Review – The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 12th March 2020

89403060_567660437170895_1161098001351966720_nIf someone mentions Charlie Chaplin then you get an instant image in your head – a grainy black and white picture of a little guy in an ill-fitting suit, bandy-legged, twirling a cane. Similarly, if you think of Stan Laurel, you imagine a tall weedy-looking chap, intellectually challenged, scratching his hair perplexedly, and almost certainly in the company of the tubby and smug Oliver Hardy. Apart from the era in which they did their best work, you wouldn’t necessarily put the two together. But that’s the basis of this production from Told by an Idiot, co-produced by the Royal and Derngate amongst others.

Through the lifebuoyWho knew that Chaplin and Laurel were on the same ship that sailed to America to join slapstick impresario Fred Karno’s successful troupe of comic performers, a journey that would change their lives for ever and would shape the direction of film comedy for decades? (Everyone put your hands down, that was meant to be rhetorical.) The show is set on their high seas journey to America, interspersed with re-enacted scenes from both the star performers’ lives. Chaplin’s poverty-stricken early days, Laurel’s initial meeting with Hardy (that comedy golf routine was probably the highlight of the show for me), their later-in-life reunion, and so on, are all acted out in little vignettes. There’s no sense of chronological narration to these scenes – they (presumably deliberately) follow each other in a haphazard order, some with great significance to their lives and careers, others less so.

Charlie in full throttleThe production is co-commissioned by the London International Mime Festival, and it’s fascinating to see an entire piece (90 minutes, no interval) performed almost entirely without speech (Chaplin’s drunken dad gets to sing a couple of songs), although the words on the projected screen – cleverly recalling how they got around the issue in the days of the silent screen – provide something of a communication get-out clause. Of course, Tape-Face (or whatever he is called at the moment) can do it – including getting members of the audience up on to the stage without uttering a syllable. The Strange Tale of Charlie Chaplin and Stan Laurel also has a couple of entertaining audience participation moments, so do beware if you sit at the front.

FarewellThe performances are all strong; Amalia Vitale gives a tremendous performance as Chaplin, every inch (despite their being not many of them) the clown, impersonating his gait and silently eloquent facial expressions down to a tee. Jerone Marsh-Reid, on the other hand, whilst delightfully suggesting Laurel’s imbecilic charm, doesn’t look remotely like him, which creates a strange sense of imbalance. This is also emphasised by Nick Haverson’s excellent visual impression of Hardy (amongst other roles), but of course that’s not Mr Marsh-Reid’s fault at all. Sara Alexander is the fourth member of the company, spending most of her time keeping pace with the action on her plinky-plonky piano, which works very well.

Nice pictureIf you’re sensing a slight lack of enthusiasm on my part, gentle reader, there’s a reason for that. Whilst I could appreciate the skill, the creativity, the charm, and the cleverness of this production and its performers, it didn’t move me in the slightest. Perhaps I was expecting something different – maybe something along the lines of the simple storytelling of The Flying Lovers of Vitebsk. There were moments in some of the scenes in The Strange Tale (not that it’s remotely strange, btw) where I didn’t fully understand the storytelling. Nor did the chatty people behind us, as we occasionally overheard. I’m also not convinced that the ship setting – nicely realised though it was – helped the show much; I felt it constrained it more than liberated it. The random nature of the acted-out scenes slightly irritated me too; although it was all done in the most charming way, to me it generally lacked focus.

AcrobaticsI must tell you that although she stayed awake – a good sign – Mrs Chrisparkle was bored throughout. I wasn’t, but I confess I did keep looking at my watch. I hoped for more laughs, more emotion, more je ne sais quoi. But then I never did care for Chaplin much; Keaton was much funnier. The audience reaction at the end was more respectful than ecstatic, which strikes me as spot-on; I absolutely respect the skills and artistry of the performers, but, for the most part, was a little disappointed in what this show asked them to do.

3-starsThree-sy does it!

Review – Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 10th March 2020

89071000_226884608705120_6218514948369154048_nEverybody’s been Talking About Jamie since it hit (and I mean hit) the Sheffield Crucible back in 2017. I’d heard great things about it but couldn’t fit it in to our busy schedules. However, we did see it in London in December 2017 and absolutely loved it. Since then it’s gone from strength to strength and is currently touring the UK until August whilst continuing to pack them in at the Apollo Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue. Touring, whilst retaining its West End presence, is something that normally only the big boys of musical theatre can achieve, which means that Jamie is now officially a Big Boy of Musical Theatre.

JamieYou’ll know the story of course, but in brief: Sheffield-based Jamie New (based on the real-life Jamie Campbell) is coming up to his 16th birthday. He knows – and everyone knows – that he’s gay; what they don’t know is his secret ambition to become a drag queen. Fortunately, his mum Margaret, and her best friend Ray support him completely in his quest to be The Real Jamie. However, there are drawbacks. His dad simply can’t accept his son’s sexuality, let alone his ostentatious appearance. His school arch-enemy, the bully Dean, does everything he can to scupper Jamie’s lifestyle. Even careers adviser, Miss Hedge, wants him to be a fork-lift truck driver – I think it’s fair to say she doesn’t entirely have the measure of him. The school prom is looming; will Jamie manage to realise his dream of attending the prom in a dress (and not just any old dress), or will the powers that be oppress him back into a gender-stereotypical conservative outfit that won’t offend the other school parents?

