Review – Pride, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 7th October 2014

Pride1984-85 – the Miners’ Strike. Those were hard times. Daily news coverage of clashes between strikers, police, pickets, “scabs”; daily coverage of families scrabbling around for food; daily coverage of resolute politicians from all parties refusing to compromise; daily coverage of the gladiatorial combat between Thatcher and Scargill. No matter your own politics, people and communities were suffering. No matter where you lived or whether you were directly affected or not, nobody was immune from this strike. Even in leafy Buckinghamshire where I lived, about as far away from a coalfield as you could get, I wore my “Coal not dole” badge. We’d buy extra tins of food at the supermarket and donated them to the miners’ stall outside. I also remember feeling very relieved that I hadn’t been shortlisted for an interview for the job I applied for working in management at the National Coal Board a couple of years earlier.

Bill Nighy and Imelda StauntonLike Billy Elliott and The Full Monty, Pride is another British film that takes those savage days and creates something really positive out of them. But whereas those other films are works of pure fiction, Pride tells the true story of the Lesbians and Gays Support the Miners group, operating out of the Gay’s The Word bookshop in Bloomsbury, the characterful activists who worked there and raised funds for the miners, and of their association with the Dulais mine in South Wales, and their wish to help the community there. Andrew ScottBut the course of true altruism never runs smoothly, and not everyone in those traditional, working-class, chapel, areas relished the attention of a diverse bunch of homosexuals from London. In the course of the film friendships are forged, fortresses are broached, seemingly insurmountable differences are reconciled and those few people who cannot find it in their heart to overcome their prejudices are left behind.

Ben SchnetzerEssentially this is a film about solidarity. The gay activists have solidarity with the miners, as an oppressed minority supporting another oppressed minority. There are also questions of solidarity between the members of each side of the equation – the differences of opinion within the LGSM group, and between the different families in the mining community. Activist Gethin was estranged from his mother for many years but regains support from her when she eventually comes back into his life. The opposite is the case for young Joe, whose supportive family turn against him when they discover his secrets. And it is indeed also a film about pride. Pride in who you are and what you can do when the world is not your friend. Pride that gives you the self-confidence to go out on a limb and to bear the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune as a badge of honour – like the successful “Pits and Perverts” fund-raising event, taking Rupert Murdoch’s attempt at an insult and using it as a mission statement. Anything that sticks two fingers up at The Sun is Fine By Me.

Dominic WestTop billing is given to Bill Nighy and Imelda Staunton, who are indeed excellent. Mr Nighy plays Cliff, the quiet, thoughtful but passionate Elder Statesman of the mining community, delightfully unfazed by the arrival of the gays; and Ms Staunton is Hefina, one of the strike committee women, endlessly fighting for the survival of the community. Her staunch approach to equality is heart-warming to watch, and there’s one hilarious scene where she and her ladies discover a stash of gay porn – I don’t think naughty laughter has ever sounded so funny.

Faye Marsay and George MackayBut these are relatively small roles, and I was really impressed by some of the other younger and maybe less well known performers. Ben Schnetzer is brilliant as Mark Ashton, the Northern Irish Communist leader (or as close to a leader as they got) of the LGSM. Brash yet vulnerable, you find yourself willing him through all his challenges and really admiring his indomitable spirit. Jessica Gunning plays a feisty Siân, idealistic but very practical, irritated by her husband’s lack of backbone. There’s a wonderful scene when she gives the police what forGeorge Mackay leading the protestit’s a great example of an ordinary person becoming assertive against authority and it’s really funny. Andrew Scott gives a very touching performance as Gethin, ill at ease, verging on depressed, full of sadness for the family life he has had to leave behind; and Dominic West gives a really strong performance as Gethin’s partner Jonathan, in real life the second person ever to be diagnosed as HIV positive, giving it large on the dance floor much to the delight of the Welsh women and inspiring some of the Welsh men to loosen up a bit too.

