Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 25th May 2018

Screaming Blue MurderIt was a slightly strange Screaming Blue Murder last Friday with which to end the season – as we had three tried and tested terrific acts and Dan Evans, our usual MC par excellence, but for some reason the whole night never quite soared. I blame the new layout. They’ve now placed the stage into the top right corner of the room, so that the first few rows spread out in a circular, sunray like, pattern until we get to the middle of the room, and then the further back rows are still as they’ve always been. Sitting on the third row, directly on the right edge of the aisle, I found I had simply too much space around me, which detracted from that sweaty intimacy that makes a comedy club really work.

Dan EvansNevertheless, Dan was on cracking form as usual, discussing the ins and outs of solar panels with a solar panel fitting team from Irthlingborough (yes, there really is one) and the cost of a boiler installation with a guy in the second row who applied an additional Brighton mark-up in order to fleece those rich south coast dwellers even more. Retired financier Richard, his best mate John and their wives took up the other half of the front row and were, at different times, both comedy-enhancers and joy vampires, depending on the questions they were asked by whoever was on stage. It was ever thus.

WindsorIn a change from the advertised programme, our first act was Windsor. Now, I would have said Windsor was more of a headliner than a first-on, but as he himself explained, this is only his second appearance since recovering from an aneurysm earlier in the year – so that deserves a round of applause on its own for his being so genuinely amazing on a rapid return to form (and indeed to work!) The last time we saw Windsor, he was standing in for Dan as compere, and it was me whom he decided to collar in the front row (we were in the second row but no one sat in front of us). I have to say his ability to banter rude chat with people he’s never met is second to none. So what if he did virtually repeat his entirely same act as on previous occasions, he’s so good you just sit back and watch a master at work. This time it was Richard he chose to describe his favourite sex position, and, rather like I did, he disappointed with his tame reply. One of the solar panel guys suggested the wheelbarrow, which sent Windsor off into paroxysms of joy. If I remember rightly, that was one of the positions in the Vatican Sex Manual, as reprinted in Eric Idle’s Rutland Dirty Weekend Television book in the 1970s; famed for the absolute impossibility of getting pregnant in that position.

Earl OkinOur second act was Earl Okin, whom we’ve also seen before, most recently in 2015. Mr Okin’s musical act, which centres on his being an unlikely sex symbol, all puckering lips and smart spats, is as constant as the northern star, but he’s so delightfully ludicrous that it still remains very funny. Just the three songs – his opening gigolo number, his bossa nova version of Wheatus’ pièce de resistance, and his blues tribute to a fat girl. If you’re in the mood, he’s the perfect act; and I’d say that the vast majority of us were in that mood.

Markus BirdmanOur headline act was the brilliant Markus Birdman, whom we’ve seen many times before and who won the Chrisparkle Award for Best Screaming Blue Standup in 2013. He’s an incredible performer, with so much assurance, so much attack and the ability to surprise you with some really unexpected punchlines and sequences. He’d done some of the material before, but plenty of it was new and sparkled as you would expect. However – and I told you we were a weird audience – when he started reading out some gags from a book (this was part of the act, he wasn’t relying on a crib sheet) the atmosphere fell a little flat and some of the lines just didn’t get a reaction. Mr Birdman was as surprised as anyone, as I’m sure these have been tried and tested up and down the country before. Nevertheless, he’s still a cracking performer and one of the most mischievous and creative on the circuit.

And that’s it for the Spring season… no more Screaming Blues until September. Six shows are scheduled for between 14th September and 16th November so why not get booking now?

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 3rd February 2017

Screaming Blue MurderYet again the Underground was full for the most recent Screaming Blue Murder, the best value comedy you can get for £13.50 (£12.50 with your R&D Friends’ Membership). They’re keeping the curved front rows which means you can get more people in nearer the front, which improves the atmosphere and gives the performers more options where it comes to interrogating the customers.

