Review – Mother Goose, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 7th February 2023

Mother GooseI think we can all agree that a dog is not just for Christmas; the second part of that saying could well be that a panto is not just for Christmas, but for the whole year round. And why wouldn’t you want the fun that this show offers for twelve months of the year?! I remember as a kid the London Palladium panto would have a run that started in December and went on till March; continuing that fine tradition, this production of Mother Goose started in Brighton in December and is touring until the middle of April. An Easter panto in Salford anyone?

EnsembleOne of the less performed pantomimes (I’ve only ever seen two other productions), Mother Goose is a funny old tale about Caroline and Vic Goose whose lives are turned around by the arrival of a young goose – Cilla – who lays golden eggs and consequently gets them out of their financial troubles. However, Caroline’s head is turned when the bad fairy Malignia tempts her with promises of fame and fortune in return for Cilla…. Well let’s just say she lives to regret her decision. Very moral tale, this one.

Jack, Caroline and VicJust considering the bare bones of the story, it sounds a bit stiff and starchy. However, with writer Jonathan Harvey (a script stuffed with jokes) and director Cal McCrystal at the helm, this is anything but. And with a fantastic cast headed by Ian McKellen, John Bishop and Anna-Jane Casey, this is a laugh-a-second, musical extravaganza of a panto which delivers more pleasure per pound than is remotely decent.

Caroline and VicIan McKellen is no stranger to pantomime; we saw his Twankey at the Old Vic in 2006 (ooh Matron!) and I’ve often wished he’d turn his hand towards more comedic roles rather than all that Elizabethan drama nonsense (I jest, obvs). He revels in all the pantomime dame costumes and double entendres, as well as delighting in sending himself up with the inevitable Gandalf and Shakespeare references.

Vic and CarolineHe’s matched by the inimitable John Bishop and they’re a perfect partnership. Between them they cover everything you could possibly want from a show; where Sir Ian can go all declamatory and tragic, Mr B delivers his killer lines with fabulous laconic Scouseness. Do you remember the London Olympics, and how we all loved the kind, good-humoured omnipresence of the Games Makers? Those happy people who helped us to enjoy every element of the Olympic experience? John Bishop is like the Games Maker of Pantomime – a constant, benign, warm presence, whom you would really miss if he wasn’t there. I think every panto needs a John Bishop.

CillaThe casting of Anna-Jane Casey as Cilla is a mark of genius – there’s nothing in the musical theatre genre she can’t do, and she steals the show in several scenes – including a fantastic and unexpected A Chorus Line tribute which had me aching with pleasure; I particularly loved the strong connection to the original Michael Bennett choreography! Oscar Conlon-Morrey is brilliant as Jack, with a great connection with the audience; his Jill is played by Simbi Akande who is also superb. And Sharon Ballard as Encanta and Karen Mavundukure as Malignia were a terrific pair of fairies – incredible voices, and with a great secret for the end of the show.

Encanta and MaligniaThere’s also an amazing ensemble taking on the roles of the animals in the Goose Family’s Animal Sanctuary; I particularly loved Genevieve Nicole’s Perfect Panto Puss, and Adam Brown’s hilarious King of Gooseland, who reminded us strongly of Rob Madge (which is A Good Thing). We’re strongly contemplating going again later in the tour. Can’t recommend this fantastic show enough!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Five Alive, Let Theatre Thrive!

Review – John Bishop: Warm Up, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 3rd March 2020

John Bishop Warm UpIt’s not often that a Work in Progress show fills the massive Derngate auditorium, but then again, it’s not often that the great John Bishop comes to town. Actually, to my knowledge, it’s at least the second time he’s come to town. The first time we saw him, he was so late, he offered to buy the entire audience a drink. Even though that was in the smaller Royal theatre, it still must have cost him a bob or two. Forewarned is forearmed this time.

Barry DoddsBut first, a support act. Remembering that Mr Bishop didn’t have a support act when we last saw him, I was surprised that there was one this time. But indeed there was, in the jovial form of Barry Dodds, a Geordie from Gateshead (I thought Geordies could only come from north of the Tyne? Controversial!) full of appropriate apologies for not being John Bishop, but with a ton of fun material of his own. He has a great story about how he fooled a flatmate who liked to dabble with wacky baccy (and worse) – and it’s a good trick: put a bar of Palmolive soap in the microwave and watch it expand. It plays with the most balanced of brains, but when you’ve been on the illegal substances it can fair blow your mind.

