Review – Betrayal, Sheffield Crucible, 19th May 2012

BetrayalIt’s been ages since I’ve seen some Pinter, and in fact this was Mrs Chrisparkle’s first exposure to the aforementioned late playwright. I warned her about the pauses. If they’re doing it really well, I suggested, then you won’t realise they’re pauses. If they aren’t, it’ll feel like they’ve forgotten their lines. I did once see an amateur production of The Room and The Dumb Waiter. On that occasion they really did forget their lines; and they also had no one in the prompt corner. I realised the pauses had gone on too long when one of the actors called out “Can we have a prompt please”, which was followed by a hurried scuttling of footsteps backstage, the sound of table and chair legs scraping on floors, and the flipping of paper pages before a lone voice gave them that oh so important line.

It will come as no surprise that Nick Bagnall’s new production of Betrayal is a bit more professional than that. When you enter the Crucible auditorium the deceptively simple set looks stunning. How can a pub table and a couple of chairs look so effective? By the addition of a brightly lit, glass topped floor, busily scattered underneath with compartments full of detritus, providing a visual metaphor of all sorts of goings-on beneath the surface. Simple basic scenery is used throughout the play, including a bed – possibly the best symbol imaginable for an adulterous affair – that first makes its portentous appearance slowly descending down from the flies like a veritable deus ex machina. Excellent use is made of the Crucible’s revolving stage; nothing is gimmicky, everything helps to tell the story.

The trick to the structure of this play is the fact that it is told in reverse. The first scene is the final scene chronologically speaking – 1977. The last scene is the first – 1968. So our first view of Emma and Jerry is their meeting in a pub long after their affair has fizzled out, realising something of what has gone on between them in the past, and the new revelation that she has told her husband, Robert – Jerry’s best friend – about what had happened between the two of them, much to Jerry’s horror. Jerry feels he has to see Robert to talk about it; and from there we go back in time. The structure works really well as there are so many betrayals going on, on so many levels, and between so many people. You, the audience, already know what the characters don’t yet know which gives a great sense of dramatic irony, that continues throughout the journey back in time to the final (first) scene – where Pinter has reserved a last twist evident in that final tableau.

John SimmJohn Simm plays Jerry and he is superb. Born to play Pinter as he uses those pauses so naturally! Even while he is silent you just have to look at his eyes to see all the realisations, troubles, misunderstandings, and general horrors of life that his brain is absorbing before he next engages to speak. As the play proceeds, his sad and troubled world regresses back to a time of comfort, physical pleasure and, originally, excitable hope that this wonderful woman whom he adores, might – just might – adore him too. You can see the strains and worries gradually lift from his expression as he gets more youthful and more optimistic. That 1968 Jerry feels like a completely different person from 1977. He just nails every nuance of the character.

Ruth GemmellRuth Gemmell’s Emma is a more reserved kind of person. In 1977 she too is deeply troubled, and extraordinarily outraged that her husband has been having an affair, which is a beautiful example of how the play ironically and creatively tackles its twisted moral questions of loyalty and betrayal. She lightens up a bit during the most passionate days of the affair, but starts the story again as rather a reserved person, shocked but secretly delighted at Jerry’s advances, which clearly appeal to her compulsive nature. You sense a little that hers is the character that advances the story, but that’s it’s the fall-out for the men that interests Pinter somewhat more. Nevertheless it’s a really good performance.

Colin TierneyAs Emma’s husband Robert, Colin Tierney starts the play troubled but balanced, resigned to his lot and seemingly remarkably forgiving. One of the best scenes of the play is where he finds out about his wife’s relationship and you almost physically see his heart break. It’s superbly well done. At the beginning of the story, his naturally rather dour character makes a great contrast with Jerry and it’s not terribly surprising that Emma finds Jerry the more attractive prospect.

Another great scene shows Jerry and Robert dining in a restaurant, chock-full of dramatic irony. Their table slowly revolves around the stage, enabling everyone to see all aspects of the scene. First, you may be in Robert’s place, looking at Jerry trying to hide the secret of the relationship. Then you are in Jerry’s place, looking at Robert drinking too much as a way of suppressing his personal sadness. Superbly directed, and revelatory whilst still maintaining the betrayals.

Thomas TinkerThere’s also an honourable mention to the fourth member of the cast, Thomas Tinker, who plays the Italian restaurant waiter just as those waiters always are – tediously nostalgic for the glories of Venice – but moreover who spends the rest of the production as scenery shifter which could end up very messy if he gets it wrong. His discreet efficiency gives you confidence though that it’s in safe hands.

The whole production is a thing of painful poignancy, clarity and precision, and with a bizarrely inexorable journey to the beginning. So many betrayals get hinted at – we never really get to the bottom of Casey, or why Judith was at Fortnums and Masons that day. Even if they are innocent, the play just makes you suspicious of everything. In the programme, Nick Bagnall says they have tried to make this production one where they ignore anything unless it’s on the page or revealed within a moment – and it really works. They let the text do the talking, and it’s remarkably eloquent.

We saw a preview performance on Saturday 19th May. I don’t normally choose to see previews because you never know if they might change things again before the proper first night. I can’t imagine why they might want to change anything though. Maybe just refresh everyone’s memory about turning off mobiles. The final scene was all but spoiled by a recurrent ringtone which stopped and started three times. It even made some sectors of the audience titter nervously. Top marks to Mr Simm for battling through it regardless. I wonder if that explained Miss Gemmell’s withholding of a curtain call smile. Previews are fantastic value at the Crucible. A packed house saw this riveting production for just a tenner each. No interval, just 95 minutes of unadulterated adulterous drama. An excellent production of a great play.

Review – Stewart Francis, Outstanding in his field, Derngate, Northampton, 12th May 2012

Yet another comic act in Northampton that we booked on the strength of the advertising. We hadn’t seen Stewart Francis before but our 16 year old Goddaughter, who is a Mock-the-weeker, said he would be a good bet. I sense we may have failed our Godparently duty if she’s talking about gambling like that.