Dan EvansDan Evans was our host as usual, with his apparently effortless ability to make us laugh at our fellow comedy night devotees, although I’m sure it’s not really effortless. Early on, he caught a front row lady checking her watch, which was a massive fillip for his self-confidence as you can imagine. He wasn’t going to let her get away with that. Turns out she is the co-author of “Never Mind the Thigh Gap” which enabled Dan to get further embroiled in his own body image issues. Begging forgiveness that he might not have enough new material (he needn’t have worried, as he was on fire) he eluded to this very blog, gentle reader, although he fell short of pointing dramatically at me and declaiming “J’accuse!” Being outed like that is always a sticky moment though.

david-morganOur first act was David Morgan, whom we have seen before and who is always highly entertaining to watch. Much of his humour is based on his being gay and comparing straight and gay lifestyles, which, last time we saw him, really got the crowd on his side. This time, however, I felt we were a little more reserved in our responses towards him. Nevertheless, he had some lovely banter with the Netflix and Chill man in the front row and also delivered some great material about having babies. A little frantic at times, but that’s hardly a crime.

harriet-kemsleyNext up, and a change to the advertised programme, was Harriet Kemsley, who was new to us, with an engaging stage persona and some absolutely excellent original material. Unfortunately, the sound coming off the microphone gave her voice a harsh, rasping edge, but she was so good that after a while we could ignore it. We really enjoyed her tales about being engaged, although the man in the audience who proposed to his girlfriend in a French chateau put us all to shame; and amongst her other material there was a refreshing take on the Kardashians to boot. All in all, excellent and we’d happily see her again.

Markus BirdmanOur final act of the evening is the unrepentantly direct son of a preacher man, Markus Birdman, whom we have seen several times and is always a complete joy. He’s just so irrepressibly mischievous; you can never tell which way he’s going to go. This time he spent most of his act telling us what he wasn’t going to do – thereby doing it, without doing it, if you get my drift. One of his high points this time was when he pretended to a high level of political correctness before going straight into a line about two lezzas (his words) from which he extricates himself beautifully. Intelligent, unpredictable, dangerous and always extremely funny. One of the best guys on the circuit.

Four weeks till the next Screaming Blue Murder which I will be attending without Mrs Chrisparkle, as she will be accompanying Lady Duncansby to see Lee Nelson in the Derngate whilst I am with Lady D’s butler Sir William (plus many others) on his stag night. I predict a riot.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 27th February 2015

Screaming Blue MurderOnce again it was a full house at the Screaming Blue Murder, with Lady Duncansby procuring the last available ticket just a couple of days ago. Regular host Dan Evans had his work cut out to keep order at first, with a number of late arrivals, some of which were rather on the noisy side; some chatty ladies in the front row, some older blokes who carried their years well, a couple who brought their own curry takeaway, a rather vague student from Liverpool University, and, in comparison, the most demure and elegantly well behaved hen party imaginable. But Dan was on excellent form as usual, with an engaging mixture of new and old material that went down a treat. As proof of how good he was, he even sold a few copies of his book.

Susan MurrayThere was a little uncertainty before our first act appeared, because she should have been our second. Our original first was apparently suffering from something icky in the stomach department and couldn’t be prised out of the loo. Nice way of announcing the guests! So we stared off with Susan Murray, a somewhat regular comic here as this was the fourth time we’d seen her! She’s always good for a laugh, with less accent-based material than usual and more about, well, sex. With jokes about vaginas being too big and the positioning of a six-inch tattoo on her thigh, there was more than enough to get your teeth into, so to speak. By bouncing off the Liverpool student, she did quite a lot of scouse jokes, which rather alienated Lady D – pick on any part of the country and you’re bound to offend someone somewhere.

Paul T EyresOur second act, who should have been our first, was Paul T Eyres, who was new to us, a bright, entertaining young chap with lots of good material about class, relationships and kids. I enjoyed his confident delivery and easy style with the audience. A superb performance if he was actually suffering from a dicky tummy. One to watch, methinks.

