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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Production photos by David Freeman

Five Alive Let Theatre Thrive!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Production photos by Alex Brenner

4-starsFour they’re jolly good fellows!

Review – School of Rock, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 6th June 2022

School of RockConfession time: I’ve never seen the film School of Rock and didn’t see the stage show during its London run. Before seeing this touring production I hadn’t a clue what it was about – I knew there were kids playing rock but that was it. So I came to this show with no preconceptions or expectations. You, gentle reader, are much more in tune with modern cinema culture than me, so you already knew that it was about lazy no-hoper and rock music aficionado Dewey Finn, who takes a supply teacher job in a posh prep school, pretending to be his ex-band member friend Ned Schneebly (who genuinely is a supply teacher), because the money’s good and he’s behind with the rent. Knee slideDewey, of course, hasn’t a clue about teaching, and knows nothing about kids, many of whom seem to be quite a lot smarter than him. All he can do is teach them appreciation of rock music; and when it turns out that they are a very musically gifted class, he prepares them to enter a Battle of the Bands contest. Obviously, this isn’t going to go down very well with snooty Miss Mullins, the headmistress; nor the parents who fork out an arm and a leg to get the kids through the exclusive exams. But music has a way of saving the day – and if you don’t know what happens, you’ll have to see the show to find out.

Dewey and the kidsThere’s a lot to admire and enjoy in this production; there are also a few things that I didn’t care for at all, but then I am an (occasionally) grumpy old git where it comes to the two things that set this show apart from most others: rock, and kids. I was surprised to see that the show really appeals to the family market – at last night’s performance there was probably even more children present than you would expect at a pantomime. Some were laughing (a lot) all the way through; others, including those nearer to us, were slumped in their seats and pretty unresponsive. I guess it takes all sorts.

the groupThere’s no doubting the full-blooded commitment to the show from the entire cast and creative team. Visually, it looks excellent. All the school scenes absolutely capture that rather stiff and starchy pristine bookishness of a prep school; the rock concert scenes featuring Dewey’s ex-colleagues in the band No Vacancy remind you of those heavy metal concerts your mother said you should never go to unless you want to ruin your hearing. And talking of the music – yes, it’s very rocky and it’s very loud. I’m no expert on this musical genre, but it sounded very proficient and genuine; I don’t know if rockstars today still wear that outrageous make up and costumery, but this lot did, and it looked impressive. Andrew Lloyd Webber’s compositions for the show (I suppose you could call them compositions) are unmemorable but authentic.

Miss MullinsThe downside of the loud music – as is frequently the case, sadly – is that a lot of the lyrics of the songs were simply inaudible. And that is a shame, because I got the feeling they were rather witty for the most part – but I reckon I only understood a third (at best) of the words they were singing. I couldn’t tell if it was an issue with over-amplification of the band, or poor enunciation of the singers; possibly a blend of the two. The clearest (and fantastic) singing comes from Tia Isaac’s Tomika, whose unaccompanied Amazing Grace is sheer joy. I also really enjoyed Rebecca Lock (as Miss Mullins)’s performance of Where Did the Rock Go, probably the outstanding song of the show.

Dewey the musical heroAs Dewey Finn, Jake Sharp throws himself into the role all guns blazing, creating a very larger than life character; a part crammed with physical comedy sometimes verging on the grotesque, but he carries it off with total conviction and the kids obviously loved him. Personally, I found the character of Dewey really difficult to get on with; in real life he’d be a laddish plonker who would really get on your nerves. But as an eccentric music teacher, I guess he’d be just about bearable! Rebecca Lock is also very good as Miss Mullins –another character that presents as either strident and humourless, or completely lets go with the help of just one drink and a Stevie Nicks karaoke. For me, not a believable character, but in the context of the show it doesn’t matter; and Ms Lock is a great singer, no question. Matthew Rowland and Nadia Violet Johnson both go over the top with the caricatures of Ned and Patty, milking the excesses of both characters to the extreme – but this is definitely what the script calls for, so – job done. Amongst the other adult cast, there’s good support from Ryan Bearpark as Zack’s demanding and unforgiving father and Richard Morse as Billy’s football-loving father.