Lisa PalfreyThere is excellent support from Faye Marsay as the punky Steph, at first the lone lesbian sticking up for her rights within the group; Paddy Considine as Dai, the visionary local mining leader who had the guts to have the initial meeting with the LGSM and convinced his community that the two groups have more in common than not; and Lisa Palfrey as the hard-hearted Maureen who cannot be shaken from her prejudiced and vindictive viewpoint. There’s a great comic performance from Menna Trussler as Gwen, who’s curious to know absolutely everything about lesbians and greets them regularly with disarming joy. Menna TrusslerBut perhaps best of all is George Mackay as young Joe, tentatively finding his feet and discovering who he is, a character who brings to mind aspects of Bronski Beat’s Smalltown Boy. It’s a very moving performance. Keep your eye out for a few excellent cameos too, including Russell Tovey as an ex-boyfriend of Mark who clearly hasn’t resolved being “ex-“, and a terrific one-liner from veteran comedy actress Deddie Davies.

Mining ladiesIt’s a beautifully written film that never shies away from the gritty reality of the situation faced by both groups, nor does it descend into sentimentality. It’s full of exhilarating characters and has some very funny lines, and there’s an enormous feelgood factor about the whole film. My guess is that if you’re a right-wing homophobe there’s not going to be much in this film to entertain you; but you’d probably be put off by the title anyway. Paddy ConsidineThe final credits tell you what happened to some of the characters in the intervening years. Some of it will astonish and delight you; some of it will leave you with a heavy heart. A really rewarding look back at a time of conflict and how solidarity, tolerance and equality grew from it. Like a fine wine, this film is going to get even better in the years to come.

Review of the Year 2012 – The Third Annual Chrisparkle Awards

Welcome to this glitzy review of the best live entertainment in Northampton and beyond! As in previous years, every performance that I saw and blogged about during 2012 is eligible for one of these prestigious (but virtual) awards. As an exception this year, I have included all performances seen up to January 5th 2013 as these few extra shows were all born in 2012 and that’s where they will live in the annals of time.

So without further ado we’re going to start off with Best Dance Production.

I saw six dance productions last year, and identifying the top three was easy – but placing those top three in the correct order is a difficult decision, so I am going with my heart and listing them purely in order of how much I enjoyed them. Which means:

In 3rd place, the graceful and strong performance of Swan Lake by Moscow City Ballet at the Derngate, Northampton, in February.

In 2nd place, and especially for “Torsion” and “Void”, Balletboyz The Talent at Milton Keynes Theatre in February.

In 1st place, and absolutely at the top of their game, Richard Alston Dance Company’s programme at the Derngate, Northampton, in October.

Not many turkeys this year – but the first is The Most Incredible Thing by Javier de Frutos and the Pet Shop Boys, which bored us to tears at Sadler’s Wells in April.

Classical Music Concert of the Year.

We saw six concerts in 2012, and each was excellent, giving us a feeling of being privileged to have access to such performances on our doorstep.

In 3rd place, Julian Bliss Plays Mozart with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Derngate, Northampton in November.

In 2nd place, Jack Liebeck Plays Sibelius, also with the RPO at the Derngate, in September.

In 1st place, Nigel Kennedy Plays Brahms, you guessed it, with the RPO at the Derngate in June.

Best Entertainment Show of the Year.

A wide category that includes pantos, circuses, revues and anything else unclassifiable. Always tough to call.

In 3rd place, the Moscow State Circus’ Babushkin Sekret, at the Derngate, Northampton, in January 2012.

In 2nd place, The Burlesque Show at the Royal, Northampton, in January 2012.

In 1st place, Cinderella at the Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, in January 2013.

Best Star Standup of the Year.

The best stand-up of the year, not part of a comedy club night.

We saw 8 big name comedians doing their stuff but the top three were:

In 3rd place, Marcus Brigstocke and his Brig Society, at the Royal, Northampton, in October.

In 2nd place, similar style but just pipping him for content, Jeremy Hardy at the Royal, Northampton, in January.

In 1st place, Dara O’Briain’s Craic Dealer tour, Butterworth Hall, Warwick Arts Centre in April.

Time for another Turkey – Paul Merton’s Out of My Head tour, at the Derngate, Northampton, in April – may have been clever but it wasn’t funny.

