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

Review – Nigel Slater’s Toast, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 9th October 2019

71742678_379481756289212_2561666422598008832_n“So… Nigel Slater. Have you heard of him?” I asked Mrs Chrisparkle, shortly before we set off to the theatre. “He’s a chef, isn’t he?” she replied. “Yes, indeed” I said, confident as I had only Googled him a couple of hours earlier. To be honest, I hadn’t a clue who Nigel Slater was. Obviously important enough to have a play written about his toast, at any rate. And when you enter the Royal auditorium, that’s the first thing you notice – the smell of deliciously crisp, tasty toast. Torture for the coeliac Mrs C, who hasn’t had decent toast since 2004.

The CastIt is a trifle odd to watch a play, adapted from the autobiography of someone you’ve never heard of, and for a while I kept on thinking that I was missing something, some kind of grand identity reveal that would give added purpose to this otherwise rather private play. But I never felt the benefit of that reward. Instead for me it was a kind of voyeuristic experience, observing the childhood and upbringing of a famous person without truly understanding why I was doing it.

Mum and NigelThat said, it’s a very enjoyable, totally charming and incredibly slick production that uses its kitchen set to remarkable ends – with a very creative use of those floating island units we all envy in kitchen showrooms, although if you saw how they presented Getting Married Today in the recent production of Company, it won’t come as that much of a surprise. We meet 8-year-old Nigel helping his mother in the kitchen, devouring the wise words of Marguerite Patten; it’s obvious from the very start that Nigel has a very serious interest in cookery, this is not merely food-play. We then follow him through life’s experiences, including his first sight of a naked man (at a surprisingly young age), the confusion over boy sweets and girl sweets, the loss of his mother, his father’s remarriage and his first steps towards adulthood, both at work and in discovering his sexuality.

Spaghetti BologneseHenry Filloux-Bennett’s adaptation is beautifully written; a delicate soufflé of words and emotions that bind perfectly and rise just as they should. Throughout the play there are occasions when nothing is actually said, but the expressions and the actions of the performers give it greater eloquence than words ever could. And, having lost a parent myself at a young age, I found its whole portrayal and understanding of childhood bereavement completely believable – and young Nigel really reminded me of myself, which was quite a shock. Plus: real cooking! Whilst some of the earlier food preparations in the play are presented, by necessity, à la Blue Peter, whatever it is that Giles Cooper cooked in the final scene – definitely involving mushrooms – wafted gloriously into the auditorium. Sit in the front row and you might get some flapjacks; the rest of us take lucky dips out of several bags of sweeties. I plumped for a roll of Fizzers, which are alarmingly noisy to open in the theatre, particularly when one hand is holding a glass of Malbec. To be frank, Fizzers and Argentinian Red aren’t the best food/wine pairing.

Top of the FormCentral to the success of this production is a superb performance by Giles Cooper. His very clean-cut image is perfect for the young Nigel, and I remember that shorts and long socks look from my own childhood. Perfect clarity of diction, childlike (as opposed to childish) expressions and reactions, the disappointment when plans go wrong, routine behaviours, and much more – it’s a very full and credible performance of a child’s existence, and the growing awareness of life outside the kitchen as he gets older.

Auntie JoanBlair Plant is also excellent as Dad; very formal, sometimes finding it difficult to exercise his parental skills to the best of his ability, but also wheedling like a child when he wants everything his own way. The other members of the cast take several roles. Katy Federman gives a great performance as the kindly Mum, an almost idealistically perfect mother figure, balancing her love for her child and wanting the best for him, with her own failing health – she’s also great fun as Doreen, Nigel’s first employer. Samantha Hopkins is terrific as the loathsome Joan, with whom Dad falls in love (well, in lust, really), a lascivious chainsmoking strumpet with a need to compete for affection. And Stefan Edwards is great in all the other male roles – the surprisingly uninhibited gardener, Nigel’s goofy schoolmate, and Doreen’s ballet-dancing son.

ToastI wasn’t sure what to expect from the production, but I certainly wasn’t disappointed. It’s a lively, honest, creative play that shows the boy turn into the man. I’m sure if you’re already familiar with the man in question, you’d get even more out of it! Toast is touring into December, so if you’re near Richmond, Brighton, Salisbury, Manchester, York, Chesterfield or Crewe, you can see The Rise and Rise of Young Nigel for yourself – tickets available here. Very slick, very enjoyable – recommended!