School of Rock groupBut what the show is really all about is the kids. Twelve super-talented and eminently watchable children, who grab their characters by the throat and go all-out to entertain and impress. For me, Daisy Hanna as Katie stands out with her terrific bass playing and stage presence, and I love Harry Churchill’s attacking Zack, owning the stage with his charisma and the pure joy of playing. Local lad Angus McDougall is brilliant as the unflashy Lawrence who comes to life when he’s behind the keyboard; his unassuming personality mixed with his Elton John jacket and boots is a hilarious combination. Evie Marner’s Summer is delightfully bossy and priggish, and comes into her own when given the job as band supremo. But they are all excellent, and I am sure a lot of entertainment careers will be born out of the show.

Staff RoomI said near the beginning that there were some things I didn’t care for. Primarily I can sum them up in one word – the book. Julian Fellowes is a writer of enormous experience and success, but I found much of the text really scraped the barrel for humour and characterisation. Some of the characters are just too cartoony to be believed. Most of the female characters in the show are bossy and difficult, and the suggestion that the trouble with the head teacher is that she needs a good…. defrosting is disappointingly sexist. And then, when that largely turns out to be true, it sends an even worse anti-feminist message. Getting the kids to pretend that they’re all dying of some terminal disease to get on to the Battle of the Bands is tasteless in the extreme. Adults and kidsThe joke about Mama Cass is body-shaming, the lines about Billy’s glamrock outfit are borderline homophobic, and there’s an extremely dubious joke about paedophilia. It’s full of lazy stereotypes, very formulaic, and dependant on grossness for humour – as when Dewey rubs himself all over (intimately) with a towel and then chucks it over a child’s head, or when he’s considering eating his belly-button fluff. I’m afraid I didn’t get on with the book AT ALL and, cardinal sin of the theatre, there were plenty of scenes when I was bored. The show is at its best when the kids are rocking the joint, and when you come away from the show, that’s what you (thankfully) remember. I fear much of the rest of it is padding. But I know I’m not the target demographic for the show, and at the end everyone was on their feet, clapping and swaying away. Admittedly, that’s in part because they were told to by Mr Sharp! The UK tour continues until mid-August.

Production photos by Paul Coltas

4-stars

Four they’re jolly good fellows!

Review – Balletboyz, Deluxe, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th May 2022

DeluxeSometimes, gentle reader, you come away from an evening of contemporary dance and think wtf was that, and sometimes you come away with a spring in your step and a desperate desire to be forty years younger and four hundred times as sprightly. I’m delighted to say that the Balletboyz’ Deluxe falls into the latter category. An evening of exciting, stimulating, beautiful dance, with some incredibly expressive and gifted dancers, fantastic lighting, brilliant costumes and two riveting musical soundtracks to back it up.

BB BradleyOf course, I should have been writing this review about two years ago, but something happened in the meantime that stopped the original scheduled tour of Deluxe. What was it now? Oh yes, the pandy. But you can’t keep artistic spirit down for long, and Deluxe has bounced back, with an almost completely new cast – the Balletboyz of two years ago were disbanded, sadly – and has been touring the country since March, with just one more date after their Northampton visit.

RippleDeluxe is structured in two parts. The first half comprises of Ripple, choreographed by Xie Xin, and is preceded by a video where she teaches the dance to members of the (original) group and explains the difficulty of creating work for an all-male group. I don’t normally appreciate explanatory media too much, I think a dance ought to stand by its own presentation, without any further explanation. And this video didn’t do much to change that opinion.

BBHowever, once it gets started you’re immediately gripped by it. I loved its depiction of the flow of movement, the ripples that can be gentle or like a giant wave. The dancers connect and separate, and come together without touching, like they are practising reiki on each other. It reflects harmony and disturbance, survival of the individual and in groups, all to Jiang Shaofeng’s superb soundtrack of discordant and disrupted strings and harsh clashing percussion. It’s mesmerising.