Stewart FrancisNever mind – she was right. She had told us Stewart Francis is best known for his quick fire one-liners. Well he sure does have a lot of these; in fact there’s wordplay by the punful. It’s all very clever and very funny, and with a supremely slick delivery. He has a very nice way of leading you down the garden path with one way of comic thinking only to veer off suddenly in a completely different direction; and that keeps the whole routine feeling fresh, pacey and lively. I also liked his subtle interaction with the sound engineer, which brought in an additional dimension to his stand-up. There were one or two comedic alleyways he took us down that turned into dead-ends but for the most part it was all great fun.

He gets a very strong rapport with the audience, which I would like to see him develop. But you sense that if he spent too much time interacting with the audience he wouldn’t quite know how to get back to his prepared material. If you’re sensing a slight reservation on my part, I would perhaps comment that I really appreciate comedy that gives some insights into the human condition – and Stewart Francis’ material doesn’t do that. He doesn’t intend to, mind you. His humour is very shallow. That’s not a criticism; depending on the context shallow is good. If you’re happy with being bombarded by linguistic cleverness (and why wouldn’t you be?) he’s your man. But you won’t get any “Ha! I recognise that!” or “That’s just like you” moments. At the end of his act (about an hour long) he gives us a very clever and funny subversion of a typical Q&A ending, which worked really well.

Matt RudgeBefore the interval we have Matt Rudge as a half-hour warm-up. We saw Mr Rudge at a Screaming Blue Murder last year and he was very good although he didn’t go down that well. Playing a larger crowd he really got into his element and gave us some excellent observational comedy. If I’m honest his is the kind of material I prefer. I particularly liked his angst at having to come out to his parents as middle-class. Good stuff!

Review – Bette and Joan, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 10th May 2012

Bette and JoanI’m often going on about how I don’t see many films but “Whatever Happened to Baby Jane” is an exception. There was a time when it was never off the telly and I remember watching it many times in my youth. That nasty Bette Davis being so vindictive to that lovely Joan Crawford. It was a spellbinding combination.

So what a splendid idea for a play – Miss Davis and Miss Crawford in adjacent dressing rooms on the set of Baby Jane. Their rivalry and mutual dislike is the stuff of legend. The fact that they had “crossover lovers” (as the informative programme nicely puts it) seems less of an issue than their professional jealousies – Miss Crawford the more beautiful, Miss Davis the better actress.

Anita DobsonThe main problem with the play is the fact that the two characters spend at least 90% of the time soliloquising with the audience. This does allow for one useful and humour-inducing ploy, which is that Bette Davis will tell a story or describe an event in her way to the audience; and then Joan Crawford will separately tell it her way, with the implication that Miss Davis was lying. And later the same thing will happen vice versa. It’s a good comic structure, and you do get the feeling of understanding at least some of the characters’ motivations. But unfortunately it doesn’t really have dramatic tension. The 10% of the time when they’re addressing each other directly is completely sublime. It’s not a bitchathon – it’s subtler than that; Greta Scacchiexactly the kind of slightly digging, needling conversation you would have with someone you loathe but have to get on with for the sake of the income. It would have been a much more rewarding piece if there had simply been more of this conversation. A lot of the first half feels like it’s treading water. The first fifteen minutes or so sets the scene nicely, but you want things to progress quicker than they do. Certainly the best lines and more revealing characterisation are saved for the second act.

Joan CrawfordHaving said that, it’s an excellent production and the two star turns are exactly that. Anita Dobson arguably has the slightly harder task of portraying Joan Crawford, with her languid tone of voice droning on in that marvellously insincere way. I thought it worked particularly well when she was signing photographs – you realise quite what a horrid Mommie Dearest she must have been. And she issues a lovely telephone threat to her assistant Patricia in the same eerie voice. She also captures Miss Crawford’s artificial smile to a tee which comes to the fore both when she’s being “charming” (deliberately in inverted commas) and also vindictive, as when she’s adding weights to her body so that Bette Davis will put her back out when she lifts her. It’s a superb performance. When she shows her distaste for Miss Davis’ coarseness her face is a picture – not over-the-top pantomime gurning but a genuine gagging reflux look that came straight from her insides. She actually reminded me of a pretentious woman I used to know as a child, which was a surprise. I should also mention that, from my seat in Row C, I would guess I was one of about 6 people that Miss Dobson’s gaze alighted on every so often to look directly in the eye when delivering her monologues. That made me feel really involved!

Bette DavisGreta Scacchi’s performance as Bette Davis is astonishing in every way. With her white make-up, lurid lips and batty wig the similarity in looks to Bette Davis’ own appearance as Baby Jane was remarkable. She gets her clipped, sullen tone absolutely right – she sounds a little angry, even when she’s not particularly. Then there’s also her wheedling voice; beautifully done. For an attractive woman Ms Scacchi can sure make herself look a fright! The script nicely allows for the occasional use of bad language and she relishes every consonant, but you also get a marvellous glimpse of her insecurity and anxiety, as when she deals with her mother on the phone for example. She takes every comic opportunity and makes it work – just her catching sight of herself in an imaginary mirror almost brings the house down. It’s a performance of splendid light and shade, and she’s grippingly watchable.

Rarely seen the Royal Theatre so packed, and the audience loved it. It’s already well into its tour, with just Coventry, Bromley and Brighton to go. It’s definitely worth seeing for these two great performances alone.

Eurovision 2012 – The Grand Final

Thanks for sticking with me through this grisly preview of this year’s 42 Eurovision entries. It’s time to consider the Big 5 and the home nation Azerbaijan who are all guaranteed to make it to the Grand Final on the evening of Saturday 26th May (or if you’re in Azerbaijan, the morning of Sunday 27th May). They’re in the order of appearance and I’ve given you their odds as at 4th May as well as those magic Chrisparkle stars.

