Review – Myra Dubois, Dead Funny, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 10th September 2021

Dead FunnyOn reflection, it was a bit odd that this was first time we had seen Myra Dubois, as it coincided with her (alleged) death and conducting her own funeral in person; but as she said, it wasn’t the first time someone had died on stage in Northampton (and I suspect she says that in every town she visits!) Yes, Yorkshire’s Rose has passed away, and Radio Rotherham laments this fact as we enter the auditorium to a series of amusingly inappropriate tracks in expectation for the show.

Frank LavenderAs a warm-up for the main event of the evening, we meet Frank Lavender. Who he? He’s Myra’s brother-in-law, a bluff and gruff Yorkshireman who enjoys ill-health and sports a hairstyle to rival William Gladstone. Frank’s a lugubrious but strangely likeable presence, someone who has taken to the stage even though they have none of the attributes required to be any form of entertainer. As Myra says, she only has him on as her support act so that people are ready for a laugh by the time she appears. Of course, it’s also a way for Myra, through a miraculous stage osmosis, to meet some of the audience before she takes to the stage. Frank sets himself a target to achieve about 30 laughs during his set, and Julie in the front row had to take an official tally. Julie had an amazing infectious laugh, by the way, that really helped the show bed in. He met his target, with a few groans to spare.

Myra DuboisAfter a longer than usual interval – required for Frank to transform himself into Myra – Rotherham’s favourite glamour puss arrived on stage in a scintillating white shroud, and the process of sending her to her eternal rest could get underway. It’s a funny pretext for an hour or so in Myra’s catty company, jibing with the audience with some occasionally very personal observations, getting away with some extremely iffy material because it was delivered with such panache as well as fabulous timing – as well as being extremely funny. We are treated to her glorious voice for a few numbers, in which the audience are welcome to join. There’s a marvellous sequence where audience members assist in delivering the service; it’s based on a ludicrous amount of repetition which can be a recipe for disaster in a comedy act and which some people (yes, I’m looking at you Stewart Lee) can’t get away with anymore; but this was hysterical. Myra traded banter with a few of what she calls the Acronym Community; our friend David in the second row took it all in very good heart.

Myra and EdnaNot having seen the act before, I was struck by the similarity between Frank Lavender/Myra Dubois and Les Patterson/Edna Everage. Both sets of characters are somewhere on the grotesque spectrum, with remarkable abilities to interact (in other words get away with murder) with the audience and set up great callbacks that you can’t see coming. Additionally, facially, Myra and Edna share that same heavily-lipsticked gurning pout of disgust; and both have – shall we say – heightened opinions of their own vocal range. But it’s far from a copycat act, and Myra is her own delightfully caustic comic creation. I don’t think I’m revealing any spoilers when I say that news of her own passing is revealed to be premature come the end of the show, and I’m sure Myra will be back on stage dispensing her South Yorkshire pearls of wisdom again soon. Great fun!

Myra draped over coffinP. S. A word on Covid-Care in the Underground Studio at the Royal and Derngate. We had been reticent about coming to see shows here in these pandemic times, because the studio always has been essentially an airless box, usually packed with laughing, drinking, carefree comedy punters. However, I can report that the new ventilation system, which brings fresh air in from outside, and well-spaced seating made the venue feel much safer than expected. We wore masks, most didn’t; but this made no difference to the banter and interaction between the stage and the audience. So if you’re concerned about coming to the Underground at the moment, I’d say that they’ve made every effort to make it as safe as possible.

Review – Comedy Crate in the back garden of the Black Prince, Northampton, 19th August 2021

Comedy CrateWhilst Mrs Chrisparkle and I are still wary about going into comedy clubs with neither social distancing nor decent ventilation, it’s great to have the opportunity to see live comedy in the extensive gardens of the Black Prince; really, it’s what picnic tables were made for. We were joined by Lord and Lady Prosecco, and Prinz Mark von Köln, heir to the Prosecco estate, for an evening of 100% top bankable comedy – there wasn’t a down moment to be had all evening.

Javier JarquinOur MC was the brilliant Javier Jarquin, whom we’ve seen at Screaming Blue Murder and also doing his excellent Card Ninja show in Edinburgh – I was wondering if he’d get the cards out, but it probably wasn’t the right occasion. He has a terrific rapport with the audience which lasted all the way through the evening. He gets lots of great material out of the juxtaposition between his appearance and his accent, being a Chinese/Latino Kiwi. I loved his explanation of the difference between the Aussie and Kiwi accents, and what it must have been like the first time the All Blacks started a game with a haka. It’s always worth booking when Mr J is on the bill.