Loco and the girlsThe loving heart of this show is its message of acceptance and encouragement to be yourself – don’t give in to bullies and don’t be persuaded that you can’t realise your dream. None of these big ideas are forced or heavily delivered; it all flows lightly and naturally from the very believable characters. There’s nothing didactic or preachy about Everybody’s Talking about Jamie; it’s just school life (which we all recognise or remember), parent- and teacher-management which is an art we all (hopefully) develop, confronting down your bullies, and emerging shining at the end. And if you want to do it in a fabulous dress then no one’s gonna stop you.

Jamie and HugoThere are so many positives about the show, and this current touring production. Dan Gillespie Sells’ and Tom MacRae’s songs are still fresh, funny, telling and memorable; the book is witty, emotional in all the right places, and is populated with some great characters. Benjamin Holder’s band whack out the numbers with showbizzy panache, and Kate Prince’s choreography is lively, fun, and calls for some great set piece routines that knock your socks off.

Jamie and the castAnd then there are the performances. When I saw John McCrea play Jamie in London, I couldn’t imagine how it could be bettered; but this tour stars Layton Williams as Jamie and so I have to think again. I first saw Mr Williams in the New Adventures’ Lord of the Flies six years ago when you could already see he was a star in the making. He was superb in the ensemble of Hairspray the following year, and then he was a brilliant Paul in Kiss Me Kate at Sheffield – his Too Darn Hot dance had to be seen to be believed. No surprise that he absolutely owns both the stage and the role as Jamie; it’s a perfect opportunity for his dance, acting and comedic skills to come to the fore. Supremely confident and skilful; it’s a great performance.

Jamie and DeanI also loved Shane Richie as Hugo, the tired, disillusioned ex-performer who brings his drag creation Loco Chanelle out of retirement in order to encourage Jamie into doing what he wants. I had no idea he could sing and dance so impressively! There’s terrific support from Lara Denning as Miss Hedge, and Shobna Gulati as Ray, and George Sampson makes an excellent villain in the form of Dean, exuding nastiness from every pore. Garry Lee, JP McCue and Rhys Taylor form a great triumvirate of drag queens, a mixture of faded glamour and gruff mateyness. Sharan Phull is superb in the fascinating and assertive role of Jamie’s bestie Pritti, and the ensemble of school students gives us some stunning song and dance routines – a true joy to watch. But Amy Ellen Richardson as Margaret brings the house down with her moving and powerful rendition of He’s My Boy, which stops us all in our tracks and can coax a tear out of the most hard-hearted audience member.

Jamie and PrittiEverybody’s Talking about Jamie – and he and his show will be the talk of the town for the rest of the week. A brilliant portrayal of the power of the individual, this one’s never going to go away. A must-see!

P. S. I (briefly) met the real Jamie at last year’s West End Eurovision. He was wearing a headdress that almost touched the ceiling. I think he’s overcoming his shyness.

P. P. S. Writer Tom MacRae, who comes from Northampton, was in the Press Night audience – and Layton Williams invited him on to the stage to give a charming but empowering short speech about realising your dreams. Good man yourself, Mr MacRae!

Five Alive, let Theatre thrive!

Review – Josie Long: Tender, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 8th March 2020

Josie LongJosie Long? Isn’t she the one in Whose Line is it Anyway, asked my friend the Crown Prince of Bedford. Errr…no. That’s Josie Lawrence. It’s very easy to get your Josies mixed up. But, when pushed, I couldn’t elucidate further as to who Josie Long really is either. But now I know. Josie Long won the BBC New Comedy Awards at the age of 17, has a degree in English from Oxford University (me too!) and has done loads of stuff at the Edinburgh fringe ever since. However, recently her comedy career has taken a side-swipe, as she and her partner have had a little girl. From a simple pregnancy, much comedy lies ahead…

Josie LongTender is all about her discovery, in her mid-30s, of the joys of motherhood. I use the word joys inadvisedly, because the poor woman is absolutely knackered, frustrated, jealous of other people’s freedom – but she also wouldn’t have it any other way. Motherhood also cannot mask the real Josie Long who’s bubbling just under the surface – the left-wing activist who hasn’t lost her political affiliations and reasonings – and it’s a delight when, every so often, she cannot control flashing out an anti-governmental diatribe. Maybe pregnancy and politics do mix after all.

Ms Long is a comedy dream because she has such an engaging personality, a wonderfully confiding nature, and, you sense, a genuine interest in the wellbeing of her audience and a desire that we all have a good time. And she very much succeeds at this, with a show sculpted from a seemingly endless account of all the things that are wrong with motherhood, the country, the world, and especially fighting Climate Change, which is the other thing that keeps her going.

