Review – The Sound of Music, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 2nd September 2023

The Sound of MusicNo sooner were Mrs Chrisparkle and I back from our four weeks at the  Edinburgh Fringe, we were off to Chichester for a weekend of (hopefully!) top quality entertainment at those terrific theatres. And, late to the party, we started off with the last Saturday matinee of the run of Adam Penford’s production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The Sound of Music. It’s ended now, but I’m sure it had a very successful run. As soon as you knew this was to be Chichester’s summer big show offering, you knew it was going to be a crowd pleaser. And Saturday afternoon’s audience was packed to the gunwales, with lots of kids all starting their journeys as the theatregoers of tomorrow, which is always great to see.

Gina BeckRobert Jones’s design is perhaps a little heavy on the ecclesiastical side, with grey abbey windows and arches which deftly slide in and out. An ornate front door and mansion frontage is wheeled into place to suggest the von Trapp residence, which seems very grand indeed. However, you never get a feel for those rolling meadows of green and the Alpine peaks that lurk just outside the abbey that were so important to the young Maria; and indeed, when we first see her she emerges from beneath the stage via a trap laying down in the glorious sunshine, appreciating God’s glorious scenery, whilst supine, not on a verdant bank, but on an expanse of grey. Fortunately, Matt Samer’s orchestra bathes us in musical sunshine throughout the show, which makes up for the lack of colour variety.

Gina Beck and kidsThe production itself is extremely classy and hits the right level of emotional engagement. I know I was not the only person in our party who noticed a tinge of moisture in their eye when the Captain melted at the sight (and sound) of his children singing (excellent melting from Edward Harrison in the role); the actual sound of music has a symbolic significance in this show, representing freedom, happiness, and love, as opposed to the self-repression that the Captain inflicted on himself and his children, and the oppression that would follow under the Nazis.

Lonely GoatherdThe production follows the original 1959 stage show reasonably faithfully, rather than the more familiar 1965 film, so expect My Favourite Things to come much earlier than you expect, The Lonely Goatherd has no puppet show, I Have Confidence is missing, and the nuns don’t get to scupper the Nazis cars at the end. The only change is that Something Good, originally written for the film, appears in Act Two instead of the lesser known An Ordinary Couple.

EdelweissI always think that you can judge a production of The Sound of Music by how well it reflects the Nazi threat. For the Salzburg Singing Contest scene, Nazi banners unfurl and drop down from the ceiling all around the stage, and SS Officers appear spotlighted standing amongst the audience members, which is a very threatening sight. When the family are hiding at the abbey and the Nazi officers come to hunt them down, lights and shadows add to the tension and anxiety of the scene. I never found it credible that Rolf saw the family but didn’t give the game away; he was a very ambitious young Nazi and he owed nothing to any of the von Trapps apart from Liesl. If he had captured them, he would have been given great preferment. Still; maybe love can defeat a swastika after all.

Maria and GeorgThe production benefited from some terrific performances. Gina Beck is excellent as Maria; her voice is clear and rich, her playfulness with the children (and indeed the Captain) is very nicely done, and her interaction with the other nuns works a treat. Janis Kelly as the Mother Abbess has an amazing voice and puts all her operatic heart and soul into the performance of Climb Ev’ry Mountain. Edward Harrison plays both the gruff and the sensitive sides of the Captain very well; and there are superb supporting performances from Wendy Ferguson and Julia J Nagle as Sisters Berthe and Margaretta, and Emma Williams as Elsa.

Rolf and LieslI wasn’t entirely sure about Ako Mitchell’s performance as Max; he came across as very showbiz and brash, soh doh!rather than shifty and unprincipled. Lauren Conroy looks a tiny bit old for Liesl, but she still has that necessary childish charm; and Dylan Mason’s Rolf is earnest and protective – and a superb dancer. I think we saw the Green Team of children, and they were all terrific.

Powerful, emotional and fantastically musical, this is a very good production that would certainly suit a transfer in due course.


Production photos by Manuel Harlan

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Edinburgh Fringe 2023 Reviews – Do Rhinos Feel Their Horns, Shortlist, The Portable Dorothy Parker, The Courteous Enemy, and Rock Bottom

Do RhinosDo Rhinos Feel Their Horns or Can They Not See Them Like How We Can’t See Our Noses, Summerhall.

Edward Eng’s very entertaining play unites two threads: the 1987 protests in Singapore that were clamped down on by the authorities under the suspicion they were a Marxist plot, and Ionesco’s absurd 1959 play, Rhinoceros, where almost the entire population of a French town turned into rhinos, symbolising the rise of Nazism and Fascism leading to the Second World War. Cheryl Ho and Shannen Tan play a number of characters, including a pair of journalists trying to get a scoop interviewing a “freshly turned” rhino. There’s excellent use of multimedia – which adds to the absurdism – and heart-warming moments too, including playing with balloons with the audience and the opportunity to pet a rhino. Underneath it all, it’s a thinly veiled criticism of the Singaporean government at the time and the whole “rhinocerising” of the community is deeply unnerving. This play can signify different things to different people, and personally, I found the idea of imprisoning them all in a zoo reminded me of the current British position on sending refugees to Rwanda. The performers have a terrific rapport with each other and the audience, and what seems deceptively simple on the surface has many hidden depths that gradually occur to you long after the show has ended. Provocative yet playful, an intriguing way to start your day!


ShortlistShortlist, Assembly George Square.

Often cited as one of Shakespeare’s famous quotes is I would challenge you to a battle of wits but I see you are unarm’d; and that sense of antagonism was the first thing I thought when I watched Flying Bridge’s production of Shortlist. Two warring novelists who clearly hate each other try to belittle the other with waspish putdowns about their writing styles, never missing an opportunity for a barbed comment or a pseudo-intellectual observation. It’s a clever idea for a play and Brian Parks’ writing is packed with insults and offences-to-be-taken. However, sometimes less is more and I did find the barrage of contumely overwhelming and, consequently, rather tiresome. This is a shame because the show features two excellent technical and physical performances from Matthew Boston and Daniel Llewelyn-Williams. A bit like The Odd Couple (literary version) but neither character shows a remotely likeable trait! Oh, and Shakespeare never wrote that celebrated line.


