Review – The Bridges of Madison County, Menier Chocolate Factory, 11th August 2019

Bridges of Madison CountyIt’s not often, gentle reader, that I can honestly say that I have read the book from which a musical/film/melodrama/interpretative dance/etc (delete as applicable) was taken; but, in this instance, I Have Indeed Read That Book. The Bridges of Madison County was recommended to Mrs Chrisparkle by our friend Lady Lichfield back in the day (1992) when it was all the rage; she enjoyed it, so, as it was short, I thought I’d give it a try. It would be wrong to use the pejorative term chicklit, so I won’t. Robert James Waller’s romantic novella tells the tale of Francesca, a lonely Italian-American housewife, being swept off her feet by the dashing National Geographic photographer Robert Kincaid, a brief moment of passion in an otherwise dowdy existence. It had Lady Lichfield in tears; Mrs C was audibly sobbing whilst reading it; I read it and thought it was… ok.

Dale Rapley and Jenna RussellHowever, when the Menier announced that they were producing the musical version of the book, which had received the Tony award for best score for its Broadway production in 2014, I knew it was the right thing to do, so booked the tickets straight away. And then I realised an extraordinary thing: The Observer gave it a 5-star review; the Standard gave it 1 star. This is going to be nothing if not Marmite.

David-Perkins-and-Jenna-RusselLife for someone like Francesca must have been extraordinary difficult. Brought up with all the metropolitan bustle and bustle of Napoli, then transplanted to the plains of Iowa, you couldn’t get a stronger contrast. With her only sister on the other side of the world, she must have felt isolated, even in a loving, committed relationship. With a farmer husband and children who are only interested in showing steers, Francesca loves her family but can’t associate herself with their interests. So when the rest of the family go off to Indianapolis for a fair, she stays behind, assuring them that she will be fine with her book and testing out new recipes. And, to be fair, you get the feeling that she’s 100% telling the truth. There’s no doubt that this Francesca loves her family and seems more contented than the version of Francesca that you find in the book. So, perhaps, when Kincaid enters her life, it’s more of a surprise to her – and to us – that she falls for him so easily.

Edward-Baker-Duly-and-Jenna-RussellBut fall she does, and, as a romantic love affair story, which she has to hide from not only her husband, but also her children and her nosy neighbours, it’s a story as old as time, but none the less emotional as a result. Confronted with the reality of her family returning home, and expecting life to carry on the same, does Francesca leave them for Robert, or does she buckle down to her previous life? If you don’t know the answer, I’m not going to tell you, you’ll have to see the show to find out!

Maddison Bulleyment and Jenna RussellThe score, by Jason Robert Brown, was completely new to me, and is truly impressive. With its plaintive intimacy, it reminded me to an extent of the score from The Hired Man, but doesn’t have the latter’s barely concealed savagery. Tom Murray’s terrific, unseen, orchestra play these beautiful tunes with a marvellous balance of strength and fragility. However, although it was performed with great bravado, I thought the opening number to the second Act, State Road 21, completely destroys the atmosphere that had been built up at the end of the first Act; hoe-downing around, and encouraging the audience to clap along just feels all wrong. Whether that’s a misjudgement by Mr Brown and Marsha Norman, who wrote the book, or by top director Sir Trevor Nunn, I have no idea, but I clapped along, unhappy with myself for doing so.

Dale RapleyTal Rosner’s video design projects constantly changing images on the back walls to suggest the prairie fields or the city lights, encroaching into Jon Bausor’s set which recreates a homely but modest kitchen; enough to keep a family fed, but not to linger over. A couple of things really bugged me; why, when we get a glimpse of Francesca’s sister Chiara swigging out of a wine bottle in her miserable home in Napoli, is she drinking Mersault? That’s far too upmarket (and French) to be believable. It should have been a cheap bottle of Chianti or something. And how come Kincaid goes into the garden to pick fresh vegetables for the evening meal, which Francesca then prepares and they eat, whilst the aforementioned vegetables are still sitting in the box on the kitchen worktop? If it was a film you’d say that was a continuity error.

