character’s dignity and sadness. I know he’s had some success in America but he was new to me, and I have no hesitation in saying A Star Is Born. Overall, The Scottsboro Boys is a brilliantly envisioned show, masterfully presented and performed with wit, pathos and a helluva lot of great song and dance. We loved it.

Alabama LadiesPS. It’s a pet hate of mine, so I must say it – I would have preferred it to have an interval. At 1 hour and 45 minutes non-stop, no matter how good it is, I always end up shifting the buttocks and stifling (or giving in to) a yawn. Yes I’m old fashioned, but I like to stretch the legs, get some oxygen flowing, have a chance to chat about it so far with Mrs C, use the facilities and so on. The modern trend is to rush through the show in one gulp so you can get out of the theatre more quickly and Do Other Things. Apparently I’m in the minority by preferring to have intervals. I can live with that.