Review of the Decade 2010-2019

Yes, I know that strictly speaking the decade doesn’t finish until 31st December 2020, but I’ve been banging out this blog for ten years now so it seemed appropriate to add a further stack of celebratory awards to those I dished out a short time ago. Who would have foreseen that from 1st January 2010 to 31st December 2019 I would have seen 1,248 live productions, and reviewed about 99% of them? No wonder my fingers are hurting.

So it is my absolute pleasure to revisit the Chrisparkle Award holders of the past ten years, to celebrate their work and, invidiously, to come up with Decade Awards for each category – which, as I’m sure you’ll appreciate, is the Highest Honour the Committee Can Bestow. I’m sure if any of the following double-winners were to prove their success by printing off the details, they’d be entitled to at least a 10% discount in Pizza Express. So it’s not to be sneezed at.

I’ll keep the Awards in the traditional order, so we’ll start with Best Dance Production.

Over the decade I’ve seen 69 dance productions; but the individual annual winners have been from a select group of performers. Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo won once, Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake has won three times, and the Richard Alston Dance Company has won six times. Pretty solid and consistent work there!

How do you compare those three companies/dances, each at their finest? Skill? You can take that for granted. Sheer enjoyment? Each is fantastically enjoyable in their own way, and I don’t see a way of comparing along those lines. So I consulted Mrs Chrisparkle, and her suggestion was to compare one’s emotional response to each. She’s a wise woman, and no mistake. Therefore, and taking each winning performance separately, the top three performances were:

In 3rd place, Richard Alston Dance Company, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 4th October 2016

In 2nd place, Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, Milton Keynes Theatre, 23rd March 2011

And the winner is: Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, Milton Keynes Theatre, 4th February 2010

Swan Lake

Possibly one of the most difficult awards to judge has been our next category, Best Classical Music Concert. From the 50 concerts I’ve seen over the years, by far the majority of which were performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, they in fact won nine of the ten annual awards, with 2015’s award going to the Worthing Symphony Orchestra for that year’s Malcolm Arnold Festival Gala. How do these individual concerts shape up as far as the Decade Award is concerned?

In 3rd place, Alexander Shelley Conducts Scheherazade, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 14th April 2013

In 2nd place, Jan Mráček Performs Mendelssohn, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 18th June 2017

And the winner is: Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Nigel Kennedy plays Brahms, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 2nd June 2012

Nigel Kennedy plays Brahms

Now we come to the award for Best Entertainment Show of the Decade. You know what an Entertainment show is? It’s anything that doesn’t fall into any of the other categories. Over the past ten years we’ve seen 80 such productions and they’re a wide range of shows, so comparisons are onerous as well as odious. However, it’s interesting to see that of the ten award winners, two were Palladium pantos, two were Sheffield pantos, two were regular Burlesque Shows at the Royal and Derngate, one was a Strictly spin-off, one a mime artist, one a spoof comedy-musical, and the last was a celebration of Stephen Sondheim’s 80th birthday! Let’s see who wins:

In 3rd place, The Boy With Tape On His Face is Tape Face, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 7th November 2016

In 2nd place, Dick Whittington, London Palladium, 29th December 2017

And the winner is: Forbidden Broadway, Menier Chocolate Factory, 27th July 2014

Forbidden Broadway

Next is a Big One, so to speak, it’s the Decade Award for the Best Star Standup. Since 1st January 2010 I have seen and written about 301 comedy shows – not just star standups, but also Screaming Blue Murders, comedians at Edinburgh, Leicester and elsewhere. That’s a lot of laughter. The annual award was introduced in 2011, so we have nine previous champions contending for the title – eight, actually, as Dara O’Briain has won twice. So here goes with these awards:

In 3rd place, Sarah Millican, Outsider, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 2nd July 2016

In 2nd place, Rob Beckett, Wallop, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 3rd October 2019

And the winner is: Marcus Brigstocke, Devil May Care, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 31st October 2018

marcus-brigstocke-devil-may-care

And now on a more local level, here’s the Decade Award for the Best Screaming Blue Murder Standup. Our regular Friday (occasionally venturing into Saturday) evening comedy club at the Royal and Derngate continues to go from strength to strength and it’s very rare that a show isn’t sold out. We have seen some incredible comics there over the years, and I am delighted to announce the following gigs were the best we enjoyed:

In 3rd place, Paul Sinha, 2nd March 2012

In 2nd place, Daliso Chaponda, 28th April 2017

And the winner is: Markus Birdman, 8th November 2013

Markus Birdman

For the past three years there has been a Best of the Rest Standup Award – for performances from the Leicester Comedy Festival, Upfront Comedy clubs, Comedy Crate Edinburgh Fringe Previews and so on. Happy to announce that the Decade Award (although it should really be called the Three Year Award) goes to the extraordinary show that was: Just The Tonic Comedy Club with Johnny Vegas, Leicester Comedy Festival, Hansom Hall, Leicester, 25th February 2017

johnny-vegas

Time for another Biggie; the Decade Award for Best Musical. Please cut me some slack here, gentle reader. My favourite musical of all time, was, is and always will be A Chorus Line, and there was a terrific revival of it at the London Palladium in 2013. So, if I’m true to my word, that should win the Decade Award and the Best Actor Awards should probably go to its cast members. However, somehow, it’s not so straightforward. Over the past ten years I’ve seen 135 productions of musicals, and I’d like other shows to share in the glory. So, if you’re agreeable, I’d like to share this award between A Chorus Line and another show. Even if you aren’t agreeable, I’m still going to do it.

In the interests of giving everyone a fair crack of the whip, I’ve also separated the category into Best New Musical and Best Revival of a Musical, which is where we start:

In 3rd place, Half A Sixpence, Noel Coward Theatre, 29th December 2016

In 2nd place, Company, Gielgud Theatre, 2nd February 2019

And the winner is: A Chorus Line/My Fair Lady, Sheffield Crucible, 5th January 2013

A Chorus LineMy Fair Lady

And for Best New Musical of the Decade:

In 3rd place, Bend It Like Beckham, Phoenix Theatre, 10th February 2016

In 2nd place, The Book of Mormon, Prince of Wales Theatre, 2nd March 2013

And the winner is: Hamilton, Victoria Palace Theatre, 8th December 2018

Hamilton

Now it’s time for the Best New Play of the Decade. Over the past ten years, I’ve seen a whopping 557 plays, both new and old. As you can imagine, there’s plenty of stiff competition for these awards.

In 3rd place, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, Derngate, Northampton, 24th March 2015

In 2nd place, The Lehman Trilogy, Piccadilly Theatre, 25th May 2019

And the winner is: One Man Two Guvnors, New Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, 22nd October 2011

One Man Two Guvnors

Equally difficult to choose, here’s the top three for the Best Revival of a Play – Decade Award.

In 3rd place, A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Bridge Theatre, 13th July 2019

In 2nd place, King Lear, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 6th October 2017

And the winner is: The Bacchae, Royal and Derngate at Northampton Chronicle and Echo Print Works, 16th June 2012

The Bacchae

Let’s head further north for the next few Awards and consider those plucky performers at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Edinburgh Awards were introduced in 2014, and since then I’ve seen 266 Edinburgh Fringe performances. Let’s consider the first Award – Best Play of the Decade (well, six years):

In 3rd place, Trainspotting, In Your Face Theatre, 8th August 2014

In 2nd place, Us/Them, BRONKS, 25th August 2016

And the winner is: My Mate Dave Died, Sheffield University Theatre Company, 23rd August 2018</A>

My Mate Dave - scene

And now it’s the Best Individual Performance in an Edinburgh Fringe Play

In 3rd place, Chris Duffy, Fear No Colours, Tonight with Donny Stixx, 21st August 2018

In 2nd place, David Carl. Project Y, Trump Lear, 21st August 2019

And the winner is: Sam Redway, Knaive Theatre, Bin Laden: The One Man Show, 21st August 2017

Screenshot (1)

For the Best stand-up comedy show in Edinburgh Award, for four of the five years, the annual Award went to Spank!, with Olaf Falafel’s There’s No I in Idiot just edging it for 2018. So I’m simply going to award the Decade honour to Spank!, and in honour of many happy revisits to that grimy den in the Underbelly Cowgate, here’s a link to our first visit, which encouraged us to keep going!

Spank

Carrying on, now it’s the Decade Award for Best Of The Rest in Edinburgh:

In 3rd place, The Lost Musical Works of Willy Shakes, 20th August 2019

In 2nd place, Garry Starr Performs Everything, 24th August 2018

And the winner is: Margaret Thatcher, Queen of Soho, 9th August 2014

Margaret Thatcher Queen of Soho

Best Local Production – which, in fact, equates to the Best University of Northampton Acting/Acting and Creative Students productions over the past four years; the honour goes to Blue Stockings, University of Northampton BA (Hons) Acting, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th March 2016

Blue Stockings

Now it’s time to get personal again, and consider the best performances of the decade. First, Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical. And the top three are:

In 3rd place, Sheridan Smith in Funny Girl, Menier Chocolate Factory, 28th February 2016

In 2nd place, Rosalie Craig in Company, Gielgud Theatre, 2nd February 2019

And the winner is: Imelda Staunton in Gypsy, Chichester Festival Theatre, 11th October 2014

Imelda Staunton as Rose

Now for the guys, Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical this Decade. The top three are:

In 3rd place, Dominic West in My Fair Lady, Sheffield Crucible, 5th January 2013

In 2nd place, John Partridge in La Cage Aux Folles, Milton Keynes Theatre, 12th August 2017

And the winner is: Charlie Stemp in Half A Sixpence, Noel Coward Theatre, 29th December 2016

charlie-stemp

Moving on – the end is in sight, ladies and gentlemen – Best Performance by an Actress in a Play this Decade.