UK – Love will set you free – Engelbert Humperdinck

Engelbert HumperdinckI don’t think anyone would have predicted that Engelbert would sing at Eurovision, but of course his song “Another Time Another Place” was in the running for the UK’s 1971 entry. There’s little doubt that it’s a delicate and well constructed song, and once you hear it start, you have to listen to the end. 120 million people watching live shouldn’t phase Engelbert on the night and I think his performance will be a masterclass. The song’s written by Martin Terefe and Sacha Skarbek who between them have worked with Lana Del Rey, James Blunt, Adele, James Morrison and Mary J Blige, and they’re just the ones I’ve heard of. Sadly for the UK it’s first off the block on Saturday night so everyone will have forgotten about it by the time they get to televote. Still I think the juries will like it and I’m hoping for a top ten finish. 10-1 to 14-1 ****

France – Echo (You and I) – Anggun

AnggunThis is one of those odd entries that sounds like three totally different songs stuck together with some sellotape. Anggun herself has a career as long as your arm and has recorded with such notables as Peter Gabriel, Julio Iglesias and Ronan Keating. I’d like to like this more than I do but something holds me back – it doesn’t quite make it for me. In fact some aspects of the instrumentation I find rather irritating. But I’m fully prepared to accept that’s my fault and not the lovely Anggun’s. The less said about the attractions of the video the better. 40-1 to 100-1 ***

Italy – L’amore è femmina – Nina Zilli

Nina ZilliConsidering Italy came second with what I thought was rather a drab number last year, surely they can go one better in 2012 with this quirky, funky song. Nina is a sassy dame with more than a passing resemblance, musically and visually, to La Winehouse about her. Back to Black with a touch of Boom Boom. Nice top she’s wearing – Mrs C bought the same one from Primark only a few days ago. Too many cooks spoil the broth doesn’t seem to apply this time, with no fewer than five people credited as the song’s authors. Let’s hope she doesn’t arbitrarily mime on the night as we wouldn’t want a case of willy-nilly Milli Vanilli Zilli. 5-1 to 8-1 *****

Azerbaijan – When the music dies – Sabina Babayeva

Sabina BabayevaSabina Babayeva takes on all the troubles of the world in this rather depressing, fin-de-relationship song that definitely showcases her superb singing talent. Written by the team behind Drip Drop and Running Scared, it could do well if Europe’s in a wrist-slitting mood. She’s got a wind machine that Carola would kill for. The lyrics, inspired by Imelda Marcos, start with “Shoe are my best friend…” Not many laughs in this one. 28-1 to 40-1 **

Spain – Quedate conmigo – Pastora Soler

Pastora SolerSinging from position 19, which has got to be a good one, here’s Pastora Soler’s big belter, arguably this year’s best female ballad. A great voice and a tune that bursts into your head at about 3.30 in the morning. Part written by Thomas G:son, this is his second entry in this year’s contest as he also has a major hand in Loreen’s Euphoria. For me this is a song that grows and grows but if you watch the show in an atmosphere of light-hearted shallowness (heaven forbid) it might just pass you by. One of those dangerous entries that is probably too classy for the contest. 12-1 to 20-1 ***

Germany – Standing still – Roman Lob

Roman LobNot a 2000 year old version of the shot put, Roman Lob is a personable young man with a fine voice and a modern song written by Jamie Cullum, Wayne Hector and Steve Robson who between them have the better part of the last fifteen years of songwriting sewn up – Take That, Westlife, James Morrison, JLS, One Direction, Olly Murs and Busted are just a handful of the acts who have had huge hits with their songs. It took a little while for me to really like this song – Mrs C loved it before Herr Lob had finished his opening line. Berlin next year? 16-1 to 20-1 *****

Now here’s an interesting little observation. Which ten songs do you think have received the biggest number of hits on youtube? I’m just analysing the videos on the channel, mind you, it would take all day to add up everyone’s uploads. This is as at about 6pm on May 10th.

Let me put you out of your misery. They are:

10th – Romania (442,233)
9th – Montenegro (445,113)
8th – Greece (455,910)
7th – Croatia (556,548)
6th – Germany (575,777)
5th – Azerbaijan (629,792)
4th – Turkey (717,298)
3rd – United Kingdom (747,779)
2nd – Cyprus (1,200,695)
1st – Russia (1,717,780)

Extrapolate from that what you will.

So now it’s head above the parapet time and first I’m going to give you my top ten favourites:

In at number 10, the pop prince of Persia, it’s the hoodie Tooji for Norway.

Making a decent showing at number 9 the simple clarity and beauty of the song from Engelbert for the UK.

At number 8 bring in the bouncy castle for the terrible twosome from Ireland, the exuberant Jedward.

In at number 7 it’s Nina Pretty Ballerina, or very nearly, it’s Time from Israel.

At number 6 it’s the sassy Amy Winehouse wannabe from Italy, Nina Zilli and L’amore e femmina.

And now for my top 5:

Showing positive discrimination in favour of the Beatles against the Rolling Stones and making departure lounge dancing fashionable again, my 5th favourite of the year is Annmary’s Beautiful Song from Latvia.

My 4th favourite song and a complete guilty pleasure, with the cheesiest chat up line ever, this trumpet makes you mine girl, it’s the irresistibly jolly Lautar from Moldova and Pasha Parfeny.

My 3rd favourite song used to be my first favourite but I have just started to slightly reassess it down a little – but I still love it, and I think she is absolutely gorgeous, it’s Mr and Mrs Eleftheriou’s daughter Eleftheria with her shopping mall hit, Aphrodisiac for Greece.

My 2nd favourite song is one that I keep coming back to, loved it from the first time I heard its opening chords and I still do, it’s that brilliant Sound of our Hearts from Compact Disco from Hungary.

Honourable mentions go to Malta and Germany – really good songs and performers who just failed to make my top ten – but my number one is a choice I feel a little guilty about because the lyrics aren’t great but who cares when it’s such a feel good song. My favourite this year is the eminently wonderful extraordinarily catchy and bouncy bouncy entry from Cyprus and Ivi Adamou’s La La Love.

When all the dust is settled after the contest and the statisticians have been working away for a few days, they will no doubt announce the bottom five of the whole 42; and here is my prediction of the songs that will be the furthest away from qualifying for the Saturday night:

38th the wandering donkey of Montenegro

39th a song that starts nice but then you drift off and that’s Croatia

40th the very nice song but I don’t think it will make an impression coming from Finland

41st a bit shouty for a Thursday evening which must be Slovakia

42nd and as dull as ditchwater, Belgium.

