Review – Who Cares 2032 – an interactive digital experience co-produced by the Royal and Derngate Northampton, Hydrocracker and Deafconnect – 1st June 2023

Who Cares 2032The time is 2032; nine years into the future – that’s not that far away. The NHS has remained starved of resources so that it is teetering on the brink of non-existence. Care workers have left the profession in their droves due to poor wages and conditions – there’s just not enough bitcoin to go around. But the government has come up with a potentially smart solution – the Contact App. Is it the cure-all for saving lives in an even worse case scenario than we’re currently facing – or is it an unethical intrusion that marketizes the care industry?

MishJem Wall and Nathan Crossan-Smith have devised this new, challenging and interactive experience, which you can watch and engage with from the privacy of your own laptop. Remember Casper the Friendly Ghost? Who Cares 2032 features another very friendly ghost, Doctor Anna, who loves nothing more than a spot of digital haunting and putting you in control of the future of the nation’s healthcare. She gatecrashes our online lecture to make us face a very important choice. If we want to, we can corrupt the code that will create the Contact App, thus taking it out of society for ever; or, we can let history takes its course and allow it to be introduced. Obviously, that’s a decision that none of us can take lightly, and over the course of a little over an hour Doctor Anna poses some difficult ethical and moral questions for us, and, try as we might, there’s no sitting on the fence with this one.

Mish and GrahamWe’re already used to the concept of having medical appointments over the Internet – for the most part, it’s quicker, easier, and can provide a good back-up service to the general public. So what’s the problem with the Contact App, surely it’s just the natural next stage of development? That’s certainly the attitude of young, deaf, Mish, who finds using it is her primary access to health provision and also allows her to keep tabs on her general health and wellbeing on a regular basis. She strikes up an unlikely friendship with middle-aged Graham in Joe’s Café and encourages him to sign up to the App too. But Graham is from a less technologically trusting era, and insists he doesn’t need the intervention of an interfering and nosy wristband telling him what to do. Are you like Mish, or are you like Graham? As we discover more and more about the App, its benefits and its deficiencies become clearer. How will you respond when Anna finally gets you to nail your colours to the mast?

MishThis is a very entertaining, challenging and intense piece of interactive drama. You have to concentrate hard on what’s going on, as sometimes Anna will put a question to you that demands some time to reflect over. There are no hard and fast easy answers here – but there a lot of soft and slow difficult ones! It’s an invigorating blend of rigorous intellectual stimulation and genuine emotional response, and I found myself quite moved by some of the situations and people to whom we are introduced. At one stage, you can pick and choose to listen to the experiences of a number of people – carers, a teacher, a student, family members; each bearing first-hand witness to the problems of providing healthcare in 2032. Give yourself time to consider the evidence of their lives; you might find, like I did, that during the experience you change your mind.

Graham and MishIt’s very smartly written, with several amusing local references, and a few off-guard moments from Anna that had me snorting with laughter. Faith Omole provides the voice of Anna, and she really gets into your psyche; before long you find yourself telling her all sorts of private things that you wouldn’t normally tell anyone – but rest assured, what happens between you and Anna stays with you and Anna. One exception to this – you can choose to publish your reasoning for either allowing the App to go ahead or nipping it in the bud on a legacy wall; entirely your decision. Jude Akuwudike voices Oladipo, a diabetes nurse, who can only see the benefits provided by the App. Rhiannon May plays Mish with a nice balance of Generation Alpha cynicism and respect for the older Graham’s concerns and feelings, if not his choice of breakfasts; and co-creator Jem Wall plays the decent but backward-looking Graham, who is appalled by the App’s lack of privacy but eventually moves with the times. Other characters are played by members of the Community Actors Company and people who work with Deafconnect, the local charity who are also co-producing the experience.

Contact AppIf I took away one overriding message from the show it would be that it wants to make us think. It wants to make us consider playing a part in framing the health policies that will shape our future. Whether you opt to corrupt the code or push forward with it, this is a highly responsible moment for us all. Pay What You Can for a ticket – £5 is suggested, but not compulsory; and your payment will give you a link to the show that you can watch as many times as you like until the end of July. Visit the Royal and Derngate website for more details, or simply click here. After all, it’s not every day a ghost gives you the opportunity of changing the future of healthcare in the country for ever!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 26th May 2023

Dan EvansTime for another rip-roaring Screaming Blue Murder at the Royal and Derngate, and this episode was a particularly fun-packed one. Our host, the usually genial Dan Evans was on fire with his barbed ripostes with the front rows, creating a fabulous mood for us all to enjoy the evening. Although he did have to find wriggle room when he discovered that front row Lisa was a kick boxer; all the belts, all the dans. We also had the pleasure of vicariously meeting 29 year old Claire from France (who was not really from France and probably wasn’t 29 either) and David at the front who clearly has such a huge personal charisma that he can’t bring his legs together.