Production photos by Piers Foley

Review – Calendar Girls The Musical, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 8th October 2019

72330356_976166089402553_323391701446033408_nCalendar Girls is one of those stories that never seems to go away. First, there was the reality – the death in 1998 of John Clarke, which inspired his widow Angela to create the famous naked Women’s Institute Calendar for 2000; and again for 2004, 5, 7 and 8. Then came the 2003 film starring Helen Mirren and Julie Walters that won Best Film at the British Comedy Awards. 2008 saw the premiere of Tim Firth’s play at the Chichester Festival, with a feisty cast including Elaine C Smith, Sian Phillips, Lynda Bellingham and Patricia Hodge – we loved it. When we saw it a couple of years later at the Royal and Derngate, however, it had turned into a bit of a stinker; in those days I used to give a Chrisparkle Award to the Worst Play/Production of the Year (I’m not that childish or cruel nowadays), and I’m afraid it won first prize.

SARAH-JANE-BUCKLEYHowever, in 2015 Tim Firth joined forces with Gary Barlow of Take That fame to pen Calendar Girls The Musical, which opened in Leeds that year, then received a West End transfer in 2017 and started touring in October 2018. A year later, it has finally arrived in Northampton, and we thought we’d give those daring ladies another try.

PHIL-CORBITTIt’s now a very different entity. From the very first moment when Phil Corbitt’s John walks through a country gate and starts singing wholesomely and romantically about Yorkshire, you’re caught up in a world of country goodness, Mother Nature, solid family/friendships, and a feeling that all’s right in the world. In fact, those opening moments reminded me strongly of the beginning to Oklahoma!, a lone rural soul extolling the virtues of his beloved homeland. Mr Corbitt’s voice is warm and reassuring; Mr Firth’s lyrics are heart-warming and emotional; Mr Barlow’s melodies are strong, evocative and rewarding. And that very much sets the tone for the entire show. The performances are all very strong – particularly musically; the adaptation of the original is inventive, funny and moving; and the tunes range from the enjoyable to the memorable. Mrs Chrisparkle felt she heard shades of Blood Brothers; I sensed elements of The Hired Man. If we’re both right, that has to be a winning combination.

REBECCA-STORMI must admit, I had low (maybe no) expectations of this show, but I was completely wrong. It’s a blast from start to finish, whether that’s through the upbeat characterisations of the Women’s Institute members, or through the strength of the relationships portrayed between all the characters, or through a variety of high comedy scenes. It also gets the emotional sadness of John’s declining health absolutely right, which prepares us for Annie’s brave bereavement and her subsequent way forward, largely due to support from her irrepressible bestie Chris.

LISA-MAXWELLWhereas the play seemed interminably slow to start, the musical just gets on with it, which is a virtue all of its own. It also, extremely successfully, brings out the characters of Danny (Chris’ son), Tommo (Cora’s son) and Jenny (Marie’s daughter), who are all at school together and clumsily formulating relationships of their own. Scenes with the younger actors balance nicely with the older cast to give a fuller picture of the village environment. If I remember rightly, the play rewards us with the always hilarious taking-the-photographs scene about halfway or two-thirds way through; whereas the musical uses this as its near climax, if you’ll pardon the expression. The musical version of the naked photoshoot remains hysterically funny with inspired use of buns and some members of the cast throwing care to the wind with what they might or might not reveal.

JULIA-HILLSThe performances are universally excellent throughout. Sarah Jane Buckley is brilliant as Annie; musically, her delivery of the song Scarborough, where she starts to show anxiety about how life can carry on with an incapacitated John, was the show’s highlight for me. Rebecca Storm’s Chris is a hearty, confident type, full of support for her friend; Julia Hills’ repressed Ruth is a brilliant portrayal of an older woman putting on a brave front – again, another musical highlight is her hilarious (yet sad) My Russian Friend and I where she shares the source of her consolation.