Rory O'HanlonOur first act was Dublin’s Rory O’Hanlon, whom we’ve seen once before as a guest on a Spank! in the halcyon pre-pandemic days. His act is packed with very funny, very relatable material; also peppered with some excellent accents! I loved the idea of getting your vaccine at Lidl and the perils of taking a flight home from Australia with Ryanair. He also has some excellent material about moving back in with your first girlfriend. Full of attack, great timing – just a very funny act.

Tadiwa MahlungeNext up, and new to us, was Tadiwa Mahlunge, the only member of his family to be saddled with a traditional name, much to his annoyance, which provides him with lots of excellent material, including the downsides of his name Tad sounding like Dad, which gets him into a lot of trouble. A quieter approach from the other acts in the show last night, which makes him stand out as maybe more thoughtful and with material that comes genuinely from his own experiences. I must admit, I didn’t get all his references, but then I am quite old. Very enjoyable!

Anna MannOur headline act, and also new to us, was the alter ego of Colin Hoult, Anna Mann. Star of low budget cult films and plays that nobody has seen, she takes us through some reminiscences of her thespian days, including a hilarious re-invention of The Tempest, how she was in the sequel of Much Ado, side mentions of ex- and late-husbands, and her continued quest to Stop the Fascists in material she freely admits hasn’t changed in four years. We all knew Lesley the Yoga Teacher would turn out to be a Fascist. It’s a remarkable act, incredibly funny, totally convincing, with just the right amount of knowing looks and audience asides to convey that it is all make believe yet still you lap up every word of her experiences as though they were gospel. Absolutely brilliant, and we’d definitely love to see her again.

There’s another gloriously outdoors Comedy Crate gig at the Black Prince on September 16th – we’re going, are you?

Review – Gin Craze! Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 21st July 2021

Gin CrazeI remember the late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle always used to refer to gin as Mother’s Ruin, and, watching April de Angelis and Lucy Rivers’ new musical about that particular demon drink, it’s no surprise that she did! Apparently, there was a time in the 18th century when the average Briton drank 1.5 litres of the stuff a day, not that any of them would have had a clue what a litre was. Then again, I don’t think they took measures into account; a dram of mothers’? Just swig it, knock it back, get it down you. It was, after all, just an easy exit into oblivion away from the hardships of the world.

Gin CrazeMeet the ladies of Gin Lane, and listen to their tales, not only of drunkenness, but of rape, prostitution, murder, robbery, degradation, imprisonment and so on. No wonder they turned to a spot of Gineva to make it go away. There’s Suki – everyone knows Suki, always happy to help you out if you’ve got a baby you can’t afford to keep; she’ll make sure it’s safely looked after. There’s Moll, with her ready wit and personal charms who’ll always let you have your way with her if it keeps her in gin for an hour or so. There’s Lydia, selling top quality gin from her barrow, with her friend Mary; they’ve both got secrets – and you know how secrets have a way of finding you out. And there’s Evelyn, selling her lousy gin and losing her custom to Lydia and Mary; but revenge is a gin best served icy cold.

Gin Craze JusticeWe also encounter novelist Henry Fielding, who went on to become a magistrate and co-found The Bow Street Runners with his brother John, and we meet his sister Sarah, also a writer and early feminist, encouraging (but not too much) well-meaning but impoverished young women to improve their lot. But how do these historically real people fit into the fictional (?) world of Gin Craze!? You’ll have to see the show to find out.

Rosalind Ford and coThis magnificent show has success written through it like a stick of rock.  Hayley Grindle’s set – a labyrinth of stairs and scaffolding – suggests the dingy streets and sordid alleyways of a Hogarthian London, and the costumes are fantastic – billowing gowns that you can imagine were once grand, but years of grime have worn down; wealth and poverty brought together in sharp focus. April de Angelis’ book and characters are full of wit, depth, and emotion, and there’s a fascinating and strong moral compass at play. Lucy Rivers’ music is melodic, reflective, and engrossing, whilst also capturing a spirit of raucous entertainment. I could list the songs that I enjoyed the most, but I found I was listing almost all of them, so there’s no point doing that! As a mark of a decent musical, each song either extends our understanding of the character singing or progresses the plot so that you never leave a song in the same place that you entered it.

Gin CrazeAs for the performers, it was one of those rare occasions where every single member of the cast delivered a performance that was 100% faultless, in word, in action, in voice, in musicianship. They form a most extraordinary talented ensemble. This is one of those on-trend productions where each of the cast members also plays an instrument, and the music and book integrate seamlessly. At the heart of the show is the partnership between Mary and Lydia, conveyed perfectly by Aruhan Galieva as Mary and Paksie Vernon as Lydia. Their harmonies when they sing together are just sublime. Ms Galieva has a deceptively simple way of making our heart melt when her character is in trouble (which is a lot of the time) but also rejoice along with her when things are going well. Using the awkward J word here, Ms Vernon delivers a strong and convincing performance of a character who goes on an extraordinary journey throughout life, adapting to her circumstances, surviving against all the odds, until making a final devastating sacrifice. It’s a fantastic performance.