In 3rd place, Penelope Wilton in Taken At Midnight, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 11th October 2014

In 2nd place, Tracie Bennett in End of the Rainbow, Royal and Derngate Northampton, 18th February 2010

And the winner is: Dame Maggie Smith in A German Life, Bridge Theatre, 4th May 2019

A German Life

And finally, Best Performance by an Actor in a Play this Decade (and they’re all Shakespearean roles which possibly says more about me than them!):

In 3rd place, Tom Mothersdale in Richard III, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 24th May 2019

In 2nd place, Derek Jacobi in King Lear, Donmar Warehouse Tour, Milton Keynes Theatre, 16th March 2011

And the winner is: Paapa Essiedu in Hamlet, Royal Shakespeare Company on tour at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 3rd March 2018

Hamletprod8

Thanks, gentle reader, for supporting and following my blog reviews. Here’s to the next decade!

Review of the Year 2019 – The Tenth Annual Chrisparkle Awards

Welcome once more to the artistic event of the year, that is the announcement of the annual Chrisparkle Awards for 2019. The whole team has diligently assessed each and every eligible performance (i.e. I’ve sorted through my spreadsheet) to create longlists then shortlists and then finally the ultimate prize for some worthy exponents of their arts. Eligibility for the awards means a) they were performed in the UK and b) I have to have seen the shows and blogged about them in the period 8th January 2019 to 13th January 2020.

Are you all sitting comfortably?

The first award is for Best Dance Production (Contemporary and Classical)

In 2018 the Committee decided to combine all the dance productions seen in the year, both at the Edinburgh Fringe and in other theatres, and again we have decided to continue this practice. That gives us eight shows to consider, and, as always, it’s been remarkably difficult to come to a conclusion.

In 3rd place, the beautiful and elegant Snow Maiden, as performed by the Russian State Ballet of Siberia at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in January 2019.

In 2nd place, the strength and artistry of the Balletboyz in Them/Us at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in March.

In 1st place, on their Farewell Tour, a superb programme by the Richard Alston Dance Company at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in October.

Classical Music Concert of the Year.

In very poor form on our part, we only managed to see three classical concerts in 2019, so it seems only fair just to announce the winner. And that is:

The enjoyable, crowd-pleasing but occasionally challenging programme in The Beauty of Tchaikovsky, performed by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in September.

Best Entertainment Show of the Year.

This means anything that doesn’t fall into any other categories – for example pantos, circuses, revues and anything else hard to classify. Seven contenders this year, and here are the top three:

In 3rd place, the fascinating multimedia lecture by Mark Lewisohn to commemorate fifty years since the release of the Abbey Road album, The Beatles: Hornsey Road, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in September.

In 2nd place, not really a pantomime but a Las Vegas-style variety act with more filth than you poke a stick at, Goldilocks and the Three Bears at the London Palladium in December.

In 1st place, a true pantomime that brought out all the stops and had one of the funniest scripts I’ve ever seen, the magic that was Cinderella at the Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, in January 2020.

Best Star Standup of the Year.

Ten big-name stand-up comics qualify for this year, but it’s slightly easier than last year as a few of them under-delivered in their shows. Nevertheless, I still need a top five:

In 5th place, the understated, intelligent and emotional material of Rob Auton in his Talk Show, Underground at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in May.

In 4th place, the reflective and honest humour of Chris McCausland in his Speaking Blinder tour, together with excellent support from Jon Long, Underground at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in June.

In 3rd place, the brilliantly funny local lad Andrew Bird in the last night of his Ha Ha Time show, Underground at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in April.

In 2nd place, and a previous winner of the Best Star stand-up award, the manic and energetic hilarity of Russell Kane in his The Fast and The Curious tour, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in October.

In 1st place, someone who made me laugh so much that my chest physically hurt for hours afterwards, Rob Beckett in his Wallop show at the Royal and Derngate in October.

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

It’s been another great year of Screaming Blue Murder nights; from a long shortlist of twelve comics here are the top five:

In 5th place, soaring the heights of surreal hilarity, Harriet Dyer (4th October)

In 4th place, with an amazing gift for incorporating all the facts about audience members in his act, David Ward (27th September)

In 3rd place, the wonderfully faux-strict Mary Bourke (31st May)

In 2nd place, new to me, the fabulous wordplay of Mark Simmons (31st May)

In 1st place, on the best form I’ve seen him in ages, the incomparable Russell Hicks (22nd November)

Two years ago, the Committee introduced a new category – the Best of the Rest Stand-up Award, to take into account comedy acts seen at other locations, such as the Leicester Comedy Festival, Bluelight Comedy, Upfront Comedy Shows and Edinburgh Try-outs in various locations. However, this year we only saw a handful of additional comedy acts, at the Leicester Comedy Festival, so I’m just going to nominate a runner-up and a winner.

In 2nd place, Roisin O’Mahony and Chiara Goldsmith with their marvellously anarchic Edinburgh show from last year, Back to Back, at the Apres Lounge in February.

In 1st place, the comedy genius of being an agnostic teaching Religious Studies, the brilliant Kevin Precious in his Unholier than Thou, Upstairs at Kayal, in February.

Best Musical.

I saw thirteen musicals this year – a couple of which I went back to watch again, they were so good – so it was a tough choice to come up with a top five. But I did it!

In 5th place, and only watched it last week, the delightful revival of Sandy Wilson’s The Boy Friend, at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London, in January 2020.

In 4th place, another recent memory, the smart and slick revival of Guys and Dolls at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, in January 2020.

In 3rd place, the surprisingly hard-hitting but absolutely superb revival of Oklahoma! at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in July.

In 2nd place, it divided the critics, but I absolutely loved it so that I had to go again – and definitely the finest performance from a theatre orchestra in years – the revival of Man of La Mancha at the London Coliseum in May.

In 1st place, the other production that I had to see twice, and could easily have gone back yet again, the stunningly inventive and rewarding revival of Stephen Sondheim’s Company at the Gielgud Theatre, London in February.

Best New Play.

Just to clarify, this is my definition of a new play, which is something that’s new to me and to most of its audience – so it might have been around before but on its first UK tour, or a new adaptation of a work originally in another format. As I’ve looked back over the year’s drama, it became clear that this was an extraordinarily good year for most of the plays we’ve seen, and whittling the 19 possibles this year to a top five has been very difficult indeed. But here goes:

In 5th place, Alexis Michalik’s hilarious examination of how Cyrano de Bergerac was created, Edmond de Bergerac, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in April.

In 4th place, Katori Hall’s riveting modern classic, Our Lady of Kibeho, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in January 2019.

In 3rd place, Anthony McCarten’s finely written and beautifully acted The Pope, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in June.

In 2nd place, Laura Wade’s anarchic and compellingly hilarious The Watsons, at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London, in October.

In 1st place, the wide-ranging, character-driven and utterly fantastic The Lehman Brothers, at the Piccadilly Theatre, London, in May.

Best Revival of a Play.

I saw twenty-two revivals, with a shortlist of eight, and here’s the top five:

In 5th place, the hilarious yet savagely telling production of The Provoked Wife by the RSC in Stratford in May.

In 4th place, the superbly staged and performed double bill of Party Night and Celebration, also known as Pinter Six, as part of the Pinter at the Pinter Season, at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, in January 2019.

In 3rd place, Headlong’s witty and revealing production of Shakespeare’s Richard III, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in May.

In 2nd place, the gripping, sad, and mesmeric production of Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman, at the Young Vic, London, in July.

In 1st place, the simply magnificent promenade production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Bridge Theatre, London, in July.

As always, in the post-Christmas season, it’s time to consider the turkey of the year – and my biggest disappointment was the lame and rather unoriginal production of Caroline’s Kitchen at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in February.

Now we come on to our four categories specifically for the Edinburgh Fringe. The first is:

Best play – Edinburgh

We saw 22 plays in Edinburgh this year, and here are the top 5:

In 5th place, the cleverly written and smartly performed The Good Scout, produced by Boys of the Empire Productions (The Space @ Surgeon’s Hall)

In 4th place, the hilarious and beautifully realised Noir Hamlet, produced by Yasplz (The Space @ Niddry Street)

In 3rd place, David Carl’s amazing political satire, Trump Lear (Pleasance Courtyard)

In 2nd place, Marcus Brigstocke’s incredibly satisfying exploration of addiction, The Red (Pleasance Dome)

In 1st place, by turns hilarious and horrifying, the backwards exploration of a disastrous relationship, I Lost My Virginity to Chopin’s Nocturne in B-Flat Minor (Pleasance Courtyard)

Best Individual Performance in a Play – Edinburgh

As always, a really hard one to decide as so many Edinburgh plays are true ensemble efforts. Nevertheless, here are the top three:

In 3rd place, Craig MacArthur for Marrow (The Space @ Surgeon’s Hall)

In 2nd place, Javaad Alipoor for The Believers are but Brothers (Assembly George Square Studios)

In 1st place, David Carl for Trump Lear (Pleasance Courtyard)

Best stand-up comedy show – Edinburgh

Ten shows this year gives this top three:

In 3rd place, as last year, the best late-night comedy concatenation you’ll get in Edinburgh, Spank! (Underbelly Cowgate)

In 2nd place, last year’s winner returning with another ecstatically stupid and delightful show, Olaf Falafel – Knitting with Maracas (Laughing Horse @ The Pear Tree)

In 1st place, had heard so much about him, and every word is true – Ahir Shah: Dots (Monkey Barrell Comedy)

Best of the rest – Edinburgh

Very stiff competition this year means that a few great shows don’t make it to the top five:

In 5th place, the sharp, funny and sexy circus cabaret, Atomic Saloon Show (Assembly George Square Gardens)

In 4th place, back for another madcap, anarchic and simply hysterical show, Garry Starr Conquers Troy (Underbelly Cowgate)

In 3rd place, as last year, an absolute pun-fest version of Romeo and Juliet with Shakespeare for Breakfast (C Venues, C Viva)

In 2nd place, also as last year but without his Camels companion, the emotional but hilarious rollercoaster that is The Man, by Patrick McPherson (Underbelly Bristo Square)

In 1st place, one of those unexpected Edinburgh delights that filled you with unadulterated joy from start to finish – The Lost Musical Works of Willy Shakes (Assembly Rooms)

This year’s Edinburgh turkey, which somehow was a sell-out, was the cack-handed, under-rehearsed rubbish that was Come Dine with Mr Shakespeare (The Space on North Bridge)

Best Local Production

This would normally include the productions by the University of Northampton students, the Royal and Derngate Actors’ Company, the Youth Companies, local theatre groups and the National Theatre Connections. Apart from one show, again I only saw productions by the University students, so expect them to figure highly in the Awards!

