Review – Two Trains Running, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 5th September 2019

Two Trains RunningAugust Wilson’s 1990 play starts the new Made in Northampton season at the Royal and Derngate and is (I believe) its UK premiere. Set in Memphis Lee’s café in Pittsburgh in 1969, the urban environment all around is being demolished to make way for a regeneration programme, destroying the lives of its largely black inhabitants. The local authority want to seize and knock down the café too, but Lee isn’t going to accept less than $25,000 – having paid $5,500 for it originally.

LeeThis slice-of-life play contains a variety of themes and plots, weaving in and out of each other, over a few days. Lee worries about his failing business; his one and only chef/waitress, Risa, self-harms by cutting her legs in order (she says) to put off unwanted attention from men; wide boy Wolf uses the café phone as his personal office, taking illegal gambling bets; mentally unstable Hambone can’t get over being cheated over payment for a job; young chancer Sterling steals his way out of financial problems; and old guard Holloway dispenses his wisdom and undertaker West works hard, getting on with their lives as best they can.  Overriding all these is the all-pervasive atmosphere that black lives are inferior to white lives, with the growing Black Power movement and the destruction of black homes and businesses with the urban regeneration.

Round the counterIt’s a curious play. At three hours, it feels too long. All the points that the play makes could be made and still shave at least half-an-hour off. Dramatically, there aren’t many plot progression points. However, the characters are strangely spellbinding, and the play, despite its faults, oddly compelling. Admittedly, not a lot happens on a day to day basis; but isn’t that true of life? Take the title – Two Trains Running – it’s part of a throwaway speech by one of the characters, elevated to its titular significance although it’s just a phrase from everyday life. The play reminded me a little of Eugene O’Neill – a big helping of The Iceman Cometh with a tad of Desire Under the Elms and a sprinkling of All God’s Chillun Got Wings. Everyone has their own concerns, some of which they’re prepared to share, others they’d prefer to keep private. Most of the plot threads are tied up at the end – maybe too neatly. I’m still uncertain as to whether Lee’s good news at the end was genuine or pretence. But maybe that’s a strength in itself.

Sterling and WestFrankie Bradshaw has done a fantastic job in recreating the café in the midst of a building site. The furniture, the bar, the phone, the windows all exude an air of 1960s disappointment. The jukebox is perfect for the era, although I remain unconvinced by the more modern-looking coffee jug. Amy Mae’s lighting design is also superb, creating eerie, dreamlike effects juxtaposed with the harsh neon lights of real life. And Nancy Medina’s direction respects the text and allows the characters to develop without ever imposing an external slant.

SterlingThere are some stunning central performances. I found Andrew French mesmerising as Memphis Lee, bringing out all the character’s hopes and dreams, strengths and weaknesses, truths and self-delusions. Michael Salami is also superb as Sterling, the kind of waster who nevertheless has a charisma that you find hard not to like, flipping easily from childish enthusiasm to incensed fury. And with a deceptively challenging role, Anita-Joy Uwajeh impresses with her constant reactions and attention to the events in the café – portraying that difficult balance between keeping the customer satisfied but existing one step aloof from the rest of them. Beautifully done.

WolfRay Emmet Brown gives an enjoyable performance as the flashy Wolf, full of confidence and brashness, humour and cynicism. Also – great shoes! Derek Ezenagu tackles the problem role of the vulnerable Hambone – who only says a couple of sentences, repeated time and time again – with great commitment and sincerity, creating an uncomfortable, but very realistic watch. And Geoff Aymer brings authority and dignity to the role of West, the undertaker/businessman who’s never short for work and provides the clearest insight into what the world outside the café doors looks like. For me, Leon Herbert didn’t convey Holloway’s self-assurance with what I felt was a faltering, uncertain performance – hopefully he will grow into the role as the run progresses.

RisaAfter its run at the Royal and Derngate, the production tours to Southampton, Oxford, Doncaster, Ipswich, Guildford and Derby, finishing at the end of October. A four-star production that provides three-star entertainment. Great characters with some great lines supported by a magnificent set; but, in the final analysis, also somewhat rambling and woolly. Like life, really.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Soo Yoga, Sol Centre, Northampton – A New Wellbeing Centre for the Town

Soo YogaAbout a year ago, gentle reader, Mrs Chrisparkle and I dipped our tentative toes into the world of yoga, when we had an hour’s session during the Edinburgh Fringe with part time yoga teacher and full-time funny lady Abigoliah Schamaun. We enjoyed it and promised ourselves that we would take it up on our return. Then we went home and forgot all about it.

