Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 27th January 2023

Screaming Blue MurderA big welcome back to Screaming Blue Murder and their first gig of the year which had sold out well in advance. An unusual vibe this time – although quite a refreshing one – in that there were approximately 20 17- and 18-year-olds from Northampton School for Boys (who were mostly girls, and I still haven’t quite figured that out) populating the front rows. Fortunately, they threw themselves whole-heartedly into the proceedings, and (mostly) laughed their socks off all night.

Dan EvansThis presented an interesting challenge to our regular genial host, Dan Evans, who quickly got them splitting their sides. It’s true – he suggested that all the older people would be looking at fresh-faced 17-year-old Joshua, purely with the intent of harvesting his organs. Guilty as charged. It wasn’t all kiddiwinks though, with poor Mark on his own in the front row surrounded by students, plus good sport Rob, vehicle salesman Ash and his mental health nurse wife whose name I’ve forgotten, soz.

Iszi LawrenceFirst up was Iszi Lawrence, whom we’ve seen a couple of times before at Screaming Blue Murders – she always has great material, but it sometimes takes an audience a while to settle into her pattern. She has a lovely sequence about coming out as bi to her mum, and I did like the material about how she acquired her cat, grotesque sound effects and all. She gets carried away with the subject of dinosaurs, which she admits to herself isn’t funny but can be fascinating – if you’re also into dinosaurs. One of the lads from Northampton School for Boys was definitely into dinosaurs and was agreeing demonstrably with her. As for the rest of us… I’m not sure the dino material works really!

Jamie D'SouzaNext was someone new to us, Jamie D’Souza, a quirky mix of Swiss and Indian (Swindian – not from Swindon, it’s not that bad, as he said.) Immaculately funny, with a perfectly structured routine, beautifully chosen words revealing a true feel for the language, and absolutely superb timing. His whole performance is one big act of self-deprecation and it works brilliantly. So many clever throwaway lines, and he leads you up a garden path to expect an ending to a joke which turns out to be something completely different. I particularly loved his material about being hopeless and inexperienced at sex, and the idea of making “old person noises” when he sits down. Terrific – and someone we would definitely want to see again.

Jonny AwsumOur headliner, and someone who’s always an invigorating presence, was the musical comedy genius of Jonny Awsum. Uplifting, inclusive and very, very funny, he jumps from comedy song to comedy song and each one is a delight. I particularly liked his Humming Song, and he got Rob from the audience up to help him with his Rapping Rhymes sequence, which was brilliant. There’s also a song with a chorus involving a well-known TV chef; I just wonder if Mr Awsum realises the said chef died over three years ago. I guess it doesn’t matter!

A great night’s entertainment – looking forward to the next one in February; check for returns, as it’s already sold out!

Review – The Burlesque Show, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 21st January 2023

Burlesque ShowIt was a warm and grand welcome back to the Ministry of Burlesque’s Burlesque Show, first seen at the Royal and Derngate a staggering twelve years ago and a regular highlight of the annual entertainment calendar ever since – at least, until Covid had other ideas. This was the first Burlesque show at the R&D post-pandemic, although I was surprised to see it has been five years since our last attendance. Is it still the must-see production to warm our winter cockles?

Sadly, not quite. Whilst it still offers an engaging and outrageous host, and a very wide-ranging selection of variety artistes, there was something rather (dare I say it) amateur about the whole proceedings on Saturday night. Instead of a well-oiled, slick programme of entertainment, it had the air of a rather ramshackle, under-rehearsed presentation, even though all the usual elements were there that have in the past been so enjoyable.

Eva von SchnippischOur hostess (she described herself as compère, but surely she should be the commère), was Eva von Schnippisch, one of the alter egos of comic actor Stephanie Ward, and she’s a loud, brash presence who encourages us all to be as naughty as we like. Straight outta 1930s Berlin, she’s great fun and kept the whole thing moving pretty well, with a few Cabaret-style songs and some excellent interaction with the audience.

lena-maeIn fact, the first half of the first half of the show (so to speak) was absolutely superb. We started off with Lena Lenman, burlesque star, doing a saucy strip routine which culminated in her being soaked in a bottle of – I want to say champagne – but I think it was cava; and most of the first few rows got their fair share of sparking spray as well. A great start.

Pete FirmanThen it was the turn of Pete Firman, the fantastic magician, who nearly always turns up in these Burlesque shows, and nearly always does precisely the same tricks, which definitely always baffle and amaze me. Each time I see Mr Firman I’m determined to keep my eye on his hands at all times, so I can see how he does that trademark trick of his – the incredible restoration of a burnt twenty pound note (in this case a fiver) from a bunch of flames into its former glory in a sealed envelope, sealed within another envelope and secreted in a zipped wallet. And every time I fail – I allow myself to get diverted by his nuts (if you’ve seen the act, you’ll understand). He’s a great asset to the Burlesque Show and always a delight to see him.

Peggy SuedNext up it was another act who has graced this stage many a time – and many a time has hosted the show – Peggy Sued, a comic creation by the superb Abigail Collins. What she can’t do with a set of hula-hoops isn’t worth doing, but she’s also a brilliant comedy acrobat with a great cocktail-glass-on-the-head trick. Massive fun and hugely entertaining.