In 5th place, from the Flash Festival, Not Aloud Ensemble’s important and beautifully performed Leviticus.

In 4th place, from the Fringe Festival, Rosemarie Sheach’s heartwarming and upbeat Can’t Quite Hit It.

In 3rd place, also from the Flash Festival, Workbench Theatre Company’s witty and character-driven production of Rise.

In 2nd place, again from the Flash Festival, Grapevine Theatre Company’s moving and memorable production of The Cost of Freedom.

In 1st place, from the Flash Festival, and because it is so hard to perform comedy well and this was well-thought out and brilliantly executed, Framed Ensemble’s hilarious production of Oh Arthur.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical.

Time to get personal. Ten in the shortlist, having eliminated some extraordinarily good performances but here’s the top five:

In 5th place, Alex Young as Sarah Brown in Guys and Dolls at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, in January 2020.

In 4th place, Zizi Strallen as Mary Poppins in Mary Poppins at the Prince Edward Theatre, London in November.

In 3rd place, Tracie Bennett as Mame Dennis in Mame at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in January 2020.

In 2nd place, Patti LuPone as Joanne in Company at the Gielgud Theatre, London in February.

In 1st place, Rosalie Craig as Bobbie in Company at the Gielgud Theatre, London in February.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical.

Nine performances in the shortlist, producing this top five:

In 5th place, Alex Cardall as Dougal in The Season at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in November.

In 4th place, a star is born, young Toby Mocrei as Dennis in The Boy in the Dress at the Royal Shakespeare Theare, Stratford-upon-Avon, in November.

In 3rd place, Hyoie O’Grady as Curly in Oklahoma! at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in July.

In 2nd place, Richard Fleeshman as Andy in Company at the Gielgud Theatre, London in February.

In 1st place, Jonathan Bailey as Jamie in Company at the Gielgud Theatre, London in February.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Play.

Eleven in the shortlist, and here’s the top five:

In 5th place, Caroline Quentin as Lady Fancyfull in The Provoked Wife, at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, in May.

In 4th place, Sharon D Clarke as Linda in Death of a Salesman, at the Young Vic, London in July.

In 3rd place, Joanne Froggatt as Frances in Alys Always, at the Bridge Theatre, London, in March.

In 2nd place, Penelope Wilton as Valentina in The Bay at Nice, at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London, in April.

In 1st place, Dame Maggie Smith as Brunhilde in A German Life, at the Bridge Theatre, London, in May.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Play.

This year’s most hotly contested award, with an amazing seventeen contenders in my shortlist, and many superb performances bubbling under, but here is the top five:

In 5th place, Simon Russell Beale as Henry (and many other characters) in The Lehman Trilogy at the Piccadilly Theatre, London, in May.

In 4th place, Hammed Animashaun as Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, at the Bridge Theatre, London, in July.

In 3rd place, Anton Lesser as Pope Benedict in The Pope, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in June.

In 2nd place, Wendell Pierce as Willy Loman in Death of a Salesman at the Young Vic, London, in July.

In 1st place, Tom Mothersdale as Richard III in Richard III, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in May.

Theatre of the Year.

For the fifth year running there’s no change in the Number one theatre but once again we have a new Number two! Continuing to present an extraordinary range of drama and entertainment, this year’s Theatre of the Year is the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, with London’s Bridge Theatre as runner-up.

I saw 183 productions in 2019, up on 2018’s numbers but still not as many as 2017. Thank you gentle reader for continuing to read my theatre reviews and for all your support. Already looking forward to another wonderful year of theatre in 2020!

And coming up very soon – the Chrisparkle Decade Awards! The best of the shows and performances from 2010 – 2019. The ultimate accolade!

Review of the Year 2018 – The Ninth Annual Chrisparkle Awards

Welcome again to the glittering excitement that is the announcement of this year’s annual Chrisparkle Awards. The whole team has diligently assessed each and every eligible performance (i.e. I’ve thought hard about them) to create longlists then shortlists and then finally the ultimate prize for some splendid practitioners of their arts. Eligibility for the awards means a) they were performed in the UK and b) I have to have seen the shows and blogged about them in the period 11th January 2018 to 7th January 2019.

Are you all sitting comfortably?

The first award is for Best Dance Production (Contemporary and Classical)

Last year the Committee decided to combine all the dance productions seen in the year, both at the Edinburgh Fringe and in other theatres, and this year we have decided to continue this practice. That gives us seven shows to consider, and it’s been remarkably difficult to come to a conclusion, but we have.

In 3rd place, the two hilarious and skilful programmes that made up the triumphant return of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo (The Trocks to you and me) at the Peacock Theatre, London, in September.

In 2nd place, the immaculate and riveting performances of the dancers from the Richard Alston Dance Company at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in October.

In 1st place, never failing to hit the mark on technique, emotion and sheer entertainment, Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake at Sadler’s Wells, London, in December.

Classical Music Concert of the Year.

We only managed five classical concerts in 2018 but the quality was, as usual, excellent, so it was extremely difficult to whittle it down to a top three. Nevertheless, the Committee insisted, so here goes:

In 3rd place, Alan Buribayev Conducts Chopin, with an exciting programme of Czech, Polish and Finnish music including Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 2 in F Minor played by Alexander Romanovsky, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in April.

In 2nd place, Michael Petrov Performs Tchaikovsky, including a magical performance of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No 4 in A Major, and Michael Petrov giving us a spellbinding performance of Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Rory Macdonald, at the Royal and Derngate, in February.

In 1st place, A Night at the Ballet, a superb programme of ballet music including Delibes’ Sylvia Suite and Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre, with Nathan Fifield conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, at the Royal and Derngate, in June. A clean sweep for the RPO!

Best Entertainment Show of the Year.

This means anything that doesn’t fall into any other categories – for example pantos, circuses, revues and anything else hard to classify. Very few contenders this year, and it looks remarkably like last year’s awards, but here’s the top three:

In 3rd place, the unstoppable Damian Williams starring in Peter Pan at the Lyceum Theatre in Sheffield in January 2019.

In 2nd place, the humour-enhanced reincarnation of the Burlesque Show at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in January 2018.

In 1st place, the utter filth and pure showbiz hilarity of Snow White at the London Palladium in December.

Best Star Standup of the Year.

Eight big-name stand-up comics qualify for this year, and it’s very difficult to judge because they were all excellent in their own way, so I can only rank them in the order that I enjoyed their show. I only listed a top three last year but this time I need a top five:

In 5th place, the beautifully constructed and thought provoking Choose Your Battles tour from Lucy Porter, Underground at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in April.

In 4th place, the fearless use of a range of awkward subjects brilliantly mixed up by Paul Chowdhry in his Live Innit tour, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in March.

In 3rd place, the quirkily intellectual and extremely clever Total Eclipse of Descartes tour by Rob Newman, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in November.

In 2nd place, and the winner of last year’s best Screaming Blue stand-up, the sheer delight of Daliso Chaponda and his What The African Said tour, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in February.

In 1st place, on unbeatable form, the fantastic Devil May Care tour by Marcus Brigstocke, at the Royal and Derngate in October.

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

It’s been a great year of Screaming Blue Murder nights; a longlist of seventeen comics brought forward a shortlist of seven and here are the top five:

In 5th place, hilarious and outrageous as always, Robert White (28th September)

In 4th place, for his ability to invest a room with such sheer happiness, Jonny Awsum (13th April)

In 3rd place, always expect the unexpected with the extraordinary Russell Hicks (16th February)

In 2nd place, a new name to me and a superb talent with refreshing material, Stefano Paolini (12th October)

In 1st place, again, a first timer at Screaming Blue (I believe) but what a gifted way of weaving comedy magic out of some tough material, Sean Meo (14th September)

Last year, the Committee introduced a new category; as we continue to see so many stand-up comedy acts in other clubs, such as the Leicester Comedy Festival, Bluelight Comedy, Upfront Comedy Shows and Edinburgh Try-outs in various locations, here’s the Best of the Rest Stand-up Award. Again, a long longlist of nineteen was whittled down to a shortlist of ten, and here’s the top five:

In 5th place, the sheer professionalism and endless inventiveness of Patrick Monahan, in the Edinburgh Try-out of his show, Goals, at the Comedy Crate Festival, Black Prince, Northampton in July.

In 4th place, the fantastic delivery and fresh material of Drew Fraser (Upfront Comedy) at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in November.

In 3rd place, the musical madness and effervescence of Friz Frizzle, Song Ruiner (Leicester Comedy Festival, Late Night Jokes On Us, Manhattan 34 Bar, Leicester) in February.

In 2nd place, the fantastic comedy character creation that is Barbara Nice (Upfront Comedy Slam) at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in February.

In 1st place, a solid gold discovery of great confident delivery and material, Kane Brown (Upfront Comedy Slam) at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in February.

Best Musical.

I saw seventeen musicals this year, and only – perhaps – three weren’t really up to scratch. So that meant it was a tough choice to come up with a top five. But I did it!

In 5th place, and still very fresh in the memory, the superb production of Kiss Me Kate at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, in January 2019.

