Review – La Cage Aux Folles, Milton Keynes Theatre, 12th August 2017

La Cage Aux FollesHere’s an old favourite that never fails to please. Mrs Chrisparkle and I first saw La Cage Aux Folles at the London Palladium in 1986 (she was Miss Duncansby then) with George Hearn and Denis Quilley in the lead roles, and wrestler turned actor Brian Glover (remember him?) as the ghastly Dindon. We next saw the Menier’s hugely successful production in 2009 at the Playhouse Theatre, with Roger Allam and Robert Maskell as Georges and Albin; and now the UK has its first ever touring production, which has been running all year and has finally reached Milton Keynes before its last two weeks coming up in Brighton.

LCAF They are what they areI’m sure you know the story – it’s based on the 1973 French stage farce by Jean Poiret, and the subsequent smash hit film which appeared in 1978. Georges runs La Cage Aux Folles, a St-Tropez nightclub of dubious reputation and glamorous girls (the Cagelles, who are really boys), headed by the one and only Zaza, who, from nine to five is Albin, Georges’ husband. On one aberrant night of bliss twenty-four years earlier, Georges had a fling with Sybil, an English muffin who trapped the helpless chap (that’s Albin’s account anyway) into a spot of how’s-your-father; result: little Jean-Michel, whom Georges and Albin have brought up as a fine, upstanding and (shock, horror) heterosexual young man in love with Anne. LCAF Not sure if Georges is going to win this oneThe good news is that Anne is also in love with him; the bad news is that Anne’s father is Dindon, the head of the Tradition, Family and Morality Party. He’s a bully and a bigot, and his party’s stated aim is to close down all the drag clubs in town. You see the problem. Les Dindons want to meet Jean-Michel’s parents before giving their blessing to the liaison. The problem’s getting worse. With Sybil nowhere on the horizon, how are Georges and Albin (or rather, Georges and Zaza) going to handle it? You’ll have to watch it to find out.

LCAF Georges et AlbinThe music and lyrics are by Jerry Herman – yes, he of Hello Dolly and Mack and Mabel – and for the most part the songs are amongst his finest. With Anne on my Arm has all the naïve and simple charm of My Fair Lady’s On The Street Where You Live; Look Over There is a delicate, heartfelt description of what it feels like when you love someone else so much, that just to look at them tells you all you need to know. And there are two great showstoppers that elevate the art of musical theatre into another sphere: the loud and proud self-assertiveness anthem I Am What I Am; and, my personal favourite, The Best of Times, with its huge positive energy, reminding us all to live life for the present, to do what you love and to love what you do. I’ve not been able to stop singing it to myself since Saturday.

LCAF CagellesI’ve been thinking about the best word to use to describe this show. Professional? committed? exciting? extravagant? It’s all these; but above all, it’s a truly lovely production. It’s full of heart, and positivity, and kindness, and warmth. Yes, there is glamour, which frequently gets its balloon burst when the wigs come off and we see the Cagelles backstage as just ordinary working guys; and yes, there is humour, most spectacularly with the cringe-inducing dinner with the Dindons. There is pantomime, which surprised me; for example, when Dindon tells his wife to get their bags, the audience all respond with a long “oooooh”; and when she refuses, we all cheer. But above all there is a moral force behind it that says love always wins; therefore, lovely strikes me as by far the best description!

LCAF Big revealThe cast have loads of fun making it as enjoyable for us the audience as possible. You have to hand it to the Cagelles – each and every guy is a fantastic dancer and incredibly effective in drag; you really do have to look twice – sometimes three or four times – to be sure they haven’t sneaked some girls in. Their singing and dancing ensemble works really well and I loved how they had their own characteristics; Jordan Livesey as Hannah sure knows how to crack a whip, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen such a high kick as that of Oliver Proudlock-John’s Mercedes. The original production had twelve cagelles; this has seven, and I think that works better because you get to know each one just a little bit more.

LCAF Albin et les CagellesPaul F Monaghan’s Dindon is a truly repellent git (or should that be gîte); gruff, pompous, and a marvellous bellower of the word “homosexual!” as an insult. I really liked his interactions at the dinner table when he was being treated to more and more of the wine – very nicely done. Su Douglas is also great as his mousey downtrodden wife who toes the line – up to a point. Samson Ajewole stole every scene as the effervescent Jacob, redefining camp and thoroughly deserving his huge round of applause. And what a tall chap he is! LCAF Albin et les Cagelles en rougeI really enjoyed Dougie Carter and Alexandra Robinson as Jean-Michel and Anne; Mr Carter brought simple plaintive emotion to his songs, and it would be a tough cookie indeed who didn’t feel a little ocular moistness at his reprise of Look Over There. The magnificent Marti Webb brings power and presence to restaurateur Jacqueline; you wish the character had more songs, but you’ll never forget the way she takes up the challenge with The Best of Times.

LCAF Albin et JacquelineBut, of course, at the heart of the show is the relationship between Georges and Albin, here superbly portrayed by Adrian Zmed and John Partridge. I have to confess I’d never heard of Mr Zmed before – but one look at his photo in the programme and Mrs C was very enthusiastic, having been brought up on TJ Hooker. He’s got a great singing voice and brings a touch of natural class and elegance to the role of Georges, as well as smartly underplaying the humour of the part. But the evening belongs to John Partridge as Albin – surely the role he was born to play. I loved how he gently Manchesterised the character – his “hurt” Albin was much more believable than I’ve seen the character played before. LCAF Cagelles in flightThere are plenty of opportunities for him to really express himself on the stage – his hilarious Masculinity scene for instance, where he goes delightfully over the top trying to be a credible “bloke”, and his La Cage Aux Folles number where he just about holds on to his character whilst Zaza gets up close and personal with the audience, and the orchestra. After that the audience has absolutely no pretension to “good theatre behaviour” for the rest of the show; we just went with the flow and did whatever we felt like in response to what we saw on stage. I would imagine that’s a different scene almost every time.