I also really enjoyed his account of why he and his wife split up, and his rather gruesome but extremely funny story of what trainee doctors can get up to in the mortuary. Mr Dodds is a naturally funny guy with great timing and a comfortable confidence, and his short set was, truly, all too short. We’d love to see him do a longer set sometime.

John BishopAfter the interval, Mr Bishop wandered on, cup of Yorkshire Tea in hand, apologising for the fact that as this show was indeed work in progress, some of it might be a bit shit. And, really odd for a WIP show, it’s not going to be leading on to a big arena show later in the year – he had intended to do that, but then the plans got altered and the arena show has been postponed. But the WIP shows had already gone on sale, so Mr B felt obliged to give us some WIP comedy, even without a big show in the offing. You couldn’t make it up.

John BHe is the absolute master of relaxed, slow storytelling, every routine always having a killer punch at the end. He is so engaging, and confiding, that you feel like you are the only person he’s sharing these brilliant observations with, maybe over a convivial pint somewhere. He talks about things that we can all recognise, such as the compromises in relationships or how your attitudes change as you get older. One of his assertions, absolutely correct, is that men never change from the age when they meet each other. Whereas women develop and grow their friendships over the years, men always remain essentially kids; if they met when they were at school, then they’re still schoolkids when meet decades later.

John-BishopAnother absolutely spot-on observation is how a middle-aged man suddenly gets transported into a world of sexual and/or romantic fantasy if a woman talks to him nicely. You can just be on a flight and offered a drink by an air hostess and a world of possibilities opens up to you. I also loved his material about being the only Scouser on the ski slopes, his experiences of acting a sex scene (or not) with Sheridan Smith, and a brilliant sequence speculating about sex between the over 70s. He had us all in cascades of laughter.

He says he has one joke; and it’s the same joke he told last time he was here – but, to be fair, it is awfully funny. It’s the one about the accidental penectomy and the replacement surgery. If you know it, you know it. If you don’t, well I’m not going to tell you. During the course of the evening, he chatted with a couple of audience members who had earlier piped up for whatever reason; and, as with his last appearance here, he ended the show with a brief Q&A session. I mention that because the last question he was asked included a callback to an earlier piece of material, and Mr B’s answer included a callback to something another audience member had said – and it was a masterstroke. No wonder he called the show to halt at that point – it could never get better.

A great night of comedy and an absolute privilege to see a master of the art at work. His tour continues throughout the rest of the year, but many venues are already sold out. This comes as no surprise at all. Just brilliant.

Five alive, let comedy thrive!

Review – John Bishop, Work in Progress, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 27th June 2014

John Bishop SupersonicI didn’t know much about John Bishop before going to see this curious little gig in Northampton’s Royal Theatre – yes the Royal, that charming Victorian powerhouse of culture and tradition, that seats a fraction of the larger Derngate auditorium – apart from the fact that he’s from Liverpool, has only relatively recently turned to comedy as a career, and has an accent the spitting image (if you can apply that phrase to sound as well as vision) of my late father-in-law’s. We’ve seen him a couple of times on telly and he seemed a good laugh, and I was very intrigued and excited by the fact that the gig would be so up close and personal, as he tries out new material for his arena tour later in the year. I associate “arena” with the performer being miles away so that you can only see them on the thoughtfully provided TV screens scattered about the place. But in the Royal, we would be in Row C of the stalls and he would be a mere few feet away. That’s what I call live entertainment.