The Portable Dorothy Parker, The Space @ Surgeon’s Hall.

Dorothy ParkerDorothy Parker sits in her apartment, talking to a young secretary who has come to help sub-edit the choices of poetry to be included in the new volume The Portable Dorothy Parker. As she re-reads her old poems, she reflects on her life so far and remembers the parties, the scandals, and the men. Annie Lux’s play puts Parker’s works to good use as they not only illustrate the nature of the writer but also entertain us in their own right. Margot Avery plays Dorothy Parker as a more laid-back, reflective character than I might have imagined her to be, and the whole show is more of a gentle entertainment than a rip-roaring examination of a feisty, rebellious, creative spirit. Enjoyable, if unchallenging.


The Courteous Enemy, The Space @ Surgeon’s Hall.

Courteous EnemyIn 1958, the playwright Eugene Ionesco and the theatre critic Kenneth Tynan clashed over the latter’s review in the Observer of his play The Chairs, which broadened out to become a prolonged argument over the nature of theatre. Dan Sinclair’s The Courteous Enemy takes this event as its inspiration for what is described as an absurdist satire. It’s an excellent idea for a play, being a pivotal moment in freedom of expression during arguably the most significant decade in European theatre of the last century. But what the University of York Drama Society have created is one of the most abysmal shows I have ever seen. Infantile, crude and xenophobic, there are two and a half funny lines and I spent the rest of the show not believing what I was seeing. If laughing at silly French accents, jokes about penis size, grotesque simulation of Tynan fellating Beckett and whether someone is queer or not is your cup of tea, welcome to the early 1970s and you’ll love it. Everyone in our row sat in stony silence. Waste of an amazing opportunity.

Rock Bottom, Paradise in the Vault.

Rock BottomNick Bottom turns up to perform Pyramus and Thisbe, but no one else shows up – none of the Rude Mechanicals, none of the Court; so he’s left to front us on his own. Being an old pro, he does his best, and falls back on those self-delusions of Athenian superstardom (in his head). But nothing really works and, unsurprisingly, he ends up in mental breakdown. This is a gem of an idea – agreed, Bottom has his faults, but he’s treated mercilessly by Oberon, so that his happy time with Titania is taken away from him, through no fault of his own, and you never think about how Bottom would be affected by that – and this little piece does go towards an understanding of his plight. However, in a sense, it is so successful, that Bottom’s sadness comes across too strongly to us, and it’s hard to enjoy watching him suffer. Rock Bottom has been around for a couple of years now but I still feel it could do with some refinement; we need to find him a more likeable character earlier on, so that we are on his side, (Team Bottom? why not?) before his rot starts to kick in. Much potential, but still not quite there yet.

The Edinburgh Fringe All Month Long – 24th August 2023

Would you like to know what we’re seeing in Edinburgh today? I thought you would!

Here’s the schedule for 24th August:

10.20 – OTMA, The Space on the Mile. From the Edinburgh Fringe website:

OTMA“In the early hours of July 17th 1918, four young women were executed by shotgun and bayonet in a grubby basement in Yekaterinburg, Russia. Flung into lime pits, their remains and stories lay abandoned for 80 years. Yet their only crime was to be born into the unbearable expectation, garish privilege, and naive ineptitude of the ruling Romanov dynasty. The terrors and hopes of their final few hours are brought to life by acclaimed Fringe writer/director Rebecca Vines. Praise for Vines’ other work: 1984, ***** (; Coward Conscience, **** (; More Myself Than I Am, **** (”

A famous story, and I hope a good piece of writing to reflect it. I was uncertain what the title referred to – it is an acronym for the four daughters of Nicholas II – Olga, Tatiana, Maria and Anastasia.

12.15 – Pressure Cooker, The Space on the Mile.

Pressure Cooker“Pressure Cooker: The kettle boils, the lights come up, and we find ourselves watching four sixth-year med students treating a patient. As the play develops, we realise they may not be quite as sober as they should be. And, as we find out more about how they treat their own bodies, we wonder how capable they are of treating the body in front of them. Under the heat, will they uncover what’s wrong with the patient, and will they discover the lies amongst themselves?”

That sounds like a fascinating scenario for a play. I’m curious to find out more! I know they’ve had a tough time bringing this show to the Fringe but I’m sure it will be worth it.

14.05 – Being Sophie Scholl, The Space @ Symposium Hall.

Being Sophie Scholl“From the Producers of I, Sniper (2018) and Chaika (2010) – After her brother is unjustly arrested by the Nazis, a young German student begins a deadly game of cat and mouse with the local Gestapo. But can she stand up for her beliefs when she stands alone against the increasing tide of support for the Third Reich? Discover the inspiring true story of Sophie Scholl – the girl who defied Hitler.”

I had never heard of Sophie Scholl, to my utter shame. She sounds like an extraordinary person. I trust this play will tell her story well!

16.00 – ADULTS, Traverse Theatre.

Adults“A black comedy full of unexpected tenderness from Kieran Hurley (writer of the 2019 smash-hit Mouthpiece) that explores the gulf between generations, the futility of blame culture, and how we have make things better for those who come after us. In Edinburgh’s New Town, thirty-something Zara runs her own business: a brothel. Her newest client is her old teacher, and her colleague fears the inevitable ageing process. They’re all convinced that the mess of the world around them isn’t their fault. Soon discover that they have more in common than expected. Directed by Roxanna Silbert and starring Conleth Hill.”

Again this sounds like a most inventive story line – and Conleth Hill is an excellent actor so I’m hoping for good things here! Another play where the title is in CAPITALS! I guess there’s a reason somewhere…

19.30 – Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater – Programme 2, Festival Theatre.

