Review – The Most Incredible Thing, Pet Shop Boys and Javier de Frutos, Sadler’s Wells, 6th April 2012

The Most Incredible ThingWhen Mrs Chrisparkle and I first heard that there was to be a new ballet, with music by the Pet Shop Boys and choreography by Javier de Frutos, we thought “winner!” Regrettably we weren’t able to see it on its first outing at Sadler’s Wells last year. But when I saw it was coming back for a second season, I jumped at the chance to book.

Although I knew the music was to be freshly composed by the PSBs, it did get us thinking about how great a new piece you could make by concocting a dance around some of their greatest hits, as in Christopher Bruce’s Rolling Stones inspired Rooster. You can just imagine it – London – Shopping – Rent – It’s A Sin – What Have I Done To Deserve This – Heart – It Couldn’t Happen Here. Make up your own dance story with any seven or eight PSB songs of your own choice. I would like to see that happen for real.

Anyway, I digress. That – or anything like it – was not the show on offer at Sadler’s Wells last week. Let’s start with the good points. The first – and very significant – good point is that the freshly composed music by the Pet Shop Boys is excellent. From the moment it starts, it engages you in very exciting and wide-ranging musical styles. There’s electronic, pop, classical – you can even hear borrowings from Elgar. It’s music that makes you smile; it’s music that makes you want to get up and dance. (Not recommended in the stalls.)

Secondly, it benefits from high production values. It’s a great set, including a splendid backdrop evoking houses and flats extending way into the distance, and it constantly creates new areas suggesting workplaces, the palace, the TV studio, and so on. The lighting is lively and appealing, and you can see everything properly; the sound is clear, at a perfect volume, and, for those elements performed live, played faultlessly.

Aaron SillisThirdly, the execution of the dance is terrific. I would hesitate to say there was a stand-out performance as the whole cast come across as a very well balanced ensemble – but perhaps Aaron Sillis’ dance skills are particularly strong in his role as the inventor Leo.

However, I have to bring this down to earth. I’m sorry to say that both Mrs C and I found it excruciatingly dull. I confess that I didn’t realise it was an adaptation of a Hans Christian Andersen tale until a couple of days after we’d seen it, and I now accept that it’s a reasonably good reworking of the tale for a modern era; but that doesn’t prevent it from being a very silly story. I’m guessing that the aim behind the creative team was to make something enchanting, something that would tap into one’s inner child, and something that would make the story’s moral (whatever it actually is) come alive with a warm glow and a feelgood outcome. It didn’t do it for us though.

The choreography is repetitive and fails to make the story clear. If it weren’t for the synopsis in the programme I don’t think I would have followed half of what was going on. Basically, the king offers the hand of his daughter to the person who invents the most incredible thing. Leo invents an amazing clock, which wins him the contest. But the clock gets destroyed by his evil rival Karl, and it is agreed that to destroy the most incredible thing is in itself “the most incredible thing”. In Andersen’s tale, the magical characters who populate the clock come back and kill Karl, which becomes in turn even more of an incredible thing, so Leo gets the Princess. I guess that might have been OK for the 1870s but today the story is shot through with holes. For example, destroying the most incredible thing is not an invention, and the programme says it would be an invention that would win the contest. The King is all-powerful – after all, he can offer his daughter’s hand willy-nilly to whoever wins the contest – but nevertheless Karl’s few henchmen – not that scary really – prevent him from taking the Princess away by means of a tiny tussle at the edge of the stage. How likely is that?

What ought to be highlights in the story are disappointing lows. The televised contest to judge the most incredible thing has an amusing trio of video judges, whose reactions actually take your eyes off the staging of the individual attempts to win. These attempts are staged, for some reason, as silhouettes behind a screen, which has the effect of stylising them and making them remote. I can’t imagine the TV audience and indeed the judges would be impressed with that as a show; and what I think could have been an opportunity for some lavish and comic choreography was lost.

However, the big dull point is the revelation of Leo’s clock. Each of the twelve hours is acted/danced out by the characters that make up the clock – Adam, Adam and Eve, Sun Moon and Stars, Four Seasons, Five Senses, and so on. There’s no real way out of this as this is at the heart of Andersen’s original tale. Boy does it go on, though. It was about this time that Mrs C gave up the will to stay awake. You know they’re Adam and Eve, incidentally, because they have the names “Adam” and “Eve” written on their undies. I would have thought fig-leaf costumes would have been more appropriate. If you don’t mind, I really don’t want to recollect the enactments of the remaining clock numbers as life is too short. At the end of this sequence a screen bombards us with about 300 names of writers, artists and the like – for no apparent reason – but which the programme says the creative team hope we will spend the interval discussing whether or not we agree with their list of them being incredible people. No. When your strength is sapped by a dull sequence of dances all about a clock, being bombarded with names is just a violent attack on the eyes of the poor audience. Discussing them is the last thing on your mind.

