Review – Balletboyz, Deluxe, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th May 2022

DeluxeSometimes, gentle reader, you come away from an evening of contemporary dance and think wtf was that, and sometimes you come away with a spring in your step and a desperate desire to be forty years younger and four hundred times as sprightly. I’m delighted to say that the Balletboyz’ Deluxe falls into the latter category. An evening of exciting, stimulating, beautiful dance, with some incredibly expressive and gifted dancers, fantastic lighting, brilliant costumes and two riveting musical soundtracks to back it up.

BB BradleyOf course, I should have been writing this review about two years ago, but something happened in the meantime that stopped the original scheduled tour of Deluxe. What was it now? Oh yes, the pandy. But you can’t keep artistic spirit down for long, and Deluxe has bounced back, with an almost completely new cast – the Balletboyz of two years ago were disbanded, sadly – and has been touring the country since March, with just one more date after their Northampton visit.

RippleDeluxe is structured in two parts. The first half comprises of Ripple, choreographed by Xie Xin, and is preceded by a video where she teaches the dance to members of the (original) group and explains the difficulty of creating work for an all-male group. I don’t normally appreciate explanatory media too much, I think a dance ought to stand by its own presentation, without any further explanation. And this video didn’t do much to change that opinion.

BBHowever, once it gets started you’re immediately gripped by it. I loved its depiction of the flow of movement, the ripples that can be gentle or like a giant wave. The dancers connect and separate, and come together without touching, like they are practising reiki on each other. It reflects harmony and disturbance, survival of the individual and in groups, all to Jiang Shaofeng’s superb soundtrack of discordant and disrupted strings and harsh clashing percussion. It’s mesmerising.

BB Bradley 2The second part is Bradley 4:18, choreographed by Maxine Doyle, inspired by the poetry and song of Kae Tempest. The title doesn’t refer to a missing book of the Bible, rather it’s what happens to a certain chap named Bradley at 4:18 in the morning. This is also preceded by a video – a slightly more helpful one (although, personally, I’d prefer this information to be in the programme, rather than a video which has the potential to alienate a viewer who just wants to see dance.) Six dancers take on different aspects of Bradley, at first separately, later weaving in and out of each other to show the various contradictions and behavioural patterns that go to make up one man. Bradley is a party animal, a schoolboy bully, a vulnerable team member, a drunken sloth; aggressive, big-headed, pained and lost. It’s a very clever idea and the dance pretty much nails all these individual characteristics.

BradleyIf you’re looking for any particular story-telling that links the two pieces, I think you’ll be disappointed. They are simply both examples of the BBoyz’ amazing ability to convey varying emotions and all styles of dance. The dancers themselves are a hugely talented bunch, extraordinarily gifted and immensely likeable and watchable. I was especially impressed with their brilliantly synchronised sequences – every dancer performing the same move at precisely the same time, no one was a nanosecond off; incredible.

RipplerIt was over ten years ago that I first spotted the young Liam Riddick at the Royal and Derngate in a programme by the Richard Alston Dance Company and I predicted he would become the Next Big Thing – and I was right. Tonight I saw another dancer who caught my eye with his extraordinarily versatility, sense of fun and expressiveness, and unbelievable agility – Seirian Griffiths. Mark my words, he will be huge in the dance world over the next few years. Balletboyz DeluxeI was also really impressed with Kai Tomioka, whose interpretation of Bradley ranged from the aggressive to the wheedling – I shall look forward to seeing him in new work in the future. But, of course, all the Boyz are amazingly talented and turn in a great show.

Sadly, Deluxe has only one more night on its tour, in Yeovil on 19th May. But the Balletboyz are back with a bounce, and with this current cast of dancers, the future looks very bright.

Production photos by George Piper (who, if you know your Balletboyz history, doesn’t actually exist)

Five Alive, Let Dance Thrive! (Almost removed a star for the unnecessary videos, but that felt petty)

Review – Upfront Comedy Slam, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 8th May 2022

John SimmitI was shocked, I tell you, shocked, to discover that it’s been over four years since we last attended an Upfront Comedy gig at the Royal and Derngate. These shows are simply great fun – two acts before the interval and another two after, all hosted by DJ and ex-Dipsy Teletubby John Simmit. John got us all relaxed and in the mood for a good night out, but it was clear he wasn’t going to put up with any Will Smith/Chris Rock nonsense from the audience. He’s from Handsworth and you don’t do that kind of thing with someone from Handsworth without deeply regretting it afterwards. He also shared his recent discovery about why white guys dance the way they do and why black guys do it their way, and – choreographically at least – how ne’er the twain shall meet!

