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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A few more theatre and dance memories for you from July to September 2009

  1. 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.

 

 

  1. 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.

 

 

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

 

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

  1. 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.

Review – Fascinating Aida, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 10th October 2021

Fascinating Aida38 years – that’s how long Fascinating Aida have been going; it’s also how long it’s taken us to see them. Mrs Chrisparkle’s parents saw them in Sydney in the 1980s and loved them. Of course the personnel (or should that be the HR) has changed over the years, but Dillie Keane has stuck with it through and through – she created it, after all. Adele Anderson joined nine months later, and, at current staffing levels, the third Fascinator has been Liza Pulman since 2004 – It looks like she’s a keeper.

Dillie KeaneTheir timeless cabaret style act suits all venues and all occasions, so long as you don’t mind hearing the odd filthy word. That’s a major part of their appeal. Three relatively refined ladies, dressed with elegance, coiffured with style, accompanied by an apparently dignified gentleman at the Grand Piano (Michael Roulston), present entertaining songs spanning a range of options from pseudo-classical, West End chic to pub piano. But these ladies are neither Joyce Grenfell nor Dame Hilda Bracket (although I sense a little influence of both) – they’re bang up to date with political satire, menopausal misery, coping with Covid, sexual shenanigans and gender fluidity. Adele AndersonAnd the occasional use of the f and c words just seem totally appropriate with the content although not the style, which gives rise to extra frissons of humour.

This Northampton gig was originally scheduled for 4th April 2020 so it’s taken a full 18 months to come to fruition! But it was definitely worth the wait. A packed house (and I mean packed, you rarely see the Upper Circle at the Derngate auditorium so full) roared and cheered their way through a programme of songs, some familiar, some not so. Indeed, when they ended the first half with their greatest hit Cheap Flights, Dillie had to stop and start again because some audience members were clapping along a little over-exuberantly.

Liza PulmanMy favourites from their song sheet for the night was the opening number Fake News, which brilliantly encapsulates everything that’s wrong with the country today, the Bulgarian Song Cycle which pokes fun at both politics and pompous music, Suddenly New Zealand, which re-evaluates our pandemic holiday options (although might already be going a little out of date!), and Prisoner of Gender, which is a moving and powerful account of Fascinating AidaAdele’s growing up in the wrong body and her transition to a beautiful woman. Other fun songs were Is it Me or is it Hot in Here, Boomerang Kids and Lerwick Town, and a delightfully researched and very funny homage to our town of Northampton. I must admit, there was one song, Lieder, that left me completely cold, although I know I was in a minority of one (or maybe two, Mrs C didn’t get it either). And there’s also their wonderful paean to the noble art of Dogging.

The show went down a storm and everyone loved it. I can say no more than that! Enormous fun. The current tour started late 2019, was then interrupted by You Know What, and resumed a few weeks ago and is scheduled to go right up to June 2022. So there should be plenty of opportunities to grab a ticket!

4-starsFour they’re jolly good fellows!

Not many more old theatre memories to go now… May to July 2009

  1. Oliver! – Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London, 2nd May 2009

It was TV’s search for a new Nancy, if you’ll pardon the expression, that first brought Jodie Prenger into the public’s eye, heart and affections, and our nieces insisted that we took them to see the show – and how could we resist? It was a superb production, not only with the divine Ms Prenger who was happy to say hello at the Stage Door, but also with Rowan Atkinson as Fagin, and Burn Gorman as a very threatening and underplayed Bill Sikes. We all loved it.

  1. Little Shop of Horrors – Milton Keynes Theatre, 13th May 2009

This was the successful Menier Chocolate Factory production that we hadn’t seen first time around but which undertook a big UK tour. Clare Buckfield was brilliant as Audrey, with Sylvester McCoy as Mushnik, Damian Humbley as Seymour and Alex Ferns as the dentist and everyone else. Very enjoyable.

  1. Alphabetical Order – Oxford Playhouse, 22nd May 2009

Michael Frayn’s early comedy of office politics, set in the cuttings library of a provincial newspaper, was given a good production by Christopher Luscombe, and starred Imogen Stubbs, Gawn Grainger and Ian Talbot. Can’t remember too much about it, but I know it was pretty good.

  1. Ayckbourn at 70, A Celebration – Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 24th May 2009

To celebrate Alan Ayckbourn’s 70th birthday, the Royal and Derngate had a big Ayckbourn summer season, which involved either performing or reading all of his plays. We (somehow) got an invitation to the gala night, which included an interview with the great man on stage by Artistic Director Laurie Sansom, who had worked with him at Scarborough in his younger days. I must say, it was distinctly an honour to be there! And the subsequent productions of the plays that we saw there were all excellent.