Best Stand-up at the Screaming Blue Murder nights in Northampton

We’ve seen over thirty comics this year down in the Underground at the Royal and Derngate, and it’s been the usual array of the Good the Bad and the Ugly. Here are my top five:

In 5th place, Scunthorpe’s own copper Alfie Moore (17th February).
In 4th place, no relation I’m guessing, Ian Moore (5th October).
In 3rd place, the very funny Steve Day (16th March).
In 2nd place, big local hero Andrew Bird (20th January).
In 1st place, and regaining his 2010 title, the unstoppable Paul Sinha (2nd March).

Best Musical.

Last year this was split into Best New Musical and Best Revival Musical but with only two (and that’s questionable) new musicals seen this year I’m lumping them all in together. Some great productions so I’m going for a Top Five:

In 5th place, very close thing but it’s Hello Dolly at the Curve Theatre, Leicester in December.

In 4th place, the delightful and funny Radio Times at the Royal, Northampton in September.

In 3rd place, the innovative revival of Pippin at the Menier Chocolate Factory in January.

In 2nd place, the rewarding and moving revival of Merrily We Roll Along at the Menier Chocolate Factory in December.

In 1st place, the exhilarating revival of My Fair Lady at the Sheffield Crucible in January 2013.

Best New Play

This is my definition of a new play – which may not necessarily be an actual brand spanking new play never seen at any other theatre ever before, but is certainly new enough! Only six plays came into that category, and here is my top three:

In 3rd place (and very nearly made it to 2nd), Ladies in Lavender at the Royal, Northampton in April.

In 2nd place (and very nearly downgraded to 3rd place), Bully Boy at the Royal, Northampton, in September.

In 1st place, The Last of the Haussmans, at the Lyttelton, National Theatre, in July.

Best Revival of a Play

This is the category with the biggest long-list in these awards – I can count 23 contenders. There are some smashing productions that fail to make the Top Five, including the National’s Comedy of Errors, Sheffield’s Democracy, Chichester’s Arturo Ui, Northampton’s Blood Wedding and Hedda Gabler. But these are my favourite five (and they’re all quite brilliant):

In 5th place, Torch Song Trilogy at the Menier Chocolate Factory in June.

In 4th place, Betrayal at the Sheffield Crucible in May.

In 3rd place, Charley’s Aunt at the Menier Chocolate Factory in October.

In 2nd place, Abigail’s Party at the Menier Chocolate Factory in April.

In 1st place, for its sheer breadth of vision and its pushing of boundaries, The Royal and Derngate’s The Bacchae at the Northampton Chronicle and Echo Print Works in June.

Turkey time – the rediscovery of Coward’s Volcano (Oxford Playhouse in July) was a damp squib and the revival of that old war horse Dry Rot (Milton Keynes Theatre in September) wasn’t much better.

Best performance by an actress in a musical

A really tough call this one but a decision has to be made and here it is:

In 3rd place, Cynthia Erivo in Sister Act, Milton Keynes Theatre in June.

In 2nd place, Carly Bawden in My Fair Lady, Sheffield Crucible, in January 2013.

In 1st place, Jenna Russell in Merrily We Roll Along, Menier Chocolate Factory, December.

Best performance by an actor in a musical.

Again, very hotly contested and you know they must be good if they kick the likes of Damian Humbley, Gary Wilmot and Michael Xavier into the long grass! The top three are:

In 3rd place, Martyn Ellis in My Fair Lady, Sheffield Crucible, in January 2013.

In 2nd place, Harry Hepple in Pippin, Menier Chocolate Factory, in January 2012.

In 1st place, Dominic West in My Fair Lady, Sheffield Crucible, in January 2013.

Best performance by an actress in a play.

Too close to call not to have a Top Five:

In 5th place, Claudie Blakley for Comedy of Errors at the Olivier, National Theatre, in February.

In 4th place, Emma Hamilton as Hedda Gabler, Royal, Northampton, in July.

In 3rd place, Jill Halfpenny for Abigail’s Party, Menier Chocolate Factory, in April.

In 2nd place, Natalie Casey for Abigail’s Party, Menier Chocolate Factory, in April.

