Review – Mame, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 11th January 2020

82362779_768182660335758_272802926638923776_nIt was with high expectation that Mrs Chrisparkle and I, together with our friend, the Wizard of Warwick, took our seats in the Royal theatre for the Saturday matinee of Mame. It has come from the Hope Mill Theatre in Manchester, which is rapidly garnering a reputation for top quality work, and critics and friends alike have heaped high praise on it. And it would be a welcome return to the Royal for Tracie Bennett, who started the fantastic journey of End of the Rainbow here back in 2010, one of the Made in Northampton productions that became a great success, with a West End and Broadway transfer.

CastIt’s been fifty years since Mame coaxed the blues right out of the horn on the West End stage, so a revival was more than due. With curious but useful timing, those nice people at Lost Musicals produced a staged reading of the original source play, Patrick Dennis’ Auntie Mame, last year, and a thoroughly enjoyable play it is too. In fact – I’m going to be bold here – I think it’s probably better as a play than as a musical, with no insult intended to the late great Jerry Herman, or the creative team from the Hope Mill. I was fascinated to realise that the musical is 100% faithful to the play. I’m sure that even the same lines are spoken in both the play and the musical; it’s like Jerry Herman took the play, wrote some songs, and simply dropped them into place whilst keeping most of the original as the framework. As a result, most of the songs commit what I think is the cardinal sin of musicals, they don’t move the story along. It’s plot development – song – plot development – song in a very start-stop manner so that the plot doesn’t really grow organically.

Mame and Young PatrickAnd that plot is very much a game of two halves. If you don’t want to know what happens, skip the rest of this paragraph. On Side One, young Patrick Dennis is brought to New York to live with his only relative, his Auntie Mame, who lives a swell, party existence and knows how to have a good time. She introduces him to her slightly outré lifestyle, and he reacts rather well to it. But the Wall Street Crash decimates Mame’s bank balance and it’s whilst she’s out attempting to earn a meagre living (never having had to work, she’s useless at it) that she meets Southern Gentleman and Plantation Owner, Beauregard Jackson Pickett Burnside. Beau is smitten with Mame, and she’s smitten with his income. They wed and go on an extended honeymoon, during which time Patrick starts to grow up, and Beau comes to a sticky end by falling off a mountain. Side Two sees an older Patrick fall in love with the ultra-twee Gloria Upson, who’s blessed by an enormously bigoted family and Mame realises they’re all quite unsuitable for Patrick, although he can’t see it. However, after a dreadful dinner party where home truths are revealed, and a “chance” (it was no chance) meeting with Mame’s new assistant, Pegeen Ryan, Patrick comes back into the bosom of his family and he and Pegeen live happily ever after.

Vera and MameDespite the fact that the music holds back the plot rather than pushes it forward, it’s still a thoroughly enjoyable show, with one famous showstopper number (the eponymous Mame) and a few other good songs; but I was surprised at how Jerry Hermanesque the whole show is. The stand-alone song Mame is the younger sister of the stand-alone, two years later, song Hello Dolly, in that it’s a full-on peaen to the wonderfulness of its title character. The well-known We Need a Little Christmas is a tweak away from Horace Vandergelder’s It Takes A Woman from Hello Dolly; Bosom Buddies is clearly the first version of I Am What I Am from La Cage aux Folles. Plot structure too; the story climax of Mame is the disastrous get-together with Patrick’s intended’s ghastly family. The climax of La Cage aux Folles comes with Georges’ and Albin’s son’s fiancé’s equally ghastly family having to be rushed out of the club in disguise; very similar plot devices involving ghastly prospective in-laws in disastrous social occasions. And I sense this is the tip of the iceberg where it comes to similarities between Mame and Herman’s other works.

such a partyNick Winston’s carefree and joyous production does the near-impossible by cramming athletic and dynamic choreography into the teensiest of acting spaces. Frankly, it’s a miracle that no one collides with each other because (it seemed to me) there was no quarter given as to the choreographic content and the skill of the dancers in the cast, whilst the Royal offers little in the way of extensive acting areas. To be fair, Philip Whitcomb’s set includes two doorways to the left and right of the stage that intrude considerably into the main area and make the centre stage dancing seem even more compact. I’ve never felt such a feeling of claustrophobia with the Royal stage as I did whilst watching that large cast work their way through the show’s big ensemble numbers. But they did it; and they did it magnificently.

IWe Need a little Christmasn addition to the choreography, the show looks and sounds as decadent and sybaritic as you would expect, with glamorous, showbiz cocktail parties, and a wealthy fox-hunt gathering (it’s ok, Mame saves the fox from being killed, phew). Alex Parker’s musicians are semi-hidden at the bottom of the big sweeping staircase at the back of the stage, as though Mame has a permanent house-band on hand (and why wouldn’t she?) The costumes are all superb – a great mix of classical refinement and showbiz indulgence – and there’s an exhilarating lighting design by Tim Mitchell.

unsafe manicuristTracie Bennett is every bit as fantastic as you might expect. Although she’s a petite lady, she doth bestride that stage like a Colossus, as Steven Berkoff once almost wrote. She slips from comedy routine to dramatic Torch Song with effortless ease and fully deserved the instant standing ovation that erupted on her curtain call. Just as she was Judy Garland ten years ago, she is now Mame Dennis. She inhabits those larger than life characters so minutely and so intimately that she takes your breath away.

