Review – The Burlesque Show, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 26th January 2018

Burlesque ShowIt’s always a pleasure to welcome back those boffins from the Ministry of Burlesque, the sexiest civil servants on two legs. Once a year they administrate their way into the Royal Theatre with a superb selection of comedy, magic and general allure and, for a couple of hours, one’s humdrum day to day life is transported to a world where everything is beautiful. Yes, even for half an hour or so on a Friday evening, you can think of magician Pete Firman as beautiful. At a stretch.

Marlene CheaptrickHaving enjoyed the sultry pleasures of Miss Lili la Scala hosting last year, this year we were commèred by die schöne Marlene Cheaptrick, also known as the one and only Abigail Collins from Dagenham. Frau Cheaptrick wove a spell of pure Germanic enchantment as she guided us through her box of Teutonic delights. A highlight as always with Abi Collins was her interaction with members of the audience; on Friday night it was young Jamie who got a little hot under the collar as he sat on the stage with Frau Cheaptrick’s kleine Vergnügungsscheide upside down in his face. But he was a gentleman and did not take advantage of her vulnerability, which was just as well as his mum and dad were watching. She also did her manic and fantastic hula hoop act, in which no items of savoury confectionary were harmed. Assisting the lovely Marlene was Mia Merode, whom we have seen on the very same stage performing some stunning Burlesque, here in the slightly less glamorous (but nonetheless vital) role of preparing the stage for the next act. When acts drop feathers, wine, underwear, blood, sweat and tears during the performance of their routines, you can understand how important it is to have someone responsible to clean up; and she does it beautifully.

Mia MerodeAll the acts appeared twice, once in the first half and once in the second. The Dramatis Personae was almost exactly the same as last year, not that it mattered; this year’s show was notable for the way it really stepped up the humour. Mrs Chrisparkle and I were basically roaring with laughter all the way from start to finish apart from when it was unseemly to do so in front of naked flesh.

lena-maeWe met the delectable Lena Mae, who first appeared covered in a costume made of balloons. These were never going to last, particularly as she also produced a carrot with a prick on the end. A few pricks later and the balloons had burst to reveal her hidden charms. In her second appearance she did a superb, traditional fan dance in an example of pure, classic Burlesque; a fabulous combination of the elegant and the provocative.

Robin DaleThen we met Robin Dale, whom we also saw last year, performing an incredible juggling and balancing act with an open bottle of wine and a couple of glasses. Mr Dale was standing on a table, wine glass on his forehead, another glass in one hand and bottle in the other, ready to bring to life the human wine equivalent of a chocolate fountain, when a woman in the balcony shouted out “Hey Baby!” which almost made him teeter off the top. But he held on and managed it perfectly, so kudos to him. When, in the second half, he is joined by his partner in juggling crime, I still haven’t quite worked out why Mr Dale suddenly becomes one half of Boon and Bailie; but there you are, that’s showbiz I guess. Once again the dapper twosome performed dextrous feats of juggling and balancing whilst slowly removing all their (and each other’s) clobber. They left their hats on, in the best Tom Jones style, but this time Mr Dale’s thong didn’t twang into the audience which must be of some mercy.

Hot PotatoesNext was a new act – hurrah – the Hot Potato Syncopators! Three elegant 1920s toffs who dish out the raciest, paciest tunes of their day by means of ukulele, a single piece of string tied to a stick of wood, and a saw. They’re dynamite! Huge fun, they really recreate the era with their monocles, plummy accents and inspired choice of music. Decadence on a shoestring, we loved it.

Pete FirmanOnce again we had the welcome return of magician Pete Firman, and precisely the same three tricks that he performed last year – the ever-growing numbers of cards in the pack, the cutting-a-rope trick, and the signed £20 note revealed zipped up in his wallet. I think I’ve seen these tricks maybe six times now, and I still haven’t got a scooby as to how he does them. As always, his gift of the gab is hilarious, and he really is the most entertaining magician, as he mercilessly rips the p*** out of his audience victims who just love it. This time he had the spangly-dressed Claire on stage to help with the rope trick, with Steve on the £20 notes and Roly on the monkey nuts. Very funny, very intriguing, very clever. I could watch him all night.

Betty Blue EyesWe were also treated to two divine and hilarious Burlesque routines from the incredible Miss Betty Blue Eyes. One was a stunningly beautiful appearance in blue which included an arrival in a spaceship, but my favourite was an homage to Liberace where, clad (or otherwise) in the black and white of a piano keyboard, she tucked herself in at a tiny toy piano to play chopsticks. Unsurprisingly, with such a mini stool to perch on, it took Ms Blue Eyes several attempts to get herself comfy, but she pulled it off. You can’t get better than Ms Blue Eyes for milking the humour out of traditional Burlesque!