Mr BSo far, so good – but this is where it started to unravel. Our next act was Mr B The Gentleman Rhymer. I’d never come across him before, and his is a clever act; with all the appearance of a Penny Farthing cyclist, he combines hip hop and rap with awfully decent cultured English upper class tones – resulting in what he calls chaphop. A terrific idea – but for some reason, on that night, in that audience, it just didn’t work. I think it was necessary to have a crystal clear sound system so that you could appreciate the nuance of every line of this songs, but the clever lyrics were often hard to make out. Unfortunately, the act just sucked the energy out of us all – and Mrs Chrisparkle and I were both extremely bored (and rather irritated) by his performance. Certainly the crowd reaction to him was muted in comparison with the other acts. To be fair, I really enjoyed his version of David Bowie’s Starman, with which he finished his second act slot. As for the rest – well, it wasn’t for me.

Fancy ChanceWith energy drained, I was longing for the interval but first we had burlesque artiste Fancy Chance, who’s been here on and off over the years. In the first half she gave us her Alice – yes the Lewis Carroll one – which ends with a semi-strip performance. Quirky, for sure; but I couldn’t quite work out how appropriate it was to have a sexualised burlesque performance by someone representing Alice, who’s meant to be seven years old, and with the knowledge that Lewis Carroll was sexually attracted to her. It was half clever and half yucky. Her second act performance was as the (late) Artist formerly known as Prince, which we’d seen her do before, but this time it felt very straggly and uninspired. Fortunately Lena Lenman returned at the end of the show to finish off with a classic feather burlesque routine which was well worth the waiting for.

At curtain call time, Eva von Schnippisch brought the cast on to the stage for final bows. Lena Lenman (cheers); Mr B (slightly fewer cheers); Pete Firmin (“Oh no, he’s gone to catch his train”); Abi Collins (“Oh no, she’s gone too”); Fancy Chance (“Is Fancy Chance still here or has she gone too? Gone too”)… there’s no surer way of letting an audience know that the cast don’t really care about them than going missing at curtain call. Of course, if they do have to rush for trains that’s perfectly reasonable – but don’t call them out on stage just to discover they’ve gone AWOL. Just do what they do with a stand-up comedy night and say, “your acts tonight were A, B, and C, I’ve been D – goodnight!” This was a perfect example of how under-rehearsed and ramshackle the whole presentation was. They really need to smarten up that aspect of the show.

P. S. Huge kudos to front-row Mark, who was teased by virtually every member of the cast and who, by the sound of it, stayed stony-faced throughout; handsome but morose. That was until Abi Collins cajoled him up on stage to throw hoops at her, when he proved himself to be an excellent sport. He was virtually an additional member of the cast!

3-stars

Three-sy Does It!

Review – The Cher Show, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 10th January 2023

Cher ShowThe Cher Show has been touring the UK since April last year, but this was our first opportunity to catch up with it during its already lengthy run. In the US, it originally opened in Chicago, and then Broadway, back in 2018. But in the UK it went directly into a tour, rather than opening in the West End first. Was that the theatre equivalent of a film being released straight to DVD? I hoped not.

3 ChersI needn’t have worried! The Cher Show is a truly spectacular production, with amazing costumes, sensational lighting, a brilliant band, staggering choreography (given it’s directed by Arlene Phillips and choreographed by Oti Mabuse, you’d expect nothing less), excellent set and superb performances. And it has a fascinating story to tell; that of one Cherilyn Sarkisian, born in 1946 to singer/actress Georgia Holt and her first husband, John Sarkisian. Young Cherilyn always had stars in her eyes, and Georgia always encouraged her to realise her dreams. And, if nothing else, the show reveals how Cher grew in maturity and wisdom over the years, recognising and accepting her mistakes, using her experience to grow stronger, and to reinvent herself to match the times and her needs.

3 ChersThe big trick with this show is that there are three performers each representing Cher, at different times of her life. There’s “Babe”; the very young Cher, the Cher who did backing vocals for Phil Spector, the Cher who meets Sonny. There’s “Lady”; the Cher whom Sonny works to the ground, the Cher who divorces him, the Cher of the Bang Bang era. And there’s “Star”; the Cher who constantly reinvents herself, Cher the film star, Cher who sings Believe, the Cher who’s an icon. But rather than having the three of them tell their part of her story in chronological order, all three are omnipresent. This really helps to gel her life together. Whilst Star can look back fondly at her life and celebrate it, warts and all, Lady is more critical of her mistakes and misjudgements and Babe is constantly wide-eyed and enthusiastic, ready to take a risk and perhaps dismissive of the advice of her older self. It works incredibly well.

Gypsies...And of course there are the songs! With a career currently entering its seventh decade, there is a veritable plethora to choose from, and pretty much most of the songs you’d like to hear are included. I do have a bugbear though; why do they omit the second verse of my own personal favourite Cher song, Gypsies, Tramps and Thieves? It saves, what, forty seconds, within a two and a half hours show? Oh come on! Although, to be fair, a few songs get the shortened treatment. And there are a number that you might not possibly have heard for many a year. I’d certainly forgotten all about Bang Bang, Just Like Jesse James, and Dark Lady. And I only knew Heart of Stone as a Bucks Fizz song. So there’s a great mix of music, which keeps the show feeling fresh in a way that some lesser juke box musicals (no names, no pack drill)  don’t.

