Review – Blue/Orange, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 24th November 2021

Blue OrangeWasn’t it F R David who said – and I think it was – Words Don’t Come Easy To Me? Of course, he was “just a music man”, and his “melodies were his best friend”, but his “words were coming out wrong”. It’s a common problem, and rarely seen more acutely than in Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange, which won both the Olivier and Evening Standard Theatre Award for Best Play when it first appeared in 2000. Now James Dacre, Artistic Director of the Royal and Derngate, has directed a new production of the play which opened in Bath a few weeks ago, visited Oxford en route, and has now finally come to its spiritual home at the Royal and Derngate.

The set-up is deceptively simple. At an NHS psychiatric hospital in London, patient Christopher is itching to leave, having already spent 28 days in its care. Dr Bruce Flaherty, under whose supervision Christopher has been treated, isn’t sure he’s ready to leave, and asks Senior Consultant Robert Smith to sit in on a final consultation for his opinion. Both Robert and Christopher are adamant that he should leave – although for different reasons. Attempting to make Christopher reveal his true mental state, Bruce offers him an orange to eat and challenges him to tell Robert what he thinks its colour is. Blue, is Christopher’s response. And the fruit inside? Also blue. He also manages to make Christopher reveal that his father is Field Marshal Idi Amin of Uganda; perhaps unsurprisingly as he was known as Dada to his friends. Robert suggests that he and Christopher should have a private consultation together. But what is the outcome of that consultation? Are Robert’s motives for wanting Christopher to leave in everyone’s best interests? Has Bruce been as correct in his dealings with Christopher as he should have? And is Christopher satisfied with the way he has been treated? You’ll have to see the play to find out!

This is a cunning play that openly exposes all its secrets without the audience realising it, and then asks us to consider what we had heard earlier and understand it now in a different light. With only three scenes/conversations, all taking place within 24 hours, and all in the same consulting room, it very nearly observes the traditional unities of classical drama. Even the requirement for any cataclysmic event to happen off-stage is recognised, with the important hospital management meeting taking place in a different room whilst we’re all enjoying the interval. It’s fascinating to see the unities being observed in a modern play. It certainly concentrates the mind.

Nevertheless, the play takes a number of themes, from the obvious coping with life in the NHS, to power struggles between colleagues, racial equality within a range of relationships and situations including that of healthcare, and trust and deception. Joe Penhall has slightly revised the play for audiences twenty years on, and for the first time the role of Robert is performed by a Black actor, which changes the racial imbalance of the play in the other direction and adds a different level of complexity to the disagreements that all the characters face. There’s also this question of words. F R David was right, they don’t come easy, or at least the right words don’t. Bruce insists to Christopher that you can’t use the word crazy anymore, and schizophrenia is a complete no-no. He will later discover that there are many other words you can’t use, even when you’re quoting someone else.

There’s no doubt this is a very wordy play; and in the first Act in particular, the conversations become extremely intense, and at times you need to keep your wits about you to make sure you follow everything that’s said. However, after the interval, the wordiness gives way to a much more emotional involvement from all three characters, the interchanges become much livelier, and the intensity changes from intellectual to pure drama. You never really know which way the plot is going to twist, and then it twists again in its final moments. It’s one of those splendid plays that become even more splendid the more you think about it after curtain down. Hidden depths, character give-aways, secret agendas continue to become clearer as you reflect on what’s happened.

Simon Kenny’s simple but effective design reveals the grey, austere consulting room, its only features being three chairs, a bowl of oranges and a water-cooler. Deliberately harsh lighting emphasises the claustrophobic box nature of the room and adds to the strangely unsettling image presented to us. Composer Valgeir SigurÞsson’s haunting incidental music creeps in softly at odd moments to unsettle us even more.