LCAF Albin et GeorgesBut it was Mr P’s performance of I Am What I Am that absolutely takes your breath away. My goose bumps and had goose bumps. I had no idea you could reach down and find such emotion in that song: a heartache that turns to triumph as Albin/Zaza redoubles his determination to live his life, his way, and to hell with the rest of us. Mr Partridge holds perfect control through this epiphany sequence. It closes the first half of the show and the audience go into the interval dazed with its brilliance.

The best of times is now. Or at least, for another two weeks. It closes in Brighton on 26th August. We loved it. If you can, go!

Production photos by Pamela Raith

Review – Happy Days The Musical, Milton Keynes Theatre, 16th June 2014

Happy DaysThe Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle always used to say to me, “If you can’t say something good about someone or something, say nothing”. Shame that she didn’t always practise what she preached, but nevertheless I get her drift. Taking her at her word, my review of Happy Days The Musical is hereby over. Thank you for your attention, and goodbye.

Heidi RangeStill here? Well then. Happy Days The Musical is being promoted “as seen on Channel 4’s The Sound of Musicals”, and that was one of the reasons why I wanted to see it, as it was a fascinating programme showing all the backstage/producer/director/choreographer problems that beset the project of mounting a full scale musical in today’s theatreland. It was kind of heart-warming to see producer Amy Anzel constantly bouncing back from disappointment after disappointment, and I was surprised, but delighted, to see that her dream of producing this musical actually came to fruition. A testament to determination.

Ben FreemanI also remember discovering that choreographer Craig Revel Horwood left the show after a few weeks, and that really should have set alarm bells ringing. Still – it had Cheryl Baker, from Bucks Fizz, something of a National Treasure; and being the big Eurovision fan I am, anything that has Cheryl Baker in has got to be good, hasn’t it?

Cheryl BakerWere you a fan of the TV show? I remember it being on when I came home from school, and enjoying the goofy characters, although 50s music has always been one of my bugbears – I really don’t like it. Richie Cunningham was a straight-laced good guy and it was kind of reassuring to the 14 year old me that a straight-laced good guy could still have fun with more rebellious pals – and get to know girls too – as well as be accepted by someone like The Fonz, an aspirationally roguish character with a heart of gold. And of course, who couldn’t love Laverne and Shirley?

James PatersonI’m not sure I realised in advance quite how much the characters – even after all these years have passed – are very much associated with the actors who originally played them. I never thought I’d like to see the stage show of Dad’s Army, because any actor playing it today is simply not the right person. You can’t replace Arthur Lowe or John le Mesurier. I thought Paul Merton taking on Tony Hancock was a mistake because only Hancock is Hancock. So why on earth didn’t I think that seeing a stage version of Happy Days that didn’t have Henry Winkler, Ron Howard, and the rest of the original team, would be a mistake?

Scott WaughStill, even if it’s hard to believe that new actors are playing those much loved old roles, I’m sure it would be entertaining, so long as it has some good songs, good choreography and a funny book? Maybe; we will never know, as they are all noticeably lacking on the stage of the Milton Keynes Theatre this week. I regret to announce that the only real laugh in Happy Days The Musical was when a moth almost landed on Richie Cunningham’s nose. I’d been following that moth for a while, actually, as it was much more interesting than the show, being eye-catchingly white and easily captured by spotlights. I wondered how closely it would muscle in on the action. Quite a lot as it turns out, during a “sensitive” scene between Richie and the Fonz,Emma Harrold where it fluttered peskily between the two actors much to the entertainment of the audience. I was sad to see it not reappear at curtain call. Yes of course, there were some moments in the show where you were meant to laugh, and some people did; like when Ralph Malph continually laughs at the name Farthing, because it sounds like Farting; when Arnold shies away from Chachi’s breath after a chilli dog; when someone says the Fonz didn’t like it when someone kissed his Pinky (that’s the name of his ex-girlfriend, you’ll be relieved to know); when someone refuses to go into the toilet for ten minutes after Arnold’s been in there. I could go on with examples of its glittering wit, but I’m sure you’ve got the picture. The book is by Garry Marshall. Yes THE Garry Marshall. Creator of all the Happy Days programmes and their spin-offs. Writer for Dick Van Dyke, Bob Hope, Lucille Ball; the TV series of The Odd Couple, and more. Just goes to show that no one gets it right all the time.

Ray GardnerBut it’s not only decent humour that’s missing – the plot is so wafer thin Mr Creosote could consume it without exploding. The guys have to raise money so that Arnold’s can continue to exist as an independent diner, and not get swallowed up by Ronald McDonald. There’s a plan that Fonzie should wrestle arch-enemies the Malachi brothers as a weird kind of fundraiser, but he knows he can’t do it because of his hurty knee; therefore he runs away so that he can still look cool. Richie and Ralph offer to wrestle instead; the Fonz returns, money is raised, happiness reigns ever after. There was one particular scene that I found excruciatingly embarrassing to watch – at the fair, where, as a prelude to the wrestling match, pie-obsessed Mrs Cunningham provides an exhibition of baking. Jason WinterI don’t know if the dancing went wrong or if the choreography was especially lame for that scene, but for a few minutes people were just waving pies around and looking self-conscious, and I just couldn’t watch. This led into the wrestling scene, with Ralph dressed in an unnecessarily tight Victorian wrestler’s costume, and once again I had to hide my eyes. But it didn’t matter – after about the first five minutes, I had already realised that this show was just not going to connect with me. There wasn’t any place where it and I had common ground. We were like two separate circles in a Venn Diagram, destined never to overlap.