Cher and GregIf there is an aspect of the show where it slightly fails to excel, it’s in the story-telling. Whereas for the most part the story of Cher’s life is told at a reasonable pace, quick enough to keep the audience engaged but slow enough to allow the emotions to sink in, occasionally it smashes through time like a bull in a china shop, leaving the audience a bit confused. For example, Cher’s relationship with Rob Camilletti is beautifully portrayed in its early days (I love Lady’s line likening the age difference between the two to dating an ultrasound), but when they’re out together and attracting the paparazzi, the end of the relationship (following Camilletti’s imprisonment) is told in about twenty wham bam thank you ma’am seconds. A stupid person could be confused; and I indeed did have to ask Mrs Chrisparkle on the way home how it was that their relationship ended so suddenly. Fortunately she was paying attention.

BabeThe performances are all absolutely top-notch. Lucas Rush, whom we last saw a year ago as a brilliant non-binary baddie Carabosse in Sleeping Beauty in Sheffield, is a remarkable match for Sonny Bono, getting just the right level of vain bossiness and charisma, and with an excellent vocal imitation. Tori Scott is superb as Georgia, a unifying thread throughout Cher’s life, with an amazing singing voice and a terrific ear for the comic opportunities in the script. Jake Mitchell is great as the costumier Bob Mackie – elegant, dapper and camp; and Sam Ferriday’s characterisation skills are exploited to the full in his four roles – perhaps at his best when portraying Greg Allman. Oti Mabuse puts the ensemble through their paces with her invigorating and rewarding choreography, and they come up trumps every time.

LadyBut the evening does belong to the various Chers. All three have an extraordinary vocal range and the ability to impersonate Cher’s distinctive tones to a T. Millie O’Connell has a fantastic stage presence as Babe, equally at home conveying her young sassiness as well as her nervous anxiety at meeting and working with celebrities. Danielle Steers gives a strong and very credible performance as the Cher who pretty much knows the ropes and knows what she does and doesn’t want – and isn’t afraid to get it. And Debbie Kurup’s Star exudes energy and genuine star quality with her amazing presence and feelgood smile that lights up the entire auditorium, but also has the wisdom of the years to know when to forgive herself. StarThree superb, complementary performances that show us the many sides of Cher.

The tour continues until March, visiting Liverpool, Bristol, Wimbledon, Torquay, Oxford, Llandudno and Norwich. Whether you’re a massive fan of Cher, or just generally like her work (like me!) there’s loads to enjoy in this spectacular night out. Mrs C was up on her feet at the end like the proverbial rat out of the trap. If I gave the show less than five stars she would kill me.

Production photos by Pamela Raith

Five Alive, Let Theatre Thrive!

Review – Jack and the Beanstalk, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 11th December 2022

Jack and the BeanstalkIt’s Panto Time again! Oh no it isn’t… oh for Heaven’s sake, grow up. The first of four pantos for us this season – and three of them are Jack and the Beanstalk. Typical isn’t it. Like the old joke about London buses, you wait ages for a Jack and the Beanstalk and then three turn up at once. The production that will be gracing the stage of the Royal and Derngate in Northampton for the festive season stars Keala Settle as Fairy Sugarsnap. That’s right! The Greatest Showman’s Keala Settle. Trouble is, I’ve never seen The Greatest Showman, and I confess I’d never heard of Ms Settle until hearing about this show. But does that matter? Oh no it doesn’t!

Billy, Dame and JessBut I’m getting ahead of myself. Jack and the Beanstalk is a traditional family panto produced by that expert Maison de Panto, Evolution Pantomimes. Evolution’s fingerprints are all over this show, from having the band in one of the boxes, opening with the boys and girls of the chorus singing Bring Me Sunshine, having the dame as a self-confessed fat bloke in a dress, and including the bench scene with something scary looming behind whilst our heroes sing Always Look On the Bright Side of Life. And why not? This is a winning formula, guaranteed to make you laugh and smile. And let’s face it, Evolution produce better pantos than Qdos. There, I’ve said it.

Luke and ZombiesAll the required elements are there in abundance. It’s a lovely, colourful, dynamic set; terrific costumes; a three piece band under Uncle Garry Jerry that punches way above its height, and – for the most part – an extremely funny script. The songs are superbly chosen and integrated into the story, and with an appropriate musical theatre leaning considering the presence of Ms Settle. I spotted musical references to Hair, Hamilton and Les Miserables; it wouldn’t surprise me if there were more. The story ends with a lovely spot of redemption, reminding us that there is always a time when the hatred has to stop –  good lesson for the kids, that. Added to which, the plotline incorporates a relevant dig at climate change concerns, which is going to appeal to your more intelligent children; and there’s a cute doggy for everyone else. There are – perhaps – a couple of scenes that haven’t quite bedded in properly yet – I don’t think the dog training scene worked particularly well, for example; but to counterbalance that there is brilliant use of new technology with the Drone of Love, which is used to find Dame Trott’s future husband in the audience; and a projection screen that enhances a couple of the scenes – and which works especially well in the boyband finale, I’ll say no more.

DameBob Golding returns as Dame Trott – he’s rapidly becoming a Northampton Town Fixture, if I’m not talking Cobblers; but this is the first time I’ve seen him, and he’s a delight. Self-assured and a barrel of laughs, he has great interaction with the audience and with the rest of the cast, and he’s given some brilliant costumes to play with – none funnier than his unexpected appearance as Sir Elton John. There’s also a fantastically funny scene where he is trapped inside the weather-making machine and becomes victim to the worst the weather can do. Obvious, but hilarious.