Meticulously scripted (the clip from the show that was part of the promotional material on the theatre website was absolutely word-for-word identical to the same sequence on Sunday night’s performance) although it doesn’t feel it, keeping up a lovely rapport with the audience, and with genuinely funny material throughout, this show is pure gold. Her UK tour continues into June and I couldn’t recommend her more strongly!

Five Alive, let Comedy thrive!

Review – Stewart Lee, Snowflake/Tornado, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 6th March 2020

Stewart LeeWe saw Stewart Lee seven years ago with his Much a-Stew About Nothing tour, and I really admired (and found hysterical) his unique style of deconstructing a show and turning it in on itself. I also noted his no-holds-barred stance of calling out any audience member who dares to check their phone… more of which later.  So when I saw he was touring again it was a no-brainer to book.

Snowflake and Tornado are (allegedly) two one hour shows that have been put together for the purposes of this tour, but they dovetail together so completely that they do indeed create one night of content. Tornado comes first – originating from a misdescription of his Netflix show that stayed online for two years; the description given was actually for the comic-schlock horror movie Sharknado, which gives Mr Lee lots of scope for imagining how the two could be combined, and it’s very clever stuff. Somehow into this madness he manages to involve Alan Bennett, in a brilliant scene where he re-imagines a Sharknado attack in a suburban Bennett semi, populated by typical Bennett pensioners. It’s a terrific flight of fancy, and, with Mr Lee’s disturbingly accurate impersonation of the Yorkshire National Treasure himself, was the absolute highlight of the evening.

Snowflake centres on Mr Lee’s doubt as to where he now fits in the comedy scene, given the country’s shift towards the right, which he perceives has made popular comedy shallower and much more of a sham commodity. Again, there is loads of excellent and cunning material, including an Enid Blyton parody and stabs at figures such as Tony Parsons and Ricky Gervais.

Stewart LeeHowever, this gig went seriously wrong for me. From the start I sensed that Mr Lee was much more aggressive than I remembered him. To be fair, the show started unfortunately, as there was obviously a mix-up with tickets held by some audience members that an usher was trying to sort out when Mr Lee walked on stage. He ignored their kerfuffle, but then when another lot of people came in late, he targeted them with total vitriol. It’s a well-worn trick with comedians over the decades to pick on latecomers, but I’ve never seen it done so nastily as by Mr Lee. I understand that is part of his stage persona, but you can go too far.

As the show developed, he called out another audience member for using their phone. “I was just checking that it was turned off” was his explanation; I’ve no way of knowing whether that was true. Then a few minutes later Mr Lee shouted again “TURN THAT PHONE OFF!!!” and I realised he was looking at me. I hadn’t touched my phone, so I looked blankly. “YOU! WITH THE GLASSES!” It was like that moment at school when you were picked on by the vicious teacher for something one of your classmates had done. Mrs Chrisparkle quietly muttered that it might have been my Apple Watch that had turned itself into life. “IS IT YOUR WATCH? DON’T MOVE IT THEN!!” he roared. “SORRY!” I replied, in a not sorry way, more in a Pardon Me for Breathing sort of way. Fortunately, he dropped the conversation then, because if he’d said anything more, I could feel the sarcasm rising within my breath. It wouldn’t have ended well. I would have been ridiculed, felt ashamed, and probably walked out. It would have been an ugly and very non-comedic moment.

But from then on, he lost me. Not only was I concerned about keeping my arm and hand absolutely still lest I offended His Majesty again, but I was also fed up with his whole approach. Look, I am experienced at seeing comedy shows. I get the idea of ridiculing the audience – a bit. But he took it to the nth degree. It reminded me of how James Acaster changed his style to become mean to the audience – and it simply alienates me. You don’t pay good money to be insulted. Moreover, on a few occasions he either lost his way in his act or pretended that he had lost his way, and then heaped all the blame on the audience for putting him off. And the more I sat there, not exactly fuming but with my critical facilities prickling, my main reaction was that I don’t need this kind of stuff in my life.

Stewart Lee againSomething else that completely spoils this show is his constant dissing of other performers. Yes, I understand that he ridicules the society that laps up Ricky Gervais’ style, and sees Phoebe Waller-Bridge as the ultimate innovator, as if no one had ever broken the fourth wall before. But when he lays it on with a trowel, it’s just too much. It’s rancorous, bitter and also feels a bit jealous. There’s an intensely tedious moment where Mr Lee ridicules the concept that Ricky Gervais “says the unsayable” by taking it literally. If he said the unsayable, the noise would come out like “ehh…eeee….cchchchchch…” etc. Point taken. Five minutes later, and he’s still making those childish noises? Most people around me were looking bored as hell. Mrs C had long nodded off – that’s her reaction to stage aggression. Mr Lee takes an idea and then batters it to death. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t.