BB Bradley 2The second part is Bradley 4:18, choreographed by Maxine Doyle, inspired by the poetry and song of Kae Tempest. The title doesn’t refer to a missing book of the Bible, rather it’s what happens to a certain chap named Bradley at 4:18 in the morning. This is also preceded by a video – a slightly more helpful one (although, personally, I’d prefer this information to be in the programme, rather than a video which has the potential to alienate a viewer who just wants to see dance.) Six dancers take on different aspects of Bradley, at first separately, later weaving in and out of each other to show the various contradictions and behavioural patterns that go to make up one man. Bradley is a party animal, a schoolboy bully, a vulnerable team member, a drunken sloth; aggressive, big-headed, pained and lost. It’s a very clever idea and the dance pretty much nails all these individual characteristics.

BradleyIf you’re looking for any particular story-telling that links the two pieces, I think you’ll be disappointed. They are simply both examples of the BBoyz’ amazing ability to convey varying emotions and all styles of dance. The dancers themselves are a hugely talented bunch, extraordinarily gifted and immensely likeable and watchable. I was especially impressed with their brilliantly synchronised sequences – every dancer performing the same move at precisely the same time, no one was a nanosecond off; incredible.

RipplerIt was over ten years ago that I first spotted the young Liam Riddick at the Royal and Derngate in a programme by the Richard Alston Dance Company and I predicted he would become the Next Big Thing – and I was right. Tonight I saw another dancer who caught my eye with his extraordinarily versatility, sense of fun and expressiveness, and unbelievable agility – Seirian Griffiths. Mark my words, he will be huge in the dance world over the next few years. Balletboyz DeluxeI was also really impressed with Kai Tomioka, whose interpretation of Bradley ranged from the aggressive to the wheedling – I shall look forward to seeing him in new work in the future. But, of course, all the Boyz are amazingly talented and turn in a great show.

Sadly, Deluxe has only one more night on its tour, in Yeovil on 19th May. But the Balletboyz are back with a bounce, and with this current cast of dancers, the future looks very bright.

Production photos by George Piper (who, if you know your Balletboyz history, doesn’t actually exist)

Five Alive, Let Dance Thrive! (Almost removed a star for the unnecessary videos, but that felt petty)

Review – Upfront Comedy Slam, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 8th May 2022

John SimmitI was shocked, I tell you, shocked, to discover that it’s been over four years since we last attended an Upfront Comedy gig at the Royal and Derngate. These shows are simply great fun – two acts before the interval and another two after, all hosted by DJ and ex-Dipsy Teletubby John Simmit. John got us all relaxed and in the mood for a good night out, but it was clear he wasn’t going to put up with any Will Smith/Chris Rock nonsense from the audience. He’s from Handsworth and you don’t do that kind of thing with someone from Handsworth without deeply regretting it afterwards. He also shared his recent discovery about why white guys dance the way they do and why black guys do it their way, and – choreographically at least – how ne’er the twain shall meet!

Javier JarquinOur first act, and someone we’ve seen many times and always enjoy, was Javier Jarquin, a Kiwi with Latin American/Chinese parentage, so there’s a conundrum if the Home Office want to send him home. Full of energy and attack, he has some truly fascinating material about the difference between it and that, and Mrs Chrisparkle particularly enjoyed his observations about how men just walk around the house pointlessly because, apparently, I do that (It isn’t pointless when I do it, just saying.) He always strikes up a great rapport with the audience and he got the show off to a terrific start.

shaziaNext up was that expert wise Brummie, Shazia Mirza, offering her wry observations on women’s position in society and the media, which included picking on good-hearted Chris in the front row, whom she named Bob, as representative of all elderly white men (he’s only 63) and why, basically, he has to be eradicated. She takes no prisoners with her tough talking satire, but brings you along with her argument in a way that makes you see subjects differently. To do that, and to be funny at the same time, is an absolute gift. However, when she was recounting a story about being on a Celebrity survival show with Bear Grylls, a rather extraordinary thing happened. I’m not sure why – a carelessly expressed phrase, or a mistimed facial expression, but she said or did something that absolutely killed the energy in the room. She worked really hard to get it back – but never quite made it. One of those strange things that sometimes happens with live comedy, even with experienced and fantastic comics like Ms Mirza.