Debbie ChazenDebbie Chazen is also superb as Moll, who may be addled with alcohol but still has a remarkable eloquence and gives the show huge boosts of humour every time she appears. She is also hilarious as the ghastly Germanic Queen Caroline, wrapping her vocal cords around such delightful phrases as “when things go Titten hoch” with tremendous gusto. Rachel Winters is great as the super-posh Sarah Fielding, slumming it in prison to do research for her latest book, drilling Mary in the ways a woman might succeed, extending her charity just so far – but no further. Rosalind Ford plays with the audience’s emotions in the difficult role of Suki, conveying the fine balance between anger at her deceit and sympathy for her plight. And Paula James is very entertaining as the furious Evelyn, who then becomes a victim of her own heart; her reaction to why her love cannot be requited gets the biggest laugh of the night.

Gin CrazeAnd I haven’t mentioned the gents! Alex Mugnaioni is brilliant as the urbane Henry Fielding, delivering witty (but inappropriate) after dinner jokes about Plato, failing to conceal his automatic stiffy when in a clench with the maid, although later becoming an ultimately callous magistrate. I also liked him very much as Jekyll the courtier and the Constable, torn between not agreeing with the new laws but having to enforce them. And Peter Pearson is also excellent as the hypocritical reverend Thomas Wilson and the blind John Fielding, identifying drolly through sound alone which items of crockery are being smashed around him.

This show just blew us both away with its brilliant mix of comedy and sadness, the quality of the story-telling, the beauty of the music, the wit of the language, the excellence of the performances and the sheer joie de vivre of the whole gin-soaked thing! It’s on at the Royal and Derngate until 31st July but it would be a crime against theatre if this didn’t go on to have a long and successful life hereafter. Also – a cast recording please!

P. S. By the way, this is a very bawdy show; no nudity or anything like that, but the language could, in Henry Higgins’ words, make a sailor blush. Definitely not one for the kids, and possibly not one for Granny either, depending on her sensibilities – but always remember, never underestimate Granny; she’s seen more years than you have.

Production photos by Ellie Kurttz

Five Alive, let Theatre Thrive!

Review – The Comedy Crate at the Black Prince Pub, Northampton, 15th July 2021

Comedy CrateThose lovely comedy lovers at the Comedy Crate had already resumed residence in the back garden of the Black Prince a few weeks ago, but this was the first show that we’d been able to catch – and my first non-Zoom comedy gig since their show last October. Such are the ways of the pandemic. The line-up had unavoidably changed a bit between being first announced and the show on the night, but that’s often the way with live gigs!

Jenny CollierOur MC for the night was Jenny Collier, whom we last saw on one of the Comedy Crate’s online gigs earlier this year. She’s a sparky presence, with her charming appearance and cut-glass accent acting as a great juxtaposition to some ribald language. She’s been working as a GP receptionist for some of these Covid times, which was a source of some excellent material. However, I most enjoyed her account of giving a – I can’t dress this up in any other way – stool sample for the medics to explore. We were an occasionally unruly crowd, so she had a lot on her plate for the evening, but she was great fun and kept the show going at a great pace.

Olaf Falafel Our first act, and one of my all-time favourite comedians, was Olaf Falafel, whom we’ve seen many times in Edinburgh. In his trademark stripy blue sailor’s shirt, which makes him look like an extra from There is Nothing Like a Dame, he attacked us with some brilliant material, playing off the crowd beautifully, and ending up with his famous biscuitology routine. His comedy is a wonderful mixture of the absurd and the childish, but with lots of devastatingly clever observations and woefully funny puns. Great to see him again.

Toussaint DouglassNext up, and new to us, was Toussaint Douglass; a naturally funny guy with a very relaxed style but with some strong punchy material full of surprises, including some challenging stuff about race. A very likeable personality, with some nice self-deprecating observations, he struck up an excellent rapport with the audience. Very enjoyable, and someone to look forward to seeing again!

Tony LawFor our headline act we had the rather wacky and unpredictable Tony Law, whom we’ve seen a few times before and sometimes he goes down a storm, and sometimes he doesn’t! I very much liked his use of accents in his act, and he’s supremely confident with dealing with the crowd; you either “get” his flights of fancy or you don’t and, personally, on the whole, I don’t! But the majority of the audience did, so I admit it’s my problem not his!

There’s another Comedy Crate in the garden of the Black Prince on Thursday 19th August. We’re going, are you?

Review – In the Heights, Northampton Filmhouse, 13th July 2021

In The Heights movie posterLin-Manuel Miranda’s first big musical hit the stage running on Broadway back in 2008, and there was an instant interest in making it into a film. But, as often happens, those plans stalled, and it wasn’t until after the smash success of Hamilton that work on In the Heights The Movie got going again. I thoroughly enjoyed the stage version (although I didn’t see it until 2016) and so was naturally keen to see the film – and, for the most part, it doesn’t disappoint at all!