TYLER-DOBBSGreat to see Ruth Madoc on fine form as older headmistress Jessie, with just the right level of status-oriented pomposity but with warmth and humour shining through; Lisa Maxwell gives a great performance as bodily-enhanced Celia, and Sue Devaney is fantastic as always, as vicar’s daughter Cora, trying to encourage son Tommo to do as I say not as I do. On which subject, Tyler Dobbs is superb as Tommo in what I suspect is his first major professional role. Danny Howker is a nicely innocent Danny, and Isabel Caswell is a nicely knowing Jenny, which makes them a perfect pairing. But the entire cast do a great job in bringing this emotionally-charged but never maudlin – and frequently hilarious – musical to life.

SUE-DEVANEYHighly recommended; after Northampton, the tour continues to Blackpool, Chester, Bath and Chichester. Tickets – if there are any left – are available through the tour website here. It received a deserving standing ovation on its first night in Northampton – I can only suggest you book to discover for yourself why.

ISABEL-CASWELLP. S. I can’t work out why this show seems to appeal almost exclusively to women. On Tuesday night I doubt whether the packed house of 1200 theatregoers had more than 20 men. Maybe men are still too scared to witness emotion? Who knows? Have a word with yourselves, guys, you’re missing out on a lot of fun!

Review – Russell Kane, The Fast and the Curious, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 5th October 2019

Russell Kane in an armchairI can’t believe it’s been five years since we last saw Russell Kane, performing his Smallness Tour at the Warwick Arts Centre. That year he won the coveted Chrisparkle Award for Best Stand-Up in competition with such comedy giants as Russell Brand, John Bishop, Paul Chowdhry and Trevor Noah. He must have been good.

Russell KaneAnd I’m delighted to say he still is! The Fast and the Curious is another full-on evening of entertainment (overrunning through sheer enjoyment by about half an hour!) where Mr Kane, in his inimitable manner, pulls apart the idiocies of life and the family dynamic into which he’s married. In his last show he talked a lot about his Mancunian fiancée; now they’re married, he’s got a whole host of other family members to contend with – Mother-in-law Yvonne, and new Auntie Christine in particular.

Russell Kane at full peltAmongst the other delights he has for us are his meeting with Prince Charles, a debacle in an Italian restaurant and what happened when he consulted a psychic. Mr Kane is still full of boundless energy, striding the length of the stage back and forth like a boundless rubber-band. He’s incredibly engaging, generating lively backchat with the audience, and very, very funny. Nothing more to say apart from if you can catch his tour, you really should! His tour continues into December and you can find tickets here. Spoil yourself!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 4th October 2019

Screaming Blue MurderYou wait months for a Screaming Blue Murder then, a week later, another one comes around… not that I’m complaining. There isn’t better value, great quality comedy to be had around these parts, imho. Once again, the Underground was pretty packed, although the front rows were a bit empty because of the cowards defaulting to the back of the room, which always creates a challenge.

Maureen YoungerFor one week only our host was the fantastic Maureen Younger, a feisty performer if ever there was one, whom we’ve seen on many occasions at Screaming Blues, in Edinburgh, and as part of an Upfront Comedy line-up. She likes to get to know the front rows (difficult if there’s hardly anyone there, but she persevered) and so we met big-hearted Big Tommy who threw himself into the whole evening, John the documentary-maker (we’re so metropolitan elite here, darling), posh Georgia (who wasn’t that posh after all) and the quiet couple tucked away at the far end who didn’t want to get in anyone’s way. Maureen’s a great MC, with the necessary quick brain and a host of hilarious responses, and by the time she introduced the first act, it was all going swimmingly.

Michael LeggeWe’d seen two of the acts before, so pretty much knew what to expect from them, but, unexpectedly, it turned out to be an evening of surprises. First up was Michael Legge, who was in a very in-your-face mood, delivering his quirky material with occasionally challenging faux-aggression; but all very enjoyable and you know you’re in very safe hands with the experienced Mr Legge. However…. a group of people towards the back started talking quite animatedly, clearly not paying attention to the show at all, and making it difficult for the rest of us to hear Mr Legge’s bon mots. He started to deal with it as though they were heckling him, but in fact they were simply ignoring him, and getting on with their own conversation. Mr Legge wasn’t having any of that; and then the room divided. Us nice people at the front had the show to ourselves, the ignorant idiots at the back who couldn’t be arsed to pay attention, were ridiculed and excluded. He was tempted to call a halt to his part of the act, but Mr Legge carried on with some very enjoyable material about Mrs Brown’s Boys (I’ll say no more) but the first interval arrived in an atmosphere of rather unsettling edginess.