Andrew WaldronThe songs, whilst being credible pastiches of 50s music, which as I have already admitted isn’t my thing, are nevertheless instantly forgettable and enunciated dreadfully. Mrs Chrisparkle and I were both convinced we heard some bad language in a couple of the songs – she definitely heard an F-word and I caught hold of a C-word and I’m sure they wouldn’t have been in the original lyrics. It’s one of those shows where, when the chorus start singing, if you can catch just one word in four you’re doing well. The music and lyrics are by Paul Williams. Yes, THE Paul Williams. “Phantom of the Paradise” and “Bugsy Malone”. “We’ve Only Just Begun” and “Rainy Days and Mondays”. Also goes to show that no one gets it right all the time. There’s a dancing song that sounds like it’s been gathered from the cutting room floor at Blood Brothers, and a dance scene with flapping gowns that’s been lifted out of Sister Act. You do get the feeling that it’s all very derivative.

Eddie MylesThe choreography? Unadventurous, half-hearted and lazy, I’m afraid. Yes, there are a few acceptable set pieces but much of it seems to start up and then just dwindle away. This is not a criticism of the dancing, which is probably the best thing about the show – in fact I felt really sorry to see someone as talented as Lucy Jane Adcock giving her utmost as Pinkette Tina, brightening up the stage every time she appeared. Maybe if Craig Revel Horwood would have stayed – but then I’m sure it would have been a very different show if he had.

Perhaps there are some other good performances to save it? To be honest, there are, but the battle is already lost with the raw material they have to work with. Heidi Range plays Fonzie’s love interest Pinky Tuscadero. Reading the programme before the show, we knew that we recognised the name but weren’t sure from where. “Ah, she’s a Sugababe”, I discovered. “Great”, said Mrs C, “at least she’ll be able to sing”. And indeed she can; she delivered those dull numbers as well as anyone could be expected to. However, from a casting point of view, may I venture to suggest that I might expect Pinky to look a little… younger? Mrs C was more direct: “she looks like Joan Rivers’ granddaughter”.Henry Davis Could have been worse. Ben Freeman plays the Fonz, and I just didn’t warm to him at all. Maybe the role is too dated, but I just couldn’t take his “aaaayy”s seriously. It didn’t sound like the Fonz – it sounded like someone impersonating him. The character should be irresistibly charismatic; I’m afraid he wasn’t. Cheryl Baker is Marion Cunningham; again she has a voice you can depend on, and a delightful tendency not to shout, unlike so many of her colleagues. She looks the part, and nicely conveyed Mrs Cunningham’s maternal kindness to everyone in her orbit. But I was embarrassed at the constant alluding to Ms Baker’s Eurovision heritage. Which cocktail would she like to try? “Oh, I’m Making my Mind Up.” “There’s one I like – Bucks Fizz”. In a subsequent dance sequence, she rips the bottom part of her dress off, à la Dublin 1981. Talk about laying it on with a trowel. I started looking out for the “Record Breaker” references (thankfully there were none I noted). The audience loved the Bucks Fizz bits though – I’m sure we’d all have preferred them to ditch the show and just do some of the group’s back catalogue.

Sam RobinsonScott Waugh presents Richie Cunningham as a very earnest and wet-behind-the-ears chap; and whilst Jason Winter and Andrew Waldron give good support as Potsie and Ralph, and Eddie Myles as Chachi comes perhaps as close as any to giving a performance that would remind you of its TV original, when they come together as the Dial-Tones I felt they lacked energy and presence. James Paterson’s Howard Cunningham also puts you in mind of Tom Bosley’s original characterisation, and he has a fine stage presence; a lot of talent but nowhere for it really to go in this script. Ray Gardner, too, is good as Arnold; he was perhaps the only performer in the show that I felt confident would deliver the part 100%, everyone else made me occasionally nervous. Apparently, he’s the man in the world-famous Blackcurrant Tango advert that I’d never seen until I just Googled it. Filed under “I’m sure it’s not their fault but it’s what they were told to do”, Emma Harrold took Joanie’s youthful exuberance and turned it into something unexpectedly shrill and strident and I found Henry Davis and Sam Robinson cringingly embarrassing as the Malachi brothers, marching onto the stage to the musical accompaniment of something akin to Carmen, looking like Dastardly and Muttley about to do the Paso Doble.

Lucy Jane AdcockThe show got a semi standing ovation; about a third of the people in the stalls stood, but only because we’d been very politely asked to from the stage; the area where we sat on the right side of the stalls in particular stayed firmly in our seats. I’d already had to bribe Mrs C with a very expensive large Merlot which she said she needed if she was to endure the second half of the show; and she couldn’t actually bring herself to applaud once, at all, throughout the entire evening. And as we were leaving the auditorium and the band finished its last few bars, she said, as if a final verdict on the entire show, “waste of a good orchestra”.

I think it’s fair to say we hated it! It’s on the rest of the week at Milton Keynes, then Salford and Nottingham to wrap up the tour. Go if you dare!

Review – Pygmalion, Milton Keynes Theatre, 31st May 2014

PygmalionPerhaps one’s first reaction to the prospect of seeing a production of Pygmalion might be slightly jaded. That old play? My Fair Lady without the songs? Does it have any relevance today? Haven’t I seen it many times before? Those were among my sneaking suspicions before curtain up last Saturday afternoon. But this is a fresh, funny and very relevant production, born at the Theatre Royal Bath, that charmed and chuckled its way through two and half hours of 100 year old comedy, and Mrs Chrisparkle and I both loved it.