Washington HeightsLike the show, the film offers a snapshot of a few days in Washington Heights, a Dominican-American area of New York (or Nuevo York, to make it clearer), and sets Usnavi at the centre of the community, running his little bodega at all hours of the day, accompanied by his smartass cousin Sonny. Stanford University undergraduate Nina arrives unexpectedly, much to the delight and concern of her father Kevin, who runs the local taxi company, and even more to the delight of Benny, the taxi controller, whose tongue hangs out (figuratively) every time Nina appears on the scene. But why has she returned? Meanwhile, Vanessa, who works at the beauty salon, dreams of getting her own place, and Usnavi dreams of having a relationship with her but she’s just too beautiful for him to dare make the first move. Will they get it together? And who is the lucky winner of $96,000 in the lottery?

Usnavi and VanessaYes, there are a few plot and sequence changes from the original show; always a risky undertaking if you’re showing the film to a purist. I did like how Usnavi’s future relationship with Vanessa was left to your imagination in the stage show, whereas that’s not the case in the film; and there are a couple of times where the film’s approach to the tough reality of life is a little blander – Usnavi’s shop doesn’t get ransacked during the blackout, for example. Either way though, it’s a good story, well told.

Benny and NinaBoth the show and the film suffer from the same overload of exposition in its first half-hour or so. There’s a lot of information that is hurled at the audience right from the start, that it’s impossible to keep up with everything you’re being told – particularly when so much of it is coming via the medium of hip-hop/rap/Latin lyrics. There are big dance numbers which overwhelm the senses, and whilst they look and sound great, they can have the effect of getting in the way of the storytelling. In fact, it’s only when the music stops that you can really give yourself a chance to reflect and take stock of what’s been happening. As a result, quieter scenes such as the confrontation between Kevin and Nina concerning her Stanford career, and Usnavi’s important discussions with his accountant, stand out for their clarity. It also tends to dip into sentimentality a little more than I’d like – there’s only so many times you can watch Usnavi get misty-eyed over the four youngsters to whom he’s telling his story.

Big Dance NumberBut there’s no doubt that the dance numbers form most of the stand-out moments of the film. I particularly liked The Club scene, which felt just a hair’s breadth from West Side Story, and the Carnaval del Barrio, which genuinely shows how dance can emerge as an organic reaction to the steamy Latin conditions of life. A personal thing, but I was irritated by the occasional moments when the dance scenes moved into the surreal – such as Benny and Nina dancing on the walls of the block, or the guys on the street plucking seemingy tangible shapes out of mid-air. Those gimmicks didn’t enhance the songs or the dance. Musicals are already one step away from reality; in my humble opinion, they don’t need to be made even more impossible to believe! However, we couldn’t help but laugh at the use of Hamilton’s You’ll Be Back as holding music on the phone; they must have had a lot of fun at that idea.

Daniela and the girlsIt’s studded with excellent performances by a young company of largely impossibly beautiful people. It goes without saying that all the performers are supreme singers and dancers, bringing Lin-Manuel Miranda’s songs and Christopher Scott’s empowering choreography to ebullient life. Leslie Grace is stunning (in all ways) as Nina, looking fondly on her old neighbourhood friends but with the slight distancing of someone who has been subjected to more intellectual challenges. Melissa Barrera is also fantastic as Vanessa, trying for a better life, opening the door for Usnavi to approach her. Daphne Rubin-Vega is brilliant as salon owner Daniela, challenging the neighbourhood to get a life, and young Gregory Diaz IV turns in a quirky and lovable performance as Sonny – he’s obviously going places.

Usnavi and SonnyAbuela Claudia is played by Olga Merediz who took the part on Broadway, so it seems only right that she should have the role here, but I couldn’t help but think she seemed a little young to be playing a character who dwindles away with old age before our eyes. But it’s Anthony Ramos who takes control of this film as Usnavi, perfectly conveying the character’s Everyman-type role; eminently likeable, full of empathy, with a wry sense of humour (is it just me who thinks he looks like a Puerto Rican Jon Richardson?), perfectly playing to the camera in his role as narrator. A first-rate performance.

Swimming PoolIt’s not a perfect film – at two hours, twenty minutes it felt a little long, and occasionally self-indulgent with the sentimentality; and sometimes the immense pizzazz of the whole thing obstructs the clarity of the storytelling. One of my pet hates in a musical is when its songs neither further our understanding of the characters nor push the story forward, and In the Heights is occasionally guilty of this. However, I think I’ve been more critical about this film than it truly warrants. It’s extremely enjoyable, there are huge dollops of feelgood factor, and it has that wonderful, sometimes elusive element, a happy ending!

