Review – Myra Dubois, Dead Funny, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 10th September 2021

Dead FunnyOn reflection, it was a bit odd that this was first time we had seen Myra Dubois, as it coincided with her (alleged) death and conducting her own funeral in person; but as she said, it wasn’t the first time someone had died on stage in Northampton (and I suspect she says that in every town she visits!) Yes, Yorkshire’s Rose has passed away, and Radio Rotherham laments this fact as we enter the auditorium to a series of amusingly inappropriate tracks in expectation for the show.

Frank LavenderAs a warm-up for the main event of the evening, we meet Frank Lavender. Who he? He’s Myra’s brother-in-law, a bluff and gruff Yorkshireman who enjoys ill-health and sports a hairstyle to rival William Gladstone. Frank’s a lugubrious but strangely likeable presence, someone who has taken to the stage even though they have none of the attributes required to be any form of entertainer. As Myra says, she only has him on as her support act so that people are ready for a laugh by the time she appears. Of course, it’s also a way for Myra, through a miraculous stage osmosis, to meet some of the audience before she takes to the stage. Frank sets himself a target to achieve about 30 laughs during his set, and Julie in the front row had to take an official tally. Julie had an amazing infectious laugh, by the way, that really helped the show bed in. He met his target, with a few groans to spare.

Myra DuboisAfter a longer than usual interval – required for Frank to transform himself into Myra – Rotherham’s favourite glamour puss arrived on stage in a scintillating white shroud, and the process of sending her to her eternal rest could get underway. It’s a funny pretext for an hour or so in Myra’s catty company, jibing with the audience with some occasionally very personal observations, getting away with some extremely iffy material because it was delivered with such panache as well as fabulous timing – as well as being extremely funny. We are treated to her glorious voice for a few numbers, in which the audience are welcome to join. There’s a marvellous sequence where audience members assist in delivering the service; it’s based on a ludicrous amount of repetition which can be a recipe for disaster in a comedy act and which some people (yes, I’m looking at you Stewart Lee) can’t get away with anymore; but this was hysterical. Myra traded banter with a few of what she calls the Acronym Community; our friend David in the second row took it all in very good heart.

Myra and EdnaNot having seen the act before, I was struck by the similarity between Frank Lavender/Myra Dubois and Les Patterson/Edna Everage. Both sets of characters are somewhere on the grotesque spectrum, with remarkable abilities to interact (in other words get away with murder) with the audience and set up great callbacks that you can’t see coming. Additionally, facially, Myra and Edna share that same heavily-lipsticked gurning pout of disgust; and both have – shall we say – heightened opinions of their own vocal range. But it’s far from a copycat act, and Myra is her own delightfully caustic comic creation. I don’t think I’m revealing any spoilers when I say that news of her own passing is revealed to be premature come the end of the show, and I’m sure Myra will be back on stage dispensing her South Yorkshire pearls of wisdom again soon. Great fun!

Myra draped over coffinP. S. A word on Covid-Care in the Underground Studio at the Royal and Derngate. We had been reticent about coming to see shows here in these pandemic times, because the studio always has been essentially an airless box, usually packed with laughing, drinking, carefree comedy punters. However, I can report that the new ventilation system, which brings fresh air in from outside, and well-spaced seating made the venue feel much safer than expected. We wore masks, most didn’t; but this made no difference to the banter and interaction between the stage and the audience. So if you’re concerned about coming to the Underground at the moment, I’d say that they’ve made every effort to make it as safe as possible.

Review – Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 3rd August 2021

PriscillaThis production of Priscilla Queen of the Desert at the Royal and Derngate has been the best part of two years in the expectation, with tickets going on sale late summer of 2019, for an original run in April 2020, and finally coming to fruition in August 2021. The tour actually started in September 2019 in Dartford but then had to be postponed in March last year due to the dreaded Covid. Patience is a virtue, they say; but all good things are worth waiting for. And was this show one of them? On the whole, yes. Certainly, this was the first time that most of the good burghers of Northampton had a chance to let their hair down in a theatre and just allow themselves to enjoy a good night out, and they took it with open arms. There was no doubting the sense of release and feelgood fun around the place. It’s been a long time, for example, since I’ve seen perhaps ten or more people from further back in the stalls come to the front of the auditorium just to watch the orchestra perform the play-out at the end, as if they’d never seen one before; I’m assuming – perhaps they hadn’t.

