Review – Upfront Comedy – Comedy Summerslam, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 2nd June 2017

Upfront ComedyA brand new venture for us – going to see the comedy show promoted by Upfront Comedy, in the Royal Theatre. I know they’ve visited a couple of times in the past, and I thought, shall I? shan’t I? and I didn’t. More fool me, because Mrs Chrisparkle and I enjoyed two and a half hours of consistently fantastic comedy from some amazing purveyors of the comic commodity!

John SimmitIt’s hosted by John Simmit, who’s done many great things but the only question anyone asks him about is “What’s it like playing Dipsy?” He has a very funny routine about being offered the job – and talks about the success of the Teletubbies show with deserved pride. He’s a very welcoming host and if he has a specialist subject, it would be comedy dancing, taking us all back to our childhoods. He noted that we were a “mixed” audience; not something I’d particularly thought about but he felt it might bring its own challenges as the night wore on – I hope those challenges were all good ones. I also loved his observations about the other show on at the Royal and Derngate that night – That’ll Be The Day (Lord and Lady Prosecco were in attendance) – and how the foyers were full of 75-year-olds with Elvis quiffs.

Mickey SharmaOur first act was Mickey Sharma; in fact, his was the name on the line-up that swung it for me, as I’d read about him in Edinburgh and he was on our long list for last year’s shows; but didn’t quite make it to the short list. What a funny man! Moreover, what an extraordinary voice he has. Mrs C was sent into a blissful cocoon of velvety warmth and kept on going on about his timbre, whatever that is. I do hope he makes a lot of money from voiceovers.

There is something slightly challenging, slightly edgy about his stage persona; he’s not just your usual chap down the pub like the other comics in this line-up. He’s more thoughtful, more calculating; and that makes for a great routine as you can never predict where he’s going to go next. I loved his explanation of his first name, and how it fits in with the rest of his family; his slightly awkward relationship with his wife – particularly when she asks him about trying a threesome; and his explorations of sexy dancing are hilarious. Late arrival Nick tried to upstage him; foolish boy. Mr Sharma certainly knows how to handle the heckles. We both thought he was brilliant and would definitely see him again.

Aurie StylaOur next act, and billed as “internet viral sensation” (so why haven’t I heard of him?), was Aurie Styla. Funny name – sounds like a small but vital element of an old hi-fi system. But he’s a funny guy; no doubt about it, he comes out on stage, grabs us by the metaphysical throat and doesn’t let go for the full half hour. He has brilliant material about his strict family upbringing in comparison with the wimpy weakness of today’s parents; his characterisation of his mum “dealing” with him is fantastic. He tells us all about his horrendous trip to Jamaica – and I think I’ve changed my mind about wanting to go there. There was a wonderful faux pas laugh from one of the young ladies in front of us when Mr Styla said Baa Baa Black Sheep was all about the slave trade. When she realised what she’d done the poor girl was mortified. Mr S is a really likeable guy and we really enjoyed his set. I met him in the interval and bought one of his DVDs for £5. He had an offer of two for £10 but I declined his generosity.

Maureen YoungerAfter the aforementioned interval, our next act was Maureen Younger. She’s the only one on the bill whom we’d seen before, at Screaming Blue Murder in the Underground next door four years ago. She’s another really naturally funny person, with plenty of self-deprecating material about her size (formidable) and her preference for the physical over the cerebral. She has a lot of funny things to say about race and sex, in all its shapes and sizes, and she fits into this format like a glove. She gears quite a lot of her material towards the women in the audience – and the women in our audience really appreciated it!

Curtis WalkerOur final act was Curtis Walker; I’ve heard of him, but never seen him; no, we never watched The Real McCoy, sorry. However, it was clear that everyone else in the audience had not only heard of him but adored him – the wave of warmth to greet him was palpable! I’ve no doubt that Mr Walker had a wealth of material up his sleeve but all he had to do was bounce off the audience – and he was hysterical. He met Jermaine, in the front row – and gave us a great visual reminder of why he would have been given that name; he met Lisa, the kick boxer with the older husband (I mean, no! father) (embarrassing, what?) He explained why he was called Curtis – it was his mother’s maiden name. Shortly afterwards, upstaging Nick piped up with the question, was he named after Tony Curtis…? NO! We all said, and Nick got a little shirty after that. Mr W has a warm, natural, but quite mischievous stage presence and he absolutely Upfront-bannerheld us in the palm of his hand.

