Still More Theatre Reminiscences – July and August 1980.

I hope you’re finding these reminiscences strangely fascinating – I’m certainly enjoying them!

  1. Sweeney Todd – Theatre Royal Drury Lane, London, 8th July 1980.

image(791)image(801)image(792)I went with the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle for her birthday treat to see Stephen Sondheim’s fantastic musical Sweeney Todd, just a few days after it opened. Unbeknownst to us, the performance we saw was a Gala in aid of Children and Youth Aliyah and Shelter. To be honest, that element of it didn’t make much difference to the show. Denis Quilley and Sheila Hancock were outstanding as the Demon Barber and his partner in crime, but two of my favourite performers were also in the cast – Michael Staniforth (whom I had rated very highly in A Chorus Line) as Tobias and Andrew C Wadsworth as Anthony. Further down the cast list came the excellent Myra Sands who we still see in shows today, and one Oz Clarke, before he jettisoned the acting in favour of the wine-tasting. A fantastic production of a fantastic show that still packs them in around the world.

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  1. My Fair Lady – Adelphi Theatre, London, 9th July 1980.

image(809)image(794)This revival of My Fair Lady had good reviews and I thought it was high time that I saw a production of it. And thoroughly enjoyable it was too! Eliza Doolittle was played by Liz Robertson and she absolutely nailed it – Alan Jay Lerner liked her so much that the following year he married her. Tony Britton was a nicely irascible Henry Higgins, although I wasn’t so certain of Peter Bayliss as Doolittle – it’s such a difficult part to get right, and on retrospect I think his was a plucky attempt. Making a couple of entrances as Mrs Higgins was Dame Anna Neagle, and Richard Caldicot was perfect as Pickering. Looking down the cast list I see Mrs Higgins’ Butler was played by Arthur Tolcher, best known as the “not now, Arthur” character who always attempted to play his harmonica during a Morecambe and Wise TV programme. Grand spectacle and a very good show.

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  1. Amadeus – Olivier Theatre, National Theatre, London, 14th July 1980.

image(803)image(804)Here’s another memorably superb production, Peter Shaffer’s new play, Amadeus, about the rivalry between the acceptable face of Viennese music, Salieri, and the new upstart with too many notes, Mozart. This put together a dream team of Paul Scofield as Salieri, at his most stately and masterful, and that young scamp Simon Callow as Mozart, impishly brutal, horrifyingly irritating and devastatingly brilliant. With a supporting cast that included Felicity Kendal, Basil Henson and Andrew Cruickshank, this was the must-see play of the summer, and was as staggeringly good as you could imagine.

  1. Once in a Lifetime – Royal Shakespeare Company at the Piccadilly Theatre, London, 16th July 1980.

image(817)In rep with Piaf (see later) this RSC production of Moss Hart and George S Kaufman’s comedy classic was a hit from start to finish and the laughter never let up. This show had previously opened at the Aldwych in 1979 to splendid reviews, and the 1980 cast was stuffed with magical performers. In his first leading man role in the West End (at least I think it was his first) Richard Griffiths was completely hilarious as George Lewis, the hopeless wannabe film director. His partners in crime were played by Zoe Wanamaker and Paul Greenwood, who was best known as PC Penrose in TV’s Rosie. Elsewhere in the cast was a young Tony Robinson long before any of us had heard of Baldrick. A massive cast in a massive production that left you glowing with pleasure. “The legitimate theatre had better look to its laurels”.

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  1. Holiday Showtime – Victoria Pavilion, Ilfracombe, 24th July 1980.

image(814)image(815)I accompanied the Dowager Mrs C on her summer holiday to the glamorous North Devon coast and whilst we were there, the only show we took in was Holiday Showtime – you know the kind of thing, designed to placate families and appeal to pensioners during a wet summer. I remember very little about this show, which featured ventriloquist Barbara Ray, song and dance duo Carlson and Baillie, and, top of the bill, Edmund Hockridge, a Canadian singer and actor who actually delivered a lot more than he promised – the only thing I do remember is that he was a terrific entertainer. Sadly the Victoria Pavilion was demolished after it was damaged in a gale in the 1990s.

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  1. Tomfoolery – Criterion Theatre, London, 4th August 1980.

image(811)image(812)image(813)They did it with Side by Side by Sondheim; they did it with Songbook. The next episode in this style of revue show was Tomfoolery, an homage to the hilarious songs of Tom Lehrer. Sung by Jonathan Adams (the original narrator in Rocky Horror), Martin Connor (who now teaches drama at the Guildhall School in the City of London), Tricia George and narrated by the late Robin Ray, this was a superbly structured, delightfully performed and very very funny evening of musical nonsense, that I remember very fondly. I’m surprised this show isn’t revived more frequently.