Agnes lets ripHarriet Thorpe gives an enormously entertaining performance as Mame’s acting friend Vera, a cross between a Grande Dame of Thespis and a tipsy old sot. There’s excellent support from Lewis Rae as Lindsay, Mame’s legal adviser, and Hugh Osborne as Babcock, the grumpy manager of her late brother’s estate. Jessie May makes a great transformation as Agnes Gooch, portraying her as the dowdy drudge to which she naturally defaults and as the swinging sexpot that Mame and Vera create out of her – a very good comedy performance. Darren Day took the part of Beau, and looked and sounded every inch the Southern Gentleman, although he did seem to falter at times; having been brought quite recently into the cast I wondered if he was a trifle under-rehearsed.

having a danceTalking of swapping roles, hats off to Mark Faith, who gave nifty performances as Mr Upson and Uncle Jeff without making them into caricatures, as he had just one between this week’s run and last week playing Baron Hardup in Cinderella in Sheffield. There’s a busy guy! The rest of the cast also all give great support and I was very impressed with the dancing of the ensemble performers, especially Jabari Braham who stood out as exceptional. And of course, there’s a tremendous performance by young Lochlan White, who played Young Patrick in our matinee. Great work – and a great acting future for him I’m sure.

Mame and VeraA curiously old-fashioned show; compared with Guys and Dolls, say, currently on in Sheffield, Mame feels like almost a museum piece, even though it’s more than ten years younger. However, the show is given a great treatment by Nick Winston and his cast and provides terrific all round entertainment. Mame returns for one more week at the Salisbury Playhouse starting 21st January. Recommended!

Production photos by Pamela Raith

In a nutshell: Fun, flamboyant but strangely old-fashioned, this old musical gets a ravishing revival and Tracie Bennett is outstanding.

Four they’re jolly good fellows

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 10th January 2020

Screaming Blue MurderWith the New Year properly bedding in, it’s time our thoughts turned to comedy and the return of Screaming Blue Murder! A packed house (yay!) a new seating arrangement (boo!) a change of start time (someone needs to tell Dan) the occasional Saturday night show (see earlier parentheses) and a slight increase in price (tsk! But the first in four years) but it’s still a great night out with an endless and always unpredictable variety of comics and audiences.

Dan EvansOur host was the genial Dan Evans who got us all nicely warmed up by investigating the social interactions of the front rows. It turns out that nearly everyone was friends with Paul who was celebrating his 52nd birthday. Julia, his wife, is an art teacher at a posh school, a fact noted by the first act, see below… Meanwhile, Dan also had good banter with Sarah the Restaurant Inspector after she’d dissed his favourite eatery, and the good burghers of Northampton fooled him by swapping seats at the intervals – it’s the only way to keep these MCs on their toes.

Paul ThorneFirst up was Paul Thorne, whom we saw here a couple of years ago when he did a fantastic gig largely reacting to one of the punters in the audience noisily puking up. We always like to extend a warm welcome here in Northampton. He has confident, assured delivery and is blessed with a comedic face, which he uses to his advantage. I enjoyed all his material about the pitfalls of manscaping, and the act was going fine. But then…. Paul told Julia she was only a teacher because she wasn’t good enough to be an artist herself. Hilarious for the rest of us, but Paul is now firmly off Julia’s Christmas Card list. Frost fell, but Paul managed to get it back by utilising his brilliant material about life on a Taliban Gap Year which he delivered last time we saw him. Always a good laugh, if treading a dicey line between being cheeky and downright rude!

Evelyn MokOur middle act, and someone we’d never seen before, was Evelyn Mok. I’d read reviews about her style and I had an awful feeling that she might not fit in with our rumbustious environment, but I couldn’t have been more wrong. She has a slow, languorous but strangely seductive delivery and I was instantly taken into her world of Chinese/Swedish prejudices and conventions. She teased birthday boy Paul with facts about her vagina, which included the funniest joke I’ve ever heard that involved Wolverhampton. Delightfully self-deprecating, incredibly funny and splendidly different, I’d love to see her do a longer gig.

Alfie MooreLast up was Alfie Moore, whom we’ve seen several times, the Scunthorpe copper-turned-comic who has brilliant material relating to his experiences in the Force – and you can only imagine the things that the police see. However, he started off with a routine about how people’s names might reflect their personalities, and, truth be told, it didn’t quite come off. He then redressed the balance with many enjoyable anecdotes and observations, but it was a rather stop-start delivery, as you sensed he was drawing material from a number of his previous shows, so that it didn’t really flow. Very good as always, but sometimes he can be super-fantastic.

Next Screaming Blue is on Saturday 25th January; we can’t go, so you’ll have to tell us how it went.

P. S. New Year’s Resolution hits in from today: I’m finally joining the rest of the review crowd and giving star ratings for each show I see!

In a nutshell: Return of Screaming Blue Murder to the Derngate with three excellent acts and two super intervals as always. Star performer this week – Evelyn Mok

Four they’re jolly good fellows

 

Review – Susie Dent, The Secret Life of Words, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 3rd January 2020

80953081_10157127751559141_4355186225003364352_nCountdown must rank as one of TV’s big successes, having been the first ever programme on Channel 4 back in 1982 and still broadcasting today. Over the years the format and the cast of characters have changed very little, and in 2012 8 Out of 10 Cats does Countdown was added to the schedules. Sitting in Dictionary Corner since 1992 (which is a jolly long time, if you think about it) has been lexicographer and etymologist Susie Dent, and she brought her The Secret Life of Words show to the Royal and Derngate last week.