Alexandra HofgartnerOur final act was the elegant and Berlinesque Alexandra Hofgartner, whom we have seen here many times before, performing her daring aerial acrobatics with just the aid of two strips of material and some womanly muscle. It’s a circus/variety skill but carried out with true Burlesque style. The audience loved it, as always.

boon-and-bailieThus drew another Burlesque Show to its conclusion; it’s always a feast for the eyes and a tonic for your laughter organs. This was a particularly funny reincarnation of the show and everyone was on magnificent form. Can’t wait for next year’s!

Review – The Burlesque Show, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 14th January 2017

Burlesque ShowOnce again, the Ministry of Burlesque have trundled into town bringing their collection of stunning costumes, jugglers balls, magic tricks and nipple tassels. We’ve been coming every year since 2011 and it’s always a sheer delight. Last year’s show was just a tad of a disappointment as there were so many acts giving us the same sheer delight that they had given us in previous years. That equates to sheer delight for newbies, and pleasurable reminders for us old hands.

Lili La SHowever, this year they rang the changes in true style. The biggest and brightest change was in the beguiling personage of our new host, Miss Lili la Scala. Mrs Chrisparkle and I have seen Lili once before, in Edinburgh last summer, where we decided to partake of one of her Another F*cking Variety Shows, a late night cabaret entertainment where Lili introduces us to a range of artistes plying their trade at the Fringe; and it really was a splendid show. For the Burlesque Show, she looked perfect in the elegant setting of the Royal Theatre, entertaining us with songs old and new. Mashing up two different Let Me Entertain Yous is an inspired way to start a show; I really love how Lili retros a modern song into a cabaret setting. In Edinburgh she gave us a moving but refreshing Space Oddity; in this show we enjoyed her semi-operatic version of Female of the Species. She has a winning combination of demure and daft which makes her quite irresistible in many ways; what the late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle would have called Strictly a Female Female.

lena-maeStarting the show, and finishing us off, so to speak, was the delectable Miss Lena Mae with two classic Burlesque strip routines, full of allure, humour, teasing, and costumes with surprises of their own. We hadn’t had the pleasure of her company before and clearly it’s been long overdue. She conveys all the joy of what she’s doing out into the auditorium and we love her back for it in return. Classy, sophisticated and with more than a twinkle in her eye. We also had two (well two and a half really) delicious helpings of Miss Abigail Collins; Peggy Suedfirst in her guise as Miss Garden Verandah, where, in a floral-inspired outfit, she performs her amazing hoop act, and secondly as Miss Peggy Sued, who spent the interval in the bar introducing herself to unsuspecting punters (well, draping herself across them) and then came out and did her extraordinary balancing act. It’s unlike any other you’ve seen – basically she picks on two blokes and then does the splits whilst balancing on their shoulders. Well done Gary and Steve for your sterling effort. It was lovely to see Miss Sued back cavorting on stage, pulling her leotard here and there to prevent it from chafing her personal areas, singing and dancing like there’s no tomorrow.

Alexandra HofgartnerMore acrobatics – of the slightly more traditional kind – were provided by frequent visitor Miss Alexandra Hofgartner, effortlessly weaving herself in and out of a hoop in the sky with only a long chiffon for extra support. Miss Hofgartner exudes dignity with everything she does and is always a wonderful addition to any Burlesque show. Another new face to us, Robin Dale, gave us an intriguing juggling act with wine glasses (sometimes filled with “real” wine),boon-and-bailie then came back in the second half with his friend Jack Bailie to perform further feats of juggling whilst they both took their clothes off. Fortunately, protective top hats were at the ready to prevent anyone in the audience from having a stroke. A very funny act, but be careful where you sit, or else you might get Robin’s thong flung in your face.

Pete FirmanAnd you can never get too much Pete Firman. We’ve seen him perform his magic many times and on each occasion he perplexes me. Just a few tricks for this show – the cards that magically keep increasing in number, the rope that gets cut in two and somehow self-heals, and the £20 note taken from a member of the audience that disappears and is found, not in a monkey-nut but sealed inside his zipped wallet. I specifically watched him like a hawk during that last trick because I was determined not to take my eye off where I think the note was kept during most of the act. Fat lot of use that was; although I think I may be one stage closer to working it out. Just maybe. The audience proved something of a handful for Mr Firman, though. His choice of assistant for the rope trick was Pat in the front row. Would she get up and help him? Would she buffalo. But Mr F was not in the mood for picking on someone else. Resistance was futile. When she finally got up, after much persuasion, she had no need for alarm, it all went swimmingly well. Would the same thing happen with the £20 note trick? Mr F’s victim was the shy and retiring Phil – not! If ever a magician’s assistant gave as good as he got, it was our Phil. I think I actually saw Mr F – temporarily – stumped for a response. I guess that’s always going to be a risk when you call on bright sparks from the audience.