Markus BirdmanOur headline act was someone we’ve seen twice before, the splendid Markus Birdman. Winner of the Chrisparkle award for Best Screaming Blue Murder Standup in 2013, he has an amazing lightness of touch combined with genuinely fantastic material. There was a fair deal of repetition from his act a couple of years ago, but like New York, it’s so good you can hear it twice. There’s no finer joke to be heard than his one about the “speed of ejaculate”, trust me on this one. Since we last saw him he’s now coping with having a ten-year-old daughter and a marriage breakup, which in typical Birdman fashion becomes the springboard for lots of brilliant observational comedy. I admit it, I’m a fan.

Next show is in two weeks. You’d better book up quickly!

Review of the year 2013 – The Fourth Annual Chrisparkle Awards

About this time every year an esteemed panel including myself and no one else meets to assess the relative brilliance of all the shows we’ve seen the previous year so that we can recognise and celebrate the artistic fantasticity of the arts world in Northampton, Sheffield, Leicester and beyond! The coveted 2013 Chrisparkles relate to shows I have seen and blogged between 6th January 2013 and 16th January 2014. Let’s not keep anyone in further suspense – let the glittering ceremony begin!

As always, the first award is for Best Dance Production (Contemporary and Classical).

I saw nine dance productions last year, from which it was quite easy to shortlist a top five, but the top three are:

In 3rd place, the fantastic combination of skill and artistry embedded in the October programme by the Richard Alston Dance Company at the Derngate, Northampton.

In 2nd place, the hilarious but incredibly accurate and beautiful dancing of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, as seen at the Birmingham Hippodrome in February.

In 1st place, the consistently rewarding and fulfilling version of Swan Lake by Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures, that we saw at the Curve, Leicester, in November.

Classical Music Concert of the Year.

For some reason we only saw four concerts in 2013, and these are the top three:

In 3rd place, the Last Night of the Derngate Proms, by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, at the Derngate, in June.

In 2nd place, Janina Fialkowska plays Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto, plus Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, with the RPO at the Derngate in January.

In 1st place, Alexander Shelley conducts Scheherezade, together with Peter Jablonski’s performance of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, with the RPO at the Derngate in April.

Best Entertainment Show of the Year.

This is the all-purpose, everything else category that includes pantos, circuses, reviews and anything else hard to classify.

In 3rd place, Jack and the Beanstalk at the Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, in January 2014.

In 2nd place, and maybe misclassified here but I can’t quite bring myself to call this artistic endeavour a play; Cooped, by Spymonkey, at the Royal, Northampton, in January 2013.

In 1st place, the stunning tango extravaganza that was Midnight Tango, with Vincent and Flavia off Strictly Come Dancing, at the Derngate in July.

Best Star Standup of the Year.

We saw seven big star name stand-up comedians this year, and they were all excellent, but these are my top four:

In 4th place, Jason Manford and his First World Problems, at the Derngate, in July.

In 3rd place, Jack Dee at the Derngate, in September.

In 2nd place, Stewart Lee in Much a-Stew About Nothing, also at the Derngate, in September, who was just pipped by

In 1st place, Micky Flanagan and his Back in the Game tour show at the Derngate in May.

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

Of the thirty or more comics that we’ve seen at Screaming Blue Murder last year seventeen made the shortlist, and the top five are:

In 5th place, an extremely funny guy with a quirky view on urban life, Nathan Caton (18th October)

In 4th place, with an almost unique ability to make a young audience rock with laughter without any swearing, Paul Kerensa (25th January)

In 3rd place, the fantastic mix of gay and Asperger’s that goes to create Robert White (8th February)

In 2nd place, musical comedy genius Christian Reilly (8th March)

In 1st place, the most mischievous comic on the circuit, Markus Birdman (8th November).

Best Musical.

Like last year, this is a combination of new musicals and revivals, and we had a dozen to choose from. The top four were easy to identify; but the fifth place show was really hard to decide from the sixth place show. However, the panel have made their decision, and I’m sticking with it.

In 5th place, the re-invigorated Chicago at the Leicester Curve in December.