Shows in the Royal always – ALWAYS – start at 7.45pm. It’s a tradition. If there’s anything on at the Derngate it will begin at 7.30 or 8.00; and the same goes for the Underground unless it’s the Screaming Blue Murder, which always starts at 8.15. It’s a timing system that runs like clockwork. So I was really surprised to see that John Bishop was due to start at 8pm. Half believing it was a printing error on the tickets, we arrived in good time just in case it really was a 7.45 kick-off. The bar was very busy – unsurprisingly, as every seat in the Royal had been sold, which I believe is a first since we’ve been going there. If we wanted to sit down with our pre-comedy Cab Sav (which we did), the only choice was to sit on the plastic children’s chairs at the bottom of the stairs, that are about a foot high and wide enough for one buttock. We weren’t alone. I expect a number of people had bad backs on Saturday morning.

Mr BThen came the tannoy announcement – apologies, but John Bishop is running late. Late? Unthinkable! He’d already had a quarter of an hour’s grace by being on at 8 and not 7.45. But no, late he would be, and rather like waiting at some busy arrivals’ terminal, we were told that he was now due to land at 8.45pm. The announcement came a few times, and every time, just like at an airport, the conversation would all suddenly hush as we listened for the longed-for confirmation that our flight had finally arrived. Maybe fog at Gatwick was to blame; cue for another Cab Sav anyway. By the time Mr Bishop would eventually come on stage, sweating with apologies and panting with embarrassment, we’d all had a skinful. That’s not a bad thing – sometimes comedy can use a bit of extra help if it’s not that great in the first place. Of course, Mr Bishop needs no such help.

Mr J BishopA downside though is that some people can get a little out of hand with the extra lubrication. No sooner had Mr B come on stage and started his apologies then the people in front of me, whose jawlines were firmly set in that “I’m not going to laugh at him” mode, started having a go at him about something he said last time he visited Northampton. “Are you still mad that Northampton Town beat Liverpool in the Carling Cup in 2010”, one guy challenged him, to a loud intake of breath and an “oooh” from everyone else. Mr B looked as though he couldn’t believe his ears. “To be honest, I’ve moved on” was his wonderfully deflating reply. But the group in front kept on trying to have little digs at him, which was, in all fairness, bloody rude and downright annoying.

As Mr B said, usually the format is that he comes on and does an hour or so’s worth of material and then there’d be some questions and answers at the end. However, a number of people in the audience wouldn’t let him get on with his act until they’d got some questions in and their presence acknowledged. Most popular was for him to tell us about his attitude to the England Football Team’s “performance” (as I suppose you might call it) in the World Cup. Mr B knew that he had lost the upper hand – being late put him at a slight disadvantage there – so he gave in and answered some questions. Thus we had a comedy sandwich, with Q&A’s as the bit of bread either side.

John-BishopHe says he needs these try-out shows to see if the material he’s got milling around inside his head is funny or not. I suppose that must be true, otherwise why would he break away from a family weekend at Glastonbury, allowing insufficient time to get to Northampton (he believed the Sat Nav, apparently – schoolboy error), offer to buy everyone in the audience a drink after the show to apologise for being late, and then drive all the way back to Glastonbury, just to do an hour or so’s comedy to a maximum of 500 people at just £15 a ticket. It’s hardly a cash cow, is it?

Well, just to let both you and him know, every scenario he discussed, every mental picture he painted, every joke he told (actually there was just the one) was comedy gold. Flights featured quite a lot in his material – both travelling in the Ryanair learjet to do a gig in Ireland, and his experiences of travelling First Class on Emirates. He considers the reasons why people might vote UKIP (if you voted UKIP you might be asked to explain yourself) and confesses to why he too might vote the same way. He ponders on the delights of having teenage sons, and how sharing a friendly tequila with a mate got out of hand. And then there was his joke – which involved a taxi and a Geordie lass. Can’t remember laughing harder or louder at a simple joke, ever.

John BMr B has a wonderfully relaxed, gentle style of delivery that reassures you with his confidence but that can also snap into quite an aggressive punch line if needed. A naturally funny, charismatic performer, we’d both happily see him again any time. He’s coming back to the R&D in September for another try-out show, and you might sneak a last minute seat if you’re lucky. Superbly funny.

P.S. According to the Northampton Chronicle, the bar bill for the free post-show drinks came in at around £1000. To be honest, Mrs Chrisparkle and I couldn’t bring ourselves to take advantage of his kindness – he’d already paid us back handsomely in comedy currency. Still, shows what a nice guy he is.