Anyone who knows me IRL (as the young people of today like to say) will know that I am fascinated by the derivation of words. Get me drunk and I will tell you about the fourteen ways of making a new word in the English Language without borrowing from foreign languages – I always was a wow at parties. Thus, I was keen to book for this show, as clearly were a large number of the good burghers of Northampton as there wasn’t a spare seat in the house.

Ms Dent takes us on a very entertaining linguistic lecture tour of her favourite aspects of the English language. It’s the most flexible and useful language in the world, which is why it is so prominent internationally. But it’s hard for foreign people to learn, with our unpredictable pronunciations (consider: though, through, cough, bough, enough) and our word order, which is instinctive to native speakers but has to be taught to students. That quick brown fox who jumps over the lazy dog is never a brown quick fox, even though in reality it’s the identical four-legged fiend. When Hylda Baker answered the phone in her sitcom Not on Your Nellie she would always say “This is the Old Brown Cow speaking” rather than the other way around.

So there’s loads of material for Susie Dent with which to amuse and educate us. One of her examples of folk etymology is forlorn hope (always one of my favourite derivations) – originally the Dutch Boer verloren hoop, the sacrificial troop of soldiers sent out in the front to get killed whilst the war was won by the backroom boys. New to me, and totally delightful, was the derivation of to “steal one’s thunder” – the annoyed retort of a theatre director in the early 18th century who had discovered that the next production in the same theatre had stolen his newly invented thunder-sound-making-machine used in his previous, less successful, play.

Ms Dent has a very relaxed and comfortable style; there’s little sense of academia in her presentation, it’s much more about the fun of language and things to spot for yourself. Perhaps surprisingly, she likes and encourages Americanisms; and above all recognises that language is a constantly evolving entity and the one thing you cannot do (like Samuel Johnson attempted in his dictionary) is to tie it down for all eternity. She doesn’t shy away from swear words; in fact we learn that the majority of swear words that we use today that concern sex were actually perfectly decent words century ago, because the big no-no in those days was profanity. There’s quite a lengthy exposé in the show about just how useful and flexible f*ck is as a go-to word for all sorts of situations, so don’t take the youngsters!

In an unofficial survey, we were all asked to confirm whether we said mischievous or mischievious; being well-educated types by far the majority plumped for the former, which surprised Ms Dent as her belief is that in twenty years’ time the latter will be the standard pronunciation, as we try to associate it with the word devious. On the pronunciation of scones and scones (you’ll know which is your personal default) we were pretty evenly split. And some audience members were still ridiculing each other on the way out at the end of the show for getting it wrong. (It’s scones, of course.)

Susie DentThe last fifteen minutes or so consist of a Q&A session where members of the audience can ask for Susie’s opinion on burning issues of grammar and etymology. We learned that she has no time for the old adage I before E except after C, and also that she likes one of my favourite forms of new-word-making, metanalysis, where a letter transfers from one word to another to create a new word, such as when a napperon became an apron, a norange became an orange and so on. Tawdry is my favourite example of this.* There was a terrifically phrased question about whether you should say less or fewer, which Susie rather glossed over as being largely unimportant. Surely it’s simply a question of singular and plural nouns? Less stuff but fewer things! No one mentioned split infinitives – I wish I’d asked about that one now, as I’m a stickler for tradition in that department. Save it for another day.

A fascinating evening of wordplay which informed and entertained. If she’s coming to a theatre near you, I’d definitely recommend it!

*Centuries ago, poor people used to buy their clothes from the equivalent of a church bring-and-buy sale in Ely. The church was dedicated to…? St Audrey, naturally!

Review – Pippi Longstocking, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 18th December 2019

79710158_474590839861852_8894750933552988160_nThere’s a fine tradition at the Royal and Derngate of producing top quality children’s Christmas plays in the old Royal theatre, whilst the more glitzy pantomimes are running in the Derngate auditorium. Over the years they’ve produced some absolute crackers – I think Alice in Wonderland was my favourite – although last year’s effort, The Worst Witch, left Mrs Chrisparkle and me totally cold and we didn’t go back for the second Act – ironically, it went on to have a successful tour and even a West End run. What do I know?

Pippi and the castI had, of course, heard about the character of Pippi Longstocking, but I’ve never read the books (because I’ve never been a nine-year-old girl), nor seen the TV or film adaptations. She’s the creation of Astrid Lindgren, whose tall stories about the mighty Pippi entertained her daughter during the Second World War and were an instant hit when published in 1945. And it’s not hard to see why. After the turmoil and grief of the war, the cheeky but selfless girl who finds her own way in life but is essentially kind and friendly would make a welcome change from the daily misery everyone had experienced for the previous six years. Pippi is strong and fearless, blindly optimistic, doesn’t care to follow unnecessary rules or restrictive practices, but will do anything to help anyone in trouble, and just wants to spread joy. She’d be perfect as the new leader of the Labour Party.

castMike Akers has taken Lindgren’s characters and setting, and mixed up a few of the stories to create this charming musical play that starts with Pippi being shipwrecked, her father being blown overboard, and then her moving into the Villa Villakula where her next door neighbours are the straight-laced Mayor and Mrs Settegren and their dutiful but repressed children Tommy and Annika. The three children become friends, which is where the trouble starts. Pippi causes mayhem at school, at a coffee morning, and, worst of all at Mayor Settegren’s annual fete (worse than death) that he’s been planning meticulously for months. The authorities insist that Pippi be taken away to a recognised children’s home where she will be properly brought up. But do you think Pippi will take that lying down?  Me neither.