SY Ben and Kristina 2Then in January this year, I answered a local advert for a ten-week yoga course here in Northampton. The timing and the price were right, and, as a big bonus, the sessions would be led by none other than Strictly Come Dancing alumna Kristina Rihanoff. We took the plunge. It was in a cold little dance studio in a town centre back street. And, although we were absolutely awful at it, we still enjoyed it.

Ben and KristinaFast forward to June, and the opening of the new Soo Yoga suite on the first floor of the Sol Centre in Northampton. Kristina, and partner and local rugby hero Ben Cohen, have realised their dream of creating a first-class, swish, state-of-the-art wellbeing centre – and Mrs C and I are completely hooked. First things first; it’s not a gym. If it was, I’m sure I wouldn’t like it. If you know either of us IRL (as the young people of today say) you’ll know that we’re adamantly NOT gym bunnies. When it comes to pumping iron, I have all the skills of King Henry VIII’s marriage guidance counsellor.

Restful wallSo, not a gym but a wellbeing and family fitness centre. As a result, it’s a welcoming place, where you are met with friendly smiles and personal greetings on arrival. This is not the kind of place where someone is going to laugh at your puny abs and condemn you to a hundred press-ups on the spot like at school. I can’t speak for the ladies’ changing room, obviously, but the guys’ room isn’t full of muscly men dripping testosterone, making you feel inadequate in every aspect. We’re much more likely to be saying to each other “God I’m unfit, that was knackering!” – creating a nicely informal self-help group.

Hot Yoga studioThe activity spaces are smart, new, clean and bright. The highlight room is the Hot Yoga studio, which is heated to 38° Celsius and with 50% humidity, to recreate the atmosphere in India where yoga originated. We go for a weekly session there on Monday nights, led by Kristina, but they have many other classes all through the week, for all abilities in many different yoga styles. We’ve also taken up the spin classes on Friday lunchtimes, in a terrific cycling room with about fifteen exercise bikes in it. Once you’ve warmed up a little, you pedal your heart out to a cracking, motivational musical soundtrack and expert guidance from the inspirational Megan Hosken. No point hiding it; the first time I tried it, it killed me. The second time – I loved it! We also do a 25-minute exercise session with Megan on Wednesday mornings – Soo Fit HIIT – which is fifteen minutes of interval training followed by ten minutes of resistance training. Listen to me, all technical. What have I become?!

Kristina wallThere’s a meditation suite too, where we go for two classes on a Wednesday – Soo Zen and Chakra Yoga – hosted by Chinmayi Dore, who’s incredibly enthusiastic in giving people some “me time” where they can relax, renew and reinvigorate themselves. After my first session, I was so relaxed I could – literally – barely walk. It was an amazing feeling. The other regular class we attend is Kristina Rihanoff’s Strictly Dancing in the dance studio, where you can learn the basic steps of salsa, jive, cha-cha-cha, lindy hop and so on, which actually turns out to be a good exercise workout too. We’re thoroughly useless but it’s enormous fun. The new Anton and Erin we are not.

Ben CohenBut there are so many other classes on offer that we haven’t tried yet; Pilates, TRX, Box-fit, Barre… you name it, they got it. I am tempted to try Ben Cohen’s Soo Strong Beginners’ Class because I really ought to convert some fat to muscle… ok, a lot of fat to muscle… and I can’t think of a safer opportunity to get introduced to that kind of activity by a true expert without intimidation. You may have guessed that me and exercise had a very poor relationship when I was young; when I left school at 17 I was only too happy to end that relationship, and it’s taken over 40 years for us to get on good terms again! If you’re like me, then I really recommend Soo Yoga for providing a welcoming, non-judgmental route to regaining fitness.

Free Taster WeekendThere are often a variety of offers on; next week, for example, from 6th – 8th September, they are holding a Free Taster Weekend where you can try lots of classes for free to see how you get on with them. There’s really nothing to lose. In any case, you can buy an introductory month’s pass for £39 which gives you unlimited access to all the classes, and if you like it, you can progress to an annual membership; or continue to attend classes on a pay-as-you-go basis. We’ve bought an annual membership as a couple. It’s £1835 for the pair of us, which may seem a little steep at first but think; we attend on average five classes a week – sometimes more – and when you divide that over the year it’s the equivalent of about £3.50 per person per class. That’s a steal. And the more classes you do, the better value it becomes!