Review – Spotlight on Strings, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 16th June 2021

Spotlight on StringsIt’s heart-warming to welcome the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra – or at least the string section – back to the Royal and Derngate for their first concert here in over 16 months; yes, who would have known that Dvorak’s New World Symphony on 9th February last year would have marked the last of the RPO’s classical treats for us all this time until it’s just about safe enough to put our (fully-masked) heads above the parapet?

In these uncertain times, it’s impractical (and potentially dangerous) for too many musicians to rehearse and perform together, let alone have a full audience in to enjoy their show. So this programme of three pieces of string music, performed by a group of 25 musicians, is the perfect way to try to reintroduce classical performance to our wounded live entertainment industry.

RPO StringsFor this socially-distanced performance we couldn’t take our usual seats in row H of the stalls but decided to plonk ourselves right down at the front – in any event, an interesting experiment to gauge the difference of sound (if any). Verdict: it’s not quite as rich a sound that you get further back but you do feel like one of the orchestra! Duncan Riddell, the RPO’s regular Leader, was in charge of letting the strings swing in a 75 minute, no interval, programme of music from all over Europe.

In the absence of a proper programme – presumably a Covid Cutback – it fell to Duncan to introduce the first piece. He started to welcome us, but not using the microphone stand on the middle of the stage. “Can’t hear you – use the mic” said someone from behind. So he did, but reluctantly as he said that now that he has used the mic no one else can – one of those Covid rules – and he had intended someone else to use it later. The performing arts are just full of Covid problems!

Duncan RiddellOur first piece was Edvard Grieg’s Holberg Suite, written in 1884 to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the famous Danish-Norwegian playwright Ludvig Holberg (err…who??) Originally composed for piano, Grieg adapted it for strings the following year. I confess it was new to me, but it’s a delightful composition in five movements. For the Rigaudon final section, I was expecting something akin to the Norwegian Dance No 2 – or as I know it, Freddy and his Fiddle from the Song of Norway. But no, it was much more like the hornpipe in Pomp and Circumstance. Beautifully done though, with Duncan turning forwards into full performance mode for his virtuoso bits.

Next up was Mendelssohn’s String Symphony No 10, introduced by Principal Second Violin Andrew Storey;  a short, lively piece written in B minor, and all in one movement. Felix Mendelssohn was a bright kid and wrote this String Symphony in the 1820s when he was aged just 14. I thought the guys on the double bass added significantly to this performance, great stuff sirs!

RPO1-300x200Our last piece – the Headline Act if you like – was Tchaikovsky’s Serenade for Strings, introduced by (I think) Jonathan Ayling, Co-Principal Cello. It’s a wonderful 1880 composition, in four movements. It starts with a Sonatina style piece in homage to Mozart; then a well-known waltz is the second movement, an Elegie follows, and finally an ending that borrows from some Russian folk tunes. Allegedly Tchaikovsky liked this to be played by as large a group of string musicians as possible, but I’m sure he would have been thrilled to have these 25 players giving it their all as they did. It was absorbing, luscious and exquisite.

As a thank you for coming, they generously gave us an encore – the slow movement from Elgar’s Serenade for Strings. Hugely entertaining and a great return, the audience were thrilled to have the orchestra back, and the orchestra seemed to be thrilled to have the audience back. Win, win! It felt safe, comfortable, friendly and intimate – the personal chats from the individual musicians were a really nice touch that more than made up for the lack of programme! Above all, it was a great privilege to witness the return of the Royal Philharmonic to the Royal and Derngate. They are back again next Wednesday with The Music of Bond. We can’t be there, sadly, but that shouldn’t stop you!

Review – The Father, Northampton Filmhouse, 12th June 2021

The FatherI knew nothing of this film in advance, apart from the fact that it concerned dementia and that Anthony Hopkins has been widely acclaimed as having given one of his best performances ever. If you haven’t seen the film, I think it’s best to stay in blissful ignorance about most of its content so that it’s endless shocks and surprises hit you with all possible force. However, if you have seen it, or are prepared to risk reading more about it in advance – please continue!

Olivia Colman and Anthony HopkinsThere’s nothing Florian Zeller likes more than to deceive his audience. A few years ago we saw two of his plays at the Menier Chocolate Factory, The Truth and The Lie, both ridiculously entertaining plays involving deceit between couples but also leading the audience up several garden paths with hardly any way of knowing which is the right one. And now Florian Zeller has directed his own 2012 play The Father for a cinema audience; so the one thing you can be sure of is that you can be sure of nothing.