Ivan Putrov Ivan Putrov makes a good Karl, looking a little like a young Wayne Sleep, but I felt he was restricted by the uninspiring, robotic choreography he was given. Clemmie Sveass’ Princess looked great and gave us flashes of what could have been a much better ballet on the few occasions when she was allowed to do some proper dancing. There’s a nice (regrettably brief) early scene where she is dancing to pop music in her bedroom, and she also has a good scene with Leo where she convinces the King to allow him to compete for her hand. As Leo, Aaron Sillas spends nearly all the show looking like a needy geek rather than the “dreamer” that the programme would have you believe he is. His dancing is fantastic, but a performer of his versatility must feel so repressed having to wear that one facial expression – startled rabbit – throughout the production.

Clemmie SveassSo what does this show tell us of the human condition? Absolutely nothing. It’s a bundle of very pretty packaging but with nothing inside. Actually, Mrs C found its saccharine sweetness thoroughly nauseating. To be fair, there was a reasonably amount of (the now statutory) whooping and cheering at the final curtain call – although the interval applause was desultory. So, as you can tell, we pretty much hated it. I have no doubt this will continue to have a life after this production – I predict the big names headlining the creative team will ensure it does good box office if it tours. If you see it, I really hope you enjoy it, like we have enjoyed other pieces by Mr de Frutos. We won’t be seeing it again.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground, Derngate, Northampton, 16th March 2012

Dan EvansGreat to see yet another very full house for the regular Screaming Blue Murder comedy club last Friday. Our compere was Dan Evans, on excellent form again, and getting us well warmed up with his interaction with the front rows. We were quite a lively bunch last Friday, so there was plenty of material for him to juggle with. I’m enjoying the way Dan now introduces new material with a crestfallen sigh as if to pave the way for its unsuccessful response – it’s becoming a very funny new theme for his compering!

Paul Pirie Our first act was Paul Pirie. When I was getting the pre-show drinkies in, Paul Pirie was also at the bar, ordering a couple of drinks in a softly spoken and self-effacing manner. What a nice, unassuming and polite person he seemed, I thought. How different from his act! Aggressive and vulgar, the vast majority of his material seemed to concentrate on the more unpleasant bodily fluids and emissions, joking about people with disabilities, and doing to death each scenario he described with repeated sound effects. If he made a screaming noise to accompany, say, a stabbing action, he would do it about eight times, until he, and I, were exhausted with it. Additionally there was something wrong with his microphone, which meant that his voice was piercing and grating and went right through my brain. I spent his entire act with my right forefinger pressed on my eardrum. This act and I didn’t mix. However, in the interest of fairness, I have to say that the majority of the younger people in the audience found him hilarious.

Sunna JarmanAlas, the same could not be said for our second act, Sunna Jarman. She started very promisingly but for some reason could not quite hit her stride. I think she needs to strengthen her comic persona; she has some – very funny – lines that equate to her being a bit of a posh bird, and I think if she created some more snobbish material she could be much funnier. Even with her act going a bit wobbly, I still found her more entertaining than Paul Pirie. However, about seven minutes into her act, she was saying something detrimental about Katie Price (personally I have no problem with that), when she received a devastating heckle to the effect that at least Katie Price tells better jokes. Unfortunately, I don’t think she heard what the heckler said properly, so she ignored it; but the audience all heard it and basically agreed with it – and thus she was lost from then on. I’m pretty sure she cut and ran shortly afterwards.

Steve DayFortunately in came the cavalry to rescue the evening in the form of our final act, Steve Day. We’ve seen him here before a couple of years ago, and he is fantastically entertaining. He is deaf, and most of his material is based on being a deaf person in a hearing world, but it’s never sentimental or self-pitying, preachy or defensive. Some very insightful comedy about discrimination within disabilities, plus also some generally offbeat observations about families – and windfarms. So many great lines, I won’t spoil them by repeating them; but he is a superb comic as his massive reception at the end testified and you must catch him if you possibly can.