Of the songs that I think will qualify but then end up flapping around anxiously like fish on a slab, my bottom five for Saturday night are:

22nd the grannies from Russia – cute they may be but I think the juries will loathe their banal lyrics

23rd maybe controversial – but I think this will simply be almost everyone’s 11th favourite and therefore not score much and that’s France

24th it might be useful for him to keep his blindfold on during the scoring and that’s Lithuania

25th a personal favourite but I just can’t see it scoring much – the song from Israel

26th Europe shows extreme good taste and ignores Anri from Georgia in its droves.

And finally – my predictions for the top ten on Saturday night.

In 10th place, not one of my favourites but I think will do well – Slovenia

In 9th place, another that I think will do better than it warrants, and that’s Turkey

In 8th place, I think reputation and hopefully a good performance will give UK a top ten position

In 7th place the raunchy expressiveness that is Gaitana’s Be my guest for Ukraine

6th – what more can one say but the increasing popular Jedward for Ireland

5th a song that I think ought to be much better than it is, but I think will do very well and that’s Romania

In 4th place, I’m expecting very great things from the Toojmeister of Norway

In 3rd place, a good song and a very very popular singer in many countries, Zeljko for Serbia

In 2nd place, the excellent song with a great singer and pedigree and Mrs C’s favourite – that’s Herr Lob from Germany

But my winner is a country that went really high last year with a song that I thought was just ok, and this year I feel their song is way better, so I can only predict they will go from second last year to first this year and that’s Italy.

Please feel free to mock and scoff at my likes and my predictions, but whatever you do, have a magnificent Eurovision!

Review – Shappi Khorsandi, Me and My Brother in our Pants Holding Hands, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 5th May 2012

Shappi Khorsandi again Here’s another comedy act we booked on the strength of their appearances on Have I Got News For You. I’m not entirely sure what I was expecting – something like a female Omid Djalili maybe, although my lumping those two together simply because they’re both Iranian sounds at best lazy, as worst a bit racist on reflection; and anyway they are not very similar at all! Shappi Khorsandi very much has her own style. I would categorise her as “extremely laid back but extremely confident”. You could never describe Mr Djalili as laid back!

This was particularly noticeable in the first half of the show before the interval (first third really) where instead of having a warm up act who would (by definition) not be as good as her, she acted as her own warm up act – as she points out, times are hard – where she was deliberately a bit rubbish in comparison to what you might expect from her – but entertainingly so. It was quite a nice way of gently subverting the format. Of course, in that first half she chatted with some members of the audience, gathering potential material as she went, which included discovering the youngest member of the audience, 10 year old Alice, whose father obviously thought this would be a personality enhancing, intellectual “right-on” gig; but where Ms Khorsandi decided that she wasn’t in any way going to “youth-down” her material and went straight for sharing some shocking bad language. It was very funny for the rest of us, not sure what Alice’s Dad made of it.

Shappi Khorsandi againMrs Chrisparkle and I made our way to our interval drinks having enjoyed the first half but being quite amazed at how little material she had prepared for it. It was, basically, just a chat. Fortunately, Ms Khorsandi is a naturally funny and charming lady so she really gets away with it. In the second half she tells us this is where the act begins proper and she’s got some great material – funny, self-revealing and with a nice sense of compassion.

She spends a lot of time talking about her brother and examining brother-sister relationships; I’m an “only child” but Mrs C has three brothers and Shappi Khorsandi’s observations clearly hit Mrs C’s funnybone head-on. She has a cool way of holding back a killer punchline until the very final moment when she lets it slip just as she’s taking a drink of water (first act) or wine (second act). She’s very good when dealing with the nonsensical life that is being a parent; and her ability to involve the audience is also very effective.

But when you take the show as a whole, its success really rests on her general likeability and her very smiley expressive face. It was a very enjoyable way of spending an evening, but when you look back on it and try to piece together what you witnessed, you kind of wonder – tell me again, what exactly happened there?

Review – The Osmonds, Derngate, Northampton, 27th April 2012

The OsmondsI couldn’t call myself an Osmond fan, you understand, that would be so not right. But when such an iconic group books in at your local theatre, it would be churlish not to follow up and actually see them perform live. Plus I don’t think Mrs Chrisparkle and the Lady Duncansby would have forgiven me. And I did hope they would play my three favourite Osmonds songs – Crazy Horses, Goin’ Home and I Can’t Stop.

OsmondsSo we all trooped in, a full house, a variety of ages, mainly aged 40 plus I would estimate, and about 95% female. Curtain up at 7.30pm and the joint was buzzing. And then – lo and behold, a slideshow screen appears on the stage with some “Did You Know?” questions. OK, I thought, an amusing way to start the show. Which type of music did the Osmonds first sing? A Bubblegum, B Barbershop, C Light Opera, D Rock n Roll. Let’s go with – B. Correct! Moving on. How many individual acts have formed out of the Osmond family…. And then another…Which group member made a rude sign to the Queen of England (I bet that question went down well in Glasgow)….and then another….after a while I was expecting “Which blood group predominates in the Osmond family? A – A; B – B; C – AB; D – O. “How many Osmonds have nine toes? A – 3; B – 5; C – 7; D – they all do. Then you start to worry. 7.30 became 7.40 – more questions. 7.40 unbelievably became 7.50 – still more questions. Mrs Chrisparkle had to rush home from work to watch this garbage. She could have had an extra 20 minutes to let her dinner go down. At 7.50 I texted Lady Duncansby sitting in the cheap seats: “for ****sake, when’s it going to start?” (Ours is a very informal relationship).