However, this didn’t feel like an ordinary night at the theatre for us, and that might be a reason why I didn’t quite enjoy the show as much as I’d hoped. We’d already been to see ten productions since restrictions were lifted in England, but each of them had been with a socially-distanced audience. Now, for the first time since March 2020, we would be sat next to, behind and in front of real people. And, I must confess gentle reader, thirty minutes before curtain-up I still hadn’t decided if it was worth the risk. Nevertheless, with our faces swaddled in super strength FFP3 masks, which we didn’t remove the entire time we were there, we plucked up the courage to go. And I’m very glad we did – if for no other reason, it broke the back of the fear, because once we were in situ we both felt more or less safe. I would estimate at least 95% of the audience decided in favour of going maskless, so the law of averages tells you that COVID19 will have been doing some swarming around that auditorium last night; we’re just trusting to the double-vaccination and the industrial quality masks.

I’m sure you know the plot; drag queen Tick (Mitzi Mitosis) has avoided his responsibilities as a father and never met his six year old son Benji – but his mother runs a club in Alice Springs and insists that he brings a travelling show to perform at the club so that he and Benji can finally meet. Gathering his old supporting cast of Bernadette Bassenger and Felicia Jollygoodfellow, they take the slow road from Sydney using a battered old bus that they name Priscilla. Via a series of vehicle breakdowns, homophobic attacks, tourist encounters and an understanding mechanic, they finally make their way to The Alice just in time to perform. All this to a soundtrack of unforgettable 70s and 80s disco hits.

One of the repercussions of the pandemic is that the uncertainty of whether a production is going to go ahead or not meant that there were no programmes available for the performance – not even online, which I think is a bit of a swizz. The only way you can find out about the show is by visiting its own website and even then, there isn’t a list of the musical numbers, no name or bio given to the child actor playing Benji, nor details of the writers, and so on. Can’t help but feel the creative team get a bit short-changed by that. But then, it occurred to me that Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is a bit like Priscilla, Parable of the Pandemic. Out of work stage performers go on a long and arduous journey before they can finally perform together again. And the show is all about the journey – rather like the last 18 months has been for us all.

I understand that this production of the show is a slightly pared-down version of the original, and I’m not sure that the tweaks have done it any favours. I know comparisons are odious, but we saw the touring production in 2014 at Milton Keynes and my memory of it was that it was funny, glamorous, full of pathos, joyous and – in short – fab. Despite the best efforts of a very talented cast, seven years later, this show strikes me as falling short in all those aspects. The nuanced wit that I remember (with a couple of laugh out loud exceptions) now seems rather crude and obvious; the glamour felt artificial; the pathos was either laid on with a trowel or underwhelming; and there didn’t seem to be much joy at all. The stand-out scenes were those where the homophobia was at its most prominent, with the aggressive pub landlady in Broken Hill, and where Adam/Felicia got beaten up in Coober Pedy; the vicious realism of both situations impacted us all with its horror and injustice.

Probably resulting from the uncertainties of Covid, overall it wasn’t quite as polished a performance as I would have expected, with a couple of the performers occasionally vague as to where they should be standing, the odd timing issue with the orchestra, and a scene that should have been a truly heartfelt moment suffering from sound issues.

