Review – King Charles III, Milton Keynes Theatre, 12th October 2015

King Charles IIII didn’t have much expectation of King Charles III before we saw it, as I didn’t know much about it. I knew it had received some glowing reviews and had done very good business in the West End – and that it had won the Olivier Award for Best New Play of 2014. I knew it was written by Mike Bartlett, whose Love Love Love we had seen in 2011, which we thought was a meaty and challenging play, and largely enjoyable. It wasn’t until I arrived at the theatre and read the programme that I realised it starred Robert Powell – a big name and seasoned performer – and not until I actually started watching the play that I realised it was in blank verse; like Christopher Fry, and TS Eliot, and…Shakespeare.

Robert PowellHold that discovery a moment whilst I give you a flavour of the plot. The Queen is dead, long live the King. The play opens with the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II and the reality for Charles that he is finally to become King. His close family and aides are there for support, but you don’t really get the sense that he is ready for the challenge. However, when he has his first regular meeting with the Prime Minister, he questions a bill he is about to sign – that of restricting the freedom of the press following all the News International phone hacking scandals (yes, Murdoch, I’m looking at you.) The PM and the King don’t see eye to eye on the bill, and with the PM refusing to give way because it has gone through both Houses of Parliament and has received the necessary backing, the King refuses to sign. This simple action – or inaction – starts a chain of events where no one backs down; and when the PM sets up another bill to make it unnecessary to have the Royal Signature for the law to be enacted, the King turns up at the House of Commons, and, as is his right, dissolves parliament.

Richard GlavesIt’s an intriguing story line, and, approached differently, could I think have made for a lively, dynamic, dramatic play which would have educated and entertained with humour, satire, characterisation and some funny lines. However, sadly, in my opinion, being chained to the sub-Shakespearean blank verse makes you link it inextricably in your mind with the Bard’s History Plays; and as Mr Bartlett isn’t Shakespeare – I doubt you’d consider him a poet – he is weighed in the balance and found wanting. As a result, this just came over to me as an immensely tedious play, hugely self-indulgent, and almost totally lacking dramatic tension.

Tim TreloarTo me it seems to be a play that doesn’t know its own identity. Is it a comedy? A straight play? A fantasy? A parody? Half the characters are real members of the Royal Family, the rest are Mr Bartlett’s inventions; that’s fine, but within the characters whom we know, some of them are impersonations (William and Kate), some are half-impersonations (Charles and Harry) and one is nothing like an impersonation (Camilla). There’s no consistency in the way the characters are presented to us. Combine that with the use of versified text, some of which rhymes, most of which doesn’t, and you get an overwhelming feeling of artificiality. The use of plainsong, the use of masks (including a Fluck and Law Spitting Image Charles which I thought was just woeful and killed any vestige of dignity to which the play might have had pretensions) and the use of equally cringe-making ghosts (not so much Hamlet’s Father but William’s Mother) means there’s no attempt at reality and, I felt, barely any connection to the audience at all. We had a long should we/shouldn’t we leave at the interval session but decided to stay because I did have a faint interest in how it was going to get resolved. However, there’s a long scene in the second act where William proposes to act as a go-between between the King and the country, and the writing is as dull as ditchwater and completely without drama; it was about this time that I decided the only way this play could be rescued would be by having Fortinbras arrive in the final scene, defeat the House of Windsor in battle and take control over the land. Not that we want Norwegian prices in this country, I confess. Mrs Chrisparkle instead decided to give up and just go to sleep, believing that giving her brain and body a well-earned rest from the rigours of the day was a much more productive way of spending those sixty minutes.

Giles TaylorCredit where it’s due, Tom Scutt has created an imposing stage design that nicely conveys the austere grandeur of the Westminster Hall setting for lying in state, and functional parliamentary offices where constitution issues are debated with increasing incredulity. But you don’t get a feeling for any other setting, such as the opulence of the Royal Palaces or the outside world where Prince Harry might have a fling. Jocelyn Pook’s moody choral compositions for the State occasions are atmospheric and sung quite beautifully. Robert Powell is of course a fine actor with a strong stage presence, and he does bring some warmth and a sense of self-awareness to the role of Charles. Richard Glaves gives a good performance as Harry, with a suitably Sloany voice and a surprising lack of interest in Things Royal; but other than that, the performances that impress more are of the imaginary characters – Tim Treloar in great form as the Kinnock-based PM, Giles Taylor as the manipulative Leader of the Opposition and Lucy Phelps as Harry’s girlfriend Jess; part fish out of water, part wise Fool who sees the truth.

Lucy PhelpsFortinbras doesn’t turn up – shame – and I think the ending is something of a damp squib, which is saying something considering the general level of boredom that the rest of the play engenders. In the programme notes, Robert Powell says he thinks the play is a masterpiece. Well, considering it sold out the West End, is touring the country and going to both Broadway and Australia, it’s certainly convinced some people of its worth. Personally, I thought it was full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. I really didn’t like it. I guess it was just not my cup of Duchy Originals Organic Earl Grey.

Review – Saturday Night Fever, Milton Keynes Theatre, 24th February 2015

Saturday Night FeverDid you see the film of Saturday Night Fever? I loved it. I was exactly the right age for it, being 18 when I was taken for a night out in Toronto by my cousins for a meal, some drinks and a movie. Originally I’d wanted to go to the USA as part of my gap year, but staying with relatives in Canada was so much cheaper and easier, and I had a whale of a time. And at least Canada was on the right side of the Atlantic to watch Saturday Night Fever. It felt remarkably cosmopolitan to see it surrounded by genuine North American accents.

Danny BayneI’d already taken the songs to my heart. I especially liked Stayin’ Alive, with that John Travolta video of the arrogant Tony Manero walking down the street, in the opening sequence of the film. It was strangely aspirational to be like him, even though, for the most part, the character is a complete toe-rag. Cool, trendy, successful with girls. What’s not to like? I actually learned the dance steps to the song Night Fever so that I could be a wow at the disco. Not that I hardly ever went to discos. I can still remember some of it – twisting the torso left and right with your arms spinning into claps whilst your feet traced out the letter N on the floor. If I did it now I’d need an immediate appointment with the chiropractor. I remember how the story of the film turned dark, with the tragic suicide of Bobby falling off the bridge and the rape of Annette whilst she’s stoned. That all brought a lump to my throat first time round. I couldn’t remember how it ended – which is with Tony and Stephanie, his dance partner, sharing a quiet moment where he tries to make good all the bad things he’d done. Cue end credits.

Naomi SlightsYou can’t deny that the current touring production of Saturday Night Fever, produced by the Theatre Royal Bath, and this week at Milton Keynes, isn’t true to the original, apart from two rather odd inclusions. When Bobby sings about his troubled existence the song they use is Tragedy, not an inappropriate choice by any means, but which is from the Bee Gees’ Spirits Having Flown album, which came out in 1979, two years after the film of Saturday Night Fever. Not that anachronisms seem to be a problem here. The show starts with President Jimmy Carter’s 1979 TV address to the nation as a result of the current “crisis of confidence”, whilst New Yorkers queue up to buy gasoline, even though that’s again out by two years. The programme notes show that was a deliberate decision to change the setting to 1979; but with Saturday Night Fever being so definitely part of the 1977/78 me, it jarred. And anyway, why would all these trendy young disco-goers be dancing to songs two years out of date? They’d have moved on to Chic and Shalamar by now.