Ms MoRealAfter the interval, our next act was someone new to us, Ms Mo’Real, or, as her parents think of her, Muriel. She complains about the wasters that share her flat and don’t contribute to the rent and bills – and there’s a great punchline to that setup. She looks twenty years younger than she is, and uses that to some great comedic effect too. Her very warm and kindly stage presence helps her killer lines to hit home very effectively. And Mrs C loved her sparkly socks. A very enjoyable act whom we’d love to see again.

Aurie StylaHeadlining the evening was Internet sensation (is that still an appropriate description?) Aurie Styla, whose personality bursts off the stage with enormous energy and fun. No longer content to live in a tiny London flat he’s moved to the Bedfordshire countryside where he has several rooms in a big house and a whole new rustic lifestyle that he’s coming to terms with. Fabulous interaction with the audience, his infectious humour fills the theatre with pure joy. A brilliant way to end the evening.

There’s promise of another Upfront Comedy offering in October – I shall keep a watch on the schedules!

Review – The Osmonds, A New Musical, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 4th May 2022

The Osmonds musicalIt wasn’t cool to like The Osmonds when I was growing up – not if you were a boy. And whilst I could recognise their style and panache, their talent and their commitment to hard work, I did find the majority of their songs insufferably slushy. They were at their best when they went rocky; Crazy Horses remains an iconic track of the 70s to this day. My own personal favourite was Goin’ Home – and I’m pleased to say it gets an airing in The Osmonds A New Musical, because when we saw the Real Osmonds (well, Jay, Merrill and Jimmy at any rate) at the Royal and Derngate a little over ten years ago it only got a shortened, perfunctory performance. My other favourite Osmonds rocky track is I Can’t Stop; that didn’t get a play in either show.

Jay leads the castBut it’s hard to underestimate how huge they were; and many of the crowd in last night’s audience were clearly teenyboppers of old, prepared to throw themselves into every routine. There’ll always be a space for something Osmondy on a stage for many years to come; and this new musical, penned by Julian Bigg and Shaun Kerrison after an original story by group member and middle brother Jay, isn’t a bad vehicle for bringing their old songs back and reviewing their career.

Donny and Andy WilliamsThe show is at its best when confronting the divisions between the family members and revealing the strictures that father George’s parenting inflicted on the young boys. The Osmonds themselves are portrayed both as adults – during the main years of their chart success – but also as children, taking their first steps on the Andy Williams Show, submitting to and/or bristling under the military discipline installed in them by George. Mother Olive is a kindly, comforting figure, but has no authority over her husband. Telling moments from their childhoods are re-enacted with the adult actor and child actor side by side, effectively emphasising how what happens in childhood sticks with you all through your life. At one point, Jay refers to the family as the Mormon von Trapps – a good line; it made me think that a lot of their later problems might have been solved if only Olive had sewn them play clothes from some old curtains.

All the OsmondsThe conflicts that arose from Donny and Marie’s separate successful career are also nicely observed; I enjoyed the four brothers’ bored and uninterested recording of the backing vocals to Donny and Marie’s Morning Side of the Mountain as a very nice encapsulation of what must have felt like a huge reduction in their influence and stake in the group. Alan and Merrill’s ambitious business venture to run their own studio is shown in its ascendance but more interestingly when it collapses. There are petty arguments stemming from Alan’s ruthless running of the group – a trait inherited from his father, from Merrill’s not being allowed to marry, and the mental stresses it caused him, and from Jay’s perception that no one listened to him. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that, given the pressures they must have had from being at the top of their performing tree, they didn’t argue more.