Alistair McGowanYou know the plot– Colonel Pickering bets that Professor Higgins can’t transform flower girl Eliza Doolittle from little cockney sparrer to eloquent beauty, the test being that no one suspects her true origins and identity at the ambassador’s garden party. Higgins works hard, Eliza works hard; he wins the bet, but only congratulates himself (and Pickering of course) on his own amazingness rather than recognising Eliza’s contribution and self-improvement; believing that he thinks nothing of her, she leaves. It doesn’t sound like that much of a story put that way. But Shaw created some fantastic characters, not only in Higgins and Eliza, but also Eliza’s dustman dad, and the sympathetic and extremely wise Mrs Higgins. The interplay between these characters still sparks off terrific comedy as well as thoughtful, emotional drama.

Jamie Foreman & Rachel BarryFor instance, Act Three, where Higgins and Pickering take Eliza to one of Mrs H’s “At Home”s, still has your toes tingling with its examination of class distinction and seemingly inappropriate behaviour. Although the word “bloody” no longer has the impact it did in 1912, you still get a frisson of naughtiness when Eliza exits with it triumphantly on her lips. The whole “Gin was Mother’s milk to her” and “what I say is, them that pinched it done her in” sequence is so beautifully constructed to juxtapose perfect enunciation with gutter language that its enormous powers to surprise and delight remain undiminished. I can still remember the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle reciting this speech word perfect, such was its notoriety early in the 20th century. This scene is performed beautifully, and had the audience in hysterics. Very charmingly, during a short pause in this scene, you could hear a young child in the audience – who had been very well behaved to that point – unable to contain herself as she laughed out loud “this is SO funny!” The rest of the audience laughed back in appreciation. It was a great reminder that these famous and regularly performed plays are always new to someone.

Alistair McG and the ladiesCasting Alistair McGowan as Henry Higgins is a stroke of genius. When I think of Higgins I think of Rex Harrison and then maybe some other younger versions of the same characterisation. But Mr McGowan is unmistakably Mr McGowan; and although he doesn’t stray into the impersonation field, it does mean he puts on some very good cockney voices when he’s throwing back people’s words at them, as he annotates their speech patterns at Covent Garden in the rain. It becomes a slightly “in-joke” – everyone knows he’s Alistair McGowan, renowned for his funny voices, and there he is doing them, but it’s all part of the play. But it’s not only the voices that impress, it’s his mannerisms and bearing. I’ve always thought of him as being a bit of a scruffy urchin, with a very bendy physicality to him which allows him to impersonate others so well. Here he uses that informality to great effect, coming across much more as an errant schoolboy than as an esteemed professor. When he’s under pressure, he hops from side to side, jiggles his hands in his pockets, can’t make eye contact with his mum – most unlike Rex Harrison. It’s a very different reading of the role from the norm – and it works really well.

Jamie Foreman & Alistair McGowanRachel Barry is a very fine Eliza, both as flower girl standing up to the toffs, and as heartbroken lady dealing with the fall-out of the wretched professor’s bet. Her comic timing is immaculate in the “At Home” scene, and her resilience at the end, when faced with her understanding of the truth, is admirable. Jamie Foreman steals every scene he is in as Doolittle, his huge cockney brashness wheedling to get some cash out of Higgins as he tries to “sell” Eliza, and then dismally accepting his new found richesse, which sees him ascend into the grand surroundings of Mrs Higgins’ drawing room. Rula Lenska gives a dignified, but twinkling-in-the-eye performance as Mrs H, accepting no nonsense from her disappointing son but trying to carry on with the established behaviour expected of her. There’s also excellent support from Charlotte Page as the rather scary but essentially kind Mrs Pearce, Anna O’Grady as the somewhat petulant but very modern Clara, Jane Lambert as a rather tragic Mrs Eynsford-Hill, confessing her relative poverty with embarrassment whilst still keeping up appearances with the trappings of wealth, and Lewis Collier as a splendidly nincompoop Freddy, laughing at anything and everything.

David Grindley’s straightforward production allows Shaw’s text to do all the talking and proves that it still has a lot to say about class and relationships. Lots of fun, and definitely worth catching, if you can get to Canterbury this week, with Plymouth and Norwich still to come.

Review – Dry Rot, Milton Keynes Theatre, 5th September 2012

Dry RotWhen I was ten, my Mum took me to see Brian Rix in “She’s Done it Again” at the Garrick Theatre – one of the last “Whitehall” farces to grace the London stage, and I remember loving it. One day over a pint I’ll tell you about how nice Brian Rix was to me when I met him that day at the stage door; but that’s another story. I do clearly remember buying a souvenir brochure that detailed all the Whitehall farces from “Reluctant Heroes” in 1950 up to the aforesaid “She’s Done it Again” in 1970; and it included photos and production details of the original production of “Dry Rot”, which ran at the Whitehall from 1954 to 1958. So it’s taken me a long time to get round to seeing it!

Unfortunately it was a “Show Alone” night, as Mrs Chrisparkle was unable to get out of a work commitment, so it was just Pinot for One as I took my seat in Row A. Those naughty people at the Milton Keynes Theatre have ruined their stalls, by the way. By far the best seats in the house used to be Row C, a perfect distance from the stage (fifth row back), and with a small rake from Row B in front. They’ve now created Row CC, between rows B and C, which means the once delightfully spacious legroom of Row C has disappeared and you’re now going to be looking directly at the heads of people in Row CC, as they’ve also eliminated the little rake. Row A is now the best front stalls seat, as it still has a rake behind Row BB, and is a good distance from the stage for plays, although a bit close for musicals and dance. Is that too much information for you?