And, as an audience, we really were fired up by the whole show, from start to finish. Our willingness to get stuck in and react noisily to whatever shenanigans was happening on stage, helped this particular instalment of the Burlesque Show to be (probably) the most enjoyable I’ve ever seen. We even miaowed incessantly at Stage Manager/Producer Miss Kittie Klaw as she cleared the stage ready for each new act. She responded with some miaows back and the occasional bum-wiggle. Every act really performed their socks off (literally in a few cases) and it was a very funny and sexy night’s entertainment. Fantastically well done to one and all!

Review of the Year 2011 – The Second Annual Chrisparkle Awards

Welcome to the Second Annual Chrisparkle Awards, celebrating the best in entertainment in Northampton and beyond! Every show that I saw in 2011 and that I blogged (actually only one show didn’t get blogged, more of which later) is eligible for one of these delightful – and virtual – awards.

So let’s get on with it, and start off with Best Dance Production.

As last year, I actually only saw three dance productions all year and they were all excellent. But the winner has to be one of our regular favourites, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo (aka the Trocks) for their show at the Milton Keynes Theatre in March 2011. I’m awarding joint 2nd place to the other two productions, Rambert’s Awakening tour at the Derngate, Northampton in March and Richard Alston’s current tour at the Derngate in October.

Classical Music Concert of the Year.

We saw five concerts and they were all very enjoyable.
In 3rd place, it’s the BBC Prom we saw in July featuring the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra and Chorus playing Prokofiev’s Alexander Nevsky and with soloist Midori doing the Walton Violin Concerto;
In 2nd place it’s the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Derngate with their programme of English Classics and soloist Julian Lloyd Webber in November; but just pipping it
In 1st place it’s the RPO again at the Derngate in May with their Grand Tchaikovsky Gala, and the spectacular solo by Alessandro Taverna of Tchaikovsky’s first piano concerto.

Best Entertainment Show of the Year.

An odd category this; it includes all the non-categorisable productions one sees over the year, including pantos, revues, circuses and so on. And it proved tricky to make a decision, but a decision has been made nonetheless.
In 3rd place, the adult-only Flathampton night at the Derngate in July;
In 2nd place, Theatre MAD’s late night charity show West End Eurovision at London’s Piccadilly Theatre in April; and
In 1st place, the wonderfully varied and superb Burlesque Show at the Royal, Northampton in July.

Regrettably, here comes the first turkey of the year – I am compelled to award a Worst Entertainment Show of the Year; which sadly has to go to the Chinese State Circus show at the Derngate last January, which was so boring and basically pathetic that I couldn’t be motivated to write about it.

Best Star Standup.

A new category for this year. This is to consider the best stand-up comic on a big stage, not the comics who have appeared at the Screaming Blue Murder club (see below). All four of the star comics we saw this year were new to us as live performers, so we saw them with no previous baggage. We thought one of them was a bit disappointing, but the rest were all excellent in their own way. So the top three is:

In 3rd place, Reginald D Hunter, Sometimes Even the Devil Tells the Truth, at the Derngate in November;
In 2nd place, Al Murray’s Barrel of Fun at the Derngate in October; and
In 1st place, Jason Byrne’s Cirque du Byrne at the Derngate in September.

Best Standup at the Screaming Blue Murder nights in Northampton.

I think we’ve seen over 40 comics this year at the Screaming Blue Murder shows. I’m not going to name and shame the few who were disappointing – they know who they are. This was very hard to whittle down to a top 5, and there are many terrific acts who are missing out on their Chrisparkle gong, but here goes:
In 5th place, the Raymond and Mr Timkins Revue (14th October);
In 4th place, Swindon’s own Tony Cowards (2nd September);
In 3rd place, Cornwall’s own Paul Kerensa (4th February);
In 2nd place, the superb comic creation Loretta Maine (13th May); and
In 1st place, the very hilarious Rob Heeney (1st April).

Best New Musical.

Last year we just had a best musical but this year it has been split into Best New Musical and Best Revival Musical. Only three contenders for each award, so here goes:
In 2nd place, Stephen Sondheim’s Roadshow at the Menier Chocolate Factory in August; and
In 1st place, Hamlet the Musical at the Royal in May. Hamlet won the award on the strength that by the interval I knew I just had to have the CD.