In 4th place, the beautiful and moving The Color Purple at the Menier Chocolate Factory in August.

In 3rd place, the riveting revival of The Hired Man at the Leicester Curve Studio in April.

In 2nd place, the outrageous and hilarious The Book of Mormon at the Prince of Wales Theatre in March.

In 1st place, which will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me, the painstakingly caring and reassuringly faithful revival of A Chorus Line at the London Palladium in March.

Best New Play.

As always, this is my definition of a new play – so it might have been around before but on its first UK tour, or a new adaptation of a work originally in another format. Six to choose from, these are the top three:

In 3rd place, despite its cackling disruptive audience, the very inventive play version of The Full Monty, at the Lyceum Theatre Sheffield in February.

In 2nd place, the thoughtful and imaginative Peter and Alice at the Noel Coward Theatre in May.

In 1st place, the timelessly relevant and beautifully adapted To Sir With Love at the Royal, Northampton, in September.

Best Revival of a Play.

A shortlist of sixteen productions, but in the end relatively easy to sort out the top five:

In 5th place, the first of three Michael Grandage productions as part of his long season at the Noel Coward Theatre, A Midsummer Night’s Dream in November.

In 4th place, the hard-hitting yet strangely funny Beauty Queen of Leenane at the Curve Studio, Leicester, in October.

In 3rd place, Michael Grandage’s production of Peter Nichols’ Privates on Parade at the Noel Coward in January.

In 2nd place, Michael Grandage’s stunning production of The Cripple of Inishmaan at the Noel Coward in August.

In 1st place, the only production in 45 years of theatregoing that I loved so much that I had to see it again the next day, Cal McCrystal’s officially fabulous revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s Mr Whatnot at the Royal, Northampton in April.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical.

So many terrific performances to choose from but I have a top five:

In 5th place, Hayley Gallivan’s brutally treated Nancy in Oliver! at the Sheffield Crucible in January 2014.

In 4th place, Leigh Zimmerman’s indestructibly sassy Sheila in A Chorus Line at the London Palladium in March.

In 3rd place, Cynthia Erivo’s incredibly moving Celie in The Color Purple at the Menier Chocolate Factory in August.

In 2nd place, Julie Atherton’s tear-jerkingly superb Emily in The Hired Man at the Leicester Curve Studio in April.

In 1st place, Scarlett Strallen’s stunning Cassie in A Chorus Line at the London Palladium in March, and for her ebullient Cunegonde in Candide at the Menier Chocolate Factory in December.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical.

A really tough category and with so many great performances not getting a mention, but here’s my top five:

In 5th place, David Hunter’s triumphantly resilient John in The Hired Man at the Leicester Curve Studio in April.

In 4th place, Gavin Creel’s selfishly wonderful Elder Price in The Book of Mormon at the Prince of Wales Theatre in March.

In 3rd place, Christopher Colquhoun’s savage then partly redeemed Mister in The Color Purple at the Menier Chocolate Factory in August.

In 2nd place, Jared Gertner for his gutsy buddy-from-hell performance as Elder Cunningham in The Book of Mormon at the Prince of Wales Theatre in March.

In 1st place, John Partridge’s role-defining performance as the workaholic, passionate choreographer Zach in A Chorus Line at the London Palladium in March.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Play.

Some great performances here!

In 5th place, Isla Blair in The Lyons at the Menier Chocolate Factory in October.

In 4th place Felicity Kendal in Relatively Speaking at Wyndham’s Theatre in June.

In 3rd place Nora Connolly in The Beauty Queen of Leenane at the Curve Studio Leicester in October.

In 2nd place, the other half of that double act, Michele Moran in The Beauty Queen of Leenane at the Curve Studio Leicester in October and also for Dancing at Lughnasa at the Royal, Northampton in May.

In 1st place, and no surprise, Dame Judi Dench for her performance of consummate ease as Alice Liddell in Peter and Alice at the Noel Coward Theatre in May.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Play.