But by concentrating so heavily on ridiculing other comics, their audiences and his own audience, the evening was just swimming in negative energy, and, frankly, I couldn’t wait for it to end. It’s a shame – Mr Lee is so creative and talented, is a master of the callback and the shaggy dog story, and makes relevant and insightful points to prick pomposity and hypocrisy. But, on the whole, that was an awful night at the theatre. Perhaps I just didn’t get it; perhaps I did and it was a lousy performance. As it’s Stewart Lee, I couldn’t possibly give him one star, there’s too much good content for that. Thank heavens for the Alan Bennett sequence.

Two disappointing for more

Review – John Bishop: Warm Up, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 3rd March 2020

John Bishop Warm UpIt’s not often that a Work in Progress show fills the massive Derngate auditorium, but then again, it’s not often that the great John Bishop comes to town. Actually, to my knowledge, it’s at least the second time he’s come to town. The first time we saw him, he was so late, he offered to buy the entire audience a drink. Even though that was in the smaller Royal theatre, it still must have cost him a bob or two. Forewarned is forearmed this time.

Barry DoddsBut first, a support act. Remembering that Mr Bishop didn’t have a support act when we last saw him, I was surprised that there was one this time. But indeed there was, in the jovial form of Barry Dodds, a Geordie from Gateshead (I thought Geordies could only come from north of the Tyne? Controversial!) full of appropriate apologies for not being John Bishop, but with a ton of fun material of his own. He has a great story about how he fooled a flatmate who liked to dabble with wacky baccy (and worse) – and it’s a good trick: put a bar of Palmolive soap in the microwave and watch it expand. It plays with the most balanced of brains, but when you’ve been on the illegal substances it can fair blow your mind.

I also really enjoyed his account of why he and his wife split up, and his rather gruesome but extremely funny story of what trainee doctors can get up to in the mortuary. Mr Dodds is a naturally funny guy with great timing and a comfortable confidence, and his short set was, truly, all too short. We’d love to see him do a longer set sometime.

John BishopAfter the interval, Mr Bishop wandered on, cup of Yorkshire Tea in hand, apologising for the fact that as this show was indeed work in progress, some of it might be a bit shit. And, really odd for a WIP show, it’s not going to be leading on to a big arena show later in the year – he had intended to do that, but then the plans got altered and the arena show has been postponed. But the WIP shows had already gone on sale, so Mr B felt obliged to give us some WIP comedy, even without a big show in the offing. You couldn’t make it up.

John BHe is the absolute master of relaxed, slow storytelling, every routine always having a killer punch at the end. He is so engaging, and confiding, that you feel like you are the only person he’s sharing these brilliant observations with, maybe over a convivial pint somewhere. He talks about things that we can all recognise, such as the compromises in relationships or how your attitudes change as you get older. One of his assertions, absolutely correct, is that men never change from the age when they meet each other. Whereas women develop and grow their friendships over the years, men always remain essentially kids; if they met when they were at school, then they’re still schoolkids when meet decades later.

John-BishopAnother absolutely spot-on observation is how a middle-aged man suddenly gets transported into a world of sexual and/or romantic fantasy if a woman talks to him nicely. You can just be on a flight and offered a drink by an air hostess and a world of possibilities opens up to you. I also loved his material about being the only Scouser on the ski slopes, his experiences of acting a sex scene (or not) with Sheridan Smith, and a brilliant sequence speculating about sex between the over 70s. He had us all in cascades of laughter.

He says he has one joke; and it’s the same joke he told last time he was here – but, to be fair, it is awfully funny. It’s the one about the accidental penectomy and the replacement surgery. If you know it, you know it. If you don’t, well I’m not going to tell you. During the course of the evening, he chatted with a couple of audience members who had earlier piped up for whatever reason; and, as with his last appearance here, he ended the show with a brief Q&A session. I mention that because the last question he was asked included a callback to an earlier piece of material, and Mr B’s answer included a callback to something another audience member had said – and it was a masterstroke. No wonder he called the show to halt at that point – it could never get better.

A great night of comedy and an absolute privilege to see a master of the art at work. His tour continues throughout the rest of the year, but many venues are already sold out. This comes as no surprise at all. Just brilliant.

Five alive, let comedy thrive!

Review – Curtains, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 25th February 2020

87361732_614958972684057_4884451827958939648_nUnlike most Brits, Mrs Chrisparkle and I had the pleasure (we’ll come back to that word) of seeing Curtains before its current UK tour, when we caught it at the Al Hirschfield Theater in New York in 2008 – I know, so cosmopolitan. I remember it reasonably fondly; Mrs C less so, and she took some convincing to see this first major British production. I recall I was perplexed at the time that the Broadway production didn’t transfer to the West End. With the benefit of hindsight, I think I understand why.