  1. Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat – Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 1st June 2009

Like Oliver! (four shows earlier) this was another show that followed on from a TV search show, but this touring production starred Craig Chalmers, who was one of the finalists in the search, as opposed to the Proper Winner (who I think was Lee Mead). Enjoyable, of course; it’s tough to do a production of Joseph and for it not to work.

  1. Just Between Ourselves – Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 12th June 2009

The first of the big three productions from the Alan Ayckbourn celebration season, I remember seeing Just Between Ourselves in London in 1977 and absolutely loving its bitter sweet cruel humour. Mark Rosenblatt’s excellent production showed how well the play has stood the test of time, with a brilliant performance by Kim Wall as the appallingly insensitive Dennis and Dorothy Atkinson as his deeply troubled wife Vera. A wonderful production.

  1. La Cage aux Folles – Playhouse Theatre, London, 13th June 2009

Breaking my usual rule of not discussing shows I’ve seen before, but this production was so very different from the original Palladium presentation. This was another successful Menier production, transferred to the West End, and starring Philip Quast as Georges (although we saw his understudy, Robert Maskell), and Roger Allam as Albin – as far from Endeavour’s Inspector Thursday as it is possible to be. Extremely good.

  1. Seven Brides for Seven Brothers – Milton Keynes Theatre, 17th June 2009

I’d never seen the film but it was one of the staples of Mrs Chrisparkle’s childhood – and I remember it as being very refreshing and enjoyable, and with brilliant choreography from Chris Hocking. The cast was led by Steven Houghton and Susan McFadden.

  1. Private Fears in Public Places – Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 1st July 2009

The second of the big Ayckbourn productions, Laurie Samson’s brilliantly inventive production had the audience sharing the Royal Theatre stage with the actors, seated on couches, or at a bar table, and so on. It made for an extraordinarily intimate theatrical event, and I found the whole thing completely thrilling. Sadly, from where we were sitting, we couldn’t see what monstrous videos Lucy Briers’ Charlotte was watching.

 

  1. The Winslow Boy – Milton Keynes Theatre, 8th July 2009

The Theatre Royal Bath’s touring production of Terence Rattigan’s timeless play starred Timothy West as Arthur Winslow in a role he was born to play. A very fine, moving production.

Thought I’d finished with my theatre and dance memories? Think again! November 2008 to April 2009

  1. Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo – Birmingham Hippodrome, 8th November 2008

We saw the Trocks’ 2008/9 UK tour twice – the first time at the Birmingham Hippodrome – with the classic programme of Swan Lake Act II, Le Grand Pas de Quatre and Paquita, as well as the surprise pas de deux and the Dying Swan. For Swan Lake, the wonderful Lariska Dumbchenko was our Odette, Ashley Romanoff-Titwillow our Siegfried, and Yuri Smirnov our von Rothbart. Always a joy! It was at this performance that I bought a poster that still graces my study wall!

  1. Noises Off – Milton Keynes Theatre, 15th November 2008

This touring production of Michael Frayn’s brilliant Noises Off was fantastic as always, with a terrific turn by Jonathan Coy as Lloyd and also featuring Colin Baker as Selsdon and Maggie Steed as Dotty. Never gets old.

  1. Hamlet – Royal Shakespeare Company at the Novello Theatre, London, 15th December 2008

The hugely successful and hot ticket production of Hamlet starring David Tennant as the Dane – and in which the majority of the audiences saw Edward Bennett in the role (as we did) because David Tennant injured his back. Always worth pointing out that you should never book a show purely on the strength of a star performer (but of course we always do.) The main thing that arose from this Gregory Doran production was what a star Mr Bennett is, taking over the role at very short notice and making a massive career move out it. A great show, certainly helped by Patrick Stewart playing Claudius, Oliver Ford Davies as Polonius, and John Woodvine as the Player King.

  1. Cinderella – Derngate Auditorium, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 26th December 2008

By now we had moved to Northampton, and our first taste of our local theatre was a big family Boxing Day trip to see its panto, Cinderella, starring Jimmy Osmond as Buttons. Not sure what expectations I had, but Jimmy Osmond is pure heart on stage – a true Mr Entertainer and he made the show go with an absolute swing. Superbly enjoyable.