Trying a new styleThe scenes and the songs run in a chronological sequence (apart from The Proud One appearing too early and Crazy Horses too late) and are linked by an additional thread, that of Number One Fan Wendy from Manchester, who continues to send Jay fan mail throughout the years, never knowing if he saw her letters. She has an undiminishable love for Jay from afar; that special, unaccountable, irrational love that only a deep deep fan can have. Wendy’s dream to meet the great man finally comes true in a rather charming scene; I’ve no idea if this is truth, fiction, or if Wendy is simply symbolic of thousands of other girls who spilled their teenage angsts to their heroes. It would be rather rewarding if it were 100% true.

In full flowLucy Osborne’s set is bright, relatively simple and functional; her costume designs are excellent, from the classic barbershop outfits of the young boys, through the glam rock shirts and the subtle colour co-ordination of the brothers’ performing clothes – Alan is always basically in blue, Jay in Green, etc – including their latter-day (no pun intended) drift towards country music. Bill Deamer’s choreography accurately reflects the synchronised flamboyance of the group’s original moves, and on the whole the group and the band make a pretty good stab at recreating the definitive Osmond sound.

Jamming TogetherAlex Lodge takes the central role of Jay and conveys his essential wholesome kindness and likeability, occasionally tending towards an overly cutesy and trying “niceness” that may well be an accurate portrayal of the real Jay. Ryan Anderson’s Merrill is a good portrayal of a decent man pushed to the edge by circumstance and frustration; I thought the show could have made more of his clear mental distress, but it didn’t choose to take that route. For our performance Alex Cardall played Alan, and he nailed that “older sibling” natural authority and tendency towards bossiness. Danny Nattrass is solid as the relatively uninteresting Wayne, and Tristan Whincup was our understudy in the role of Donny; good in the singing department, but I felt he sometimes looked lost in the choreography.

The KidsCharlie Allen gives a very good performance as the unyielding, monolithic George, never betraying the smallest degree of warmth; and Nicola Bryan is the perfect antidote as Olive, a soothing source of kindness who, no matter what she might privately think, knows her place is to back up anything her husband says. I really liked Georgia Lennon as Marie – her performance of Paper Roses was probably the best rendition of any of the songs in the show. It’s a song I always hated as a teenager, seeing it as the epitome of drippiness; but Ms Lennon made me see it in a different light. Great work! And then we had our supporting cast of child Osmonds, who were all terrific, with excellent interaction with the adult actors and brilliant harmonies together.

MarieSo there were many good elements to the show, but, for some reason, a lot of it left me rather cold. Many of the song performances felt a little underwhelming; that said, Let Me In built to great finale to Act One, and they absolutely nailed Crazy Horses at Curtain Call. But even my favourite, Goin’ Home, felt slightly underpowered. Some of the characterisations felt a little threadbare. Comparisons are odious, but this is no Sunny Afternoon. It lacks an essential power and spark that should be driving through the whole show; instead it moves at a sedate pace, never quite reaching top gear. But it’s genuinely not a bad night out, and if you’re inclined towards a bit of clean-living Osmond nostalgia, the show should prompt some good memories. It’s on at the Royal and Derngate until Saturday 7th, and then continues its tour of the UK all the way through to December.

Production photos by Pamela Raith

3-starsThree-sy does it!

Review – Omid Djalili, The Good Times Tour, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 23rd April 2022

Omid Djalili Good TimesIt’s always a delight to be back at the Royal and Derngate, this time for a top quality night of comedy starring one of my favourite comedians, Omid Djalili. We’ve seen him do stand-up twice before, and he’s always cracking good value; although he’s probably never had a finer moment on stage than his Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof – but that’s another story.