Paul RickettsOur first act, and someone we’ve seen many times before, was Paul Ricketts; a very safe pair of hands who takes the audience on a journey of age discovery – a lot of his material is based on comparing the behaviours of the old and the young. He has some nice material about internet porn, and I recognised his memories of the porn fairy who, in the old days, would litter the woods with torn scraps of the stuff. Happy days. His routine was interrupted by a glorious moment when a woman at the back of the room clearly and assertively told a chap who was on his phone to go outside to make his call, which he did sheepishly, much to the massive admiration of the entire audience. A good start to the evening.

Eleanor TiernanNext up, and someone else we’ve seen before, was Eleanor Tiernan. Naturally funny, with a nice blend of confidence and self-deprecation, she has some lovely observations about being Irish in London, and how nice it is when you end up crying for no reason and no one cares. I loved her stuff about what happens when an American performer is on stage in Dublin and says it’s great to be back in the UK; and she has some very funny material about going down a speculum size. Brisk, self-assured, and warmly chatty, she gave us a great set.

Addy van der BorghOur headliner for the evening, and someone we’ve never seen before but I have heard a lot about, was Addy van der Borgh; another naturally funny guy and gifted physical comedian, who instantly drives us into hysterics with comments about the way he looks. Full of fresh new material, he does a marvellous routine about how you age and don’t see it yourself, but the world sees you very differently; the sequence about giving a cheeky smile to a young lady and what she sees back is just brilliant. I also loved the idea of anthropomorphising a bottle of wine – naughty Monsieur Merlot, the perfect accompaniment to a tin of spaghetti ‘oops. He had us all in the palm of his hand – we loved every minute of it.

Another Screaming Blue Murder comes along in June – you spoil us, Mister Ambassador!

Review – The Grapes of Wrath, BA Acting Third Year Students at the University of Northampton, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 28th May 2023

Grapes of WrathSteinbeck’s Grapes of Wrath suits adaptation well, with its strong story line and fascinating characters. Published in 1939, the famous film adaptation appeared a year later, and there’s even an opera which came out in 2007. The Tony Award winning play, however, first appeared in 1988, written by Frank Galati, and it’s a popular choice for schools – so in many ways it’s an ideal play for the Third Year Students to grapple with.

Meg MayersBack in 2019, I saw a production of Macbeth at the Chichester Festival Theatre; well, I half-saw it. During the first act, one of the cast members accidentally smashed the glass floor of the stage (perhaps an unnecessarily fragile item of set design!) and the second act had to be cancelled. Blow me down, but at the end of the first act of what was proving to be a most enjoyable production of Grapes of Connor DadgeWrath, the elegant fire curtain of the Royal Theatre thundered down with an almighty clunk and, try as they might, the backstage team couldn’t get it back on its runners and they couldn’t raise the curtain for the second act! So the rest of the show was cancelled. Why is it always the good shows where this happens?

I feel particularly sorry for the cast who have obviously put in a tremendous amount of work to make this production a success, and with only three performances scheduled, Achanti Palmerit really reduces the chance of their work being seen.

That said, I can report that there were some terrific performances taking place; none more so than Connor Dadge as the central Kain Waldencharacter, Tom Joad, who carries the story along effortlessly, is hugely believable in the role and has a superbly charismatic stage presence, without ever having to force the performance too hard – a true natural. Also dominating the first part of the proceedings is Achanti Palmer playing the ex-preacher Jim Casy, with a fine singing voice and a characterisation full of hidden depths – another very watchable performance. Kain Walden is excellent as Pa Joad, a tough, ruthless but loving father; as is Meg Mayers as Ma, whose weary indomitability was really starting to shine through when the show had to finish early. But all the cast were putting in a tremendous ensemble performance, and it was really shaping up to be a first rate show.

These things happen!

P. S. The Martin Lawrence Acting Awards are presented every year to the best Actress and Actor. My choice for Best Actor for the year would be Connor Dadge.

Review – Love and Information, BA Acting Third Year Students at the University of Northampton, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 26th May 2023

Love and InformationThe second of the three Third Year Students’ plays at the Royal and Derngate is Caryl Churchill’s Love and Information, a series of 49 interconnected playlets, with some leeway given to individual productions as to the order in which they are presented. Some of them are long enough to give you a full sense of narrative and characterisation; Archy Mackillopsome are so short that they are barely a few words delivered within five seconds. The result is an intriguing blend of human situations, presented in an apparently (but not entirely) random order; there are plenty of laugh out loud moments, plus a few tragic scenarios thrown into the mix.

