It’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.
But 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.
On 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.
Technically, 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.
Mr 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!
Omid Djalili – Oxford Playhouse, 17th January 2007
One of the very first stand-up comedy shows we ever saw, Omid Djalili was beginning to break through on TV comedy shows and I have to say that, live, he is sensational. A great night’s comedy.
Cabaret – Lyric Theatre, London, 27th January 2007
Rufus Norris’ amazing production of Kander and Ebb’s brilliant musical, that continues to tour and to influence other productions to this day. Anna Maxwell Martin proved her versatility as Miss Sally Bowles, and a very affectionate coupling of Sheila Hancock as Fraulein Schneider and Geoffrey Hutchings as Herr Schultz. James Dreyfus played Emcee and I expect he was terrific, but the night we saw it, his understudy was playing and I regret I have no note as to who that was. An excellent production.
Hay Fever – Oxford Playhouse, 24th February 2007
I had always wanted to see a production of one of Noel Coward’s earlier sparkling comedies, but sadly I have hardly any memories of this show, starring Christopher Timothy and Stephanie Beacham as the heads of the theatrical Bliss family. I’m sure it was good though!
Spiegel – Ultima Vez/Wim Vandekeybus at the Swan Theatre, High Wycombe, 2nd March 2007
This show could have been called Wim Vandekeybus’ Greatest Hits, with excerpts from several of his previous shows forming a new work as a whole. Again, very few memories of this show, I’m afraid.
Guys and Dolls – Milton Keynes Theatre, 7th March 2007
Breaking my usual rule about not including shows I’ve seen before in these blogs, this was a very brash production of Guys and Dolls by Michael Grandage, but my memory is that it was a little underwhelming. The four big roles were played by Alex Ferns, Samantha Janus, Norman Bowman and Louise Dearman.
Equus – Gielgud Theatre, London, 17th March 2007
A really big ticket at the time – Richard Griffiths as Martin Dysart with Daniel Radcliffe as Alan Strang; and Jenny Agutter as Hesther. A terrific coupling of two amazing actors, one slowly reaching the end of his career, one blossoming at the start of his – and both known for their work on Harry Potter. Young Mr Radcliffe was still only 17 when he took on this brave role. And it was every bit the riveting show that you would imagine.
Madama Butterfly – Welsh National Opera at the Milton Keynes Theatre, March 2007
A beautiful, strong and sensitive production of Puccini’s opera – but mainly notable for me as it was the last time we took the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle to the theatre, before her dementia sadly took over. I’m delighted to say that she loved it.
Boeing Boeing – Comedy Theatre, London, 6th April 2007
Marc Camoletti’s wonderful comedy from 1962 was given a completely fresh make-over and bounded back to life in this brilliant revival by Matthew Warchus. A dream team of a cast, with Roger Allam as the Lothario Bernard, Mark Rylance as his bemused friend Robert, Frances de la Tour as the bolshie maid Bertha, and Tamzin Outhwaite, Daisy Beaumont and Michelle Gomez as the three air hostesses whom Bernard is controlling through close following of the Boeing timetables. Incredibly funny, full of beautiful period detail, and a total joy.
The Sound of Music – London Palladium, 9th April 2007
The production that followed Andrew Lloyd Webber’s TV search for a new Maria – Connie Fisher – this was a tremendous show that at times transformed the innocent Palladium into a Nazi conference with swastikas all over the auditorium – very scary and extremely effective. We went on the one night of the week that Connie Fisher didn’t perform – it was the only night that tickets were readily available – but Sophie Bould, who normally played Liesl, played Maria and she was absolutely brilliant. All this plus Lesley Garrett as the Mother Superior and Alexander Hanson as von Trapp.
Can-Can – Lost Musicals at the Lilian Baylis Theatre, Sadler’s Wells, London, 15th April 2007
Another of Ian Marshall Fisher’s delvings into the back catalogue of Lost Musicals, Can Can is an old Cole Porter show brought to life in the round by the usual crowd, including James Vaughan, Stewart Permutt, Myra Sands and Valerie Cutko. Great fun as always.
Sometimes you look at a theatre’s listings for the season ahead and a show stands out like a beacon of must-seeishness. I’d seen Fiddler on the Roof twice before; once with the late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle in 1983 at the Apollo Victoria, starring the iconic Topol as Tevye, and once with Mrs Chrisparkle at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, starring Paul Michael Glaser (and damn fine he was too.) Professor and Mrs Plum (who accompanied us on our Chichester weekend) advised us that they’d seen it on Broadway starring Harvey Fierstein. Gosh! I bet he was amazing.