Jack, Dame, Billy, JessI really liked Cara Dudgeon as Jess, our young heroine – full of pluck and attack and a terrific voice; she was ably matched by Ben Thornton’s Billy, in whose gang we all wanted to be, and Alex Lodge’s Jack, an interesting characterisation of a reluctant hero who knows he has to climb the beanstalk to save the world but is too scared to do so. The Villager boys and girls are excellent, with some great song and dance routines – I particularly liked them when they were the henchman’s zombies.

FairyAnd so to Keala Settle, who has taken on what must be a very alien role – the vegetable fairy in a pantomime – with tremendous gusto and embraced it fully. She has an amazing singing voice which is given plenty of opportunity to let rip, and she’s full of fun and vigour. It must feel bizarre for a Broadway star to rock the stage of the R&D as a fairy with an artichoke wand, but she does a terrific job.

LukeHowever, stealing every scene is the brilliant Richard David-Caine as the baddie, Luke Backinanger – he announces his name and says “let that sink in” – yes, I got the joke. Camping it up something rotten, he delivers his punchlines with a wonderful blend of knowing devilry and faux-innocence. It’s not often that the stage lights up when the baddie comes on – but it sure does here. He had us absolutely in the palm of his hand.

Loads to love in this panto – it’s on at the Royal and Derngate until 2nd January. You’d be a fool not to. Oh yes you would!

Production photos by Pamela Raith

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – The Mirror Crack’d, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 31st October 2022

The Mirror Crack'd““Bugger!” cried Miss Jane Marple, as the pain in her leg prevented her from reaching the telephone on time” is a line that you won’t find anywhere in the oeuvres of Dame Agatha Christie, but it is the opening gambit in Rachel Wagstaff’s endearing new adaptation of the Queen of Crime’s 1962 novel The Mirror Crack’d from Side to Side, currently thrilling us at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, until Saturday 5th November.

Katherine of AragonIn a nutshell: American movie star Marina Gregg has bought Miss Marple’s friend Dolly Bantry’s old home Gossington Hall, and Marina is making a new movie Katherine of Aragon at a nearby film studio directed by her loving husband Jason Rudd. Unfortunately, at a drinks reception for local dignitaries, the neighbourhood St John’s Ambulance Chair, Heather Leigh, drops down dead, apparently poisoned by her Strawberry Daquiri. But was Heather the intended victim? And whodunit? Don’t think I’m spoiling it for you, by the way – all this comes out in the first couple of minutes!

Marina and JasonThe Mirror Crack’d, as it is now usually called, lends itself to adaptations like a duck to water. Perhaps most memorably, it became a glossy American movie with Angela Lansbury, Elizabeth Taylor and Rock Hudson in the 1980s, a film which has survived the test of time rather well. As a result, I think many in the audience already knew whodunit; I did, mainly because it wasn’t long ago that I wrote about the book in my Agatha Christie Challenge. The fact that it’s still a remarkably entertaining show is a testament to the creativity of this production.

Miss MarpleAs you can guess from that opening line, the adaptation isn’t 100% faithful to the original book, which has heaps more red herrings, an additional murder and extra suspects; but then something has to be omitted when you distil a 200 page novel into two-and-a-quarter hours (including interval) of stage fun. There are quite a lot of liberties for the Christie purist to come to terms with, including a whole re-writing of two of the original roles, as well as presenting a much more up-to-date Jane Marple who’s not averse to showing her emotions and dropping the odd expletive. But Rachel Wagstaff’s adaptation is cunning, creative, pacey, fluid and tremendously rewarding. It’s also remarkably funny in a way that I certainly didn’t expect.

Jane MarpleIn most Miss Marple books, the wily old lady sits at home with her knitting and thinks out the solution to a crime, whilst her friends bring her nuggets of information to chew on. Appropriately, this adaptation concentrates on Miss Marple at home, whilst she (and we) see the accounts she hears of the crime being acted out in front of her. It’s a very clever staging that stays true to the essence of the character and books, whilst still bringing the whole drama very much to life.

Miss MOf course there are some scenes at the studios where Miss Marple attends, seemingly as the guest of Inspector Craddock – Chief Inspector Craddock as he would like to be known, or Dermot, as she mainly knows him, having looked after him as a child after his mother died young. Much is made of the personal relationship between Dermot and Jane, and it works rather well, being a source of both high emotion, as when he finally becomes able to talk about his grief, and a source of comedy because Miss M has a tendency to treat him like a child. “I know how to make a cup of tea!” he yells, as he storms off to the kitchen, whilst Miss Marple quietly takes over his investigations. There’s a very funny scene where Craddock interrogates Marina whilst Miss Marple is just sitting in a corner pretending to be much older and battier than she really is – but of course she’s dissecting every word she hears.

Miss M and CraddockAdrian Linford has created an intriguing stage design for the production; basically a revolving corridor with doors at either end and glass panels along the side, that swivels into place at slightly different angles, effectively suggesting all the various internal locations of the story. A very significant part of the production involves Max Pappenheim’s sound design and compositions, which eerily surge as the characters’ individual dramas unfold before Miss Marple’s eyes. The music certainly adds to the tension and atmosphere.

Marina and JaneSusie Blake felt like an intriguing casting choice for the role of Miss Marple and I wasn’t entirely sure whether I could see her in the role. I needn’t have worried – she’s superb. She conveys all the character’s kindness and supportiveness, but also shows her devastating quick-wittedness and incisive mind. It’s a terrific central performance; the whole show revolves around her. Sophie Ward is also excellent as Marina, combining a superstar’s rather patronising sufferance of the public with an understatedly vicious aloofness when she’s had enough of you.