A sensational night of comedy; we both thought it was outstanding value for money and all the performers were on superbly top form. I hope it’s not long till the next one!

Review – Comedy of Errors, Oxford Shakespeare Company, Wadham College Oxford, 13th August 2011

Comedy of ErrorsThere are few greater privileges in life than to be able to relax in the beautiful gardens of Wadham College Oxford, take in a picnic, enjoy a bottle of something velvety, and watch a performance by the Oxford Shakespeare Company. We’ve been coming here for many years now, and it’s always a joy. Some years are more joyous than others, depending on the plays. This summer they are bringing back two of their greatest hits. One is The Importance of Being Earnest, which we saw first time around, and is a super show. We may, if we get time and the weather is kind, try and see it again. The other is The Comedy of Errors, first performed by the OSC in 2004, one year before we discovered them. So it was with relish that we bagged our front row seats for last Saturday’s matinee.

Even if you’re a Shakespeare purist, “Comedy of Errors” is one of those plays that really lends itself to modernising and being messed around. On paper, the opening scene is exceptionally wordy and really rather tedious; but there’s no escaping it, otherwise the rest of the play doesn’t make sense. Chris Pickles’ delightful production does a huge amount of messing around with the play, re-inventing that opening scene in Ephesus TV’s studio as a game show, with host and hostess in sparkly garments, challenging Egeon to raise the money for his liberty else he dies, and all just for a bit of fun.

Another piece of inventiveness in this production is the use of Hollywood style songs, which certainly raise a smile and have been chosen cleverly to reflect the story. Some of the cast prove themselves to be very good at the song-and-dance routines! As a device, this didn’t quite work for me, but mainly because of the way I first encountered this play. When I was 17 I was lucky enough to be in the front row at the Aldwych for the RSC’s production by Trevor Nunn, with songs by Guy Woolfenden and starring Judi Dench, Michael Williams, Roger Rees, Francesca Annis, Mike Gwilym and many other brilliant performers. Guy Woolfenden took Shakespeare’s lines and wove them into brilliant, story-progressing songs. The Hollywood songs in this production are apt, but they don’t move the story forward – my bugbear in musical theatre.

Another joke that wore thin for me was the use of sound effects. Maybe I’m still suffering from Government Inspector overkill. Part of the circus/madcap/Keystone Kops element in this production includes cheeky sound effects to accompany many of the bits of comedy business. A horn honk for a slap on the tummy, a kazoo rasp for a kick up the bum, a fart sound for… well a fart actually; you get the picture. Funny and clever – at first… but then I have to confess it did slightly get on my nerves by the time we approached the interval. There was one extremely good sound effect – the sassy symbols that heralded each arrival of the Courtesan, more of whom later.

Howard GossingtonNow those topics are out of the way, I can tell you about the wonderful cast. One actor plays both Antipholuses and one both Dromios. That calls for a lot of hard work! Stand out brilliant was Howard Gossington as Antipholus of Syracuse and Ephesus. I had wondered how they would differentiate between the two characters – costume changes I supposed. And yes they do – Antipholus of Ephesus wears a gracious tie and sports a well to do hat, whilst his Syracusian brother has a tie-dye type thing and a fedora. But it’s almost unnecessary, as Mr Gossington invests both brothers with completely different vocal patterns and mannerisms; Ephesus is a rather posh travelling type who obviously went to a good school, and Syracuse is a bit of a Millwall supporting troublemaker. Both characterisations really worked well and it’s a great performance.