Harriet DyerOur next act was Harriet Dyer, whom we’ve also seen before. Hers can be quite a divisive act, in that she has a very I’m mad, me persona which, depending on the mood of the audience, can either fall flat on its face or can soar the heights of surreal hilarity. Fortunately for us all, she was on brilliant form and managed to unite the divided audience in appreciation of her ludicrously funny act. She uses the physicality of her rather unruly, bendy body to great effect, as well as having some totally way-out routines, such as her brother taking an interview covered in spiders. Brilliantly funny; and for her ability to unite an unruly crowd, I think she should become the new Minister for Brexit.

Matt WelcomeLast up, and in a change of programme, we had Matt Welcome. We’d not seen him before, and he has a very different style. Laid back, inquisitive, personal; as his name suggests, he welcomes you into his world to explore a sequence of odd observations where he takes ideas to way-out, bizarre extremes. It’s all very nicely judged and cleverly thought through, and is entertaining rather than belly-laugh-triggering. If I’d been programming, I’d have put Mr Welcome on first and Mr Legge on last… although how that would have worked out with the unruly bunch at the back I don’t know.

So, all in all, a very good night, if a trifle odd one! Next Screaming Blue Murder is on 25th October, but in a triumph of comedy clashes, that’s also the night that Ben Elton has sold out the Derngate Auditorium…

Review – Rob Beckett, Wallop, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 3rd October 2019

Rob Beckett WallopWe’ve seen Rob Beckett once before, performing his Mouth of the South show at the Edinburgh Fringe in 2015. I became an instant fan of his self-deprecating warmth and total lack of starriness. Now he’s back with a new show, Wallop, giving us more insights into his madcap family life and bizarre exploits.

Rob BeckettRob Beckett is one of those truly gifted performers – he’s a naturally funny guy throughout and you never get the feeling he has to force a laugh, or wrack his brain for a response. He never shies away from making fun of his own appearance, whether it be his unmistakably toothy smile (he doesn’t have a resting bitch face, he has a resting happy face) or his ridiculously disproportioned body (as you’ll discover at the end of the show – no worries, it’s not X rated.) He’s also alarmingly honest with sharing his moments of utter personal stupidity, like the time he went to see Kinky Boots and thought he’d never seen such a beautiful array of sexy women – OK, to be fair, I did that too. I didn’t, however, confess it to the rest of my family…

Rob Beckett 2019He strikes a great rapport with the audience, although, for some reason, last Thursday night, our usually quite rumbustious Derngate audience appeared a little reticent to join in. Even late arrivals Curtis and Jill, who missed the beginning because Curtis wanted to watch the Manchester United game, didn’t follow up their initial boldness. Only upbeat Alex, a disembodied voice from a stalls right box somewhere, played along and became the authority for the night on whether Rob’s jokes and observations were sufficiently PC for a Thursday evening in Northampton.

Rob BMr B has such a bright, positive style and delivery, that it’s impossible not to laugh and smile at virtually everything he says and does. This show is jam-packed with absolutely brilliant material, some of which he goes into a great length, other parts are virtually thrown away, but they’re all fantastic nonetheless. There’s an extensive routine where he looks back at Mary Poppins 2, which I’ve not had the….good fortune?  of seeing, and had me in hysterics. But it was his material about what do you want to get out of going to the gym, including his experiences in Lake Bled that had me literally sobbing with laughter. Not fair for me to say any more, you just have to go see him. The show proved so popular that there is another date scheduled at the Royal and Derngate, on 22nd March 2020. Otherwise his tour continues right through till next June – all the info is here. Tummy-quiveringly funny – if you miss out, you’ll only have yourself to blame!

Review – Richard Alston Dance Company, Final Edition, Royal and Derngate, 2nd October 2019

72349332_449177002383448_5472811477918285824_nYou can almost hear Frank Sinatra ringing in your ears… And now, the end is near, and so I face, the final curtain…. Yes, that sad moment we hoped would never come – next March the Richard Alston Dance Company shuts up shop for the last time, with decades of magical performances behind them that have contributed so much over the years to my personal enjoyment of contemporary dance.