Marple and CherryOliver Boot is superb as Craddock, the butt of many of the jokes, balancing a nicely underplayed superiority against being the foil to Miss Marple’s more expert sleuthing prowess. Joe McFadden is excellent as the bad-tempered but earnest Jason Rudd, and Veronica Roberts is hugely entertaining as Dolly Bantry; gossipy, a bit stuck-up, but very supportive to her friend. Jules Melvin gives us a very hearty and brusque Heather, and I really enjoyed Mara Allen’s light touch of comedy as Miss Marple’s housekeeper Cherry. But everyone puts in a solid and enjoyable performance.

CastThere’s a moment at the beginning of Act Two where Craddock loses his temper with Miss Marple; and I’ve rarely seen an audience so rapid to intervene to their heroine’s defence! That’s a sign that we were really engaged with the play. There’s a lovely running gag with one of the characters desperate to be interviewed by Craddock but always being turned away in favour of a more interesting suspect. And if you’re from Croydon, prepare to have your hometown taken in vain!

MarinaMany years ago we saw the Agatha Christie Company present a stage version of The Hollow. Mrs Chrisparkle hated it so much that she vowed never again to see a Christie stage adaptation! I’m delighted to report that The Mirror Crack’d has turned her into a Christie aficionado once again. I wasn’t expecting to be wowed by this production, but we were both shocked at how thoroughly enjoyable the whole thing is!

Production photos by Ali Wright

Five Alive, let Theatre Thrive!

Review – The Color Purple, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 4th October 2022

Color PurpleIf you were given The Color Purple in a game of charades, you’d have your work cut out describing the genre. “It’s a book. And a film. And a musical. And it’s going to be a film musical…” Alice Walker’s 1982 novel sure inspired many other creative talents to spread the story of sisters Celie and Nettie, and their vastly different lives. It’s a story of hardship, tragedy, and abuse, yet also of self-discovery, triumph over adversity and pure joy. No wonder it’s been such an inspiration and has such a firm place in our cultural toolbox.

Nettie and CelieI’m sure you know the story, but just in case… set in the early years of the 20th century, Celie, abused by her father, has already borne two children to him, whom he instantly takes away from her. Nettie, her younger, prettier sister is inseparable from Celie. When Celie is married off to the brutal “Mister”, Nettie escapes the clutches of her father and tries to join them, but terrified of Mister she runs away, and Celie never hears from her again. Celie lives a life of drudgery and abuse until she meets the beautiful and charismatic singer Shug Avery, who has a string of partners and husbands, including on-off affairs with Mister; and the two fall in love. As the years go by, Celie grows sufficiently in confidence to abandon Mister and move in with Shug and her latest chap – but she still doesn’t find the love she craves. Fortunately, there is a happy ending, although you’re never quite sure it’s on the cards, but at the end of the show, there isn’t a dry eye in the house.

Happy EndingMrs Chrisparkle and I saw the 2013 production at the Menier Chocolate Factory, which was intense, intimate, pared down and genuinely awesome. Tinuke Craig’s production for the Leicester Curve and the Birmingham Hippodrome, which has taken three long Covid-interrupted years to reach the Royal and Derngate in Northampton, is a much more expansive experience, with a lush sounding band in the orchestra pit, big set designs, and a fuller ensemble.

Shug getting intimateI know comparisons are odious and you shouldn’t do them on a theatre review. But I’m only human. There are plusses and minuses to this bigger, brasher vision for the show. On the positive side, the whole thing looks tremendous. In the big group numbers, Mark Smith’s choreography is snappy and slinky, with the whole cast covering the stage with dynamic, exciting movement. There’s no greater example of this than in the opening church service scene, which brilliantly brings to life one of those huge, outrageous deep south worship events, where everyone is animated and totally committed to following their passion. Ian Oakley’s band fills the auditorium with sumptuous orchestrations way more than their seven-strong number might suggest. Alex Lowde’s set dominates proceedings and suggests individual locations like the church, or the shops, or the patio at Mister’s ranch, whilst also providing a background for projections of crop fields, or that significant, symbolic, color purple. Whilst not in itself particularly attractive, it’s very functional and helpful for the story to unfold.

MisterHowever, there is a minus side. Somehow, somewhere, in all this brash sense of theatre that hits you from all angles, so much of the pathos and tragedy of the piece falls by the wayside. The menace, that should be extreme from the likes of Mister and Pa, is lost. Take Mister’s whip, for example, that never leaves his side. That should crack and terrorise Celie, but instead it just flops onto the stage with a dull thud – frankly, that’s not going to scare anyone. Or, when Sofia is beaten up and flung in jail, that should break the audience’s heart at the sight of this strong independent woman brought to her knees by her foes; but, to be honest, Sofia looked to me like she was suffering from no more than a heavy hangover. The savagery that is at the heart of the show is simply presented as too discreet, too polite, too remote; it needs to be much more in-your-face.

Nettie Mister and CelieThe show is at its best when it presents us the story with simplicity and clarity, such as the pivotal moment when Celie finally stands up to Mister, to the whoops and applause of the audience. But there were a few scenes where it wasn’t that easy to follow what was going on. This was not helped by a very mushy sound amplification. It wasn’t that the band was too loud for the voices, but that the sound we heard had insufficient clarity. At times it was like we had gone back to the days of Mono rather than Stereo. To be fair, this problem was hugely improved in the second act – so I guess this might be attributable to first night getting-in glitches. But there were a few other irritating aspects, like the downstage right prop table being visible to half the audience at the beginning of Act Two, and many of the costumes being in dire need of a good ironing. Minor points, I accept, but they accumulate.