Bethany LinsdellThis is a good show but not a great one. There are plenty of positives: for example, the lighting is superb. All the way through, the use of colour and dazzling light, as well as subtle shadows, gives you all the sensations of those disco days. The pulsating lights on the dance floor, vivid projections, and gloriously colourfully beautiful scenes evoke disco memories from way back when. The lighting enhances the all-round excitement and entertainment factor of the show, and it really contributes to show-stoppers like the performance of You Should Be Dancing just before the interval. This is another of those productions where the performers play the instruments on stage, and the music they create is amazing. For me it’s the brass that really stands out, and gives extra drive and power to all those famous songs. The choreography is faithful to the original style but is new for this production, and is probably the best I’ve ever seen from choreographer Andrew Wright; and the performers dance with style, attack and conviction. This is evident not only in the classic disco numbers, but also the Latin American sequences danced by Cesar and Maria in the dance contest (Michael Stewart and Alishia-Marie Blake on stonking good form). Simon Kenny’s set adapts and blends constantly, recreating the disco, the bridge, the rehearsal studio, and various cafes and restaurants with apparently effortless ease. We particularly liked how it created those intimate booths you get at restaurants and bars – really inventive.

Matthew QuinnSome of the set piece drama moments worked extremely well. I thought the return of Frank Jnr, Tony’s ex-priest brother, was very convincing – with the chillingly cold response from his parents compared to the warm brotherly relationship he would continue to enjoy with Tony. Matthew Quinn played Frank Jnr with sincerity and anguish, almost tongue-tied at his inability to really explain his decision to leave the priesthood, and amusingly out of place in the New York discos. Rhona McGregor was their deeply religious mother Flo, extracting all the catholic guilt and intolerance she could out of her few angry and pious scenes; and Mike Lloyd was also excellent as their hypocritically idle father, quick to criticise but slow to set an example. The death of Bobby and the rape of Annette were moving and uncomfortable to watch. And I really liked the scene were Tony, Bobby and their other two hoodlum mates Joey and Double J were complaining about how dead-end their existence is, then creating the rhythms to their performance of Jive Talkin’ by banging on the side of boxes and bouncing their basketball – very dramatic and effective (and it had to be played with very deft use of props or else it would have been a disaster!)

Rhona McGregorThe main problem with the whole show is that felt to me very unbalanced. I went into the interval feeling quite exhilarated, and appreciative of the great songs, dance routines and general technical prowess of the whole thing. By comparison the second act seemed really quite dull. Unfortunately, by then they’ve used up most of the best songs, the pace seems to drag, the party feel dies away as the story gets darker, and the whole show seems to run out of puff. When Tony and Stephanie sing How Deep is Your Love on the steps to her apartment, I had no idea at all that was going to be the final scene. Suddenly various dancers are appearing front stage and taking their bows and I actually said out loud, “Wow, is that it? Has it finished?” Indeed it had finished, bar a party style finale where some of the best songs are reprised but by then we were largely too sapped to care, too down to be up. The cast did their best to get us dancing but they didn’t succeed. I felt rather sorry for them really.

Mike LloydDanny Bayne who plays Tony is an excellent song and dance man and comes close to encompassing the character’s vanity and essential cruelty, but both Mrs Chrisparkle and I felt that the combination of him, Rory Phelan as Joey and Llandyll Gove as Double J just somehow lacked a certain oomph. The characters seemed almost interchangeable; they didn’t (for me) establish much of an individuality. Not so with Alex Lodge as Bobby, because his character is so different from his mates and he does a good job of conveying Bobby’s anxieties and fears, as well as his frustration at not being understood.

Alex LodgeNaomi Slights’ Stephanie is a no-nonsense smarty-pants with her sights set firmly on climbing the social ladder, which reveals itself as she shows off in front of Tony’s pals without any sense of self-awareness. She’s a great dancer and looks terrific, and handles the tense relationship between her and Tony with admirable assertiveness. I also really liked Bethany Linsdell’s performance as Annette, desperate for some affection, faithful to Tony like a spanked puppy that keeps coming back to its master – she’s also a superb dancer. I was also impressed with CiCi Howells as the Club Singer – a great voice and stage presence, I rather think she might be Someone To Watch.

CiCi HowellsAll in all, an enjoyable night out, with some great singing and dancing, and a visually stunning stage show to watch. In the final analysis though, it just left me a bit cold. Brighton, Bradford, Birmingham, Richmond and Cardiff are the last places on its tour still to come; but I’m sure there will continue to be revivals after revivals.

Review – Jersey Boys, Milton Keynes Theatre, 3rd February 2015

Jersey BoysWhen Jersey Boys first hit the West End about six years ago I was quite keen to see it as I have always enjoyed the music of the Four Seasons. Mrs Chrisparkle wasn’t quite so keen, however, so we’ve never seen the show together in London. But as fate would have it, a couple of years ago when she was in New York on business there was an organised trip to see it, so she had no choice but to go. She reported back that she quite enjoyed it, but felt that the documentary/narration structure was a bit, well, tedious. So it was with good grace that she accepted the challenge of seeing it again when it toured to Milton Keynes, as I still wanted to see it. And then, in another unexpected twist, would you believe, she got called away back to New York on business again and so missed it. You couldn’t make it up. As the Crown Prince of Bedford has just discovered he’s partial to the music of Frankie Valli, there was no need for her seat to go empty.

Tim DriesenIn case you don’t know – although I’m sure you do – Jersey Boys is the tale of the rise and fall of The Four Seasons. Nothing to do with Vivaldi, a Channel Island tax haven or some guys whose mums have warned them it’s cold outside; this is the group from New Jersey (hereafter known as Noo Joisy), responsible for falsetto-based hits such as Walk Like a Man and Sherry (in the 60s) and more mainstream pop in the 70s like December 63 and Who Loves You. I clearly remember my father absolutely loving Walk Like a Man, and it’s one of the first songs I can recall from my childhood. Their 70s hits were an important part of my teenager years; you know how some songs always remind you of a particular occasion? I have a special fondness for Silver Star, which always takes me back to one, carefree, happy, summer’s day in 1975. I was sorry to see it doesn’t feature in the show.

Sam FerridayThe Four Seasons weren’t always named as such. They first started out as the Variety Trio, consisting of Tommy DeVito with his brother Nick and their friend Nick Massi. It wasn’t music that united them at that time as much as their fondness for going in and out of prison. The story takes us from those early years, where Tommy discovers and nurtures Frankie Castellucio (Valli) into becoming a singing sensation, through to their meeting Bob Gaudio, who becomes the fourth Season, and the man who writes the big hits. This is when the group is riding high. Things, inevitably, start to fade with the discovery of Tommy’s massive debts, and the personal falling-out between Tommy and Frankie over Tommy’s chatting up Frankie’s new girlfriend. Tommy leaves, Nick leaves; Bob gives in to the fact that he hates performing; so it is left to Frankie alone to become a front man for a new backing group. There are personal highs and lows throughout the show for all the group members, and each of them narrates a part of the story – Spring and Summer for the rise of the Seasons; Fall and Winter for the decline. It ends with each of the band members explaining what it was to be part of this amazing enterprise. I found it surprisingly moving.