Gemma Bissix Anyway back to the show. The evening definitely suffered from having quite a thin audience; laughter surrounding you makes comedy funnier, no matter what’s happening on stage. There were plenty of opportunities for amused snorts, giggles and a couple of hefty laughs, but my overwhelming reaction to the production was that it was a small affair dwarfed by too large a theatre. The set was pretty basic, and the off-stage sound effects sounded highly artificial, although the costumes were adequate and I didn’t notice anything wrong with the lighting. There’s a lot of comment in the programme about how farce is an enduring genre of comedy – with which I entirely agree – but to be honest this play struck me as being firmly the kind that would have entertained our grandparents and I felt it was very dated. There’s a lot of laughing at foreigners (well one foreigner) for simply not having the decency to speak English (one of my pet-hates in the theatre); when we’re not laughing at him and his seely Frensh aczent we’re meant to be laughing at the over-the-top yokel vocal and behaviour of the maid (Gemma Bissix stretching credulity to the limit for most of the evening); or the posh/common accents of the bookie and his runner; or the stiff uppers of the retired Colonel and his Memsahib, who run the hotel where all the madcap events take place.

Neil Stacy There are some good performances but I also thought a lot of the set piece farce action was a little sloppy in places. The (various) feet going through the dry rot hole on the stairs was telegraphed a mile off each time; the stumbling around of the stupefied French jockey seemed to lack comic timing; and I thought the final tableau where all the various chaotic events were meant to come together just looked a mess. Most of the comic business needed to be snappier and the whole pace of the farce sequences needed to be a bit more frenetic.

Liza Goddard That said, I really enjoyed the performances of Neil Stacy as Colonel Wagstaff and Liza Goddard as his wife. They have natural stage authority and made their rather one-dimensional characters completely believable. Ms Goddard’s slightly wide-eyed innocence was perfect for Mrs Wagstaff and Mr Stacy’s Last Days of the Raj Colonel’s voice seemed modelled on the Jungle Book’s Colonel Hathi, which was no bad thing. John Chapman reserved all the best lines in the play for the Colonel, and even though from the viewpoint of 2012 he’s an outdated fuddy-duddy, it’s still the performance of the night.

Evelyn Adams I also liked Evelyn Adams as their daughter Susan, endearingly posh and polite, struggling to be correct when dealing with the refined advances of Mark Martin’s John Danby, another good performance. Miss Adams pitches her performance on the right side of cute, which is also no bad thing.

Mark MartinFor me, where the show didn’t work was with the three low-life bookie rascals. For this show to succeed, I believe you have to look on these characters as loveable rogues. You can then be partly on their side and share in their deceit and villainy. The trouble was, I found them to be various degrees of irritating, and I simply didn’t care what happened to them. This is not because of how they were performed; I think it’s just the way they are written and how they embody a kind of stage villainy that hasn’t seen the light of day since the last episodes of Arthur Daley. I did think that Steven Blakeley as Fred Phipps did excellent pratfalls though, and the scene where he had to learn to ride the horse on the back of the sofa was technically very well done. There’s no doubt that Mr Blakeley has “gormless” off to a T, and that is meant as a compliment.

Steven Blakeley I did find the play rather depressingly class-stereotyped. I know that it’s a product of its time but it bothered me in a way that it wouldn’t have bothered me in a contemporary Coward or Rattigan play. Retired Colonels are duffers; domestic help are thick; bookies are villains; Frenchmen are irascible; policewomen are bombastic. I think I need more out of a comedy than that. Maybe if Mrs C had been with me I’d have enjoyed myself more, but in all honesty I think it’s a museum piece of a play, and you’d need to be well tanked-up and in a theatre full of like-minded (and tanked) people to really enjoy this one. It’s been touring, and with some cast changes from theatre to theatre, so you can still try your luck with it at Oxford, Brighton or Guildford after it leaves Milton Keynes.

PS. I forgot that actually the best performance of the night came from the lady who, fifteen minutes before curtain up, announced that the doors to the auditorium were open. She used tones of excitement and mystery; deployed light and shade; I detected Sturm und Drang; nuances of Brecht; Grotowski would have been thrilled. Auditioning for RADA or just wanting to make sure the hard-of-understanding pensioners got the message? Couldn’t tell. Had a foyer full of amused, if slightly stunned, people though.

Review – Sister Act, Milton Keynes Theatre, 21st June 2012

Sister ActRegular readers won’t be surprised to hear that Mrs Chrisparkle and I have never seen the original film of Sister Act but I always fancied seeing this show and wanted to catch it when it was at the Palladium, with Sheila Hancock as the Mother Superior. Alas it was not to be, but I jumped at the chance to see the current UK tour.

The story is pretty simple – showgirl Deloris sees gangster boyfriend murder a squealer so has to flee for safety. The softy police guy arranges for her to stay in the local convent, much to the disappointment of the rather staid Mother Superior but to the excitement of the nuns who learn amazing song and dance routines off her. As such their religious services gain massive popularity and thus Deloris’ cover is blown. The villains get close but it all ends with the suggestion of “happy ever after”.

With no pretensions to having a hidden message other than “evil is bad, good is great and isn’t it wonderful when we all get along”, this show is filled with feelgood fun-packed scenes and Mrs C and I sat through it beaming with pleasure. It looks smashing – lavish costumes, beautiful set, nicely lit; although some mischievous electricity gremlin turned up the house lights during a few scenes which felt odd. It’s got a nice big talented cast to use up the stage, and a superb twelve person orchestra which whacks out the jolly score superbly.