Anthony Hopkins and Olivia ColmanWhat you can reasonably assume is that Anthony has dementia and his daughter is trying to find a way for him to receive the best care treatment possible. Anything beyond that, and you’re straying into the world of the uncertain. But the delightful (if that’s the right word) web of confusion that the film weaves gives us a brilliant, albeit awe-inspiringly tragic, insight into Anthony’s true lived experience. After sleeping on it, I decided on my own interpretation of what was real and what was not. My interpretation is that the first scene is true; Anthony has dismissed his carer Angela in a whirlwind of insults and accusations, and daughter Anne says they have to find a better solution for his care, as she will be moving to Paris to live with her new partner, and will no longer be able to pop around all the time. The last scene is also true; Anthony is now living in a care home, with a kind nurse Catherine to look after him and take him for walks in the park. Everything in between is the mass of confusion in Anthony’s mind as he copes with (or fails to cope with) moving from his flat into the home.

Anthony HopkinsThis superb film can trigger a strong emotional response. Whether it is because of pent-up frustrations leading from months of lockdown, or because it reminded me of my own mother’s descent into dementia I’m not sure (I suspect the latter), but once the film had finished I had massive tears in my eyes, and, once out back on the street, I confess I bawled my heart out for about five minutes. So be warned!

Sir Anthony HopkinsThe screenplay is perfect – Zeller in collaboration with his frequent partner/translator Christopher Hampton – and contains so many of the tell-tale phrases and obsessions of a dementia patient, such as “so you’re abandoning me” and being convinced that their possessions are being stolen. And the use of music is brilliantly integrated into the film, particularly the frequent repetition of what was presumably one of Anthony’s favourite pieces, Je Croix Entendre Encore from Bizet’s Pearl Fishers –  an aria appropriately about memory and recollecting distant moments of love. I also admired the fact that the film told its story fully and compactly, all within the space of 1 hour 35 minutes, continuing to prove that old adage, that brevity is indeed the soul of wit.

Imogen Poots, Olivia Colman, Anthony HopkinsWithout question, Sir Anthony Hopkins is absolutely at the top of his game with his portrayal of his namesake Anthony, a wonderful mixture of the irascible and the helpless; the kind of character who can sometimes “present well” when trying to make a jolly impression on his new carer, who carries on regardless when a circumstance arises that clearly makes absolutely no sense to him, who can lash out with vicious verbal spite and cruelty, and who can dwindle away into infantile crying – the perfect representation of Shakespeare’s Seventh Age of Man, in fact.

Rufus Sewell and Olivia ColmanThe ever-reliable Olivia Colman is also excellent as the much put-upon but kindly Anne; her eyes conveying all the love in the world for her dear old father even though she knows that caring for him is both beyond her capability and also not what she wants from life. Rufus Sewell, Imogen Poots, Olivia Williams and Mark Gatiss all give strong supporting performances, drifting in and out of his life, and not always as the same character.

Olivia Colman and Rufus SewellA hugely impactful, stunning film. Whilst there is always a kind of gallows humour to be found in dealing with dementia, if you’re expecting a lot of laugh out loud moments, you’ll be disappointed. Instead it offers you a remarkable insight into the tragedy of a jumbled mind; don’t forget the Kleenex.

Review – Four Quartets, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 9th June 2021

T. S. Eliot’s Four Quartets comes to the Royal and Derngate hotfoot from its opening at the Theatre Royal Bath last week, with star of stage and screen Ralph Fiennes ambitiously presenting these four connected poems as a theatrical event; the perfect antidote to COVID, as it’s a naturally socially-distanced play in front of a socially-distanced audience, and lasting 75 minutes so that it needs no interval. It examines the concept of time, and who wouldn’t wish to go back to the relatively carefree days of 2019 when all we had to worry about was who would win the General Election.

Personally, I’ve always struggled with the Four Quartets. The first poem, Burnt Norton – which isn’t an obscure colour on an artist’s palette but a manor house in Gloucestershire – was published in 1936 as a stand-alone work. Later, Eliot decided to write three more poems, sharing the same five-part structure, to create an extended collection. Each poem starts with a series of statements and counterstatements; then moves into a more lyrical mode; then movement becomes the central theme; then a short lyric precedes a final resolution. Reading them, some of his lines bounce off the page with elegant clarity and inspirational thought. The still point of the turning world, for example,  is a phrase that has seamlessly floated into everyday language. Other parts come across as intractable and turgid, and you resent Eliot for being just too darn clever-clever for his boots, with his classical allusions, religious façade, and use of deliberately obfuscatory language. No wonder Toilets is T. S. Eliot spelled backwards.*

Back in the day, Eliot recorded a reading of the Four Quartets, and his recitative skill was utterly abysmal. Every word sounds the same, portentously, and dully given the same emphasis. It’s a very boring experience. The challenge for Mr Fiennes is to make the four poems come to life as a dramatic narrative, that either clarifies their meaning for us, or makes us look at them in a new way, or somehow gives us something more than just sitting down and getting our old Faber edition out.