Charlie FranklinUnder Barbara Houseman’s direction, the ensemble of ten deliver a smart, snappy, constantly refreshing show that holds your attention from start to finish. Everyone gives a great performance; Will Merryleeswith so many entrances and exits, and costume and character changes, this is a hard show to get absolutely right – but the cast nailed it. A particular challenge in this play is that there are so many conversations where a line is left dangling because the speaker is either being interrupted or can’t quite find le mot juste. Katie BlundellBut everyone pretty much kept the conversational pace going in all their scenes, which really helped keep the show moving.

Highlights for me were Archy Mackillop telling his secret, Charlie Franklin as the spoilt brat who won’t say sorry, Saim Shafique explaining why his dreams gave him carte blanche to have an affair, Will Merrylees showing off his language skills, and pretty much everything that Katie Blundell and Sophia Foster did. Indeed Ms Foster can turn a characterisation around on a sixpence; always delivering with superb control and wry humour. But the entire cast contributed to the success of this production – congratulations to you all.

Not much more to say about this show really – if you managed to see it, you had a treat!

P. S. The Martin Lawrence Acting Awards are presented every year to the best Actress and Actor. My choice for Best Actress for the year would be Sophia Foster.

Review – 10 out of 12, BA Acting Third Year Students at the University of Northampton, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 25th May 2023

10 out of 12I always look forward to when the final year students perform their full length plays at the Royal and Derngate; it’s the crowning glory after three years’ hard work and shows just how much they can achieve. So, if I see one of these plays, and I don’t enjoy it, it gives me no pleasure to have to say so. However, a lot depends on the play that has been chosen for them to perform; and sadly, for me, Anne Washburn’s 10 out of 12 is a truly abominable play, almost savagely boring.

Hannes KnischewskiIts premise is that we see a long day of tech rehearsal run-through before a show opens; a backstage view of what goes in to make a production behind the scenes. But by concentrating on the tech, and its unavoidably stop-start nature, there’s little room for personality or “drama”. It’s hardly a drama, for instance, that the director doesn’t like the cello sound. No problem, we’ll change it – end of problem. And if there is a joke in all of this, it’s a very in-joke. Imagine how dull 10 out of 12 Accountants Version would be – two hours plus of intricately working through a trial balance on the way to presenting a set of accounts. It’s a bit like eating a cheesecake that has a perfectly ok biscuit base – but they’ve forgotten the cheese and the fruity flavouring on top. Just biscuit. It’s not enough.

Chante HawkinsI spent the entire time trying to work out what the point of the play was; the nearest I could get is that it ably demonstrates how idle conversations with colleagues are essentially mundane and inconsequential. What did you watch on TV last night or what flavour crisps are you munching, or is your sandwich the kind of thing I’d like to eat.  And that’s about it. Oh, and I guess conveying how boring the technical rehearsal day is. It certainly achieves that.

Brandon MayfieldIt’s also a frustrating production with a number of conversational scenes taking place in the Dress Circle, overlooking the fact that people sitting towards the sides or rear of the stalls (including myself) couldn’t see a thing of what was going on up there. For sure, there are one or two amusing moments – I really enjoyed watching the actors fumbling their way into their start positions in the dark, for example, and the actor who finds his muse by fondling the wallpaper – but the overriding vibe of the play is one of tedium.

George HastrupSo, an extraordinarily bold choice for the Third Year Students? Yes indeed; and I fear one that did them no favours at all. This is so avant garde that the garde isn’t within a hundred miles. That creates a truly uphill struggle for the cast to shine out through the drabness of it all. Some of the actors seemed to run out of steam with a level of under-performance, whilst others tended towards overacting. However, amongst those who kept their heads up extremely well were Hannes Knischewski, who excels as the animated and pernickety director Elliott, bitching and moaning and swimming in sarcasm; and Chante Hawkins, with a strong stage authority which she uses effectively as the stage manager Molly. Brandon Mayfield gives a nicely pompous performance as the respected actor Paul who loves the sound of his own voice and amusingly conveys all the character’s ridiculousness; and George Hastrup is also very good as actor Jake, battling on with the “play” whilst no one is listening. But I’m afraid the production as a whole is a considerable disappointment.

Review – The Witness, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 18th May 2023

The WitnessI’m no expert on the matter, gentle reader, but, until last night, I’d never come across the Gospel of Mary Magdalene. I’d always been just a Matthew Mark Luke and John kind of a chap. But now I’m intrigued. Jo Blake has created a fascinating and enlightening stage work which grew from an unusual experience she had in a local churchyard. She says she felt a presence behind her (at which point the cynic in me started to shift anxiously in my seat) like a winged cross, with feathers; it must be an angel, she assumed, which caused her no concern, and she went on her merry way.