I’m sure you know the background to this musical. It’s based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem about Tevye and his daughters published in 1894. The author was born in present-day Ukraine, and moved to New York City after witnessing the violence against Jews in southern Russia in 1905. The stories have inspired plays, TV programmes and movies over the years – but none so prominent as Fiddler on the Roof. Tevye is the village milkman, with his own philosophy of life that is heavily based on his deep but informal relationship with God, with whom he chats all the time. An upholder and adherent of Tradition, the musical shows you how Tevye copes having daughters who know their own mind and are not afraid to carve out their own way of life. Will he stick with the time-honoured traditions, or will he bend the rules to accommodate their wishes? And what chance does tradition have when it’s up against the outside world of the Czar’s Russia and the violent pogroms of the time?
Sometimes at a show you get that feeling about ten minutes into it when you say to yourself “Wow, I am really loving this!” Gentle reader, I got that feeling. And once that happens you can just sit back and wallow in the pleasure of the whole thing. With all the traditional hallmarks of his Sheffield successes already chalked up, Daniel Evans’ first big show for Chichester – choreography by Alistair David, set design by Lez Brotherston, and a fantastic band courtesy of Tom Brady – is every bit as good as you could possibly dream it might be.
That’s not to say that in any way it shies away from the harshness of the reality of Tevye’s life and the village of Anatevka. If anything, this was the least saccharine portrayal of their day to day existence I’ve seen. The disruption to Tzeitel and Motel’s wedding celebration, for instance, stops you dead in your tracks with its mindless cruelty. When the villagers are informed that they will have to leave everything and go away, their desolation is palpable. But so much of the strength of the show comes from that balance of emotions between the sweet and the sour. The strongest moments (and songs) combine that hankering after something you just can’t have (If I were a Rich Man), and making the best of the here and now (To Life). Add to that the blind optimism of Matchmaker, Matchmaker and Miracle of Miracles plus the wistfulness of Do You Love Me and Sunrise, Sunset and you have one of the strongest scores in the history of musicals. Obvious, I know, but it occurred to me that, every time you hear Sunrise, Sunset, you’re just a little – significantly – older than the last time you heard it. My reaction to the stunning performance it receives in this production was to feel remarkably mortal. But when some aspect of a show pulls you up short and makes you question your own reality, you know theatre is doing its job properly.
The production is notable for some mind-boggling staging moments. The Fruma-Sarah dream sequence is extraordinary, with the spectral old biddy hovering large above the bed like a Jewish Sword of Damocles, the eerie presence of an army of demonic ghosts, and at one stage I thought the entire theatre was going to go up in flames! It’s a breathtakingly brilliant scene. Also stunning, but in a much more reflective way, was how the backstage opened up during the Sabbath Prayer so that you could see the other households in the village all following the same tradition; that was extremely effective and rather moving.
Of course, a huge part of the attraction for this particular production is the inspired casting of Omid Djalili as Tevye. He’s a very accomplished stand-up comic – we’ve loved him both times we’ve seen him – who involves uninhibited physicality as part of his humour. He was always going to be perfect in this role and boy does he not disappoint. From the moment you first see him, he’s got that glint in his eye that says we’ve gotta show to do and we’re all gonna have fun whilst never ever coming out of character or indeed turning Tevye into any kind of pantomime.
In fact, for a larger-than-life comedian, it’s astounding how ordinary and normal he presents the character – which is great, because it’s so much easier for the audience to identify with him. He is a real man, with real problems but also a real sense of fun. As you would imagine, he absolutely made If I Were a Rich Man his own, and every time he comes on he lights up the stage. Make no mistake; when he disowns Chava for marrying the Christian Fyedka, his face is like thunder and his fury is undeniable – this is a man pushed to the limit and, much as it grieves him, he is determined to stand by his God rather than his daughter. This unfatherly reaction is uncomfortable for the audience. Apparently not every problem can be solved by a show tune. He is desperate to put the past behind them; and we can see him start to soften when he reminds Tzeitel to say “and God be with you” when she and Chava part; but he never gives in. Stubborn? Pious? Simply human? Tevye has complex emotions and beliefs which Mr Djalili explores and expresses magnificently.
There’s also a tremendous performance by Tracy-Ann Oberman as Golde; funny, wry, spirited, bossy but essentially extremely kind-hearted, holding the household together whilst Tevye’s out working, or chewing the cud with God, or celebrating with Lazar Wolf. And of course she has a stunning voice that comes across so strongly, especially in the beautiful Sabbath Prayer sequence. Simbi Akande, Emma Kingston and Rose Shaloo make a great trio of daughters, presenting their father with challenge after challenge; they give us a fresh and funny Matchmaker, Matchmaker, and Emma Kingston’s Hodel sings a spine-tingling rendition of Far From the Home that I Love.