  1. Before the Party – Apollo Theatre, London, 6th August 1980.

image(829)image(830)I was attracted to this production, which had transferred from the Oxford Playhouse, because of its terrific cast – Michael Gough, who had been brilliant in the original production of Ayckbourn’s Bedroom Farce; Jane Asher, whom I had always wanted to see on stage, and Phyllis Calvert who was one of the Dowager’s favourite actresses. Directed by Tom Conti, it’s an adaptation by Rodney Ackland of a short story by Somerset Maugham. With such a terrific pedigree, I think I was expecting something funnier, and was disappointed, because I found it quite a dull play, stuffy and dated. In retrospect I was probably too young to appreciate its finer points.

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  1. On the Twentieth Century – Her Majesty’s Theatre, London, 8th August 1980.

image(842)image(827)image(828)The Twentieth Century – the luxury liner between NY and CHI – was a train, and this show takes place on the train as it travels from Chicago to New York. This brilliant musical was written by Betty Comden, Adolph Green and Cy Coleman, with fantastic sets by Robin Wagner and masterful direction by Peter Coe. It’s the story of failed but never-giving-up musical writer Oscar Jaffee, constantly on the run from his creditors, trying to coerce the star Lily Garland into starring in his new show. Even if Lily decides to do it, her boyfriend Bruce is dead against it. And the money for the show is being put up by little old lady Letitia Primrose. What could possibly go wrong? A cast to die for was headed by Keith Michel, with Julia McKenzie, Mark Wynter, Ann Beach, David Healy, and song and dance supremo Fred Evans. Hilarious but incredibly musical songs, this is a show from which I quote all the time (which can be very embarrassing) and which I’d love to see again. I was only sorry that I didn’t know anyone else who wanted to see it! Their loss!

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  1. The Elephant Man – Lyttelton Theatre, National Theatre, London, 13th August 1980.

image(854)image(855)And the big hitters keep on coming. Bernard Pomerance’s blistering play about John Merrick, which had no relationship with the film that came out in the same year, was given a strong and merciless production by Roland Rees, with David Schofield as the central character, a major attraction in a travelling Victorian freakshow. As well as an extraordinary physical representation by Mr Schofield, there was also a brilliant performance by Peter McEnery as Frederick Treves, the surgeon. Stunningly unsentimental.

  1. Piaf – Royal Shakespeare Company at the Piccadilly Theatre, London, 15th August 1980.

image(850)image(851)Having adored the brilliant Once in a Lifetime (see earlier) in the same RSC season at the same theatre, I had high hopes of Pam Gems’ (whose Dusa Fish Stas and Vi I had really enjoyed) latest play. Where this play really stood out was in the extraordinary portrayal of Edith Piaf by Jane Lapotaire – faultless, emotional, realistic, superb. However, outside of that, I found the play rather stodgy and (dare I say it) boring. With other members of the shared rep cast including Zoe Wanamaker, Paul Greenwood, and Tony Robinson, I admired it in part, but can’t say that I enjoyed it. I’m pretty sure I was a lone voice in that regard, as it was a highly plaudited production.

Thanks for accompanying me on this little souvenir of 1980 theatre. In my next blog, it’s back to the holiday snaps and I is for Israel, and a memorable, if sometimes disturbing day, in Jerusalem back in 2016. Stay safe!

Review of the Year 2012 – The Third Annual Chrisparkle Awards

Welcome to this glitzy review of the best live entertainment in Northampton and beyond! As in previous years, every performance that I saw and blogged about during 2012 is eligible for one of these prestigious (but virtual) awards. As an exception this year, I have included all performances seen up to January 5th 2013 as these few extra shows were all born in 2012 and that’s where they will live in the annals of time.

So without further ado we’re going to start off with Best Dance Production.

I saw six dance productions last year, and identifying the top three was easy – but placing those top three in the correct order is a difficult decision, so I am going with my heart and listing them purely in order of how much I enjoyed them. Which means:

In 3rd place, the graceful and strong performance of Swan Lake by Moscow City Ballet at the Derngate, Northampton, in February.

In 2nd place, and especially for “Torsion” and “Void”, Balletboyz The Talent at Milton Keynes Theatre in February.

In 1st place, and absolutely at the top of their game, Richard Alston Dance Company’s programme at the Derngate, Northampton, in October.

Not many turkeys this year – but the first is The Most Incredible Thing by Javier de Frutos and the Pet Shop Boys, which bored us to tears at Sadler’s Wells in April.

Classical Music Concert of the Year.