The three characters are all given tremendous performances by a sterling cast. Ralph Davis gives an excellent portrayal of a rather dishevelled but strict doctor who works all the hours under the sun in his performance as Bruce, quickly getting aggravated when his patience is tried a little too far, not realising the traps that have been set for him. Giles Terera is every bit as excellent as you would expect as the outwardly pleasant, inwardly manipulative Robert, putting his research before his patient’s wellbeing, and switching from old pal to arch enemy on the turn of a sixpence. But for me the discovery of this production is the amazing performance by Michael Balogun, whom we last saw as Macduff in Chichester (at least until the glass floor shattered). Here he plays Christopher, channelling all the emotions of a mental health patient railing against the machine, and conveying all the aspects of this complicated character from the wide-eyed innocent to the courtroom cynic.

A very strong production of a very strong play. It continues at the Royal and Derngate until 4th December- after which, who knows? But I reckon it could fit very nicely into an intimate West End theatre.

Production photos by Marc Brenner

4-starsFour they’re jolly good fellows!

Review – Paul Chowdhry, Family-Friendly Comedian, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 23rd November 2021

PAUL-CHOWDHRY-FAMILY-FRIENDLYPaul Chowdhry, the legendary sweet-talkin’ bastard, comes on stage and advises us that, if we’d seen him before here at the Royal and Deansgate (sic) in Live Innit (we had), or What’s Happening White People (we hadn’t – but he didn’t mention PC’s World, which we had), he’s now a completely different person from the one before. He has reinvented himself as a family-friendly comedian. And then he proceeds to lambast the front row with a series of what I presume are Hindi swear words and body-part slang terms. He was only teasing. He hasn’t changed.

Rory O'HanlonBut I’m jumping ahead of myself because the show started with his support act, Rory O’Hanlon. We knew we’d seen him recently but couldn’t quite place when – turns out it was in the back garden of the Black Prince three months ago. He’s a terrific comic, with a typical Dublin gift of the gab, and with some very funny material. Sadly – for us – 90% of his act was what we had heard in August, so we were left to admire his comedic skills rather than actually laugh out loud at the material, as we had done the first time. Presumably he was new to everyone else as he went down a storm in the audience. With a very serendipitous turn of events, he had been bad-mouthing how horrible Coventry is, when a group of rowdy chaps turned up late and made their way to the middle of the front row. Where have you come from, asked Mr O’H. Coventry, came the answer. Thus a major part of the groundwork was set for the whole evening.

Paul Chowdhry Live InnitAfter the interval, and the Coventry guys had got even more tanked up, Paul Chowdhry must have looked down on the rowdy Sikhs in the front row waving their lagers at him, and thought this is going to be a doddle. Time and again, during the course of the evening, he went back to them to take the mickey in the way that really only Mr C can. Ridiculing their speech, their behaviour, their protestations of sobriety, everything; it’s amazing how he can be so directly aggressive to individual audience members – and they love it. And so do the rest of the audience. If you go to see a Paul Chowdhry gig, so much of your time with this extraordinarily skilled and quick-witted comic will be spent with him trading the most dangerous banter with the audience, getting away with murder, spreading the comedy of offence far and wide, and, against all odds, it works so well.

Paul ChowdhryTwo things help here; one is Mr C’s superb mimicry skills, which allow him to populate his chat with a range of stereotype accents, from his posh Susan and Giles voices, and his Neanderthal Dave voice, to a full panoply of Asian imitations. His voices can be hectoring, whining, intimidating, offended, and so on; in other words, all the emotions, in all the races. The other is that he attracts such a wide variety of audience members from all races, all ages, and, particularly useful, all family groupings. Nothing can give him more scope than an extended Asian family of parents, aunties, uncles, kids, grannies and so on. As he pointed out, the lockdown rules where you could only meet six people at a time were specifically for white people. For Bengalis, six people constitutes the queue for the bathroom.

Paul ChowdhryThe show wasn’t just a sequence of audience interactions with no interconnecting theme other than insults; not quite, at any rate. As part of the show, Mr C dwelt on everyone’s lockdown and pandemic experiences, including how we now do our best to suppress a cough, which, in the good old days, would have been an open invitation for the most wallowed-in, phlegmatic and catarrh-filled airway clearing exercise – as he frequently and very audibly demonstrated. He does a brilliant take-down of those who take their vaccination advice from Nicki Minaj – probably worth your ticket price alone  – and he fantasises about a Saudi Arabian version of TV’s Naked Attraction.