Celie and ShugThe show very much succeeds or fails on the strength of the performer who plays Celie, and we’re onto a winner with the amazing Me’sha Bryan. We saw her online in Romantics Anonymous during the lockdowns and she was impressive then – but there’s no doubt she’s a star in the making. I know it’s a cliché to say she has the voice of an angel, but – actually – if you heard an angel sing, it would sound like Ms Bryan. I particularly liked how she subtly aged during the course of the show, from being a very young girl in the opening scenes to quite a mature lady at the end – simple, effective, convincing. My only criticism would be – and I think this would be a directorial choice rather than in the acting – the younger Celie is so used to tragedy and cruelty that, simply to survive, she takes everything so much in her stride, hiding her sadness from the real world, womaning up and getting on with life. The trouble is, by concealing her emotional state from the audience, it’s harder for us to tap into it and feel the tragedy of her existence. Nevertheless, she puts on a great performance and it’s worth coming to see the show for her alone.

Three ladiesAaliyah Zhané is also extremely good as Nettie; she also has a beautiful singing voice, and her duets with Ms Bryan are perfect. I enjoyed Ahmed Hamad’s Harpo, bringing a little of the decency and humour out of the role; although (call me a prude if you like) I felt the “sexual chemistry” between him and Anelisa Lamola’s Sofia went a little over the top. The ensemble worked together extremely well – for me, both Karen Mavundukure as Doris and swing Alex Okoampa stood out.

ShugA game of two halves, then. The dramatic tension and emotional heartstrings after the interval increased hugely to create a thoroughly satisfying conclusion to the show; it’s just that some of the journey getting there was a little bumpy. But it’s still a fine spectacle and you’ll be talking about Me’sha Bryan for days!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

3-starsThree-sy Does It!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 17th September 2022

Screaming Blue MurderI expected sadly to have to sit out all this autumn’s Screaming Blue Murders as they had been changed to Saturday nights, and Mrs Chrisparkle and my Saturday nights book up very early. However, a last minute change of plan meant that we could go, so hurrah for that. And, despite the fact that this season’s Screaming Blues have been strangely omitted from the printed brochure, it was a sell-out, so they’re obviously all doing something right.

Dan EvansAnd it was a delight as always to be welcomed and entertained by the one and only Mr Dan Evans, who had his work cut out from the start by front row Shirley from Wootton, who was definitely up for a spot of interaction. We also met laid-back Sonny, Architect Andy and wise-cracking Ian. Dan did absolutely the right thing by starting the evening off with a heartfelt round of applause for Her Late Majesty – it’s always difficult to gauge the right level of respect, especially with something that’s frequently as disrespectful as a comedy gig! But it was the perfect way to recognise the official mourning period. He could then proceed with his usual brand of cheeky chatting with the audience.

Robert WhiteFirst on stage was Robert White – a true Screaming Blue regular; I worked out that this was the seventh time we’ve seen him here. Now a Britain’s Got Talent alumnus, he has the special trick of being Asperges, gay and totally lacking in inhibition. With his trusty keyboard he can whack out any number of comedy songs about any number of audience members. Despite trying hard, he didn’t manage to discover any other gays in the audience, but it didn’t stop him from delivering some classic Robert White embarrassment songs and interactions. Whether or not we weren’t quite sufficiently warmed up I’m not sure, or whether it’s that he’s normally headlining or at least second in the bill, but his material didn’t always land quite so surely as it normally does. But then, with many people feeling the loss of Her Majesty, perhaps this wasn’t surprising.

Naomi CooperNext up was Naomi Cooper, whom we’d seen four years ago, and she’s much more sure-footed with her material and delivery than she was then. She has enjoyable routines about being a “slut” (her description) and dealing with her mother. There’s no one single outstanding aspect to her act, but she sets up a nice rapport with the audience and there were lots of good laughs.

Christian ReillyOur headliner, and another act we’ve seen several times, was Christian Reilly, master of the comedy guitar parody/pastiche. With his perky straw Stetson he gives the impression of being a country and western wild boy, and his Bruce Springsteen always goes down a storm – although my favourite of the night is his idiotically brilliant Bryan Ferry. It feels effortless, although I bet it isn’t, and the audience roared their approval. A brilliant way to end the night.

The next Screaming Blue is scheduled for next Saturday and includes the brilliant Russell Hicks – gutted that we can’t be there, but you should go!

Review – The Rocky Horror Show, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 4th July 2022

Rocky HorrorDust off those fishnets and snap your corsets, it’s the return of those funsters from the planet Transexual in the Galaxy of Transylvania, hitting the stage again with a new production of The Rocky Horror Show, which has already been touring extensively throughout the UK and, after a pause at the end of this week, will start again later in the year. For one week only, the Royal and Derngate will be playing host to Brad and Janet’s salutary tale of what not to do when your get a flat tyre (sorry, tire) in the rain within sight of a creepy old castle. Next time, ring the AA. So much easier.

The castRichard O’Brien’s evergreen musical still has the power to delight, thrill and shock audiences. Shock? Surely everyone knows what to expect when they see this show? Apparently not, as I discovered when we took my in-laws Lord and Lady Prosecco last night only to realise they had never seen or heard anything about it. And Lady Prosecco was shocked, I tell you shocked. I remember being told that every day, someone somewhere hears Handel’s Water Music for the first time. Just because something has been around for ages, doesn’t mean to say that everyone knows it.