Alvin Ailey“Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater dazzles with technical brilliance and passionate energy, bringing audiences to their feet at every performance. This programme combines three beloved works by Alvin Ailey himself who founded the company in 1958.

The programme opens with The River, created in collaboration with the late musician and composer Duke Ellington. Combining classical ballet, modern dance and jazz, the piece uses water as a central motif in an allegory for the journey of birth, life and rebirth.

Memoria is one of Ailey’s most personal works, created as a tribute to his dear friend and colleague, Joyce Trisler. The piece will feature dancers selected from all over Scotland performing alongside the company.

The performance closes with Revelations, the most widely viewed modern dance work in the world. Since its debut in 1960, Revelations has moved audiences with its powerful storytelling and soul-stirring music. Springing from Ailey’s childhood memories of growing up in the American South, attending Baptist church services in Texas, Revelations pays homage to rich African American cultural traditions.”

Back for more from the Alvin Ailey company; hoping for another spectacular night of dance.

22.35 – Hi Ho Hi Ho, It’s Off To Work I Go, The Space on the Mile.

Hi ho hi ho“In this biographical burlesque, a confessional cabaret, Phillipe will sing and dance you through his boyhood on the Broadway stage, teenage nights in the discos of Hollywood, 20 years in a New Age cult, and a surprising midlife career as an erotic masseur, while investigating through song the wild history of sex workers as portrayed in musical theatre. Moving, provocative and hilarious, Hi Ho is an intimate journey you won’t soon forget.”

Biographical burlesque is an interesting and rather niche genre. Hopefully this will be both fascinating and entertaining.

Check back later to see how we enjoyed all these shows!

The Edinburgh Fringe All Month Long – 23rd August 2023

A good mix of comedy and theatre arranged for Edinburgh today as well as some dance at the International Festival!

Here’s the schedule for 23rd August:

11.45 –

Do Rhinos Feel Their Horns or Can They Not See Them Like How We Can’t See Our Noses, Summerhall. From the Edinburgh Fringe website:

Do RhinosWhat if the reason I don’t like capitalism is that I just wanna chill out a bit? Rhinoceroses or capybaras? Black-pink or something less cling-clangy? Two friends make a radio play for the internet; this week’s episode is about the 1980s “Rhinoceritis” epidemic. A Singaporean production rooted in Ionesco’s Rhinoceros, Do Rhinos Feel Their Horns? re-asks what conformism means as we live through what is objectively the best time in history. It is funny, bleak, sometimes joyous, and always full of play.

This sounds curious, and I’m aways up for a spot of the absurd, so hopefully it will be entertaining!

13.15 – Shortlist, Assembly George Square.

Shortlist“Two enemy novelists duel for the ultimate prize in a fast-paced, war-of-the-words comedy. Multiple Fringe First-winning playwright Brian Parks plunges into the writing world with a Withnail-esque joust between literature’s two sharpest pens. Year after year, Higgins and Houghton find themselves pitched against each other on the shortlist for literature’s number-one title, never winning. But this year is different, each primed to strike and finally grab it. All that stands in their way is each other. A world premiere directed by Fringe First winner Margarett Perry, starring Matthew Boston and Daniel Llewelyn-Williams. ‘A refreshingly mischievous, inventive author’ (Times).”

This sounds like a very funny set-up for a play. Looking forward to it!

15.15 – The Portable Dorothy Parker, The Space @ Surgeon’s Hall.

Dorothy Parker“The year is 1943: Dorothy Parker, famed wit, writer, and critic, is on the warpath. Viking Press is about to publish a collection of Dorothy’s poems and short stories, and Dorothy must make the selections. Now. As Dorothy sorts through her works, she reminisces about her life: her famous friends (Lillian Hellman, F Scott Fitzgerald, and, especially, Ernest Hemingway), the wits of the Round Table, the founding of The New Yorker, and her many loves and heartbreaks. Has it all been worth it? Has she made her mark as a writer, or is she merely clever?”

Love a spot of Dorothy Parker – this should be good fun.

17.10 – The Courteous Enemy, The Space @ Surgeon’s Hall.

Courteous Enemy“An absurdist satire set in July 1958, which tells the story of infamous theatre critic Kenneth Tynan who wrote a scathing review of The Chairs by Eugène Ionesco, the father of absurdism. Watch chaos unfold in this exploration of the nature of theatre criticism, art and what happens when the delicate egos that tend to accompany them are attacked.”

Critics giving bad reviews? Extraordinary! I like Kenneth Tynan, and I like Eugene Ionesco. Which one is better? There’s only one way to find out – FIGHT! Should be good.

19.30 – Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater – Programme 1 Festival Theatre.

Alvin Ailey“Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater presents a programme of contemporary choreography, completed by the beloved classic Revelations.

The performance opens with Aszure Barton’s BUSK, a piece examining the multi-layered wisdom of the human body. Set to a spirited score, BUSK has been described as watching the physical unfurling of the human psyche.

This is followed by the UK premiere of Kyle Abraham’s Are You in Your Feelings?, a celebration of Black culture, Black music and the youthful spirit that perseveres in us all. Scored to a ‘mixtape’ of soul, hip-hop and R&B, it highlights the bridge between music, communication and personal memory. Learn more about Kyle Abraham and his choreography in our blog.

The performance closes with Revelations, the most widely viewed modern dance work in the world. Since its debut in 1960, Revelations has moved audiences with its powerful storytelling and soul-stirring music. Springing from Ailey’s childhood memories of growing up in the American South, attending Baptist church services in Texas, Revelations pays homage to rich African American cultural traditions.”

Only seen Alvin Ailey a couple of times and they are always sensational. Seeing the other programme tomorrow night!

22.05 – Rock Bottom, Paradise in the Vault.