We saw six concerts in 2012, and each was excellent, giving us a feeling of being privileged to have access to such performances on our doorstep.

In 3rd place, Julian Bliss Plays Mozart with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Derngate, Northampton in November.

In 2nd place, Jack Liebeck Plays Sibelius, also with the RPO at the Derngate, in September.

In 1st place, Nigel Kennedy Plays Brahms, you guessed it, with the RPO at the Derngate in June.

Best Entertainment Show of the Year.

A wide category that includes pantos, circuses, revues and anything else unclassifiable. Always tough to call.

In 3rd place, the Moscow State Circus’ Babushkin Sekret, at the Derngate, Northampton, in January 2012.

In 2nd place, The Burlesque Show at the Royal, Northampton, in January 2012.

In 1st place, Cinderella at the Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, in January 2013.

Best Star Standup of the Year.

The best stand-up of the year, not part of a comedy club night.

We saw 8 big name comedians doing their stuff but the top three were:

In 3rd place, Marcus Brigstocke and his Brig Society, at the Royal, Northampton, in October.

In 2nd place, similar style but just pipping him for content, Jeremy Hardy at the Royal, Northampton, in January.

In 1st place, Dara O’Briain’s Craic Dealer tour, Butterworth Hall, Warwick Arts Centre in April.

Time for another Turkey – Paul Merton’s Out of My Head tour, at the Derngate, Northampton, in April – may have been clever but it wasn’t funny.

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

We’ve seen over thirty comics this year down in the Underground at the Royal and Derngate, and it’s been the usual array of the Good the Bad and the Ugly. Here are my top five:

In 5th place, Scunthorpe’s own copper Alfie Moore (17th February).
In 4th place, no relation I’m guessing, Ian Moore (5th October).
In 3rd place, the very funny Steve Day (16th March).
In 2nd place, big local hero Andrew Bird (20th January).
In 1st place, and regaining his 2010 title, the unstoppable Paul Sinha (2nd March).

Best Musical.

Last year this was split into Best New Musical and Best Revival Musical but with only two (and that’s questionable) new musicals seen this year I’m lumping them all in together. Some great productions so I’m going for a Top Five:

In 5th place, very close thing but it’s Hello Dolly at the Curve Theatre, Leicester in December.

In 4th place, the delightful and funny Radio Times at the Royal, Northampton in September.

In 3rd place, the innovative revival of Pippin at the Menier Chocolate Factory in January.

In 2nd place, the rewarding and moving revival of Merrily We Roll Along at the Menier Chocolate Factory in December.

In 1st place, the exhilarating revival of My Fair Lady at the Sheffield Crucible in January 2013.

Best New Play

This is my definition of a new play – which may not necessarily be an actual brand spanking new play never seen at any other theatre ever before, but is certainly new enough! Only six plays came into that category, and here is my top three:

In 3rd place (and very nearly made it to 2nd), Ladies in Lavender at the Royal, Northampton in April.

In 2nd place (and very nearly downgraded to 3rd place), Bully Boy at the Royal, Northampton, in September.

In 1st place, The Last of the Haussmans, at the Lyttelton, National Theatre, in July.

Best Revival of a Play

This is the category with the biggest long-list in these awards – I can count 23 contenders. There are some smashing productions that fail to make the Top Five, including the National’s Comedy of Errors, Sheffield’s Democracy, Chichester’s Arturo Ui, Northampton’s Blood Wedding and Hedda Gabler. But these are my favourite five (and they’re all quite brilliant):

In 5th place, Torch Song Trilogy at the Menier Chocolate Factory in June.

In 4th place, Betrayal at the Sheffield Crucible in May.

In 3rd place, Charley’s Aunt at the Menier Chocolate Factory in October.

In 2nd place, Abigail’s Party at the Menier Chocolate Factory in April.

In 1st place, for its sheer breadth of vision and its pushing of boundaries, The Royal and Derngate’s The Bacchae at the Northampton Chronicle and Echo Print Works in June.

Turkey time – the rediscovery of Coward’s Volcano (Oxford Playhouse in July) was a damp squib and the revival of that old war horse Dry Rot (Milton Keynes Theatre in September) wasn’t much better.

Best performance by an actress in a musical

A really tough call this one but a decision has to be made and here it is:

In 3rd place, Cynthia Erivo in Sister Act, Milton Keynes Theatre in June.

In 2nd place, Carly Bawden in My Fair Lady, Sheffield Crucible, in January 2013.

In 1st place, Jenna Russell in Merrily We Roll Along, Menier Chocolate Factory, December.

Best performance by an actor in a musical.