Bespoke BallroomI haven’t even mentioned the café, or the crèche, or the physio/massages, or a wealth of other options they can offer. They have a whole range of kids’ classes too, and I think are introducing some junior drama lessons as well. They have a very useful app for your phone, but the website tells you everything you need to know. It’s certainly changed the way Mrs C and I keep fit, because it’s fun, fascinating, and friendly, and you can’t beat that! Give them a try – contact them using the app or the website or just drop in at the Sol Centre. You won’t regret it!

Review – The Last of the Pelican Daughters, Wardrobe Ensemble, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 25th July 2019

Last of the Pelican DaughtersLast of the Mohicans? No, last of the Pelicans. What’s that? I hear you ask. Pelicans – apparently – were thought to feed their young on their own blood. Who knew? Well, Shakespeare, at least, who had Lear describe his offspring as Pelican Daughters; and it’s true, a couple of those daughters were right cows, if not pelicans.

Jesse MeadowsThe Wardrobe Ensemble have been working together since 2010 although I only came across them with their superb Education, Education, Education, which has enjoyed a couple of runs at the Royal and Derngate (at least) as well as a big success at Edinburgh. Now, as a preview to this year’s Edinburgh Fringe run, they’ve devised The Last of the Pelican Daughters, the first performance of which took place last night before a very happy Northampton audience.

Ben VardyJoy, Storm, Sage and Maia, the four Pelican sisters, meet at their late mother’s house. Their mother must have been an absolute brick, because flashback memory scenes of her wise words permeate the minds of her children (and, as a result, the show), and she was clearly one in a million. She always knew the right thing to say, bringing them up to be independent, bold and true to themselves. Well, perhaps not Storm, who ended up being the one who had to look after her whilst she was ill, and now breeds resentment. And perhaps not Luke, the difficult baby brother, who went off to live with his dad following an unspecified break-up, and is now estranged from the rest of them. Although Joy appears to be successful, with plenty of money and a hipster boyfriend, she’s not happy. Whilst Sage is out and proud, she has difficulties holding down a relationship, and her sculptures, which she creates for a living, aren’t much good. That leaves Maia, who bums around the world; unpredictable, carefree but irresponsible. On reflection, perhaps Old Mother Pelican wasn’t a good mother after all.

Kerry LovellAfter every death, there’s the issue of how to share out the estate. Five children? A fifth each? Seems fair. But Storm has other ideas, and there was an audible gasp of horror from the audience when she reveals her solution. Will the family reunion end in laughter or in tears? Will the siblings reconcile their differences? Will Joy’s and Maia’s boyfriends stay with them after the weekend? All this and more will be revealed if you see the show!

Emily GreensladeFirst things first; it’s a very funny, beautifully acted, well told story, which brings together several easily recognisable, intergenerational family issues with inventive humour and, at times, tons of emotion. The simple but effective design features a blank stage, but with oppressively pink walls that claustrophobically bear down on the acting space within, but which also keep a few design secrets (that I shan’t tell you about, except to say they work very well). For props, just some chairs, a table and, glory of glories, a 1980s hi-fi. On the back wall, chapter titles are projected throughout the play, which increases the sense of storytelling and a relentless hurtling towards a conclusion. The show starts with a projection of the famous first four lines of Philip Larkin’s This Be The Verse, which, from the amount of laughter it generated from the audience, must have been new to a lot of people.

Helena MiddletonThe characters are very well drawn; I particularly liked Jesse Meadows’ Storm, a fantastic portrayal of someone who feels like they’ve been taken advantage of and is now trying to redress the balance, and Ben Vardy’s thoroughly convincing Dodo, a flakey Californian type who has to “check-in” with you before talking to you, and who gets things off his chest because it’s good for his Zen, no matter how much harm it does others. Kerry Lovell’s Joy turns nicely from the self-assured oldest daughter into a deranged and desperate wannabe mother in a well-judged performance that’s half hilarious, half tragic; and Emily Greenslade gives a cleverly moving and funny performance in the triple roles of Lara, Granny’s carer, and the voice of Granny herself – amusingly and inventively done – and the solicitor.

James NewtonAlthough it’s a good performance by Helena Middleton, I did think that they could have made more of her character, Sage, who starts out self-assertively and man-hating, but that thread never really goes anywhere. However, her scene where she takes some time out in her mother’s bedroom was very moving; Mrs Chrisparkle was particularly impressed, and maybe even slightly watery-eyed. James Newton is superbly awkward as the aggressive Luke, Tom England is great as the well-meaning and hearty Derren, and Sara Lessore very convincing as the free spirit Maia.