More OsmondsAt 7.55pm, the lights changed and some musicians walked on stage. The Osmonds? No. The Dropouts. Who? They advised us that the Osmonds had asked them if they would come on a sing us a few 70s songs, and obviously they must be obliging lads as that’s exactly what they did. Four songs, in fact. I’m a child of the 70s but only recognised two of them. They were, in fact, quite good – and certainly heaps better than watching a sequence of questions about obscure TV reality shows the Osmonds had appeared in (that weren’t even shown in the UK so how in the name of all that’s decent were we meant to get those right?) At 8.05pm the Dropouts appropriately dropped off the stage and it was time for the interval. We met Lady Duncansby in the bar and her language included the words “con” and “swizz”.

That'll be the Osmonds, thenAt 8.25pm we were encouraged to return to our seats for the second half of the performance by the Osmonds. People snorted that there hadn’t been a first half yet. Anyway, lured by the prospect of Little Jimmy et al, we went back. And they did come on – and they were great. The promotional material had depicted four Osmonds but unfortunately at the last minute Wayne was not well enough to travel, so we were left with Jay, Merrill and Jimmy. But they are consummate performers, they still sing extremely well, and they do spread more than a little magic to their devoted fans.

JayIn just under 90 minutes we got lots of old songs, a few new ones, a little cheesy dancing, a spectacular drum solo from Jay, some schmaltzy “family” reminiscences, an unexpected vision of Christ as a backdrop, some chat, some heavy advertising from Tesco (you almost expected to see the Osmonds logo with blue and white stripes running through it), and lots of handshakes with the front rows. They did indeed sing Crazy Horses – it was their first number, and also a reprise right at the end; and they did sing Goin’ Home, (Jimmy got the words wrong) just before they went off in that pretend tradition that it’s all over when it isn’t. They didn’t however sing I Can’t Stop.

The Osmonds, who knew?As an audience we acapella’d Paper Roses (with the compulsory use of a “W” instead of an “R”) and we made Jimmy sing Long Haired Lover from Liverpool. Even though he wasn’t on the same continent, every time a picture of Donny flashed up, a thousand or so ex-teenyboppers screamed. It was a little bizarre.

MerrillDon’t get me wrong – it was really enjoyable and I am thoroughly pleased to have seen them perform in the flesh, so to speak. It could have been so much more rewarding as a whole if they just ditched that stupid introductory slideshow. Why not have the support group do a few more numbers early on? Then it would have been a much more balanced evening. This is to be the group’s final UK tour, apparently, so if you miss them here now, thatsyerlot. I doubt whether there will be any tickets left now for the remaining dates anyway.

Mrs C and Lady D are still fantasising about how manly-gorgeous Merrill looks. This could carry on for some time.

Review – Dara O’Briain: Craic Dealer, Warwick Arts Centre, 25th April 2012

Dara O'BriainWe’ve seen Dara O’Briain on TV a few times, doing a little bit of stand-up, but primarily presenting “The Apprentice – You’re Fired”, where he has a very wholesome blend of gentle teasing and intelligent badinage. We’d not seen him live before though. My guess was that as a stand-up he would be very quick of brain and strong of material.

And I was right. What I wasn’t aware was that, as a big man, he can command a large and rather soulless venue like the stage of the Butterworth Hall at the Warwick Arts Centre and treat it as though it were as intimate as his living room. Wednesday night’s gig was part of his Craic Dealer tour, and I think he sold out all three nights within a very short time.

Another Dara O'Briain pictureWith no support act, and the show lasting for two and a quarter hours, including a twenty minute interval, he needs no props, apart from a gift bag of crisps that he shares out at the end of the show to the people who contributed the most. He’s very funny, as you would expect, and I like his straightforward way of telling a story – no need for stylistic embellishments, he lets his material do the talking – and as it’s very good material, it works.

For someone who is such a good talker, he must also be a really good listener too; as the information he gleans from the punters at the front whom he interrogates in the first half, constantly comes back as references in the second half, when you’re really not expecting them; and not just repetitiously – he sneaks references in when you think he’s going in a completely different direction. Very creatively done.

Amongst last night’s subjects were how to most terrify a burglar in your home, the level of expertise of current Irish construction workers, how not to take a photo when someone gives you their camera and how the singer Plan B might have got his name.

Look it's Dara O'Briain againI think he has something of the Frankie Howerd to his style – not Howerd’s camp mannerisms or his oohs and aahs, but in his way of addressing the audience as a whole in a confidential way, making them feel they’re the only one he’s talking to – and also by rounding on the audience when they vocally disapprove of any his dodgier topics.

But what you come away with is a distinct impression of someone with a fairly massive brain (not big headed though), an amazing way of dealing with people and a provider of top quality comic material in a fast and fluid way. A really enjoyable night out!

Review – Barefoot in the Park, Oxford Playhouse, 23rd April 2012

Barefoot in the ParkMany years ago Mrs Chrisparkle declared “Barefoot in the Park” to be one of her all-time favourite films, so it was a no-brainer that we should see this new touring production of Neil Simon’s original play, directed by, as well as starring, Maureen Lipman. It was a huge success on Broadway back in the 1960s, but a 2006 revival flopped.

So is it risky to resurrect it again? As the curtain goes up to the strains of Jack Jones’ Wives and Lovers, you expect some 1960s New York glamour, trendiness and sophistication. But of course, the reality is newlywed Corrie and Paul’s tiny basic apartment has no heating and a broken skylight. In New York’s 2006 people felt reasonably affluent and secure in their jobs, and maybe this setting didn’t connect much with those theatregoers. In Britain’s 2012, however, times are hard, and I think we can all understand the plight of the young couple starting out in life with a grotty flat and not a lot of money, but full of hope in their hearts.

So, whilst the play is rather dated in some aspects – in this world of children owning smartphones, Corrie’s delight in having her first telephone delivered and installed is charming but seems anachronistic today – the basic themes of the play are still relevant, and I think it’s a good choice of play to revive. Plenty of young couples still start out with nothing but enthusiasm; there are always going to be potentially tricky mothers/mothers-in-law; and that fine line of blending your leisure time and home life with the demands of your work remains blurry. And of course, as long as people are people, and are therefore flawed, they are always going to be a source of disappointment to their partners at some point, which is when you have to work out your compromises in order to get a happy balanced life together. This is the stark reality that faces Corrie and Paul once the initial excitement of the wedding and the moving in together has died down.