Rock Bottom“’You don’t know what to be, or not to be’ – Shakespeare’s best loved clown, Bottom, is reimagined in Fresh Life Theatre’s one-person show. When Bottom arrives at the theatre, ready to perform, and finds the rest of his cast have left him, he needs to improvise. Dealing with the trauma of pushing his friends away and needing the audience like him, is a cocktail for trouble. As his plan falls apart, he is forced to come to terms with who he is. Shakespeare’s Bottom, alone in the real world.”

I’d hoped to catch this performance last year but missed out, so I’m delighted to see it’s come back this year!

Check back later to see how we enjoyed all these shows!

The Edinburgh Fringe All Month Long – 18th August 2023

Let me tell you what we’ve got lined up in Edinburgh today! And it isn’t all Fringe!

Here’s the schedule for 18th August:

12.00 – Joe Wells: King of the Autistics, PBH’s Free Fringe @ Banshee Labyrinth. From the Edinburgh Fringe website:

Joe Wells“Rise up against your neurotypical overlords! ‘One of my favourite comics’ (Frankie Boyle). ‘Some of the most surprising and thought-provoking material coming from any comedian’ (Guardian). Over 2.5m views online for his video ‘Having a non-autistic brother’. As seen on BBC2, BBC3, C4 and Dave. **** ( **** ( ***** ( A stand-up show about representation, role models and the fight for autistic rights.”

King of the Autistics? King of pretty much all the comedians too! Never turn down an opportunity to see Joe Wells, and make sure you get there with plenty of time!

13.45 – 3rd Rock from the Pun: Darren Walsh, Laughing Horse @ Bar 50.

Darren Walsh “Like puns? Like space travel? Of course you do. Join Darren for an hour of silly jokes and visuals as he takes us on a journey from the origins of life to our place in the universe. The first-ever Fringe show created using AI! Please only come if you like puns. Seriously, there’s a lot of puns. Stuff like: ‘Black holes suck, big time’. That kind of thing. ‘Punbelievable!’ ***** (Mirror). Winner of Joke of the Edinburgh Fringe, Joke of Leicester Comedy Festival and the UK’s first Pun Champion.

Darren Walsh is (imho) the absolute master of the pun. This is going to be terrific!

15.40 – Married at First Sleight, Gilded Balloon Patter Hoose.

Married at first Sleight“What happens when two magicians get married? Is life full of magic surprises or do they still have petty arguments over who’s taking the bins out? Can you ever relax when your partner is constantly playing tricks on you in the middle of a boxset? Alan and Kat Hudson from Britain’s Got Talent, winner of Penn & Teller: Fool Us and star of West End’s Wonderville, join forces for the first time as a double act in a magic comedy show that could lead them to fame and fortune. Or divorce.”

I’ve heard a lot about the Hudson and Hudson double act and am really looking forward to seeing them live. If they won Penn & Teller: Fool Us then they’re going to be pretty brilliant.

19.30 – The Rite of Spring / common ground[s], Edinburgh Playhouse.

Rite of Spring“The UK premiere of Pina Bausch’s The Rite of Spring was performed in 1978 at the International Festival. This year, it returns with the original choreography and a cast of 34 specially assembled dancers from 14 African countries. In this pioneering work, on an earth-covered stage, dancers clash and engage in a wild and poetic struggle to the music of Igor Stravinsky. Discover more about The Rite of Spring in our blog ‘What is The Rite of Spring all about?’.

To open the evening, the new work common ground[s] is performed and created by two remarkable women: Germaine Acogny, the ‘mother of contemporary African dance’ and Malou Airaudo, who has performed leading roles in many of Bausch’s early works. This is the duo’s first collaboration; a poetic and tender piece that examines their shared histories and emotional experiences.”

Very excited to see this as it will be the first time we have seen anything by Pina Bausch and she comes very highly recommended! I’m also really fond of The Rite of Spring music. This should be a terrific show.

21.55 – 99 Red Hot Kitties and Cockatoo, The Space @ Niddry Street.

99 Red Hot Kitties“Cheeky and spirited, 99 Red Hot Kitties and a Cockatoo possesses an endearing seductiveness, with time-honoured burlesque and fan dances. Features a mix of seasoned performers and local, new, up-and-coming performers loving the skin they are in. This show is highly energetic and will leave audiences spellbound.”

Not seen much in the way of Burlesque this Fringe so far, so it’s high time that changed!

Check back later to see how we enjoyed all these shows!

Review – Assassins, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 8th June 2023

AssassinsThe second show of our Chichester theatre day – and the second not to have an interval, which I’m assuming is a bizarre coincidence – was Assassins, Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman’s 1990 musical about the nichiest of niche subjects. Not only is it about assassins, and not only about assassins of American presidents, but it even incorporates failed assassins of American presidents. You can’t help but wonder if Sondheim could have benefited from a few sessions on the psychiatrist’s couch at the time.

Assassins stageThere’s something about this show that inspires directors and designers to think outside the box when it comes to arresting their audiences’ attention. When we saw it at the Menier Chocolate Factory in 2015, the foyer and auditorium were decked out as if it were a spooky old fashioned fairground. That makes sense; the original setting for the show starts at a fairground shooting gallery. But at Chichester director Polly Findlay and designer Lizzie Clachan have gone one stage further (in fact, probably several stages further), as the Festival Theatre is currently transformed into one huge American Presidential Party Convention, all stars and stripes and dancing mascots, the band in MAGA hats (with the acronym MAGA removed, probably wisely), a political glitterfest if ever there was one. Uncle Sam would be having a Field Day. Not only that, the foyer is 100% American, with flags and banners; even the tranquil Chichester open space now hosts a hot dog and burger van.