Gillian-Kirkpatrick-and-Paul-F-MonaghanJenna Russell is a sensational Francesca. Resilient, brave, mature but childlike, you can see the character constantly daring herself to go one stage further, along a path to who knows what. Of course, her voice is superb and she delivers her songs full of expression, of hope and of love. Edward Baker-Duly is also excellent as Kincaid, treading a fine line between an innocent abroad and a roué; the character is neither of these, but Mr B-D always makes us think that Kincaid could react in any number of unexpected ways. The always reliable Dale Rapley is great as Francesca’s dullard husband Bud; a good, unadventurous man with no hint of suspicion. There’s excellent support from Gillian Kirkpatrick as the nosy – and slightly jealous – Marge, and Paul F Monaghan as the very grounded Charlie, as well as all the rest of the cast. But I must mention that I particularly liked Maddison Bulleyment’s portrayal of the rather goofy daughter Carolyn, with its nicely underplayed sense of comedy.

Jenna RussellA very enjoyable and captivating production of a strong musical show. It’s on at the Menier until 14th September, and worth catching for its two central performances alone. I cannot comprehend under any circumstances how you could possibly award this production only one star!

 Jenna Russell and Edward Baker-DulyP. S. We took tissues, just in case; we didn’t need them. However, you could certainly hear the sobs from all corners of the audience. The poor woman in the front row opposite us looked like she was going to explode in a sea of lachrymosity!

Production photos variously by Johan Persson and Alastair Muir

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 – Merrily We Roll Along, Menier Chocolate Factory, 9th December 2012

Merrily We Roll AlongThank you for your patience, gentle reader. If you’ve been hanging around waiting for an account of another theatre trip, I’ve had to spend the last few weeks twiddling thumbs and urging the diary pages to lurch forward. Still, we’ve broken our fast now, and if you’ve got to wait ages for a show to come around, you might as well wait for a good one. And that’s certainly what the Menier’s Merrily We Roll Along is. A very very good one.

What’s really hard to believe is that this 1981 Stephen Sondheim classic was such a flop on its first outing. The lyrics and melodies are Sondheim at his toppermost; George Furth’s book is witty, shocking, sad, funny and everything in between; the characters, storyline and structure are gripping. Obviously what 1981 didn’t have was Maria Friedman in charge; someone who has Sondheim written through her like a stick of rock,Jenna Russell and Mark Umbers  and who can identify and enhance the sweet and sour within each scene, if that isn’t too many food metaphors for you. Ms Friedman introduced us to the show in the delightful 80th birthday gala for Stephen Sondheim at the Derngate in Northampton we saw two years ago, when the first half of the evening was a concert performance of the songs from Merrily. You knew even then that she was itching to direct it. Well, it’s been worth the wait.

Like Pinter’s Betrayal, that we saw at Sheffield earlier this year, it starts at the end and ends at the beginning (must have been a late 70s, early 80s thing.) This gives a whole new dimension to dramatic irony, so as the show develops you watch out for the clues that created the future out of the past. “How did you get to be here” is the big question that’s continually asked as the whole jigsaw puzzle gets assembled in retrospect. Definitive moments from the three friends’ lives are highlighted, each one a “dangerous corner”, as we go back in time to their first meeting. J B Priestley would have loved it.

Jenna Russell, Mark Umbers and Damian HumbleyThe show digs deep into the nature of friendship and loyalty, ambition and expectation, what’s for real and what’s façade, and I for one found it absolutely spellbinding all the way through. Not only do these themes run throughout the show as a whole, you also get visual and musical reminders of them – the interlocking little fingers; the advice to write “from the heart”; the internal rhythms of Charley’s 1973 song “Franklin Shepard Inc” that are proven to be an accurate recollection of their late 1950s Opening Doors scene. These constant little reminders are like individual moments of reward as you appreciate the ebb and flow of the relationships.

Jenna Russell, Josefina Gabrielle and Glyn KerslakePerfectly suited to the intimacy of the Menier, it’s superbly staged – clear, crisp, practical, sensible; no element of the staging has been sacrificed to any directorial whim or “clever idea”, it simply lets the words and music tell their tale, and the occasional spilling out of the action away from the stage only involves the audience even more. One segment of the song “It’s a Hit” was performed so close to where Mrs Chrisparkle and I were sitting that we had to bring our feet and coats in a bit otherwise they would have formed part of the action too. I love it when it gets that close.