Javier JarquinOur first act, and someone we’ve seen many times and always enjoy, was Javier Jarquin, a Kiwi with Latin American/Chinese parentage, so there’s a conundrum if the Home Office want to send him home. Full of energy and attack, he has some truly fascinating material about the difference between it and that, and Mrs Chrisparkle particularly enjoyed his observations about how men just walk around the house pointlessly because, apparently, I do that (It isn’t pointless when I do it, just saying.) He always strikes up a great rapport with the audience and he got the show off to a terrific start.

shaziaNext up was that expert wise Brummie, Shazia Mirza, offering her wry observations on women’s position in society and the media, which included picking on good-hearted Chris in the front row, whom she named Bob, as representative of all elderly white men (he’s only 63) and why, basically, he has to be eradicated. She takes no prisoners with her tough talking satire, but brings you along with her argument in a way that makes you see subjects differently. To do that, and to be funny at the same time, is an absolute gift. However, when she was recounting a story about being on a Celebrity survival show with Bear Grylls, a rather extraordinary thing happened. I’m not sure why – a carelessly expressed phrase, or a mistimed facial expression, but she said or did something that absolutely killed the energy in the room. She worked really hard to get it back – but never quite made it. One of those strange things that sometimes happens with live comedy, even with experienced and fantastic comics like Ms Mirza.

Ms MoRealAfter the interval, our next act was someone new to us, Ms Mo’Real, or, as her parents think of her, Muriel. She complains about the wasters that share her flat and don’t contribute to the rent and bills – and there’s a great punchline to that setup. She looks twenty years younger than she is, and uses that to some great comedic effect too. Her very warm and kindly stage presence helps her killer lines to hit home very effectively. And Mrs C loved her sparkly socks. A very enjoyable act whom we’d love to see again.

Aurie StylaHeadlining the evening was Internet sensation (is that still an appropriate description?) Aurie Styla, whose personality bursts off the stage with enormous energy and fun. No longer content to live in a tiny London flat he’s moved to the Bedfordshire countryside where he has several rooms in a big house and a whole new rustic lifestyle that he’s coming to terms with. Fabulous interaction with the audience, his infectious humour fills the theatre with pure joy. A brilliant way to end the evening.

There’s promise of another Upfront Comedy offering in October – I shall keep a watch on the schedules!

Review – The Osmonds, A New Musical, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 4th May 2022

The Osmonds musicalIt wasn’t cool to like The Osmonds when I was growing up – not if you were a boy. And whilst I could recognise their style and panache, their talent and their commitment to hard work, I did find the majority of their songs insufferably slushy. They were at their best when they went rocky; Crazy Horses remains an iconic track of the 70s to this day. My own personal favourite was Goin’ Home – and I’m pleased to say it gets an airing in The Osmonds A New Musical, because when we saw the Real Osmonds (well, Jay, Merrill and Jimmy at any rate) at the Royal and Derngate a little over ten years ago it only got a shortened, perfunctory performance. My other favourite Osmonds rocky track is I Can’t Stop; that didn’t get a play in either show.

Jay leads the castBut it’s hard to underestimate how huge they were; and many of the crowd in last night’s audience were clearly teenyboppers of old, prepared to throw themselves into every routine. There’ll always be a space for something Osmondy on a stage for many years to come; and this new musical, penned by Julian Bigg and Shaun Kerrison after an original story by group member and middle brother Jay, isn’t a bad vehicle for bringing their old songs back and reviewing their career.

Donny and Andy WilliamsThe show is at its best when confronting the divisions between the family members and revealing the strictures that father George’s parenting inflicted on the young boys. The Osmonds themselves are portrayed both as adults – during the main years of their chart success – but also as children, taking their first steps on the Andy Williams Show, submitting to and/or bristling under the military discipline installed in them by George. Mother Olive is a kindly, comforting figure, but has no authority over her husband. Telling moments from their childhoods are re-enacted with the adult actor and child actor side by side, effectively emphasising how what happens in childhood sticks with you all through your life. At one point, Jay refers to the family as the Mormon von Trapps – a good line; it made me think that a lot of their later problems might have been solved if only Olive had sewn them play clothes from some old curtains.

All the OsmondsThe conflicts that arose from Donny and Marie’s separate successful career are also nicely observed; I enjoyed the four brothers’ bored and uninterested recording of the backing vocals to Donny and Marie’s Morning Side of the Mountain as a very nice encapsulation of what must have felt like a huge reduction in their influence and stake in the group. Alan and Merrill’s ambitious business venture to run their own studio is shown in its ascendance but more interestingly when it collapses. There are petty arguments stemming from Alan’s ruthless running of the group – a trait inherited from his father, from Merrill’s not being allowed to marry, and the mental stresses it caused him, and from Jay’s perception that no one listened to him. Perhaps the most surprising thing is that, given the pressures they must have had from being at the top of their performing tree, they didn’t argue more.

Trying a new styleThe scenes and the songs run in a chronological sequence (apart from The Proud One appearing too early and Crazy Horses too late) and are linked by an additional thread, that of Number One Fan Wendy from Manchester, who continues to send Jay fan mail throughout the years, never knowing if he saw her letters. She has an undiminishable love for Jay from afar; that special, unaccountable, irrational love that only a deep deep fan can have. Wendy’s dream to meet the great man finally comes true in a rather charming scene; I’ve no idea if this is truth, fiction, or if Wendy is simply symbolic of thousands of other girls who spilled their teenage angsts to their heroes. It would be rather rewarding if it were 100% true.