There were one or two slight issues that kept it in the realm of the 4* and not the 5* for me. For instance a couple of the numbers in the second half were over-amplified so that the lyrics were hard to follow; a shame, because the lyrics that we could decipher are really good. The nuns’ welcoming song “It’s Good to be a Nun” is very funny and the evil Curtis’ “When I Find My Baby” is nastily witty. Mind you, we both thought “Bless Our Show” strayed into the saccharine. That was the other slight problem; when the show gets a bit sentimental it loses some of its drive and punch, but that’s probably hard to avoid with the storyline as it is.

Cynthia Erivo What you certainly can say is that there are some terrific performances. As Deloris, Cynthia Erivo has a great presence, looks gorgeous and has a superb voice. She performs with gusto and pizzazz throughout, whilst still retaining the occasionally vulnerable aspect of her character. She creates an immensely warm and likeable atmosphere on stage, and having only graduated from RADA in 2010, I’m sure she will have a very successful career.

Julie AthertonJulie Atherton’s Sister Mary Robert, the rather timid postulant who gains confidence from her friendship with Deloris, has a belter of a beautiful clear voice which you could never predict from her diminutive appearance. Her character’s journey is very warmly told and Ms Atherton gives a super performance. Jacqueline Clarke, as Sister Jacqueline ClarkeMary Lazarus, has lost none of the cheeky charm she had as one of Dave Allen’s sketch partners back in the 1970s, and can use her relatively older age to great shock effect; like when she’s jazzing up some dance routines and dishing out some less than holy jokes in her no-nonsense manner. She was very funny and a huge hit with the audience.

Edward BaruwaEdward Baruwa plays Eddie Souther, the cop who rescues Deloris and hides her in the convent, and it’s probably the most realistic characterisation in the whole show. He’s a bit wet really, but struggles manfully with his wimpiness to great comic and emotional effect. His growing confidence with Deloris is a delight to watch and he has a brilliant routine – “I Could Be That Guy” – where he dreams of “coming on strong”, with his wonderful pastiche of slightly hamfisted 1970s soul performer. And with some very cleverly done changes of outfit – I saw how they did the first one but the second one was a big surprise! I really enjoyed his performance, and of course it’s very rewarding when his character saves the day at the end.

Cavin CornwallStraight out of pantomime, and absolutely excellent with it, is the evil Curtis played by Cavin Cornwall. Mr Cornwall has a magnificent voice and is convincingly nasty in his ruthlessness. He has scary authority on stage which provides a very funny juxtaposition with his ludicrous henchmen when they turn into backing singers and dancers – more entertaining performances from Michael StarkeGavin Alex, Tyrone Huntley and Daniel Stockton. Michael Starke’s Monsignor O’Hara is another very good performance, as he develops from being a rather starchy clergyman to a glitzy showbiz compère. I think his secret is that he gets just the right level of campness to the character so that it’s all the more believable.

Denise BlackIndeed the whole cast are excellent; I just have a slight quibble about Denise Black’s performance as the Mother Superior. She has a superb voice, and I loved her singing – she absolutely looks the part and gives a good combination of innate dignity and very human irritation when having to deal with Deloris. But I felt that she didn’t quite tweak all the humour or pathos out of the role. I’m sure she could have emphasised her withering looks or simply spoken the words in a more creative, slightly less pedestrian way.

Musically, the songs are bright and have good tunes but are strangely unmemorable. We enjoyed hearing them very much but when we left the theatre found we couldn’t bring any of them to mind – in fact we reached the car singing “You Can’t Stop The Beat” from Hairspray, very much in the same style as the Sister Act songs; but it’s not a good sign when you’re reminded of other shows. Mrs C in particular thought the only thing Sister Act lacked was a couple of strong numbers with really good hooks. On reflection, the lyrics are definitely more memorable than the tunes.

However, it really is an enormously entertaining show and a feast for the eyes, with some cracking performances, a very funny book and a great feel good factor. It received a very big reception from the audience and I’m sure this tour, which goes on till October, will continue to be very successful. I’d definitely recommend it.

Review – Balletboyz, The Talent, Milton Keynes Theatre, 1st February 2012

Balletboyz - The TalentIt was almost seven months ago that I booked tickets to see this, as we hadn’t caught the Balletboyz for a few yearz. I was always impressed by the way they took the media and used it to further their post-Royal Ballet careers and I am sure they have done a lot for widening the appeal of ballet and contemporary dance, which has to be worth a round of applause in itself.

Original BalletboyzBut surely those Boyz are getting on a bit now? To be honest I’d be surprised if they couldn’t still dazzle like in the old days, and I hoped they would make even just a brief appearance but it seems they are Officially Retired from the stage. So whilst the stage of the Milton Keynes theatre was ablaze with Ballet Boys, they weren’t the Ballet Boyz, if you get my drift.

Balletboyz - New Recruits who seem to have forgotten their clothes They have done some extensive recruiting which you can read about in the programme and at last night’s show presented eight young male dancers, performing their socks off and as close to the top of their game as you could reasonably expect. I bet Michael and Billy are terrific coaches and mentors.

TorsionThe first dance is Russell Maliphant’s Torsion, which was always their top party piece. It’s now been extended to become a dance for six. When Da Boyz used to do it, it was a real duel; full of antagonism and aggressive confrontation; you felt that when they danced in unison it was full of resentment, and they needed to break apart and attain domination. It’s always been a real tour de force. This new staging has transformed it into a much less aggressive, more supportive piece; it has softer edges and you feel that the characters are actually helping and caring for each other rather than trying to get one up on each other.