Nevertheless, it’s still a very good show, with loads to recommend it. The ensemble cast are excellent, with terrific dancing to Tom Jackson-Greaves’ energetic and expressive choreography; Mr J-G’s experience working with Matthew Bourne in many of his New Adventures productions comes across in many Bourne-like choreographic twists. The ensemble are convincing in both their guises as showgirls and cowboys, which is an achievement all by itself. The three Divas, Claudia Kariuki, Rosie Glossop and Aiesha Pease, who pepper the show with their vocal dynamism, have great stage presence and brilliant voices; it’s such a shame that they’re required so frequently to stand in positions that obstructs our view of them. Talking of which, the big Ayers Rock scene at the end of the show was ruined by the same awkward staging; our three hero/heroines achieving their goals after the most gruelling journey, celebrating in song, only to have their fantastic costumes obscured from the waist down by some corrugated iron. What were they thinking?

Gracie Lai gives a couple of scene-stealing performances as the unpredictable Cynthia (although as time goes on, I feel that Asian stereotype characterisation is beginning to feel slightly dodgy). In the leading roles, Nick Hayes is suitably irrepressible as the bitchy but vulnerable Adam/Felicia, and Edwin Ray brings all his song and dance experience to the central role of Tick. But for me by far the most impressive performance came from Miles Western, who cut just the right amount of elegance as Bernadette, a wounded character slowly finding her feet and a voice of reason against a choir of chaos.

The tour carries on all the way through to November in Glasgow, pandemic permitting. With so much commitment and talent you really hope it comes off for them. Certainly, there’ll be no shortage of audiences supporting them on their way!

4-starsFour they’re (Felicia) Jollygoodfellows!

Review – Spotlight on Strings, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 16th June 2021

Spotlight on StringsIt’s heart-warming to welcome the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – or at least the string section – back to the Royal and Derngate for their first concert here in over 16 months; yes, who would have known that Dvorak’s New World Symphony on 9th February last year would have marked the last of the RPO’s classical treats for us all this time until it’s just about safe enough to put our (fully-masked) heads above the parapet?

In these uncertain times, it’s impractical (and potentially dangerous) for too many musicians to rehearse and perform together, let alone have a full audience in to enjoy their show. So this programme of three pieces of string music, performed by a group of 25 musicians, is the perfect way to try to reintroduce classical performance to our wounded live entertainment industry.

RPO StringsFor this socially-distanced performance we couldn’t take our usual seats in row H of the stalls but decided to plonk ourselves right down at the front – in any event, an interesting experiment to gauge the difference of sound (if any). Verdict: it’s not quite as rich a sound that you get further back but you do feel like one of the orchestra! Duncan Riddell, the RPO’s regular Leader, was in charge of letting the strings swing in a 75 minute, no interval, programme of music from all over Europe.

In the absence of a proper programme – presumably a Covid Cutback – it fell to Duncan to introduce the first piece. He started to welcome us, but not using the microphone stand on the middle of the stage. “Can’t hear you – use the mic” said someone from behind. So he did, but reluctantly as he said that now that he has used the mic no one else can – one of those Covid rules – and he had intended someone else to use it later. The performing arts are just full of Covid problems!

Duncan RiddellOur first piece was Edvard Grieg’s Holberg Suite, written in 1884 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the famous Danish-Norwegian playwright Ludvig Holberg (err…who??) Originally composed for piano, Grieg adapted it for strings the following year. I confess it was new to me, but it’s a delightful composition in five movements. For the Rigaudon final section, I was expecting something akin to the Norwegian Dance No 2 – or as I know it, Freddy and his Fiddle from the Song of Norway. But no, it was much more like the hornpipe in Pomp and Circumstance. Beautifully done though, with Duncan turning forwards into full performance mode for his virtuoso bits.

Next up was Mendelssohn’s String Symphony No 10, introduced by Principal Second Violin Andrew Storey;  a short, lively piece written in B minor, and all in one movement. Felix Mendelssohn was a bright kid and wrote this String Symphony in the 1820s when he was aged just 14. I thought the guys on the double bass added significantly to this performance, great stuff sirs!