Lewis GriffithsThis is a really enjoyable production of a lively and engaging show. It’s packed with enjoyable tunes, not only originally by the Four Seasons but also from other early 60s performers; and the regular troubles and conflicts within the ever-changing group line-up keep a dramatic intensity going that provides a backbone to the story. Marshall Brickman and Rick Elice’s book is full of wit and attitude; as well as the Seasons themselves there are many fascinating and well-fleshed out peripheral characters; and the performance of the music, by both the actors and the band, is stunning throughout. You know how some musicals can be really over-amplified and thus the sound is distorted or it jars your eardrums and makes them hurt? The volume for this production is perfect; sufficiently loud to be dynamic and exciting, whilst still being, if it isn’t too old-fashioned an observation, sensible.

Henry DavisTim Driesen is an astonishing Frankie Valli. His vocal impersonation of his original falsettos is spot-on; you wouldn’t know you weren’t listening to Mr Valli himself. There’s a great energy to his performance, but he also conveys the personal sadness that the character experiences with great pathos. Sam Ferriday presents Bob Gaudio as clean-cut, ambitious, and assertive; having much greater natural intelligence than his co-members; and his re-interpretation of the lyrics of Oh What A Night (December 63) means that song will never sound the same again.

Damian BuhagiarLewis Griffiths is a terrific Nick Massi – his intimidating presence lurking ominously in the background in the same way that his “doo-wops” lurk in the background of the Four Seasons songs. When his character finally comes to life and he gains his voice it adds a huge amount to the drama. In the performance I saw, Tommy DeVito was played by understudy Henry Davis and he was brilliant. A wisecracking, big-headed Noo Joisy louse, with his sense of his own importance becoming progressively more massively over-inflated as his actual influence on and contribution to the group declines; a really strong performance. Additionally the four guys together perform incredibly convincingly. Their outdated but impeccably smart dance moves that are carried out with apparently effortless ease conjure up an innocent sophistication that seems completely alien today – but it’s mesmerising on stage.

Matt GillettI really enjoyed Damian Buhagiar’s funny and punchy performance as the young Joe Pesci, introducing Bob Gaudio to the rest of the band and trying (unsuccessfully) to muscle in on their limelight; Matt Gillett gives lyricist Bob Crewe a very credible characterisation as a hard as nails producer tempered with a fluffy coating of camp; and Sean Kingsley is a strikingly effective gangster Gyp DeCarlo, blubbing at Valli’s sentimental rendition of My Mother’s Eyes, whilst looking as though he could tear you limb from limb any second. And hats off to musical supervisor Ron Melrose; the band is simply ace. I was perhaps a little surprised that the end of the show didn’t climax into a stand-up, no holding back, concert-style finale, like Sunny Afternoon; but no, it finishes with a simple rendition of Who Loves You, and that’s that. Not a concert; just like a proper musical, really.

Sean KingsleyJersey Boys attracts a wide range of theatregoers, from the very young to those who would have already have been about a bit during the group’s 60s heyday. It went down massively well in the theatre, with a very enthusiastic standing ovation. It would certainly help your enjoyment of this show if you’re already a Valli/Four Seasons fan, but even if not, the fascinating backstory of the group’s various stages and levels of success is definitely a tale worth telling. Mrs C told me I’d be singing Walk Like a Man for days afterwards. She wasn’t wrong.

P.S. It appears that not everyone felt that the volume was perfect. During the interval and at the end there were some people remonstrating with the theatre management that it wasn’t loud enough up in the Gods. Unfortunate for them, I guess; but any louder and it wouldn’t have been half so enjoyable in the stalls. Some you win, some you lose.

Review – Calamity Jane, Milton Keynes Theatre, 25th November 2014

Calamity JaneAs soon as I saw this touring show was coming to Milton Keynes, I knew I had to book straight away. Not only does it star one of our favourite performers, Jodie Prenger, but Mrs Chrisparkle was raised on a diet of Doris Day movies, with Calamity Jane being her favourite childhood memory. We only have to go out in a gentle breeze for her to suddenly burst forward with a chorus of “the windy city is mighty pretty….”, or to walk up a small hill for her sing “oh the Deadwood stage is headin’ on over the hills…” – I’m sure you get the picture. The young Miss Duncansby (as she was then) was never happier than when riding shotgun through those rough areas of New South Wales where she brought up, knocking back the sarsaparillas, dressed as a squaw.

Jodie PrengerFortunately times change, but her fondness for that old film and its songs is unshakeable. Consequently, it’s fairly amazing to think that, in all these intervening years, she’s never got me sat down to watch the film on TV, so I didn’t know what to expect from the story. If you don’t know the plot either, here’s a brief outline. Calamity Jane (Calam to her friends) is the tomboyest tomboy this side of the Black Hills of Dakota, and rides the stagecoach, shooting to warn off (I hope not to kill) those pesky Injuns with their arrows. She’s pals with Wild Bill Hickok, but has a yearning for Lt Danny Gilmartin that isn’t reciprocated. One day Calam has to ride into Chicago to bring back a famous actress that the men of Deadwood fancy something rotten, to appear at the Golden Garter saloon. Tom ListerNone of them has ever seen her, they only know her from her image in much lusted after cigarette cards. Thus Calam mistakenly brings back the wrong girl – a wannabe singer/actress – who gets found out, and it could have ended very nastily were it not for the fact that the wrong girl is a very sweet girl by the name of Katie Brown, who beguiles all the men, becomes best mates with Calam and indeed they end up sharing the same chalet. How does this menage à quatre sort itself out? That’s the show.

Jodie Prenger and Tom ListerI’ve rarely been in a theatre where the atmosphere of expectation and excitement was as tangible as it was in Milton Keynes on Tuesday night. The show opens with the curtain down, a banjo hanging from a hook in full view of the audience; on saunters Jamie Noar (I think) as Hank, takes down the banjo and gently starts to strum – and half the audience started humming along with him! I felt as though I was in another world. When the curtain eventually opens up it reveals the Golden Garter saloon, and it’s as Wild Westy as you could imagine. A shoddy little stage at the back, a plinky plonky piano up front, bare wooden chairs and balconies, and everyone dressed like they’re in a John Wayne movie. It’s a very convincing staging – the only criticism I would have is that there’s not a huge amount of space left for dancing, but the cast cope with that problem admirably.