Richard AlstonI first saw a Richard Alston piece way back in 1980 when Rainbow Ripples was part of a programme danced by Ballet Rambert (as they were then called) at the New Theatre Oxford, in the company of my friends Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters, even though they didn’t have those lavish titles bestowed on them at the time. My first encounter with the Richard Alston Dance Company was with Mrs Chrisparkle at the Wycombe Swan in 1998, featuring, as their star dancer, a young Martin Lawrance; and since then we’ve seen them no less than on fifteen occasions. These are sad times we’re dealing with here.

RADC Team of 2019To wrap up their glorious place in modern dance history, they’re undertaking one final tour – the Final Edition, which, after Edinburgh last week, visited Northampton this week. The programme on Wednesday featured two new pieces and the return of two old favourites, more of which shortly. But first, for the third year running, we opened with a Curtain Raiser, Flocking, from Two Thirds Sky in collaboration with the Creative Learning department at the Royal and Derngate and Northampton School for Boys.

Brahms HungarianFlocking, choreographed by RADC alumnus Ihsaan de Banya, with Laura Gibson and Lisa Spackman, is a short but beautiful piece that echoes the sights and sounds of a coastline, with the flocking of birds, the sounds of the waves, and the movement of flotsam and jetsam, all to Zoe Keating’s superb 2010 soundtrack, Flying and Flocking. The 25 young dancers were outstanding in their crisp, creative precision of movement, expressing the choreography (which reminded me of Christopher Bruce in many ways) with confidence and artistry. It was a truly impressive experience, and each performer gave it tremendous commitment. A fantastic way to start the evening.

DetourThe first of the company pieces was the return of Richard Alston’s beautiful Brahms Hungarian, a deceptively complex and witty mix of Hungarian gypsy dance with classical ballet moves – I’m sure I saw a nod to Le Corsaire in there somewhere. With the women in summery floral dresses and the men in trendy waistcoats, this dance has all the visual beauty you could want. Pianist Jason Ridgway deftly plays Brahms’ Hungarian Dances in their non-orchestrated version, which gives the whole dance an extra layer of elegance. The partnerships between the dancers all worked extremely well, but for me, the standout performances were, as they were throughout the whole evening, by Joshua Harriette (my One To Watch from last year) and Ellen Yilma.

MazurAfter an interval, our next dance was a revival of Richard Alston’s 2015 creation, Mazur, danced with enormous expression and gentlemanliness by Joshua Harriette and Nicholas Shikkis. Using the example of how Chopin’s Mazurkas reminded the composer of his homeland when he was abroad, it’s a dance about a meeting of minds between friends, maybe more, sharing what they have lost. Messrs Harriette and Shikkis brought great warmth and balance to this piece and the occasional flash of humour, whilst executing it with technical mastery; and once again the dance benefited from Jason Ridgway’s charming and expressive playing.

A Far CryNext up was Martin Lawrance’s new piece – and his final creation for the company – A Far Cry. In the programme notes he states that a far cry is “when you want to express its difference from something familiar” – and sums up his feelings of loss that the company is going to close. This beautiful dance emanates both sorrow and loss; the significance of the image of the fading burning sun on the backdrop towards the end of the dance was not lost on me. The choreography itself is a mix of the majestic and the manic; majestic when the dancers are confidently going through their steps, manic when they’re rushing around, rather like lost frenetic molecules, scrambling for survival. A very effective and compellingly moving work.

Brahms HungarianAfter a second interval, our final dance was Richard Alston’s new piece, Voices and Light Footsteps, danced by the whole company in ten movements to the music of Monteverdi – a mixture of orchestral, instrumental pieces and stunning madrigals. This time the women are in stunning satin evening dresses, whereas the guys are comparatively scruffy which I thought looked slightly odd. The dance itself is very haunting, very mellifluous; the dancers frequently break into small groups of three and these trios work together very creatively, suggesting relationships or themes that might not be there when just two dancers are partnered together. The combination of the music and the movement had a very relaxing effect, providing an almost cosy ending to the programme, and to the company’s work.