Dammit JanetThe last time I saw Rocky Horror was in 1999, with Jason Donovan as Frank N Furter and the late great Nicholas Parsons as the Narrator. I think things were a little more staid then than they are now, as I have no recollection of the cross-banter between audience and cast that studded last night’s show. And from what I can gather, we were a relatively reserved bunch. Heaven only knows what happens on a Saturday night.

Columbia, Magenta, Janet, Brad, RiffThis is a very simple show to critique because it’s simply excellent all the way through, with no exceptions. Staging – tick. Lighting – tick. Costumes – tick (fab). Band – tick (outstanding). Performances – tick (brilliant throughout). As for the show itself, I haven’t changed my opinion that I formed when I first saw it at the King’s Road theatre in Chelsea back in the 70s. Yes, I am that old. It’s an outstanding show – until about three-quarters of the way through when it simply loses its way. You completely believe the outrageous story and group of characters – it’s lifted from those old movies or comic books – you only have to suspend disbelief a tiny bit; until the science fiction part truly kicks in, and then we don’t believe in it anymore. It also suffers – and that is the right word I think – from having nearly all the best songs in the first half; Touch-a Touch-a Touch-a Touch Me being the obvious exception.Frank It does feel odd to have everyone on their feet doing the Time Warp barely twenty minutes into the show; then you all have to sit down again for the show to resume and there’s an obvious drop in energy. Of course, The Time Warp comes back at the end, but that’s encore, innit.

Nevertheless, it’s still a wonderful show and I can’t imagine a better production. Proving that his Strictly experience was no fluke, Ore Oduba is fantastic as Brad, with all that stuffy innocence that the role requires, and Haley Flaherty a perfect Janet, sweetly giving into sexual pleasure in her very sensible bra. Stephen Webb uses his sensational voice to great effect as Frank N Furter, and Philip Franks is superbly mischievous as the Narrator, bringing in cutting references to modern life, battering down any misplaced interventions from the audience, and having better NarratorPrince Andrew and Boris Johnson material than most stand-up comedians. Rocky regular Kristian Lavercombe gives us a Riff Raff full of physical comedy, and Lauren Ingram’s voice is perfect for Columbia’s vocal show-offs. But everyone in the cast fits their roles absolutely perfectly and turn in first-class performances all round.

A fabulous fun night at the theatre. Let your hair down, don’t chuck anything on stage, and do wear your best inappropriate lingerie.

 

Production photos by David Freeman

Five Alive Let Theatre Thrive!

Review – Patrick Kielty, Borderline, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 25th June 2022

BorderlineWasn’t it Chris de Burgh who said – and I think it was – Don’t let go, I want to know that you will wait for me until the day there’s no borderline. Always a hot topic in the island of Ireland, no matter what side you’re on. By my calculation – and I’m ready to be proved wrong – it’s been 6 years since Patrick Kielty has done a stand-up tour and my goodness you’d never have known he’d been away, from the polished performance he gave at the Royal and Derngate on Saturday night.

John MeagherBut I’m getting ahead of myself, as before Mr K came on stage we welcomed his support act, John Meagher. He’s a bright and cheery chap, bounding with energy and a terrifically confident and attacking (in a good way) style. He has some great material about his early years in Ireland, moving from the idyllic setting of County Mayo to the exact opposite in a town outside Newry during the troubles, a borderline situation indeed. And then a few years ago he decided to move to England in search of greater political stability… good luck with that, as they say. He gives us a fun insight into his new relationship where he’s clearly boxing way above his weight, and the audience at the Royal warmed to him and his excellent sense of humour. A funny but also appropriate introduction to the main event after the interval.

Patrick Kielty also gives us an insight into life in rural Northern Ireland back in the 70s and 80s. I loved his example of the fact that his tiny home village, sporting no more than 100 children, nevertheless had two primary schools, segregated into the two halves of the divide, where each set of youngsters was taught how to mistrust and dislike the other, with nonsensical observations like how wide apart people’s eyes are, or with which foot they naturally kick a football. Then, having brought up these kids in their cosy little cocoons, at the age of 16 they’re just chucked together and left to get on with it. What could possibly go wrong?

P KieltyAmongst all the recollections and observations about what it was like growing up in Northern Ireland, becoming an adult, coping with the sectarian murder of his father, starting his career and so on, he talks warmly of the Good Friday agreement, with particularly fond remembrances of Mo Mowlem – who sounds like she was a right scream. This might all sound like very heavy going material, but, with Mr Kielty’s words and delivery, most of it is downright laugh out loud funny, with just the occasional heart-in-mouth moments of awfulness.

Patrick KieltyAnd now – Brexit! The gift that keeps on giving has provided us all with another borderline to contend with; the particular inspiration for this show, and the additional difficulties and ridiculousness it creates. There’s plenty for Mr K to get his teeth into, and he doesn’t hold back. His conclusion is to ask oneself what’s so great about taking control, which was, of course, one of the main aims of the Brexit vote. And it’s true; there are things that we can all do so much better, and we’d be better off just doing them.