White HouseThe initial impact when you enter the auditorium is sensational, with so much colour, action, music and fun. And when the centre stage opens to reveal the White House Oval Office, there’s absolutely no room for misinterpreting the focus of the production. The final scene will reveal the office in tatters, clearly alluding to the 2021 Trump-inspired storming of the Capitol. The proprietor (a galvanizingly slick and cynical portrayal by Peter Forbes), who traditionally is the owner of the fairground, is here transformed into a generic American president of the current era – a mix of Trump, Nixon and maybe a spot of George Dubya thrown in for good measure. A master showman, he takes control of the event. There are already a few assassins present, but the proprietor invites members of the audience to come up to join them and maybe take a pot shot at a President; after all, it will make their inadequate and troubled lives so much more worthwhile. Obligingly, Leon Czolgosz and John Hinckley make their way to the stage; think The Price is Right but with added weaponry.

Balladeer 1By the time the opening number – the incredibly cynical Everybody’s Got the Right (to be happy) – is over, there’s an incredible sense of satisfaction and excitement filling the auditorium. But there’s one more big modernisation shock for the audience – the role of the balladeer has now been split into three roving news reporters, representing CNN, MSNBC and Fox – so at least two of them are respectable. Huge video screens either side of the stage bring us live coverage of news developments at the assassinations (or wannabe assassinations) giving it a very strong up-to-date vibe. This all feels so innovative, so exhilarating; it’s everything you want from a spectacular night out. In fact, you’ve already nailed your own five-star reaction to your own individual mast.

BoothBut then something strange occurs. Having peaked so early, and so brilliantly, there’s really only one direction of travel for this show – downwards. It’s like you’ve experienced an extraordinary sugar rush; and then half an hour later, you’re starving. I think there are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, it’s far from Sondheim’s best score. There’s only one other song in it that – for me – stands out, Another National Anthem. In effect, musically, there’s nothing to match the visuals that the production constantly hurls at us; you won’t find anything of the nature of the Star Spangled Banner here. Apart from that, my own feeling is that the nature of the show is more contemplative and introverted than befits this framework. For sure, some of the assassins are strong, riveting characters; John Wilkes Booth, for example, is portrayed as totally driven and Charles Guiteau is a mass of vanity and self-confidence. However, the essentially feeble, misfit nature of most of the other characters tends to weigh heavily on the atmosphere of the show. As a result, there’s a disconnect between the brash pizzazz of its style and its actual content, which tends to get dwarfed or drowned out.

GuiteauNevertheless, there are plenty of stand-out moments; the deaths of the assassins (those who die, that is) are portrayed spectacularly, with Booth taking his own life on a bale of hay, Zangara virtually strobed to death on the Electric Chair, and Guiteau prancing and preening his way through his hanging. And the use of the real footage of the assassination of John F Kennedy brings a horrific lump to your throat, with immaculate split-second timing of the excellent Samuel Thomas’ Lee Harvey Oswald poking his gun through the back curtain at precisely the right moment.

Moore and DyerThe show boasts an ensemble of superb practitioners of musical theatre. Danny Mac is incredibly good as Booth, full of attack and presence, manipulating and proud. Harry Hepple shines as Guiteau, his irrepressible vanity and showmanship busting through every move. Carly Mercedes Dyer and Amy Booth-Steel are a delightful double act as Lynnette “Squeaky” Fromme and Sara Jane Moore, the wannabe assassins of Gerald Ford (a hilarious brief cameo from Bob Harms). Jack Shalloo is a deeply disturbed John Hinckley, willing to assassinate Reagan to impress Jodie Foster, and Nick Holder puts in a strong performance as Samuel Byck, the degraded Santa Claus, who attempts to assassinate Nixon. It’s a very tough role, as Weidman gives Byck long and intense speeches, which are unbalanced with the style of the rest of the book, but Mr Holder keeps our attention throughout. The always reliable Liam Tamne cuts a fine figure as Balladeer 1, his rich voice working to maximum effect. But everyone puts in an excellent performance; there’s not a weak spot in the cast.

Hinckley and ProprietorGiven all the spark and brashness of the production values, I was surprised to see, at the end of our performance (which was the final preview), that it garnered a muted response from the audience. I was expecting a general roar and massive standing ovation, but no; and I think the cast were disappointed too. Trouble is, it’s not the kind of show that sends you out on a high. In fact, the show ends when everyone on stage points their guns at individual members of the audience, eyeballing us directly to create maximum discomfort; so it’s no wonder our mood plummets.

It's all for TVBrought bang up to date, and with more glitz than you could shake a stick at, it’s doubtless a landmark production. But there’s something, somewhere about it that just doesn’t quite work. If you’re an aficionado of Sondheim, you’ll want to see this show and draw your own conclusions about how successful it is or isn’t. It’s not an easy ride – but it is an unforgettable one.

Production photos by Johan Persson

4-starsFour They’re Jolly Good Fellows!

Review – Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of), Festival Theatre, Chichester, 25th February 2023

Pride and Prejudice Sort OfIt is a truth universally acknowledged, that a 19th century book in possession of a good plot must be in want of a modern update. It is also a truth universally acknowledged, that one in every two review of Pride and Prejudice* (*sort of) starts with its own clever-clever adaptation of the novel’s famous opening line. Sorry about that. Nevertheless, undeterred, I continue.

MaidsIsobel McArthur has added to the gamut of modernising Austen with PAP* (*SO), her sensationally funny 21st century version of Austen’s classic tale of sisters and suitors. Born at the Tron Theatre Glasgow back in 2018, since then the show has had one UK tour that came to a halt because of Covid, a West End run at the Criterion, and is now halfway through a second UK tour. All this, and winning the Olivier Award for Best Entertainment or Comedy Play. That’s quite some achievement.

The Aust-binThe all-female cast of five play the entire Bennet family (well not quite Mr Bennet, who is built of just newspaper and armchair), all the male love interests, all the peripheral characters and all the servants, switching brilliantly between the roles with just the donning of a jacket or the swishing of a dress. In fact, it’s from the servants’ angle that the story is primarily told; that seems fair, as they point out that there wouldn’t be any courtships or shenanigans if it wasn’t for the loyal service of the maids and attendants. The households simply couldn’t operate without them.