  1. A Little Night Music – Menier Chocolate Factory, London, 28th December 2008

Trevor Nunn directed this beautifully intimate production of A Little Night Music, with so many star turns among the cast that it was hard to keep up. Hannah Waddingham was terrific as Desiree, but it also had Alexander Hanson as Fredrik, Maureen Lipman as Madame Armfeld, Jessie Buckley as Anne, Kaisa Hammarlund as Petra and Gabriel Vick as Henrik. The perfect post-Christmas treat. Superb.

  1. Sleeping Beauty – The Theatre, Chipping Norton, 8th January 2009

To date our only trip to the charming little theatre at Chippy, this version of Sleeping Beauty was written by Graeme Garden. But the main reason for going was so that we could see our friend, Eurovision’s Dame Nicki French, appearing as Queen Jenny. An intimate theatre that produces a great vibe and the panto was enormous fun.

 

 

 

  1. King Lear – Young Vic, London, 28th February 2009

We bought tickets to see this on hearing about Pete Postlethwaite’s amazing performance as Lear; it’s still thought of as one of the best Lears in modern memory. To be honest, I wasn’t that keen. Rather a sparse production that I felt lacked gravitas. But I was in the minority!

  1. The New Yorkers – Lost Musicals at the Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler’s Wells, London, 5th April 2009

Passing over our second visit to the Trocks this season, this time at the Milton Keynes Theatre, with exactly the same programme, our next show was another of Ian Marshall Fisher’s wonderful resurrections of an old lost musical – Cole Porter and Herbert Fields’ The New Yorkers, a 1930 musical with one memorable song, Love for Sale. The super cast included Craige Els, Anna Francolini, Sandra Marvin, Ursula Smith and Jon Robyns. I miss those Lost Musicals shows!

 

 

  1. Boeing Boeing – Milton Keynes Theatre, 10th April 2009

Breaking my usual rule about not repeating productions here that I’d already seen, I have to include this touring version of Boeing Boeing that we had seen in London two years earlier, simply because it was just so fantastically good. Interestingly it starred the real life Marquez brothers, Martin as Bernard and John as Robert, and also included Victoria Wood As Seen On TV’s Susie Blake as the hard-nosed maid Bertha. Sheer joy.

  1. Rookery Nook – Menier Chocolate Factory, London, 26th April 2009

Moving past the touring production of Cabaret at the Milton Keynes Theatre which we really loved until the end when Wayne Sleep dissed the entire audience by abruptly ending the curtain call (I ended up having words with Bill Kenwright himself about the matter!) our next show was the Menier’s revival of Ben Travers’ 1926 play Rookery Nook, one of the famous Aldwych Farces. It did feel dated, but then again, it was still funny, with a particularly excellent performance from Mark Hadfield as Harold Twine, the original Robertson Hare role. By now we were firmly in love with the Menier and rarely missed a show!

Review – Chicago, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 3rd October 2021

ChicagoThere are few stage musicals that bring the promise of a fun night out quite as much as Chicago. I’m sure you know the story; nightclub singer Roxie Hart murders her lover, dupes her husband into taking the blame and then when he realises her guilt, she still gets him to pay top Chicago lawyer Billy Flynn to defend her. Flynn’s method is to sensationalise the crime and make murder into a top showbiz event. Cellmate Velma Kelly meanwhile resents how Roxie has hogged Flynn’s attention and imagination and has worsened her own chances of a top quality media-frenzy trial. Will Roxie be found guilty? You can bank on it that she won’t. Does it even matter?

I was checking back over my records to see how many productions of Chicago I’ve seen – and this is the fifth. As a show, it started comparatively quietly and sedately in the late 70s, but then grew in brashness over the years, encouraging star names to take the lead roles, accentuating the provocativeness of the original Fosse choreography, and now becoming a raucous celebration and triumph of bad over good, with murderers and adulterers thriving, and decent souls being trodden underfoot. That’s why, in the past, I have always had something of a personal problem with Chicago, because despite all its doubtless qualities and some smash hit tunes, I get really depressed by its moral compass!

SinittaSo how does this new production, that opened a few weeks ago in Glasgow, shape up? Like Priscilla, which smashed back onto the Derngate stage in August, this is another strong, hugely entertaining production designed not merely to dust off the cobwebs of the lockdowns but to blast them into outer space. With 80s chart topper Sinitta as Mama Morton, and stage and TV musical entertainer Darren Day as Billy Flynn, you know that you’re in very safe hands musically.