JoThis relatively simple experience led her through a journey finding out about Isis – the Egyptian goddess not the Islamist extremists – whom she identified as her angel, and the story about the love between Isis and Osiris, and the wicked Set who destroyed Osiris. Further Googling led her to the existence of the Gospel of Mary, that had been buried in the Egyptian sands for 1,500 years. There are three copies; each has the same missing pages torn out. Now that really is a mystery.

JoMary – a complicated figure in the life of Christ. For centuries denigrated as a prostitute and the target of religious misogyny, it’s no wonder that her account of the last days of Christ was dismissed and ignored, not even making it to the also-rans in the books of the Bible. How could a woman who we feel today only tended to Christ’s physical needs and not his soul possibly have a meaningful story to tell?

Jo and RobJo Blake has spent the last four years assembling that very story, together with her performance partner Robert Clark. She admits early on that neither of them is an actor; she is a storyteller, and he is a dancer. And you can tell that from the whole presentation of the show. Not because of “bad acting” – that’s far from the truth. But there is an informal vibe that you don’t associate with painstakingly following a well-rehearsed script. When we enter the auditorium, Jo and Rob are already on the stage, quietly chatting to each other, relaxed, not in character, acknowledging audience members as they arrive, sometimes talking to them or waving to people they recognise. They introduce themselves to us, they explain their backgrounds and their involvement with the show. There’s no sense of their being a “play”; and there’s never a fourth wall for them to break.

Rob and the TowerJo has truly mastered the art of storytelling; everything is clear, makes sense, and told at a pace that we can easily follow and digest the significance of each stage, before she moves on. A simple set is dominated by a tower in the background, constructed from ladders with strands of red wool cascading from the top. Mary was from a Galilean fishing village, Migdal, whose name means “tower”; so the tower is an appropriate symbol for her. It takes on a more significant meaning later.

RobApart from playing herself, Jo plays Mary; Rob plays everyone else, from Jesus to Peter to Martha to Lazarus. I’m not a religious person, but there’s always a frisson whenever anyone depicts Christ on stage. One of my most memorable theatre moments was a promenade performance of The Passion at the National Theatre in the late 70s when I found myself standing directly between Mark McManus’ Jesus and Jack Shepherd’s Judas, looking furious at each other. There’s a marvellous transition in The Witness when Rob makes towards the tower and starts to climb the ladder, turns to us and just hangs there – and you realise you’ve witnessed Christ being crucified; that red wool is his blood. And all this time Mary is just arguing with him, remonstrating at his selfishness for leaving her behind. Ne me quitte pas goes the music – don’t leave me – and you physically feel the human element of the separation of Christ and Mary. It’s incredibly moving. At first, I flippantly thought we’d suddenly tuned into Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Calvary, until I realised its heartfelt appropriateness.

Jo and RobDo we believe in the Gospel According to Mary? Factually, it exists. And those missing contents from all three extant copies cannot possibly be a coincidence – can it? Peter asks Mary to share the words that the Saviour told only her and that he had told no one else; she tells him that she saw the Lord in a vision and spoke to him about it – but then the narrative breaks off, only to be resumed at a point where she is no longer speaking with the Lord but just explaining the vision. Andrew challenges her, saying her account is incompatible with everything that the Lord had taught; and Peter takes it further – on a personal level: “Did he then speak secretly with a woman, in preference to us, and not openly? Are we to turn back and all listen to her? Did he prefer her to us?”

Jo and RobAnd that’s the question that Jo poses to us at the end; whom do we believe? Did Mary really win the confidence of Christ sufficiently for him to impart wisdom that he shared with no one else? Is the Gospel of Mary legitimately the only Gospel written by a woman, and is it – to use that old cliché – Gospel Truth? Or did she make it up? I don’t know the answer – but I can make a good guess.

JoHugely thought-provoking and fluidly performed, this was the last of six scheduled shows to be performed locally, but I think this would fit perfectly into any theatre or arts festival – the story of Mary needs to be told!

Production photos by Adam Balcomb

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – Upfront Comedy Slam, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 14th May 2023

UpfrontA happy welcome back to the Upfront Comedy team, bringing a little light and laughter into a Northampton Sunday evening. Hosted by the inimitable John Simmit, also known as The Artist Formerly Known as Dipsy, he told us of his grim experience of getting back from a gig in Ulverston over the weekend when there were no trains. Nasty. My sympathy stopped, however, when he said that Eurovision (which had taken place the day before) is rubbish. Minus mark to Mr Simmit – time to join the 21st century!