ship ahoyI love small productions that are modestly staged with more emphasis on the audience’s imagination than on lavish but obvious props and scenery. Katie Sykes’ design includes a circular platform raised to create a space for the musicians to sit inside the “O”, a big wooden triangle that represents Little Town’s one three-storey skyscraper, and a big set of ladders (which can represent anything from hills, hidden lookouts, a ship’s topmast, a tree, or even a big set of ladders). When Act Two opens to the sight of Pippi and her friends relaxing on a South Sea island, with lobsters, gulls and a hilarious seahorse for company, it’s our imagination that fills in all those gaps. In reality, we discover that they’ve encamped at the bottom of the garden, and in fact our imagination has played a trick on us. Very nicely done.

cast againOne of the strengths of this production is its very enjoyable music, played with versatility and pizazz by the members of the company as they blend from character to character. Stu Barker’s songs all capture the spirit of adventure and optimism, and you can see that the cast have enormous fun performing them. The music integrates beautifully into the text and, as in any good musical, each song drives the story along so that you get a better understanding of the characters and plot development, and we don’t come out of a song in the same place that we went in.

Mr NilssonLeading the cast as Pippi is Emily-Mae who creates a giant impression on the audience with her effervescent sense of fun, innocent determination and tremendous song-and-dance skills. Those high kicks are pretty amazing! Alex Parry’s Settegren is a hilarious portrayal of a pompous killjoy whose response to things going wrong is to go into a great big sulk. Matthew Churcher and Philippa Hogg give great support as the posh kids Tommy and Annika, who are bored with being good children and are desperate to have adventures (providing they’re not too extreme). Scott Brooks is excellent in all his roles, but I particularly enjoyed his partnership with Hanora Kamen as the two inept police officers. Ms Kamen is also an excellent bossy teacher who’s not afraid to tell off any kids in the audience – so you’d better behave! But the entire cast work as a great ensemble and give everything they’ve got to make it a fun night.

Pippi and her friendsAt our performance, we were surrounded by many, many incredibly excited children who were absolutely bowled over by the show; their energy fed back to the cast who, in turn, rose to the challenge and fed excitement back to the kids. A real two-way experience! When Pippi leaves Northampton on New Year’s Eve, I see this isn’t the end of her adventures as she’s coming to the Theatre Royal York for a summer show in 2020. Charming, funny, beautifully performed, a truly feelgood show that it would be impossible not to like. Hip hip, Pippi!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Cinderella, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 14th December 2019

79492440_1488003781352170_2258774823394082816_nOne of the highlights of all my Christmases is always to go to the panto. I’m a massive fan, and I don’t care who knows it. A year with no panto is a year wasted. This season we’ve got four pantos lined up and the first was our nearest – the QDos production of Cinderella, at the Royal and Derngate in Northampton. We missed last year’s R&D panto, and I’m told it was a cracker, so I was really looking forward to seeing this year’s effort.

BaronessAs I get older, though, I realise I have become something of a pantomime purist. And I slightly bridle against the way some pantos have been restructured to take account of the star performers involved. When I were a lad – cue Hovis music – if you went to the panto you’d have a principal boy (who was a girl) and a Dame (who was a fella). Cinderella in the 60s would have, in the star role, probably Buttons or maybe Prince Charming, then Cinderella herself, and then the Ugly Sisters. The Fairy Godmother would get a look-in on the poster, and Dandini and Baron Hardup would virtually be extras. Not anymore. Today, for example, top of the bill at the Royal and Derngate is Anita Dobson as Baroness Angelique, a role that doesn’t usually exist at all. Supporting are Bernie Clifton as Baron Hardup and Sid Sloane as Dandini. So what used to be two of the least important characters (plus one that never existed) are now the most important characters by virtue of the casting. For me, that has the effect of upending the balance of the production somewhat.

Baroness and SistersAlso – call me a prude – I felt that the usual level of innuendo in panto that entertains the parents and frustrates the kids (because they know it’s funny but they don’t know why) lacked subtlety in this production. Frankly, the Baroness is a randy old thing who chases after anyone in trousers, and at one point is escorted off the stage by a couple of guys dressed as BDSM Joy Boys. The Ugly Sisters come on stage looking for a man out of the audience; in a One Man Two Guvnors moment, they pick on a stooge who is brought up on stage looking all embarrassed and innocent – and they call for him to be stripped! Fortunately they stop when he gets to his vest. Both these incidents would never pass the what would it be like if the genders were reversed test. Yes, I like a dirty snigger at a panto as much as anyone, but to me these two examples of sexualisation just felt wrong.

Prince and CindersThere are some parts of this production which are very entertaining – more of which later. There are some others that simply didn’t do it for me. Technically, it’s superb, with colourful sets, great costumes, a fab little band, and kudos to Chris Barrett’s lighting design which really stands out. However, although ostensibly it has all the elements you’d look for, it was deficient in the humour department – the script is, sadly, pretty weak – and they made up for it with a general vulgarity. Whilst Martyn James may indeed be an experienced comic/magician/panto performer, I’m afraid his Buttons was so downbeat, so dour, so drab, that I found it very hard to warm to him. It felt underwritten, underplayed and underwhelming. For example, when he asks us to greet him every time he comes on stage, it sounds more like a chore than wanting us to be in his gang. To be fair, in the second act he does three magic tricks that are absolutely superb – more of that, please!

