Review – Peter and the Starcatcher, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 20th December 2016

Peter and the StarcatcherWhen they announced many months ago, that the Christmas play in the Royal this year would be Peter and the Starcatcher, my little heart was filled with joy because I had heard super things about this from its New York run a few years back. Huge kudos, of course, to the Royal and Derngate for producing its UK premiere. Not the first time they’ve done such a thing and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

evelyn-hoskinsEveryone knows the story of Peter Pan, but do you know how it was that Peter became Peter, and how he ended up with the lost boys? Or how Captain Hook lost his hand? Or how Tinkerbell was created? Or why there is a crocodile and how it swallowed a clock? Wonder no more. In this very cleverly created and imaginative story all is revealed.

michael-sheaYou arrive at the theatre to see the Royal stage exposed in all its backstage rawness – ropes, bricks, painted signs – as well as an intriguing band layout fronted by a beautiful grand xylophone. All of a rush, the cast assemble on stage, Nicholas Nickleby-like, to begin the intricate exposition of the story of two associated ships, The Neverland and the Wasp, on a mission to take the Queen (God bless her)’s treasures to the distant country of Rundoon. The good Lord Aster is on board the Wasp to ensure the safe delivery of the trunk of jewels; he is father to young Molly, who is also sailing with her nana, the very alliterative Mrs Bumbrake. Subterfuge causes the precious cargo and a dummy cargo filled with sand to get mixed up; orphan boys are sold to one of the ship’s captains; Molly escapes her nana’s clutches and discovers one of the boys – named Boy, because he hasn’t a name – and after that, things start to get complicated. If I tried to write more of a synopsis we’d be here for hours.

peter-upside-downThough linguistically brilliant, it’s a very densely written script and you really have to concentrate hard to understand everything that’s going on. In all honesty, I don’t think either Mrs Chrisparkle or I followed every twist or appreciated every nuance. For the most part, that’s not a problem, because you have a hugely committed cast who can carry you through any gaps in your understanding simply by their bright characterisation and lively ensemble work. It’s quirky, creative, and at times very surreal – as in the opening scene of the second act, where “starstuff” has done its magic and created a music hall act of mermaids; or on Fighting Prawn’s tropical island where every command or insult is an item of Italian food or drink. And I’d love to say that the show is a total success. Really I would, because the effort and commitment that’s put into this production is tangible. But, sadly, I can’t.

peter-umbrellasIt’s one of those occasions where you find yourself really enjoying a play, engaged by the characters and their activities, tuned into their sense of humour, and laughing at all the jokes – but then you realise that no one else is laughing. Because, for whatever reason, the spirit and humour of this play just doesn’t transmit itself into the auditorium. It’s like someone has erected an invisible Brechtian barrier and it won’t get any farther. The cast are working their socks off for comic – and indeed emotional – effect, but for 90% of the audience (as it seemed to me) they may as well have been in another room. This must be so hard for the cast to keep going with all their enthusiastic on-stage shenanigans to get so little response back. There are a few adult-only lines (to be fair, probably fewer than in most pantos nowadays) for example where Mrs Bumbrake asks Alf, who has just admired her beauty, to accompany her to the ship’s lower decks with the words “take me below”. Mrs C and I sniggered with our best schoolboy smut-appreciation, but no one else did. And I think that’s the problem – most pantos/Christmas plays try to cater for both children and adults so that it is accessible to both, with enough fun and games to keep the youngsters entertained and enough wink-wink to keep the adults on song. But I think that of all the Christmas plays we’ve seen at the Royal this is the one that treads the most uneasy balance between its two target demographics. The publicity states it is suitable for 7+ but I think you would have to be considerably older to appreciate (and assimiliate) the adventures of the story. It simply falls between two stools.

peter-stache-and-smeeWe last saw Greg Haiste as a wonderfully warm Bob Cratchit in A Christmas Carol four years ago. This time he gives us a marvellous central comedy performance as Black Stache, channelling his inner Lord Flash-Heart. How tempting it must have been for him to come up with some Rik Mayallisms – there are a few opportunities for off-the-wall script adjustments so I really was expecting one. His comic gems flow so freely at times that it’s almost impossible to keep up with him. But we thought he was brilliant.