John SimmitAll the acts had the benefit of noticing a young lad in the front row seeing the show with his Mum. We ascertained that he was 16 years old, and I think his name was Anand. My guess is that he was a lot more knowledgeable about many aspects of life and language by the end of the evening.

Sukh OjlaOur first act, and someone new to us, was Sukh Ojla, a very jolly lady with a lot of very enjoyable material about living at home with your parents at the age of 38, deciding she’s now way too old for an arranged marriage, and trying to ascertain who else in the audience was hopelessly single. She has a very appealing stage persona and a warm way of communicating with the audience that made it easy for us to confide in her. A very happy start to the proceedings.

John RyanNext up, and someone whom we’ve seen at an Upfront gig before, was John Ryan, whose act is all based on promoting equality; so even though he looks like he’d be a wise-cracking London comic of the old school, he’s as right-on as right-on can be. He explores racial and ethnic stereotypes with effortless ease and you know he’s never going to put a foot wrong as far as giving offence is concerned. It’s a clever act because it fools with the audience’s preconceptions, and he has a lot of entertaining material.

Stephen K AmosNevertheless, as we went into the interval there was a slight feeling that somehow the evening as a whole was holding back – whether the audience weren’t quite letting themselves go, or whether the acts weren’t quite tickling our funnybones, it was hard to tell. However, the second half of the show devoted a big chunk of time to the company of headliner Stephen K Amos, and he completely nailed it. He grabs an audience by the scruff of the neck and dares them not to adore everything he does. Almost all his act is simply reacting to whatever the audience offers him – so young Anand was a gift, but when he realised brother and sister Matt (47) and Claire (44) had brought their mum and dad along with them it was like all his Christmases had come at once. Biffing off hecklers with withering putdowns, always choosing le mot juste and with immaculate timing, it was an hour or so of pure comedic beauty.

Upfront Comedy will return later this year and I’ll definitely be there!

Review – Wuthering Heights, Inspector Sands, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 28th April 2023

Wuthering HeightsIt’s traditional when I review a show based on a famous book that I have to confess that I haven’t read it. Well, gentle reader, it will come as no surprise that I’ve never read Wuthering Heights – which is a disgrace for someone with an English degree – nor have I seen any adaptation; neither film, nor TV, not even the Northern Ballet’s dance version. My only familiarity with the book was leafing through the Wikipedia entry to get the gist of it, deciding it was quite complicated, and leaving it there.

Lua Bairstow Leander DeenyYou, on the other hand, will be fully aware of the complexities of Emily Bronte’s landmark 1847 novel of three generations of Yorkshire folk out on the wily windy moors and their faithful old retainer, Nelly Dean. Inspector Sands, in co-production with China Plate, the Royal and Derngate and the Oxford Playhouse, have taken the main substance of the story, modifying the language a little, whilst retaining its early Victorian character. Johanna Mårtensson’s costumes are authentic 1700s, as are the cast’s Yorkshire accents, and I suppose Ben Lewis’s sweary text is in keeping with the desperate life experiences of the characters – although personally I felt the four letter words jarred and were unnecessary. Let’s face it, there’s more to modernising a script than just adding in a few f***s.

Ike Bennett Nicole SawyerrNevertheless, there’s a lot of good in this production. Primarily, it’s the plot; it captures the audience’s imagination and keeps you fully engaged through the best part of three hours. Lucinka Eisler’s direction puts the story-telling to the forefront, and the saga of the Earnshaws and the Lintons, together with the outsider Heathcliff, is presented with great clarity and power. An ensemble of six actors portray eleven characters, each of whom are extremely well drawn and identified; the actors deftly switching from one to another with just a quick costume change or a new vocal tic. The characterisations are both thoroughly entertaining and extremely convincing; Edgar’s whiny weediness, Hindley’s crass bullying, and Cathy’s teenage hot-headedness, for example, are all superbly conveyed.

Lua-Bairstow-Ike-Bennett-and-Giulia-InnocentNot only does the production tell the story well, it also creates an excellent atmosphere of brooding, of fear, and of the supernatural. Ben Ormerod’s lighting design, and in particular Elena Peña and Dan Balfour’s sound design constantly bombard us with unsettling intrusions. We all recognise how disconcerting the strange noises that a house can make all by itself at night in the dark can be; this production illustrates this beautifully. Some of the noises you can explain, others you can’t. If I were a resident of Wuthering Heights, there’s no doubt I’d be a nervous wreck after a few hours.