ButtonsAs for the rest of the cast, it was one of those strange experiences where the sum of the parts didn’t quite add up to its whole. Anita Dobson absolutely works her socks off to bring her character to life but the trouble is you could never quite tell whether she was meant to be evil or not; after all, Baroness Angelique doesn’t have a known history, so we had to work it out for ourselves. I concluded that, on the whole, the Baroness was nasty but Ms Dobson is so enthusiastic and positive on stage that you couldn’t always tell. And she does front the best five minutes in the show with a cracking Don’t Stop Me Now together with the Ugly Sisters – energetic, fun-loving and superbly sung – Ms Dobson’s voice is still as terrific as it was when she sang the Eastenders theme. As far as musical moments go, Bernie Clifton carries off a very affectionate and rather moving performance of Love Changes Everything with sincere gusto, but the ostrich It’s Behind You scene didn’t work terribly well as the audience didn’t realise what was happening until the scene was almost over.

Cinderella and BaronFurther down the cast list things get brighter. Firstly, the kids from the Mayhew School of Dance are absolutely brilliant! Commanding, confident, cute and charismatic, they did a great job. Dan Partridge, as Prince Charming, has a great stage presence and a fantastic voice, and carries off the snobbish vanity of the part very well. Charlotte Haines’ Cinderella is, quite simply, adorable, with a great voice, a terrific connection to the kids in the audience, and a nice sense of fun. David Dale and Tommy Wallace as Claudia and Tess, the Ugly Sisters, work together extremely well and hit just the right level of almost-believable grotesque. They actually made some very thin material go a very long way! Jacinta Whyte is a charming and kindly Fairy Godmother, and the boys and girls of the ensemble do a neat job of all the singing and dancing. And keeping the whole thing going is the boundless energy and lovable warmth of Sid Sloane as Dandini, on top form throughout. He’s one of those performers where you can’t stop breaking out into a little smile every time he’s onstage.

DandiniSo, a magical pantomime? Not quite. But things do buck up enormously after the interval. Two stars for the first act and four for the second balances out to a 3 star show overall. It’s on until 29th December – I suspect the kids will enjoy it enough for all the family.

P. S. I forgot the Shetland Ponies! I couldn’t keep in an Ahhhhhhh when they came on!

Production photos by Robert Day

Review – The Season, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 28th November 2019

The SeasonWhat is it about New York that inspires such creativity? If you’ve never been there, you imagine the bright lights, the yellow cabs, the wisecracking cops, the Broadway shows; Macy’s and Bloomingdales; the art deco elegance of the Empire State Building, the upright nobility of Lady Liberty, carriage rides around Central Park. You imagine all the movies, all the TV series, all the plays that have their roots there. You imagine you are part of one giant creative hub. Go to New York and you will make your fortune, become a star, make your dreams reality.

DougalWhereas, of course, if you’ve been there, you know that the truth can be somewhat different. Yes, all those fantasies are possible; but if you’ve not much money, are working unsociable hours in a coffee shop, sleeping on a friend’s sofa, you can put all thoughts about glamour and showbiz out of your head, and like as not you won’t be welcome in Macy’s.

RobinFantasy meets reality in Jim Barne and Kit Buchan’s new musical, The Season, appearing for a couple more days at the Royal and Derngate, a co-production with the New Wolsey Theatre in Ipswich, where it has already played. Dougal has flown from his home in Northampton (and why not) to New York for a weekend to attend the wedding of his long-lost Dad, who left the matrimonial home months before Dougal was born, to seek his fortune in the Big Apple. Dad is marrying Melissa, decades his junior, the old rascal. Dougal has romanticised the opportunity finally to meet his father to a heart-palpitating extent; he has fantasised about discovering an extended family, being part of somewhere glamorous, and doing all the things that a boy and his dad should do.

In New YorkHe’s met at the airport by Melissa’s sister Robin; she’s been tasked to do this, just as she’s been dogsbodied to get the wedding cake from the bakers, buy her sister’s last-minute wedding stockings, and, one senses, a lot more. But Robin has a busy schedule of her own. Her reality is the Bump and Grind coffee shop; and if she doesn’t work, she doesn’t get paid. Managing the over-enthusiastic puppy that is Dougal is the last thing she needs. But over the course of the weekend life changes for both, in part due to his high-pressure tactics, in part due to her need to escape her doldrums. His fantasy becomes overtaken by reality, and her reality gains a glimpse of fantasy. But in which direction will the future turn? I’ll say no more about the plot, but let’s just say that neither of them could have predicted the outcome.

IAt the Chinesen many respects The Season reminded me strongly of that old Marvin Hamlisch musical, They’re Playing Our Song. Both have two characters, set in New York, where an incompatible couple find themselves attracted to each other and we see them deal with the consequences. And in both shows, the future for the two people is uncertain. But there is an element of melancholy in The Season, absent from the more showbizzy TPOS, that gives it depth and reflection. You sense there is so much in The Season that is left unsaid; there is eloquence in those gaps that really encourages your imagination to work hard to get a full appreciation of these two people’s lives.

Robin at homeAmy Jane Cook has created a brilliant set, with a centrepiece of New York bright-light signs, a stage strewn with subway signs, and a inventively used revolving stage to help give a sense of progress through the city, but which also subtly tells some stories of its own; the sequence of drinks and food trays that emerge from behind the set, for example, that explain the night at the Plaza, fills in so many details without a word being said. Grant Walsh leads a trio of musicians who provide a fabulous soundtrack to the developing story with a depth that would suggest many more people backstage.