Patrick KieltyOn top of all this, there are some wonderful homespun words of wisdom from his aunt, hilarious observations on his married life and the interactions between the in-laws, coping strategies for his children being indoctrinated to support the English football team, and, above all, an enthusiastic and optimistic attitude that helps us all rise above the misery of daily politics. I’ve rarely heard so many individual rounds of applause for individual punchlines, which just goes to show how much we all appreciated his words. Immensely likeable, supremely confident, and with the most assured delivery, it’s a fantastic show. His extensive tour is now coming to an end, with just a week at the Soho Theatre in London left. Highly recommended!

Review – The Dance of Death, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 23rd June 2022

Dance of DeathThe Dance of Death is known as one of those famously morose and miserable fin de siècle plays from the dour pen of August Strindberg, the Swedish playwright who’s often lumped together with Henrik Ibsen as being the pin-up boys of nineteenth century Scandinavian drama. I’ve seen it performed just once before, back in 2003 in a portent-filled production starring Ian McKellen and Frances de la Tour, who both drifted lugubriously around the stage of London’s Lyric Theatre in silent resentment of each other with amazing prop-handling but was as boring as hell.

Captain and AliceIn case you don’t know, Captain Edgar has been married to his ex-actress wife Alice for almost thirty unhappy years, living on a forlorn fortress island, surrounded by people they despise, and who ostracise them back in return. She abuses the servants, he denies his obvious ill-health, their children are grown-up and barely in contact; in short, they eke out an existence that can hardly be called life. Occasionally they think back to glamorous days in Copenhagen just as Chekhov’s Three Sisters reminisce about Moscow – both plays written in the same year, 1900, which is a curious coincidence.

Katrin and AliceInto this drab merry-go-round comes Alice’s cousin – normally Kurt, but in Rebecca Lenkiewicz’ adaptation now Katrin – who has moved to the island to become the Matron of Quarantine. Sounds familiar? 122 years later and we’re still never too far from an intimidating and lethal new virus. Katrin doesn’t see her children anymore; there are differences of opinion as to why this is. There’s also a sexual domination frisson that occurs between Alice and Katrin which may – or may not – have contributed to both of their unhappinesses; you decide. At the end, Katrin washes her hands of both of them, leaving Edgar and Alice exactly where they were at the beginning of the play.

Captain and KatrinThis Made in Northampton co-production with the Arcola Theatre, Cambridge Arts Theatre, Oxford Playhouse and the Theatre Royal Bath, finally made its way to Northampton for just three days’ performances having received a variety of reviews from four stars to one star. The Guardian’s one-star review very nearly made me avoid this production, but the thought of Lindsay Duncan and Hilton McRae cantankerising the devil out of each other was too enticing to miss. And I’m very glad I didn’t.

Alice and CaptainWhy is this play considered so significant? Setting aside the modern corollary of Covid with the plague that beset the community at the time, you can see the roots of so many classic 20th century dramas emerging from the relationship between Edgar and Alice. I’m not sure we would have seen Waiting for Godot without this play – the Captain and his wife as a pair of co-dependent lost souls who end the play exactly as they started whilst life has progressed around them. Or Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, with Edgar and Alice as George and Martha, deriving all their pleasure from random games of Get the Guests, but this time with Katrin and the servants. As in both of these plays, events that are presented as factual, such as Edgar’s announcement of divorce, Alice and Katrin’s sexual attraction, or even their telephone being bugged, are almost certainly not what they seem.

Katrin and CaptainTechnically, this is a very decent production. Grace Smart’s suitably lifeless set contains the trappings of a comfortable life, and I loved David Howe’s lighting design that creates a deliberately long shadow capturing the shape of a candelabra on the ceiling. The very quiet sounds of a distant party (to which they’re not invited) emphasise how remote their existence is, although the presence of the telegraph machine shows they can be in communication with the outside world. The women’s sombre clothes reflect their unfulfilled lives, with the only contrast being the red flashes on the Captain’s uniform that indicate that he does have some sort of presence outside these four walls. The timeless issues of the play – unhappy marriage, estrangement from children, and – if I can put it in the modern vernacular – serious FOMO, lend themselves well to a sparky new adaptation that revels in some very un-nineteenth century language.

AliceMehmet Ergen’s direction allows the dark comedy of the piece to bubble under the surface constantly; it never breaks through into full-scale hilarity but is always there providing an absurd sub-commentary on their appalling lives together. Suggestions of domestic violence between the two are helpfully minimised, which allows us to concentrate more on the text. Lindsay Duncan’s Alice wears her unhappiness as though it were a favourite dress, both showing it off with pride, and protecting herself like a suit of armour. She has a beautiful downbeat style with which she pings off Alice’s throwaway insults with subtle ease, and it’s a very convincing performance. Hilton McRae provides the Captain with a good deal of bluster and misplaced self-confidence, with occasional rays of warmth shining through the gloom of despair. We don’t feel sorry for him, and there’s no reason why we should, as he effortlessly conveys the sneaky manipulations behind his actions. Emily Bruni plays Katrin with straightforward, dispassionate clarity, which lurches unexpectedly into a thoroughly creepy emotional mess as she gets more and more involved.

Alice and KatrinIf ever there was a Marmite production, this is it; however, Mrs Chrisparkle and I sat captivated through the whole 80 minutes (no interval). It’s almost obscene to say we enjoyed watching these two people tear each other (and a third party) apart; but it is strangely very enjoyable! The production now goes on to the final leg of its UK tour at London’s Arcola Theatre from 28 June – 23 July.

Production photos by Alex Brenner

4-starsFour they’re jolly good fellows!