Giulia-Innocenti-and-John-AskewThere are some superb directorial moments that stick in the mind, for example the brilliant way that the physical violence dished out by Hindley and Heathcliff is frequently implied rather than real, using sound and distance to achieve the same effect. There’s some fantastic knifeography when blades are being chucked around the stage willy-nilly. I loved the simple device of passing the greatcoat from one character to another to denote who has the power in the household at any one time – a very effective visual signal. There are some moments of musical anachronism, which is something that normally irritates me, but here they strangely work as a subtly ironic nod of the head between the production and the audience. Playing out to an easy listening version of Kate Bush’s Wuthering Heights is a nice reminder of the wide influence the original book has had on so many other creative works.

Ike-Bennett-and-Lua-BairstowSo, what is achieved by telling the story in this more experimental, stylised manner, and with a semi-modernised text, that couldn’t have been achieved by giving us a straightforward, more classic presentation? By far the most powerful and memorable aspect to the production is Emily Bronte’s story itself, her characters and their dilemmas, the injustices they face and the sadnesses they endure. These elements should be present no matter how the story is presented. Sometimes an experimental production simply puts your back up and you resent it from the start. However, that’s not the case here. This is an engaging production; experimental perhaps, but it’s an experiment the audience is willing to risk, curious to see if it ultimately succeeds. We suspend our expectations and allow ourselves to be carried along in its direction of travel; and that eventual outcome is one – pretty much – of all-round satisfaction.

Giulia-InnocentiCertainly much of the strength of the production comes from the excellent ensemble who work together seamlessly. In particular, Giulia Innocenti’s Nelly is the lynchpin of the cast, hardly ever off stage, acting as both narrator and chorus, the still point in the turning world, as Eliot would have it. Likeable, fallible, wholly unsentimental, it’s a fantastic performance. I also really enjoyed Leander Deeny’s characterisations, especially as the gruff old Earnshaw and the milksop Edgar; and Nicole Sawyerr is terrific as the prissy Isabella, spoilt Frances, and belligerent Cathy.

Lua-Bairstow-and-Ike-BennettAn experimental presentation, but – with a slight cavil regarding the swear words – it’s an experiment that works; and it does full justice to Bronte’s novel and gripping story. The production enjoys one more week at the Royal and Derngate, before embarking on a tour to the Oxford Playhouse, Warwick Arts Centre, Rose Theatre Kingston and Northern Stage, Newcastle.

Production photos by Alex Brenner

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – The Commitments, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 10th April 2023

The CommitmentsHere’s another of those shows were you can sit your grandchild on your knee and say, you know little one, I can remember all the way back to the day when I first booked to see The Commitments, as they gaze open eyed at you in wonder. 2019, I think it was, when this touring production of the musical inspired by Roddy Doyle’s novel (and of course the film of the same name) first raised its head above the parapet. Since then, a lot of water’s gone under that old bridge, as Brenda Lee might say. But finally it arrives in Northampton to considerable excitement and anticipation.

RehearsalMy usual confession: I’ve neither seen the film nor read the book, so I came to the show fairly ignorant as to what I might expect. In a nutshell, not a lot happens. Jimmy decides to create a band; they rehearse, do a few gigs, fight among themselves and then split up. There’s not really a lot more to tell, plot-wise. But I know the film – at least – has a big place in many people’s hearts and memories, so there’s got to be more to the appeal than its story. And there is – it’s the music.

Hells HoleApparently, you can’t refer to The Commitments as a jukebox musical, because the music is diegetic. In other words, the characters know the music is being played and performed as part of their real life experience. In most musicals, the characters don’t know they’re singing – it’s just what the genre imposes on them. But in The Commitments, all the songs are sung and performed knowingly, deliberately. If the show had a searing, intense storyline, the diegetic music would probably slow it down and make it very stop-starty. However, with little plot, it doesn’t matter. And certainly, the show crams in loads of soul classics from the 60s and 70s, and who doesn’t love a reminder of that?

Checking out albumsThere is a downside, though, even to the music; the first act largely sees the band being created and going through its early rehearsals before Jimmy decides they’re good enough to play in public. As a result, a lot of the music performance in the first half has a genuine sense of rehearsal – which is fully in keeping with the story. But it nevertheless still feels like a rehearsal to the audience, lacking polish and accuracy, all a bit haphazard. This doesn’t help the feelgood factor of the show to get going until the second half, when the music is all played at true performance standard. For me, only one musical number in the Deco and the girlsfirst act stood out – What Becomes of the Brokenhearted. Once we’re in the second half it’s a very different matter, and the performance (and subtext) of, for example, Thin Line Between Love and Hate works incredibly well, giving you goosebumps. The main substance of the show ends abruptly, to lead into a twenty minute concert-style ending with everyone on their feet. There are a couple of showstoppers here, but it also ends with Try a Little Tenderness, which I thought gave it a surprisingly downbeat finale.