In 4th place, the invigorating and hugely emotional revival of Barnum, at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London, in February.

In 3rd place, the stunningly technological revival of Chess at the London Coliseum that we saw in May.

In 2nd place, the visually and musically overpowering experience that is the new look Les Miserables, at the Curve Theatre Leicester, in November.

In 1st place, believe the hype, it simply blew us both away; Hamilton at the Victoria Palace Theatre, London in December.

Best New Play.

Just to clarify, this is my definition of a new play, which is something that’s new to me and to most of its audience – so it might have been around before but on its first UK tour, or a new adaptation of a work originally in another format. I’ve seen 14 such plays this year; one of which we left at the interval, but most of the rest were very good indeed. Here’s my top five:

In 5th place, Alan Bennett’s quirky, funny and sad examination of the current state of the NHS in Allelujah, at the Bridge Theatre, London in July.

In 4th place, the very challenging and in many ways absolutely bonkers A Very Very Very Dark Matter, at the Bridge Theatre, London, in October.

In 3rd place, a production which most other people didn’t seem to appreciate but I thought was masterful in so many ways, Kiss of the Spider Woman at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London, in March.

In 2nd place, the abstract, fanciful, and totally adorable, Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in April.

In 1st place, the heart-stopping, tragic, hilarious and exciting The Lovely Bones, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in October.

Best Revival of a Play.

I saw twenty revivals, the majority of which were absolute smashers. Eight made the shortlist; here’s the top five:

In 5th place, the immaculate characterisation and brilliantly realised humour of The Merry Wives of Windsor by the RSC in Stratford in August.

In 4th place, the powerful performances and clarity of story-telling of Timon of Athens, by the RSC in Stratford in December.

In 3rd place, the brilliantly clever updating of Tartuffe by the RSC in Stratford in September.

In 2nd place, the eye-opening and redefining version of Hamlet by the RSC touring to the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in February.

In 1st place, the fabulously funny and joyful revival of The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, by the RSC in Stratford in April.

A clean sweep for the RSC is pretty amazing! However, as always, in the post-Christmas season, time to consider the turkey of the year – and my biggest disappointment was the tedious and generally pointless production of Macbeth, also by the RSC in Stratford in April.

Now we come on to our four categories specifically for the Edinburgh Fringe. The first is:

Best play – Edinburgh

We saw 20 plays in Edinburgh, and here are the top 5:

In 5th place, the individual tour-de-force of and by Alison Skilbeck in Are There More of You? (Assembly Hall)

In 4th place, another gripping solo performance in Fear No Colours’ Tonight with Donny Stixx (The Space @ Jury’s Inn)

In 3rd place, the very funny and beautifully written Gayface, written by Chet Wilson (The Space on North Bridge)

In 2nd place, the anarchic and hilarious Holy Sh*t by Jack Fairhurst (Paradise in the Vault)

In 1st place, the play that had us in stitches for the first 75% and then tears for the rest of it, Sheffield University Theatre Company’s incredible My Mate Dave Died by Mike Alexander (Greenside @ Infirmary Street)

Best Individual Performance in a Play – Edinburgh

As always, a really hard one to decide as so many Edinburgh plays are true ensemble efforts. Nevertheless, here are the top three:

In 3rd place, Wilf Walsworth for My Mate Dave Died (Greenside @ Infirmary Street)

In 2nd place, Alison Skilbeck for Are There More of You? (Assembly Hall)

In 1st place, Chris Duffy for Tonight with Donny Stixx (The Space @ Jury’s Inn)

Best stand-up comedy show – Edinburgh

Only eight shows this year gives this top three:

In 3rd place, still as funny as ever but this year eclipsed by a couple of truly brilliant shows, Spank! (Underbelly Cowgate)

In 2nd place, a comic we have seen many times before but never on fire like this, the fantastic Abigoliah Schamaun in Do You Know Who I Think I Am?! (Underbelly Cowgate)

In 1st place, someone who tickled our funnybone in a way it hadn’t been tickled before, Olaf FalafelThere’s no I in idiot (Laughing Horse @ The Pear Tree)

Best of the rest – Edinburgh

A short list of ten provides this top five, which was agony to choose, so I decided to favour new talent over more established artists:

In 5th place, the always hilarious and increasingly popular Foil Arms and Hog, Craicling (Underbelly Bristo Square)

In 4th place, the emotion-packed and fantastically musical, John Partridge – Stripped (Assembly Checkpoint)

In 3rd place, always worth getting up early for a bizarre version of Taming of the Shrew with Shakespeare for Breakfast (C Venues, Chambers Street)

In 2nd place, a brilliant comedy find from the likeable Patrick McPherson and Zac Peel – Camels (Underbelly Bristo Square)

In 1st place, throwing away all the rule books, the brilliant Garry Starr Performs Everything (Underbelly Cowgate)

This year’s Edinburgh turkey, which was so awful we had to walk out at a convenient break (along with the majority of the audience), was Hillary’s Kitchen (The Space @ Surgeon’s Hall)

Best Local Production

This would normally include the productions by the University of Northampton students, the Royal and Derngate Actors’ Company, the Youth Companies, local theatre groups and the National Theatre Connections. However, of these groups, I only saw productions by the University students, so they sweep the board!

In 5th place, the 2018-19 3rd Year Students’ production of A Christmas Carol at the Isham Dark Studio in December.

In 4th place, Ytho’s production of O,FFS that they took to Edinburgh, but which I saw at the University in October.

In 3rd place, from the Flash Festival, Blue Shift Theatre’s production of Deciding What to do with Dad.

In 2nd place, again from the Flash Festival, Open Eye Theatre’s production of Drained.

In 1st place, the 2017-18 3rd Year Students’ production of Accused at St Peter’s Church in February.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical.

Time to get personal. Here are the top five, they were all fantastic in their own way:

In 5th place, Sharon Rose as Eliza Hamilton in Hamilton at the Victoria palace, London, in December.

In 4th place, Alexandra Burke as Svetlana in Chess at the London Coliseum in May.

In 3rd place, Rebecca Lock as Lilli/Katherine in Kiss Me Kate at the Crucible Theatre Sheffield in January 2019.

In 2nd place, Laura Pitt-Pulford as Charity in Barnum at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London in February.

In 1st place, Caroline Quentin as the Duchess of Hareford in Me and My Girl at the Festival Theatre, Chichester in August.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical.

Nine performances in the shortlist, producing this top five:

In 5th place, Ash Hunter as Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton at the Victoria Palace, London, in December.

In 4th place, Killian Donnelly as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables at the Curve Theatre Leicester, in November.

In 3rd place, Tim Howar as Freddie in Chess at the London Coliseum in May.

In 2nd place, Dom Hartley-Harris as George Washington in Hamilton at the Victoria Palace, London, in December.

In 1st place, Callum Francis as Lola in Kinky Boots at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in September.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Play.

Fourteen in the rather long shortlist, but here’s the top five:

In 5th place, Penelope Keith as Mrs St Maugham in The Chalk Garden, at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in June.

In 4th place, Sophie Stanton as Mrs Rich in The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, in April.

In 3rd place, Zoe Wanamaker as Meg in The Birthday Party at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, in February.

In 2nd place, Kathryn Turner as Timon in Timon of Athens, at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon in December.

In 1st place, Charlotte Beaumont as Susie in The Lovely Bones at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in September.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Play.

Another long shortlist, with eighteen contenders in my shortlist, but here is the top five:

In 5th place, a short appearance, but what a masterclass, Sir Antony Sher as Nicolas in One for the Road, part of Pinter One, at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, in October.

In 4th place, Ben Whishaw as Brutus in Julius Caesar, at the Bridge Theatre, London, in March.

In 3rd place, Jude Owusu as Tamburlaine in Tamburlaine the Great, at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, in September.

In 2nd place, Toby Jones as Stanley in The Birthday Party at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, in February.

In 1st place, Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet in the RSC’s Hamlet, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in March.

Theatre of the Year.

For the fourth year running there’s no change in the Number one theatre but we have a new Number two! Continuing to present an extraordinary range of drama and entertainment, this year’s Theatre of the Year is the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, with RSC’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre/Swan Theatre as runner-up.

Didn’t quite exceed last year’s record number of shows seen but still managed to do quite well with 178 productions in all. Thanks to you gentle reader for continuing to read my theatre reviews. Let’s look forward to another wonderful year of theatre in 2019!

Review of the Year 2016 – The Seventh Annual Chrisparkle Awards

It’s time again for the whole Chrisparkle team to meet in secret (well, in the living room) to determine who should win the gongs in this year’s annual Chrisparkle Awards. The world of the arts is once again on tenterhooks to discover who will be the chosen few. Eligibility for the awards means a) they were performed in the UK and b) I have to have seen the shows and blogged about them in the period 15th January 2016 to 13th January 2017.

Let’s do this thing!

The first award is for Best Dance Production (Contemporary and Classical)

We saw five dance productions this year and this is the top three:

In 3rd place, the exciting return of Nederlands Dans Theater 2 with their unpredictable mixed programme at the Birmingham Hippodrome in May.
In 2nd place, the amazing story-telling and fantastic performances in Drew McOnie’s Jekyll and Hyde at the Old Vic in May.
In 1st place, for the fourth time in five years, the breathtaking programme by the literally unbeatable Richard Alston Dance Company that we saw at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in October.

Classical Music Concert of the Year.

Of the five concerts we saw in 2016, these are the top three:

In 3rd place, the stirring eleventh Malcolm Arnold Festival, The Voice of the People Gala Concert with the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by John Gibbons, with soloist Craig Ogden, at the Royal and Derngate, in October.
In 2nd place, Alexandra Dariescu Performs Rachmaninov, a programme of German and Russian music with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Fabien Gabel, at the Royal and Derngate, in May.
In 1st place, the storming Alan Buribayev conducts Sheherazade, with soloist Anna-Liisa Bezrodny, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal and Derngate, in February.