Calamity Jane musiciansThis is a Watermill Theatre production, so you know what that means, don’t you? No separate orchestra or band, instead the cast members play the instruments themselves on the stage, integrating the acting and the music to perfection. The first time I saw this trick (in Chess) it didn’t really work that well for me – it made the stage very messy and created blocking problems. Since then I’ve seen it done a few times and they’re getting better and better at it. Indeed I recognised a few members of the cast from the similarly staged production of Fiddler on the Roof earlier this year – I guess if you have the skill of being both an actor and an instrumental soloist, you’re in luck where it comes to this kind of production. Suffice to say the musical performances were all terrific.

Phoebe StreetI must say that technically also this was a faultless performance by the cast. With all those instruments, loads of prop handling (guns, lassos, glasses, bottles), lots of choreography, special effects, costume changes and so on, they didn’t put a foot wrong. It must be rehearsed to within an inch of its life, yet it all still looks really natural. So, it was incredibly disappointing that the sound amplification in some of the big numbers let it down. To be honest, at times it sounded absolutely awful, especially before the interval. If it were an old hifi system, you’d say that the treble was turned up too much, creating a strange distortion. The instruments themselves sounded fine – but the voices could have been singing in a foreign language, it was that hard to make out the words. Sadly, this was most problematic for Ms Prenger, who’s got a belter of a voice and could have filled that auditorium without the need for a microphone.

Alex HammondDuring the interval I walked Mrs C over to the Merchandise stall and offered her a Calamity Jane mug, which she refused, a Calamity Jane hoodie, at which she looked daggers at me, and a Calamity Jane soundtrack CD which she said she would never play. Sigh; you just can’t help some people. Still she’s going to be most amused to find a Calamity Jane Stetson under the tree on Christmas morning.

Calamity Jane stageI don’t know if they tweaked some knobs during the interval but the voices were much clearer in the second half which was a huge relief. The amplification issue notwithstanding, nothing could detract from the standard of the performances, which were terrific and made the whole evening enormous fun from start to finish. Jodie Prenger has a wonderful stage presence and is the focal point for the whole show with her bubbly personality. She makes the most of all the comedy in the role, but is also very moving when it comes to the character’s inability to girl-up. Tomboy she may be, but inside she’s all woman. For me the highlight of the entire show was her incredible performance of Secret Love which gave me goosebumps – emotional, beautiful; it really soared.

Jon BonnerTom Lister as Wild Bill Hickok also gives a tremendous performance, mixing humour and pathos, and revealing a superb voice, particularly in Higher Than a Hawk, which had the audience so spellbound you could hear the proverbial pin drop. With Alex Hammond as Danny, the two leading men give a very entertaining “rivals in love” performance, and together with Phoebe Street’s charming performance as Katie, they’re quite a show-stopping foursome. The man sat behind me was really enjoying the show, getting totally carried away with the story. When Danny finally planted a smacker on Katie’s lips, he let out an involuntary “Go on, my son!” much to everyone’s amusement.

Martin McCarthyFinishing with an ending of almost Shakespearean comedy marriage dimensions, there are also very enjoyable musical and comic performances from Rob Delaney as Francis Fryer and Sioned Saunders as Susan. The rest of the cast all turn in excellent performances, and I was particularly impressed with Anthony Dunn’s hearty Henry Miller, Jon Bonner’s amusingly squeaky Doc, Paul Kissaun’s laid-back Rattlesnake and Christina Tedders’ bitchy Adelaid. Plus, as dance captain, Martin McCarthy as Joe is obviously keeping everyone on their toes with some really well executed dances, most obvious in the delightful curtain call which turns into a wonderful reprise-led hoe-down.

Rob DelaneyIt’s a really entertaining show that we both enjoyed tremendously. For me it was fascinating to see how all these well-known songs fit in to a story that I didn’t previously know; and the natural fun that comes from the story and the performances just seeps into your soul to send you home with a real feel-good feeling. The audience adored it – and I guarantee you’ll be humming The Black Hills of Dakota for days. There’s a long tour ahead, so you’ve plenty of opportunities to catch the show – it’s travelling all over England and Scotland between now and next July.

Sioned SaundersP. S. This was the first time I’ve ever seen a musical where the programme didn’t list the musical numbers. What’s all that about then? Makes reminiscing about it much harder, and you don’t know whereabouts you are in the show as it progresses. Minus mark for the programme writer! However, to make up for it, their marketing department did create this brilliant little trailer which should get your toes tappin’ in anticipatory glee!

Review – Peter James’ A Perfect Murder, Milton Keynes Theatre, 5th April 2014

Perfect MurderI love a murder mystery – Poirot, Miss Marple, Dalgleish, Morse (to include Lewis and Endeavour, of course) – it’s pure escapism, a challenge to the little grey cells, and, when done with aplomb, can also be scary, or funny, or both. Mrs Chrisparkle is very fond of the books of Peter James; in fact she and Lady Duncansby swap them during coffees and shopping trips. I haven’t discovered them yet, but I am assured that “Not Dead Yet” is a riveting read.

Simona Armstrong and Steven MillerSo I thought it would be a popular choice to see this touring production of Peter James’ A Perfect Murder, his 2010 novella (160 pages long according to Amazon). I thought it might become a springboard for me to start reading his books and spur Mrs C on to reading some more. Well I can’t compare it with his written work (and Mrs C hasn’t read this particular book yet) but her comment after the play was – “if he was hoping to sell a lot of books on the strength of this show he might have to think again”.

Les Dennis and Claire GooseThat sounds quite harsh to me – it’s not that bad a play at all; but I guess if you rate the books really highly and have quite precise and demanding expectations of how his plots might translate onto the stage – as well as how his detective Roy Grace might appear in the flesh (so to speak) – the result is likely to be a disappointment; and that, I think, is what Mrs C experienced. OK, this is no masterpiece, but it’s a lightly amusing, cleverly structured, frothy piece of nonsense with more twists than a plate of fusilli.

Gray O'Brien and Claire GooseIt’s hard to tell you much about the plot without giving the whole game away – and in a murder mystery that’s unforgiveable. Suffice to say, Victor Smiley, a middle-aged IT manager with an ironic surname, is going to seed, with his only enjoyment coming from regular visits to an eastern European hooker. He and his wife are trapped in a loveless, bitter marriage where the only pleasure they get comes from taunting each other. Victor confesses to his prostitute that the only way out of his miserable existence is to bump his (well-insured) wife off, and then he (and the prostitute if she wants) can live happily ever after. He says he has devised the perfect murder – nothing can go wrong. But do such plans ever really succeed? That’s basically all I knew about the story before I saw it, and it’s just enough to whet your appetite without spoiling Scene Two onwards.

Simona Armstrong and Les DennisI did have a couple of problems with the play – firstly the characters are all either slightly or very unlikeable (well maybe not the policeman) so you don’t in any way identify with any of them. There’s a major twist in the story that is so unlikely as to be quite ludicrous, although one does have to concede that I suppose it might, just might, possibly, at a push, conceivably, happen. The plot includes elements of the supernatural, which seemed a bit out of place in the suburban setting of Saltdean – although to be fair the dénouement takes care of them. But there’s one brief moment in Act Two where a character appears at a door, then seems to disappear, and then another character appears a second later at the same door without apparently bumping into the first character at the same time. It’s quite an essential moment to the plot – but I don’t think in real life it could happen. Maybe I think too much.