Martin LawranceIf you’re lucky enough to be near Brighton, Swansea, Bromley, Aldeburgh, Woking, Glasgow, Warwick, or the company’s home base at The Place, in addition to Bern in Switzerland – good for you, you have one last chance to see the company on this tour between now and November. Can’t deny it though – I’m gutted that this is the end. I’m sure that both Sir Richard and Martin Lawrance will continue to create fantastic new works in the future, but I don’t know where we’ll go to find them. To all the dancers, choreographers, designers and musicians who have given us such pleasure through the company over the years, I have just one word to say to you. Bravo!

Review – The Woman in Black, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 30th September 2019

72325020_2554237014656850_852794451297304576_nIf you’ve not seen The Woman in Black before, then, unless you’re under, say, 21 years old, what have you been doing all your life? She’s been menacing the West End for thirty odd years, intimidating The Actor who has been hired to help bring Arthur Kipps’ (no, not that Arthur Kipps) tale up to scratch so that he can perform it to a few family and friends and exorcise his memories.

KippsOn an almost empty set, with just a wicker basket, a clothes rail and a rather ominous door, Kipps starts to tell us about his experience as a young solicitor, visiting Eel Marsh house in its lonely location at the end of a murky, mysterious causeway, to examine the papers of the late Mrs Drablow. He’s not very good as a performer, so The Actor whom he has engaged to direct him, brings him out of his shy nervous shell so that he starts to relive those days. As the story develops, the Actor plays Kipps, and Kipps plays everyone else. It’s a play that works almost totally on the imagination, and is so much the stronger for it. Indeed, there is a programme note by the director that reveals if they had more money to spend on the original budget, it could have been a much more lavish production, which would almost certainly have killed it dead.

The ActorThis is the fourth time I’ve seen this play, the last time being in the same venue seven years ago. It’s a play you can go back to, time and time again, because each time you see it, you get a little extra out of it. It might get scarier; it might get funnier; it might get more serious; it might get more flippant. The truth is, all these aspects are written into the late Stephen Mallatratt’s terrific adaptation of Susan Hill’s book. I’m wondering though, if there have been a couple of recent “updates” to the text – that leave something to be desired. I may be wrong, but I don’t recall Crythin Gifford being located in the county of “ahem-ahem-ahem-shire” (which sounds unnecessarily vague). And when The Actor repeats his claim that he’ll make an Olivier out of Kipps yet… well, a hundred years ago, which is when the production is meant to be set, Oliver would have been 12. Someone hasn’t thought that through properly.

Kipps and ActorPutting that aside, it’s a gripping play, with constantly surprising staging and lighting effects that you will, have no doubt, find unsettling! It also benefits from two highly accomplished performances in this new touring production. Robert Goodale’s Kipps grows from a respectful but timid little man with no sense of occasion into a confident, virtuoso performer, presenting a full cast of characters with great versatility and creativity. I particularly enjoyed his sullen, world-weary Keckwick the pony-and-trap driver, and Jerome the pompous local representative. Daniel Easton plays The Actor with a decent blend of actorly arrogance and genuine self-discovery. Looking and sounding for all the world like a young Hugh Bonneville, Mr Easton completely makes you forget that he’s playing an Actor playing the role – very impressive.

Kipps in characterThe Woman in Black always attracts a large number of school crowds, and last Monday’s performance was no exception. However, I’m delighted to report, that these children were way better behaved than those we encountered in 2012. Screaming was kept to a minimum, and all the phones were put away. They’ve either got some really sadistic teachers or were simply much more involved in the play than in the evening out; either way, win-win.

It's not going wellThis production is touring to 22 more theatres up and down the country, continuing right through to May 2020. Check their website to find the venue closest to you. No excuse not to see it then!

Production photos by Tristram Kenton

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 27th September 2019

Screaming Blue MurderWe were sorry to miss last fortnight’s Screaming Blue Murder but Mrs Chrisparkle and I were still lounging on the Costa del Northumberland. Back with a vengeance this week though, and it started with me unexpectedly helping host Dan Evans to rearrange the chairs as they’d prepared the room to a really odd and totally un-comedy-friendly layout. The things one does as a reviewer….