Paul Chowdhry on stageIf you’re like us, you’d probably think, “I know that Paul Chowdhry is a master of the comedy of offence, and I’m going to appreciate it for what it is, and not get offended”. Wrong. Despite our best efforts, we were offended on at least two occasions, and, as Mr C also tells us, it’s as white people being offended on behalf of others – whilst those “others” are probably not in the least offended. If it’s good to be challenged in the theatre, I can’t see why it shouldn’t be good to be challenged by comedy too.

Paul CAs when we saw Live Innit, I think it’s fair to say that I enjoyed it more than Mrs Chrisparkle. Whilst still laughing lots, she finds Mr C’s repetitive and aggressive style a little overwhelming – or her killer description, relentless – whereas I either don’t notice it, don’t mind it, or just find it funny. It’s a boy thing, innit. His tour is nearing its end, with a few more dates until Nottingham on 16th December. And, despite the title, don’t bring the kids.

Review – Jayde Adams, The Ballad of Kylie Jenner’s Old Face, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 20th November 2021

Jayde-AdamsI booked this show on a risky punt when it first went on sale, when it was pretty much at the height of the pandemic and I hadn’t booked a show for months, and I really needed the sense of having something new to look forward to when it was all over – not that we’re there yet. I hadn’t actually heard of Jayde Adams before; in fact, I’d still seen nothing new about her by the time we went to see Saturday’s show.

Ballad of Kylie Jenner's Old FaceBut that was my bad, as Ms Adams clearly has a devoted following, and a history of extravagant stage performances as was revealed in the opening part of The Ballad of Kylie Jenner’s Old Face, the significance of which title only became revealed as the show neared its end. I didn’t actually know who Kylie Jenner was either, but fortunately Ms Adams includes an explanatory segment for the over 50s in the show, which was damn useful. I did know the Kardashians were grotesque, but this really helped me understand just how grotesque they are.

The show is basically a comedy TED talk (or lecture, as we used to say in the old days) where Ms Adams grapples with her love/hate relationship with both the word and the concept of feminism. She loves it when it means what it’s meant to mean, and hates it when it is misappropriated by the likes of Beyonce and Jay-Z, as she revealed in a hilarious sequence describing a certain stage performance that took place (literally) Under That Word.

jayde-adams-serious black jumperShe also brings in the magical power of the Serious Black Jumper as part of her material (no pun intended). Having been advised that no one took her seriously when she was camping it up in catsuits, she donned a serious black jumper to gain gravitas and found that people’s reactions are so different. And it’s true! She gives us a number of examples of influential people wearing a serious black jumper and it certainly helps you take them seriously; especially when viewed side by side with the same person in mufti.

I mustn’t give the impression that this show is in any way po-faced or academically serious. It isn’t. It’s jam-packed full of laughs. Jayde Adams has a terrific interaction with the audience and a wonderfully natural comic persona, that’s part strong and self-assured, and part vulnerable and uncertain – just like most people really, so we identify with her easily (even us chaps).

Jayde AdamsTo conclude she ties feminism in with the concept of confidence, and gives us a healthy and positive definition of gaining confidence rather than relying on the outward fripperies of the likes of the Kardashians. It’s a powerful and overwhelmingly positive message and you leave the theatre buoyed up with dignity and optimism. And also having had a really good laugh – what more could you want? It’s always refreshing to enjoy intelligent, thoughtful comedy, and this show has it by the bucketful. This was almost the last night of the tour, just one more show left at Leicester Square – but she’s writing more material, so hopefully she’ll be touring again soon!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 19th November 2021

Screaming Blue MurderIt’s odd how the same format of three fabulous acts, two wonderful intervals and one marvellous compere can create a different vibe from show to show. There was something odd and ill at ease about October’s Screaming Blue Murder, but last Friday’s show was a crackeroony of a night. Host Dan Evans was on fine form indeed with his welcomes and entr’actes, mining the comedy out of the front rows, including Texaco Josh who was 29 but looked 13, Oundle Will who was 17 and looked 17, and Farmer Alice who, according to Dan, had to get up at 5am every day just to fill out all the refund forms, thus receiving the biggest laugh of the night.