Claire Goose and Gray O'BrienNevertheless the cast work well together to create these rather bleak relationships and bungled solutions. Les Dennis is perfect as the slightly past-his-best, completely selfish, occasionally mischievous, occasionally devious Victor, a man set in his miserable ways and resentful of everything that goes on around him. He is nicely matched by Claire Goose as his spiteful wife Joan, never missing an opportunity to belittle Victor, and rather good at spooked-out screaming when things go awry. Together they provide a credible insight into this self-centred, unkind marriage; they absolutely deserve each other – if you were married to either one of them they would drive you insane. They have very good support from Gray O’Brien as the “plumber” Don, whose bare chest got a small round of elderly whoops of approval (I don’t know, these matinee pensioners have no idea how to behave at a theatre); Simona Armstrong as psychic hooker Kamila (I enjoyed her when she was “Romanian” Maria in “How do you solve a problem like…” a few years ago) and Steven Miller as a quietly determined D. C. Roy Grace, even though he was absolutely nothing like how Mrs C had envisaged the character. He isn’t actually in the original book, but has been letrasetted-in for the play adaptation, with the intention of showing what the young Grace might have been like in his early days. Maybe, for Grace aficionados, this was a mistake.

Steven MillerWhilst you knew that the storyline as it stood at the end of Act One was never going to be the end result, it was still impossible to predict which way the plot would turn, and I certainly didn’t guess the final outcome until it was actually happening before my eyes. The play went down very well with the audience, and within the limits of a murder mystery written purely for fun and entertainment, it does exactly what it says on the tin. Mrs C was still not overly impressed though – but she did enjoy it more than The Mousetrap.

Review – Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Milton Keynes Theatre, 23rd January 2014

Priscilla Queen of the DesertFirst there was Mamma Mia, the musical featuring the songs of Abba, which we took a long time getting around to see; but when we did finally catch it, we loved it. Then every other musical seemed to feature pop songs rather than original music, and that just didn’t inspire me very much as a theatregoer. Putting a story together where the action has to match a group’s songs that may have been recorded decades ago struck me as putting the cart before the horse. And one of the shows that was born during my “No Pop Song Show Thank You Very Much” period was Priscilla Queen of the Desert. We hadn’t seen the film anyway, and the prospect of watching drag queens on a bus driving round the outback to an 80s disco soundtrack just didn’t do it for me; it felt both too surreal from a story point of view, and too unoriginal from a music perspective.

Alan HunterHow wrong was I? I should have known better. I’d already realised that the use of Abba songs in Mamma Mia is incredibly inventive and adapts beautifully to an enjoyable original story; as an example, if either Mrs Chrisparkle or I are feeling downbeat because something sad has happened, the other one is bound to open a conversation with the words “Chiquitita tell me what’s wrong?” (If you haven’t seen Mamma Mia, 1) you won’t get that and 2) why not? Go this instant!) Similarly the use of established pop songs in Priscilla enhances the little ironies of the story and emphasises its comic or sentimental aspects. From the parental love of “I Say a Little Prayer” to the use of “Don’t Leave Me This Way” at a funeral, from the soggy culinary disaster of “Macarthur Park” to the Ping-Pong ball possibilities of “Pop Muzik”, a lot of thought and inventiveness has gone into the structure of this show.

The DivasIt also hadn’t occurred to me quite how funny it would be – not only from the comedy dance routines but also from the actual story and script, which is buzzing with jokes and brilliant observations. For instance, there’s a killer line that describes how the late character “Trumpet” got his nickname – and no prizes (but it works well all the same) as to which soap character Jason Donovan’s Tick fancied the most. The staging is smart, colourful and extremely camp, the costumes are way way way over-the-top and a hideous delight, the choreography is fast, funny and expertly performed, and the acting is of a very high standard indeed.

Giles Watling and Richard GrieveIn a nutshell, Sydney-based drag performer Tick responds to a guilt-trip request by his ex-wife Marion (who manages a casino in Alice Springs) that he should take his drag act for a show at the casino and in doing so finally get to meet his eight year old son Benji. He enlists the help of two friends, transgender Bernadette (who used to be a star at Sydney’s “Les Girls”) and drag queen Adam (aka Felicia Jollygoodfellow). Together they take their pink bus named Priscilla on a trip to Alice Springs via such enlightened townships as Broken Hill and Coober Pedy. On the way they meet homophobic prejudice and violence, but also unexpected kindness and support; and it all ends happily ever after, with Tick reading Benji bedtime stories, and Adam achieving his ambition of climbing Uluru, so that he can say he’s in a frock on a rock with a c**k.

Graham WeaverOne of the things we both appreciated about the show, but especially Mrs C, who grew up in Sydney in the 70s and 80s, was the entertaining number of cultural references that we both could tune into. Old TV shows and characters get mentioned; the names of favourite sweets and drinks are recalled, and there are some fantastic pure Australianisms that you think surely no one would use any more – don’t come the raw prawn with me! But best of all was memories of Les Girls. When Bernadette meets Bob, she wows him with the fact she was once a Les Girls star, as he fondly remembers seeing the show (one senses several times) during his youth. Well how about this for a local reference – our first date (Mrs C and I, in her Miss Duncansby days) was at the self-same Les Girls. Tick and BenjiIt was a tremendous revue, two shows a night, the later one being a little more risqué than the earlier; and at around midnight you went upstairs to a big disco ballroom between the two shows. The stage routines were full of glamorous women, none of whom were women; and with one poor chap called Shane if I remember rightly, and all he had to do was act as a foil to the glamour-pusses and do a strip. It was there that I had my first and only Faggot’s Finger. It was a cocktail. I’m sure you’ve got the measure of the place from my recollections. But it was real glamour – and it has a great place in our joint affections.

Jason DonovanPriscilla is quite a surreal show in many ways, but I liked the way it did absolutely no scene-setting and made no apologies for what it was going to be. Right from the very start, it just got on with it. And it has a brilliant opening with a superb performance by Alan Hunter as Miss Understanding, doing a wonderful interpretation of Tina Turner singing “What’s Love got to do with it”. No disrespect to Mr Hunter but in a sense it works as a warm-up act, and boy does he get the audience going. The three divas, Emma Kingston, Ellie Leah and Laura Mansell, make frequent appearances in a number of guises and sing with fantastic gutsiness. Giles Watling makes a bemused and amusing Bob, an icon of tolerance in a prejudiced world, Frances Mayli McCann an outrageous and hilarious Cynthia, and, in the performance we saw, Joseph Jones a confident and cute Benji, who shows that prejudice is learned, not innate.

Richard GrieveBut it’s the triumvirate of big guns who absolutely make this show. Graham Weaver is a brilliant Adam, a spoiled, bitchy, over-confident know-it-all who’s just out to have fun and to hell with the consequences. He’s an excellent singer and dancer, and I predict a great stage future for him. Richard Grieve is extraordinary as Bernadette – he doesn’t play her, he is her; you can’t see the join between performance and reality. Probably the most convincing female impersonation I’ve ever seen, both very funny and very moving. And Jason Donovan is magnificent as Tick, an everyman/woman character at the heart of the show, going on a journey (that’s a “Journey”) not only from Sydney to the Alice but from a person with something missing in his life to someone with a purpose.