Elizabeth and D'ArcyI have to let you into a secret, gentle reader; I’ve never read Pride and Prejudice, which is an enormous oversight for someone with an English degree. I’m not going to insult your intelligence by explaining the plot to you because, well, you know it already. However, I’m happy to confirm that on Saturday night I was accompanied at the Chichester Festival Theatre by seven other people, at least four of whom knew the novel from back to front, and who were able to confirm that Isobel McArthur’s madcap imagining of the book is surprisingly faithful to the original, with perfectly adapted characterisations and reworkings.

Karaoke timeI can, however, surmise that the use of karaoke is probably a new addition. The choice of songs that the characters perform, and which dovetail beautifully into the text, is inspired to an nth degree. The songs are all well known but you would never – in a million years – align them with this tale of marriageable daughters from over two hundred years ago. I Think I Love You, You’re So Vain, Something Changed…  I couldn’t believe the cheesy appropriateness with which The Lady in Red was shoehorned in, and I promise you, you will be singing Young Hearts Run Free all the way home.

The StaircaseAna Inés Jabares-Pita has constructed a simple, versatile set for the show, dominated by an extensive staircase that leads from the ground floor (of whatever country house we’re in) to who knows where. It’s fascinating how a dramatic pose by a character languishing on the top landing can have such an impact on an audience’s collective funnybone. The plain white costumes of the maids contrast splendidly with the colourful dresses of the sisters, the extravagant outfit of Lady Catherine de Bourgh, and the military/fashion-conscious garb of the chaps. If there’s one thing that this show proves, it’s that you can get a lot of humour out of costumes and props; it’s obscene how funny the simple use of a portrait frame can be.

SistersThe cast are uniformly excellent. Dannie Harris is hilarious as the slightly estuary Mrs Bennet, whose language gets gradually coarser over the course of the evening, hurling herself on the sofa in a self-centred huff; she’s also brilliant as the pompous and frockcoated D’Arcy. Lucy Gray hits a genuine emotion as Elizabeth’s friend Catherine, condemned not to love her bestie but to be yoked to the appalling Collins instead. Megan Louise Wilson delights as the dashing Wickham and the horrendous Lady Catherine de Bourgh, as well as the thoroughly decent Jane. For our performance, the role of Elizabeth was played by Ruth Brotherton, beautifully wide-eyed but perfectly capable of standing up for herself, thank you very much. And Leah Jamieson treated us to some genuinely ecstatic physical comedy in her roles as Lydia and Mary Bennet, the revolting Mr Collins, and the kindly Mrs Gardiner. Each of them is also a terrific maid!

PictureThis show probably isn’t for everyone. If you think it might be a good way of getting young Jemima or Lavinia interested in the works of Jane Austen with just a tiny comic twist, think again – none of you might be ready for some of the language used. However, if you like unexpected twists of anarchical comedy, some of the cheekiest percussion around and can be grown up about it, this is the show for you. We all loved it. The tour continues to Cheltenham, Inverness, Cardiff, Nottingham, Eastbourne, Chester, Birmingham, Leeds, Blackpool, Bristol, Truro, Malvern, Exeter and Norwich – so you’ve got no excuse not to go!

Production photos by Mihaela Bodlovic

Five Alive, Let Theatre Thrive!

Review – The Lavender Hill Mob, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 14th January 2022

Lavender Hill MobEight of us descended on the Chichester Festival Theatre on Saturday night for the last night of Phil Porter’s stage adaptation of the famous Ealing Comedy The Lavender Hill Mob – or at least, the last night of this leg of its UK tour, which started last October and continues for a few more weeks before they all finally get to put their feet up.  And it was with a great sense of curiosity that I attended, as I have read some extremely positive comments about the show, and also one comment (from someone whose opinion I respect) saying it was one of the worst shows they’ve ever seen. It must be Marmite!

Gold!But first, allow me to offer you a little history lesson, gentle reader – do you remember the original film? It was released in 1951, starred Alec Guinness, Stanley Holloway, and featured a very young Audrey Hepburn; and the British Film Institute ranked it the 17th Greatest British Film of All Time. That’s some reputation! Mrs Chrisparkle and I had never seen it until a few weeks ago when, knowing that we were going to be seeing this new stage version, thought we ought to take a look at the film so that we would be able to make those invidious comparisons between the two that you should never do. And, indeed, it is a charming and very well-made comedy caper which we both enjoyed – although I’d never put it anywhere near the 17th Greatest British Film of All Time. Not considering Genevieve is only listed 86th and Shirley Valentine doesn’t appear at all.

Aamira ChallengerIn case you don’t know – and I’m sure you do – Henry Holland is an unambitious London bank clerk, in charge of supervising the Gold Bullion deliveries from the Royal Mint. Enlisting the help of a slightly less-than-honest manufacturer of tourist trash – specifically miniature Eiffel Towers – and a couple of other petty crooks, he hatches a plan to steal the bullion bars and, using his accomplice’s workshop, convert them into Golden Eiffel Towers. But, of course, the best laid plans of mice and men gang aft agley, and the main emphasis of the film (maybe slightly less of the play) is on the comedy ensuing from their failed attempts to get away with it.

Death by baguetteSo is it Marmite? Well, yes. Four of us really enjoyed it, the other four (including myself) found it a bit meh. On the plus side, I was very impressed how faithfully it reflected the original film, taking us to Rio whence Holland has fled to escape the Metropolitan Police hunting for the Brains (?) behind the big gold bullion heist. Whereas the film then flashes back to London and shows the main story, the play stays in Rio, where Holland coaxes all the ex-pats at his Club to enact the story of the crime – and they don’t need much coaxing. The film has the marvellous twist that the person to whom Holland is recounting his story throughout the film is in fact the police officer come to arrest him – whereas that twist is missing from the stage production, resulting in rather a lame ending.