I barely recognised the wonderful Liza Sadovy as Yente; as always, she gives the role a feisty and humorous characterisation. And I loved Jos Slovick’s Motel performing Miracle of Miracles – a couple of minutes of sheer reckless joy in what you sense is otherwise a fairly joyless life. Louis Maskell’s Perchik has just the right amount of confident and disdainful swagger to impress as the intellectual rebel without being a pain in the backside; and you just know that life is nevertheless going to teach him a thing or two as time goes on. And it was great to see Harry Francis again, as the rabbi’s son Mendel, brilliantly integrating outstandingly skilful dance moves into the big numbers.
It’s a huge cast, and everyone performs with absolute commitment and a sense of true enjoyment. It’s already been extended by a week, so the show now runs until 2nd September – but that’s surely not going to be the last we see of it? A credit to all involved. We all loved it.
This was the second time we’d seen Omid Djalili do stand-up. The first was about ten years ago at the Oxford Playhouse, where I remember his material played a lot on the Western World’s insecurities with people from the Middle East and he nicely juxtaposed terrorists with delightfully middle-class north London types. Since then, sadly, terrorism hasn’t exactly gone away; and it no longer plays a central theme in his comedy. He does however still surprise and undermine our preconceptions with his ability to blend Western and Iranian characteristics in one big melting pot and come up with some revealing observations that challenge our suppositions with one huge belly laugh. The tone is set from the start when his introductory music to the stage is his beguiling vocal performance of the Weather Girls’ It’s Raining Men only to realise that he enters the stage to the lyrics Iranian Men.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. We were unable to pre-order an interval Merlot because the first half would only last twenty five minutes or so. That can only mean one thing – a warm up act. And what a top quality warm up it would be in the company of Boothby Graffoe, darling of Radio 4 comedy shows, joke writer extraordinaire, and the only comedian to be named after a Lincolnshire village. He has a very welcoming and unthreatening style, appearing to take his material at a relatively gentle pace, coming across as thoughtful, and enjoyably self-deprecating where it comes to his musical prowess. The mouth organ is used only as a deterrent.
During the course of his short stay with us, he provides his own insight into the mind and working practices of TV medium Derek Acorah, during which he can also find out some interesting snippets about audience members should he be so inclined, delightfully revealing how the whole psychic stage thing is utter nonsense and tosh. He also has a rather anarchic sequence where he becomes a German mother talking to her French child; looking back on it I still can’t quite work out what all that was about but it was amusing anyway. Mr Graffoe is a very entertaining man – not a lot in the way of uncontrollable guffaws but a very wry and intelligent approach that makes you appreciate a lot of subtle humour.
From Boothby Graffoe’s quiet and slightly reserved approach, you can’t get much more of a contrast than Omid Djalili’s loud, uninhibited, joyous persona. Here’s a man who celebrates a corny joke by bursting into a mock belly-dance, limbs cavorting in a parody of I Dream of Jeannie, floppy microphone simulating an unrestricted penis rising and falling with the Aladdin rhythms. For a big chap, he’s quite a physical comic, with many a ridiculous sequence of movement that results in his breaking into a not insubstantial sweat. You’d think that he doesn’t really care what he looks like, but actually he’s turned out quite dapper in a smart suit – he really could be the legendary embarrassing dad dancing at a wedding. Above all, he comes across as someone who’s really comfortable as he is. There’s not an ounce of that comedy neurosis that characterises so many other comedians. He is what he is, and you take it or leave it.
Among his very enjoyable observations and sequences, he explains how a happy marriage can always be attained providing you accept that your wife always knows best; why he really enjoys visiting America; why he loathes being called a “Paki” (his word, not mine, I hasten to add); and the informal way in which an Iranian father will sit around the house, even if his new daughter in law is about to visit. It’s all insightful, clever, meaningful and thoroughly revealing; plus it has the benefit of being extremely funny.
His routine ended with a Question and Answer session, the questions having been written on pieces of paper by members of the audience during the interval and then placed into a cardboard box for Mr Djalili’s subsequent consideration. Ever since Mrs Chrisparkle’s brother had been selected by the late Frankie Howard as a plant in the audience to ask one of a number of specially pre-rehearsed questions – his was “Do you ever ad-lib?” – I’ve been suspicious of Q&As with comics. I’m sure that a number of the questions Mr Djalili considered and replied were genuine inquiries from our audience; but I wouldn’t be surprised if a handful were fully scripted either. Does it matter? Probably not.
A very enjoyable night’s comedy from a comic who performs with splendid pace, a love of language and a sense of the ridiculous. Definitely worth catching as he tours the country!