Dan EvansAn innovative line-up featured two female comics and one male, which may be an indication of some progress where it comes to equality in comedy. We’d seen all the acts before, some more recently than others, and it’s interesting to see how they mixed and matched the same material we’ve seen before but to different effect.

Juliet MeyersFirst up was Juliet Meyers, whom I was expecting to use the C word within the first couple of minutes as she always does, but this time she didn’t – maybe she thought we were posher than we were. It wasn’t until she made a disparaging remark about our beloved Prime Minister, at which point Front Row Tom got up in a magnificent display of what appeared to be disgust which I think took us all slightly aback, only to get to the door to turn around and say by the way I agree, Boris Johnson is a massive c*nt (I may be paraphrasing). After that we were all relieved and Ms Meyers had the green light to use the C word as much as she wanted, and then everything fell nicely into place. Front Row Tom returned (he’d only nipped out to the loo), and Juliet got on with some great material about dogs’ unconditional love, Brexit in the canine world, and why men have become more tender in the bedroom. Great stuff.

James SherwoodNext up was James Sherwood, who reminds me of what David Mitchell would look like if he was just relaxing down the pub. He has a great interaction with the audience, very wry and dry, gently laconic and I really enjoyed his material regarding sex versus drugs and the pros and cons of both. He split up his act with a few musical jokes at the keyboard, which are his trademark, but for some reason they didn’t quite hit home in the way they have in the past. Nevertheless a good fun set.

Jenny CollierOur headline act was someone we’ve seen twice already this year, Jenny Collier, and I feared that listening to the same material again so soon after hearing it before would be a little disappointing. Not a bit of it. Ms Collier has honed this routine to perfection, working on the just the right words and intonations to make it as funny as possible – and she went down a complete storm. She is one of those comics who plays beautifully on her rather sweet and innocent appearance and contrasts it with the unexpected power of her material; a posh versus filthy balance, which she gauges perfectly. She uses her experience working in the NHS to great effect; has a great joke about a gag reflex; tells us about all the new Welsh words she learned this year; and ends up with a riotous routine about providing a stool sample. Left us all wanting a lot more – fabulous work.

That was the last Screaming Blue Murder for 2021, but, if we have unearnéd luck, we’ll all be back in January. See you there!

Review – Sarah Millican, Bobby Dazzler, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 11th November 2021

SarahMillican_BobbyDazzlerShe may be from South Shields, but I think we should welcome Sarah Millican in as one of Northampton’s adopted daughters, as her Bobby Dazzler show last night was the first of three that she will be performing at the Royal and Derngate (18th and 21st November shows still to come) as well as having had a couple of secret gigs in their Underground studio to hone the show into perfection as Work in Progress nights. Much more of this and she’ll be supporting the Cobblers and pronouncing Cogenhoe correctly.

Gearoid FarrellyShe came on to do a little welcoming warm up before introducing her support act, Gearoid Farrelly. A name new to us, he’s a cheeky chap from the Emerald Isle, with a confiding style and ebullient personality, who spun some entertaining tales of seeing Shania Twain in Dublin (not to be recommended apparently, although primarily not because of Shania Twain) and how a gay man’s insecurities come to the fore when having to deal with a “real man” in a DIY store. Good delivery, heaps of confidence and he did a great job.

Sarah MillicanWhen Sarah Millican returned she encountered a bit of a problem – a loud, drunken woman in the upper boxes who had no compunction about constantly engaging in conversation with her. Not a heckle, nothing spiteful, but an absolute bloody nuisance. Several times she stopped Ms Millican in her flow and it really sapped the energy of the audience and made us feel uncomfortable. She wasn’t deterred by Sarah’s put-downs or admonitions, but, fortunately, she was eventually encouraged to sober up somewhere outside (preferably at home) – pity that didn’t happen sooner rather than later.

Sarah MillicanOnce that was out of the way, it left Sarah Millican free rein to discuss all her favourite usual topics – the things that happen to a woman in her mid-40s, interaction (both domestic and romantic) with her husband, fondness for confectionary self-indulgence, and the confidence to be herself, which she transmits to the audience, boosting our self-confidence too.