Ooh la laThat said, there are plenty of laugh out loud moments – my favourite was the delightful “Calais to Dover” scene where our anti-heroes get thwarted at every attempt to follow the bunch of schoolgirls who have unknowingly purchased six genuine Golden Eiffel Towers. There’s a lot of physical comedy, but some of it seems just a trifle half-hearted. Francis O’Connor has constructed an excellent set that frames many of the elements of English country life that you might well miss if you were an ex-pat in Rio, but which adapt very nicely into the story. I loved how the two palm trees at the back of the stage became the Eiffel Tower – very innovative!

Justin EdwardsAnd there’s a very charming ensemble feel to the whole staging; one of our party thought the show felt very Am Dram, which is true but is also probably exactly what the creative team intend. These Rio Brits are not actors, they’re retired knights of the realm or ambassadors, or well-to-do Ladies; and they take on the roles of the crooks with a nice blend of their own characterisations and those of the people they are portraying. Quite clever really; but it is that sense of amateurism that basically overshadows the whole production, leaving you feeling a bit dissatisfied.

Miles JuppIs it basically a vehicle for Miles Jupp to present himself as a rather posh, well-educated, upper middle class sort of chappie, without having to do that much acting? Probably. That said, he’s very entertaining as Holland; there are also nice performances from Justin Edwards, Tessa Churchard and John Dougall as locals-cum-Londoners. Tim Sutton brings a fine touch of magic (literally) to the role of Sammy, and Aamira Challenger’s Fernanda lends a hint of what feels like Genuine Rio to the production. EiffelI felt rather sorry for Guy Burgess in the unrewarding role of Farrow the police officer, constantly having to be the onlooker and rarely taking part in proceedings.

However, I came away from the show feeling that it was all a little underwhelming, although I’m not sure that they could have done anything better with the material at their disposal. Nevertheless, there was a lot to enjoy and a lot of laughs – if not quite as many as one might have expected. It’s certainly not bad – and it’s certainly not great. The tour continues to Cambridge, Guildford, Glasgow, Bath and Truro.

Production photos by Hugo Glendinning

3-starsThree-sy Does It!

Review – Doubt: A Parable, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 29th January 2022

DoubtIn these strange times of uncertainty, with contrasting opinions on the seriousness of the pandemic and how it should be handled, and our political leaders constantly being exposed as liars and scoundrels, it’s not inappropriate that we should turn to a parable for help. My OED defines a parable as “a saying in which something is expressed in terms of something else […] a narrative of imagined events used to illustrate or convey a moral or spiritual lesson”.

Father FlynnWhat better time for the Chichester Festival Theatre to give us – all too briefly – John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt: A Parable, winner of the 2005 Tony Award for Best Play and Pulitzer Prize for Drama. Ninety minutes of uncertainty and suspicion crammed into one act; the original cast apparently described the second act as the audience deciding who was right and who was wrong on their journey home. And so it still is; we sat in the pub for hours afterwards debating the whys and wherefores of it all.

Sister AloysiusThe play is set in a Catholic school and church in New York in 1964. Head nun and principal Sister Aloysius is a stickler for the old style of education – the children are all terrified of her and that’s exactly how she wants it. She takes naïve young teacher Sister James to task for being too enthusiastic and forward thinking in her teaching style; but also takes advantage of her honesty by asking her what she feels about the charismatic Father Flynn, who teaches the boys sport and who has taken a shine to one particular boy, Donald Muller. Sister Aloysius is convinced there is something unnatural about his interest in Donald, and seeks to expose it. Father Flynn is appalled at the suggestion; but then he would be, wouldn’t he.

Father FlynnLike feathers wafted from a torn pillow, gossip spreads uncontrollably; and once they’re out there, you can’t gather those missing feathers and stuff them back in the pillow. Is Sister Aloysius right? Is he a danger to the children? Or is Father Flynn right, and is his care purely pastoral? And what does Donald’s mother make of it all? I was going to say you’ll have to watch the play to find out, but there are no easy answers to these questions, and you’ll have to spend your own second act working it all out to your best conclusion. At the end of the ninety minutes, you simply don’t know what to believe. Sister Aloysius has the last word and the last gesture, as you would expect. Does she have doubt?

Mrs MullerIt’s a beautifully crafted and written play, with a sparse elegance, relatively simple plot line (but watch out for the twists) and riveting characters. Joanna Scotcher’s comfortless design reveals a world of Spartan harshness, where the patchy and scratchy gardens are precisely like those where the seed falls on stony soil; there’s another parable for you. The nuns’ plain black habits make a telling contrast with the colour of the Father’s vestments and his white sports kit, and Mrs Muller’s formal but smart outfit. Looming over everything at the back of the stage is a cross in reverse; light streams through a cross shape that has been cut out of a black background, suggesting that perhaps an absence of organised religion sheds more light on the world than its presence.

Flynn and AloysiusCentral to the whole production is a thrillingly controlled performance by Monica Dolan as Sister Aloysius; her clipped, well-chosen words cutting through any pretence of kindness or supportiveness. Listening to others’ opinions, her facial muscles quiver with anticipation at her next well-planned and killing rejoinder. Ruthless and driven, she didn’t get where she is today without enormous self-assertiveness. But are her actions justified in protecting the children? Maybe.

Three clergyShe’s matched by an excellent performance by Sam Spruell as Flynn, his relaxed eloquence and caring, measured tones making a complete contrast with Sister Aloysius, until his fury is lit by her accusations. Is his personal, hands-on style a reassuring presence in Donald’s life? Maybe. Jessica Rhodes is also excellent as Sister James, desperately hoping that the unpleasant situation would just go away so that life can be happy again. Is her innocent, generous attitude protecting the children? Maybe. And Rebecca Sproggs gives a brilliant performance as Mrs Muller, weighing the balance of good versus bad, seeing the situation from a broader perspective from outside this cloistered existence, with a sense of practicality and realism. Is she looking after her child’s best interests? Probably.