RPO1-300x200Our last piece – the Headline Act if you like – was Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, introduced by (I think) Jonathan Ayling, Co-Principal Cello. It’s a wonderful 1880 composition, in four movements. It starts with a Sonatina style piece in homage to Mozart; then a well-known waltz is the second movement, an Elegie follows, and finally an ending that borrows from some Russian folk tunes. Allegedly Tchaikovsky liked this to be played by as large a group of string musicians as possible, but I’m sure he would have been thrilled to have these 25 players giving it their all as they did. It was absorbing, luscious and exquisite.

As a thank you for coming, they generously gave us an encore – the slow movement from Elgar’s Serenade for Strings. Hugely entertaining and a great return, the audience were thrilled to have the orchestra back, and the orchestra seemed to be thrilled to have the audience back. Win, win! It felt safe, comfortable, friendly and intimate – the personal chats from the individual musicians were a really nice touch that more than made up for the lack of programme! Above all, it was a great privilege to witness the return of the Royal Philharmonic to the Royal and Derngate. They are back again next Wednesday with The Music of Bond. We can’t be there, sadly, but that shouldn’t stop you!

Review – Four Quartets, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 9th June 2021

T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets comes to the Royal and Derngate hotfoot from its opening at the Theatre Royal Bath last week, with star of stage and screen Ralph Fiennes ambitiously presenting these four connected poems as a theatrical event; the perfect antidote to COVID, as it’s a naturally socially-distanced play in front of a socially-distanced audience, and lasting 75 minutes so that it needs no interval. It examines the concept of time, and who wouldn’t wish to go back to the relatively carefree days of 2019 when all we had to worry about was who would win the General Election.

Personally, I’ve always struggled with the Four Quartets. The first poem, Burnt Norton – which isn’t an obscure colour on an artist’s palette but a manor house in Gloucestershire – was published in 1936 as a stand-alone work. Later, Eliot decided to write three more poems, sharing the same five-part structure, to create an extended collection. Each poem starts with a series of statements and counterstatements; then moves into a more lyrical mode; then movement becomes the central theme; then a short lyric precedes a final resolution. Reading them, some of his lines bounce off the page with elegant clarity and inspirational thought. The still point of the turning world, for example,  is a phrase that has seamlessly floated into everyday language. Other parts come across as intractable and turgid, and you resent Eliot for being just too darn clever-clever for his boots, with his classical allusions, religious façade, and use of deliberately obfuscatory language. No wonder Toilets is T. S. Eliot spelled backwards.*

Back in the day, Eliot recorded a reading of the Four Quartets, and his recitative skill was utterly abysmal. Every word sounds the same, portentously, and dully given the same emphasis. It’s a very boring experience. The challenge for Mr Fiennes is to make the four poems come to life as a dramatic narrative, that either clarifies their meaning for us, or makes us look at them in a new way, or somehow gives us something more than just sitting down and getting our old Faber edition out.

And Oh My Giddy Aunt does he succeed! From the moment he gives extra, inquisitive weight to the word perhaps in the second line of Burnt Norton, you know this is going to be a real interpretation of Eliot’s words, not mere recitation. Imagine that Mr Fiennes is Mr Eliot, trying to grapple with a complicated concept that is emerging in his brain, speaking out his mind’s words to see if they make any kind of sense; if they do, he runs with it, excitedly giving them meaning and truth; if they don’t, he falters, his words fall away and we all feel as though we’ve reached the same dead end. If the Four Quartets were a game of rugby, and Mr Eliot the fly-half, he winkles an idea out of the scrum and either scores an instant try in a blaze of glory, or gets tackled by half a dozen burly opponents and gets squished. Either way, Mr Fiennes takes us every step of his journey, and it’s irresistible.