Tim Goodchild’s set very evocatively recreates that top-floor Brownstone apartment – bare and basic, with a very dismal and dirty glass roof; the door to the bedroom that you can hardly open because the bed is in the way; the clothes rail inconveniently far from the bedroom (no space for a wardrobe); the useless tiny kitchen that would be impossible to cook in; all looking tired and drab, but nevertheless suggesting that exciting prospect that with a bit of time and effort you could make it look really swish.

Faye CastelowRight at the centre of the story is Corrie, played by Faye Castelow. Young, idealistic, and keen to experience everything she can, her delight in her new surroundings is a joy – she’s playing at being an adult for the first time and loving every minute. You don’t want life to knock the innocent exuberance out of her, as it inevitably will. It’s a very good performance, quirky and funny, whilst remaining totally within the bounds of reality. She is matched by Dominic Tighe’s Paul, his feet firmly on the ground, aghast at the number of steps you have to climb to get to the flat Dominic Tighe(one presumes Corrie agreed the deal on a girlish whim), deeply in love with her but also very aware of his responsibilities and obligations with work and the more serious aspects of life. It’s an equally good performance. Their second act argument scene is conducted with a splendid mixture of pace, silliness, outrage and genuine disappointment. For me it was the highlight of the play. Through their argument they learn the art of compromise and it’s a heart-warming moment when you realise Paul did actually go barefoot in the park.

Maureen Lipman Maureen Lipman is Corrie’s mother, Mrs Banks, and it’s a beautifully understated comic performance. She conveys all the regular motherly concerns without ever becoming a real nag. The role gives her ample opportunities to show off her brilliant comic timing; and you also get very telling insights into her personal loneliness, which will be more acute now that Corrie is living away from home. On top of all that you can just glimpse that slight twinkle in her eye suggesting there might be a more companionable life ahead for her with Victor, played by Oliver Cotton, Oliver Cottonwho gives a funny but again totally believable performance of the weird neighbour with outrageous tastes and extravagant gestures. Ms Lipman’s direction of the play is what makes this production really tick. It emphasises the laughs within the text – some of the lines are still very, very funny – but without ever going over the top. It could have been tempting to make Mrs Banks a hideous dragon and Victor a grotesque foreigner and poke cruel fun at their backgrounds and attitudes. Instead the production allows all its characters to have their personal motivations and genuine emotions recognised and respected. It makes for a much more believable and rewarding scenario.

David PartridgeThere’s also some entertaining support from David Partridge’s Telephone Repair Man and Hayward Morse’s Delivery Man – how nice (if surprising in this kind of role) to see him on the stage again (original Brad in Rocky Horror, Nick in What the Butler Saw, Tony award nominee in Butley on Broadway, and son of the late Barry Morse). Hayward Morse The full house at Oxford gave a warm reception to this surprisingly thoughtful production of a charming play, with lots of funny lines and a feelgood factor. It’s still touring, and with Richmond and Cambridge still to come, I’d recommend it for an entertaining night out.

Italy – Verona

Torre dei LambertiIf regular readers noted an absence of theatre reviews a few weeks ago it’s because Mrs Chrisparkle and I were on our travels again. This time accompanied by my Lady Duncansby, we flew to Verona, where we spent two nights, then travelled by train to Padua for one night, on again to Venice for two nights, and then cruised on board the MSC Magnifica to Bari, Katakolon, Izmir, Istanbul and Dubrovnik, before returning back to Venice, taking the train back to Verona and flying home. I hope to cover all that in the next few weeks!

Lungadige PanvinioOriginally we had booked the week’s cruise, but decided we wanted to spend more time in Venice. Checking all the online flight brokers, flights out to Venice were all pretty pricey – I guess it’s a popular (as well as expensive) destination. This gave me the idea of looking further afield, and I came up with the solution of Verona. Only an hour or so from Venice by train, and a much cheaper flight. Also we didn’t have to be humiliated by Ryanair staff, yay! It was a service provided by good old British Airways.

Verona's rooftopsThere was one major disappointment about the BA flight however; no food! I thought they always bunged you at least a snack, if not a meal. But unless you were travelling in first or business, you just got a drink and a clean-up sachet. Not much to clean up, really. And bizarrely, unlike the dreaded Ryanair where you have to buy everything, there was no provision of selling food either. So if you didn’t have a nibble in Gatwick, you were going to stay hungry until you got to Italy.

San Zeno Maggiore at a distanceVerona airport is not terribly far from the city but you wouldn’t want to walk it with all that luggage, so your choices are to get the airport/railway station bus service (every 20 minutes) or to get a taxi. I always have an anxiety about just getting into a taxi at a foreign airport, particularly if I don’t speak the language – I always fear that it will result somewhere between getting ripped off for 20 times the real cost of the journey and everyone getting raped and murdered and slung in a ditch. So I decided to pre-book a taxi through Airport City Transfer, who charged 40 euros for the direct trip from the airport to our hotel. Most other similar services wanted to charge 50 euros. I have to say that the transfer worked a dream – I got all the email communication I was promised including clear instructions; the driver was there on our arrival, he took our bags and put them into his nice clean posh Mercedes, drove us straight to our hotel, unloaded the bags and just asked for the 40 euros. A super service, and I would thoroughly recommend it.

Hotel AccademiaOur hotel was the Hotel Accademia. I chose it because it was “number two” in popularity on Trip Advisor. I see it is now “number one” and I am not at all surprised. It’s a lovely hotel, with very helpful and polite staff, comfortable rooms and bathrooms, a generous breakfast and is superbly located. It also has a discreet and relaxing small bar at the back where you can wind down after a long days’ sightseeing or a long night’s wining and dining.

old gate near Piazza BraSo, off we went to explore. We only had a little time on our first evening before dinner, so we just followed our noses. One thing you have to say about Verona – and it was obvious from the drive in from the airport – it’s stunningly beautiful. The architecture, the colours, the shops, the people – they all reek style. Elegance just seems to appear naturally. Not a place for bargain shopping, I should add: I found a nice trendy black bomber jacket in one of the boutiques that I thought might suit me, but then dropped it like a hot brick when I saw how much it cost – 7,000 euros. You’d need Jessie J’s income to forget about that particular price tag.