Dougal in the hotelTori Allen-Martin and Alex Cardall create a perfect onstage partnership, with their characters’ clear, opposing personalities driving the show on with great power and vigour. Ms Allen-Martin’s Robin is a deeply troubled soul but you only get to realise this on a dripfeed basis as the show progresses; and we all get to enjoy her revenge by credit card activity. Mr Cardall is a bright, happy stage presence; an innocent abroad who takes a childlike pleasure in the simplest of activities – in fact, someone we could all learn from. The scene at the beginning of the second Act perfectly portrays the difference between the two characters; one confused, horrified, nauseous and exhausted, the other as though he were auditioning for a Kellogg’s Fruit and Fibre advert. The pair of them are both hilarious and alarming in turn; over the course of two hours you feel you’ve got to know them intimately as friends and, frankly, you worry about them.

Robin plus cakeSocial media is already demanding The Season 2 – will we find out what happens to Robin and Dougal? I rather like the fact that all their experience is contained within one weekend; that it’s one big finite flourish of experience that they can take home with them and use to enhance their separate lives. But a sequel would be good too! Hopefully this isn’t the end of the line for this fascinating couple. A fantastic little nugget of musical delight.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 22nd November 2019

Sally Anne HaywardAnother packed house at the Underground for our last Screaming Blue Murder of the year. Instead of our usual host, Dan, in the hot seat was Sally-Anne Hayward, whom we’ve seen many times before but never as an MC – and damn fine she was too. I loved her material about the whining office victim, which may seem cruel at first but then develops into a brilliant analysis of that kind of person. As she probed the audience for their interesting facts and jobs, she struck gold by first approaching Jasmine, with whom we all played a guessing game as to what she did for a living. You’d never guess it in a million years, btw. Her boyfriend, Winner, was also an easy target for some audience-ribbing.

Brendan DempseyIn what was always going to be a sensational line-up, our first act was the fantastic Brendan Dempsey, whom we last saw at Screaming Blue five years ago. He has such a commanding manner with the audience, so full of authority yet subtle and engaging. He has a brilliant sequence where he explains the reason why he and his wife can’t have children; plus some delightfully tasteless but extremely funny material on the benefits of having a disabled child. With his polite and well-mannered delivery, he’s able to sneak in some very challenging and often ludicrous material en route, and the act works brilliantly well.

Diane SpencerIn a change from the advertised programme, next was a welcome return to Diane Spencer, another comic whom we’ve seen several times and who surprises the audience with a delicious balance of posh Sloaney performer and some hard-hitting X-rated material to great comic effect. She offers some insights into the art of keeping stepchildren, and she goes into blow-jobs in great detail (apologies if you’re eating). I really enjoy her style and her unpredictability, and she went down very well with the audience.

Russell Hicks Headlining the evening was the magnificent Russell Hicks, who only has to come on to deliver a few lines, then allow himself to be sidetracked by whatever the audience throws at him – which usually results in comedy gold. This time we had a lady called Jo from Canada who had got steadily more inebriated as the evening wore on; and the audible plea from her friend during Mr Hicks’ set – “no, don’t get your tits out, Jo” – was all he needed. Added to this, there was an extraordinary tale from another (rather posh) lady who recounted the tale of her flashing her bosoms at a passing Virgin express train from a canal boat at Watford Gap. No one can weave such bizarre extras into their Screaming Blue Murderact like Mr Hicks, and he gave us half an hour of full-on belly laughs, so much so that we were still laughing (and hurting with it) the next morning.

In a word, classic. Screaming Blue Murders resume on January 10th with a superb line-up; we’ll be there, and so should you.

Review – Jonathan Pie, The Fake News Tour, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 21st November 2019

Jonathan Pie Fake NewsThere was much excitement in the Chrisparkle household at the prospect of seeing Jonathan Pie live on stage. We’ve loved his irascible, foul-mouthed diatribes against politicians of all ilks on his regular short viral videos. In these days, heaven knows we need some decent satire, and Mr Pie goes a long way to fill that gap. Lord and Lady Prosecco were excited too, as were my friends HRH the Crown Prince of Bedford, and the Squire of Sidcup, both of whom had travelled to witness the comic experience.

JoJo SutherlandBut I’m getting ahead of myself. Mr Pie had a support act, in the form of JoJo Sutherland, a formidable lady with a firm grip on her audience and a string of strong material to back it up. She doesn’t pussyfoot around sensitive subjects; in fact, in order to check on whether her daughter is having sex or not she checks the extent of her downstairs depilation before she allows her out. She delivers with great attack and confidence, and the majority of her stuff is extremely funny. However, and nothing against Ms Sutherland, I wasn’t sure she was the right choice to support Jonathan Pie. Her material concentrates heavily on sex – and by no means in a prudish way – whereas you associate Mr Pie with political commentary, and I felt there was no crossover where an audience revved up for JP would be ready for Ms Sutherland’s down-and-dirty observations of life. And, given the fact that the Derngate auditorium was pretty packed, with at least a thousand people in there, I felt that the audience’s reaction was a trifle on the reserved side.