Best Entertainment Show of the Year.

By which I mean anything else that doesn’t fall into any other categories – for example pantos, circuses, revues and anything else hard to classify. Very hotly contended this year so we’re going to have to have a top five – and last year’s winner, the annual Burlesque Show, which, whilst excellent as always, doesn’t feature in the charts this year!

In 5th place, the wacky surrealism of Spymonkey’s The Complete Deaths at the Royal in May.
In 4th place, the supremely inventive and unfailingly polite Jamie Raven at the Royal and Derngate in June.
In 3rd place, another magic act, the brilliant and funny Pete Firman in TriX, at the Royal in November.
In 2nd place, the filthy and hilarious Cinderella, at the London Palladium, in December.
In 1st place, the masterclass of hilarious mime that is The Boy with Tape on His Face at the Royal, in November.

Best Star Standup of the Year.

We saw eleven big-name stand-up comics this year, and they were all various shades of brilliant! So it’s going to be hard to whittle them down to a top five:

In 5th place, the long lasting warm glow of an evening spent in the company of Tommy Tiernan (Out of the Whirlwind Tour), at the Royal in March.
In 4th place, the ever-waspish and never unfunny Julian Clary (The Joy of Mincing Tour) at the Royal and Derngate in April.
In 3rd place, the supremely intelligent and devastatingly funny Dane Baptiste (Reasonable Doubts Tour), Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, in March.
In 2nd place, simply because he finally allowed me to laugh at the Brexit result with all my pain proudly on display, Marcus Brigstocke (Why the Long Face Tour) at the Royal in October.
In 1st place, the woman of the moment, and that’s because she just makes you laugh so much, Sarah Millican (Outsider Tour), at the Royal and Derngate in July.

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

As ever, a hotly contested award; now that the JAM Comedy club shows have started at the Ark, comics appearing there are also eligible for this award. From a very very long shortlist, here are the top five:

In 5th place, the infectiously manic stupidity of Steve Best (16th September)
In 4th place, larking around where angels fear to tread, Tez Ilyas (21st October)
In 3rd place, the new prince of high camp, Stephen Bailey (4th November)
In 2nd place, turning a gig into a party, the awesome Jonny Awsum (18th March)
In 1st place, last year’s winner and still unbeatable, Ian Cognito (21st October)

Best Musical.

Like last year, this is a combination of new musicals and revivals; I only saw eight this year but they were (almost) all excellent! Here are the top five:

In 5th place, the wonderful depiction of Latino life in Washington Heights lived to the full, In The Heights, that we saw at the Kings Cross Theatre in December.
In 4th place, the captivating and satisfying revival of Sondheim’s Into The Woods, at the Menier Chocolate Factory, that we saw in September.
In 3rd place, the stunning revival of Funny Girl, at the Menier Chocolate Factory, that we saw in February.
In 2nd place, the show I hadn’t wanted to see, just caught it before it closed, and I’m so glad I did, Bend It Like Beckham, that we saw at the Phoenix Theatre, in February.
In 1st place, because it’s text book in how to stage a show and gives you such a feelgood factor, Half A Sixpence, that we saw at the Noel Coward Theatre in December.

Best New Play.

Just to clarify, this is my definition of a new play, which is something that’s new to me and to most of its audience – 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, as you have to compare such different genres; but somehow I chose a top three from the eight contenders:

In 3rd place, actually three plays, the extraordinary National Theatre of Scotland production of The James Plays, at the Royal and Derngate Theatre, Northampton in April.
In 2nd place, the brilliantly written and performed The Herbal Bed, at the Royal Theatre, in February.
In 1st place, the hauntingly unforgettable Soul, at the Royal Theatre, in May.

Best Revival of a Play.

Saw ten revivals, all of which were worthy of consideration. Here’s the top five:

In 5th place, the highly innovative and enjoyable reworking of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, co-produced by the R&D and the National Youth Theatre, at the Royal Theatre, in June.
In 4th place, breathing new life into a play that could easily be a little sterile, Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land, at Wyndham’s Theatre in October.
In 3rd place, the hilarious and brutally honest revival of Terry Johnson’s Dead Funny, at the Vaudeville Theatre, in December.
In 2nd place, Christopher Luscombe’s electric production of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in October.
In 1st place, the production that had me sweating with excitement and exhilaration, the late Howard Davies’ production of Christopher Hampton’s new translation of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in May.

As always, in the post-Christmas season, time to consider the turkey of the year – the one that stuffed us all as the biggest disappointment was the drabfest that was Breakfast at Tiffany’s at the Curve Theatre, Leicester, in March.

Now we come on to our four categories specifically for the Edinburgh Fringe. The first is:

Best play – Edinburgh

We saw 16 plays in Edinburgh, and here are the top 5:

In 5th place, the elegant and moving story of post World War One England with Aulos Productions’ Lest We Forget (Bedlam Theatre)
In 4th place, the funny and unsettling Partial Nudity produced by Fandango Productions (Monkey House @ Zoo)
In 3rd place, the stunning one-man play set against Cardiff’s nightlife, Saturday Night Forever, produced by Aberystwyth Arts Centre and Joio (Underbelly Med Quad)
In 2nd place, the brilliantly stereotype-challenging Jumping The Barriers by The Courtyard Players (Space on The Mile)
In 1st place, the emotionally charged and truly creative Us/Them by Bronks/Made in Belgium (Summerhall)

Best Individual Performance in a Play – Edinburgh

This was a very difficult choice this year as most of the plays we saw were superb ensemble efforts where you couldn’t (well I couldn’t) identify one particular individual over the rest of the cast. However, I have no hesitation in recommending to you this top three:

In 3rd place, Adam J S Smith for Jumping The Barriers (Space on the Mile)
In 2nd place, Chris Daley for Jumping The Barriers (Space on the Mile)
In 1st place, Delme Thomas for Saturday Night Forever (Underbelly Med Quad)

Best stand-up comedy show – Edinburgh

Thirteen shows but a shortlist of just four gives this top three:

In 3rd place, for the honesty of his material the likeable and hilarious Dave Chawner (Cabaret Voltaire)
In 2nd place, for nailing the Zeitgeist with 10 Things I Hate About UKIP, Joe Wells (T-Bar)
In 1st place, again, the unmissable late night laughter line-up that is Spank! (Underbelly Cowgate)

Best of the rest – Edinburgh
This has been a ridiculously hard choice to make and I have to leave out at least seven brilliant shows that I would happily see again. Still, no one said life is easy. Here’s the top five: (As an aside, I was called out of the audience to participate in three of them!)

In 5th place, for brilliant impressions in a cleverly constructed show, Luke Kempner’s Judi Dench Broke My Heart (Pleasance Dome)
In 4th place, one of the best (arguably THE best) variety line-ups ever assembled and hosted brilliantly, Lili la Scala’s Another F*cking Variety Show (Pleasance Dome)
In 3rd place, the quick-fire inventive sketches that featured me but also Foil Arms and Hog – Doomdah! (Underbelly Cowgate)
In 2nd place, early morning hilarity with a beautifully written and performed subversion of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare for Breakfast (C Venues, Chambers Street)
In 1st place, a truly winning combination of parody, pressure and hot pan, Kev’s Komedy Kitchen (Just the Tonic at the Mash House)

This year’s Edinburgh turkey, which wasn’t as bad as all that, (although it wasn’t that great either) was the two-hander play involving night-club Mafia, The Club.

And now for a new award. This year I have seen many more local productions. They are mainly (but not exclusively) by students at the University of Northampton; but there are also the Royal and Derngate Actors’ Company, the Youth Companies, other local theatre groups and the National Theatre Connections to consider. So this is the First ever Chrisparkle award for Best Local Production – taking all aspects of the production into account.

In 5th place, from the Flash Festival, Infuse Theatre Company’s X or Y
In 4th place, by the current 3rd year students at the University, She Echoes
In 3rd place, again from the Flash Festival, La Zenna Theatre Company’s The Final Cut
In 2nd place, the Royal and Derngate’s Actors’ Company’s production of Market Boy at the Royal Theatre.
In 1st place, the University’s production of Blue Stockings at the Royal Theatre.

Best film

I only saw four last year, and, while I have to recognise the brilliance of I Daniel Blake, personal involvement (including being an extra in it) means I must award it to The Girl With All The Gifts. If you haven’t seen it – See it!!

Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical.

This is where it gets personal. Nine contenders in the shortlist, and here are the top three:

In 3rd place, Emma Williams as Helen in Half a Sixpence at the Noel Coward Theatre in December.
In 2nd place, Devon-Elise Johnson as Ann in Half a Sixpence at the Noel Coward Theatre in December.
In 1st place, Sheridan Smith as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl at the Menier Chocolate Factory, in February.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical.

Eight fine performances in the shortlist, producing this top three:

In 3rd place, Tony Jayawardena as Mr Bhamra in Bend it Like Beckham at the Phoenix Theatre, in February.
In 2nd place, Sam Mackay as Usnavi in In The Heights, at the Kings Cross Theatre in December.
In 1st place, Charlie Stemp as Kipps in Half a Sixpence at the Noel Coward Theatre in December.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Play.

Very tough one, this one. Thirteen in the shortlist, but here’s the top five:

In 5th place, Sophie Walter as Prosper in The Tempest at the Royal in June.
In 4th place, Adjoa Andoh as Alberta in Soul at the Royal in May.
In 3rd place, Clare Foster as Cecily in Travesties at the Menier Chocolate Factory, in October.
In 2nd place, Lisa Dillon as Rosaline in Love’s Labour’s Lost and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing at the Festival Theatre, Chichester in October.
In 1st place, Katherine Parkinson as Eleanor in Dead Funny at the Vaudeville Theatre in December.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Play.