DrinkersThe Commitments group themselves are a disparate bunch of characters, with Jimmy as a kind of central Everyman figure who does his best to unite them all together. His two mates are Outspan – who seems reasonably normal – and Derek, who’s sex mad but with little experience of it. The audition scene is nicely staged as they witness a long line of no-hopers coming to their door, none of whom is suitable. So Jimmy tracks down the other members, to include an egghead research student, James, an older Bible basher (who nevertheless loves the ladies) Joey, and the jazz-leaning Dean. He brings in three young women, Imelda, Natalie and Bernie, to act as backing singers, much to Derek’s delight. He also recruits Mickah, a skinhead bouncer who causes much more trouble than he prevents.

DecoInto this mix Jimmy invites the central character of Deco. The lead singer of the group, Deco is a troubled soul. He’s disrespectful, aggressive, arrogant, and a general nuisance. He turns up late, barges onto the stage, grabs the microphone from whoever is covering for him and makes it all about him. He causes frictions between the group members. They put up with him because of his amazing voice, but if he was in your gang, he’d be the one you’d seek to avoid because, in common parlance, he’s just a complete prick. A time bomb waiting to go off, the characterisation of Deco is very convincingly portrayed. So it then becomes very difficult for the audience to see him as the hero, which is what the concert aspect of the show requires us to do. If it is designed to be an alienation technique it works very effectively. But I don’t sense that it is.

Da's houseTim Blazdell’s set is both functional and atmospheric; it creates spacious bar/performing areas, it suggests the drab balcony walkways of council flats, and it implies the cramped living conditions of the house that Jimmy shares with his Da. Jason Taylor’s lighting design is effective, if unsubtle; and Adam Smith’s backstage band chucks out the tunes with brashness and energy. Sadly, Roddy Doyle’s book is underwhelming; and the prime cause of what I particularly felt in the first act, and what is the unforgivable crime of the theatre – it got rather boring.

BillyThere were also a couple of moments that completely jarred with me. There’s no reason for Deco’s  gratuitous underpants revelation, that just encouraged some members of the audience to whoop with lustful fervour. And I wasn’t enamoured with Jimmy’s introduction to the concert section when, having established if there were any Irish people in, he welcomed them warmly, but then to any English people in he just thanked them for their money. Yes, I know it’s meant to be funny. I didn’t think it was.

MickahFortunately the evening is livened up by some excellent performances. Despite the above, James Killeen is terrific as Jimmy; a long-suffering visionary who wants the band to reflect his own politics. Michael Mahony and Guy Freeman create a good partnership as Outspan and Derek, with a nice sense of goofy fun. Ryan Kelly is very good as the defensive and slightly belligerent drummer Billy – excellent live drum playing – and, understudying the role of Joey, Ed Thorpe brought a convincing element of older religious hypocrisy. Ciara Mackey, Eve Kitchingman and Sarah Gardiner bring terrific vocals and a general touch of class to the proceedings. And Nigel Pivaro is great fun as Jimmy’s Da, shouting either encouragement for his son’s managerial style or to turn that racket down when he’s trying to watch TV.

PerformanceBut the plaudits certainly deserve to go to Ian McIntosh for his performance as Deco. A superb stage presence, and a terrific voice; an unsettling sense of unpredictable menace when Deco’s on the warpath, mixed with a cheeky grin when he’s out of character. Musically it’s a very strong show, but it’s light on story and slow to develop. An odd mix – but the majority of the Press Night Patrons seemed to have a good time!

Production Photos by Ellie Kurttz

3-starsThree-sy does it!

Review – Quality Street, Northern Broadsides, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 4th April 2023

Quality StreetIt’s a welcome return to the Royal and Derngate to director Laurie Sansom, who provided us with some memorable productions when he was Artistic Director a few years back. His innovative Private Fears in Public Places as part of the Ayckbourn at 70 season, with the audience seated on the stage; his exciting Young America season with rarely performed plays by the young Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill; his breathtaking Duchess of Malfi, his beautifully understated Eden End, his intense Blood Wedding, the gripping Bacchae his superbly lucid Hedda Gabler, and his Royal and Derngate swansong, One for the Road. He returned with the triumphant James Plays in 2016, and I was also lucky enough to see his Kiss of the Spider Woman at the Menier in 2018. I am, unashamedly, a fan.