It’s one of the most feelgood shows I have ever seen, and we both loved it. It’s definitely a must-see if you can; unless you’re homophobic, in which case you will absolutely hate it.

Review – Barry Humphries, The Eat, Pray and Laugh Tour, Milton Keynes Theatre, 23rd October 2013

Eat Pray LaughThe first night (definitely) of Barry Humphries’ farewell tour (allegedly) took place in the distinguished and elegant surroundings of the Milton Keynes Theatre. That’s a sentence that looks unlikely on many levels. But it’s true; for Mrs Chrisparkle and I were amongst the glitterati lucky enough to attend that sumptuous occasion. I’ve seen Barry Humphries just once before, in “A Night with Dame Edna” at the Piccadilly Theatre, circa 1979 if I remember rightly. I went with a couple of school/university friends and I have to say it was one of the funniest evenings at the theatre I can remember. The show started with a substantial address by the Australian cultural attaché Sir Les Patterson; then there was a brief sketch with retired soldier Sandy Stone; and after the interval, a lengthy assault by Dame Edna Everage, to include devastating humiliation of the audience and a mass gladioli rally.

Sir Les PattersonAnd this time round? Structurally, not much has changed. The main difference is that Mr Humphries has now surrounded himself with four good looking dancers and a pianist, who all help to keep the show running along nicely. We find ourselves in Sir Les Patterson’s garden, where he is about to create a pilot for his new TV cooking show. Retired from politics now, but still very much in the media glare, Sir Les has lost none of his persuasive charm where it comes to the ladies, with his tasteful summer clobber and uninhibited personal habits. You’ll be delighted to know that both the barbie and the dunny form part of the routine. Woe betide anyone who foolishly books seats within the front few rows of a Barry Humphries show. You will get involved! Suffice to say Sir Les has a few tricks up his sleeve and some absolutely side-splitting anecdotes. The punch line to the “peanut in the ear” routine is as comedy genius as it is unexpected.

Sandy StoneThrough artful means we also get introduced to Sir Les’ brother Gerrard – a very nice coup de theatre – and by a bizarre and complex way (I think Dame Edna would term it “spooky”) we see the return of Sandy Stone. If this were a routine on Strictly Come Dancing, Craig Revel Horwood would have described the transition from Gerrard to Sandy as “somewhat clunky, darling.” My memory of Sandy Stone from 1979 was that he was a rather nondescript character who created a bit of a “down” between the jollities of the two main comic creations. So when he appeared in this show I was rather expecting the comic atmosphere to ebb away. But actually, this was a most beautiful and touching comic/tragic monologue, superbly delivered, and you would have to be a very hard-hearted person not to have warmed to the old feller. It is completely different from what went before and what comes after, but for me it stood out as a truly stunning vignette, with a really sweet, moving ending.

Dame Edna EverageAfter the interval Pinot Grigio, we get treated to near on ninety minutes with la Grande Dame herself. Long past her 1970s Housewife Superstar persona, she is now virtually a deity. And indeed, Dame Edna has just returned from being spiritual in India, so now she is a self-styled mystic guru with special healing powers to renew the flagging marriages of sad people from Milton Keynes (or in this case, Luton). Delightfully taking us through hilarious anecdotes and reminiscences, and above all interacting with the audience members (a few of them somewhat unwillingly, I wonder why) she continues to do what she does best. Yes, there are a few rough round the edges comedy songs; yes, she still takes the mickey out of the elderly and the coiffurely-challenged. Slightly surreally, Mrs C and I were both reminded of Julian Clary in his Joan Collins Fan Club days; Dame Edna could just as easily started rifling through peoples’ handbags or commenting that they get their hair done by the council. But she didn’t; as her signature song goes, it’s probably because of her “niceness”. A comic creation supreme matched by a comic performance sublime.

Dame Edna all EasternMr Humphries is 79 now, but still has an extraordinarily quick wit and the physical stamina to be on stage for the best part of two and a half hours. Once Dame Edna has dispensed with the legendary gladdies we get some computer generated video footage reminding us of all Mr Humphries’ comic creations, and to the most rousing reception I have heard for a very long time, Mr Humphries himself comes on for a final bow – all velvet jacket and dashing fedora. I can’t remember him ever before appearing as himself to finish off a Dame Edna show, almost providing us with a legal notice, the ocular proof, that she doesn’t really exist. No matter, there was something strangely emotional about that curtain call. Maybe it really is going to be his farewell tour. Maybe?

Dame Edna all featheryThis was the first night of the tour, so could probably be counted as a “preview”, and there were a couple of slightly ragged edges to the presentation which I’m sure will quickly get ironed out. Press night is in November during his Christmas stint at the London Palladium, and the show is touring the entire country between now and March. It’s an incredibly funny night at the theatre and if you’ve never seen Sir Les or Dame Edna live – this just might be your last chance to do so; you won’t regret it.

Photographs from www.dameednafarewell.com – the tour details are all there too.

Review – Le Corsaire, English National Ballet, Milton Keynes Theatre, 17th October 2013

Le CorsaireIf you’re into your classical ballet, I think it’s safe to say that the Milton Keynes Theatre was “The Place To Be” yesterday for the opening performance of the first ever full production of Le Corsaire by a UK company. Unsurprisingly the place was packed with enthusiastic balletomanes who felt they were about to witness an important evening in the history of ballet. It’s really bizarre that this is the first such production; I am sure I have seen it staged in full before – but it may have been either at the Paris Opera or by the Royal New Zealand ballet. Anyway, I was as enthusiastic as anyone to see what was in store.

 Vadim MuntagirovIt sure is lavish. The sets and costumes are by Bob Ringwood of Batman fame, and evoke an exotic atmosphere of 19th century Eastern Promise. You would expect Aladdin and his genie to emerge any minute from the Market squares and minarets, and it would be a perfect setting for a revival of Kismet. The attention to detail is superb; the craftsmanship that went into the physical creation of those sets and costumes is immense. The Pasha’s sedan chair and entourage, the pirates’ horde of treasures, the dresses of the harem girls all shimmer and shine with jewels and crystals, giving an incredible image of rich luxury. And what a delight to see and hear a full orchestra! Mrs Chrisparkle and I were reflecting that it’s something you rarely see; most dance nowadays seems to be accompanied by a backing track or at best a handful of musicians; and in the big musicals the orchestra is often kept obscured at the back or even completely out of sight. They were terrific, and filled the theatre with the ballet’s rich score.