In 1st place, Laurie Metcalf for Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Milton Keynes Theatre, in March.

Best performance by an actor in a play.

21 contenders in the long list, and so many brilliant performances that won’t get a mention, so I definitely need a top five:

In 5th place, Henry Goodman for The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui, Minerva Theatre Chichester, in July.

In 4th place, John Simm for Betrayal, Sheffield Crucible, in May.

In 3rd place, Ery Nzaramba for The Bacchae, Northampton Chronicle and Echo Print Works in June.

In 2nd place, David Bedella for Torch Song Trilogy, Menier Chocolate Factory, in June.

In 1st place, Mathew Horne for Charley’s Aunt, Menier Chocolate Factory, in October.

Theatre of the Year.

Very close this year between my three favourite theatres – Northampton’s Royal and Derngate, Sheffield Theatres and the Menier Chocolate Factory. However, taking everything into account – consistency of excellence, variety of entertainment, and the whole theatre-visit experience, I’m awarding the Theatre of the Year to the Royal and Derngate Northampton!

Thank you to everyone who reads my blog – I’m amazed at how the numbers have steadily increased over the past year or so! I wish you all happy theatregoing and a great 2013!

Review – My Fair Lady, Sheffield Crucible, 5th January 2013

My Fair LadyHaving emerged from Cinderella at the Lyceum after the matinee, which Lady Duncansby pronounced as quite the best pantomime she’d ever seen, and which was certainly “up there” as far as I was concerned, we wondered if our evening treat of My Fair Lady tickets at the Crucible would be eclipsed. There was no need for us to worry.

My Fair Lady 1979This was the third time I’ve seen My Fair Lady. This was one of the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s favourite shows and I learned the songs at her knee to the accompaniment of a soundtrack maxi-single of the original London production by Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews. I first saw it in 1979 at the Adelphi Theatre with Tony Britton as Higgins and Liz Robertson (Mrs Alan Jay Lerner) as Eliza. Dame Anna Neagle played Mrs Higgins. The notable thing about this production was, if I remember rightly, that the costumes were based on those designed by Cecil Beaton and used in the film, so it was certainly a glamorous event. The second time was in 2002 when Mrs Chrisparkle accompanied me to my favourite theatre, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane (always give it its full name) to the production that famously starred Martine McCutcheon and in which famously she rarely appeared. Actually we saw Alex Jennings and Joanna Riding in the main roles and they were excellent. It was during a very hot summer and the theatre’s air conditioning had packed up; I remember we were all issued with paper “My Fair Lady” fans in attempt to keep 2,300 people from passing out.

Dominic WestSo having seen two big, meaty, chunky productions on big stages, it would be very interesting to see it done on the large but nevertheless comparatively intimate stage of the Crucible. I’d seen a tweet a couple of weeks earlier by Daniel Evans, Artistic Director of the Crucible and director of My Fair Lady, where he couldn’t believe his eyes that every single subsequent performance of My Fair Lady (bar one) was sold out. Having seen the show, I’m not surprised. This is one of the most engaging, communicative productions you could possibly imagine.

Carly BawdenIt all starts before you’ve even taken your seat. Enter the auditorium and the sight of Covent Garden’s arches takes your breath away. The stage is filled with flower girls and costermongers, all doing their damnedest to make an honest bob, encouraging the people in Rows A and B to buy their wares, and despairing when no one seems to have any change on them. You’ve been won over before it’s even started. Incidentally, we sat in the middle of Row C and they must be the best seats in the house.

Anthony CalfWhat comes across is the perfect combination of a great show, great songs, a great cast in a great production. I know that sounds simplistic and lacking critical teeth, but that’s basically the whole show in a nutshell. Every second is a pleasure; every song, every dance routine, every conversational exchange are there to make you wallow in delight. This may not have the Cecil Beaton costumes – the ladies are in shades of cream, ivory and beige; a toffs’ uniform, I suppose – but that allows the quality of the book and music to shine through.