Brown and PhoebeWe also saw his lighter side in the hilarious Alice in Wonderland, and it’s that ability to create a light-hearted ensemble that once again comes to the fore in this current touring production of Northern Broadsides’ (of whom he is the Artistic Director) Quality Street, yet another of these shows that was suspended a few years back because of the dreaded Covid. Co-produced by the New Vic Theatre, Newcastle Under Lyme, and written by J M Barrie in 1901, it’s set roughly a hundred years earlier at the start of the Napoleonic era. In what you could describe as an early rom-com, a young woman, Phoebe, believes she may have won the heart of a dashing soldier, Valentine Brown. But when she realises she is mistaken – and out of money – she sets up a school with her older sister Susan, that drags both of them down with tiredness and the resulting lack of gaiety – no balls to attend. Ten years later Brown returns from the wars, and in attempt to show him that she still has that certain something, Phoebe pretends to be a fictitious younger niece, Livvy, to win his attention. But it doesn’t go entirely to plan…

FeedbackAs a Laurie Sansom show, though, it has to have something of a twist. It was the original success of the play that provided the name for the famous brand of chocolates that we still all love to gorge on today. Quality Streets are manufactured in Halifax, which also happens to be the home base of Northern Broadsides. So they invited five workers from the factory to attend rehearsals, get their feedback on the play and the production, and also to get their recollections of decades of faithful service to Mackintosh’s Chocolates. So insightful and entertaining were their comments that they decided to incorporate them into the production itself. Thus, not only does this production of Quality Street feature Phoebe, Susan, Brown and the rest of Barrie’s characters, but also Mac’s Lasses Jo, Sandra, Brenda, Barbara and Lotte from Halifax! Of course, they’re not the real people, but played by doubling up members of the cast.

Patty and PhoebeThe jury’s out as to the extent that this device is successful. On the one hand, their contributions are indeed frequently very funny and revealing, and they’re clearly lovely people. They serve the production as part Greek Chorus part Gogglebox, also appearing as the stagehands changing the set between the Acts, and they provide the bookends for the show, both as an introduction and a post-play wind down. And they help to juxtapose the three eras – the early 1800s when it was set, 1901 when it was written, and today – and put the content of the play into some form of modern context.

SusanNo doubt that they add a je ne sais quoi to what is otherwise a charming but relatively insignificant play. However, on the other hand, it does feel to me rather artificial and contrived. After all, the only association between these people and the play are the two words Quality and Street; it’s not even as though the chocolates were the inspiration for the play. You might just as well ask the staff at Interflora for their opinion of a box of Cadbury’s Roses. The more cynical might say they are used as padding; I couldn’t possibly comment.

Ensemble DanceMuch is made in the piece of the attractiveness of the blue and white room which the Misses Throssel inhabit, but Jessica Worrall’s set keeps this to the minimum, concentrating more on blank space and gates, perhaps suggesting a kind of imprisonment, away from the glamour of the ball or the clamour of a war. However, I delighted in the appreciation that the ball dresses, in all their colourful satin glory, reflected the different colours of the wrappings in a Quality Street box – nice touch. The play itself builds slowly but sensibly, eventually descending (or do I mean ascending?) into farce but of the most genteel kind – nothing Brian Rix-like nor even Feydeau here. Barrie was writing at the end of the Victorian era and it’s curious to see a farce that never remotely touches on the subject of sex. The biggest laugh of the evening comes from the “removal” of Miss Livvy from the stage; a classic piece of comic business superbly delivered in all its – literally – fantastic glory.

Brown and PattyThe performances are all first-rate. Paula Lane takes the central role of Phoebe/Livvy and throws herself into it wholeheartedly; she has a striking stage presence and uses her strong clear voice to terrific advantage. Louisa-May Parker is excellent as the spinsterish Susan, always putting herself second but also brooking no nonsense. Aron Julius makes a superb Valentine Brown, bestriding the stage heroically, fully wrapped up in himself with an underplayed arrogance that gradually falls away with his own self-understanding.

Fanny, Mary and SusanGilly Tompkins steals many a scene as the domineering maid Patty, and also the endearingly gossipy Barbara; and I really enjoyed the performance of Alicia McKenzie as nosy neighbour Mary Willoughby, with her upright puritanical behaviour. Alice Imelda is amusingly bossy as Charlotte, and there’s excellent support from Jelani D’Aguilar as the equally nosy Fanny, Alex Moran as the feeble Ensign Blades and Jamie Smelt as the ghastly wannabe suitor to Miss Livvy.

PattyIt’s gently entertaining and wry rather than slap-your-thighs hilarious, but it’s a rare opportunity to see an out of fashion play that was once the talk of the town. Bringing in the Mac’s Lasses is a fascinating experiment, and there’s plenty to enjoy, especially after the interval. After it leaves Northampton the tour continues to Richmond, Bolton, Leeds, York, Sheffield, Hull, Scarborough, Guildford, Keswick, Blackpool and Halifax.

Production photos by Andrew Billington

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!