Leon PoultonThe lighting was great – as it was for the entire evening. In the opening sequence, I really liked how each dancer was trapped in their own spotlight position, dancing anything from gracefully to frenziedly but with their feet still largely secured to the floor and certainly not breaking out of the light circle. The overwhelming sense I got from the piece was one of immense control. The dancers’ movements were so fluid and assured, it really was quite incredible to watch. It’s unnecessary to identify any one particular dancer’s excellence over another in such a uniform company, but I really must commend Leon Poulton’s remarkable ability to dance on his knees. I was wincing in referred pain as I watched, spellbound. When the whole dance had finished Mrs Chrisparkle and I turned to each other and exchanged mutual wows. I felt that they had really laid down the gauntlet of a standard of excellence for other contemporary dance companies to achieve.

AlphaIntroducing the second item was a short video, in pure Balletboyz tradition. It showed the new company in audition, in rehearsal, and on the beach. And huddling semi-naked together. Apparently in jockstraps. I know sex sells, but I think when they throw those images in for no other relevant reason to the dance itself, they slightly cheapen their brand. Maybe because I was on “sex-alert” by this stage, I found the second piece, Alpha, choreographed by Paul Roberts, slightly uncomfortable to watch. As with the previous piece, it was danced with superb fluidity and strong grace, but I found the floaty costumes that deliberately evaporated away from chests and arms a little disconcerting. Mrs C, on the other hand, found it captivating. The backing music of slide guitar and voice by Keaton Henson summoned up a relaxed and lazy air which was sometimes at odds with the high energy dance work. It ends with some strong visual images and exciting acrobatic dancing, but I confess it was my least favourite of the night.

VoidLeading into the third and final dance, Void by Jarek Cemerek, is another video which continues playing as the dance unfolds and transforms the back of the stage into a dismal urban landscape, perfect for the street events Void depicts. The endless rut of approaching car and departing bus gives a feeling of permanent despair and you guess that’s what the lives of these dancing hoodies would be like. A clever light effect on the dancers’ faces makes them look criss-crossed, like a mesh effect, suggestive of their being trapped in a cage. A superbly ominous backing track develops into a big fight scene between the dancers, as though West Side Story has just met the 21st century. The dance explodes into a cross between violent attack and circus style tumbling as the characters career and collide into each other, changing allegiances and heightening tension.

Jarek Cemerek There’s a (relatively) simple but visually memorable sequence when six of them gather on the remaining one, isolated by light, which leads to an eloquent solo by (I think) Anthony Middleton. All throughout the dance the video wall remains a gloomy visual framework. Mrs C felt it was probably the best integration of video and dance she has ever seen, and I think she’s darn right. Another great light trick is played in the final sequence when the dancers are silhouetted against a bright background and a sudden snap of darkness causes a rapid conclusion to the dance. Really stunning stuff. Some of it put me in mind of Christopher Bruce at his best – I think Mr Cemerek may be a great choreographer of the future.

Anthony MiddletonThe programme notes discuss the decision to make this an all-male company. The Original-B-Boyz believe that the company’s work and identity was always male-dominated, and that whilst they did have female dancers too, most notably Oxana Panchenko, who I personally always really enjoyed in their appearances a few years ago, it probably gives them greater artistic freedom to be an all-male company, because, basically, they can chuck each other around as tough as they like. Whilst I’m sure this is true, for me, I did feel a slight sense of imbalance at this all-male world. But this is a mere quibble. Balletboyz – The Talent is a superb presentation of contemporary dance; strong, controlled, quirky, graceful, supportive and constantly surprising. They have raised the bar to a higher level of superlatives with this show. Or should that be the barre? Anyway, they’ve got an extensive tour lined up and I really think you ought to go see them.

Review – Henry V, Propeller Theatre Company, Milton Keynes Theatre, December 1st 2011

Henry VThis was our first experience of the Propeller Theatre Company, of whom I had heard Good Things, and I can understand the hype. They tackle the text head on, making those Shakespearean words as meaningful as possible; and involve the audience and indeed even the theatre building itself as much as they can, which gives the play instant impact and keeps it relevant to today. The programme describes the company as “an all-male Shakespeare company, which mixes a rigorous approach to the text with a modern physical aesthetic”. I couldn’t have put it better myself.

I loved the ways this production broke down barriers: physical ones. Members of the company dressed in terrorist style combats infiltrated the bar and lobbies of the theatre before the show starts. The company accessed the auditorium through the public entrances, emerging on to the stage from behind the audience rather than coming on from the wings or the back. They sang songs in front of the box office during the interval. They chatted with audience members from the stage and from the aisles at the beginning of the second half. It’s all very involving and inclusive. You felt that the actors actually realised we were there with them, and took us personally into account when they performed. Obviously, it’s all rehearsed but nevertheless it has a spontaneous feel to it. Director Edward Hall and the company must all have a terrific relationship together, providing a strong ensemble element to the production whilst the individual actors still all have their own separate and well-defined characters.

Dugald Bruce-Lockhart Nowhere is this better utilised than in Henry V’s Chorus. A difficult one to get right, I feel. Is it an everyman character? Perhaps a lone soldier? A courtier? The Chorus plays an important role in moving the play forwards, stage by stage, location by location, and keeps explaining the progress of the play in a most helpful manner. In this production, the entire cast take on the role of the Chorus, each taking individual lines. It’s a good way of introducing the main players in each scene, and commenting on what will unfold in each act. In Act Two, for example, the Chorus identifies the three traitors who will be executed, and the three actors who play the traitors, don their costumes as they are introduced, making it visually clearer what is going on. A Brechtian approach, 300 years before Brecht.

Chris Myles The use of music within the production is also strong and telling. Many of the performers are skilled musicians, and more barriers are broken by use of modern songs – I loved the use of the Clash’s London Calling, for example. And then there is the depiction of violence. In an era where computer games have created “death-lite” and its horror is losing its impact, this production aligns the violence in the play with an additional visual device, making it slightly less violent in reality but not in effect.