Alina CojocaruBut it’s all about the dance, isn’t it? Technically, it was a complete treat from start to finish. There are few things more serene than the exquisite elegance of a ballerina, or more inspiring than the athletic bravado of her male counterpart; and this production is crammed with both. It was so rewarding to see Petipa and Sergeyev’s choreography after having recently seen another company perform Swan Lake to the drabbest, most inelegant choreography imaginable. It’s no wonder this form of artistry survives the decades. Conrad, the corsair himself, is danced by Vadim Muntagirov with incredible joie-de-vivre, performing his leaps and twists with great accuracy and amazing strength. His love, Medora, whom he has to rescue from the slave trader Lankendem, is the gorgeous Alina Cojocaru, winner of almost every award under the sun, who simply radiates beauty in everything she does. There’s hardly any point describing the manner in which these incredibly skilful people dance – they are just extraordinary, I cannot analyse further on their abilities. It’s hardly surprising they stop the show after every dance to take a bow.

Dmitri Gruzdyev & Erina TakahashiDmitri Gruzdyev, member of English National Ballet for twenty years now, is a characterful lowlife Lankendem, a slave trader in it purely for the money and the sex, you’d imagine. He couldn’t care less that Conrad loves Medora, and gives some delightfully dismissive “so what” gestures when challenged. When captured, he becomes a snivelling coward too, which was very nicely portrayed. I was very impressed with his Act One pas de deux with Erina Takahashi as Gulnare; she danced with incredible grace, but he also gave her great support. Similarly I also really enjoyed the partnership of Yonah Acosta as Birbanto and Crystal Costa (Lead Villager) – not only was it beautiful but it had an injection of quite a lot of fun too. But probably the audience’s favourite was a stunning performance by Junor Souza as the slave Ali, with some superb solos and excellent character playing – I don’t think he’s going to remain at “Junior Soloist” level for long. I’m not entirely sure about the decision to make the Pasha a figure of fun. Mrs C thought it was a bit too cartoony, and whilst I quite enjoyed Michael Coleman’s performance I did find the character of his assistant, with his constant flapping around him like Pingu on speed, rather irritating. We were, however, both very impressed at the performances of the children from the Tring Park School – keeping perfect time and acting as elegantly as it is possible for children to do.

Yonah AcostaThe only other aspect that slightly disappointed me was not the fault of the English National Ballet, or Adolph Adam, or Petipa and Sergeyev; it’s just that for me the third and final act rather runs out of steam. There’s the long scene representing the Pasha’s dream of his harem – a simple device to get a full dance sequence out of your top ballerinas, but there’s no story element to it; then the final denouement takes place quite rapidly, and I found Conrad’s shooting Birbanto a little underwhelming – sorry if I have ruined the story for you (it might have worked better if Mr Acosta hadn’t started to get up off the floor until the curtain had finally come down all the way to stage level); the much anticipated shipwreck scene is rather quick and (apart from Ali’s athletic exit) doesn’t really contain any dance as such; and the very final scene is more of a whimper than a bang. But this is still a tremendous production and chock-full of superb performances, and I am sure it will have a hugely successful tour.

Crystal CostaAudience etiquette question #1: I sat next to two elderly ladies, absolutely enthralled by the production, and politely confining their intelligent conversation about the show to the intervals. However, one of them spent the entire evening waving the most rattly fan in front of her face – it sounded like she was juggling a bag of marbles all night. It was very distracting. I didn’t say anything, but I am sure others would have been equally disturbed by her. Should I have said something?

Junor SouzaAudience etiquette question #2: At curtain call a gentlemen in the row in front and about four seats to my left couldn’t contain his enthusiasm and stood up during the applause when Mr Acosta came on and stayed standing for the rest of the call. It’s a genuine source of embarrassment when you start a standing ovation and no one else follows you, but I always think it looks really awful if you then decide to sit down again. So I say, stand up, and stay stood up if that’s how much you enjoyed it. However, another man sat behind him remonstrated with him for standing up and asked him to sit down. “Didn’t you enjoy it?” asked the standing man. “Yes but I want to see it” said the seated one. Abashed, the man sat down again. Are there rules about ovating alone during a curtain call?

Review – Cats, Milton Keynes Theatre, 7th July 2013

CatsBack in that dizzy summer of 1986 when the young Miss Duncansby and I set about seeing everything in London worth seeing, the Andrew Lloyd Webber/T S Eliot combo of Cats was hot on the list. “The longer you wait, the longer you’ll wait” was the smug advertising strapline, as it had been around for five years and you still had to book a good four months in advance to get decent seats. So we committed, and went, and our memories are that we really enjoyed it.

Joanna AmpilFast forward 27 years to the Milton Keynes Theatre and this current touring production; a Saturday matinee with barely a seat available. When you enter the theatre you realise the set is amazing: the grim detritus of everyday life stuck together to make platforms, rooms, doorways and so on; scraps and rubbish overspill into the seating area; lights suspend all around the auditorium. It’s quite something. When the orchestra starts, hundreds of cats’ eyes blink at you in the dark creating true theatrical magic. At the end of the show, when Old Deuteronomy and Grizabella ascend to the heavens, the stagecraft of their spaceship-like journey is stunning. The music is played strongly and vibrantly; that very recognisable Cats overture that always reminds me of TV sports themes sets you up and gets you ready for a really enjoyable show. Performers start emerging from the darkness, dressed in extraordinary cat costumes and make up, emulating precisely that delicate, wily, determined, languid behaviour of your average domestic moggy, and reminding me of why I’m more of a dog person. They’re great dancers and singers and the whole Prologue sequence is fantastic.

Joseph PoultonAnd then something rather strange happens – and I guess this may be controversial. You get presented with a parade of different cats, with musical numbers and dance routines to portray their different characters, but there’s hardly any link between them. Dramatic intensity ebbs away; a sense of aimlessness takes its place. There’s absolutely no connecting narrative between any of the scenes, apart from the occasional sighting of Grizabella slinking on stage, getting attacked by other cats, then slinking back off. You don’t get any sense of progression or plot development. It ends up feeling like a rather sterile episodic contemporary dance where you don’t quite get how the current piece relates to the one before or the one after. Much to our surprise, and disappointment, we both found it a really boring show.

Ross FinnieThe T S Eliotishness of it all is strangely disturbing too. I love a good bit of Eliot as much as the next man, but I don’t think this works for the stage. Old Possum’s Practical Cats are more or less what you would expect from someone grappling with constructing the Four Quartets on one hand and then writing something for his godchildren on the other. It’s non-contemporary – Bustopher Jones in white spats for goodness sake? It’s pretentious – Jellicle cats and Pollicle dogs? Sadly, it’s also amazingly tedious at times – the whole Gus the Theatre Cat and his Growltiger the pirate sequence had me numb with disbelief. Mrs Chrisparkle gave up and decided that sleep was a more constructive way to spend the afternoon from the Bustopher Jones number to the interval, and then nodded off again early in the second half but fortunately woke up for one of the better scenes, Mr Mistoffelees. I tried hard to stay awake throughout and largely managed it.