In full flowLucy Osborne’s set is bright, relatively simple and functional; her costume designs are excellent, from the classic barbershop outfits of the young boys, through the glam rock shirts and the subtle colour co-ordination of the brothers’ performing clothes – Alan is always basically in blue, Jay in Green, etc – including their latter-day (no pun intended) drift towards country music. Bill Deamer’s choreography accurately reflects the synchronised flamboyance of the group’s original moves, and on the whole the group and the band make a pretty good stab at recreating the definitive Osmond sound.

Jamming TogetherAlex Lodge takes the central role of Jay and conveys his essential wholesome kindness and likeability, occasionally tending towards an overly cutesy and trying “niceness” that may well be an accurate portrayal of the real Jay. Ryan Anderson’s Merrill is a good portrayal of a decent man pushed to the edge by circumstance and frustration; I thought the show could have made more of his clear mental distress, but it didn’t choose to take that route. For our performance Alex Cardall played Alan, and he nailed that “older sibling” natural authority and tendency towards bossiness. Danny Nattrass is solid as the relatively uninteresting Wayne, and Tristan Whincup was our understudy in the role of Donny; good in the singing department, but I felt he sometimes looked lost in the choreography.

The KidsCharlie Allen gives a very good performance as the unyielding, monolithic George, never betraying the smallest degree of warmth; and Nicola Bryan is the perfect antidote as Olive, a soothing source of kindness who, no matter what she might privately think, knows her place is to back up anything her husband says. I really liked Georgia Lennon as Marie – her performance of Paper Roses was probably the best rendition of any of the songs in the show. It’s a song I always hated as a teenager, seeing it as the epitome of drippiness; but Ms Lennon made me see it in a different light. Great work! And then we had our supporting cast of child Osmonds, who were all terrific, with excellent interaction with the adult actors and brilliant harmonies together.

MarieSo there were many good elements to the show, but, for some reason, a lot of it left me rather cold. Many of the song performances felt a little underwhelming; that said, Let Me In built to great finale to Act One, and they absolutely nailed Crazy Horses at Curtain Call. But even my favourite, Goin’ Home, felt slightly underpowered. Some of the characterisations felt a little threadbare. Comparisons are odious, but this is no Sunny Afternoon. It lacks an essential power and spark that should be driving through the whole show; instead it moves at a sedate pace, never quite reaching top gear. But it’s genuinely not a bad night out, and if you’re inclined towards a bit of clean-living Osmond nostalgia, the show should prompt some good memories. It’s on at the Royal and Derngate until Saturday 7th, and then continues its tour of the UK all the way through to December.

Production photos by Pamela Raith

3-starsThree-sy does it!

Review – Omid Djalili, The Good Times Tour, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 23rd April 2022

Omid Djalili Good TimesIt’s always a delight to be back at the Royal and Derngate, this time for a top quality night of comedy starring one of my favourite comedians, Omid Djalili. We’ve seen him do stand-up twice before, and he’s always cracking good value; although he’s probably never had a finer moment on stage than his Tevye in Fiddler on the Roof – but that’s another story.

Boothby GraffoeBut first, support act Boothby Graffoe. I knew we had seen Mr Graffoe before but couldn’t remember when – and a quick check back revealed that it was when he supported Omid Djalili on his Iranalamadingdong tour in 2015. The two obviously work well together! Mr G has a very laid back style and a misleadingly unassuming stage persona. You’d think that in his youth he would have been ferociously hippy-like. He uses his musical props in more inventively than just as instruments; and his act his based on comedy songs that reveal some of the darker aspects of human nature. I say songs – really, for the most part, they’re musical fragments, but they do the job. Clearly no friend of Boris Johnson, so that’s fine by me. And his lullaby is like no other; it has to be seen to be believed. All new material, and some killer punchlines; we won’t be joining him in the hotel later.

Omid DjaliliOn to Mr Djalili, who’s still larger than life and a bundle of energy, and supremely likeable on stage. We’ve all learned a lot over the past six or so years, and you can see it in Mr D’s delivery. Indeed, the show is a celebration of the fact that we all survived, we’re all here and we’re all out for a good time (hence the title of the show). He was never a cruel comic – far from it – but today he seems warmer and mellower; everything he says comes from a kind place. Much of his always excellent material comes from the association between accents and offence; a difficult line to tread because Mr D is great at accents and impersonations, and he opens up a whole new line of satire with his vocal impressions of one famous person in the guise of another – I’ll say no more.

Omid Djalili 2Technically, the show has an impressive structure involving clever interactions with a multimedia screen, and there’s a beautiful callback with an audience member in the front row, whose name and place of residence had been earlier identified by Mr Graffoe. I always knew comedians talk to each other in the interval! There’s a genuinely moving but also hilarious homage to the late Sean Lock; and an investigation into the wit and wisdom of West Ham United football fans. When he asked if there were any Happy Hammers in the audience, I should have confessed that they are indeed my team, but I chickened out. My bad.

Omid DjaliliMr D still packs the show with his recognisable trademarks: the ghastly but riveting Middle Eastern dad-dancing, irresistible stories that play on racial stereotypes, throwaway gags that take the mickey out of himself and us. And, on a personal note, I loved the fact that one of his jokes involved Stewart Lee getting a two-star review for his show, because that’s exactly what I gave him! Omid Djalili continues to take his Good Times Show on tour around the country (and Austria?!) throughout the rest of the year and indeed has a couple of weeks at the Edinburgh Fringe in August. Hugely funny and highly recommended!