Tom EnglandThe story has a cracker of a plot twist at the end; I didn’t see it coming, but it’s absolutely true to life. I can see this being a must-see in Edinburgh this summer – they’re playing at the Pleasance Courtyard (Pleasance Beyond) at 16:40 every day of the Festival except Sunday 17th August. Highly recommended!

Sara LessoreP. S. One tiny quibble: I must confess, I’m not entirely sure the play properly reflects the title (or vice versa). It’s a great title, no question. But why The Last of the Pelican Daughters? For one thing, there’s a son too – doesn’t he count? For another, there’s a baby on the way – and if it’s a girl, she’ll be the next PD, so who is The Last? Doesn’t really matter, but it slightly irks a personal desire for structural tidiness.

Review – The Pope, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 13th June 2019

The PopeWhen is a precedent not a precedent? When it happened in 1295. No, it’s not a riddle, it’s the crux of Pope Benedict XVI’s predicament when he wanted to abdicate – to resign from the papacy – in 2013 and leave the way for his successor Pope Francis, who had come second in the decision making process to create the new Pope back in 2005.

Anton LesserWe all know that person at work who has been promoted way beyond their ability to do the job, but because they were in the right place at the right time, said the right things and had the right smile, they got the gig. That was Josef Ratzinger, when he was elected Pope at the age of 78, when all he really wanted to do was to retire softly into the background, read his books and maybe do a little writing. Lucky too, for Cardinal Bergoglio, runner-up in the process, who also was content with his work with the poor of Buenos Aires. Nicholas WoodesonNow he, at the age of 77, has written to the Pope to tender his resignation as Bishop, so that he can spend his twilight days watching football and singing to Abba. But the Pope has not responded to his letters, but has asked him to visit him in the Vatican. The Cardinal assumes it’s to accept his resignation in person, but the Pope has other ideas…

in the Sistine ChapelThis is a beautifully written play, full of wit and insight, superbly character-driven; a window into the lives of two religious leaders whom we would assume would spend their time in contemplation and duty, rather than catching up on TV soaps and looking forward to the World Cup. The Pope’s agonising self-doubt about his own worth, and his successor’s own murky involvement with his country’s corrupt government are brought starkly into the light by Anthony McCarten’s moving, crisp, heartfelt text; and Jonathan Fensom’s design is formal and uncluttered, reflecting the rich grandeur of the Office but also the self-denial of its Officers.

Two PopesAnton Lesser is simply magnificent as the old, unhappy Pope; filled with uncertainty, deprived of the lifestyle he would have chosen, his occasionally faltering speech revealing the depth of his problems and his humanity. Germanic to the core, reserved in outlook, the height of his self-indulgence is delighting in a Suppe mit Knödel. Pope FrancisHe is matched by Nicholas Woodeson as Bergoglio, with his fiery Latin temperament, a tendency towards impatience and impetuosity, a man who would get his hands dirty in practical work as opposed to the Pope’s more cerebral approach. Together they give us an acting masterclass of immaculate timing and expression, the like of which you very rarely see.

Lynsey BeauchampExcellent support is given by Lynsey Beauchamp as Sister Brigitta, Benedict’s lone confidante and friend, and Faith Alabi as Sister Sophia, Bergoglio’s assistant at the Convent in Buenos Aires. But it’s the gripping tension between the two Popes that takes your breath away; the power struggle, the influencing, the confessions, the opposing positions and finally the meeting of minds.Faith Alabi Probably the best modern play that I’ve ever seen at the Royal Theatre, definitely with two of the best performances of the decade. It would be a Cardinal Sin if this doesn’t have a life hereafter.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Chris McCausland, Speaky Blinder, Underground at the Derngate, 8th June 2019

Chris McCauslandWe saw Chris McCausland at one of our earliest Screaming Blue Murder shows, back in 2010, and really enjoyed his material and style. It’s been a long time in the waiting, but when I saw he was returning to Northampton with his Speaky Blinder show, that had been a great success last summer in Edinburgh, buying a ticket was a bit of a no-brainer.

Jon LongBut first we had a (too brief) warm-up session with support act Jon Long, who was completely new to us but what a find! A very engaging chap with a warm, inclusive (but never threatening) style, a gentle but deadly delivery, and armed with his guitar to strum a few comedy songs that compliment his spoken material. It wasn’t long before we were all singing about dildos together, that’s how relaxed he got us! Very entertaining material, and a very comfortable and friendly vibe to his act. Will happily see him again.