And Oh My Giddy Aunt does he succeed! From the moment he gives extra, inquisitive weight to the word perhaps in the second line of Burnt Norton, you know this is going to be a real interpretation of Eliot’s words, not mere recitation. Imagine that Mr Fiennes is Mr Eliot, trying to grapple with a complicated concept that is emerging in his brain, speaking out his mind’s words to see if they make any kind of sense; if they do, he runs with it, excitedly giving them meaning and truth; if they don’t, he falters, his words fall away and we all feel as though we’ve reached the same dead end. If the Four Quartets were a game of rugby, and Mr Eliot the fly-half, he winkles an idea out of the scrum and either scores an instant try in a blaze of glory, or gets tackled by half a dozen burly opponents and gets squished. Either way, Mr Fiennes takes us every step of his journey, and it’s irresistible.

There’s no doubt that he is helped by Hildegard Bechtler’s domineering and eerie set – two big revolving drab slabs that evoke the dry concrete of Burnt Norton, Christopher Shutt’s sound designs that bring the crashing waves of the Dry Salvages thundering into the auditorium, but above all Tim Lutkin’s superb lighting that guides us through the sections of the poem, radiating light onto Mr Fiennes’ face when the surface glittered out of heart of light, beaming red to evoke pentecostal fire in the dark time of the year. Dressed in sombre colours and barefoot, Mr Fiennes takes Eliot’s words and eludicates and clarifies them, entertains us with them, surprises us with them, invests them with humanity rather than just dry and dusty theory. He demarcates each individual section of the poems with a change of tone or stance, so you always get a sense of the progress being made. He brings out the very slight moments of gentle humour; Eliot would be aghast at how populist his twittering world could be interpreted in the social media age.

From the audience’s perspective, the show can be as active or as passive as you wish it to be. The beautiful glossy programme starts with a quotation from Eliot’s own The Frontiers of Criticism: “As for the meaning of the poem as a whole, it is not exhausted by any explanation, for the meaning is what the poem means to different sensitive readers.” It’s entirely up to you. You can listen and watch, alert as a rabbit with your whiskers twitching, munching down whatever meaning you feel appropriate from the words and movements; or you can recline back, and let Mr Fiennes’ voice simply wash over you. Because I have always found the Four Quartets very hard to understand, I really wanted to come out of this show feeling better acquainted with it, with greater insights and awareness of what’s going on. And Mr Fiennes gives us that with huge generosity and patience. I can’t imagine how anyone could have converted Eliot’s words into a stage show better.

* It isn’t, but I made you think twice.

Production photographs by Matt Humphrey

Five Alive, let Theatre Thrive!

 

Review – Loveplay, University of Northampton 3rd Year BA (Hons) Acting Students, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 29th May 2021

LoveplayThe third play performed by the University of Northampton final year actors is Loveplay by Moira Buffini, described as two thousand years, ten scenes, thirty-two characters, one location and one essential question – what is love? – all packed into ninety minutes of hard-hitting comedy drama. Directed by Tobias Deacon, the production also credits Esther Bartholomew and Daniel Hubery as Assistant Directors, both of whom gave excellent performances in their final year plays at Northampton University back in 2018/19.

Elle DudleyI’m not sure the play really asks the question what is love – more like an exposé of sex throughout the centuries. It starts from the slightly odd viewpoint of sticking to that one location, which enables the later stages of the play to be affected by ghosts of the past – which comes across as a bit hokey, to be honest. Nevertheless, it’s a very good play – very funny, occasionally shocking, often thought-provoking and always entertaining.

Didi StockerAnd the final year students do a cracking job of presenting us this show. The range of playlets and characters gives them the opportunity to play at least three roles each, and they seize them with terrific enthusiasm. It’s a clear and crisp presentation, impeccably and faultlessly performed, and full of amazing performances. From the start, Elle Dudley delights with her hilarious portrayal of the early sex worker Dorcas, rejecting the affronted Didi Stocker’s Marcus’ Roman coin as payment for sharing her virtue. Beautifully performed and very funny. She’s also extremely funny as the upright Miss Tilley being taken from underneath on the lap of the master of the household whilst attempting to impress him with her verses.

Katiris CooperElsewhere, I loved the Age of Enlightenment scene between Katiris Cooper’s Roxanne and Oliver Lawrence’s Man, where she wants to inspect his body from a scientific perspective – her ever-so-slightly naughty curiosity was brilliantly conveyed in contrast with his passive acceptance of what an educated woman might want to discover. Mr Lawrence, though, excelled in the Age of Empire scene as the decadent artist De Vere, manipulating his straight-laced friend into a compromising position – all in the cause of art of course. Ms Cooper also came back as one half of the Age of Innocence scene in another extremely funny performance as the sexual cynic Lynne, dismissing her lover – and life in general – as totally useless. Here she was accompanied by Harry Delacey in a fine performance as the sex-weary Gwyn; he had also stood out as the hilariously stagey Llewellyn in the Renaissance scene, which probably offered the most laugh-out-loud moments of the whole show.