There’s no doubt that he is helped by Hildegard Bechtler’s domineering and eerie set – two big revolving drab slabs that evoke the dry concrete of Burnt Norton, Christopher Shutt’s sound designs that bring the crashing waves of the Dry Salvages thundering into the auditorium, but above all Tim Lutkin’s superb lighting that guides us through the sections of the poem, radiating light onto Mr Fiennes’ face when the surface glittered out of heart of light, beaming red to evoke pentecostal fire in the dark time of the year. Dressed in sombre colours and barefoot, Mr Fiennes takes Eliot’s words and eludicates and clarifies them, entertains us with them, surprises us with them, invests them with humanity rather than just dry and dusty theory. He demarcates each individual section of the poems with a change of tone or stance, so you always get a sense of the progress being made. He brings out the very slight moments of gentle humour; Eliot would be aghast at how populist his twittering world could be interpreted in the social media age.

From the audience’s perspective, the show can be as active or as passive as you wish it to be. The beautiful glossy programme starts with a quotation from Eliot’s own The Frontiers of Criticism: “As for the meaning of the poem as a whole, it is not exhausted by any explanation, for the meaning is what the poem means to different sensitive readers.” It’s entirely up to you. You can listen and watch, alert as a rabbit with your whiskers twitching, munching down whatever meaning you feel appropriate from the words and movements; or you can recline back, and let Mr Fiennes’ voice simply wash over you. Because I have always found the Four Quartets very hard to understand, I really wanted to come out of this show feeling better acquainted with it, with greater insights and awareness of what’s going on. And Mr Fiennes gives us that with huge generosity and patience. I can’t imagine how anyone could have converted Eliot’s words into a stage show better.

* It isn’t, but I made you think twice.

Production photographs by Matt Humphrey

Five Alive, let Theatre Thrive!

 

Review – Loveplay, University of Northampton 3rd Year BA (Hons) Acting Students, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 29th May 2021

LoveplayThe third play performed by the University of Northampton final year actors is Loveplay by Moira Buffini, described as two thousand years, ten scenes, thirty-two characters, one location and one essential question – what is love? – all packed into ninety minutes of hard-hitting comedy drama. Directed by Tobias Deacon, the production also credits Esther Bartholomew and Daniel Hubery as Assistant Directors, both of whom gave excellent performances in their final year plays at Northampton University back in 2018/19.

Elle DudleyI’m not sure the play really asks the question what is love – more like an exposé of sex throughout the centuries. It starts from the slightly odd viewpoint of sticking to that one location, which enables the later stages of the play to be affected by ghosts of the past – which comes across as a bit hokey, to be honest. Nevertheless, it’s a very good play – very funny, occasionally shocking, often thought-provoking and always entertaining.

Didi StockerAnd the final year students do a cracking job of presenting us this show. The range of playlets and characters gives them the opportunity to play at least three roles each, and they seize them with terrific enthusiasm. It’s a clear and crisp presentation, impeccably and faultlessly performed, and full of amazing performances. From the start, Elle Dudley delights with her hilarious portrayal of the early sex worker Dorcas, rejecting the affronted Didi Stocker’s Marcus’ Roman coin as payment for sharing her virtue. Beautifully performed and very funny. She’s also extremely funny as the upright Miss Tilley being taken from underneath on the lap of the master of the household whilst attempting to impress him with her verses.

Katiris CooperElsewhere, I loved the Age of Enlightenment scene between Katiris Cooper’s Roxanne and Oliver Lawrence’s Man, where she wants to inspect his body from a scientific perspective – her ever-so-slightly naughty curiosity was brilliantly conveyed in contrast with his passive acceptance of what an educated woman might want to discover. Mr Lawrence, though, excelled in the Age of Empire scene as the decadent artist De Vere, manipulating his straight-laced friend into a compromising position – all in the cause of art of course. Ms Cooper also came back as one half of the Age of Innocence scene in another extremely funny performance as the sexual cynic Lynne, dismissing her lover – and life in general – as totally useless. Here she was accompanied by Harry Delacey in a fine performance as the sex-weary Gwyn; he had also stood out as the hilariously stagey Llewellyn in the Renaissance scene, which probably offered the most laugh-out-loud moments of the whole show.