But I’m underestimating it here. Expecting, as usual, to be put off by its lack of decency, I saw the show last night through a whole new set of eyes. Primarily, it’s all about the music. Andrew Hilton’s band occupy the prime position on stage all through the show, making them its star. None of this discreet, out of the way, hiding behind the scenery band presence; they’re full on, centre stage, with Mr Hilton playing just as important a role as any of the other main characters, even ending up as the MC for the curtain call, which works delightfully well. The band put their all into beefing up those Kander and Ebb numbers, and from the opening moments with the instantly recognisable and pleasing All that Jazz, you deeply suspect you’re on to a winner. Every song is treated as though it is a showstopper, and every arrangement is dynamic and thrilling. As well as that first number, there’s the Cell Block Tango to enjoy, When You’re Good to Mama, Razzle Dazzle and my own favourite, the deeply ironic Mr Cellophane. If I was marking Kander and Ebb’s homework, I still feel that the song Roxie is way too long. It’s a great tune and routine, but it has the effect of putting the whole show on hold for several minutes, and I get exasperated by it. Just a little pet peeve of mine.

Djalenga ScottThis is, if I remember rightly, the same staging as the last time I saw it, in the very same theatre, in 2016. That time, I was dismayed by how much the orchestra “pod” juts out into the stage, bizarrely eliminating 80% of the acting and dancing space. This time I realise that it emphasises the importance of the band and the relative unimportance of most of the characters. Deep down, Roxie, Velma, Amos and so on are unremarkable people, previously living unremarkable lives, only thrown into the limelight because of the act of murder. Even Mama Morton is a mere prison officer civil servant who’s succeeded through networking and corruption. When Roxie complains to Billy Flynn that he’s treating her like a common criminal, he replies that’s what she is; minor characters united through a society that thrives on violence.

Darren DayBut there’s one character who isn’t unremarkable – Billy Flynn. He rises above all the mire in a sea of showmanship, he pays no attention to the question of guilt, he’s not interested in the truth, he’s only interested in money. He knows how to fashion a speech to elicit exactly the right response from the jury. He knows that colour and glamour, and a degree of eccentricity will get him to the top. He knows that if he gives the people the old razzle dazzle, that’s what they want. And at the end, he’s manipulated, lied, and schemed his way to even further success. Now replace Billy Flynn in your mind with Boris Johnson, and see how Chicago in the 21st century sits beautifully as a political allegory for our times.

Faye BrookesThe show is perfectly cast throughout. Faye Brookes is brilliant as Roxie; she has just the right innocent, demure air that conceals a vicious, murderous interior, which is also masked by having, I know it’s a cliché but it’s true, the voice of an angel. At our performance, Velma was played by understudy Michelle Andrews as a great portrayal of the top dog who’s on her way down, with amazing vocal and dance skills and terrific star quality. Sinitta gave us a very different Mama Morton from any other I’d seen before; quieter, more elegant and stylised, and less of a pantomime villain. She has a wonderful voice and harmonises superbly with Ms Andrews in the song Class; in fact, all the harmonies throughout the show were incredibly good.

Joel MontagueDarren Day’s Billy Flynn is immaculate and refined, totally calm under pressure and self-assured in every way. He portrays him as a guy to whom riches flow as naturally as the river to the sea. Again, this portrayal is no panto villain, but a very believable smooth operator who’s totally open about his methods – why wouldn’t he be, he’s not ashamed of them! Joel Montague is perfect as Amos, capturing just the right degree of credulous oafishness and winning all our support as the sole voice of decency. It’s always a marvellous moment when Amos calls for his exit music and the otherwise super-responsive band stays silent.

Divina de CampoDivina de Campo makes a fantastic Mary Sunshine, with luscious soprano skills and a warm, magnetic stage presence. As the decades pass, I’ve become less and less convinced by the necessity or, indeed, point of the “unveiling” moment; in the old days the actor playing the role would have just their initials and surname in the programme, so there might have been some surprise to discover that she was a he. But this is Divina de Campo – we all know who she is – so when Flynn whips her wig and top away, it’s no biggie. It also just comes across as cruel, numbing the audience into silence. It was the only moment of the show that I felt Just Didn’t Work.

The members of the ensemble all turn in superb singing and dancing performance. All Mama’s girls in the Cell Block Tango did a great job in explaining their criminal motivations – I particularly loved Hollie Jane Stephens’ truly pathetic Hunyak; Joel Benjamin was excellent as the obnoxious Fred Casely (he had it coming), and Theo Reece makes a terrific professional debut.