miles-yekenniMolly is played by the spirited Evelyn Hoskins, once again portraying a thirteen-year-old, like she did in This Is My Family three years ago in Sheffield. She absolutely gets that girlish quality of boastful bossiness without ever becoming a stereotype or a Violet Bott-type pain in the rectum, and it’s a great performance. She is excellently matched by Michael Shea’s Boy – later to become Peter – with his brilliantly observed naïve other-worldliness, that conveyed possibilities of both heroism and “just wanting to be a boy”. Given this is his first professional stage engagement since leaving LAMDA I reckon he could be One To Watch. Together he and Ms Hoskins give us a touching insight into first love that is genuinely moving; I very nearly had something in my eye at one point.

molly-and-the-lost-boysIt’s a brilliant piece of ensemble acting, although other stand-out performers (for me) were Marc Akinfolarin as the sometimes kindly, sometimes villainous Alf; Tendayi Jembere (whose strong performance we remembered in the riveting Mogadishu) playing a very as the pork-dreaming Ted; and Miles Yekinni as the whip-cracking Bill Slank; never has an actor looked as though he will corpse at any moment as Mr Yekinni does when he is cavorting in a mermaid’s outfit.

peter-and-the-stageDespite the hard work that the audience has to put in to get the best out of the play, we both really enjoyed it; but were also fully aware that large numbers of our colleagues in the stalls didn’t seem too impressed. It wasn’t the warmest of receptions at curtain call, but I’d definitely recommend it, because you might, like us, find its quirkiness and surrealism irresistible. Even better, leave the kids at home and learn about young Peter without worrying whether they’re understanding any of it. It’s on at the Royal until 31st December.

P. S. We witnessed an unfortunate example of theatre rage being played out in the bar during the interval. A man was taking a couple to task because their children were flashing their light sabres during the performance and ruining his enjoyment of the play. I can understand his point. I can also understand theirs – in that the toys were bought at the theatre with the implicit understanding that they will be played with during the show. It’s an interesting question of theatre etiquette; the flashing toys wouldn’t have been half so noticeable in a proper pantomime. That said, the kids probably needed them to divert their attention from what they couldn’t understand was happening on the stage. I’d like to say that their discussion was polite and reasoned; I’d like to…; sorry about that.

Review – A Christmas Carol, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 28th December 2012

A Christmas CarolHello again, gentle reader, and Happy New Year! Lovely to see you again. I am sorry about the lack of posts here for the past few weeks, but it’s been a very busy time. Mrs Chrisparkle had need of a long break from work, so we have been away both before and after Christmas. I can tell you about those travels in due course. We have also seen a few shows and with your indulgence I will be delighted to tell you about them.

Sam GrahamOf course, the downside of having left it a bit late to review these shows is that some of them have already closed. So even though I might recommend that you see them – in some cases, you can’t. Sorry about that. A Christmas Carol, the festive play production at the Royal Theatre in Northampton, is a case in point. Its season finished on 6th January, and you’ll know, if you saw it, that it was a terrific little production.

Greg HaisteThe story is an old favourite. You simply cannot experience Christmas without some reference to it in film or on stage at some point over the holidays. The only other time we have seen the story performed on stage was in Tommy Steele’s Scrooge about six or seven years ago, when we took the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle to the Palladium one New Year’s Eve. It was probably a mistake – the whole show was a mystery to her. About 30 minutes into the second half she loudly announced “Has Tommy Steele come on yet?” – the aforesaid Mr Steele having been “on” since the show started – so God knows what she thought had been happening on stage up till then. At the end Mr Steele invited us all to cross hands with our neighbours and sing Auld Lang Syne. When the polite little girl to our right tried to link hands, the Dowager glared at her and shoved her out of the way as she though she was trying to nick her handbag. Ah, happy Christmas memories.