After the interval, Chris McCausland took to the stage. If you don’t know, he’s been totally blind for many years, and when we saw him several years ago I thought it was fascinating how his disability played a relatively small part in his material. Today that has changed somewhat, and although the gig included plenty of jolly, flippant remarks and jokes about his domestic arrangements with his wife and his daughter, you get a much greater sense that he wants to give us some serious and thought-provoking observations about how his disability affects his daily life.

But that doesn’t mean it’s a sad or downbeat show. Quite the reverse; although he never overlooks an opportunity to increase awareness of the issues relating to blindness, he presents it all through the medium of comedy, and it’s one of those shows where you rarely stop laughing. He’s very open about all aspects of his life, including how he loves his wife almost as much as he loves Mohammed Salah, and his warm and engaging personality totally wraps us up into his world so we’re completely on his side all the way through.

An intelligent, reflective but also very funny hour of comedy. Messrs McCausland and Long are currently touring the country and I’d really recommend you see them!

Review – The Planets: An HD Odyssey, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 7th June 2019

The Planets: An HD OdysseyThis is the first time that I’ve seen precisely the same concert twice. Three years ago, the Royal Philharmonic brought their Planets/Odyssey show to the Royal and Derngate and I didn’t realise at the time that it’s obviously constructed as an off-the-peg package. Watching it a second time, not only was the film accompaniment to the performance of the Planets identical, but also the other short classical works in the first half of the concert were exactly the same, played in exactly the same order, and, I think, with exactly the same expression. Even the audience’s reaction was the same, including the embarrassed chuckles at the words “Saturn – the bringer of old age”.

RPOgroupTherefore, gentle reader, there’s not a lot of point my re-writing my comments of three years ago because they still apply, so can I point you towards my review of their performance on 26th June 2016, and please just ignore my bitter post-referendum ramblings at the time (unless you still feel the same way that I do about that subject – that’s up to you).

Nick DaviesWe did, however, have a different conductor for this performance: Nick Davies, a dapper little chap, resplendent in his shiny black suit, revelling in his work, and generously giving the members of the orchestra all the attention and respect that they deserve. Funny how Mr Davies and John Torode of Masterchef fame are never seen in the same room together…. I think we should be told. We’d enjoyed watching Mr Davies conduct the orchestra here twice before, for two of the regular Last Night of the Derngate Proms concerts. He must be more at ease with the jolly/gala kind of nights than the seriously cerebral classical concerts.

Two extra observations in addition to my three-year-old review; this time round, I enjoyed all the film sequences much more. Yes, they can get a little repetitive, but you have to admire the artistry and the technological knowhow that got those images to that screen; pretty mind-blowing if you think about it. However, the screen itself is, frankly, a nuisance in the first half. Its constantly scrolling through messages with details of the RPO’s social media pages and an advert that you can buy the CD in the interval is unnecessarily distracting from the performance. Mrs Chrisparkle thought they should have somehow lessened its impact. A conversation in the Gents toilet I overheard in the interval was more blunt: “I wish they’d get rid of that ****ing screen!”

I’m sure this concert will continue to tour and turn up every few years in all the usual places. And there’s no reason not to go again, as it’s a very enjoyable treat for both ears and eyes.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 31st May 2019

Screaming Blue MurderTime for yet another Screaming Blue Murder – and the screaming comes from the intense heat of the Underground studio, bad enough in winter but positively radioactive in summer! Nevertheless, that didn’t stun our senses as once again we enjoyed three fabulous acts, two magnificent intervals under the genial guidance of our loving MC, Dan Evans.

Dan EvansThis week Dan had to endure (I mean enjoy) the company of some marketing ladies from Avon – I don’t think his idea of anus lipstick is going to catch on – a few young likely lads in the front row with their deadpan father, and the Melton Mowbray branch of the Leicestershire Wives Society. From little acorns great oaks of mirth grew. I don’t envy his job but Dan was on top form as always.

Mark SimmonsTwo new acts (and one old favourite) for us this week, the first of which was our opener, Mark Simmons. And what a find he is! A quiet, subtle-laddish style but brimming with confidence and with 100% winning material, none of which I’d heard before. The majority of his humour comes from a mixture of pun and wordplay, and he delivered it with such dry originality that Mrs Chrisparkle and I were in hysterics the whole way through. I loved his mini-stories about premature ejaculation at an orgy, and what happened when he brought two girls home; there’s also his one joke that involves the C word, which works brilliantly because the punchline is so mild in comparison with its lead-up; and his discovery that cats in France have their own social media site. A little surreal, but with great connection to the audience, we thought he was terrific and would love to see him again.