Piazza ErbeThe hotel is just around the corner from the Piazza Erbe, so that became our favourite local haunt. Elegant old palazzo type buildings enclose a market square, mainly selling tourist type stuff but not exclusively; frescos adorn the upper storeys of attractive looking bars and cafes; there’s a charming old Roman statue in the middle of the fountain; and the wonderful old Venetian lion statue atop its column. It’s a genuinely lovely place. Not over pretty; not over serious. Just the kind of place where life takes place and you feel privileged to share in it.

Torre dei Lamberti and Piazza ErbeThe cityscape here is dominated by the Torre dei Lamberti, that rises beside the old law court in the adjacent Piazza dei Signori. We decided early on that we weren’t going to attempt its 84 metre ascent, although I expect the view is stunning. We wandered away from the Torre and discovered a courtyard that was covered in graffiti. Mrs C and Lady D strolled round the yard, which was full of backpacking students,Juliet's graffiti whilst I looked more closely at the graffiti. We carried on, slightly bemused. It was only about 24 hours later that I realised this was the Juliet’s balcony complex, and, basically, we missed it. Never mind – a balcony’s a balcony at the end of the day.

Arena by night We followed the Vias Cappello and Leoni and turned right opposite San Fermo Maggiore, which we would visit more properly the next day, and continued walking round until we found ourselves outside the famous Arena – very unspoilt and mysterious looking at night. Alongside the arena is the Piazza Bra, a long square lined with tasty if touristy looking restaurants. After a couple of false starts we ended up in one of them; regrettably I can’t remember its name but it was comfortable and the food was very good. What I did admire – and this was not the only time it happened on this trip – I asked the waiter to recommend a suitable local wine for the meals we had chosen and his recommendatio came right at the cheap end of the wine list – and it was excellent. Quite unlike the rip-off experience I just avoided in Rio last year. After all that walking, eating, and general travelling, it was bedtime – or should have been. A brief dip into the hotel bar for a nightcap, and we were done in. But then we couldn’t resist nip out again to the Piazza Erbe for a late night drink, and had a jolly nice glass of Chianti at the Caffe Brasserie Filippini.

Amusing frescosI had meticulously planned the next day’s sightseeing – one module in the southern part of the city and another in the north. But first we thought we ought to time the walk to the railway station in case we didn’t go by taxi the next day. My advice – don’t bother. For one thing, we never actually found the railway station, even though we had a clear map to follow. Secondly, who wants to drag cases all that way – including lots of cobbles. You’re on holiday – it’s just not worth it. Get your hotel to book you a taxi. It’s a ten minute drive, and you won’t regret a cent.

Juliet's tombWalking back into town the first place on my list was Juliet’s Tomb. What an odd experience this is! First of all, Juliet is a fictitious character. Some bright spark in the 1930s thought they would create a tomb for her, purely to satisfy the needs of tourists – he didn’t mention anything about the needs of his own bank balance. So her tomb is in fact an empty sarcophagus in the crypt of San Francesco al Corso, which presumably at some earlier time housed the remains of some other unfortunate late person. It’s atmospherically quite creepy though; and the church itself has been converted to a museum with frescos and other art works, which are well worth a look. The guards here are keen as mustard to make sure you aren’t doing anything untoward with their exhibits; but they are chatty and informative, and above all happy to see you finding it interesting.

San Fermo Maggiore insideStrolling past the old city walls at via Pallone and some amusing frescos in via Dietro Pallone, we found ourselves once again at the Church of San Fermo Maggiore. It’s a fascinating place, and well worth paying the entrance fee, as it’s essentially two churches in one – a lower church begun in 1065 by Benedictine monks and an upper church restored sometime in the 14th century. The lower church feels very crypt-like, and Lady D found it a bit spooky. It has a huge ship’s keel ceiling though. Nice frescos and some good solid hinges on the big wooden doors – always a satisfying sight.

Inside the ArenaRetracing our steps from the previous evening, we walked round to the Arena, resisting the temptation to pose for a photograph with an out of work actor dressed as a gladiator. Apparently, it’s the third largest Roman amphitheatre in the world, after the Colosseum in Rome and that at Santa Maria Capua Vetere near Naples. Of course, this is where the opera is famously performed, but there was none on whilst we were there. It was fun just to explore the place – hopping around seats and rows, in and out of entrances and exits, playing Christians and Lions and largely ignoring the roped off no-entry areas where some guys were doing some building work – well, we didn’t get in their way and it was perfectly safe. You get some impressive views from the topmost back row all over the city. It gave you a rewarding feeling of being at one with history. Well worth the visit.

Ponte ScaligeroAnother nice lunch in the Piazza Bra, this time at La Costa, with a great view and friendly service; perfect in the spring sunshine. We crossed the River Adige by Ponte Vittoria and took a quiet charming walk along the river bank, past the Ponte Scaligero – a medieval bridge that got blown up during World War Two and was rebuilt from masonry rescued from the river – along to Ponte Risorgimento and our first view of the tower of San Zeno Maggiore.

San Zeno Maggiore - insideSan Zeno Maggiore has to count as one of the world’s gmost spectacular churches. Built in the early 12th century, it boasts a fantastic ship’s keel ceiling, a dark and mysterious crypt, fabulous bronze door panels, colourful old frescos – it has it all. San Zeno is Verona’s patron saint; Lady Duncansby was so taken with the place that she has adopted San Zeno as her own personal saint. It’s a wonderful place just to lose yourself for half an hour.

CastelvecchioFrom there we wandered past the Castelvecchio, which looks like a grand old building, but decided not to investigate their art collection as we wouldn’t have enough time to give it the attention it no doubt deserves. Instead we carried on back past the Piazza Erbe and on to the Duomo. It’s another magnificent building, with beautiful art and architecture, and stunning ceilings.