Review – Comedy Crate at a Secret Venue, Northampton, 27th March 2022

Comedy CrateA Secret Venue, how exciting! We didn’t find out where it was until a couple of days before and I’m afraid I still can’t tell you where it was held, or else I’d have to kill you. On second thoughts, I don’t think it was that hush-hush. It was at the Albion Brewery in Kingswell Street, an attractive, atmospheric place, with excellent sightlines, proper chairs and a well-stocked bar. An excellent addition to Northampton’s comedy venues!

Jamie AllertonOur MC for the evening was Jamie Allerton, whom we saw hosting a Comedy Crate gig in the garden of the Black Prince, Northampton, last September. He’s a bright spark, a powerhouse of joie de vivre, who makes the evening go with a swing. He has a terrific rapport with the audience, getting to know us all, putting us at our ease, but with some surprisingly unexpected questions posed to us too! When he discovered that two members of the audience, with no association with each other, both worked with autistic adults, his questions to work out who was best at their job was inspired! A great host with huge energy.

SlimOur first act was someone new to us, Slim. I reckon that’s a nickname. That’s not to say he isn’t slim, but it’s just that I can’t visualise it on a birth certificate! He has some nice material about hating school plays – I’m sure he’s not alone there – and also his occasionally vengeful life as a London bus driver. I particularly enjoyed his sequence about imagining a Jamaican war correspondent. He has a warm, approachable style and very enjoyable material, and was a very good start to the evening.

Alexandra HaddowNext up was another new name to us, Alexandra Haddow, a native of Corby, now in exile in London. Lively and instantly hilarious, she has a lot of near-the-knuckle humour that she pitches perfectly. It’s a lovely idea to imagine if the kind of questions a woman faces when getting a coil fitted were also posed to a man getting Viagra. We loved her stuff about dating conspiracy theorists (having only endured the wayward beliefs of a similarly-minded taxi driver the previous day) and the problems of having to share a bed with your dad. Smart, likeable and extremely funny, we’d love to see her again.

Mark SimmonsHeadline act was the brilliant Mark Simmons, whom we’ve seen a few times before and he always hits the ground running with his wonderful throwaway style. You always get multiple jokes per minute with Mark, whether they be gently surreal, painfully punful or totally outrageous. He must have the quickest of brains to bring in so many inventive brilliant lines based on what he sees and hears in the audience. On top form as usual, and a superb way to end the show.

Plenty more Comedy Crate gigs in the offing; check their website for more details!

Review – Fatal Attraction, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 29th March 2022

Fatal AttractionI’m sure you’ll remember the original 1987 film Fatal Attraction, that rather over-sensational movie that was a must-see at the time, and which introduced us to the concept of the bunny boiler. James Dearden has adapted his own screenplay into this stage version, that was originally produced at the Theatre Royal Haymarket back in 2014. Reviews of this current production have varied between the ecstatic and the disastrous, so I was fascinated to see how it played out for myself!

Susie Amy and Oliver FarnworthThe play has a different ending from the film; apparently, this ending was Dearden’s original draft, but pre-release market research showed that moviegoers wanted a more gutsy and vengeful ending. This version makes the characters’ motivations and responsibilities more of a grey area; and in fact Mrs Chrisparkle and I are still discussing it the next day, which must be a sign of a thought-provoking production! And, despite a few clunky aspects, we both found this play engrossing, entertaining and totally credible; we really rather liked it.

Louise Redknapp and Oliver FarnworthBut I’m starting at the end, rather than the beginning, which doesn’t make sense. In case you didn’t know, in a nutshell: happily married Dan has a fling with editor Alex, whilst his wife Beth and daughter Ellen are out of town for the weekend. While they’re out of town, he rather goes to town, one might say. But when Alex turns out to be the clingy type who can’t accept being a one night stand, things start to get hot under the collar for Dan – and indeed his whole family. Initially he tries to balance keeping the secret from his wife and managing Alex’s expectations, but her resentment at not getting his full attention turns into something far more menacing and dangerous. And then she announces she is pregnant…

Susie AmyBut what this production shows is that describing Alex as clingy is probably a misrepresentation of her truth. There are scenes of self-harm – and it’s important that theatregoers know this in advance – that leave you in no doubt that she is severely mentally disturbed. This may, in part, be due to the difficult miscarriage she says she suffered. Whatever the cause, her mental instability becomes the root of her manipulation, obsession and vengefulness. Where Dan has simply taken advantage of a random encounter and turned it into a sexual liaison, just another notch on the bedpost perhaps, you sense that he has unwittingly provided Alex with the promise of what she sees is a better life, and a reason for existence; clearly her high-flying editorship isn’t enough to satisfy all her needs. As her obsession with him becomes deeper and deeper, its manifestation becomes impossible to ignore; a fatal attraction indeed.