Again, very hotly contested and you know they must be good if they kick the likes of Damian Humbley, Gary Wilmot and Michael Xavier into the long grass! The top three are:

In 3rd place, Martyn Ellis in My Fair Lady, Sheffield Crucible, in January 2013.

In 2nd place, Harry Hepple in Pippin, Menier Chocolate Factory, in January 2012.

In 1st place, Dominic West in My Fair Lady, Sheffield Crucible, in January 2013.

Best performance by an actress in a play.

Too close to call not to have a Top Five:

In 5th place, Claudie Blakley for Comedy of Errors at the Olivier, National Theatre, in February.

In 4th place, Emma Hamilton as Hedda Gabler, Royal, Northampton, in July.

In 3rd place, Jill Halfpenny for Abigail’s Party, Menier Chocolate Factory, in April.

In 2nd place, Natalie Casey for Abigail’s Party, Menier Chocolate Factory, in April.

In 1st place, Laurie Metcalf for Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Milton Keynes Theatre, in March.

Best performance by an actor in a play.

21 contenders in the long list, and so many brilliant performances that won’t get a mention, so I definitely need a top five:

In 5th place, Henry Goodman for The Resistable Rise of Arturo Ui, Minerva Theatre Chichester, in July.

In 4th place, John Simm for Betrayal, Sheffield Crucible, in May.

In 3rd place, Ery Nzaramba for The Bacchae, Northampton Chronicle and Echo Print Works in June.

In 2nd place, David Bedella for Torch Song Trilogy, Menier Chocolate Factory, in June.

In 1st place, Mathew Horne for Charley’s Aunt, Menier Chocolate Factory, in October.

Theatre of the Year.

Very close this year between my three favourite theatres – Northampton’s Royal and Derngate, Sheffield Theatres and the Menier Chocolate Factory. However, taking everything into account – consistency of excellence, variety of entertainment, and the whole theatre-visit experience, I’m awarding the Theatre of the Year to the Royal and Derngate Northampton!

Thank you to everyone who reads my blog – I’m amazed at how the numbers have steadily increased over the past year or so! I wish you all happy theatregoing and a great 2013!

Review – My Fair Lady, Sheffield Crucible, 5th January 2013

My Fair LadyHaving emerged from Cinderella at the Lyceum after the matinee, which Lady Duncansby pronounced as quite the best pantomime she’d ever seen, and which was certainly “up there” as far as I was concerned, we wondered if our evening treat of My Fair Lady tickets at the Crucible would be eclipsed. There was no need for us to worry.

My Fair Lady 1979This was the third time I’ve seen My Fair Lady. This was one of the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s favourite shows and I learned the songs at her knee to the accompaniment of a soundtrack maxi-single of the original London production by Rex Harrison and Julie Andrews. I first saw it in 1979 at the Adelphi Theatre with Tony Britton as Higgins and Liz Robertson (Mrs Alan Jay Lerner) as Eliza. Dame Anna Neagle played Mrs Higgins. The notable thing about this production was, if I remember rightly, that the costumes were based on those designed by Cecil Beaton and used in the film, so it was certainly a glamorous event. The second time was in 2002 when Mrs Chrisparkle accompanied me to my favourite theatre, the Theatre Royal Drury Lane (always give it its full name) to the production that famously starred Martine McCutcheon and in which famously she rarely appeared. Actually we saw Alex Jennings and Joanna Riding in the main roles and they were excellent. It was during a very hot summer and the theatre’s air conditioning had packed up; I remember we were all issued with paper “My Fair Lady” fans in attempt to keep 2,300 people from passing out.

Dominic WestSo having seen two big, meaty, chunky productions on big stages, it would be very interesting to see it done on the large but nevertheless comparatively intimate stage of the Crucible. I’d seen a tweet a couple of weeks earlier by Daniel Evans, Artistic Director of the Crucible and director of My Fair Lady, where he couldn’t believe his eyes that every single subsequent performance of My Fair Lady (bar one) was sold out. Having seen the show, I’m not surprised. This is one of the most engaging, communicative productions you could possibly imagine.

Carly BawdenIt all starts before you’ve even taken your seat. Enter the auditorium and the sight of Covent Garden’s arches takes your breath away. The stage is filled with flower girls and costermongers, all doing their damnedest to make an honest bob, encouraging the people in Rows A and B to buy their wares, and despairing when no one seems to have any change on them. You’ve been won over before it’s even started. Incidentally, we sat in the middle of Row C and they must be the best seats in the house.