DuomoFrom the river by the Duomo you can look across the water and see more churches and the Roman Theatre. There’s an art to a happy day’s sightseeing – don’t get too exhausted. We would have liked to carry on, but the effect of all this magnificent church art is that you get satiated. I don’t think we could have crammed in another sight. Instead we drifted back to the Piazza Erbe and had a really nice drink and snack at the café that seems to attract the most locals – Greppia RestaurantI can’t remember its name but it’s the one that’s at the farthest north-east corner of the square. Then it was back for a rest and out again for dinner. Using the Trip Advisor app on the iPhone (brilliant!) we discovered Greppia. What a fantastic restaurant. The food and drink was excellent – the ambience buzzy and sophisticated, and the service friendly and efficient. Regular readers will know that Mrs C is a coeliac and they knew precisely what to recommend at this restaurant and it was all delicious. I had the Calf’s Liver, Mrs C the Tagliata beef with rocket salad and Lady D the pumpkin risotto. It was a super little find.

A day is certainly not long enough to do Verona justice – but we did our best! Sophisticated and friendly – which don’t always go together – we loved it. The next day we would be taking the train to Padua.

Review – Abigail’s Party, Menier Chocolate Factory, Southwark, London, 7th April 2012

Abigail's PartyIt’s a really big risk to take such a well known play that is so associated with one particular star performance in one particular star production and to revive it with a brand new cast. The big question is, will you be constantly comparing it with Alison Steadman, Janine Duvitski and the rest, or does the new cast stand on its own two feet and make its own mark? Without question the answer is the latter. This is a superb revival of this wonderful Mike Leigh play from the 1970s, and the cast absolutely make it their own.

The set is brilliant. Even before the play starts, there are so many wonderful little details to take in. The plastic lampshades from Woolworths; the Radio Times; the trimphone (very trendy!); the fibre optic lamp (colours a bit on the subtle side perhaps); the Spanish lady doll and traditional (on the Costa Brava at least) wine pourer; I could go on. Fantastic work by the props department – when did you last see a tub of Blue Band margarine? Superb attention to detail.

Andy NymanDespite the progress of the years, the play remains very relevant today. If Laurence despaired at Beverley’s low-brow tastes in art and music, heaven knows what he would have made of today’s X-Factor generation. Laurence remains a lone voice fighting, in his fatally inept way, for recognition of artistic endeavour in a sea of dumbing-down. Andy Nyman’s Laurence is a very angry man. The pressures of work and living with Beverley have really taken their toll on him and he finds it toe-curlingly difficult to keep his feelings in, even when he has company round for drinks. It’s a superb performance. He brings out the full crassness of Laurence’s desperate closed-questioning line of conversation: “Sue, do you like art?”, “Do you like Paris?”; “Have you read any Dickens?” One of the things that makes the play so brilliant is the fact that the character with whom one ought to have the most sympathy is more or less just as grotesque as the others.

Joe AbsolomOne part of the story that is really emphasised in this production is the mystery of what happens when Laurence and Tony go over to Sue’s house to check on the party. My memory of the original production is that in the second act Laurence and Tony exchange quizzical looks at each other as to what each of them did while they were there. In this production this has escalated to outright animosity between the two, especially from Laurence. It really spikes up the story no end and adds a level of subtlety and mystery. Joe Absolom makes a great Tony. This must be a very hard role to play as so many of Tony’s lines consist of sullen, largely monosyllabic replies – you don’t feel that the script gives you a lot of clues as to his character – but Mr Absolom was totally believable in this part – despite very nearly corpsing at the huge laugh that came when Angela said to Beverley, “well we’re alike aren’t we”.

Natalie CaseyWhich brings us to Natalie Casey’s brilliant reinvention of the role of Angela. Janine Duvitski’s interpretation concentrated on her dowdy and downtrodden nature, but Ms Casey is a much more upbeat Angela – even though she still delivers the text in that marvellous deadpan tone. I feel this Angela really knows her own mind and she’s nobody’s fool – when Beverley and Tony are dancing smooch to smooch, Ms Casey, rather than just accepting it, expresses her resentment with a change of tone and some simple but wonderful comic business. But her whole performance is a comic delight, a truly delicate balance of the grotesque and the ridiculous, infused through with a kind compassion.

Susannah HarkerCompassion, but without subtlety or tact, as her wonderfully intrusive questioning about Susan’s ex-husband shows. Another wonderful performance, Susannah Harker’s Susan is not as pompous or remote as previous interpretations; she is very uncomfortable but beautifully polite, with a splendidly breathy way of saying thank you. Her distaste for some of the activity around her is perfectly realised by being delightfully underplayed, and her comic timing is superb.

Jill HalfpennyAnd of course there’s Beverley, one of the best comic roles written for a woman in the 20th century. I always thought Alison Steadman was the absolute incarnation of Beverley and that no one else would be able to match it. Wrong. Jill Halfpenny is brilliant. Very wisely, she is not doing an Alison Steadman impersonation, but fills the character really convincingly in her own way.

Where I always thought Alison Steadman’s Beverley was sexy primarily in her own mind, Jill Halfpenny’s Beverley is full-on-sexy. There’s a lengthy scene where she is sitting provocatively in an armchair, fondling her cigarette as though it were a sex toy, whilst directly opposite her Tony is silently spellbound, subtly adjusting his position for comfort, whilst the others carry on talking oblivious to the growing attraction. In a different scene, when she is quizzing Angela about what Tony is like, she gets really turned on by the possibility he might be violent. Uncomfortable but very believable, Jill Halfpenny’s central performance is just great; totally credible, never over the top in the grotesque department, not too obviously “Essex” in her approach, and above all, very very funny.

The tragedy that ends the play comes to bring everything back down to earth and to reverse the roles – with the dominant Beverley railing pathetically, the struggling Laurence put to rest and the underdog Angela taking control. Even this final scene was given a hilarious comic twist played beautifully by Ms Casey and Mr Absolom.

An absolutely first rate production, one of the best things the Menier has produced for a long time, and it would be a crime if it didn’t transfer.