Eighteen actors in my shortlist, and I whittled it down to this:

In 5th place, Ansu Kabia for To Sir With Love at the Royal, Northampton, in September.

In 4th place, the magnetic stage presence of David Walliams as Bottom in Michael Grandage’s Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Noel Coward Theatre in November.

In 3rd place, Ben Whishaw for his threateningly unhinged performance as Baby in Mojo at the Harold Pinter Theatre in January 2014 and for his compellingly thoughtful performance as Peter Davies in Peter and Alice at the Noel Coward Theatre in May.

In 2nd place, Simon Russell Beale’s flamboyant performance as Terri Dennis in Privates on Parade at the Noel Coward Theatre in January 2013.

In 1st place, Daniel Radcliffe’s totally convincing performance as Billy in the Cripple of Inishmaan at the Noel Coward Theatre in August.

Theatre of the Year.

In addition to my usual shortlist of the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, Sheffield Theatres and the Menier Chocolate Factory, I have to add the Leicester Curve and also the Noel Coward Theatre for its Michael Grandage season. Taking everything into account – the standard of productions, the comfort of the theatre, the box-office experience, and the general feelgood feeling you get when you’re there, it’s a tight squeeze this year but I am again going to declare my favourite theatre of the year to be the Royal and Derngate, Northampton! God bless her and all who sail in her!

And thanks to you, gentle reader, for still coming back to read my random thoughts on all the shows we’re lucky enough to see. Hope you all have a very Happy New Theatregoing Year!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 8th November 2013

Screaming Blue MurderOnce more it’s time for that winning combination of a super compère, three fabulous acts and two lovely intervals that go to make up the entertainment orgy that is Screaming Blue Murder at the Derngate. Obviously wounded by previous audience comments that compère Dan Evans was wearing the same suit yet again, this time he turned up in a suave, sophisticated, very nearly matching jacket and trousers that would have looked really trendy on Terry Wogan in about 1975. I know that’s a bit cruel. I actually got a feel of the material and it’s very sturdy quality stuff; and I agree – to gentlemen of a certain age like Dan and me, that mid-range brown is definitely the new black.

Dan EvansDan’s still bringing out new material each time he comes here, which is great for us regular attendees. He’s such a naturally funny guy anyway that just his warm-up interaction with the audience is worth the entrance price anyway. This week he coped admirably with a call-centre manager, a conveyancer, a heavily pregnant lady, a newbie lady from Leeds and the regular front row policeman and his sons. It’s like one big happy family really.

Stu GoldsmithFirst up was someone new to us, Stu Goldsmith; an engaging and likeable young guy, who got off to a good start when a member of the audience just walked out the moment he went on stage – never to return. He had some great material about dating websites and how couples and singles view each other and manipulate each other, which was not only very funny but also insightful. A very good start to the evening.

Tania EdwardsNext, and in a change to the advertised programme, it was Tania Edwards, a very funny lady who based a lot of her act on the fact that she has one of the poshest voices this side of Chelsea. Despite her appearance she doesn’t hold back with some hard hitting material that you wouldn’t expect from such a glamorous lady. She kept up some good banter with the crowd and we’d definitely be happy to see her again.

Markus BirdmanHowever, everything that went before was but a build up to the headline act, Markus Birdman, whom we had seen here once before and I remembered as being a complete hoot. He is the most mischievous of comics; you completely trust him to blow you away with inventive and fresh material, which he does with effortless confidence and friendliness. His rapport with the audience is instant and solid – you feel you know him so well; imagine your favourite cousin, but funnier. If I tell you that he regaled us with the two best jokes about the speed of ejaculate you are ever likely to hear, you’ll get some idea of his act. I think the fact that his father is a vicar helps him to see the funny side of life from many angles, so his material is very varied and wide-ranging. He’s also very generous with his time and gave us a good long act; even then the crowd was wanting more. One of those acts who you still laugh about several days later.

I think there’s one more Screaming Blue Murder left this season – alas we can’t attend. Looking forward to more in the New Year!