Sarah MThere’s probably no other comic in the world who’s so comfortable discussing the most private aspects of the human body – especially the female of the species. We’ve all got bodies, we’ve all got bits and bobs of various shapes and sizes, and Sarah Millican has no inhibitions when it comes to using them as items of mirth. Not content with leaving it there, she lingers over the smells, textures and general misfunctions that flesh is undoubtedly heir to. As a result, her material reflects everyone’s experience, and the laughter she creates is that of personal recognition. No human condition is out of bounds, resulting in the laughter frequently extending into groans of delighted disgust and general ewww, while Ms Millican, her face a picture of innocence, waits for us to regain our composure.

Sarah MillicanThe show is precisely scripted, with well-planned callbacks and deft use of mots justes, all apart from one section, where she invites the audience to share their moments of pandemic madness. One woman learned how to sew; another slung her husband out of the house. But my favourite was the man who chucked his job in as an operations director because after three and a half months he still didn’t understand what the job meant, and went back to his old job – as an operations manager. We also learned about Sarah Millican’s special and perhaps tongue-in-cheek involvement with the Couch to 5K App – and what it would be like to have yourself spur you on with faux-encouragement.

A hugely enjoyable comedy night out in a pair of the safest hands in the business. Sarah Millican’s tour continues right the way round to December 2022, would you believe, but I’d get in there quick with your booking if I were you!

Review – Tez Ilyas – Vicked, Underground at the Derngate, 5th November 2021

Tez Ilyas LiveThis was another show that we’d booked so long ago that it changed its name in the meantime. Two years elapsed between the initial booking and the actual event! And what was originally Populist became Vicked – although the title is only a serving suggestion of what the show contains – which is Another Evening in the Company of Tez Ilyas Doing his Thing. And a very funny Thing it is.

Tez IlyasTez Ilyas is one of the few performers that I feel comfortable referring to by their first name. Not Mr Ilyas, nor Mr I (which is how I normally refer to comics when I’ve already mentioned their name a few times), but Tez. And that’s because he forms such a sincere connection with his audience that you really feel like you and he are old mates. It’s partly the courtesy that he extends by always coming out on to the stage first for a little chat with us all before introducing his support act; it’s partly the fact that stays behind after the show for a photo and a chat; it’s partly that his delivery is so fluent and genuine that everything he says you believe is true. He refers to us as his Tezbians, which also grants us some familiarity rights. Within a few seconds of coming on stage, he’s brought up two lads from the front row who are from different groups but for all the world look like they’re brothers (and they really did). In that simple act, he brought us all together, united in one purpose, to make a judgment call on these two lads – and we remain united throughout the rest of the show. The audience becomes a very comfortable, safe place, and you just know you’re in for a good time.

Kate LucasAnd yes, we did indeed have an excellent support act in the capable hands (and plectrum) of comedy-musician Kate Lucas, whom we saw at a Screaming Blue Murder a few years ago. She’s like a coiled serpent with her easy, gentle appearance, delicately beautiful voice, and viperous lyrics to her brilliant songs. She sings us songs of acerbity and Schadenfreude, of revenge and malice, and the audience loves her for it. She even gets us to join in a singalong of dubious taste. It’s all very inventive and very funny, and it was great to see her again.

TezAfter the interval, Tez returned to the stage and gave us a good hour-and-three-quarters of top quality material, expertly delivered. This was the fourth time we’ve seen him live – the last time was at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2017 – and he’s truly evolved as a stand-up of immense confidence, linguistic skill and an enviable ability to trade good-hearted banter with anyone and everyone. One minute he hits just the perfect note of self-deprecation, the next he’s on an outrageous attack against someone else and it’s such a cunning blend of humour that you never know what’s coming next. I loved his segment when he played NHS Top Trumps – identifying all the audience members who work for the NHS (there were five) and working out which one most deserved the Thursday Night Minute of Applause. Not only does this allow him to gently tease the audience, and himself, it also opens up the field of political satire, at which Tez excels.