Susie Amy and Oliver FarnworthThere’s also a surprise coda ending, which I couldn’t possibly tell you about because then it wouldn’t be a surprise! However, suffice to say that it addresses Dan’s laments of constantly making wrong decisions after wrong decisions, in a J B Priestley, Dangerous Corner style. The whole play lasts with you long after curtain down, as you ask yourself a series of what ifs; and you realise there’s never a definitive answer.

Great setMorgan Large’s set comes as a shock when you first see it, all grey geometric shapes and abstract surfaces; isn’t this play set in domestic locations? But when excellent screen projections unexpectedly appear on the set, displaying phone conversations, the New York cityscape and much more besides, you realise it’s a brilliantly devised set. Paul Englishby’s incidental music is incredibly effective at heightening the tension; normally I would find so much music distracting, but in this case it becomes a vital ingredient of the storytelling.

Oliver FarnworthOliver Farnworth, as Dan, is on stage most of the time; it’s a very demanding role, commenting on his own actions in regular asides to the audience, as well as actually enacting them. He absolutely looks the part, but occasionally it feels a little as though he’s reciting the lines rather than believing in them, and I felt he lacked a little light and shade in his delivery. But it’s a powerful and clear performance and you certainly heard every word.

Louise RedknappUnlike Louise Redknapp as Beth, who sounded a little under-amplified and occasionally you had to strain to catch everything she says. Beth is a relatively bland character for the first three quarters of the play, and it’s not until the end that she’s really given her chance to show what she’s made of. Unfortunately, I felt her important scenes lacked some emotion, and I didn’t entirely believe her fury and exasperation at what her husband has done.

Susie AmySusie Amy, however, nails the character of Alex to a T. Sensual, obsessive, manipulative, disturbed – and dangerously unpredictable. She absolutely captures the character’s multi-layers, with her tragic self-harm and manic revenge, cheerfully observing how much she’s terrifying Dan. Ms Amy fills the character with great depth and understanding, and she’s far from the one dimensional characterisation that it could be. A really strong and riveting performance.

Oliver FarnworthAmong the supporting cast, I really enjoyed John Macaulay as the laddish Jimmy, and Tony Glasgow as the no-nonsense detective O’Rourke. Anita Booth is also excellent as Beth’s mother Joan; I liked how she has a resemblance to Hilary Clinton, which puts a new perspective on Dan’s assertion that he did not have a relationship with that woman.

Susie Amy and Oliver FarnworthSome things about the production simply don’t work. Beth and Dan’s offstage daughter is voiced by Charlotte Holden, who not only sounds at least ten years older than the eight years old that Ellen’s meant to be, but the recorded nature of her voice just sounds false in comparison with the live voices on stage. Some of the stage combat comes across as a little cumbersome, and the unavoidable blacked-out stage clearing that occurs immediately after Thumper is fricasséed is a big faff that completely destroys the tension created by the scene.

Susie Amy and Oliver FarnworthDespite these quibbles, this production offers way more than you might have expected. Most of the action is met with complete silence from the audience, but it’s not a negative silence, it’s an engrossed, concentrating, appreciative silence. It holds your attention throughout; and if you think you understand the motivations of the characters from your memories of the film, this production will make you think again. After its week in Northampton, it continues its tour to Aylesbury, Glasgow, Cambridge and York. Definitely worth catching!

Production photos by Tristram Kenton

4-starsFour they’re jolly good fellows!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 25th March 2022

Screaming Blue MurderIt’s the final Screaming Blue Murder of the season, and in a last minute change of plan we welcomed James Dowdeswell as our MC. We’ve seen James many times before, as opener, as headliner, even online, but never as the MC, and he’s always great fun. News travels fast in the comedy world, and James’ opening gambit was to check if anyone was in from Wollaston, James Dowdeswellfollowing on from my review of the fairly disastrous gig a couple of weeks ago – so that was me instantly outed in the audience, owning up to being the writer! Fortunately this crowd was a friendly, easy-going bunch, and we responded well to James’ probing into our jobs and characteristics. He’s a very amiable, welcoming and funny chap, and we all felt completely at ease with him the whole evening.

Meryl O'RourkeOur first act, and someone we’ve also seen many times before, both as an act and as MC, was Meryl O’Rourke, always high octane, always full of cheeky vagina jokes. It’s been twelve years since we first saw her act, and the intervening years have perhaps made her humour slightly less filthy – and it’s up to the individual whether that’s a good thing or not! Nevertheless, we still get a great insight into her married life – an assortment of farting, snoring and very occasional sex. She also has great material about the contrast between the sexual expectations of today’s young people versus those of her youth – very recognisable! She ended with a terrific visual joke regarding her Marilyn Monroe facemask. A very safe pair of hands and very funny as always.

Tom TaylorNext up was an act new to us, Tom Taylor. His stage persona is a fascinating mix of the engaging and slightly aloof, and it works really well. Armed with a Bontempi – and not afraid to use it – he’s very silly and very funny. There’s a madcap surrealism to his material, knocking out musical non sequiturs and genuinely inspired jokes. Not afraid to go where angels fear to tread, we loved his take on the Holy Communion menu; you couldn’t possibly be offended by anything he said though as it was all done with a brilliant lightness of touch.