Alasdair Beckett-KingNext up, and also new to us, was Alasdair Beckett-King; if you ever wondered what Simba looked like once he’d grown up, look no more. Resplendent with his flowing locks and curls, Mr B-K gives us an insight into the life of a full-on Ginger, with some very funny – and refreshingly clean – material. Switching up the erudite level a notch or two, he has a sequence where he discusses Blake’s Proverbs of Hell, but don’t be put off, his own selection of Proverbs are fresher than anything 18th century. Smart, witty, intelligent humour and he went down really well with the audience.

Mary BourkeOur headline act, and one we have seen many times before, was the endlessly surprising Mary Bourke, whose ability to create new material every time you see her is astounding. She has a wonderfully faux-strict style, like a headmistress who won’t accept any nonsense from you lot but inside has a heart of gold. I loved her take on how you scare people in Crouch End at Hallowe’en, and was delighted to realise she has the same attitude to Peppa Pig as us; indeed, she gives that hideous little hog the same middle name that we do. Unbeatable as always.

And that, sadly, is the end of the Screaming Blue Murders for this season; I think each and every one has been a sell-out which is fantastic news and a testament to just what cracking value and quality it is. Reconvene in September? Really annoyed that I have to miss the first autumn show on 13th September because it’s going to be immense. Book it now whilst tickets are still available!

P. S. I did get a name-check from the stage during the course of the evening, but I’m sure it was meant out of pure affection…. That’s what I’m going to tell myself anyway!

Review – Matthew Bourne’s Romeo + Juliet, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 28th May 2019

Romeo + JulietHas there ever been an original work that has inspired more variations than Romeo and Juliet? From the Russian ballet of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev, to West Side Story and a whole lot of other works, those star-cross’d lovers have influenced so many creative souls. And in language too – how many times have you heard that someone was “a bit of a Romeo”? I’m yet to meet “a bit of a Juliet”, although, considering Matthew Bourne’s new version, that might not altogether be a bad thing….

R+J in loveFollowing their successful Lord of the Flies, Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures company has continued its groundbreaking work with young dancers. Not only have some of that class of 2014 gone on to carve dance careers for themselves, but for more than a year now the company has worked with six young, local dancers in each of the locations where Romeo + Juliet will be staged, integrating them seamlessly into the professional cast. It wasn’t until the final curtain call that I worked out who were the local young dancers in our production – each and everyone of them gave a first-class performance and I have great hopes for what they will go on to achieve.

Set in the not too distant future, the Verona Institute is one of those vaguely intimidating establishments that may have originally been set up for the good of its patients (or its inmates, or its captives, you decide) but has gone distinctly off-message with the cruelty of its security staff and the strictness of its mentors. Think Nurse Ratched from One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest in cahoots with Hamidou the prison guard in Midnight’s Express and you get the picture. Only the kindly Rev. Bernadette Laurence, who happily encourages music, dancing and – let’s not deny it – sexual intimacy between members of her imprisoned flock, goes against the grain – albeit to no benefit to herself.

R+J Glitterball sceneSome adaptations are close to the original; others are not. This, being Matthew Bourne’s conception, takes the original Romeo and Juliet as a mere hint of a serving suggestion. There’s no sense of warring Montagues and Capulets, no prior love intrigue between Romeo and Rosaline, no apothecary and no poison. Tybalt, rather than channelling his violence towards massacring Montagues, concentrates on physical and sexual abuse towards Juliet, traditionally his cousin. Mercutio and Balthasar have a gay relationship; and Juliet kills Romeo, which, having thought long and hard about it in the hours since I saw the show, is a concept with which I still have a lot of problems.

R&JAll the hallmarks of a top-quality Matthew Bourne production are there. Lez Brotherston’s set is so evocative of a municipal/school swimming pool with its white shiny bricks, and its separate Boys and Girls entrances (to which no one pays any attention), that you can almost smell the chlorine. What makes it different is the prison-style barred doorways and gates that step up the sense of the young patients being shut off and incarcerated. Outside there’s probably an exercise yard. Why anyone would voluntarily check in, like Romeo’s parents appear to do with him, beats me. Remind me not to book into the Verona Institute; it isn’t anything like as appealing as it looks in the promotional brochure.

Brett Morris’ fantastic orchestra play those sumptuous Prokofiev melodies with power and eloquence. The score has been re-orchestrated for this production, choosing a different combination of instruments, in an attempt to modernise it, create an acoustic sound-world (so says the programme) and make it generally more relevant. It works very well; the music is stunning throughout and accompanies the dancing perfectly.