Review – Long Day’s Journey Into Night, Milton Keynes Theatre, 15th March 2012

Long Day's Journey Into NightYou can’t keep a good writer down, and I’m delighted to see this revival of Long Day’s Journey Into Night doing a brief tour before taking up residence at the Apollo in the West End. I’ve always been a big fan of Eugene O’Neill, ever since I saw the TV adaptation of Long Day’s Journey Into Night in the 1970s with Laurence Olivier. (Olivier played Tyrone – he wasn’t sitting next to me in the living room.) Inspired by this play, at the age of 16 I read every single one of O’Neill’s works I could lay my hands on. Centuries later, I have achieved this ambition to see LDJIN live on stage. Any producers reading, by the way, please, I’d also like to see a production of Mourning Becomes Electra. I’m telling you all this because I want to emphasise that I had really high hopes of this production; maybe too high.

The set looks fantastic. In fact, Mrs Chrisparkle was verbalising her astonishment at it before she’d even spotted which row we were sitting in. Wonderful off stage glimpses of further rooms are offered, like the dining room and the hall. Classy wooden panelling abounds. However, given that the script is full of criticisms of the house – Mary says it was never a home, and Tyrone is constantly criticised for his stinginess, I felt in retrospect that maybe it ought to have looked a little shabbier.

The play has many autobiographical elements and was clearly inspired by O’Neill’s relationship with his father. It’s stamped with O’Neill hallmarks all over it – observing the Greek unities of time, place and theme thereby lending it an air of Greek tragedy; featuring a character whose life is changed by time spent at sea; and dwelling on ill-health and reliance on drink and drugs.

Laurie MetcalfWithout question the evening belongs to Laurie Metcalf as Mary. If the day is a journey – and the title of the play suggests it is – then hers is the longest. From the moment she walks on the stage you know this is a woman who is trying hard, but not coping. The language of the play pussyfoots around what might be wrong, but it’s a good guessing-game for half an hour or more. Laurie Metcalf is spellbinding with her flashes of nonsensical illogical reactions, which you put down to her being a worrying mother – which she is (as well), all papered over with a respectable air of Connecticut failure. O’Neill gives the character of Mary wonderfully self-contradicting things to say which Miss Metcalf carries off so believably. It’s an amazing performance. Occasionally she talks over other members of the family in a way that only a mother would, trying to hang on to a maternal role with which she is comfortable, still opening huge gashes of vulnerability as she journeys through this dreadful day. She is astoundingly good.

David SuchetHer Tyrone is played by David Suchet. I have vague recollections of Olivier’s Tyrone – my memory is that he played it almost schizophrenically, as a man who could be both a source of pure childish joy and a total monster. Mr Suchet plays Tyrone as a less extreme man, and I think that is truer to O’Neill’s vision. You get the sense that his kindness, when he shows it, is slightly reserved, and that his fury, when aroused, could have even more bite than it does. Two aspects of O’Neill’s description of Tyrone that I don’t think Mr Suchet quite achieves are the fact that he is meant to be unmistakably an actor, by word, tone and bearing; personally I thought he could have been retired from any number of jobs. He should also have an underlying sense of stolid Irish peasant. I sensed more refinement than peasant. Nevertheless, it’s a very good performance and his emotional pendulum for all his family members swings back and forth very credibly.

Trevor WhiteThe two sons are played extremely well. Jamie is played by Trevor White, very accurately portraying the underachieving disappointments of life, declining into an alcoholic stupor as the night wears on, showing a surprising delicacy of feeling for a whore named Fat Violet, whilst willing his own brother to fail. Mr White should take it as a compliment that he captured just the right level of degeneracy for this part.

Kyle SollerEdmund, the O’Neill character, is played by Kyle Soller. I have to admit that we weren’t really fans when we saw him in The Talented Mr Ripley or The Government Inspector, but I think he is much more suited to roles where he isn’t required to show off. This time he nails the role perfectly. His anxieties, administered with alcohol, are very convincing and realistic – neither manic, nor blasé; and his willingness to fit in with what his big brother wants, combined with his stomping off upstairs like a teenager were all very accurate. The two occasions he is called upon to punch Jamie are very deftly done too. The cast is completed by Rosie Sansom as Cathleen, the “second girl”, who turns in a nice study of a respectable girl who looks after herself pretty well – a touch of the blarney without going over the top.