Best Revival Musical.

In 2nd place, and fully deserving of great congratulation, was the excellent revival of Avenue Q touring at the Derngate in July.
In 1st place, and fully deserving of even more congratulation, is Stephen Sondheim’s Company at the Sheffield Crucible in December.

No need for a worst musical nomination.

Best New Play/Comedy of the Year.

Again this has been split into new play and revival categories. We saw six “new” plays this year and they were all very rewarding in their own ways, but the top three is fairly easy to agree on.
In 3rd place, Clybourne Park at Wyndham’s Theatre in London in April;
In 2nd place, Diary of a Nobody at the Royal, Northampton, in March; and
In 1st place, One Man Two Guvnors on tour at the New Alexandra Theatre in Birmingham in October.
I also want to give a mention to the excellent Terrible Advice at the Menier which only just failed to get in the top three.

Best Revival of a Play or Comedy of the Year.

Eleven contenders on the shortlist for this award, so there are some great productions who have missed out on a mention.
In 3rd place, The Years Between at the Royal, Northampton in February;
In 2nd place, Hobson’s Choice at the Sheffield Crucible in June; and
In 1st place, Racing Demon at the Sheffield Crucible in February.

Turkey time: Worst play of the year.

Four plays really didn’t come up to scratch in my book: Oxford Playhouse’s Lady in the Van was generally tedious; Warwick Arts Centre’s Government Inspector generally irritating; the Derngate’s Yes Prime Minister generally offensive; but worst of all was Smash at the Menier. How I hated that play.

Best performance by an Actress in a Musical.

For a long time through the year there was only one real contender for this award, but then along came another production and pipped her to the post!
In 3rd place, Samantha Spiro for Company at the Sheffield Crucible;
In 2nd place, Jess Robinson for Hamlet the Musical at the Royal, Northampton; and
In 1st place, Francesca Annis for Company at the Sheffield Crucible.

Best performance by an Actor in a Musical.

The same applies; two excellent performances earlier in the year trounced at Christmas!
In 3rd place, Jack Shalloo for Hamlet the Musical at the Royal, Northampton;
In 2nd place, James Fox for Chess at the Milton Keynes Theatre in January; and
In 1st place, Daniel Evans for Company at the Sheffield Crucible.

Best performance by an Actress in a Play.

Lots of fantastic performances this year but these are the lucky three:
In 3rd place, Marianne Oldham for The Years Between at the Royal, Northampton;
In 2nd place, Zoe Waites for Hobson’s Choice at the Sheffield Crucible; and
In 1st place, Gina McKee for the Donmar’s King Lear at the Milton Keynes Theatre in January.

Best performance by an Actor in a Play.

Again many great performances pass without a mention, but the top three are:
In 3rd place Malcolm Sinclair for Racing Demon at the Sheffield Crucible (and also Rattigan’s Nijinsky at Chichester in August);
In 2nd place, James Corden for One Man Two Guvnors at the New Alexandra in Birmingham; and
In 1st place, Derek Jacobi for King Lear at the Milton Keynes Theatre. Daft really – how can you compare James Corden and Derek Jacobi? I’ve gone with Mr Jacobi’s fresh and insightful reading as opposed to Mr Corden’s onstage fireworks. I also want to give a mention to the excellent Jamie Parker for Racing Demon too.

Best Ensemble Performance by the Company.

This is for where a company works seamlessly together, something I always really admire in a performance!
In 3rd place, Diary of a Nobody at the Royal, Northampton;
In 2nd place, Propeller’s Henry V on tour at the Milton Keynes Theatre in December; and
In 1st place, Hamlet the Musical at the Royal, Northampton.

Favourite theatre of the year.

Very torn. Last year I had no question about awarding the Chrisparkle to the Royal, Northampton. But this year I feel it should go to the Sheffield Crucible for consistency of excellence.

It’s been a great year of theatregoing, thank you for your interest in my reviews and I hope 2012 will be a bumper year of theatre glory!

Review – The Burlesque Show, Royal, Northampton, 3rd July 2011

This was a complete leap into the Unknown. What would “The Burlesque Show” involve? The theatre’s website promised us a top magician and an exotic dancer. Well we certainly got them, and a whole lot more. So what is Burlesque? Well, from having seen just one evening’s entertainment, it’s largely old-fashioned variety with some titillation thrown in for good measure. But it also seems to have some retro style, and judging from the audience, seems to appeal to women more than men. Doing a bit of online research it looks like it’s a growing cult entertainment, with a considerable following. Well it’s never crossed my path before, but then I have led a sheltered life.