I expected to find myself actively resistant to the show’s much vaunted irresistible charms, but for the first time in five productions – I think I finally get it! This is a wonderful production that makes the wise decision to emphasise the music and the band over anything else, resulting in a hugely entertaining and exhilarating evening. It’s on a massive tour that continues all over the country into July 2022, so you’ve got no excuse not to see it! And if, like me, you have always thought Chicago was a bit….well, meh…. see this production, it will open your eyes!

Promotional photos by Matt Crockett

Five alive, let theatre thrive!

 

Review – Indecent, Menier Chocolate Factory, London, 26th September 2021

IndecentIndecent was originally scheduled for a run at the Menier Chocolate Factory in early 2020 until it was postponed by You Know What. So, first of all, a big thanks to their Customer Care department who kept in touch regarding our booking and ensured we got as close to our original choice of seats as possible for a convenient date now that the production has been allowed to re-open. They’ve done the same for Habeas Corpus (coming up over Christmas) too. They went above and beyond the call of duty to ensure we got exactly what we wanted. Fantastic work!

And now the play! Indecent is a Tony Award-nominated play by Paula Vogel first produced off Broadway in 2016. It takes us on a journey (ooh the J word) from 1906 playwright Sholem Asch’s first readings of his new play, God of Vengeance, through the decades up to Asch’s later years when students want to retranslate and revive the play – although Asch refuses permission. Ever since I found out about Indecent, I’ve been kicking myself for not knowing more about God of Vengeance; you may, or may not know, gentle reader, that I spent two postgraduate years at London University researching theatre censorship. But I never came across this play, because there was never a planned production in Britain, despite playing regularly all throughout Europe.

Productions of Asch’s play culminated in a run at the Apollo Theatre on Broadway in 1923. All was not well with this run though, as, during one performance, the police entered the theatre and arrested the cast and producer on grounds of obscenity. And the reason? The play features the virginal young daughter of a brothel-keeper who falls in love with one of his “girls”. In one significant scene, the two women caress each other in the rain with gay abandon. Not only that, the play ends with the brothel-keeper throwing out his Torah saying he no longer needs it. Lesbianism and blasphemy. That was a lot for that 1920s audience to take in.

Young AschDespite the contemporary condemnation of and resistance to Asch’s play, Indecent pays hugely affectionate homage to The God of Vengeance, and everything about its writing, its performers, and its legacy. We see the young Asch desperately trying to impress Mr Peretz, founding father of modern Yiddish literature, who recommends he burns it; we see the final scene of God of Vengeance being played all over Europe with increasing confidence and passion; we see the police break up the New York performance and the cast go on trial; and we see old Asch having nothing to do with the play. In a separate, but connected, course of events we follow the relationship – professional and personal – between Reina and Dine, the actresses who play the daughter and the prostitute; and the personal journey (J word again) of Lemml, a young tailor, who champions the play from its earliest stages and becomes its stage manager.

CastIt’s a deep, complex play, given a highly elegant and stylised production by director Rebecca Taichman, who discovered God of Vengeance whilst studying at Yale and wrote a thesis about the legal shenanigans of its censorship. As we enter the auditorium the cast are all seated in front of us, silent and still; including three musicians who form a Klezmer band to accompany and provide a musical commentary to the action. They all stand and approach us, as dust and ash cascade out of their coat sleeves. Words are projected on to the back screen to date and explain each scene as it develops, but in a simple informative manner rather than some kind of Brechtian distancing device. There are a couple of scenes where the whole set – and indeed the cast – are bathed in words, which makes for a very vivid visual tableau –  nice work from the lighting design. In the history of theatre censorship, time after time it has been shown that words are more powerful than actions, and it’s usually words that censors fear more than actually portraying the meaning of those words. The God of Vengeance faced no problem in New York when it was performed in Yiddish; it was only the English translation that became unacceptable. Samuel Beckett had exactly the same problem with his plays that were originally written in French (no censorship) until they were translated into English (result – censorship!)

Finbar LynchThe cast form a superb ensemble, each of them taking on a number of roles except for Finbar Lynch, who remains the strong, quiet, determined and (almost) indefatigable presence of Lemml throughout the play. It’s a wonderful performance; measured, dignified, authoritative, and truly convincing. That class act, Peter Polycarpou, is in his element as the famed actor Rudolph Schildkraut, delivering his performance as brothel-keeper Yekel with stagy enthusiasm, and also capturing the emptiness of the depressed older Asch.

