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!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Two disappointing for more

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Five alive, let comedy thrive!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Production photos by Richard Davenport

3-starsThree-sy does it!