Kate GrahamBut I digress as usual. Whilst there is some incidental music involved, this isn’t really a musical version. It is, however, an imaginative and charming telling of the old story, with a lively and talented cast, directed by Gary Sefton with his usual flair. The set is reminiscent of other Sefton specials at the Royal – it especially brought back to mind “Travels With My Aunt” – with its multi-layered construction using suitcases, steps, ledges, boxes, windows and furniture, all apparently positioned higgledy-piggledy but which cunningly conceal many entrances and exits, acting areas and seats. A great job by designer Michael Taylor – I particularly liked how Scrooge managed to perch on a chair high above nephew Fred’s Christmas party to witness the fun he had previously chosen to scorn. The costumes are excellent, and I particularly enjoyed Scrooge’s festive outfit in the final scene – definitely worth scouring the length and breadth of H&M trying to find that one. I’m no expert on the story, but Lady Duncansby, who was also in attendance and has spent a lifetime devoted to the tale, advised that the adaptation by Neil Duffield was very true to Dickens’ original.

Eric Kofi AbrefaAt the heart of any version of Christmas Carol is of course, old Ebenezer himself. The name is a testament to Dickens’ brilliant use of language – could ever a name sound so miserly as Ebenezer Scrooge? It’s an excellent performance by Sam Graham. Detestably miserable when you first meet him, he relishes his mean and self-obsessed condemnation of wider society that he insists must fend for itself no matter how poor or downtrodden the people may be. The two ladies who call at Scrooge and Marley’s collecting for charity looked genuinely disgusted at his withering refusal to donate. Unfortunately the sound he emits to represent “Bah Humbug!” reminded me of the eponymous jeering laugh of TV’s Mrs Brown’s Boys, but no matter. As he goes through the process of meeting the three Christmas ghosts, you quickly see the prospect of his redemption. In fact, I’ve never seen a performance of Christmas Carol/Scrooge – on stage or on film – where I have been so absolutely convinced that Scrooge genuinely means it when his character is reformed at the end. This really is the supreme depiction that it’s never too late to replace a bad life with a good one.

David OsmondThe visions presented by the Ghost of Christmas Past include a wonderful short scene where Ebenezer as a boy is found amongst his fairy tales and the story of Aladdin comes to life before our eyes; and it’s the first time you see any sense of joy in Scrooge. I thought that was a beautiful and lovingly performed sequence. You also see the moment when young Ebenezer turns away from his love – or rather she rejects him as he appears to have gone cold on her – but instead of chasing after her to win her back, he resigns himself to a life of counting pennies, much to the exasperated dismay of the onlooking old Scrooge. The storytelling and presentation of these scenes is beautifully clear and compelling.

Emerald O'HanrahanThere’s not a weak link in the cast; we all loved Greg Haiste’s Bob Cratchit, with his quill pen dancing in the windy breeze, and especially as the family man bringing some Christmas Cheer to his wife and kids, including the poignantly tragic Tiny Tim. He was also extremely funny en travesti as Mrs Fezziwig and as the wannabe flirtatious Topper at Fred’s party. Kate Graham gave a subtly rewarding performance as Mrs Cratchit, fighting her natural desire to despise Scrooge but setting a good example by toasting him nevertheless; and she was dignified but determined as the Ghost of Christmas Past. Eric Kofi Abrefa was Decency Itself in his role as Fred, and David Osmond was all too believable as the young Ebenezer putting joy behind him. There are also three teams of children playing Cratchit’s kids and the street urchins – we saw Team A, I believe, and they were superb. Their doleful expressions, as presented by the Ghost of Christmas Future when Tiny Tim is alas no more, brought genuine tears to Mrs C’s eyes.

IMG_6299The arrival of apparently “real snow” at the end, descending from heaven into the stalls, was a touching way to envelop the audience and cast together in the same theatrical magic and an absolutely packed Royal Theatre audience left extremely happy and heart-warmed at the end. It’s a really rewarding and life-affirming production, and we all loved it. “God bless us every one.” (Sniff).