R+J togetherThe dancers are all on excellent form, with some beautiful pas de deux from Paris Fitzpatrick and Cordelia Braithwaite as the eponymous couple, the powerfully menacing movement and presence of Dan Wright as the fearsome Tybalt, and a characterful and cheeky coupling of Reece Causton as Mercutio and Jackson Fisch as Balthasar. Daisy May Kemp brings humour to the role of the Reverend Bernadette, and there’s some superb and eye-catching work from Callum Bowman’s Sebastian, Hannah Mason’s Frenchie and Bryony Harrison’s Dorcas.

However, despite all these excellent ingredients, apart from Balthasar’s decline into zombie level distress after the death of Mercutio, I found it all strangely unmoving. The dance begins, Blood Brothers-like, with a melodramatic tableau of the dead Romeo and Juliet on their slab, so you already know it’s imbued with fatalism and isn’t going to end well. The dancing and choreography are spectacular to watch, the visual effects are very powerful (wardrobe must curse all that blood on those nice white clothes), and there are some amusing and horrific vignette moments that keep you thoroughly entertained. But at the end of the day, I feel this is too far away from the original Romeo and Juliet story to bathe in its reflected tragedy. Of course, as a Matthew Bourne creation, it naturally still towers over many other modern dance productions, simply by dint of its expansiveness, its inventive choreography and its overall vision.

R&J in glitterThe tour continues to Plymouth, the Lowry, Cardiff, Sadler’s Wells, Norwich, Birmingham, Canterbury, Southampton, Nottingham and winds up in Newcastle in mid-October. Bourne aficionados will want to see it as a matter of course, and will doubtless love its sheer spectacle; why wouldn’t you? Romeo and Juliet fans might be slightly more disappointed. It goes without saying that the terrific performances carry it through; but, knowing how astounding Sir Matthew’s dance works can be, something in me kinda wanted more.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Richard III, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 24th May 2019

Richard IIIIt was five years ago that we saw that disastrous production of Richard III at the Trafalgar Studios, starring Martin Freeman. I say disastrous; it was from the angle of our seats, which were the (relatively expensive) ones on stage “to get closer to the action” – but in fact our view of the action was so totally interrupted by the set that we may as well have been listening to a radio play. Never again will I fall for the “get a seat on the set” gimmick – it’s way too risky.

So nebulous was our memory of that show that Mrs Chrisparkle and I went into this production of Richard III thinking it was the first time I’d ever seen it – and, to all intents and purposes, it was. Its not a play with which I’m particularly familiar, but that’s definitely been my loss all these years. Richard III (the character) combines the ambition of Lady Macbeth with the ruthlessness of Iago and the bloodlust of Titus Andronicus. He’s the archetypal nasty piece of work but what a joy it is to watch him scheme and slime his way around a stage.

Although Richard III only ruled from 1483-85, he certainly left his mark on the annals of history. I’m no expert, but I believe he wasn’t quite as bad a chap as popular culture would have us believe. Shakespeare offers us the Princes in the Tower episode as just one incident in a life of murderous manipulation, and the play is, basically, an observation of the motives and modus operandi of a Machiavellian maniac. That’s what makes it so enjoyable! We cower at his evil but giggle at how he overshares his total lack of shame.

John Haidar’s production for Headlong, in association with the Bristol Old Vic, Alexandra Palace, Oxford Playhouse and the Royal and Derngate, has just finished its tour last week in Northampton, and – no buts about it – it was an absolute triumph. Plantagenet though the king may be, there is a distinct modern feel to the production, with smart suits and jackets/turtle necks combos the order of the day; Richard himself sports a set of callipers which I doubt would have been available at the end of the fifteenth century. Rather than get bogged down in its language – apparently, uncut, it’s the longest Shakespeare play apart from Hamlet – the production concentrated on vivid characterisation, striking visual and sound effects, and creative use of a row of mirror doors surrounding the back of the stage. Feydeau would have been fuming with envy. The cuts and re-arrangements of the play (don’t expect it to start with Now is the Winter of our Discontent) work incredibly well to give it a fast pace and a clear vision.

The cast was superb throughout, but I have to mention three particular performances that stood out for me. There’s a gloriously elegant performance by Stefan Adegbola as Buckingham; immaculately presented as the courtier supreme, politely attending on the whim of his masters – loyal of course, but always with an ear out for chances of preferment. When he realises his chance to impress Richard by assisting his plans – even giving him ideas for villainy – his star rises; but once reason starts to kick in, and he doesn’t instantly support Richard’s plan to kill the princes in the tower, his fate is sealed; and that self-assured elegance becomes confused and furious rebelliousness. It’s a magnificent performance.