The most hotly fought for award, with twenty contenders in my shortlist, and I whittled it down to this:

In 5th place, Hugh Bonneville as Dr Stockmann in An Enemy of the People, at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in May.
In 4th place, Tom Hollander as Henry Carr in Travesties, at the Menier Chocolate Factory, in October.
In 3rd place, Nathan Ives-Moiba as Marvin Gaye Jnr in Soul at the Royal Theatre in May.
In 2nd place, Sir Ian McKellen as Spooner in No Man’s Land at Wyndham’s Theatre in October.
In 1st place, Edward Bennett as Berowne in Love’s Labour’s Lost and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing at the Festival Theatre, Chichester in October.

Theatre of the Year.

For the second year running there’s no change in the Number one and Number two theatres! Presenting an extraordinary range of drama and entertainment, this year’s Theatre of the Year is the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, with the Festival Theatre/Minerva Theatre in Chichester as runner-up.

It’s been another fantastic year – 140 productions seen in all – and thanks to you gentle reader for continuing to read my theatre reviews. Let’s look forward to another wonderful year of theatre in 2017!

Review – Paul Merton, Out of My Head, Derngate, Northampton, 14th April 2012

Paul Merton - Out of my HeadSo, Paul Merton: “a return to your stand up roots for the first time this century”, according to your flyer. I can just about accept that. “A return to stand up” say some theatres’ websites. No: that is inaccurate. “Paul Merton, Out of my Head” is not a stand up show. However, actually defining what it is proves rather tricky. I think the closest you can get to it is that it is actually a fully scripted play for four performers. The text contains elements of stand up, of improvisation and of sketches, but the whole structure of the show serves to distance the audience from these elements, rather than communicate the content (and presumably some humour) to them. So unless Paul Merton’s gone all Brechtian on us, this show simply misses the mark.

The other main aspect to this offering is that it really isn’t at all funny; which is more than a shame really, because that’s precisely the reason you went out to see this show in the first place. It’s an autobiographical look-back at his life from his childhood to the present day, with a heavy concentration on his mental health problems. But you can’t compare this with, say, Ruby Wax’s Losing It, where she completely strips herself bare (figuratively speaking) and gives you first-hand genuine insight into her mental condition and her practical coping strategies. Paul Merton doesn’t open the door to his inner recesses at all. If anything, the real Paul Merton is wrapped and kept hidden well away from our prying eyes and ears. By not letting us into his real thoughts, you feel the whole thing is mere window-dressing, a deliberate obfuscation rather than using comedy to reveal the truth.

BrunelFor some unexplained reason, the set and promotional literature suggest a Victorian theme, and I suppose it is true that some of the material – the ventriloquist act, “black light” theatre animation, for example – may have been around in those days. Maybe it relates to one of the funnier lines, that Have I Got News For You has been around so long that one of its first presenters was Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Otherwise, I can’t see the point. Some of that black theatre animation was good, mind you. I liked how the ventriloquist dummy came to life, and how Sister Galista spread out all over the backdrop. Note to performers though – I don’t think The Black Theatre of Prague ever wore trainers with white flashings – kind of gives the game away.

Belisha BeaconTo be honest, I didn’t see the point of most of it. There’s a Belisha Beacon type thing that lights up and alerts every time Paul Merton swears. Given the fact that he doesn’t swear as much as most comics, it’s totally irrelevant. He constantly returns to “Little Paul”, the ventriloquist dummy of himself, but it’s not as though the dummy says the things that the real Paul wants to, but can’t, say. I’m not sure why he’s there – certainly not for humour. Little Paul, along with the rest of the cast, are all dressed like Paul Merton in his light grey suit. They all look like him; they all talk about him; it’s all about him; you sense this is therapy by vanity.

I’d like to be able to say that his supporting cast were there to lighten the mood and create a comedy buffer zone that you could dip in and out of; unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the case. Rather than they bringing the overall performance up, I think Paul Merton dragged theirs down. Certainly nearly all the little sketches were weighed down by pointless unfunniness, leaving gaps where we were meant to laugh and applaud that just got filled with embarrassing silence. On those occasions where they did have a good comic idea, it got done to death. Additionally, Suki Webster got the words to the finale song wrong which emphasised the air of amateurishness.

So explain this then? I find Paul Merton very funny when I see him on “Have I Got News For You”, and when he’s on radio’s “Just a Minute”. But this show is hugely disappointing. He seems to be at his best when he’s interacting with other people, talking as unscripted as possible, and doing his celebrated flights of absurd fancy sequences. Sadly this show has very little, if any, of that. There is an “improvisation” sequence, which perked the show up a little – just because it was a change of pace – but again it showed off the performers’ technical ability more than actually being “funny”.

car-crash Quite a few people left halfway through. At only 1 hour 50 minutes, it’s a short show including the interval but I’m reminded of clouds and silver linings. The odd thing is, that, despite all this criticism, both Mrs C and I found it strangely watchable – we’re not sure why, as it wasn’t for the comedy. It wasn’t even the ghoulish pleasure of witnessing a car-crash – it didn’t have enough energy to crash. To be fair, there were a few laughs occasionally tucked away, frequently when he was quoting other, funnier, people like Max Miller and Julian Clary. I think only the politeness of the audience and their overall respect for his back catalogue prevented him from being mercilessly heckled. A fairly full house was buzzing before it started but had flatlined by the end. This is touring till the end of May, so you’d better bring your own jokes with you. An evening of Slight Entertainment.

Review – Oedipussy, Spymonkey, Royal & Derngate, Northampton, 15th February 2012

OedipussyIf you’re going to update a Greek tragedy, you might as well go the whole hog. Spymonkey’s latest production, born in Northampton and on the road until May, takes the mythical king from his youthful days in Corinth (“Corinth, Corinth”) to becoming the ruler of Thebes (“Thebes, Thebes”), making sure to include killing dad Laius at the crossroads, and marrying mum Jocasta, and encounters with Tiresias, the Sphinx, the Oracle, and the shepherds Lucky and Plucky (I think they made those names up.) You have to hand it to them – not only is it an evening of ludicrous comedy, they actually take you through the Oedipus story in quite a structured way. In all honesty you wouldn’t recommend it to the Fifth Form studying for exams, but I think Sophocles and Euripides would approve. No half hog here.

Apparently their inspiration for digging deep into serious legend came as a result of a bad review by Joyce McMillan – the name gets repeated a few times – in the Scotsman, of their show “Moby Dick”. It’s true – she really didn’t enjoy it. So I’d better be careful what I say lest I end up part of the introduction to their next show. It was the “bunch of middle-aged actors” line that really got Petra Massey’s goat – and I agree with her: if they really are the ages they say they are – and you get the feeling this is a company that would tell the truth – then I am older than all of them, and I’m still young, so there. If that review really was the kick up the backside they felt they needed – tongue in cheek no doubt – then jolly good show, because this is a very exuberant and entertaining experience, mixing Greek myth with James Bond and much more besides.

We’d actually seen the opening scene before – they performed it at the Royal and Derngate’s Subscription Launch – and it’s a wonderfully subversive and unusual way to open a show. By introducing you to the four actors, it cleverly gives you an initial insight into their characters and their roles within the company; and begins a link that runs throughout the evening of their coming out of character and engaging with the audience, as themselves, on whatever is playing on their mind. It’s quite a fun device for the actors to address the audience anyway – you feel you’re as much part of their evening as they are of yours – but it’s particularly rewarding when they’re talking about their fellow cast-members behind their back.

There’s no doubt at all that these four performers are naturally funny people, and, when you realise they have clown backgrounds, it all makes sense. I bet they could all do solo pieces that would fit perfectly in something like The Burlesque Show. They have a fluidity of movement, very expressive facial and eye movements, and above all, don’t give two hoots about how stupidly they are dressed (or not), which is handy in this production as most of the time they look like adverts for Tena. You get the feeling they are very brave performers who would go to the end of the world (stage-wise) if the art warranted it.

Petra MasseyI guess no one in this cast is braver than Petra Massey, who plays the Sphinx as half woman half cat but with a vital misinterpretation. Her chats with the audience were also amongst the most entertaining. When she suddenly breaks off and shares how the Oedipus story reflects her own life, it was very funny, and very believable, as was the way she went back into character. She also has a wonderful moment of comic business with what she does with a sheep sacrifice. Toby Park I also really liked Toby Park’s rather miserable soliloquy, lamenting his currently woeful job, knowing he’s capable of so much better than this, handing out his graphic and web design consultancy business cards at the end – which appear to be genuine – although he won’t get any work via his website as it requires a password to get in! He was also great as Tiberias, and as the Chorus whose hat looks like the icon for my spam folder.

Stephan KreissStephan Kreiss makes for a delightfully unhinged young Oedipus, let loose into the world and desperately seeking a shag, which you might get if you’re in the front row. As an older Oedipus he cuts a commanding figure – his lovey-dovey scenes with Jocasta are very funny and his tragic hero scenes are brilliantly over-the-top. Aitor BasauriAitor Basauri makes up the foursome, his physical appearance being especially unsuited to nappies. As Laius, his teaching Chrysippus how to wield a discus is scarily sensual. I also loved him alternating as Lucky and Plucky and his devotion to his sheep is inventively done.

Other highlights include his appearance as a singalong leper colony – really funny and so skilfully performed; the Oracle, whose eyes have something of Alice in Wonderland’s Pig Babies about them and the effective representation of blood and death. Jocasta’s was hilarious. I also loved the predictable but hilarious consequences of having headgear too large for the entrance door onto the stage. Simple ideas often work best.

If I have a criticism, it would be that, as a whole, it is so frothy, so cappuccino, so light in its touch, that actually, on the way home, there isn’t a lot to discuss. It’s very funny, end of. It’s also a Marmite production – I would say for every eight people laughing riotously, there were two sitting stony-faced. If you don’t get totally ridiculous comedy, I don’t think you’d like it. Mrs Chrisparkle adored it; I liked it a lot. This was our first Spymonkey experience; we’d definitely see them again and would recommend this show if you’re an aficionado of the ultra-daft.