Tez IAnd then, of course, there’s the whole subject of racism, which constantly crops up in his material somehow or another, and he plays it perfectly, using humour not only to show its ridiculousness and cruelty, but also how easy it can be to fall foul of it oneself. He does a wonderful deconstruction of the terms BAME and POC – no matter how politically correct those terms may be, they’re pretty awful. He jests of cultural appropriation when any other ethnic group is involved in terrorism; and he admits to being stumped when it comes to dealing with a cis straight white male who’s neither fat nor ginger. He has a brilliant way of turning prejudice on its head, that not only reveals so much about the human condition but also is just so bloody funny.

There are just a few more dates remaining on this tour – if you’re in any doubt about whether to go – OMA! It’s a humdinger of a show and seventy-two hours later I’m still laughing at it. Fantastic!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 22nd October 2021

Dan EvansScreaming Blue Murder time again, and our party of five braved the increasing Covid numbers to sit as safely as possible by locating the Underground’s new ventilation panels and plonking ourselves under them. Another full house, all expectantly awaiting the 8pm start for a cracking night of comedy. But, come five past eight, where was our loveable host Dan Evans? Still hurtling up the motorway, as it happens. A massive traffic jam held him up Brighton-way and he was never going to make it on time as a result.

Kevin ShepherdThus it was that our first act, Kevin Shepherd, had to introduce both himself, the audience and his act all at the same time – and an excellent job he made of it too. We’d not seen him before, but he has a confident, relaxed style and an engaging manner, which worked well with his getting to know the front row punters, including regular Tom – whom it was decided would speak for the entire audience (and indeed town), and the family of recycling operatives. He had some excellent material which included the nitty-gritty of a drunk date, the majesty that is Bognor Regis, and how when you keep your mask in your trouser pocket too long you discover exactly how testicles smell (that was the truest observation of the night). He also made a number of references to life with his wife, which was perhaps unsurprising as…

Diane SpencerOur second act was the wonderful Diane Spencer, whom we’ve seen many times and never fails to delight with her posh but filthy persona. She also happens to be married to Kevin, which they never made obvious, but I expect a large number of the audience will have twigged. As she often does, she had lots of great material about sexual shenanigans including getting repetitive strain injury in bed and achieving a personal best. But there was a bit of an odd vibe in the audience, and a slight comedy reticence in the air; whether they were put out by Dan’s late arrival – he was able to take over the MC’ing after a while and was his usual jovial self – or whether our biorhythms were out of kilter I don’t know, but Diane did have to work perhaps a bit harder than usual to get the laughs. But she still got them.

Andre VincentOur headline act was Andre Vincent, a comedian of long standing reputation, and whom we’ve seen twice before. He started off with a brilliant gag about self-identification, but maybe it was because of the generally lacklustre audience, or indeed the two young women in the front row who didn’t laugh at anyone or anything, but his energy and comic inspiration seemed to go awol from time to time. His routine centred on two longish stories that he had told on both occasions we’d seen him before, and, although there were laughs a-plenty, somehow the whole thing didn’t go quite to plan. It happens. He’s a gifted comic and a naturally funny guy, but on this occasion, it didn’t quite soar.

Another Screaming Blue in the offing in November – already looking forward to it!

Review – 100% Simon Brodkin – Troublemaker, Underground at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 16th October 2021

TroublemakerAt some point in the murky interregnum between Lockdown 1.0 and the present day, Simon Brodkin’s new tour was re-named Troublemaker, from its original title of 100% Simon Brodkin. Either title is good; they both sum up different aspects of the show that sold out at the Royal and Derngate on Saturday with the result that they popped in a 5pm show as well. The man is obviously doing something right.

Formerly better known as his chav character Lee Nelson, today Simon Brodkin is probably more recognisable for his stunts which you can find all over the Internet; showering Sepp Blatter with money, fitting a VW at the Geneva motor show with a cheat box, offering Theresa May a P45. He’s clearly a mischievous little imp, so I thought it was about time we saw him for ourselves. This show was originally scheduled for 25th April 2020. As I’ve said before, and no doubt I’ll say again, good things are worth waiting for.