Gerry KOur headliner, and someone we’ve seen once before and absolutely loved, was Gerry K. He’s another comic who’s so adept at taking material that you think has the potential to be really iffy but then turns it around at the last minute into something incredibly funny. Constantly inventive and surprising, he misleads us surefootedly down a familiar route only to deliver something completely unexpected. We loved how he explained how Covid ruined his Christmas, his view about mansplaining, how a Covid test resembles a pregnancy test and dozens more nuggets of comedy gold. For an east London diamond geezer he’s brilliantly self-deprecating, and he gets away with it all because he’s so likeable. A fantastic end to the show and to the season.

I’m guessing Screaming Blue Murders will return in the autumn. We’ll be first in the queue.

Review – The Wellspring, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 24th March 2022

The WellspringWhen is a play not a play? A possible answer to this is when it’s a Memory Cycle, which is how The Wellspring is described on the front cover of its play text. It’s always intriguing to watch a stage production that’s unusual in some way. Yes, it’s scripted, ergo, it’s a play. But when the two performers, playing a father and son, really are that very same father and son playing themselves, you know you’re going to see something out of the ordinary.

David and Barney lay the tableA few years ago, playwright Barney Norris worked with his father, musician David Owen Norris, on a series of interviews to tell the story of the older man’s unorthodox journey through his career in music. It was when Barney’s production of The Remains of the Day was being presented at the Royal and Derngate that it was suggested that he might work up those interviews into a play format. And this is the result – with the usual Covid-enforced delay that almost every new production has had to undergo, of course. It has the feel of a chat show, but without a host, where the guests just volunteer anecdote after anecdote without prompting. With Barney playing Barney and David playing David, you can assume they’ve got the characterisations spot on; and you can assume they’re telling the truth.

Wellspring setBut can you? Memories can play tricks on you, and sometimes where one side believes something to be gospel, the other is convinced they’ve got it wrong; New Year’s Eves spent together – or apart – for example. On one occasion, Barney recalls hearing a rural 19th century song at a festival that blew his mind, as being such a brilliant insight into those hard times. But was it truly from that era? And if it blows you away, does it matter anyway? A lie can be much more rewarding than the truth. At the end of the play, Barney confirms that they’ve told a truth, not necessarily the truth; reality mixed with fantasy to create an end product, perhaps. Often old videotapes from Barney’s childhood are screened in the background, so that gives you an extra sense of truth. So, yes, it’s clearly autobiographical in style and presentation, but is it true autobiography? The audience must decide for themselves.

David Owen NorrisYou can see why this is a Made in Northampton production. David was brought up in Long Buckby, went to Daventry Grammar School and spent much of his youthful leisure time in Northampton. Although his parents separated when he was young, Barney also spent many childhood weekends in the county, and, when he was 19, organised a music festival for his dad with gigs all around rural Northamptonshire. That local connection acts as another bridge between the Norrises and the audience.

Non!The play is very beautifully written and performed with effortless ease. Individual moments from their past take on a whole new significance when explained in terms of the present day. I loved David’s recollections of standing on the bridge over the new M1 at Watford Gap, looking towards the north in one direction (because Watford Gap is traditionally where the north starts) and then looking south in the other (no one ever said that Watford Gap is where the south starts, but it must be by definition!) It’s one of T S Eliot’s still points in the turning world; rather like how he attributes his whole career to the one black note on the piano, B Flat, or how Barney lost his shyness when he realised it was ok for people to look at him when he was onstage in a junior school play. Tiny events such as these build into a life.

Father and sonThere are some great stories recounted; none as hilarious as David’s account of his appearance at the Sydney Piano Competition. There are also his tuition sessions with the scary Yvonne Lefébure in Paris, Barney’s reliving getting beaten up in Oxford, he and his friend Jeb playing Beatles songs at Stonehenge whilst an American guy scattered his wife’s ashes, and many more.

Barney tells a storyI can imagine that this is a difficult play to stage without it appearing too static. The old home movies and the constantly changing compass image work well to provide a little background movement. At one stage Barney rolls out a carpet on the stage, whilst he’s telling us about all the places in London he’s lived, even for the shortest time; a very rootless existence. The carpet emphasised his Wherever I Lay My Hat That’s my Home attitude to his rather nomadic lifestyle. A piano is onstage, for David to intersperse his recollections with snippets of music; and we see Grandad’s wonderful old music stand given pride of place next to it.

David at the pianoI’m not a fan of extraneous, unnecessary action on stage, and, during much of the first part of the play, we see Barney cooking – always something that an audience finds fascinating to watch. He and David sit down to eat it. But it’s never referred to in the text, we never know what he’s cooking, or why; and I did find that distracting. I also couldn’t understand why they painstakingly removed everything from sight at the end of the play; table, carpet, music stand, even the piano. It’s at odds with the concept that your memories are always with you – which is definitely one of the messages of the play. What was the point of hiding them away at the end? It felt like it was just to give the performers something to do; and whilst I understand the need for that, there also has to be a purpose to it. Just my little quibble.