Review – The King and I, Derngate, Northampton, 9th February 2012

The King and IAhhhh, “The King and I”, one of Mrs Chrisparkle’s favourite films. The very title sums up an era of lavish musicals and escapist exoticism, and makes you go, “Ahhhhh”. Mrs C confessed she normally cries at the end, so I knew I would have to be on tearwatch alert. I don’t think I’ve seen the film – I’ve seen very few really – but the songs were always favourites of me dear old mother, and one of my earliest memories is being allowed to play her 78rpm record of Getting To Know You, then putting it on the floor, kneeling on it and breaking it in two. The perils of shellac.

There’s no doubt that someone has done something right with this touring production, born at the Leicester Curve, as the Derngate was packed on Thursday night and indeed I think the whole week has been more or less a sell-out.

There are lots of good things to say about this show. Primarily, the appreciative audience really loved it and gave it a very enthusiastic reception. I think it’s fair to say that many of them were Of A Certain Generation; some probably remembered the film coming out in 1952, a few were possibly even around in the days it was set in 1862. But they loved it, so if you match the target demographic with the show, it’s a total success, and I’m all for that.

Ramon TikaramMy guess is there’s no one quite like Yul Brynner, and comparisons are always going to be odious, but Ramon Tikaram gives a fine performance as the King. He has a very gutsy voice and sings splendidly. His rather wayward hair impresses with a suitably exotic manner and he does the important aspects of the king – petulance, self-doubt and a growing warmth to his newly acquired member of staff – very convincingly. I liked his subtle throw-away facial expressions when Anna was introduced to his 67 children – very nice. Mrs C used to work with someone who knew his sister Tanita.

Now for my first less-than-complimentary note of the night. Anna is normally played by Josefina Gabrielle, a fine actress, whom we loved in Sweet Charity, and whose casting was the final clincher on whether or not to book the tickets. Always a fatal mistake to book on the strength of an actor, because you never know when they’re off sick and will be played by an understudy – but that’s the rules of theatrical engagement and it’s right to give the understudy all the respect and indeed encouragement they deserve. However, on this tour, Ms Gabrielle has decided she wants one day off a week and, in Northampton, Thursday was decreed to be her duvet day. You can’t tell from the King and I website which shows she’s not doing, but only by going to the individual theatres’ websites to see if they mention it. When I realised we’d booked for her day off, I have to tell you I was pretty miffed. Being sick is one thing; escaping or having a better offer is another. In my mind, it doesn’t say much for her regard for her audience. It makes you feel like you’re not that important to her. So if you are a fan of Ms Gabrielle, check she plans to show up the same night as you. I am going to move on now.

Lori Haley Fox“Alternative Anna” was therefore played by Lori Haley Fox; and she has a beautiful singing voice and absolutely looks the part. I felt she was a cross between Maureen Lipman and Joyce Grenfell, although not particularly Lipman as Grenfell, if you see what I mean. She put Mrs C in mind of Julie Andrews – and I can see the likeness, perfectly clipped syllables and splendid diction. At times I didn’t get a huge sense of emotion from her though. When she sings the song “Shall I tell you what I think of you” when she is venting her spleen with frustration at the way the King behaves, I thought she was a little too polite and reserved. But she did sing “Hello Young Lovers” very touchingly, and her “Shall we dance” with the King, both romping round the stage, was a delight.

Claire-Marie HallContinuing the theme of beautiful singing – and this production is notable for that – I really enjoyed the performance of Claire-Marie Hall as Tup-Tim, the new bride from Burma who is secretly in love with Adrian Li Donni’s Lun Tha. She sings like a dream, and her tragic story makes a really strong subplot. Their love scenes together are very tender and affecting, and really delicately done. I didn’t know how the story was to unfold and was quite upset that it didn’t end happily ever after.

Maya SaponeI wasn’t quite so sure, however, about Maya Sapone’s Lady Thiang. She makes a splendidly authoritarian chief wife, delivers the lines amusingly and effectively and looks the part perfectly; but I wasn’t sure about her singing. It seemed as though she ran out of breath and or saliva during the song “Something Wonderful”, and I found it a strangely uncomfortable performance. Maybe she wasn’t very well.

Matthew RussellThe rest of the cast are all absolutely fine in their roles and a “big up” to thirteen year old Matthew Russell who played the part of Anna’s son Louis at the show we saw – quietly confident, sure-footed, a very good singer, perfect demeanour; all in all a very enjoyable performance.

But I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t highlight a couple of things that really got on my nerves with this show. First – the set. If you read other reviews of this production you will see comments on how magnificent the staging is, how lovely the set, glorious the lighting and so on. Well, it is; but there is a big problem. The show has so many changes of scenery – not only does each of its eleven scenes take place in a new location (obviously) but within those scenes they’ve decided to do things like move the big Buddhas, bring down a light screen and have silhouettes behind, and similar kinds of exotic effects; and in order to achieve this, they have to trundle on massive tall screens that move – rather noisily and distractingly – in front of the set, backwards and forwards, meeting in the middle, moving apart, so that changes can be made to the beautiful set behind. The bizarre consequence of this is that – it seemed to me – an awful lot of the action ended up taking place in front of these screens on a tiny strip of stage, cramping the otherwise expansive nature of the staging. Added to which, the screens themselves are plain and rather ugly. You would guess you were looking at the back of them. I found it really irritating.

Second – and there’s nothing anyone can do about this – the show comes from an era where it was de rigueur to have a “dream ballet sequence”. I blame Oklahoma. In “The King and I”, it comes in the form of a play within a play: Tup-Tim’s version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin – designed to ruffle the feathers of the King in its criticism of slavery. It’s such a shame, because it puts the brakes on what is, up till then, a pacey, funny and rewarding second half. And, boy oh boy, does this sequence go on. It does precious little to move the story forward, and, no matter how well it is performed, how elegant the costumes, how pleasant the music, how skilled the make-up, “etcetera, etcetera and etcetera”, it is so boring. Sorry to have to say it.

To sum up, I think the name of the game here is nostalgia. There’s no doubt this production sent home over a thousand very happy people last night, as I am sure it will every night till the tour ends in May. If you think you are the kind of person who will enjoy this show, I am convinced you will. And why wouldn’t you – great songs, great singing and a huge wallowful of nostalgia. But it didn’t elicit a tear from Mrs C.

Review – Strictly Come Dancing Live, NIA, Birmingham, 21st January 2012

Strictly Come Dancing LiveMrs C and I are huge Strictly fans so it was with great delight that we unexpectedly received two surprise tickets for last Saturday’s matinee at the NIA in Birmingham. As you would expect, the place was completely packed. What strikes you when you enter the auditorium are both the expectant buzz and the extraordinary stage. The band and judges are at one end of the arena, surrounded by an extravagant light wall, and the whole central area is devoted to dance floor. Two large video screens help you see in close detail what your eyes can’t focus on, as well as being used to give amusing backstage insights.

Kate ThorntonThe host is Kate Thornton, of whom I don’t know a lot, but she’s really good at the job, as well as looking thoroughly gorgeous. Friendly and reassuring when required, but also quick-witted at stabbing a telling remark or two along the way. Actually one thing I hadn’t expected was how generally funny the whole show is. Whether it’s Kate or the judges, the dancing or the backstage shots, there is a lot to laugh at in this show, much more so in fact than on the TV programme.

JudgesLen, Bruno and Craig are the three judges and each play up their own characters admirably throughout the entire show. Len continues to rewrite the language with his strange metaphors for enthusiasm; Bruno has his over-the-top reactions and his strange body language for enthusiasm, and Craig nicely wallows in his dour reflections that may or may not encompass enthusiasm. Both Bruno and Craig “lost it” at one stage and were helpless with laughter, which was an additional delight for the audience. Craig directs the show, and has included some judgely dancing in some of the big “entr’acte” numbers, some of which he couldn’t quite perform himself, which was a laugh.

Then of course there are the contestants and their professional partners. I was quite surprised how quiet the professionals were in the post-dance chats with Kate. Personally I get attached to the professionals just as much (if not more) than with the celebrities because you get to know them over the series, so I would have perhaps liked a little more chat from them. They do have to do a lot of dancing, mind.

The show starts with a big dance from the professionals alone and to be honest, I thought it was under-rehearsed as none of them seemed to finish together and on time. I was surprised at that. They were definitely better in their individual dances with their partners and in the subsequent group dances.

Harry JuddFrom the moment the couples are introduced there is absolutely no doubt who is going to win – Harry and Aliona. There’s something about Harry (I wonder what it might be that all those middle aged women see in him) that must appeal to about 98% of the audience, as far as the allocation of whooping and cheering is concerned. To support the underdog, I was determined not to vote for him, even if he was the best, as his victory was a forgone conclusion from the start.

Robbie and KatyaEach couple dances twice. First on was Robbie Savage, partnered with Katya Virshilas. What did you make of Robbie in the TV series? I thought he was surprisingly good. Well, in the middle of the live arena, he was surprisingly awful! Yes he sells himself really well, and it’s thoroughly entertaining, but actually his dance skills are Really Not There. Katya herself, whilst talking to Kate, said that Robbie basically wasn’t very good – Kate had to remind her they were meant to be on the same side.

Anita and RobinSecond were Anita Dobson and Robin Windsor. They did their Charleston, and highly enjoyable it was. I didn’t really feel that the crowd got behind them that much, probably still suffering palpitations after the sight of Robbie’s chest. The judges were pretty impressed though. Amongst the professional dancers, I do think that Robin Windsor stands out as a really strong performer.

Mark and NatalieThird was another chest opportunity, Mark Foster with Natalie Lowe. He’s the only celebrity in the show not to have been in the most recent series, and was clearly at a disadvantage, but he performed reasonably well. Natalie’s a terrific dancer, isn’t she. She even threw in a wardrobe malfunction in her second dance for good measure, so that we almost saw both their chests.