Nicola SloaneHiggins, that spoilt chauvinist par excellence, is played to perfection by Dominic West, who gets the just right amount of bombast, vanity, charisma and – when you don’t normally see it – vulnerability. I would say he was probably the least bullying and barking Higgins I’ve seen, which makes the character more interesting. When he realises what a complete fool he’s been at the end, as he’s grown accustomed to her face, this Higgins produces actual tears; the first time I’ve ever really felt that Higgins really regrets what he’s done. When he’s reunited with Eliza, he does a brilliant failed-attempted cover-up of his emotions, which is absolutely perfect. It’s an extremely realistic presentation of the behaviour of a spoilt man, and it couldn’t be more believable.

Richenda CareyCarly Bawden, who was very good in the Menier’s Pippin last year, really comes into her own as Eliza. Hers is the perfect transformation from ugly duckling to beautiful swan, with some fantastically well performed songs that she takes on with relish. Her “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” was heart-warming and felt very genuine – and was superbly supported by the backing dancers to give it an extra oomph. “Just You Wait” and “Show Me” were delivered with great attack, “The Rain In Spain” with humour and terrific musicality, but her big moment was “I Could Have Danced All Night” which was just superb. The embodiment of irrepressible girlish excitement, it was sung exquisitely and the sheer exuberance of it created sustained applause of real appreciation. Stand Out Moment No 1.

Martyn EllisAnthony Calf plays Pickering with enormous decency, and with genuine disapproval for Higgins when he goes too far with badgering Eliza. It’s a rather passive role where more things happen around you than you actually do yourself, so it’s vital that his reactions to what’s going on are genuine and entertaining; a very enjoyable performance. Nicola Sloane’s Mrs Pearce is delightfully long-suffering and her starchy but growing affection for Eliza is very well expressed. Another relatively minor role but beautifully played was Richenda Carey as Mrs Higgins.Louis Maskell At Ascot, she plays host as Miss Doolittle gets her first outing into society, and is splendidly disapproving of her son but kind to Eliza, and the whole scene is done magnificently. Miss Bawden’s wonderful delivery of “what is wrong with that young man, I bet I got it right” and “them as pinched it, done her in” is memorably hilarious. Towards the end of the show when it is with Mrs Higgins that Eliza seeks sanctuary, Richenda Carey’s withering looks to Mr West speak more than words ever could. An excellent performance, and one that won her huge applause at curtain call.

Chris BennettI never normally respond much to the role of Alfred Doolittle, as I always feel it’s a bit over-the-top and lacks some credibility in comparison with the rest of the show, although the Dowager Mrs C always adored the character. I’ve changed my mind! Martyn Ellis has made me reconsider my previous snobbishness. He is genuinely funny – he brings all the character’s sneaky idle deviousness to the forefrontCarl Sanderson – and he’s quite a nifty mover too for a man his size! His two set-piece musical numbers both worked really well, but for sheer theatrical exhilaration, the whole rendition of “Get Me To The Church On Time” almost leaves you speechless. A great dance routine, that unexpectedly turns into tap, and performed with such spirit, still gives me goose bumps just thinking about it. Stand Out Moment No 2.

Emily GoodenoughThe other surprising – perhaps – and revelatory performance came from Louis Maskell as Freddy, with “On The Street Where You Live”. Always one of my favourite songs, since I can’t remember when, it’s quite easy to sing it as a gentle, loving mellifluous number, all pretty and tuneful. This performance is quite different. It’s like someone has finally listened to what the words are actually saying in the song and he’s acting them; and meaning it. Mr Maskell has taken his big number and made a real showstopper out of it. Stand Out Moment No 3.

Nick ButcherThe support from the ensemble is absolutely first rate and the production owes a huge debt to their talent and commitment. In particular I thought Doolittle’s pals Harry and Jamie – Chris Bennett and Carl Sanderson – gave him perfect support and Emily Goodenough and Nick Butcher shone in all their scenes. Alistair David’s choreography was splendid throughout, and put Mrs C and I in mind of some of Matthew Bourne’s best dance movement creations. Oh, and the Ascot Gavotte is just fantastic.

No question this will be the benchmark for future productions. It would be a crime if it didn’t transfer or at least tour. One of those shows that remind you you’re alive. Unhesitatingly recommended.