Oliver LawrenceOther performances that I particularly enjoyed included Marina Mikeilla as the petulant and posing dating hostess Anita, Rebecca Alice as the nun-with-a-secret Hilda, Georgia Siân Clarke as the assertive actress Helen, Kai Beavers’ outwitted Rev Buttermere, and Matthew Keeroy’s hard-to-please rapist Eric (yes, that’s the scene that made everyone feel uncomfortable).

Harry DelaceyBrisk, funny, punchy and with superb performances throughout, this was probably the big hit of the three student plays this year. Congratulations to all on a terrific show!

P. S. The Martin Lawrence Awards are presented every year to the best actress and actor. Mrs Chrisparkle and I went into a judgely huddle and agreed to whom we would award our own Best Actress and Actor of the year. I’ve also chosen runners-up (because I can). My Silver Medals go to Robyn Isabelle Edwards (The Wolves) and Jimmy Ericson (Road); and our Top Dogs are Katiris Cooper (Loveplay) and Oliver Lawrence (Loveplay). Tremendous actors all – but so are many of the rest of these gifted casts. Well done to all!

Review – Road, University of Northampton 3rd Year BA (Hons) Acting Students, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 28th May 2021

RoadThe second of the three shows to be performed by the final year acting students at the University of Northampton this year is Road, Jim Cartwright’s highly praised 1986 play about the lives of people on one road in an unnamed town during the Thatcher years. Directed by Séan Aydon, we’re led by our narrator Scullery, who introduces us to various houses and locations in the road to meet the locals, observe their lives, share their laughter and their tears. I’d never seen this play before so I was particularly looking forward to seeing whether it merits its reputation and if it has stayed relevant today.

Jimmy EricsonThis is very hard to assess because I’m afraid the play did absolutely nothing for me on a personal level. We get little snippets of people’s lives but hardly any insight into anyone’s progression, so there’s no sense of development and the play feels very static. Those characters that we do meet more than once, at the end of one long hard night, haven’t really gone anywhere. Scullery is the same optimistic cheeky soul at the end of the evening as at the beginning. Old Jerry is still padding around in his slippers, dreaming of his lost love. The girls who have gone out early evening to get wrecked have successfully got wrecked at the end of the night – no surprise there. Eddie and Brink go to the pub and come back with Carol and Linda, although their evening ends on a surreal note – as does the play.

Liz MillwardThe one time that the play does soar is when it goes out of time-synch and shows us what Scullery portentously calls The Story of Joey – a likeable lad who has locked himself away, descending into depression, refusing to eat, or come out of his room, and his friend Clare who joins him and stays because she loves him. It feels genuinely tragic; and when, fourteen days of self-starvation later, they come to take their bodies away you get an enormous sense of wasted life. The scene was also enhanced by having what was probably the best two performances in the play, with Jimmy Ericson as the frustrated and furious Joey, and Liz Millward as the sad and supportive Clare.

Miclaire NkoyThe play also feels very uneven because there are several very short scenes and a couple of inordinately long ones.  In the final, very long, scene, Eddie and Brink attempt to get the girls very drunk, which then turns into three minutes of character silence – nothingness really – whilst they dance, at first inanely then later recklessly, to a record on the turntable – and that whole experience seems to turn them all into amateur philosophers. I’m afraid it felt disappointingly pretentious. As some of the other residents of the road come out to gaze affectionately at the young people and the lights go down, we were wondering what significant thing it was that everyone else understood but we missed.

Elliot Andrew-MurrayTrue, there were some more good performances there, with Liz Millward again as Linda, Miclaire Nkoy excellent as Carol, Shane McCormack as Eddie and, with a very subtly threatening performance, Elliot Andrew-Murray as Brink. Mr Andrew-Murray also turned in a very confident and strongly performed vignette earlier as the meditating Skin-Lad. Other performances I enjoyed came from Elliot Innes as the rather wacky Professor and the aggressive Barry, Dana Sergejevo in a number of roles, but best as the rather plastered lady trying to seduce the drunk soldier (another very good performance by Jimmy Ericson) and Ida Sade as the combative Brenda.