Simon-BrodkinFor someone with a reputation as a naughty prankster, when he first comes on stage, you’re a bit surprised as to how ordinary he looks. No doubt that really helps him get into high security areas without causing any suspicion. With his black T-shirt, smiling face, clean-cut appearance, he looks like a polite and hard-working undermanager at your local Co-op. But that belies a brilliant mine of original material that frequently dallies with some pretty tricky subjects.

He starts the show by getting to know the front rows of the audience; always a risky business and you sensed that he wasn’t entirely sure what he would do if any of the audience turned difficult! But they didn’t and it wasn’t long before Mr B was in his stride with a very enjoyable and cleverly constructed show.

Outed by the KKK as a Jew – although he says he already knew – he has some fantastic and inventive material from a Jewish perspective – including how no one knows fear like a Jewish boy telling his mother he’s going to give up being a doctor to go into comedy. Mind you, he confesses, he was a dreadful doctor and it was obviously a good career change!

Simon BrodkinIn the course of the show, not only does he give us some insights into those famous stunts, but he also explores what life would be like if you were cryogenically frozen and came back in 200 years time, having to look after the kids when his wife was away for a week, a brilliant put-down of the protesting parents who don’t want their kids to learn about LGBT rights, how well you know your best friend; and there’s also a new definition of Pooh-sticks to contend with.

To be fair, it’s a fairly brief show, with two forty-minute chunks of Mr Brodkin and a comfortable interval in between. But it’s absolutely packed with laughs and I was surprised and impressed at how good he is! His tour carries on into December but with a few extra dates in the new year too. Well worth catching!

Review – Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Jamie Phillips conducts Elgar’s Enigma Variations, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 15th October 2021

RPO Enigma VariationsThis isn’t the first concert by the Royal Philharmonic at the Royal and Derngate since we started to emerge tentatively out of our lockdown cocoons, but conductor Jamie Phillips’ warm welcome to us all made it feel like it. Unlike the last concert, Spotlight on Strings, which had a reduced sized and socially distanced orchestra and audience, this time the Derngate stage took the full whack of the complete cast of musicians and there’s no denying it’s a complete thrill to listen to that number of people playing together again.

The aforementioned Jamie Phillips is a trendy sort of chap, with matching red glasses and socks, whose appearance put me in mind of Trevor Horn during his Buggles phase. He cajoles the orchestra to feel their way into the music with encouraging facial expressions and has (literally) a spring in his step for every new movement. You can see him a little like a young father who’s incredibly proud of his musical progenies, making sure each member of the orchestra gets their chance to shine.

Jamie PhillipsThe programme for the concert of English, Norwegian and German music was an entertaining mix of the familiar and not-so-familiar. We started with Grieg’s Peer Gynt Suite No 1 Opus 46,  opening with its glorious Morning Mood, then the sombre Death of Ase, the exotically beguiling Anitra’s Dance and finally the sinister and ultimately threatening In The Hall of the Mountain King. You got the feeling that each member of the orchestra knew this piece like the back of their hand, but even so the goosebumps began to rise with that last section, when the violins truly went into a frenzy of bowing. A perfect choice to start the evening’s entertainment.

Next, we had Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto in E Minor, Opus 64, with our soloist Irène Duval. Mlle Duval wears a serious demeanour in preparation for a piece, and it wasn’t long before she was treating Mendelssohn’s notes and phrases with admirable assertiveness. Her playing was – it goes without saying – astounding, but I would say she treated the first two movements with respect and determination, but let fly with the emotions in the final movement, where she made the vivacious and infectious tune truly swing. It was almost as though she had left the concert hall and we were now present at a huge celebration party. It was superbly enjoyable. It ended with an unexpected false coda; orchestra leader Tamas Andras got up to Irene Duvallead the orchestra off into the interval only to come face to face with Mlle Duval returning to perform an encore. “Oh you’ve come back!” he said in surprise, as his face grew redder and redder over the next five minutes, whilst she performed a piece I didn’t recognise. The admiration on the faces of some of the violinists at the quality of her performance was a joy to behold.