Nick ChambersNick Chambers as the two Dromios also puts in a good comic performance but the differences between the two servants are not so easy to define and so we rely a little more on his changing hat – white for Ephesus, black for Syracuse. I particularly enjoyed the relish with which he described the ghastly Nell, who had fallen for him.

Alicia Davies For the Antipholine love interest, Alicia Davies is a stunning Adriana, in a sexy red dress and with cleavage bursting for freedom. She captures all the comedy of Adriana’s shrewish tendencies superbly, although she may slightly underdo her tenderer moments. Alyssa Noble Alyssa Noble makes an excellently bookish Luciana, and preens with hilarious pleasure when Antipholus makes amorous advances towards her.

Benjamin WellsThe other members of the cast all bring great verve and vivacity to their characters; amongst the many parts they play, Benjamin Wells’ Angelo is Alan Sugar with added elegance; Kai SimmonsKai Simmons is a superb Marlon Brando Godfather Balthazar, with a brilliant Mafia voice and mannerisms; Andrew Piper’s Officer is a hilarious sixth member of the Village People; and stealing every scene,Andrew Piper James Lavender, appearing as every other female character, creates a Germanic Jessica Rabbit Courtesan with a high level of naughtiness about her – which included in the show we saw, her singling me out for some amorous attention and the promise of free Bratwurst after the performance. That was just one of many really funny interactions between cast and audience throughout the whole show that were carried off with great aplomb.

James LavenderThere’s a marvellously surreal sequence where Dromio appears to apologise for a bad bit of acting because he can’t quite understand Shakespeare’s drift, whereupon the whole cast turn into a bunch of text-dissecting pretentious luvvies trying to get to the heart of the meaning. I was completely fooled by the scene and genuinely thought Dromio was annoyed with his performance, until the rest chipped in. It’s a magnificent piece of invention. There’s also a bang up-to-date scene with Antipholus’ shopping bags with light references to looting and cross-dressing. Extremely funny stuff.

I’d highly recommend it. Even the aspects I didn’t really care for didn’t in any way spoil my enjoyment of this gusto-filled performance by a captivating cast in fabulous surroundings.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground, Northampton, Jan 28th 2010

We just love going to these comedy evenings at the Derngate. It’s incredible value for money. £12 on the door; £11 in advance; £10 if (like me) you’re an “Enjoy” member. You get a compere, three comedy acts, and two intervals means you get to have a nice drink with it too. Ah the simple pleasures of life.

Dan EvansLast Thursday, we had Dan Evans as the compere. He normally is. His delivery is fast and engaging, he interacts smartly and inventively with the audience and he is definitely Someone To Look Forward To. He does however ALWAYS do the same joke about having a wakeup call at the hotel. Hilarious first time; remembered it with affection the second time; several times on now I just let the other people who haven’t heard it before laugh.

Ava VidalFirst act was Ava Vidal; she has a very clever deadpan delivery which makes the content of her routine stand out. It’s very well thought out, full of funny observations and with a lot of self-deprecation. Not ROFL belly laugh, but extremely wry. Typical material: she is confronted by her 15 year old daughter determined to go out late at night to get drunk in a park. She says her daughter ought to act more responsibly. “Oh yeah I guess you were always responsible when you were 15 Mum”. “Of course I was” she replies, “I stayed at home, looking after you and your brother.”

Chris Martin Second was Chris Martin; a young man who I read is expected to Do Great Things In The Future. Less content than Ava Vidal, but with a more traditional standup delivery. It may be a boy/girl thing but I preferred him to Ava, and Mrs Chrisparkle preferred Ava to him.

Martin Davis Last act was Martin Davis. Very little content to his routine, just bouncing off the audience, which he did tremendously well. Highest rating on the giggleometer of the night – although the final glass of wine always helps an act.

Overall a very enjoyable evening but not a great one. We’ve seen better comedy nights, we’ve seen worse. Maybe we weren’t quite sufficiently warmed up at the beginning? Not sure. Anyway there’s another one in a couple of weeks time. I shall compare. But I won’t compere. That would be asking too much.