Anthony CalfWhat comes across is the perfect combination of a great show, great songs, a great cast in a great production. I know that sounds simplistic and lacking critical teeth, but that’s basically the whole show in a nutshell. Every second is a pleasure; every song, every dance routine, every conversational exchange are there to make you wallow in delight. This may not have the Cecil Beaton costumes – the ladies are in shades of cream, ivory and beige; a toffs’ uniform, I suppose – but that allows the quality of the book and music to shine through.

Nicola SloaneHiggins, that spoilt chauvinist par excellence, is played to perfection by Dominic West, who gets the just right amount of bombast, vanity, charisma and – when you don’t normally see it – vulnerability. I would say he was probably the least bullying and barking Higgins I’ve seen, which makes the character more interesting. When he realises what a complete fool he’s been at the end, as he’s grown accustomed to her face, this Higgins produces actual tears; the first time I’ve ever really felt that Higgins really regrets what he’s done. When he’s reunited with Eliza, he does a brilliant failed-attempted cover-up of his emotions, which is absolutely perfect. It’s an extremely realistic presentation of the behaviour of a spoilt man, and it couldn’t be more believable.

Richenda CareyCarly Bawden, who was very good in the Menier’s Pippin last year, really comes into her own as Eliza. Hers is the perfect transformation from ugly duckling to beautiful swan, with some fantastically well performed songs that she takes on with relish. Her “Wouldn’t It Be Loverly” was heart-warming and felt very genuine – and was superbly supported by the backing dancers to give it an extra oomph. “Just You Wait” and “Show Me” were delivered with great attack, “The Rain In Spain” with humour and terrific musicality, but her big moment was “I Could Have Danced All Night” which was just superb. The embodiment of irrepressible girlish excitement, it was sung exquisitely and the sheer exuberance of it created sustained applause of real appreciation. Stand Out Moment No 1.

Martyn EllisAnthony Calf plays Pickering with enormous decency, and with genuine disapproval for Higgins when he goes too far with badgering Eliza. It’s a rather passive role where more things happen around you than you actually do yourself, so it’s vital that his reactions to what’s going on are genuine and entertaining; a very enjoyable performance. Nicola Sloane’s Mrs Pearce is delightfully long-suffering and her starchy but growing affection for Eliza is very well expressed. Another relatively minor role but beautifully played was Richenda Carey as Mrs Higgins.Louis Maskell At Ascot, she plays host as Miss Doolittle gets her first outing into society, and is splendidly disapproving of her son but kind to Eliza, and the whole scene is done magnificently. Miss Bawden’s wonderful delivery of “what is wrong with that young man, I bet I got it right” and “them as pinched it, done her in” is memorably hilarious. Towards the end of the show when it is with Mrs Higgins that Eliza seeks sanctuary, Richenda Carey’s withering looks to Mr West speak more than words ever could. An excellent performance, and one that won her huge applause at curtain call.

Chris BennettI never normally respond much to the role of Alfred Doolittle, as I always feel it’s a bit over-the-top and lacks some credibility in comparison with the rest of the show, although the Dowager Mrs C always adored the character. I’ve changed my mind! Martyn Ellis has made me reconsider my previous snobbishness. He is genuinely funny – he brings all the character’s sneaky idle deviousness to the forefrontCarl Sanderson – and he’s quite a nifty mover too for a man his size! His two set-piece musical numbers both worked really well, but for sheer theatrical exhilaration, the whole rendition of “Get Me To The Church On Time” almost leaves you speechless. A great dance routine, that unexpectedly turns into tap, and performed with such spirit, still gives me goose bumps just thinking about it. Stand Out Moment No 2.

Emily GoodenoughThe other surprising – perhaps – and revelatory performance came from Louis Maskell as Freddy, with “On The Street Where You Live”. Always one of my favourite songs, since I can’t remember when, it’s quite easy to sing it as a gentle, loving mellifluous number, all pretty and tuneful. This performance is quite different. It’s like someone has finally listened to what the words are actually saying in the song and he’s acting them; and meaning it. Mr Maskell has taken his big number and made a real showstopper out of it. Stand Out Moment No 3.

Nick ButcherThe support from the ensemble is absolutely first rate and the production owes a huge debt to their talent and commitment. In particular I thought Doolittle’s pals Harry and Jamie – Chris Bennett and Carl Sanderson – gave him perfect support and Emily Goodenough and Nick Butcher shone in all their scenes. Alistair David’s choreography was splendid throughout, and put Mrs C and I in mind of some of Matthew Bourne’s best dance movement creations. Oh, and the Ascot Gavotte is just fantastic.

No question this will be the benchmark for future productions. It would be a crime if it didn’t transfer or at least tour. One of those shows that remind you you’re alive. Unhesitatingly recommended.