I was also very impressed with the physical stage presence of Heledd Gwynn in her roles as the sensible Hastings – far too sensible to survive under Richard – and henchman Ratcliff, but also as the chillingly slick murderer sent to despatch Clarence. You almost believe she’s listening and responding to his pleas for mercy; then she shocks us by proving herself a most worthy murderer. There are also great performances from Leila Mimmack as the hopeless Anne and Eileen Nicholas as the Duchess of York, Richard’s mother who – let’s just say – is very, very disappointed in him.

But it’s Tom Mothersdale’s performance as Richard that absolutely takes your breath away. Contorting himself in the most awkward of poses to suggest Richard’s deformity, he doth bestride that stage like a Colossus. Revelling in a wonderful range of facial reactions from pretend horror to faux modesty, from amused self-realisation to blinding fury, you cannot take your eyes of him for one moment. His soliloquies are never just him talking to himself; he’s always talking to us, the audience, proudly letting us into his filthy world so that we detest him – but we love him too, resentfully, as he makes us complicit in his wretchedness.

Our emotional reactions to Richard’s situation are very complex; when the spirits of all his victims arrive to taunt him – each blowing silver corpse dust into his face so that he is lost in a sea of ghostly talc – we’re completely supportive of the spirits wanting to seek revenge but also strangely sorry for Richard’s plight. And when they appear and disappear at him from behind their magic mirrors, the fear this engenders is terrifyingly real and dark. It’s a memorable image that remains with you long after the show.

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Mrs C start a standing ovation before, but this was a no-brainer. A sensational production brought alive by some truly outstanding performances. It would be a true Shakespearean tragedy if this was never to be seen on a stage again – someone really should snap it up! Gripping, terrifying, and funny too. First-class!

Production photos by Marc Brenner

Review – Rob Auton: The Talk Show, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 17th May 2019

Rob AutonI guess when a show declares itself under the category of comedy/theatre/spoken word, you ought to realise you’re not in for an evening of typical stand-up comedy. And, indeed, Rob Auton doesn’t give you a typical evening of stand-up comedy. But don’t be alarmed, gentle reader, there are good things to follow…

He starts the show as his own warm-up act, getting to know the front row a little, talking about his previous shows, sharing with us some of his more dubious reviews, reading poetical gems from his books, and generally relaxing himself into the rest of the evening. After an interval he wanders back on to the stage; there’s no “welcome back ladies and gentlemen, did you have a good interval” type of showbiz introduction, rather it’s straight into his themes for the Talk Show – it even took a few moments to realise he’d started, as people were still checking their phones.

The Talk ShowHe talks a lot about his parents, with affection and understanding of their funny little ways; but, primarily, he talks about talking. He gets us to talk to strangers, and when we pluck up the courage to chat with our neighbours, he celebrates it as a great achievement.

Unusually, he stands in front of us with what I presume is a detailed script in his hand, that he tipped out of his Sainsbury’s bag earlier on, even though you never for once think he’s going to lose his place or not know what to say next. Perhaps it is his comfort blanket. Projecting a very engaging personality, but also exuding an air of great vulnerability, you sense that quite a lot of this material is joint therapy for both the audience and the performer; and that it’s all from personal experience. There’s humour at every turn; whether you choose to laugh at it or wryly recognise that it’s what makes the world go round, is up to you. And by that I don’t mean that it isn’t a show full of laughs – quite the opposite, he frequently had us all in hysterics. But there is meaning and pathos behind each laughter moment.

There are passages of great sensitivity and stillness, where he holds us in the palm of his hand waiting for his next word. The emotions are so strong that at one stage I thought he, or I, was going burst into tears. Neither of us did, but you could see the wetness in his eyes. There’s nothing forced or false in this show. His main message seems to be to make sure that those you love and care about know this fact. That can be a hard lesson to learn, but once learned, you don’t forget it. There will sadly come a time when you can’t tell them you love them anymore.

Rob Auton has a compelling style of delivery; measured, careful, each word chosen for its suitability. As a result, you have complete confidence in his mastery of his own material. He’s been taking shows up to Edinburgh for ages, so I’m very surprised not to have come across his work before – but I’m very glad I have. He’s still touring with the Talk Show, and also work-in-progressing this year’s Edinburgh show. Catch him if you can for an intelligent, thoughtful and emotional hour’s comedy.