Jason ManfordCurtains comes with a massive pedigree: primarily its composer and lyricist, Kander and Ebb, whose back-catalogue shines with highlights such as Cabaret and Chicago, as well as The Scottsboro Boys, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and the movie Funny Lady. Fred Ebb died whilst writing Curtains, as did book writer Peter Stone, so Rupert Holmes (he of The Pina Colada Song, Him, and The Mystery of Edwin Drooooood) stepped in to complete the task. Nevertheless, all of us can have our off days, and, musically, you can’t deny that Curtains is a severe disappointment. No memorable songs, no songs that have taken a life of their own outside the show, no great tunes. We all know people who say, that whilst they like “the theatre”, they can’t stand musicals. To my mind, musicals are an incredibly versatile art form, capable of creating sheer magic on a stage, exploring characters, revealing truths, deconstructing dilemmas in their own unique way. However, Curtains is the kind of musical that people who hate musicals think all musicals are like. If this was the first musical I’d ever seen, I’d dismiss the genre as kinda woeful.

The CompanyThe trouble with Curtains is (and I’m talking about the bare bones of the show here, not this production) that it’s trying to be a number of things but fails at them all. It wants to be taken as a serious musical in its own right, but the songs simply aren’t up to it – in fact this is far and away the worst score by Kander and Ebb that I have come across. It wants to be a comedy whodunit, but it completely lacks suspense. In its attempt to parody/pastiche landmark musicals like Oklahoma! or Finian’s Rainbow, it concentrates on their trademark scenes, such as big hoedown stomps or dream ballet sequences, but, taken out of the context of their original shows, they just slow down the natural development of this show. It also makes the show feel immensely dated. Whereas in Cabaret and Chicago the music and the style instantly gives you a time-setting without having to spell it out, you forget that Curtains is meant to be set in 1950s Boston, primarily because there’s no obvious reason for it. Musicals and murder are timeless, so why isn’t this?

The CompanyChrisparkle’s first law of musical theatre is that each song should progress either the plot or our understanding of the characters, or at least the general setting of the show. There’s nothing more frustrating than a stop-start musical where the story takes a break each time an ensemble assembles to sing something. Unfortunately, so many of the numbers in Curtains consist of the audience passively viewing the performance (or rehearsal) from another show (in this case the fictional Robbin’ Hood) which have no meaning or significance for us the audience. Take, for example, the lengthy Thataway that closes the first Act; it’s all bluster and no content, a very repetitive tune that never soars even when you think it might. It’s just an excuse for some swirling skirts and cowboy high-kickin’ (which, to be fair, the cast perform extremely well). But there’s no drama to it, no character development, nothing with which to lead you into the interval with a greater understanding of what’s going on.

Jason Manford & Leah Barbara WestTalking of intervals, it didn’t help that, technically, the performance was a bit of a disaster. The interval climax big effect, where murder victim #2 is found suspended noose-first from the curtains, simply didn’t happen. The characters told us all to “look up there” (or words to that effect) but there was nothing happening “up there”. Then, after Jason Manford’s Cioffi yelled “blackout!” to signify the end of the Act, the curtain fell, only to part rise again to reveal what looked like a degree of backstage consternation at the fact that the effect hadn’t worked. First night in a new theatre, yes, sometimes things go wrong. It happens.

Jason Manford & the boysSurely there were some good things? Yes indeed. Let’s start at the top with Mr Manford. I’ve not seen him in a musical before, and I thought he was excellent. The characterisation of musical-loving Detective Cioffi, hankering romantically after the ingénue Niki Harris, fanboying the writers and the director, worked extremely well. The Broadway production we saw starred David Hyde Pierce in the same role and he camped it up rotten. Jason Manford’s performance, however, was much more nuanced, more considered and more believable. And of course he has excellent comic timing, which he used to great effect.

The CompanyRebecca Lock also gives a fine, beefy performance as the no-nonsense, hard-nosed producer Carmen Bernstein, chucking out savage one-liners whilst belting out her numbers; think Ethel Merman meets Joan Rivers. It’s just a shame that her one-liners weren’t a little funnier and less predictable, but that’s not her fault. Carley Stenson looks and sounds great as Georgia Hendricks, parachuted in to play the lead role when the actress who was going to play Madame Marian suffers a terminal first-night curtain call. Ore Oduba was good, if a little clinical, as Aaron Fox, the composer, and his voice was a little under-amplified in the singing department.

Samuel HolmesThere’s great support from the rest of the cast, especially Emma Caffrey as the show-off Bambi, and understudy Robin Kent who débuted the busy and important role of Bobby Pepper and did a terrific job. Capping it all, there’s a prize performance from Samuel Holmes as the flouncy director Christopher Belling, bitching his way around the stage, side-stepping blame and trouble like a slalom expert. I last saw Mr Holmes as Lord Farquaad in Shrek, where he stole the show; he really does this kind of spoilt brat incredibly well.

Rebecca Lock The other person who drags this show up by its bootstrings and does his best to redeem it, is choreographer Alistair David. An alumnus of so many brilliant lavish shows in Sheffield and Chichester, his dance routines for Curtains throughout are exciting, cheeky, and simply enjoyable. And it’s a testament to the great boys and girls of the dance team that they’re more than up to the task and make those otherwise bland set numbers watchable.