Beverley KleinAmong her roles, Beverley Klein brings the house down with her ever more overdramatic performance as Sarah, Yekel’s wife, and Cory English is excellent in his multiplicity of roles. Joseph Timms is great as the bold and ambitious young Asch, and turns in an amusing and rakish cameo as the playwright Eugene O’Neill.  Alexandra Silber and Molly Osbourne are superb as both Reina and Dine the actresses, and Rifkele and Manke the characters, gradually but inevitably progressing towards the end sequence where the famous rain scene of God of Vengeance is finally portrayed.

Alexandra Silber & Molly OsborneI must be honest, I feel the play occasionally gets a little chewy; it has a lot to say, and sometimes its messages get a little bogged down and tough to follow. I also found its structure, which means that our attention is constantly being turned towards considering the rain scene, makes it feel a little repetitive. Neither Mrs Chrisparkle nor I truly understood the significance of the “blinks in time” – moments when the action briefly stops and freezes in tableau – not only did they seem to be random choices, but there were also a couple of times where the “blink” on the projection screen and the actors freezing didn’t quite happen at the same time, which made it look a bit silly. I should also say that from our seats in row B, sometimes the projection words on the back screen were obscured by the actors and the words at the front of the stage were obscured by the theatregoers in front; a little annoying when these words play such an important part in the production as a whole.

But this is to quibble. This is a very significant new play, that takes events that began in 1907 and brings them firmly into the present day, with themes that include anti-semitism, censorship, and homosexuality, which are as relevant now as ever. It’s also made me want to add The God of Vengeance to my reading wish list. Fantastic performances, very thought-provoking, but also very enjoyable and occasionally very funny. It’s on at the Menier until 27th November, and is definitely worth catching.

Production photos by Johan Persson

4-starsFour they’re jolly good fellows!

Review – Chris Ramsey, 20/20 Tour, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 25th September 2021

Chris-Ramsey-StrictlyIt was a couple of weeks into the Strictly Come Dancing season of 2019 that Chris Ramsey announced his forthcoming tour and we thought “he seems a funny chap, let’s risk it”. Two years, and much anxiety, later, his tour is finally underway and he reached Northampton only ten months later than originally planned. Well, they say good things are worth waiting for, don’t they?

Shagged Married AnnoyedIn those intervening two years it’s become clear that Chris Ramsey has become a very different comedy commodity now from then. In those days, his and his wife Rosie’s Shagged Married Annoyed podcast was in its infancy, and I’d certainly never heard of it. Today it’s about as big as podcasts get, and we quickly realised that by far the majority of people in the audience were aficionados of the bickering bonhomie that takes place between him and his wife Rosie. As non-listeners to the podcast – to be honest I’m only just coming to terms with the loss of VHF – when any of the material strayed into his podcast material, we felt a little left out of the joke. Just something to be aware of. He and Rosie are conducting a separate tour of the podcast at the same time as he’s doing his own stand-up shows, so I guess it’s inevitable that there’d be some crossover.

Carl HutchinsonAnyway, I’m getting ahead of myself. First up we had Chris’s support act, Carl Hutchinson, and they’re obviously old mates as he features predominantly in the aforementioned podcast (see observation above). Carl’s a very likeable guy with a slightly laddish demeanour and a confident but never aggressive delivery. He explained that he had spent most of Lockdown playing FIFA against 14 year old boys, which is all very well until it comes to the inevitable post-match trolling. He did a very funny routine about drinking on aeroplanes which was something everyone could relate to. And he taught us the difference between a man’s barbecue and a couple’s barbecue and was spot on at every level. Very funny and very recognisable observations – he gave us about forty minutes and it flew by.

Chris RamseyAfter the interval, we returned for Chris Ramsey, who confesses that one of his worst decisions was to name his new show the 20/20 tour; and proceeded to start his part of the show with what he had written for the show the year ago – as if the intevening months had never happened. Whether his original introductory choice of material was true or not, it was a great idea and a hilarious opening. Chris has a wonderfully engaging personality, full of warmth and humour; the kind of guy you’d stay late at the pub without realising what time it was. Podcast material aside (see above), he has some terrific sequences of comic observations, including Alexa hearing his innermost secrets but not showing the discretion you’d expect from her, the tendency of small children to take inappropriate items with them on a day out, and the embarrassing description his youngest son has decided to give to his, i.e. Chris’s, erm, penis. And if anything ever seems less than classy, or less than efficient, or less than tasteful, well, that’s South Shields for you.