Kiki KaboomAnyway the good burghers of Northampton know their Burlesque as the Royal was packed again and the audience were in an extremely good mood! Our hostess was Kiki Kaboom (it didn’t take me long to realise some of these performers work under a Nom-de-Burlesque). She is a bright funny lady who got us warmed up with her rendition of “I’m a little girl from Maidstone”. She had great interaction with the audience and kept the whole evening going at a good pace and with an endearing warmth.

Elle AmourOne aspect of a burlesque evening seems to be that you get attractive young ladies taking the majority (but not all) of their clothes off. Far be it from me to judge which of Elle Amour, Kittie Klaw and Dani California did it best; but they were all entertaining, stylish, and performed with coquettish humour. Kittie KlawI particularly enjoyed La Klaw’s battle against a seemingly endless supply of spiders nestling about her body, which (of course) required the removal of clothing to get rid of them. Dani CaliforniaElle Amour did two routines, the second of which was particularly edifying as it involved quite a lot of bottom shaking. The interesting thing was how the whole thing really was done “in the best possible taste”.

Mat RicardoIt wasn’t all titillation though. There were some really funny and entertaining variety acts too. For example, we had Mat Ricardo. He’s a juggler – incredibly skilful, with very funny patter, a likeable personality; and he did two routines, both of which were ace.

Elliot MasonThen there was Elliot Mason, a singer of comedy songs about the most unlikely subjects. Two of his really funny songs were about corporate rebranding and the delight in finding sufficient washing up liquid left on the sponge in order to wash the cup that was left out of the dishwasher. He has a great attacking style and involves the audience so that it’s impossible to resist singing along with his ridiculous songs, even though you can’t. Great fun.

Dolores DelightWe had the singer, Dolores Delight, who really came into her own with her second half number, Moon River, performed alongside the most massive balloon you’ve ever seen (hot air balloons excluded). The balloon took on the appearance of the moon and it was a really charming performance.

Fancy ChanceYou couldn’t get more different from Dolores to Fancy Chance, who had two thoroughly memorable routines. In the first half she did a perfect parody of Prince (the “Squiggle” singer), in what I guess is the absolute true spirit of Burlesque. It was amazingly funny. Her second half performance was an homage to North Korea, which quite simply involved a bit of everything. It was just extraordinary!

Paul ZenonTop of the bill – in a sense – was the magician Paul Zenon, who did two excellent tricks; one which Mrs Chrisparkle says she has seen before (I don’t know who she was with because it was new to me), where he spun a full pint of Newcastle Brown around and around while it was perched inside a snooker triangle. Fantastic stuff. Even more effective was another routine where he invited a gentleman up from the audience who was wearing a smart jacket, got him to remove said jacket, whence he proceeded to stab a hole in the back of the jacket and pull endless bits of lining out of the hole he had made, right in front of the poor jacket owner’s nose, then only to present the jacket back unharmed. We spoke to the jacket’s owner on the way out – he said that although he was within inches of the trick being performed he had no idea how Paul Zenon had done it.

Jim DevereauxOne final act was Jim Devereaux; he starts off being a stagehand and ends up being an Elvis impersonator. He was brilliant! I’m not a great Elvis fan but he did his very best songs and it worked extremely well. Would you believe he is the grandson of Ed Devereaux of Skippy fame? Now there’s quality.

This is not in any way meant as a pejorative comment – quite the reverse – but I found the entire show to be the absolutely best “End of the Pier” night you could possibly imagine; or alternatively, the tip-top in cruise entertainment. If you’ve ever been on a cruise ship and seen really really good variety, you’ll appreciate just how excellent this show was.

The only thing that slightly confused me was the advisory age restriction notices placed outside the theatre. Not recommended for the under 16s. 16??? All you saw was one nipple and even that was due to a wardrobe misfunction. The language was milder than most other comedy acts we have seen. By contrast, when I was 13 I saw “Birds of Paradise” at the Garrick Theatre, where Miss Moira Lister was in charge of five rather lovely young working girls, who went topless for the majority of the second act. No one raised an eyebrow at the sight of a 13-year-old in the front row. The only raising was done by the 13-year-old in question. I do feel the age restriction for the Burlesque Show was misplaced and unnecessary.

Nevertheless, it was a really terrific night’s entertainment, which went down a complete storm with the audience. I definitely hope this becomes a regular feature; the Royal is the perfect environment for this sophisticated variety show.