Dan EvansDan was indeed back on fine form, mining comedy nuggets from the front rows with the deft ease of a top-class surgeon isolating an unwary organ for removal. Through his auspices, we got to know the staff of Simply Business Insurance on an office outing, some geezers from Carlsberg, an army Commando and a manufacturer of corrugated boxes. You couldn’t make it up.

In a most unusual turn of events, we hadn’t seen any of the three acts before – and it’s been a very long time since I could say that! Our first act was Joe Jacobs, stressing his Jewishness quite a lot which didn’t quite make sense to me, but following it up with some excellent material including rap through the ages and a terrific little routine about mansplaining. He treads that fine line between slightly underperforming and performing with superb subtlety, so when his style pays off, it really pays off. A very good start.

Zahra BarriNext up was Zahra Barri, half Muslim, half Catholic, which was a comedy gift for her school career advisers. She’s tremendously funny with some terrific spiky material which she delivers with subtle panache rather than aggressive wham-bam, and it really works. So many brilliant little stories kept us in hysterics the whole time, but we particularly loved the material involving her mother keeping yogurt in the fridge and the most appropriate mascara for a Muslim. Absolutely first-class and we would love to see her perform again.

David WardOur headline act was David Ward, who looks and sounds like a mouthy wideboy down the pub but actually has one of the quickest brains in the business and had so much apparently off-the-cuff material that related directly to the audience members that he genuinely took my breath away. My favourite joke of his was about subscribing to a sponsored walk without reading the details, delivered beautifully with a throwaway climax line. Quite the comedy genius! A brilliant way to end a perfect evening of comedy.

And it’s on again next week!

Review – The Beauty of Tchaikovsky, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 22nd September 2019

Beauty of TchaikovskyFantastic as always to welcome the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra back to the Derngate Auditorium for this first of this season’s concerts, with The Beauty of Tchaikovsky, a (dare I say it) slightly limp title for a full-force evening of music. What next, The Loveliness of Liszt? The Marvellousness of Mozart? Come on, RPO Marketing department, make the titles a bit snappier!

Gianluca MarcianoNot that the title put anyone off attending this concert because empty seats were few and far between for this programme of four exciting and occasionally challenging Tchaikovsky pieces. Our conductor for the evening was Gianluca Marciano, whom we haven’t seen before, and who is attached to a number of orchestras in exotic and mysterious places like Belarus and Lebanon. Who knew he would be attracted to the glamour of Northampton? Mr Marciano is a smart, theatrical, bouncy chap in a shiny tail suit who really feels the rhythm surging through his bendy knees, as he reaches on tippytoes to get the attention of the furthest-away musicians. They respond very well to him too, as the RPO were on terrific form throughout the evening.

Gemma SummerfieldOur first piece was the Polonaise from Eugene Onegin, Op.24, an instantly recognisable, stately extravaganza with all strings ablaze, and a perfect way to start the show. Then it was time for our soloist, soprano Gemma Summerfield, who sang the Letter Scene from the same opera. Ms Summerfield looked fantastic in her stunning blue evening dress and – cliché time – has the voice of an angel. Her elocution is crystal clear (even if you don’t understand the Russian) and she sings with a full, rich warmth, oozing expression and attitude. This was her debut with the RPO but it’s a match made in heaven, so I hope they have a long and happy career together!

RPONext Mr Marciano took the orchestra through the Romeo and Juliet Fantasy Overture. My first thoughts were if this is an overture, how long is the entire ballet? But I was mistaken. There is no ballet, or opera, for which this is its overture. It is a stand-alone work, a kind of sonata that musically represents the entire Romeo and Juliet story. Although it’s one of Tchaikovsky’s best-known works, I hadn’t heard it before and I found it quite chewy in parts – not the performance, but the piece itself. It’s very in-your-face, highly expressive and the tragedy of the story really comes across in the toughness of the music, which the RPO conveyed superbly well.

RPO1-300x200After the interval we returned for a performance of the Fifth Symphony in E Minor, Op.64, a masterful sequence of tunes and moods which really brings the strength out of the strings and provides a very haunting horn solo. But the whole orchestra gave it all incredible commitment, and the robustness of the piece and the performance was a wonderful way to end the evening. Look forward to enjoying some more of the concerts throughout the season!