It's loveMrs C started to nod off during Ms Stenson’s performance of Thinking of Him – nothing against Ms Stenson at all, just the fact that the plot had stopped in order for her to sing an irrelevant song, and it’s a cue to the audience to take their mind off the story and let their minds wander. I tried to pull her back to consciousness a few times during the first Act but she’d already lost interest, and was only vaguely sentient at odd moments. She experienced more of the Second Act and even laughed at Mr Holmes’ retort to Bambi: “the only thing you could arouse is suspicion” (winner of Best Line in Show). I stayed awake, but, have to admit, felt pretty bored for much of the time.

The CompanyAlas, the most glittering of casts would have difficulty jump-starting this old banger of a show. After this week, the tour valiantly continues to Blackpool, Glasgow, Leicester, High Wycombe, Wolverhampton and Southampton. Go for the performances and the dancing; look away for the rest.

Production photos by Richard Davenport

3-starsThree-sy does it!

Review – John Archer, Against the Odds, Underground at the Derngate, 21st February 2020

John Archer Against the OddsAs a prelude to what we hoped would be a weekend of riotous laughter at the Leicester Comedy Festival (more of which soon), Mrs Chrisparkle and I were joined by our friends the Squire of Sidcup and the Wise Woman of Wembley for dinner, drinks and an evening in the company of comedy magician John Archer. Mr Archer was recently on Britain’s Got Talent (apparently – we’re never in to see it.) However, clearly a lot of the good burghers of Northampton had watched his appearance because when we arrived twenty minutes before the show was due to start (normally plenty of time to get a good seat) we had to make do with the back row. Not a great position from which to observe close-up magic.

J ArcherHowever, that’s not really Mr A’s style – you didn’t need to be in the front few rows to watch any sneaky dexterity. Most of his magical feats were mind-based; predicting the numbers that people would choose to create a fantasy lottery ticket, for example, or which card from a selection, all bearing different words on them that an audience member would pick unseen. There was yet another very clever trick where he had £80 in an envelope, with four other worthless envelopes, and he manage to convince audience members to pick all the other envelopes except the one with the dosh.

John ArcherBut he’s not just a fantastic magician. He has a lovely, gentle comedy style – self-deprecating, whacking out short silly songs on a ukulele; playing slightly on the fact that he won’t see 55 again but there’s definitely life in this old dog yet. An intriguing and impressive act; there’s no way that you’ll work out how he performs those feats of magical intellect – and to preserve the mystery I’d really rather not know anyway. No gimmicks, no pyrotechnics; just good old-fashioned entertainment. Nothing more to add! John Archer is touring his Against the Odds show in various venues around the country between now and May. Very enjoyable!

4-starsFour he’s a jolly good fellow!

Review – From the New World, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 9th February 2020

85163339_812146899283763_4803852892588998656_nMrs Chrisparkle and I, together with Lord and Lady Prosecco, were fervently looking forward to last Sunday’s concert with the RPO, because it had such a fantastic programme of musical delights. Clearly half the town had the same idea, as I’ve rarely seen the Derngate auditorium so packed for a classical concert.

Whilst the pieces were old favourites, there were some new faces to meet. Our conductor was Kerem Hasan, new to us, and almost new to the entire world as he’s only 28 years old, Lord bless us all. He’s a warm, engaging and encouraging presence on the podium, deep into his music, generous to his musicians, and enthusiastic about giving us the best musical show he can. Another new face to us was the Leader of the Orchestra, Sulki Yu, although she has been with the RPO for a few years now. Despite her name, she’s bright and expressive and clearly sets a good example to her troops.

Kerem HasanThe first piece on the programme was the stunning Vltava sequence from Smetana’s Ma Vlast. This always reminds Mrs C and I of our first visit to Prague back in 1997, where it was a favourite of our host, a young Czech guy who clearly valued his homeland just as much as Smetana did. Those surging strings cascade through you like a hot massage, and you feel appropriately reinvigorated as a result. It would be great to hear the RPO perform the whole suite some time, but this was a beautiful and stirring start to our concert.

After the usual shenanigans of wheeling the Steinway into place, and the violins all going into a little huddle at the back of the stage (I’d love to know what they gossip about whilst they’re waiting), it was time for yet another new face – our soloist for this concert, Romanian pianist Daniel Ciobanu. Another 28-year-old; things have reached a pretty pass when you’re older than the combined age of both the conductor and the soloist. He’s a smart and trendy chap; fully in control of his surroundings and supremely confident in his technical ability. Along with the orchestra, of course, he played for us Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, and it was simply fantastic. A faultless performance, full of passion and expression, revelling in all the delicate, fun bits, and majestically triumphing through the majestically triumphant bits. All from memory, of course; and you’re simply wowed by his incredible talent.