Jonathan PieAfter a massively confused interval – where the ushers were suggesting we all go back into the auditorium because we didn’t break at the time they were expecting, and as a result no interval drinks were ready and we were all should we stay or should we go in our half-time dithering – we resumed our seats for Jonathan Pie. It’s called The Fake News Tour because – well, obviously really – there’s a lot of it about. However, I’m not sure fake news played that much of a part in his comedy lecture. And yes, it did feel like a lecture, which is no bad thing provided you’re flexible with everything you want to say.

J PieHere’s the scenario: world-renowned political commentator and presenter linkman Jonathan Pie has been sacked by the BBC. Shock, horror. Mr Pie has gone on the road to explain to his faithful followers how it all went wrong. And this is the vehicle he uses to share all the political vitriol that you would expect. And there’s no doubt, the show is packed with horrifyingly accurate political insights and observations that make us all cringe and despair about the quality of our political leaders. It also asks interesting questions on how a public figure can fall from hero to zero with one misplaced quote, one moment where their guard was let down and they reveal an aspect of their personality that is unpalatable to the general public. The current discourse about the Prince Andrew Newsnight interview is a great real life equivalent.

Jonathan PDespite all these good intentions and a strong performance, I must confess, gentle reader, to feeling a little disappointed. What works incredibly well in a four-minute video, when delivered at a frantic pace for over an hour, becomes what Mrs C calls relentless. After a while you start to feel mentally tired, and you find you’re no longer concentrating on what he says. There’s very little light-and-shade to the performance, and Pie’s own personal anger at the world – even occasionally at his family – rather overwhelms the whole show. You also get the sense that the show is scripted to the nth degree, and that nothing would move him from his prearranged routine. That kind of lecture can feel imprisoning rather than enlightening. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but this wasn’t quite it. Don’t get me wrong, there’s a lot to enjoy and laugh at in this show; but we all were hoping for just a little more. There are four more shows left in his UK tour – in Peterborough, Bournemouth, Bath and Plymouth; go see for yourself and make your own mind up!

Review – Ardal O’Hanlon, The Showing Off Must Go On, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 20th November 2019

Ardal O'Hanlon The Showing Off Must Go OnArdal O’Hanlon is a name that isn’t necessarily always on everyone’s lips – but his face is, and his character of Father Dougal in Father Ted will live on until humanity is no more. Mr O’Hanlon’s problem is that he was just so good as Father Dougal that no one wants to believe that he isn’t Father Dougal. And that’s his opening bid in his new show The Showing Off Must Go On, currently touring. He gets irritated at being mistaken for Dougal – yet his first (extremely funny) anecdote illustrates just how like Dougal he really is. You’re gonna have to face the fact, Mr O’H; in the same way that My Lovely Horse will always be a possibility for next year’s Irish Eurovision entry, Father Dougal is the gift that keeps on giving.

Brodi SnookBut I’m running away with myself. First on, we had a support act in the shape of Brodi Snook, an Australian comic whose name sounds more like one of those healthy 1970s Scandinavian crispbreads. Ms Snook is a smart little powerhouse of strong contemporary material, but with a calm, gentle delivery that belies the savagery of her observations. The Derngate auditorium is a vast and lofty place and I think Ms Snook’s style would probably be more suited to an intimate venue. But she gave us a good show and it was an enjoyable hors d’oeuvres before the main course.

AOHWe last saw Mr O’Hanlon six years ago, where his soft, relaxed style oozed over you like a comfy duvet. Today, I felt his stand-up had more attack, and more bite, and was probably the better for it. Nevertheless, I still feel he’s exactly what the late Sir Terry Wogan would have been like if he’d gone for a stand-up comedy career. Jocular, knowing, confiding; relating many of his comic observations to his family life and noting how, once you reach 50, you really don’t care about what anyone else things. For example, I loved his sequence of how most people have a Bucket List of things they want to do whereas he has a F**kit List of things he has no intention of doing.

A O HOne fairly unusual aspect of his comedy is that, unlike most comics, his material hardly ever strays into the bedroom – apart from one teenage reminiscence of passing round the only dirty magazine in Ireland, with an unexpectedly whambam punchline. With an air of part-innocence and part-resignation, Mr O’H confesses his perfect night would be to stay up late watching TV and eating crisps, and I completely get where he’s coming from. He pushes tentatively at the door of Brexit, to see how we react; wisely he decides not to enter in too far.

Ardal O'Hanlon tourWith a stage backdrop of posters advertising his previous gigs, there’s a charming disconnect between the pizzazzy showbiz world of comedy and sitcom, and this mild, unremarkable middle-aged man talking about a range of domestic observations that we can all recognise. Technically, it’s a pretty fantastic performance, with a very rewarding number of callbacks coming home to roost at the end, a confident clear delivery and a very amiable persona doing the talking. There are a few terrific belly-laughs, but for the most part it’s simply an enjoyable meander through life’s idiocies. His UK tour continues through to next March and, honestly, why wouldn’t you want to see yer man do his stuff?

Review – A View from the Bridge, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th October 2019

72458640_558168685003851_1621455574212280320_nIf asked the perplexing question, What’s Your Favourite Arthur Miller?, I think most people go for The Crucible option, with perhaps a solid minority plumping for Death of a Salesman. However, way back in 1988 I took the young Miss Duncansby on a date night to see the National Theatre’s production of A View from the Bridge directed by Alan Ayckbourn and starring Michael Gambon as Eddie Carbone – and it remains one of our all-time most memorable theatrical experiences. The pre-wedding anxieties faced by the Carbone family resonated very strongly with our own familial disasters in the lead up to ours. I could fill you in on the details, but that’s probably best kept for another time.