Barney in full flowThe Wellspring only has a couple more nights in Northampton and then it will tour to various theatres and festivals, largely in locations that feature in their stories. Home is a moment that’s quickly lost, says Barney; afterwards you can only sail through the ghost of it. Charming, thought-provoking, and immensely nostalgic; private moments shared in that common hunt for home. At only 70 minutes with no interval, it fits neatly into a festival programme with admirable brevity of wit!

Production photos by Robert Day

4-starsFour they’re jolly good fellows!

Review – We Will Rock You, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 21st March 2022

We Will Rock YouThe 20th Anniversary Tour of this hugely successful show charges headfirst into Northampton for a week that’s already virtually sold out. Any show that can stimulate such anticipation and excitement is obviously doing something right. Cards on the Table time: I’m not really a fan of Queen. I know, I know, pipe down with your faux-outrage. But I’ve always found their style to be overblown and self-important; and the continued reverence about their output by the media and fans hasn’t made it any easier for me to start appreciating them. And indeed, when We Will Rock You makes direct reference to Queen it’s by elevating them to a cult religious status, which I find a right turn-off. There are a handful of their songs that I like; but the prospect of 2 hours 45 minutes of undiluted Queen made me feel bilious. Imagine my surprise, then, when I discovered that far and away the best thing about this show is the music! More of that later…

The opening sequence strongly recalled a musical that I truly hated: Dave Clark’s Time, a pompous, vacuous show from 1986 that we endured for what felt like several hours at London’s Dominion Theatre (which is where We Will Rock You held sway for an extraordinary twelve years). I clutched my armrest wondering if I was going to hate this too. And, overall, I didn’t. But I have some big reservations about it.

Galileo and ScaramoucheLet’s accentuate the positive. Production-wise, it’s magnificent. At the back of the stage, constantly changing images, cameras, LEDs and so on provide a wonderful depth to the stage action, suggesting mood, locations, and the mindless backing masses who populate the sterile Gaga World into which the iPlanet has developed. (Bear with me). Sometimes hidden, sometimes revealed at the back of the stage is Zachary Flis’ amazing band who whack out the familiar numbers with gusto. It’s loud, by the way – very loud. At times my seat rumbled with reverberation so much I though I was preparing for take-off. Kentaur’s costumes and wigs are a production in themselves, reflecting the power of the oppressors, the simplicity of the protagonists, and the eccentricity of the Bohemians. Visually the whole thing is astounding.

the CastThere are also some fantastic individual performances. Almost entirely across the board, the female performers outshine the guys at every level. Martina Ciabatti Mennell’s Meat has a great voice and personality and brought enormous brightness to her role. As the ultimate baddie, Jenny O’Leary’s Killer Queen has an extraordinary stage presence and a belter of a voice. For me, the complete star of the show is Elena Skye as Scaramouche. The first thing Scaramouche does is sing Somebody to Love (a song I had never previously rated) and it was captivating, moving, gutsy and utterly brilliant. She is a fabulous singer, gave a fantastic characterisation to the role, and had the best feeling for the comedy of the piece of anyone in the cast.

Scaramouche and the Gaga GirlsAh yes, the comedy. The book is by Ben Elton. The Man from Auntie. The writer of witty, satirical, provocative, inventive novels. The man behind the inspirational anarchy of The Young Ones. The creator of arguably the best sitcom every written, Blackadder (well, series 2 and 4 anyway). His job was to devise a cunning plot that incorporates Queen songs and provide entertaining bridging material between them. So was he as cunning as a fox that’s just been made Professor of Cunning at Oxford University? No. I’m racking my brain to think of a book to a musical that’s more lame and lamentable than his contribution to We Will Rock You. His hero, Galileo, speaks in song lyrics; funny the first time, but it quickly palls. And whilst the early part of the show allows for some of the songs to fit in nicely with the plot, by the time we get to the second Act all hell breaks loose and they get plonked in Wherever, whenever (damn, I’m doing it now.) Elton obviously couldn’t fit in Bohemian Rhapsody, We are the Champions and We Will Rock You into the story, so they’re just an addition tucked into the end of the show. To be fair, there are two jokes. One is visual, when Galileo and Scaramouche decide they need to be careful when they settle down for a night of nookie. The other relates to the length of Brian May’s guitar solos. Otherwise it pootles along punfully; most of the characters are two-dimensional – those who aren’t are one-dimensional. It would need a gifted, independent director with a highly developed critical filter to keep this show on the straight and narrow. Remind me who the director is? Ah yes, Ben Elton. I don’t expect he suggested many cuts.

Curtain CallThe plot itself also doesn’t bear much analysis. Set sometime in the future, live music is banned, and anyone who attempts to play music is punished. Hang on, isn’t that the plot of Footloose? Anyway. There’s a bunch of rebels called the Bohemians (geddit?) who are like a religious cult who believe there is a sacred text (which basically contains the lyrics to Bohemian Rhapsody, not that they know that) and who have a few relics, including an old television and a video tape. It’s bizarre then, that, for presumably decades of misery, no one ever thought to put the video tape in the video recorder underneath the TV. Also bizarre that they mispronounce “video tape” “television” and “Brian” as though they were some long-dead foreign language, even though they pronounce everything else from that same language correctly. They’ve never heard of America, but they do understand the concept of Paris (Killer Queen lyrics) and Euro-Disney (lame joke). I’ll leave the textual analysis there, I think.