Two SistersA stunning production from Lia Williams and four superb performances make this a truly riveting drama. Sadly it was only scheduled for a very brief run at the Festival Theatre, where it closes on February 5th. Do yourself a favour and see it.


Production photos by Johan Persson

Five Alive, Let Theatre Thrive!

Review – Private Lives, Chichester Festival Theatre, 17th November 2021

Private LivesA wise man once said, and I know he did because I was there when he said it, “every time Handel’s Water Music is performed, someone hears it for the first time – think how lucky that person is.” Judging from the average age of the theatregoers at Wednesday night’s performance of Private Lives at Chichester, I would hazard a guess that none of them was seeing it for the first time. As far as we could work out, there were no younger people at all. Is Noel Coward now confined to being entertainment for the middle class and elderly?

I’ll leave you to ponder that question as I tell you about this inaugural production of the Nigel Havers Theatre Company that started touring a few weeks ago in Bath and will continue its rigorous schedule through to April next year, with a December break for Nigel to do his regular stint at the Palladium panto.

Hodge and HaversI’m sure you know the set-up (unless you are one of my much prized younger readers!) Elyot (Nigel Havers) and Sybil (Natalie Walter) are on their honeymoon in Deauville, as are Victor (Dugald Bruce-Lockhart) and Amanda (Patricia Hodge). In fact, they’re in adjacent rooms in the same hotel. Elyot and Amanda are on their second marriages; and, here’s the rub, they were formerly married to each other. Imagine the horror when they bump into each other on their adjoining balconies. It doesn’t take them long to dump their new spouses and flee to Amanda’s posh flat in Paris. Will they live happily ever after this time, or will their old cantankerousness get in the way? And will Victor and Sybil stand for it? If you weren’t there for that first night that opened the brand new Phoenix Theatre in 1930, with Coward and Gertrude Lawrence as Elyot and Amanda, and some unknown chap called Laurence Olivier as Victor, I’m not going to tell you, you’ll have to catch this production and find out!

With its timeless story and glittering script, this is a deceptively difficult play to get absolutely right and a dangerously easy one to get quite wrong. It’s very easy for the star turns who inevitably play Elyot and Amanda to hog the limelight – Coward naturally made them the stars of the show and underwrote the parts of their new love interests to keep all the attention to Gertie and himself. So the play can feel quite unbalanced. In this production, it’s quite hard to imagine how Elyot and Sybil might have originally fallen for each other – I didn’t feel like they were natural bedfellows, so to speak; but you can easily see how Victor and Amanda did, which gives the story a little more depth.

Havers and HodgeThe show is 100% played for laughs, which is fair enough; but it does mean that you occasionally have to catch your breath when the arguments turn into plain and simple physical domestic abuse. Face-slapping, a 78rpm being smashed over a head, and a considerable punch to the chops all elicit slapstick laughs but it’s a startling shock to see how things were very different in 1930. From a technical point of view, by the way, the stage combat between Havers and Hodge is outstandingly realistic – fantastic work!

Simon Higlett’s design for Act One is functional but perhaps those balconies are not quite as glamorous as one might expect for such hoity-toity guests at a top class resort. The design of the Paris flat though is exquisite, a veritable flambé of velvety reds and art deco delight, and elegant furnishings without overdoing the decadent. In a nice touch, the accompanying music is all composed by Coward pre-1930, to give it an extra hint of veracity. You’d say Coward was being big-headed, but there’s no indication in the original text that the music played was his, so it’s generations-later, second-hand big-headedness!

P Hodge N HaversI think most people will have booked to see this to see for themselves how the two leads work, tussle and entertain together – and they do an absolutely splendid job. Nigel Havers cuts his usual refined figure and is a perfect voice for Coward’s witty, roué, spiteful charm. He is superb in those moments where the elegant façade shatters and the rather grubbier character comes to light – such as in his cowardly lack of resistance to Victor’s understandable aggression or when he gets his leg trapped after a spot of sofa-athletics with Amanda. Patricia Hodge is, of course, a natural for Amanda; she makes the character’s words come alive with effortless ease, and brings the house down with her complaint against Elyot’s love-making that it’s too soon after dinner. The pair share an immaculate stage presence and they work together like a dream.

Mrs Chrisparkle thought it was ageist of me to wonder how credible it is for two such theatre veterans to be playing roles that Coward would have imagined to be around thirty years old. I was only thinking out loud. But there is some relevance to the point in as much as Coward would have envisaged Victor being older than Amanda – that’s definitely not the case in this production. But it’s pretty easy to forget the age differences and take it all at face value.

Victor and SybilMs Walter and Mr Bruce-Lockhart give excellent support as the wronged other halves, Ms Walter in particular squeaking in frantic fury at the way she has been treated, only then to turn her ire on Mr B-L in the final reel. Aicha Kossoko plays Louise the maid with a sumptuous French accent. The very full midweek Chichester audience threw itself into enjoying the performance, with several long laugh moments and applause breaks for whenever Ms Hodge decided to sing. That rather old-fashioned, respectful matinee-style appreciation for a star performer or singing moment almost underlined how very dignified and classic the whole experience felt.

If the future for Coward is to attract older patrons to enjoy a nostalgia trip rather than encouraging younger theatregoers to discover his wonders, at least that’s good box office news for now, as this production is selling like hot cakes wherever it goes. Long term though, I’m wondering if his appeal will last. Things change, then change again; but Coward doesn’t, he’s constant as the northern star, being too recent to survive drastic updating but probably too historical to attract the young. Time will tell! In the meantime, this is a delightful production, riddled with expertise, delivered by several safe pairs of hands, and fully worthy of your theatre-going funds.

Production photos by Tristram Kenton

4-starsFour they’re jolly good fellows!