Rosie SansomBut it’s the structure of the evening that doesn’t work. O’Neill has structured this play perfectly; four acts at different stages of the day – breakfast, lunchtime, teatime and night-time. However, they have chosen to make the interval fall between acts three and four, which I think is a big mistake. Act Two is the natural breakpoint. It’s almost half-way through the play; it ends with the men going off on their various errands, including Edmund finding out whether he has tuberculosis or not, and with Mary’s brief soliloquy that makes you really worried as to how she is going to turn out later on. These are all good moments on which to hang the break. Act Three naturally resolves the plot cliff-hangers, so ideally would come afterwards, and is also the scene were Mary’s deterioration becomes more and more apparent. The mood of Act Four is very different because it doesn’t progress the plot as such in the same way; it’s all about character revelation instead. So, with the current structure, when you get back from your interval Pinot Grigio, it’s almost as though you’ve joined a different play. Added to which, Mary doesn’t reappear until the very end of the play; and you really miss her, as she is the best thing about the whole thing.

Been a long time since a book cost 95pSo nostalgia let me down slightly, as it sadly often does. I still think it’s a very strong play, superbly written – quite possibly one of the finest plays of the 20th century – and this production features some excellent acting and an award-winning performance from Ms Metcalf. But the final act doesn’t punch you in the guts in the way it ought. Somehow the accumulated tensions before the interval just sap away. Mrs C thought it was a good idea that they are doing the pre-West End tour so as to get it absolutely right. I asked her what they needed to concentrate on. “Maintaining accents” was her sharp rebuke – always a pet hate of hers. True, there was also a little bumping into furniture and knocking over water, and the sound effect of Mary walking around upstairs was frankly ludicrous. But these things can come right I’m sure. But if they continue to divide the play after Act Three, everyone’s going to have to up their game for that last scene. A final plea: it’s a three-hour Eugene O’Neill drama. Would it be too much to ask for a twenty minute interval, not just fifteen?

Andrew Marr on the Media and the Monarchy, St Peter’s College, Oxford, 7th March 2012

St Peter's College OxfordOne day when there isn’t much happening, I’ll tell you about my time as a student. Inter alia, it involved (admittedly on different occasions)Princess Margaret, President Nixon, Salome’s Dance of the Seven Veils, and a promising young actor laddie known as little Hughie Grant. Maybe later.

St Peter's Freshmen 1978One of the perks of being an alumnus of somewhere rather prestigious, is that when you get invited back, it’s for rather entertaining events. So Mrs Chrisparkle and I were pleased to go and see a talk by Andrew Marr on The Media and The Monarchy in the College Chapel yesterday.

Mark DamazerHe was introduced by the Master, Mark Damazer, who took over the post in 2010 and has been succesfully dynamic in turning around the fortunes and profile of the college. I met him last year; a very nice chap with slightly scary undertones of massive intellect.

Andrew MarrAndrew Marr has just completed extensive work in the company of the Royal Family for his recently broadcast television series about the Queen in her Diamond Jubilee year; so he has had unrivalled opportunities to observe and assess their contribution to the country. His insights were indeed fascinating. He is very impressed with how hard the Queen and Duke of Edinburgh work – he said the rows of people simply waiting to shake hands could sometimes be extraordinarily long – and he emphasised how some of this work must surely be extremely boring, which is something I had never considered. He feels a number of Prince Philip’s alleged gaffes are simply “look at me!” moments to alleviate the dullness. He is also very impressed with Princess Anne’s wit and wisdom; he feels she is a sensible person who knows Where It’s At. In response to a question, he suggested that when Prince Charles is king he will find it very difficult – but will have no alternative – to keep his mouth shut when on official meetings with leaders of whom he disapproves. Being nice to the Chinese, whilst being a firm supporter of a free Tibet, was one example.

St Peter's College ChapelBut to go back to the beginning of his talk, Andrew Marr started with a snapshot of the year 1997. It was not only the year Princess Diana died, it was also the start of the Blair era. It struck me that to any first year students attending, 1997 must seem like the dark ages – or at least the stuff of childhood. Strange how I remember it so well. Back in 1997, Andy (as his friends call him) pointed out that the circulation of newspapers was massive and that today, by comparison, it has dropped by approximately 40%. Apparently only the Sun and the Mail have held their own; all other papers have plummeted. In those days he was the editor of The Independent. His observations about newspaper proprietors were very revealing; he said to own a newspaper you need a massive amount of money which you are basically prepared to lose. If you own a newspaper you do it for a different reason other than merely seeking profit. He asked one of the then owners of The Independent, Tony O’Reilly, why he did it – and he said it was because it was simply nice to be able to go through the door of 10 Downing Street and be accepted there.

St Peter's ChapelOne of Andrew Marr’s main concerns for the future of journalism is his belief that you have to have professional journalists, who are paid a good wage and who can guarantee a degree of assurance that research has properly taken place and the truth has been fairly arrived at. With the falling numbers of newspapers actually being sold, and some online news sources not reaching sufficient numbers of readers (the Times paywall is a considerable barrier, no surprise), how is the profession going to maintain itself?