Boothby GraffoeBut first, support act Boothby Graffoe. I knew we had seen Mr Graffoe before but couldn’t remember when – and a quick check back revealed that it was when he supported Omid Djalili on his Iranalamadingdong tour in 2015. The two obviously work well together! Mr G has a very laid back style and a misleadingly unassuming stage persona. You’d think that in his youth he would have been ferociously hippy-like. He uses his musical props in more inventively than just as instruments; and his act his based on comedy songs that reveal some of the darker aspects of human nature. I say songs – really, for the most part, they’re musical fragments, but they do the job. Clearly no friend of Boris Johnson, so that’s fine by me. And his lullaby is like no other; it has to be seen to be believed. All new material, and some killer punchlines; we won’t be joining him in the hotel later.

Omid DjaliliOn to Mr Djalili, who’s still larger than life and a bundle of energy, and supremely likeable on stage. We’ve all learned a lot over the past six or so years, and you can see it in Mr D’s delivery. Indeed, the show is a celebration of the fact that we all survived, we’re all here and we’re all out for a good time (hence the title of the show). He was never a cruel comic – far from it – but today he seems warmer and mellower; everything he says comes from a kind place. Much of his always excellent material comes from the association between accents and offence; a difficult line to tread because Mr D is great at accents and impersonations, and he opens up a whole new line of satire with his vocal impressions of one famous person in the guise of another – I’ll say no more.

Omid Djalili 2Technically, the show has an impressive structure involving clever interactions with a multimedia screen, and there’s a beautiful callback with an audience member in the front row, whose name and place of residence had been earlier identified by Mr Graffoe. I always knew comedians talk to each other in the interval! There’s a genuinely moving but also hilarious homage to the late Sean Lock; and an investigation into the wit and wisdom of West Ham United football fans. When he asked if there were any Happy Hammers in the audience, I should have confessed that they are indeed my team, but I chickened out. My bad.

Omid DjaliliMr D still packs the show with his recognisable trademarks: the ghastly but riveting Middle Eastern dad-dancing, irresistible stories that play on racial stereotypes, throwaway gags that take the mickey out of himself and us. And, on a personal note, I loved the fact that one of his jokes involved Stewart Lee getting a two-star review for his show, because that’s exactly what I gave him! Omid Djalili continues to take his Good Times Show on tour around the country (and Austria?!) throughout the rest of the year and indeed has a couple of weeks at the Edinburgh Fringe in August. Hugely funny and highly recommended!

Review – Fatal Attraction, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 29th March 2022

Fatal AttractionI’m sure you’ll remember the original 1987 film Fatal Attraction, that rather over-sensational movie that was a must-see at the time, and which introduced us to the concept of the bunny boiler. James Dearden has adapted his own screenplay into this stage version, that was originally produced at the Theatre Royal Haymarket back in 2014. Reviews of this current production have varied between the ecstatic and the disastrous, so I was fascinated to see how it played out for myself!

Susie Amy and Oliver FarnworthThe play has a different ending from the film; apparently, this ending was Dearden’s original draft, but pre-release market research showed that moviegoers wanted a more gutsy and vengeful ending. This version makes the characters’ motivations and responsibilities more of a grey area; and in fact Mrs Chrisparkle and I are still discussing it the next day, which must be a sign of a thought-provoking production! And, despite a few clunky aspects, we both found this play engrossing, entertaining and totally credible; we really rather liked it.

Louise Redknapp and Oliver FarnworthBut I’m starting at the end, rather than the beginning, which doesn’t make sense. In case you didn’t know, in a nutshell: happily married Dan has a fling with editor Alex, whilst his wife Beth and daughter Ellen are out of town for the weekend. While they’re out of town, he rather goes to town, one might say. But when Alex turns out to be the clingy type who can’t accept being a one night stand, things start to get hot under the collar for Dan – and indeed his whole family. Initially he tries to balance keeping the secret from his wife and managing Alex’s expectations, but her resentment at not getting his full attention turns into something far more menacing and dangerous. And then she announces she is pregnant…

Susie AmyBut what this production shows is that describing Alex as clingy is probably a misrepresentation of her truth. There are scenes of self-harm – and it’s important that theatregoers know this in advance – that leave you in no doubt that she is severely mentally disturbed. This may, in part, be due to the difficult miscarriage she says she suffered. Whatever the cause, her mental instability becomes the root of her manipulation, obsession and vengefulness. Where Dan has simply taken advantage of a random encounter and turned it into a sexual liaison, just another notch on the bedpost perhaps, you sense that he has unwittingly provided Alex with the promise of what she sees is a better life, and a reason for existence; clearly her high-flying editorship isn’t enough to satisfy all her needs. As her obsession with him becomes deeper and deeper, its manifestation becomes impossible to ignore; a fatal attraction indeed.