Elliot InnesIt’s a tough play to keep the energy levels up, because some scenes feel very slight in comparison with others. There were a few times when it sagged, and it occasionally annoyed me by what I felt was a shallowness; we only scratched the surface of these people’s lives and often what we saw made us more confused about who they were rather than enlightened us. Nevertheless, the cast made a good job of conveying the seedier and more depressing aspects of 1980s life, and I only wish I could have seen them perform something that would have allowed their talents a greater opportunity to shine through!

Review – The Wolves, University of Northampton 3rd Year BA (Hons) Acting Students, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 27th May 2021

The WolvesIt’s a wonderful feeling to be able to see the great performances by the final year actors at the University of Northampton again; one of the many treats which we’ve all missed out on due to the wretched COVID. This year they have three productions for us, each with two performances, all performed on the mighty stage in the Derngate auditorium.

And the first is The Wolves, Sarah DeLappe’s play that was a finalist for the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Set somewhere in the United States, nine teenage girls play for The Wolves soccer team, each of them only identified by the number or position in which they play. We see their fitness warm-ups, stretching exercises, team talks, private anxieties, public dramas, jealousies, fights and all the angsts that you would imagine nine teenage girls would share between themselves. As the season – and the drama – progresses, ambition turns to fury which turns into tragedy, and in the final scene the girls are left to pick up the pieces despite an awful event which leaves them stunned. Nevertheless, they play on; and although this is a relatively short play – 75 minutes – all human life is there, and it’s not only a great slice of life experience, but a perfect choice to showcase the cast’s excellent talents.

Nadine HamiltonDirector Nadia Papachronopoulou has created a superb ensemble team who interact with each other seamlessly. The exercise routines are choreographed precisely and performed with immaculate timing – it’s incredibly entertaining to watch the players move from exercise to exercise as if it were second nature, never having to reference what element of their routine comes next. The overlapping dialogues, where two or even three conversations might take place between the players all at the same time, are delivered with equal accuracy and clarity. Kicking footballs on stage is a potential nightmare – one false move and you could take out the front row – but the football passing is done with great control and accuracy yet still gives the impression of “proper playing” – so that’s a terrific achievement. And the individual cast members bring out all the humour and sadness from their characters’ personalities – to the extent that it doesn’t matter that (for the most part) we don’t know their names.

Ali PatersonI can’t name everyone in the cast, but some performances really stand out. Nadine Hamilton is brilliant as the sassy striker #7, totally self-assured, delivering her wisecracks and derisory asides with terrific comic timing; and her performance builds to a savage but highly credible argument followed by a beautifully emotional climax. Ali Paterson also gives a strong performance as the team captain #25, conveying superbly how difficult it is to tread that fine line between being one of the girls but also the boss.

Robyn Isabelle Edwards I really enjoyed the performance of Robyn Isabelle Edwards as new girl #46, taking us on her character’s journey from being the outsider who won’t be let into the team huddles, to being the insider who gains the respect of the others by her sporting ability. There’s an excellent scene where she rounds on the rest of the team for taking the mickey out of where she lives; not only does it show how the use of mocking language can be hurtful, it also strongly depicts how fragile mental health can be. The audience is on her side from the start, and you really will her on to succeed despite the cruelty of the others.

Andrea Muresanu There’s a hugely enjoyable performance from Andrea Muresanu as the questioning and analytical #11, dourly refusing to accept factual inaccuracies, and delivering her nuggets of observation with a beautiful feel for the throwaway line. I loved Shaye Thompson’s characterisation of #8, enthusiastically channelling a Legally Blonde-like omigodyouguys attitude, and Kristina Luksha is both funny and emotional as the perpetually throwing up goalie #00. But everyone puts in a terrific performance and it’s a testament to the enjoyment of the show that those 75 minutes absolutely fly by. Great work from the whole team – they definitely deserve to win the league!

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!