SPC PlaqueMr Marr also talked about Leveson, and what he thinks its impact will be – which is actually that the current shame being felt by the newspaper world will probably be as low as it gets. He doesn’t think that Rupert Murdoch is the worst thing that’s ever happened to British newspapers; but he did have some revealing information about the recent launch of the Sun on Sunday. Mockups and pilot issues had been created, as the paper started to take shape, but the editors were far from convinced that the definitive format had been created. At a meeting one Sunday, Rupert Murdoch asked the team how the preparations were going. Good, they replied, we are getting there. Excellent, said RM, I want it launched next Sunday. Sharp intakes of breath all round. Erm, are you sure, they nervously proffered. Yes, next Sunday, have it done, was his reply. Given the short time they had to bring out the first edition, Andrew Marr thought it was a remarkably professional achievement.

Mr Marr’s talk was peppered with a number of humorous observations; here are two that I find most memorable. He obviously finished his degree the same year as me, as he said it was a time when there were simply no jobs around – 1981. Actually, the old joke was, “What do you say to an Arts Graduate with a job? I’ll have a Big Mac, please”. I think things may have come full circle. Anyway, I digress. Mr Marr was on his was to Edinburgh for an interview to work on The Scotsman newspaper. He got on the sleeper train at Kings Cross and, on entering the cubicle where he was to have bottom bunk for the night, was met by the top bunk occupant, a Scottish gentleman, brandishing 24 cans of super strength lager and three packets of cigarettes, who said something along the lines of “I hope you’re not a soft southern poof who won’t share a few bevies tonight”. By the time Mr Marr arrived in Edinburgh he was rancid with drink, choked with cigarettes and a blotchy mess. He knew he’d blown his chance of a decent job. However, on arrival at the Scotsman offices he was met by a newsroom full of similarly blotchy, drunken, smoky journos and he knew he had fallen on his feet.

John PrescottAnother nice tale was of his waiting inside a Brighton hotel during conference season, presumably ready to do some reporting, when along bustles John Prescott, a swarm of assistants behind him with folders, files and cases. On seeing Andrew Marr, Prescott firmly marches up to him, stabs him with his pointy finger and says “You bastard! You f***ing bastard! I’ll f***ing get you!” and then he marches off, leaving Mr Marr perplexed and wondering what on earth he’d done to deserve it. About a minute later Prescott returns and says “sorry mate, wrong person” and then walks off again.

All in all a very interesting and enjoyable talk and question and answer session, which was full of fascinating snippets of information and personal anecdotes. Thanks to St Peter’s for the invitation, and for continuing to share the college activities with the alumni.

The Real Chrisparkle meets Adam Blake!

The Dead Sea DeceptionIn the second of a series of occasional interviews, I have recently had the pleasure to interview British thriller writer Adam Blake about his work, his inspirations and his ambitions. I hope you enjoy our chat!



RealChrisSparkle: It gives me great pleasure to welcome the readers of the Realchrisparkle blog to the writer Adam Blake! Hello Adam, and thanks very much for agreeing to the interview. You hit the bookshelves a few months ago with your first book, “The Dead Sea Deception”. Would you like to tell us a bit of what it’s all about?

Adam Blake: Sure – and thanks for having me, Mr. C. The Dead Sea Deception is a conspiracy thriller with a Biblical flavour to it. It ties together a number of different plot threads – one concerning a crashed plane in the US, another about a murdered historian in London, and the third about a man whose entire family just vanishes into thin air one day. Ultimately, there’s a single mystery that relates all these things to one another, and it’s a mystery that dates back to the early days of the Christian church.

RCS: As you say there are multiple threads there. Did you have to do a lot of research for this book?

AB: I did, yeah. One element that’s very prominent in the book is the possible existence of a lost gospel – and the actual gospel of Judas, the Codex Tchakos, is hugely relevant to that. So I read a lot of the scholarship that’s been written about the codex since the National Geographic team translated it, and I read a lot about the early Christian churches. I was especially interested in the Gnostic faiths, and their treatment within the official church hierarchy. There was also a lot of research that related to setting. I wanted all the settings to feel real, and there were some I’d never visited or visited only briefly. And then there was a certain amount of research relating to the logistics of some of the action scenes.

RCS: So this book must have taken you a long time in the planning, I guess. Did you enjoy all that research, or did you occasionally wish you had decided to write about something simpler?!