Daniel CiobanuAfter an interval Chardonnay, we returned for the main event of the evening, a performance of Dvorák’s 9th Symphony, From the New World. Written by the travelling Czech in New York in 1893, and inspired by a combination of Native American folk music, the freedoms of a young country, and the legacy of Longfellow’s Hiawatha, it is in fact as far away from a Yorkshire Hovis advert as you can get. But the fact that it adapts itself to so many different moods and motives, and remains a favourite throughout the ages, shows its true excellence. From that hope-filled dawn of the first movement, through the luxurious softness of the second, and the spiky defiance of the third, to the powerful resolution of the fourth, this was a performance of immaculate strength and fluidity. It took your mind off all our current problems and made you feel glad to be alive. Absolutely superb from start to finish – we all loved it.

That was the last of the 2019/2020 concerts – and it was great to end it with a bang! Hopefully we will hear news of the next season of concerts very soon.

Five alive, let music thrive!

Review – Lou Sanders, Say Hello to your New Step-Mummy, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 8th February 2020

Lou Sanders Say Hello to your New Step MummyThis was another one of our take a punt and hope for the best bookings, as neither of us had ever seen (or even heard of) Lou Sanders before but I discovered she was nurturing a good reputation as one of our more promising new comedians and – honestly – that promotional photograph of her having a very intimidating-looking vape made me think seems like a nice girl – and so we booked.

And I was right. Ms Sanders took to the stage a little flustered and apologetic – she had nothing to be sorry for, she just defaulted to that general stance, probably because she’s very nicely brought up. She quickly became acquainted with Jane in the second row, whose birthday it was, and who was accompanied by her Auntie Sharon. We all sensed they were going to be trouble, but actually they were fine. Blame it on mere birthday exuberance.

Then she introduced her support act, Annie McGrath. Ms McGrath has a bright shiny stage persona, incredibly polite and slightly posh, with some fun material about the horrors of the old school reunion, encountering such frightful people like Emily and Lettice, and being aghast that the school still has a house called Isis. She also had the good fortune to go viral with a tweet – and yes, over ten years on Twitter and I’m still waiting for that to happen. She incorporates the tweet and its bizarre responses into her act, and why wouldn’t you? Very likeable and funny, and an enjoyable way to start the evening.

After a break for a second prosecco (we’re so rock’n’roll) it was time to welcome back Lou Sanders. A vision in pink – in fact an assortment of pinks – she appears as gentle as a pussycat, but you sense there’s a tiger lurking only just under the surface. She comes across as one of those genuinely honest comics who tells you the precise details of what truly goes on in their lives; if her stories are actually fictitious then she’s a damn good liar. Her priorities in life seem to be feminism, equality and a strong affection for dick. And Daddies, she’s definitely got a thing for them. There was a Daddy called Chris in the front row whom she singled out for some special treatment. As a Daddy (or at least of Daddylike age and appearance) called Chris myself, I was very grateful to have taken a seat a few rows back.

Lou SandersIncluded in her very entertaining set were how she had been given a man ban from her Personal Healer, Gill in the Pyrenees; plus letting us in on her coping strategies for living with large labia. You could never criticise her for shying away from any subject. It’s that combination of pussycat and tiger that really gives depth and contrast to her style. It feels like a very relaxed, loose, almost unstructured show, although I bet it’s structured to within an inch of its life, which is a very clever trick.

There was something about the evening that felt like it was just holding back a little; for instance, I can’t recall many belly-laughs, but then again it’s not quite that kind of comedy. Nevertheless, it’s still a very enjoyable and funny show. Lou Sanders’ tour continues through till June and is certainly worth catching!

3-starsThree-sy does it!

Review – Beautiful, The Carole King Musical, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 6th February 2020

Screenshot (7)As a kid, I was a massive, and I mean MASSIVE, fan of The Monkees, and the first time I would have tumbled across the name of Carole King – in collaboration with Gerry Goffin – would have been in the writing credits of the Monkees’ albums. I’m pretty sure that I had read somewhere that Goffin was sniffy about writing for the Prefab Four – which fact is made very clear in Beautiful, The Carole King Musical, currently on a considerable UK tour. Goffin and King may well have first come together as teenage sweethearts with one combined aim in mind, to write songs together whilst being in love – although you’re in no doubt that he only asked her to marry him because she was pregnant. But as the years go on, it becomes clear that King was the practical workhorse of the pair, whereas Goffin was the more artistic/ethereal/poetic contributor.

Carole at the pianoTheir most famous song for the Monkees, Pleasant Valley Sunday, is a perfect example of the difference between the two; her dream was to move to the beautiful suburbs, whereas his lyrics for PVS show how despicable and twisted he found that whole suburban dream to be. Although together they were able to create magic for other people, as a couple they were wholly unsuitable. She’s portrayed as stay-at-home, mousey, dowdy almost, whereas he’s a bit of a party animal, suggesting strip poker amongst their friends, and seeing other women behind her back. She’s concerned with bringing home the bacon and looking after baby Louise, whereas he’s not finishing his lyrics and fancies dabbling in LSD.