After the interval, we started with another piece that was not familiar to me – the Prelude from Delius’ Irmelin, his first opera. Not only had I not heard this piece, I hadn’t even heard of it. It’s delightful, wistful, fresh, and Spring-like, and the RPO’s performance was instantly appealing and beautiful.

RPOThen came the main event, Elgar’s Enigma Variations, always a thrilling, stirring and emotional piece. However, I have to say, I felt that the pace of the performance was enormously fast. There are movements in Enigma that can withstand a super speedy performance, but there are others where you really need to relax to let the piece breathe, like a fine wine. There was also a pause after Nimrod that made it feel as though it had been split into a two movement concerto. It emphatically isn’t that; it’s a theme followed by 13 variations each of which is a portrait of a character, and by definition, I think each portrait should carry equal weight. For me, the performance lacked a little in the emotional department, the attention being focused on power and pizzazz. The performance came in at just about 30 minutes; that’s just my little quibble.

The RPO return on 6th February 2022 for another concert. We’ll be there – will you?

P. S. I’d really love it if we could go back to having the old-style programmes. Digital downloads put the onus on us to use lots of printer ink and the paper gets so crumpled during the performance that you can’t really use it as a souvenir! Please can we go back to the old programmes? Please??

Review – Fascinating Aida, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 10th October 2021

Fascinating Aida38 years – that’s how long Fascinating Aida have been going; it’s also how long it’s taken us to see them. Mrs Chrisparkle’s parents saw them in Sydney in the 1980s and loved them. Of course the personnel (or should that be the HR) has changed over the years, but Dillie Keane has stuck with it through and through – she created it, after all. Adele Anderson joined nine months later, and, at current staffing levels, the third Fascinator has been Liza Pulman since 2004 – It looks like she’s a keeper.

Dillie KeaneTheir timeless cabaret style act suits all venues and all occasions, so long as you don’t mind hearing the odd filthy word. That’s a major part of their appeal. Three relatively refined ladies, dressed with elegance, coiffured with style, accompanied by an apparently dignified gentleman at the Grand Piano (Michael Roulston), present entertaining songs spanning a range of options from pseudo-classical, West End chic to pub piano. But these ladies are neither Joyce Grenfell nor Dame Hilda Bracket (although I sense a little influence of both) – they’re bang up to date with political satire, menopausal misery, coping with Covid, sexual shenanigans and gender fluidity. Adele AndersonAnd the occasional use of the f and c words just seem totally appropriate with the content although not the style, which gives rise to extra frissons of humour.

This Northampton gig was originally scheduled for 4th April 2020 so it’s taken a full 18 months to come to fruition! But it was definitely worth the wait. A packed house (and I mean packed, you rarely see the Upper Circle at the Derngate auditorium so full) roared and cheered their way through a programme of songs, some familiar, some not so. Indeed, when they ended the first half with their greatest hit Cheap Flights, Dillie had to stop and start again because some audience members were clapping along a little over-exuberantly.

Liza PulmanMy favourites from their song sheet for the night was the opening number Fake News, which brilliantly encapsulates everything that’s wrong with the country today, the Bulgarian Song Cycle which pokes fun at both politics and pompous music, Suddenly New Zealand, which re-evaluates our pandemic holiday options (although might already be going a little out of date!), and Prisoner of Gender, which is a moving and powerful account of Fascinating AidaAdele’s growing up in the wrong body and her transition to a beautiful woman. Other fun songs were Is it Me or is it Hot in Here, Boomerang Kids and Lerwick Town, and a delightfully researched and very funny homage to our town of Northampton. I must admit, there was one song, Lieder, that left me completely cold, although I know I was in a minority of one (or maybe two, Mrs C didn’t get it either). And there’s also their wonderful paean to the noble art of Dogging.

The show went down a storm and everyone loved it. I can say no more than that! Enormous fun. The current tour started late 2019, was then interrupted by You Know What, and resumed a few weeks ago and is scheduled to go right up to June 2022. So there should be plenty of opportunities to grab a ticket!

4-starsFour they’re jolly good fellows!