It’s not only the quiet, revelatory, personal songs that come across so well, the big numbers are also impressively staged. I loved the whole opening scene in Frank’s Beach House with the company doing “That Frank” – engaging, funny, insightful and beautifully put together – only Mr Ashley Robinson’s microphone was not quite loud enough for his voice to be heard over the music. The scene at Gussie and Joe’s Brownstone in 1962 with all the decadent trendsetters doing “The Blob” was equally entertaining (Mrs C was laughing her head off at it actually). And I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite so camp – but absolutely realistic in its context – as Act Two’s opening scene, the finale of “Musical Husbands” involving French tap dancers and Miss Josefina Gabrielle in best vamp mode; quite brilliant.

The whole castJenna Russell is mesmerising as Mary, the aspiring writer who writes one big successful novel but for whom further success dwindles as she relies more and more on alcoholic support. She makes a fantastic old sot of a sourpuss in that opening scene, instantly combining rich comic timing with desperately pathetic sadness. There’s no doubt it’s a superb role – and she really makes the most of it. You follow the sequence of emotions that the character experiences and she tugs at your heartstrings at each event. It’s a wonderful performance.

Mark Umbers, as the hideously successful Frank shows an impressive progress or regression from ambitious purist to selfish sell-out or vice versa, depending on which time structure you’re observing. Mrs C wasn’t over convinced by his characterisation of the very young Frank, finding his youthful innocence a bit girlie and simpering; I know what she means, but I was prepared to forgive it as I was so rapt by the entire show anyway.Josefina Gabrielle in full flow At least the youthful Frank is a bit different from the older Frank, which cannot really be said for the youthful Mary and Charley. Mr Umbers has a great voice and stage presence and he uses them wisely.

Damian Humbley, a very sharp-toothed Harry in Company at Sheffield last Christmas, takes to the role of Charley like the proverbial duck to water, with his opening scene including the show-stopping “Franklin Shepard, Inc”, a bitter slice of savage Sondheim from which Charley and Frank’s friendship cannot recover. Mr Humbley does it brilliantly. His verbal dexterity throughout the whole show is remarkable – I loved his contributions to the Bobbie and Jackie and Jack routine when they’re doing their revue as youngsters.

Clare FosterJosefina Gabrielle is terrifically well cast as the manipulative star Gussie, and her singing and dancing is superb as always. She throws herself into the part with huge gusto and you cannot take your eyes off her when she’s onstage. Her drifting away from husband Joe towards Frank, and Frank’s subsequent rejection of her is all rivetingly well expressed. In a relatively unglamorous role, Glyn Kerslake as Joe does a wonderful progression/deterioration from all-powerful producer to toothless cuckold and it’s an amazingly good portrayal of how influence wanes (or grows, depending on your time perspective).

But all the cast are terrific. It’s a tremendous ensemble – and although the rest of the cast join the applause for the three leading performers at curtain call, each and everyone gives their all and is equally important to the success of the show. Clare Foster as Beth, for example, Frank’s first wife, is stunning as an emotional wreck the first time we see her, and as their earlier days together are revealed, you understand how she’s never going to recover from the shock of the marriage breakdown.Amy Ellen Richardson, Robbie Scotcher, Martin Callaghan and Joanna Woodward Superb support from the likes of Martin Callaghan, Amanda Minihan, Amy Ellen Richardson and Kirk Patterson too, whose appearance as the Reverend is one of the funniest retorts against racism I’ve ever seen on stage. Big up to young Noah Miller who played Frank Jnr on the performance we saw – super singing and word perfect, his use as a pawn in his parents’ warring brought a lump to your throat.

Just two more observations – what a great band! They’re stuck in what looks like a converted garage office at the side of the stage but they can’t half wallop out a show tune. And congratulations to whoever it was that went out and bought all the coats that get used in the course of the show. Some of them were exquisite. I felt like scouring Ebay for similar items as soon as I got home. Wasn’t quite so convinced by all the white socks, however.

All in all a wonderful production of a sensational show; it was one of those occasions that reminded me exactly why I love the theatre. It’s already got a two-week extension at the Menier tagged on to what would otherwise have been the end of its run – but surely this is not going to be the last we see of this. I couldn’t recommend it more strongly.