AB: It was a complete departure from everything I’d written up to that point, so it was actually very exciting and rewarding. I had no idea if I could make a story like that articulate properly – if I could make it work. It was good to find out that I could. In general, I’m terrified of being one of these guys who writes the same book over and over. Doing stuff that takes you out of your comfort zone keeps you fresh.

RCS: It felt very fresh to me! You’ve got a very exciting writing style and there are lots of cliffhangers and surprise twists in this book, which I really enjoyed. Do you meticulously plan ahead how you are going to write it, or do you sit and wait for the story to take you in an unexpected direction?

AB: Thanks! It’s very much a combination of the two. The broad structure has to be planned, and some of the detail is very tightly embedded in that structure. So I work out a chapter-by-chapter plan which is fairly rigorous. But there are always things that just happen because they happen – because as you’re writing, a cool idea will pop up in your head and you follow it to see where it leads. So the scene at Dovecote Farm, for example, where two of the characters are trapped on the roof of a burning building, was down in the original plan in a much simpler form. But when I got there, I wanted to do something big and cataclysmic, which would lead to an irrevocable choice for my male lead, Tillman. The plan is a starting point, in other words, not really a full blueprint. But it has to be there. It gives you the liberty to follow your nose when you need to.

RCS: Have you ever tried to depart completely from the plan? Does it result in an almighty mess, lots of cutting and pasting and an eventual massive “delete”? Or can you rewrite the plan? Or is that cheating?!

AB: Oh, I’ve been known to leave the reservation. I did that with the second Adam Blake thriller, which I only just finished. There’s a character in that, Diema Beit Evrom, who just got more and more under my skin as I wrote. She’s barely present in the first book, but in the second she ends up stealing the spotlight to a very large extent, and her arc became more and more central to how I saw the book working. So the structure of the book changed to accommodate her. And yes, that DID mean that it took a lot longer to write than I’d expected. I made a lot of big changes.

RCS: Excellent, so you will be having a new book out! What’s it called, when’s it out and can you give us a taster of what it’s about?

CromwellAB: I can’t give you a title yet – we’re still discussing it. It’s out in August, and it’s a direct sequel to The Dead Sea Deception, taking place about three years later. Trying to avoid spoilers, one of the characters from DSD is called in to consult after an apparent break-in at the British Museum. Someone has broken into a storeroom, but doesn’t seem to have stolen or even touched anything there. And there’s a knife on the floor of the room with fresh blood on it, but no sign of a body and no clue as to who was wounded. Investigating the crime brings together some of the people and plot threads from the first book, and leads to a shocking revelation about a seventeenth century text – a book of prophesies written by a minor religious dissident in Cromwell’s England.

RCS: Wow, sounds great. No please don’t spoil the story for us! I can see from what you say how there might be joint themes with the first book, perhaps a similar structure, but maybe this new book has more whodunit elements? Or am I barking up the wrong tree?

AB: No, you’re right. It’s written very much as a mystery, which then opens out into… well, something else again. It gets bigger in scope as it goes along, and in terms of themes, it’s kind of about family, and belonging, and what you will and won’t do in the name of your tribe, your collective, the group of people who give you your context in the world.

RCS: That sounds like it will be a very rewarding read. Where do you get the inspiration for your books? Do you have a particular interest in historical religious writings?

AB: Yes and no, I guess. I think if you’re going to make it as a writer you have to be interested in everything. Anything you read, see, hear about, fall over, can be a starting point for a book. You noodle around with an idea, and maybe it turns into something. The real Judas gospel was the trigger for the first book. For the second, it was reading about Cromwell’s Barebones Parliament and his troubled relationship with fringe religious groups. I have one major asset, which is that my brother is a historian with a vast lumber room of a mind. If I say to him “What about Cromwell and those fringe religious groups, then, eh?” he’ll turn out to know more about the subject than I could learn in a year by just reading about it. He’s kickstarted a lot of my stories, just in the course of idle conversations.

RCS: That’s handy then! So do you think you will continue to write books that take place in the present but somehow link up with a historical event or culture; or might that become your new comfort zone – and will you then want to move on to other subjects?

AB: I think the next thing I write will turn out to be something different. I’ve got a hankering to write a police procedural. But I also write full-on urban fantasy novels under a different name, so at some point I’ll write another one of those. I was reading something recently – I can’t even remember what it was – and one of the characters says “If you’re lucky, every once in a while, what you do to get by will also turn out to be what you do for love.” That’s the high I’m always looking to get.

Chief ConstableRCS: A police procedural sounds fun – I can imagine that your style would really suit it. Would that again entail lots of research or do you have another brother who’s a Chief Constable?!