Chris Ramsey 1It’s always a delight to be in the presence of a comic master, and that’s definitely what Chris Ramsey is. A beautifully balanced show, with room for some audience participation, some unexpected callbacks, plus the occasional use of video screens which works really well. He ends the evening with a few observations about Strictly, which is rather where we came in two years ago. He has a simple, frank and refreshing sunniness about him that just fills the auditorium. One of those comics whom you could see again and again. Great work!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 24th September 2021

Screaming Blue MurderHallelujah for the return of Screaming Blue Murder, that brilliant value, top quality comedy night out that we’ve missed so much since the beginning of Lockdown 1.0. Ridiculous to think that the last time we saw Dan Evans bound onto the stage at the Underground was way back on 1st February 2020.  Since then, we’ve all got a little bit older and a little bit wiser (those of us who made it) but some things never change – like Screaming Blue. Dan still presents a top comedy show with three fabulous acts and two fantastic intervals.

This wasn’t the first time we’d been back to the Underground since the pandemic, and as I mentioned when I wrote about seeing Myra Dubois a couple of weeks ago, the ventilation in the Underground is so much better now – not only safer, but so much more comfortable. Gone are the days of heavy sweating in a flimsy shirt in the height of winter – in the Underground, at least – and you definitely feel more Covidly secure in there nowadays. OK, we were still two of only about five people who masked up in the theatre on Friday, but that’s our choice and we’re sticking to it. I really like the new seating layout for Screaming Blue, with three rows of seats surrounding the stage on all sides, and then further rows of seats at the back of the room. It was a sell-out, but even so you still felt like there was plenty of personal space. We’ve changed our favourite position to furthest right near the side door, on the front row of the back block. You get a perfect view, beautifully ventilated, and you feel close enough to the action without putting yourself too much in the firing line for any comic who wants to chat with you (however – see Bennett Arron, below.)

Dan EvansIt was a joy to welcome Dan back, even if he has left his trademark pinstriped suit somewhere on some bedroom floor that he can’t remember. He had plenty of rapport to strike up with the front rows, which were largely occupied by an 18th birthday party night out, so he had his work cut out. He sets the tone for the evening perfectly with jokes old and new! And it wouldn’t be the same without him.

Mike CoxOur first act was Mike Cox, whom we’d only seen online till now in a couple of Comedy Crate/Rock the Atic shows that kept us going through the lean lockdown months. I liked him online, but in real life he was so much more – virtually a completely different person, with a brilliant set of engaging comic sequences, partly stemming from the last eighteen months of lockdown mayhem and partly from managing his unruly children as they run riot in Aldi. Full of recognisable observations, he was lively, funny and likeable. A great start to the evening.

Wendy WasonNext up, and someone we haven’t seen for four years, was Wendy Wason, another smart and engaging comic whose material in the past has been firmly bedded in sex (if I can put it that way) and today is much more concerned with her children, which I guess is an inevitable consequence of her earlier material. We just spent her whole half-hour laughing, which doesn’t need any analysis from me.

Bennett ArronOur headline act, and someone we haven’t seen for (gasp!) ten years, was Bennett Arron, who revealed that it was his first live gig in two years, but he took to it like the master he is. Confessing to the double whammy of being both Jewish and Welsh, he has a lovely self-deprecating air which he can turn into some killer finish lines. When he asked, I boldly admitted to being married for 33 years (thank you for the round of applause everyone) proving that you can be spotted from the back block of seats. Little did I know that our brief chat would result in a brilliant callback at the end of his routine. I’ve been to almost 300 comedy gigs in the last fifteen years and it’s the first time I’ve been a callback. Sincere thanks for that! A fabulous end to the night.

Next Screaming Blue Murder is on 22nd October. Want to come? Of course you do!

The Points of View Challenge – A Bundle of Letters – Henry James

Henry JamesHenry James (1843 – 1916)

American novelist (The Portrait of a Lady, The Ambassadors, The Bostonians), ghost story writer (The Turn of the Screw), short story writer, critic, playwright and travel writer.

A Bundle of Letters, first published in The Parisien magazine, 1879

Available to read online here

This is the third and final story in the volume Points of View to be given the style classification by Moffett and McElheny of Letter Narration. They describe A Bundle of Letters as “a collection of one-way correspondence by characters who because they are together do not write to each other but about each other; since the person each is writing to is a mere listening post, the letters are like entries in a diary.”

They go on to conclude: “although the novel of letters enjoyed its greatest vogue in the eighteenth century, when it was used universally to make fiction more plausible […] the use of the technique continued in the nineteenth century but was used selectively, for certain effects only. Although today’s novel is more likely to combine correspondence with other techniques than to tell a story entirely through letters, epistolary short stories continue to crop up.” Remember this commentary was published in 1966. In the twenty-first century, emails and texts are much more likely to be the norm.