Rocky BohemiansIf it wasn’t for the Queen songs, the show would be dire. But then, without Queen, the show wouldn’t have existed! As a non-fan, I really enjoyed my two favourite songs Killer Queen and Don’t Stop Me Now, and Ian McIntosh as Galileo did pull out all the stops for a rousing performance of We are the Champions at the end. So it’s a resounding yes to the production values, music and star performances, and a resounding no to the book. The more you like Queen, the more you’ll like this show. But the incorporation of songs into the plot, and the “comic” element of the text made me realise what a masterpiece Mamma Mia is.

P. S. The book for Time is worse. Time thought it was the greatest thing since sliced bread. At least We Will Rock You doesn’t take itself seriously.

Production photos by Johan Persson

3-starsThree-sy does it!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 12th March 2022

Screaming Blue MurderIf you happened to be strolling around the village of Wollaston on Saturday night and wondered where everyone was, 47 of them were at the Royal and Derngate to see the Screaming Blue Murder as part of local resident Claire’s birthday bash. That’s over a quarter of the entire audience! The show had been sold out weeks in advance, which is unusual; and a few minutes before the show was due to start the audience was still quite patchy. Then in came the Wollaston crowd, swelling the ranks of all the front seats, which naturally are the last to be chosen. Boisterous and lubricated, they were ready for a good time – so long as the good time involved taking notice of them.

Dan EvansOur genial host Dan Evans certainly had his work cut out. I should say, for everything that followed during the evening, none of it was the fault of the people from Wollaston; if there was a fault, it was down to some of the comics who should have handled the situation better. But to have so many of the crowd all know each other does put everyone at a disadvantage, as they bring with them their own dynamic, their own “house rules”. Performers, staff, the rest of the audience; we all had to struggle to assert our ability to have a good night and not feel excluded. At first, the vibe was great while Dan was getting to know them all. We discovered, for instance, that Claire has quite a big house. Big enough for an indoor swimming pool (even if it was only 10m x 5m, depth unknown), into which many of the audience had previously immersed themselves. We were also alerted to the presence of Matt, an audience member who took the opportunity to interrupt whenever he liked. When Dan joshed with the crowd with jokes that concerned themselves, it was fun and laughter all around. However, when he started to do more general material, which at any other time would be gold dust, people at the front were less interested. Fortunately the people at the back continued to laugh, but you could tell this was going to be a difficult night. There was a moment when one of the ushers came forward to mop up some spilled drink at the front of the stage and someone made a rather cruel remark at her expense. It wasn’t big and it wasn’t clever. We cringed in embarrassment for her.

Tania EdwardsOur first act, and someone we last saw way back in 2013, was Tania Edwards. She bases her material and stage persona on being rather posh, terribly middle-class, and deliberately bitchy with it. She discusses life with the husband who now works from home much to her annoyance, rather than the good old days when she hardly ever saw him. It’s very character-based comedy, and not many of the punchlines hit home. Changing tack, she took her attention to ridiculing the size of Claire’s swimming pool as being little more than a puddle. The non-Wollastonians in the audience hooted with laughter, the Wollastonians sat silently clearly unimpressed that one of their number had been criticised in this way. That atmosphere then spread throughout the whole crowd, and Tania didn’t find a way to regain the upper hand. As I said, this was going to be a difficult night.

andy-whiteFortunately, for the second act, in came the Cavalry in the reliable form of Andy White, who did exactly what the crowd needed – grabbed us by the nuts and took control. He had Wikipedia’d Wollaston during the break, thereby publicly recognising their importance in the show, and with fantastic, assertive material, he silenced Matt and delivered a barrage of brilliant observations and jokes, ranging from the Birmingham Christmas Market, through helping his wife to give birth to the horrors of home schooling. Every line hit home; the dominators were dominated, and it was a masterclass in how to turn an evening around.

Anthony KingSadly, our headline act, Anthony King, didn’t take advantage of the upswing that Andy had achieved. This was the fifth time we’ve seen him at Screaming Blue Murder shows, and in the past he’s always brought the house down with his lugubrious persona, and comedy songs with a touch of psychotic murder about them. This time, however, it just didn’t work. You could feel the energy drain from the room within a minute of his starting. Someone with his experience should surely have realised that his usual act wasn’t working so ought to have changed direction. But he didn’t. He continued, morosely, and the few laughs from those supportive members of the audience petered out. At some point during this disaster, you sensed that he had just given up, but was going to carry on regardless anyway. Drawing his act to an eventual conclusion he introduced his last song by saying “and now, to end my career…” to which a wag from Wollaston shouted out “that happened ten minutes ago” – and Anthony had no comeback. Mrs Chrisparkle and I were gripping each other’s hands with cringing desperation. And when the show finally, mercifully, finished, I’ve never heard so little desultory applause from the audience at the end of one of these evenings. It was an experience that I’m sure we’d all rather forget.

Still, hope springs eternal! The last in this season of Screaming Blue Murders is on 25th March, has a cracking line-up and is already sold out. Fingers crossed!