AB: In my family, a Chief Constable would have a hard time of it! We’re a larcenous bunch. Yeah, I’d be hoping to get some kind of a work shadowing deal into play, like Jon Courtenay Grimwood did for 9Tail Fox. And, as always, hitting the books and the net for juicy stuff that might turn into seed crystals. Apologies for the mixed metaphor there.

RCS: No worries, mixed metaphors are always welcome here! Now I hope this isn’t too algebraic a question, if an editor came to you and said Adam, we want you to write about X and you said great, that would be my dream job, what would X equal?

AB: Oh man, that’s hard. I think I roam around a lot, in terms of subjects and in terms of themes, so I don’t have any one dream job any more. It’s just whatever I’m obsessing on at any given time. I’d love to get an actual feature film out there, but that’s a question of medium rather than material. And I’d love to write a YA book. That’s something I haven’t tried, and I think it would be very different.

RCS: Is that Young Adult? We don’t have any of those in our household so I’m just guessing! Obsessing is an interesting word though – would you describe being obsessive as a major creative force within you, if that isn’t too psychological a question?

AB: Yeah, YA is young adult. And absolutely, I’d describe myself as obsessive. I think it’s true of my whole family, in different ways. I work furiously when I’ve got a deadline, become totally focused on it to the point where nothing else seems to matter. And ever since I quit my day job, which is twelve years ago now, I’ve lived like Tarzan, swinging from one writing commission to the next and never touching ground. If you take the ground in that metaphor as “being destitute and penniless and out on the street”, that will give you some idea of the way my mind works. Insecurity has made me hugely productive.

RCS: What a great way of looking at it! Well I don’t want to make you more insecure and stop you from being productive, so just a couple of other questions if I may – when you’re not slaving over a hot keyboard, do you have any hobbies or pursuits that take away the pain of the working day?

AB: Reading, of course. And I listen to a lot of music – especially in the times when I’m planning rather than writing. My favourite music tends to be indie or folk, or sometimes what Rough Trade Records calls Americana. I recently discovered both Beth Jeans Houghton and Yeasayer, which counted as a very good day. I go to the cinema, and also watch a lot of American TV drama, which seems to be going through a golden age at the moment. And I sometimes go to live music gigs. I’m going to see Anais Mitchell in May, when she comes over with her Young Man in America tour.

RCS: You said earlier that you write urban fantasy novels under a different name, and in fact in my copy of Dead Sea Deception it says: “Adam Blake is a pseudonym for an acclaimed internationally bestselling novelist based in the UK.” So is it true you are really Dan Brown?

AB: That one always floors me! Why would Dan Brown use a pseudonym to write books that are very, very much in the sub-genre that made his name. If I were Dan Brown, I’d hire a couple of guys to carry a huge banner behind me wherever I walked, that said “I AM DAN BROWN!!!” But I’m not, no. I’m some other guy, known for writing in a very different genre. Which is the point of the pseudonym, really. It’s easier to get a sense of who Adam Blake is if this other stuff is rendered magically invisible.

RCS: I’m relieved really, I don’t have to lie to you about how much I enjoyed the Da Vinci Code now. Actually I wikipedia’d you earlier and it gave me a choice of two Adam Blakes. You’re either the alter ego of Captain Comet or a musician with the band Zoot Woman. If it’s neither of those, which would you prefer to be?

Captain CometAB: I’d love to be Captain Comet. I don’t know if I could carry off that bright red spandex costume, but he’s got telepathy, telekinesis and clairvoyance. All I’ve got is an ability to spell sesquipedalian without looking it up in a dictionary. No contest. I know too much about Captain Comet, don’t I? That’s something of a giveaway…

RCS: So if the writing ever dries up, there’s clearly a ready-made alternative career path for you. Finally – in all the interviews you’ve ever done, is there one question that no interviewer has ever asked you, yet inside you’ve been burning to answer it?

AB: Maybe “what does sesquipedalian mean?” No, not really. Every interview’s got its own rhythm and rules. I really enjoyed this one.

RCS: You’re too kind! Well thanks very much for taking the time to come on here and tell us a bit about yourself and your books; best of luck for the next rattling good read in August, and keep on swinging like Tarzan!

AB: Thanks, Mr. C. It was my pleasure. And keep on being the benign scourge of theatreland…

Later edit:
Thanks for reading my interview with “Adam”. Four years later I had another interview with him – this time as he really is as “Mike” – Mike Carey, M. R. Carey, M. J. Carey or however you know him! It was just as his book Fellside hit the shops. If you’d like to read it – here it is!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground, Derngate, Northampton, 2nd March 2012

Dan EvansA proper sell out of all 150 tickets for last Friday’s Screaming Blue Murder, and a super set of comics to enjoy. Dan Evans was back as our host, and is still refreshing us with new material, good man! His lightness of touch with the crowd appears effortless, which, combined with his slightly self-deprecating style, ensures a secure comic thread running throughout the whole show.