Oliver LawrenceOther performances that I particularly enjoyed included Marina Mikeilla as the petulant and posing dating hostess Anita, Rebecca Alice as the nun-with-a-secret Hilda, Georgia Siân Clarke as the assertive actress Helen, Kai Beavers’ outwitted Rev Buttermere, and Matthew Keeroy’s hard-to-please rapist Eric (yes, that’s the scene that made everyone feel uncomfortable).

Harry DelaceyBrisk, funny, punchy and with superb performances throughout, this was probably the big hit of the three student plays this year. Congratulations to all on a terrific show!

P. S. The Martin Lawrence Awards are presented every year to the best actress and actor. Mrs Chrisparkle and I went into a judgely huddle and agreed to whom we would award our own Best Actress and Actor of the year. I’ve also chosen runners-up (because I can). My Silver Medals go to Robyn Isabelle Edwards (The Wolves) and Jimmy Ericson (Road); and our Top Dogs are Katiris Cooper (Loveplay) and Oliver Lawrence (Loveplay). Tremendous actors all – but so are many of the rest of these gifted casts. Well done to all!

Review – Road, University of Northampton 3rd Year BA (Hons) Acting Students, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 28th May 2021

RoadThe second of the three shows to be performed by the final year acting students at the University of Northampton this year is Road, Jim Cartwright’s highly praised 1986 play about the lives of people on one road in an unnamed town during the Thatcher years. Directed by Séan Aydon, we’re led by our narrator Scullery, who introduces us to various houses and locations in the road to meet the locals, observe their lives, share their laughter and their tears. I’d never seen this play before so I was particularly looking forward to seeing whether it merits its reputation and if it has stayed relevant today.

Jimmy EricsonThis is very hard to assess because I’m afraid the play did absolutely nothing for me on a personal level. We get little snippets of people’s lives but hardly any insight into anyone’s progression, so there’s no sense of development and the play feels very static. Those characters that we do meet more than once, at the end of one long hard night, haven’t really gone anywhere. Scullery is the same optimistic cheeky soul at the end of the evening as at the beginning. Old Jerry is still padding around in his slippers, dreaming of his lost love. The girls who have gone out early evening to get wrecked have successfully got wrecked at the end of the night – no surprise there. Eddie and Brink go to the pub and come back with Carol and Linda, although their evening ends on a surreal note – as does the play.

Liz MillwardThe one time that the play does soar is when it goes out of time-synch and shows us what Scullery portentously calls The Story of Joey – a likeable lad who has locked himself away, descending into depression, refusing to eat, or come out of his room, and his friend Clare who joins him and stays because she loves him. It feels genuinely tragic; and when, fourteen days of self-starvation later, they come to take their bodies away you get an enormous sense of wasted life. The scene was also enhanced by having what was probably the best two performances in the play, with Jimmy Ericson as the frustrated and furious Joey, and Liz Millward as the sad and supportive Clare.

Miclaire NkoyThe play also feels very uneven because there are several very short scenes and a couple of inordinately long ones.  In the final, very long, scene, Eddie and Brink attempt to get the girls very drunk, which then turns into three minutes of character silence – nothingness really – whilst they dance, at first inanely then later recklessly, to a record on the turntable – and that whole experience seems to turn them all into amateur philosophers. I’m afraid it felt disappointingly pretentious. As some of the other residents of the road come out to gaze affectionately at the young people and the lights go down, we were wondering what significant thing it was that everyone else understood but we missed.

Elliot Andrew-MurrayTrue, there were some more good performances there, with Liz Millward again as Linda, Miclaire Nkoy excellent as Carol, Shane McCormack as Eddie and, with a very subtly threatening performance, Elliot Andrew-Murray as Brink. Mr Andrew-Murray also turned in a very confident and strongly performed vignette earlier as the meditating Skin-Lad. Other performances I enjoyed came from Elliot Innes as the rather wacky Professor and the aggressive Barry, Dana Sergejevo in a number of roles, but best as the rather plastered lady trying to seduce the drunk soldier (another very good performance by Jimmy Ericson) and Ida Sade as the combative Brenda.

Elliot InnesIt’s a tough play to keep the energy levels up, because some scenes feel very slight in comparison with others. There were a few times when it sagged, and it occasionally annoyed me by what I felt was a shallowness; we only scratched the surface of these people’s lives and often what we saw made us more confused about who they were rather than enlightened us. Nevertheless, the cast made a good job of conveying the seedier and more depressing aspects of 1980s life, and I only wish I could have seen them perform something that would have allowed their talents a greater opportunity to shine through!