Spoiler alert – if you haven’t read the story yet and want to before you read the summary of it below, stop now!

 

A Bundle of Letters

 

On 5th September 1879, an independent and outspoken young American woman, Miranda Hope, writes to her mother in Bangor, Maine, from her hotel in Paris. She travels alone, determined to steep herself in as much culture as possible. She wants to learn some of the language too, and to that end by the time she writes her mother another letter on 16th September, she has moved into the house of Mme de Maisonrouge, for conversation practice with Madame and her family. Madame has other paying guests; English, American, and German.

But living under one roof will always bring out animosities.  The next letter is from the other young American woman, Violet Ray, to her New York friend, in which she calls Miranda “the most extraordinary specimen of artless Yankeeism that I ever encountered; she is really too horrible”. Another letter is written by Louis Leverett, a Bostonian, to his friend Harvard. He cares for neither of the young American women: “they are both specimens of the emancipated young American girl—practical, positive, passionless, subtle, and knowing, as you please, either too much or too little”. But he has fallen for the sweet looks of the Englishwoman Evelyn Vane. An update letter from Miranda to her mother reveals that she is learning a lot from Mme de Maisonrouge’s cousin Mr Verdier, that she doesn’t get on with Violet because she is “haughty”, she is inspired by Leverett’s enthusiastic intellectualism, disappointed in Evelyn’s lack of ambition, disgusted by her brother’s lack of respect and flattered by the attention of the German professor.

Evelyn meanwhile confesses in letter to her friend that, apart from Violet, all the guests are various degrees of frightful, Verdier makes it clear in a letter to his friend that his intentions with Miranda are far from honourable – not that she appears to mind – and the German professor, Dr Staub, reveals himself to be a nationalistic bigot who sees all interaction between foreigners in terms of how weak they are and how glorious Germany will step in and rise to supremacy: “…between precipitate decay and internecine enmities, the English-speaking family is destined to consume itself; and that with its decline the prospect of general pervasiveness, to which I alluded above, will brighten for the deep-lunged children of the Fatherland!”

The last word goes to Miranda, who in a letter dated October 22nd, advises that she’s going to move on to somewhere else – not sure where yet, but noting that everyone has been kind and attentive: “especially Mr. Verdier, the French gentleman, from whom I have gained more than I ever expected (in six weeks), and with whom I have promised to correspond.” Did Verdier get his way with her? I guess we’ll never quite know.

This is a very funny and cleverly constructed story; the grand joke in it all is that no one knows precisely what everyone else thinks about them, and the behaviour of each of them on the surface is likely to be completely different from what’s going on inside their heads! It’s also beautifully written in terms of the individual characterisations of those people lodging chez Mme de Maisonrouge. Miranda can’t understand why she upsets and offends people with her plain talking because surely everyone should share the same ideas that she does? Evelyn retreats into English snobbery as she cannot bear the company of all those ghastly common people. Verdier is a louche ne’er-do-well, bragging to his mate about the progress he’s making. Perhaps most entertaining of all is Leverett’s delightfully pretentious use of language, his mind on a self-consciously higher level as the only things that matter to him in life are self-expressioni and Art.

James was fascinated by the differences between Americans, the English, the French and other European nationalities. In this little story he gets to explore nationalistic stereotypes to his heart’s content. Maybe there is a degree of caricature, particularly with the snobbish Englishwoman and the nationalistic German. Much has been made of how the characterisation of Staub was remarkably forward-looking and predictive, with the German’s disdain for the behaviour of his fellow residents, describing Verdier as homunculus, despising any show of decadence, his pompous mocking of anything that isn’t German, and looking ahead to good times for the Fatherland.

James impresses with his ability to tell a fascinating tale but leave much untold too – he demonstrates that there’s great eloquence in silence. What did happen between Miranda and Verdier? Why does she despise William Pratt so? What is buried Mme de Maisonrouge’s past? And many more questions besides.

Apparently, James wrote this in one sitting, which maybe explains how beautifully it flows. Hugely entertaining, a rather elegant and classy read that gives a good insight into the times and prejudices of the day. This could well make me want to read some more Henry James!

The next story in the anthology is the first of the two diary narration stories, and the reason that I bought Points of View in the first place – Daniel Keyes’ Flowers for Algernon. I am really looking forward to reading this story again!