Susie Amy and Oliver FarnworthThere’s also a surprise coda ending, which I couldn’t possibly tell you about because then it wouldn’t be a surprise! However, suffice to say that it addresses Dan’s laments of constantly making wrong decisions after wrong decisions, in a J B Priestley, Dangerous Corner style. The whole play lasts with you long after curtain down, as you ask yourself a series of what ifs; and you realise there’s never a definitive answer.

Great setMorgan Large’s set comes as a shock when you first see it, all grey geometric shapes and abstract surfaces; isn’t this play set in domestic locations? But when excellent screen projections unexpectedly appear on the set, displaying phone conversations, the New York cityscape and much more besides, you realise it’s a brilliantly devised set. Paul Englishby’s incidental music is incredibly effective at heightening the tension; normally I would find so much music distracting, but in this case it becomes a vital ingredient of the storytelling.

Oliver FarnworthOliver Farnworth, as Dan, is on stage most of the time; it’s a very demanding role, commenting on his own actions in regular asides to the audience, as well as actually enacting them. He absolutely looks the part, but occasionally it feels a little as though he’s reciting the lines rather than believing in them, and I felt he lacked a little light and shade in his delivery. But it’s a powerful and clear performance and you certainly heard every word.

Louise RedknappUnlike Louise Redknapp as Beth, who sounded a little under-amplified and occasionally you had to strain to catch everything she says. Beth is a relatively bland character for the first three quarters of the play, and it’s not until the end that she’s really given her chance to show what she’s made of. Unfortunately, I felt her important scenes lacked some emotion, and I didn’t entirely believe her fury and exasperation at what her husband has done.

Susie AmySusie Amy, however, nails the character of Alex to a T. Sensual, obsessive, manipulative, disturbed – and dangerously unpredictable. She absolutely captures the character’s multi-layers, with her tragic self-harm and manic revenge, cheerfully observing how much she’s terrifying Dan. Ms Amy fills the character with great depth and understanding, and she’s far from the one dimensional characterisation that it could be. A really strong and riveting performance.

Oliver FarnworthAmong the supporting cast, I really enjoyed John Macaulay as the laddish Jimmy, and Tony Glasgow as the no-nonsense detective O’Rourke. Anita Booth is also excellent as Beth’s mother Joan; I liked how she has a resemblance to Hilary Clinton, which puts a new perspective on Dan’s assertion that he did not have a relationship with that woman.

Susie Amy and Oliver FarnworthSome things about the production simply don’t work. Beth and Dan’s offstage daughter is voiced by Charlotte Holden, who not only sounds at least ten years older than the eight years old that Ellen’s meant to be, but the recorded nature of her voice just sounds false in comparison with the live voices on stage. Some of the stage combat comes across as a little cumbersome, and the unavoidable blacked-out stage clearing that occurs immediately after Thumper is fricasséed is a big faff that completely destroys the tension created by the scene.

Susie Amy and Oliver FarnworthDespite these quibbles, this production offers way more than you might have expected. Most of the action is met with complete silence from the audience, but it’s not a negative silence, it’s an engrossed, concentrating, appreciative silence. It holds your attention throughout; and if you think you understand the motivations of the characters from your memories of the film, this production will make you think again. After its week in Northampton, it continues its tour to Aylesbury, Glasgow, Cambridge and York. Definitely worth catching!

Production photos by Tristram Kenton

4-starsFour they’re jolly good fellows!