Kirshner's Music FactoryForgive me for coming at this review from an odd angle, gentle reader, but I wanted to highlight that Beautiful is not so much The Carole King Musical as The Goffin/King Songbook. The show charts their story together, from their first meeting introduced by a school pal, through great financial (and artistic) success, to their marriage breakdown, his philandering, his mental health breakdown (through drugs) and her going solo with the cathartic Tapestry album, culminating in a concert at Carnegie Hall in June 1971. Carole King’s career, however, has continued to span the decades and indeed, she’s still going strong today. And Gerry Goffin continued to chart his own career with other collaborators until his career started to peter out in the 1990s.

The ShirellesBy concentrating on those early golden years, this gives the show the opportunity to showcase all their most famous and best-loved songs, performed by the stars of the age; and that, alone, is enough to provide two-and-a-half hours of top quality entertainment and musical nostalgia. Where this show is really strong is in presenting a selection of fantastic songs, played by a superb (unseen) band, sung by a talented cast, delightfully choreographed by Josh Prince to reflect those incredibly dated but wonderful routines by the Drifters or the Shirelles, and with an incredibly successful combined design by Derek McLane (scenery) and Peter Kaczorowski (lighting).

It's all happeningHowever, as a narrative, I found the show strangely pedestrian. Whilst it does tell its story clearly, it feels very stop-start in its style. I’m no expert on Juke Box Musicals – I’ve not seen most of the famous ones – but let’s consider a few examples. Mamma Mia takes Abba’s songs and creates a brand-new story using the songs organically to move the story along – but it’s a story that has nothing to do with Abba themselves. Possibly my favourite of the genre, Sunny Afternoon, tells the story of the Kinks’ rise to fame, using their songs as a standard musical would do, commenting on their situation and moving the plot forward. Cilla the Musical told the story of the early career of Cilla Black using her songs as landmark points along the way, including showing how she recorded them. In all of these shows the songs progress the plot, and you get a sense of development.

Strip PokerHowever, in Beautiful, you have a pair of rival songwriters (Goffin and King v. Mann and Weil) where you watch one couple say we’re gonna write a song, then they write a song, then have it performed and see how successful it was, followed by the other couple writing a song, having it performed and seeing how successful it was, then back to Couple #1, then Couple #2, etc, etc and etc. Whilst it might well be an accurate presentation of what happened, that structure doesn’t make for what I would term a good musical. Whilst every scene (particularly in the first Act) ends with a great song, it feels repetitive and formulaic. Rather like how Gerry Goffin feels about Janelle Woods’ performance of One Fine Day, this structure holds back from really giving the audience a 100% good time.

The CompanyHere’s an example of how the show sacrifices a potentially dramatic moment simply to provide a good musical performance. When Carole King has moved to LA and is recording with her new producer Lou Adler, he wants her to sing You Make Me Feel Like a Natural Woman on the new album. She tells him she just can’t – it was a song she and Gerry wrote together and the memories and emotions are simply too painful for her. But he convinces her to give it a try and she agrees. Then Carole sings it perfectly and it’s a great performance – and there’s no sign that it was in any way a problem for Carole to do it. There’s no moment when she’s struggled through the tears, or when she’s overcome the lump in her throat. It’s just sing a song and then move on. A missed opportunity, I felt, and it made something of a mockery of the scene that went before.

The DriftersThere’s plenty of excellent performances on offer; for our performance Carole King was played by the alternate, Vicki Manser, and she has a great voice and totally looks the part. Adam Gillian played Gerry Goffin with a great mix of fresh-faced appeal and untrustworthy roué – again singing the songs superbly. Laura Baldwin and Cameron Sharp make a terrific couple as the feisty Cynthia Weil and the workaday Barry Mann. Susie Fenwick gets most of the laughs as Carole’s hypocritical mother and Oliver Boot is a firm but fair Don Kirshner. The ensemble give terrific support, but you have to single out (or should that be group out) Damien Winchester, Ronald Brian, Samuel Nicholas and Toyan Thomas-Browne as the Drifters, and Leah St Luce, Katrina May, Louise Francis and Mica Townsend as the Shirelles, both groups recreating that superb early 60s feel of elegance, glamour and over-the-top choreography.

The Righteous BrothersAfter Northampton, the extensive tour continues to Eastbourne, Woking, Bristol, Bradford, Cardiff, Sunderland, Wimbledon, Milton Keynes, Llandudno, Canterbury, Southend, Edinburgh, Liverpool, Glasgow, Nottingham, Manchester, Oxford, Cheltenham, Birmingham, Southampton, Dartford, Dublin, Newcastle and ending up in Leeds at the end of August. If you love these old 60s songs, you’re guaranteed a very enjoyable night out – and it’s a feast for the eyes and the ears, if not exactly a challenge for the brain!

Production photos by various photographers from various productions

Four they’re jolly good fellows