Melissa JamesIt’s a shame because the cast put their heart and soul into this show and give really good performances. There are at least two star turns. Joanna Ampil as Grizabella doesn’t have to do much but what she does is superb, and her two “Memory” sequences are outstanding. I could tell Joseph Poulton was a great dancer in his role as Quaxo but when he becomes Mr Mistoffelees he’s in another sphere – breathtakingly good. Other excellent performances came from Ross Finnie as Skimbleshanks, the railway cat, breathing life and humour into an otherwise rather tedious character; Melissa James, rather fabulously sexy throughout as Bombalurina; and Oliver Savile was good as the Rum Tum Tugger, even if his make up gave him a slightly off-putting resemblance to the Bruce Forsyth of the 1960s – but then he’s definitely In Charge.

Oliver SavileSo despite all those extraordinarily good elements I fear this is not the sum of its parts. I’m prepared to accept I’m in the minority as it went down very well with the audience and is, in any case, one of the most successful musicals of all time – so what do I know? It’s touring till January – go see it for yourself.

Review – The Phantom of the Opera, Milton Keynes Theatre, 30th October 2012

Phantom of the Opera 1986Picture the scene. The date: Friday, 17th October 1986. The location: London’s glitzy West End. Her Majesty’s Theatre is the place to be, as Phantom of the Opera had opened a couple of days earlier to sensational reviews. In Stalls seats B9 & B10 (costing a stupendous £18.50 each) were a young Mr and Mrs Chrisparkle (actually she wasn’t Mrs C then, still the demure Miss D). Behind us, in inferior seats, the comedian Dave Allen (very short, accompanied by a very glamorous lady); a couple of rows back, to the side, Australian ex-Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. On stage: Steve Barton – a heroic Raoul; Sarah Brightman – a stunning Christine; Michael Crawford – a gobsmackingly brilliant Phantom. Such nights are the stuff of life-long memories.

Sarah Brightman and Michael CrawfordAnd we’ve never seen Phantom since, until this week when the current touring production has come to haunt the Milton Keynes theatre until 24th November. The original, of course, is still on in London, but this touring production has a different director – Laurence Connor; a different choreographer – Scott Ambler (one of our dance heroes); a different set designer – Paul Brown; and wisely keeps Maria Björnson’s original costume design. The overall impression of this combination of creatives is that the production is overwhelmingly beautiful; it looks and sounds luxuriously sumptuous throughout.

Our old ticketsThe set in particular is just superb. From my memory, I think it’s scaled down only a tiny bit from the original production but looks just as opulent/mysterious/bleak delete as appropriate, depending on the scene. As in 1986, we were sat directly underneath the notorious chandelier. In the original production the Phantom famously sends the chandelier hurtling down towards the stalls, or, if I remember rightly, what actually happened was that it floated gently like a glittery blancmange and we didn’t feel remotely threatened by it. In this production, it shakes violently and little shards of broken chandelier drops land on your head – very clever and effective. I also loved the way it came to life in the opening auction scene, a brilliant bit of design magic.

Sarah Brightman and Steve BartonThe scenes depicting the staged operas are lavish; the scene where they descend the side of the building to reach the Phantom’s boat is still extraordinarily atmospheric; the owners’ office is plush and comfortable; the rooftop is chilling and threatening. Whilst outstanding in itself, the set never dwarfs the action, rather it becomes an extension of the action, complementing it superbly. Similarly, Scott Ambler’s choreography for the ballet scenes convincingly suggests a highly skilful production of Hannibal or Il Muto, whilst not actually drawing our attention too much from the plot of Phantom. And the orchestra under the direction of Craig Edwards is officially fabulous. Romantic one minute, scary the next, it’s a brilliant score and they give it everything – you’d have thought there was a full symphony orchestra out there.

Michael CrawfordSo what of the performances? And how do they compare with the originals, or is that a really cruel thing to do? For me, there was one absolutely standout performance that was at least as good as back in 1986, and that was Katie Hall as Christine. She looks perfect for the part, in that she is beautiful in a fragile sort of way, and she has a superb, clear, powerful and emotional voice. Her love for both the Phantom and Raoul felt absolutely genuine and gave the love triangle a real bite.

Phantom of the Opera 2012I’m uncertain as to how Raoul ought to be played really. Should he be very keen but a bit wet behind the ears, or should he be dashing and brave and heroic from the off? Simon Bailey’s performance edges towards the heroic by the end but, as Mrs C observed in the interval, despite his reassuring words promising protection to Christine in “All I Ask of You”, Mrs C says she would have had more faith in George Osborne. Nevertheless, he looks right, he’s a very good singer and he got a very warm reception from the audience.

Katie HallActually, this was one of the most genuinely enthusiastic rounds of applause at curtain call we’ve ever heard. Mr Bailey had quite a few cheers, Miss Hall had loads of cheers, and as for Earl Carpenter, playing the Phantom, well, I thought some of the ladies in the audience were going to need St John’s Ambulance assistance. At least I would expect a run on Ventalin from the local pharmacies. For my part, Mr Carpenter has a great voice and can belt out a great tune, but I thought he enunciated some of the lines almost oversensitively; in attempting to convey the Phantom’s heartbreak and internal agonies his voice pussy-footed through some of the lyrics making them a little bit hard to hear. Additionally, there were a couple of times when the Phantom’s disembodied voice is making demands on the other characters, when I felt that he sounded too soft and insufficiently threatening in comparison with the other onstage noises – doubtless a sound engineering/mixing problem. Mrs C said she remembered being totally moved by Michael Crawford’s performance but that this didn’t move her at all. I have to agree, I didn’t quite get the emotion from Mr Carpenter either – but judging from the reception, we were in the minority.

Simon BaileyThe other roles were all performed very well – I particularly liked Elizabeth Marsh as Madame Giry, an excellent mix of the charitable and the domineering, and Angela M Caesar as Carlotta, giving us some superb coloratura and also bringing out the comic elements of the role in a credible, non-pantomime way.

Earl CarpenterA pet hate: all three of the main performers, particularly Mr Bailey, in moments of high emotion, changed “all I ask of you” into “all I ask of yew”. A simple mispronunciation; yew is a type of tree. I may have to set up a campaign for the re-introduction of “yoo”.

Elizabeth MarshAnother pet hate: the front stalls seats in the Milton Keynes Theatre were again a disappointment. We were in Row D this time, with no rake over the two rows in front of us, and not much space to put our knees. We had to inconvenience about fourteen people in order to get to our central seats, and even when people stand up, there’s hardly any room to squeeze past. I hate to think what would happen if you were in desperate need of the loo during a performance; trying to get out would cause row-rage. I’m reasonably tall, and Mrs C is a bit shorter, but neither of us could see what was going on at Stage Left floor level. I understand the Phantom was having a right woeful time of anguish at the prospect of Christine going off with Raoul but frankly from our viewpoint it was just hearsay.

Angela M CaesarHowever on the good side, they seem to have opened up that members’ only club area in the foyer that always looked virtually empty anyway, and used the space to create a piano bar. It gave the foyer so much more atmosphere and warmth, the charming piano playing lent an air of refinement, and by creating another bar counter where people could order drinks, it made the queues for the other bars much shorter, which is eminently practical when a big theatre like the MK is sold out. I do hope it’s going to be a permanent fixture, as it has transformed the vibe of the place completely – well done!