Nicholas Karimi as EddieJuliet Forster’s storming production for the Royal and Derngate, together with York Theatre Royal, arrives with many plaudits from its Yorkshire run – and quite right too. Fantastic performances, clear, lucid storytelling, usefully flexible stage design, and a story just as strongly valid today as it was in 1955. The Bridge in question is Brooklyn Bridge, which spans from smart Manhattan to down-at-heel Red Hook in Brooklyn, where immigrant labourers offload the cargo from the ships. Eddie and Beatrice play host to her cousins Marco and Rodolpho who have arrived illegally from Italy where there is neither work nor money. It’s just one of many such arrangements throughout the whole of Red Hook, and there’s only one code of conduct: you don’t snitch to the authorities. But when Rodolpho and Beatrice’s daughter Catherine become romantically entwined, Eddie’s jealousies and prejudices come to the fore.

Eddie and CatherineIn today’s Brexity times, immigration is a very live issue, and anything that makes us think harder about the personal problems facing immigrants and society’s attitude towards them, must be a good thing. But I was very much struck in this production how Miller was exploring not only the general subject of immigration, with questions of loyalty and family relationships, but also those perhaps more modern topics of mental health and what it is to be a man. There are four principal male characters in this play – Eddie, the family provider; Alfieri, the authoritative high achiever lawyer; Marco, the workhorse; and Rodolpho, the creative artist. Whilst Eddie would, naturally, see himself as being the pinnacle of manhood, he respects the lawyer although is “man enough” to question his opinion, and he respects the head-down, hard worker for grafting all the hours God gives to send money home to look after his children.

Lili Miller as Catherine Nicholas Karimi as Eddie and Pedro Leandro as RodolphoBut he has no respect for the artist, whose strengths lie in other directions – in the arts, in entertainment, and in surreptitiously winning the hearts of all the ladies. To Eddie, Rodolpho simply ain’t right. But Miller shows us that all four of these people are “proper men” in their own ways and in their own right. The only one who fails to abide by the common code at the end of the day, is Eddie – and you sense his mental health is far from stable, with his wild and unpredictable behaviour. That’s why this play translates perfectly as a modern version of a classical tragedy, with Alfieri as the chorus and Eddie as the tragic hero. Whilst the more cerebral Alfieri and Rodolpho use their intelligence and know that conciliation is the successful way forward, it’s not the same for the more physical Eddie and Marco. When Eddie demands that Marco makes good the dishonour he cast on him, and Marco seeks vengeance for the betrayal, there’s only ever one outcome in this clash of the alpha males.

CastRhys Jarman’s set is stark and comfortless, with the Carbone’s furniture arriving out of a packing case that descends from the sky, just like the crates the longshoremen unload from the ships – an Ikea ex machina, if you like. But the simplicity of the set is its strength. Even Alfieri’s office is represented by sitting on an old tea crate; and worrying prominence is given to the pole-mounted telephone stage right, always visible, but only used once, for the ultimate act of betrayal. Sophie Cotton’s opening scene background music is intriguing and atmospheric, and I was sorry not to hear more of it.

Nicholas Karimi as Eddie and Lili Miller as CatherineAt the heart of this superb production is an immense performance by Nicholas Karimi as Eddie. At first, I thought he might be a trifle young for the role – Miller’s stage direction stipulates that he’s forty years old – but those thoughts quickly passed as I realised that his relative youth intensified the creepier aspect of Eddie’s love for Catherine. Dogmatic, unreasonable, and with a finely expressed sense of his own self-doubt, Mr Karimi is hugely watchable throughout the whole play and conveys all of Eddie’s wild emotions with a mixture of great control and maniacal turbulence.

Robert Pickavance as AlfieriAlso threading through the production is Robert Pickavance’s tremendous portrayal of Alfieri, which elevates what could otherwise be quite a humdrum role into a genuinely tragic framework. Mr Pickavance takes instant control of proceedings, with his thoughtful, considered delivery directly slowing down the pace of the busy first scene. He has a fantastic stage presence, and it’s a commanding performance. Laura Pyper plays Beatrice with loving concern for both her husband and her niece, providing a voice of moderation in a volatile household. In her professional stage debut, Lili Miller is excellent as Catherine as her character journeys from trusting innocence to the sad realisation that she is being controlled and, you may feel, emotionally abused.

MarcoAs the vulnerable outsiders offloaded like cargo into the Carbone house, Reuben Johnson and Pedro Leandro create a very effective couple as Marco and Rodolpho. Mr Johnson’s impassive expressions convey the worries and the silent heartache he has in leaving behind his wife and children; because he is the kind of man who cannot talk about his feelings, those emotions build up angrily inside. His final showdown is a great expression of aggression mixed with justice. Mr Leandro is terrific as Rodolpho; it’s tempting to make the character overly effeminate or camp but this Rodolpho is a beautifully precise portrayal of a man whose strengths and abilities take him outside the usual herd; strengths that make the longshoremen laugh, that attract Catherine, that repel Eddie and that make Marco protective of him.

Not gonna lie – on the performance we saw, the stage fight at the end was incredibly clumsy and unconvincing, but everyone can have an off night. That aside, it’s a riveting, thought-provoking drama that explores many of mankind’s worst aspects. Timely, slick and with tremendous performances, this production continues at the Royal and Derngate until October 26th, but really deserves a life hereafter.

Production photos by Ian Hodgson