John DougallFor example, when a soldier is being attacked on the battle field, the attacker is shown hitting a punchbag at the side of the stage, and at the sound of the impact, the victim falls or reacts to the punch centre stage – but there is no actual violent act depicted on the actor himself. The most effective use of this device was the beheading of the three traitors: the executioner dramatically wields his axe into a wooden stump, and at the sight and sound of the blow, the three traitors behind all drop down in instantaneous lifelessness. Really different – and a really stunning effect.

Nicholas Asbury I felt there were only two aspects of the production that could have been improved. One of them is Shakespeare’s fault. This is a play about a warrior nation, led by a warrior king, and there are lots – and lots – of battle scenes. About halfway through the second half, it all began to get a bit samey. As we had been treated to so many visually intriguing devices and characterisations, maybe we had been a bit spoiled by what had gone on so far. The continuous battlefield stuff just got a little dull for me. In fact Mrs Chrisparkle allowed herself forty winks during this period. But I blame Shakespeare. He didn’t always get it right.

Gunnar Cauthery The other slight problem for me was the performance of Dugald Bruce-Lockhart as Henry V. There are at least four aspects to the warrior king – the warmonger, the negotiator, the magnanimous victor, and the ham-fisted lover. Working backwards, the final “love” scenes with Katherine were light, gauche, awkward and extremely funny. Mr Bruce-Lockhart was perfectly cast for that aspect of the part. As the magnanimous victor, he was also extremely convincing; a very noble king, keen to hear the names of the fallen in battle and that their names should be given due reverence. His refined bearing helped enormously in giving the impression of fairness in battle, and decency in triumph. As a negotiator with the French King and the Herald, his diffidence didn’t always quite make sense to me. I didn’t get a sense of his motives or the justice behind his claim. And as an actual warrior, I’m afraid I wasn’t really convinced at all. His voice and characterisation was for me too mild. I didn’t get the feeling that he would motivate me on the battlefield to go off and do his bloody work for him. I think maybe he was just a bit too nice.

Karl Davies Other members of the cast though hit exactly the right note. I particularly liked Chris Myles as the Duke of Exeter, a purposeful soldier with a touch of Field Marshal Montgomery about him, shrewd eyes pointing withering looks to the French Herald. John Dougall’s French King had an excellent superior disdain in his dealings with the English in the early scenes and had diminished nicely to vanquished status by the end. Nicely stated supporting performances by Nicholas Asbury as the effete French Herald Montjoy, Gunnar Cauthery as the Dauphin, but particularly good I thought as the Archbishop of Canterbury, and Karl Davies as Scroop and Katherine, all gave the production additional power and resonance.

A strong production performed by an excellent ensemble, touring into next summer. I recommend it.

Review – Dave Gorman’s Powerpoint Presentation, Milton Keynes Theatre, October 31st 2011

Dave GormanHere’s another comic that we’ve never seen live before – in fact, I’m not sure I’ve really seen him at all before. I knew he had a good reputation from his Googlewhack concept – and he can be very entertaining on twitter. So I thought it was high time I broke my Dave Gorman virginity. And I saw at first hand that he’s hugely popular! The Milton Keynes theatre was packed out on a Monday night. All ages were represented, but I’d say there were many more boys than girls. It’s not often that the queue for the gents is that long in a theatre interval.

I was a bit concerned that the powerpoint presentation aspect to the show would end up crushing the spontaneity of the performer with the audience. When we saw Jimmy Carr last year, I really didn’t enjoy the sequences when he lectured us with accompanying powerpoint illustrations on a projected screen. It inhibits the comedy rather than releases it. And I’m afraid I think the same applied to Mr Gorman. His act is beautifully hand-crafted, like an exquisite Strictly Come Dancing costume; but (I’m guessing) everything he says has to follow his pre-ordained powerpoint sequence, and he hasn’t got much scope to deviate from his script. This is not a criticism, but never before have I seen such a major comic act hardly engage with the audience at all. He looks at us a lot, and talks to us, but he doesn’t meet us. The whole performance is not so much a stand-up, more a one-man comic play.

A good example of this is that a few seats behind us was a man who sat through the entire evening guffawing at the top of his voice, at times making the rest of the audience laugh at him, at other times really getting on everyone’s nerves. I am sure every other comic I have seen would have made some reference at some point to this extraordinarily noisy bloke. But Dave Gorman ignored it totally and kept on with the script. I sensed that if there were a fire in the circle he would have carried on regardless.

Dave Gorman's Powerpoint PresentationThat’s not to say the show isn’t funny, because it is. There are lots of amusing observations about the nonsenses of life. If you like your internet stuff, and are a facebook and twitter user, there are loads of references which will absolutely hit the mark with you. A lot of his material is rather egocentric, although not in a big-headed way; for example, there is a long sequence about the fact that he is often mistaken for being Jewish; he talks, and shows, the photographs people submit to him online that are meant to be look-alikes of him; he talks about his weight, and his experiments with odd diets; his twitter arguments; and so on. He doesn’t seem to involve other people in his observations much. It came across to me as being rather introverted comedy.

It didn’t help that he was over-amplified, a common problem at the Milton Keynes Theatre, so sometimes his speech sounded a little distorted where we were in Row A. When he spoke loudly and fast – sometimes very fast – I honestly couldn’t discern some of the words. At the end of the show he announced, I think, that he would be in the foyer doing some signing; but actually what I heard sounded like an angry dog refusing to let go of a chew.

Jay ForemanHe is supported by comedy songsmith Jay Foreman, who gives us a nice warm up act with some very imaginative songs. The next morning we were still singing about the Moon Chavs. He must have sold a lot of CDs in the interval, judging from the queue.

In conclusion, I was a little disappointed – but I readily admit I’m sure I was in the minority.