Nancy and ArtemNext was – I think – Nancy dell’Olio who is dancing here with Artem Chigvintsev. I know someone who has met Nancy dell’Olio, and he says she’s frankly bonkers. I saw no reason to doubt his word. Her performance is very funny – especially the second dance when she cheats and has both Artem and Robin to help her – but she rarely dances a step. I couldn’t tell how genuine or acted Artem’s rather sad and resigned look is when Nancy says they need to change the choreography – he just gently backs away into the darkness. Very funny stuff.

Jason and KristinaThen you have what you might call “The Big Three”. Jason Donovan with Kristina Rihanoff first; they did their Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” number and then their Argentine Tango. Jason made a slight boo-boo on the first dance, which I confess I didn’t notice, but did a sensational tango and so I decided I would vote for them.

Chelsee and PashaNext was Chelsee Healey with Pasha Kovalev, who must think he has fallen on his feet considering this was his first series. They danced just as well as they did on the TV and gave a terrific show. The judges were wowed.

But everything else was eclipsed by Harry Judd and Aliona Vilani. When you watched the last series at home, you might have felt that the popularity for Jason, Chelsee and Harry was more or less even-stevens, and that only a poor performance by one of them would have led to more votes for one of their opponents. Not a bit of it. If this audience is anything to go by, Harry must have received more votes than all the others put together. You could barely hear anything else in the arena above the cheers for him, and he and Aliona executed two perfect dances, getting a maximum 60 points from the judges. He is the only celebrity participant who really could be a professional dancer. If he wants to change his career away from drumming, I reckon every door is open.

AlionaThey whittled it down to a final two of Harry and Chelsee but the eventual winner was never in doubt. In a sense, the weakest part of the show is that the competition element seems a little unnecessary. The series has already taken place, and the winners and runners-up have been decided. If there had been more competitors from previous series, against whom you couldn’t so easily assess this series’ celebs (imagine if Zoe Ball and Mark Ramprakash had been part of the line-up, for example) the competition would have been more interesting. Nevertheless, it’s churlish to criticise it on those grounds. It’s a terrific lively show, colourful, spectacular, engaging and very funny too. I would certainly recommend it.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground, Derngate, Northampton, 20th January 2012

Screaming Blue MurderA funny thing happened at the Screaming Blue Murder last Friday night, which is no less than you would expect with a great compere, three excellent acts and two alcohol-fuelled intervals. We’ve not been able to attend the last couple of shows so it was with some surprise that Dan Evans, compering, said he was still on the search for “the man who has been writing about him on the internet”. Mrs Chrisparkle’s penny dropped as she shuddered and whispered “keep quiet!” “So where is this Chris Sparkle?” Dan continued. It was The Moment of Outing. “It’s me!” came my voice from the third row. “You? At last I meet my nemesis!” shrieked Dan as his body contorted in a combination of victory and agony. Aaargh, I thought, this could be a very bumpy ride. But there’s no free speech without responsibility, so I faced it head on. I admit, I have been guilty of whingeing about Dan’s repeating the same jokes time and again in this blog, but then not quite as much as Dan is guilty of the afore-mentioned repeatings.

Dan Evans But actually Dan turned this very much to his advantage and was able to frame the compering of the show around my impertinent requirement for fresh material, which very nicely took the mick out of both of us. There was a great moment during one of his sessions when a lady from the front row suggested he did his joke about Luton and the book. A two-pronged attack! In response to which he did a great routine about why doing that joke would not work – and it was very funny. Maybe that should be a regular feature when Dan is compering in future – a request slot? Someone could ask for their favourite Old-Tyme Dan joke. Might go down a storm. As a peace-offering, at the end he gave me a copy of his book, which was very kind. But I had to return it after the show as I already bought a copy over a year ago.

Colin OwensAnyway, to the acts, and they were really great this week. First was Colin Owens, who had very funny insights into bad sex experiences and a nice line in combining this with his progression to baldness; very bright and inclusive, perhaps with just slightly too long a pause between some of his deliveries that made me think “oh no, please don’t lose it, it’s going really well”; but he didn’t, and it did. I loved his observations about having a Bar Mitzvah at Madame Tussauds.

Susan MurraySecond was Susan Murray, who we had seen here before doing a lot of accent-based gags, but who did largely new material (take note!) and handled a heckler very amusingly. Mrs C appreciated her observation that you only have a landline so your mother can ring it. Good stuff, and she kept the act moving really well.

Andrew BirdHeadline act was local lad Andrew Bird. What a discovery! I don’t think any of the comics who have entertained us over the three years we’ve been coming to Screaming Blue Murder have achieved such gold-standard delivery. His timing was immaculate, pacey and flowing but never rushed, giving just the right window to appreciate the now before moving on to the next; his self-confidence meant you never had a moment’s concern for how he would structure the act although this didn’t mean he was in any way big-headed but instead was immensely likeable; and you really identified with him in the comic situations he described, because his observations were so spot-on. Mrs C and I had a prolonged good laugh walking home as we remembered his account of putting the baby in the dishwasher. It’ll have to be a very special performance that snatches this year’s Chrisparkle award from Mr Bird.

So a great night, with a huge and appreciative crowd, slightly weird for me with my unexpected role in the evening’s entertainment, but we’re really looking forward to the next one!

Review – Moscow State Circus, Babushkin Sekret, Derngate, Northampton, 16th January 2012

Moscow State CircusYou’re either a circus person or you’re not. When I was young, I wanted to run away and join the circus. When Mrs C was young, she wanted to run away and join a group of travelling accountants. Well, neither of those stories are strictly true, but you get the picture of the difference between us. Last year we – I won’t say “enjoyed” – “witnessed” is perhaps more appropriate – the performance of the Chinese State Circus at the Derngate. Mrs C made me promise absolutely “No More Circuses” as a result. Trouble is, me and the Moscow State Circus go back a long way. Oleg PopovI saw them when I was 10 at the Wembley Empire Pool (showing my age), and again in my early 20s at the Dominion Tottenham Court Road, and both occasions they had the legendary clown Oleg Popov, who really was amazing, and who I’m delighted to read is still going strong at the age of 81. So I hoped the passing months would eradicate the bad memory of the Chinese affair and I snuck in these tickets to the Moscow State Circus in the hope that She Wouldn’t Notice Until It Was Too Late.

Valerik and ValikThe Moscow State Circus really is, and always has been in my book, a class above your average circus, and I’m delighted to say I feel my decision to book was fully justified in the light of last night’s performance – and not to say a little relieved. It’s not perfect by any means. Similar to the Chinese State Circus, they do for some reason feel compelled to structure the show around a rather artificial story. Babushkin’s Secret is based on the legend of the Twelve Chairs. You’re not familiar with it? You do surprise me. Whilst it does serve as a framework as such, the twist at the end of the story makes for a very disappointing punchline in circus terms. Much better simply to get on with doing what they do best – circus acts.

Yana AlievaOur clowning hosts are Valerik (the straight man) and Valik (the red nosed one), in real life, Valery Kashkin and Valentina Rumyantseva. They strike up a good interaction with the audience and Valerik also proves himself very deft on the stepladder and with a spot of juggling. Comparisons with Popov would be odious, but I did laugh at them, and even Mrs C was occasionally wryly amused.

Four VassilievsTaking the acts in order of performance, we had Yana Alieva’s wonderful hula hoop act, contorting herself in a revolving ring high above the stage; then one of the real highlights of the evening, the Four Vassilievs, who do a spectacular horizontal bar act. Two of the Vassilievs are basically used as bar stands, but it is Vassiliev #3 who does the leaping and twirling who has an extraordinary skill.

VeslovskiysAccording to the programme, we should then have seen the “Fat Man” doing his Revolutions; but there was no fat man last night. Maybe he was off sick. Maybe he had lost weight, suggested Mrs C. Instead we had a bonus act of a couple of Wild West rodeo lassoers and whip-crackawayers. Not sure how they would have fitted in to Babushkin’s Sekret, but we’ll move on. They were excellent – and I recognised them later on as the Veslovskiys, headed by Gennadiy Veslovskiy, who did a thrilling rollerskating act.

Sasha Doktorov and Yulia TsurikovaThen it was the turn of Sasha Doktorov and Yulia Tsurikova, incredibly skilful gymnastic acrobats revolving high above the stage, a very controlled and strong couple. Next was the Rubtsovs Skakalki, a skipping act. It’s much better than it sounds, although to be honest, I felt that if you were a skipper of this level of ability, you probably could have made the act a little more interesting. That’s just me – I’m not over-experienced in the noble art of skipping. To come to terms with her excitement at this act Mrs C started searching her pockets for a dry-cleaning ticket to read.

Professor BulakovThe second half started with a probably my favourite of the night, High Jinks with Professor Bulakov. I thought it was going to be just another clownish pratfall type act, but it develops into an immensely skilful and funny trampolining act. Won’t give the game away, but do be careful if you’re sat in the front row! Vladimir Georgievskiy is the real Professor Bulakov, and I really loved his act.

Katiya DrozdovaWhilst Bulakov and Valerik drown away their sorrows over a bottle of vodka, Katiya Drozdova appears as the doll on the Music Box. This is another contortionist acrobatic act, and she’s highly skilful and watchable. Sasha Doktorov comes back to reach the Twelfth Chair – and it’s an awe-inspiring display of balance and strength. Finally the Rubtsovs came back doing their Flying Jesters routine, a lot of exciting tumbling and crowd pleasing acrobatics.

Rubtsovs As we were leaving the theatre, Professor Bulakov was having his picture taken with loads of kids. I was officially jealous. The good news is that, on the strength of this performance, Mrs C said we can see another circus in 2014. If you like your circuses, this one’s a treat.