Richard MortonOur first act was Richard Morton, whom I’m pretty sure we saw here about three years ago, long before I started to blog these events. You can’t help but love him. He’s completely zany, basing a lot of his material on his guitar and creating hilarious Country and Western songlets about members of the Royal Family or indeed, I expect, any subject you’d care to mention. He’s fast and furious, with a good degree of silliness tempered with genuinely witty material with proper-funny punchlines. He went down a storm. Definitely one to catch.

Tom CraineThe second act was Tom Craine, who has a splendidly upbeat style and keeps his act moving at a very good pace. He’s very likeable and reacts well with the audience; all that’s missing is some better material. He was up against top class competition in this line-up and it did make his stories seem a little underwhelming in comparison. I’m sure it’s within his capability to up his game and then I would have thought he could be really excellent. Mind you, he did describe me as looking like an apple – half man, half Braeburn. That decides it, I’m definitely going on a diet.

Paul Sinha Talking of really excellent, we ended with Paul Sinha, who won the coveted Chrisparkle award for best Screaming Blue Murder comic of 2010. Like Richard Morton, I’m sure we had heard a lot of his set before, but, also like Richard Morton, it’s so good that you really don’t mind. Paul Sinha bases his material on his unique character of being a gay British Asian doctor quiz-king stand-up; from which position there are lots of wickedly funny observations to make. His delivery style is calm and clear, sometimes almost as though it were a lecture; not in a preachy way, but simply letting his carefully chosen words work the comedy magic. At the end of his act, he always makes an “approach” to a member of the audience; all I can say is – Ricardo had it coming. It was squirm inducingly hilarious. The appreciation for Paul Sinha at the end of the evening was about as enthusiastic and sustained as I’ve ever heard at the SBM.

£11.50 for all this. It’s ridiculous really. A great night out.

Review – The King and I, Derngate, Northampton, 9th February 2012

The King and IAhhhh, “The King and I”, one of Mrs Chrisparkle’s favourite films. The very title sums up an era of lavish musicals and escapist exoticism, and makes you go, “Ahhhhh”. Mrs C confessed she normally cries at the end, so I knew I would have to be on tearwatch alert. I don’t think I’ve seen the film – I’ve seen very few really – but the songs were always favourites of me dear old mother, and one of my earliest memories is being allowed to play her 78rpm record of Getting To Know You, then putting it on the floor, kneeling on it and breaking it in two. The perils of shellac.

There’s no doubt that someone has done something right with this touring production, born at the Leicester Curve, as the Derngate was packed on Thursday night and indeed I think the whole week has been more or less a sell-out.

There are lots of good things to say about this show. Primarily, the appreciative audience really loved it and gave it a very enthusiastic reception. I think it’s fair to say that many of them were Of A Certain Generation; some probably remembered the film coming out in 1952, a few were possibly even around in the days it was set in 1862. But they loved it, so if you match the target demographic with the show, it’s a total success, and I’m all for that.

Ramon TikaramMy guess is there’s no one quite like Yul Brynner, and comparisons are always going to be odious, but Ramon Tikaram gives a fine performance as the King. He has a very gutsy voice and sings splendidly. His rather wayward hair impresses with a suitably exotic manner and he does the important aspects of the king – petulance, self-doubt and a growing warmth to his newly acquired member of staff – very convincingly. I liked his subtle throw-away facial expressions when Anna was introduced to his 67 children – very nice. Mrs C used to work with someone who knew his sister Tanita.

Now for my first less-than-complimentary note of the night. Anna is normally played by Josefina Gabrielle, a fine actress, whom we loved in Sweet Charity, and whose casting was the final clincher on whether or not to book the tickets. Always a fatal mistake to book on the strength of an actor, because you never know when they’re off sick and will be played by an understudy – but that’s the rules of theatrical engagement and it’s right to give the understudy all the respect and indeed encouragement they deserve. However, on this tour, Ms Gabrielle has decided she wants one day off a week and, in Northampton, Thursday was decreed to be her duvet day. You can’t tell from the King and I website which shows she’s not doing, but only by going to the individual theatres’ websites to see if they mention it. When I realised we’d booked for her day off, I have to tell you I was pretty miffed. Being sick is one thing; escaping or having a better offer is another. In my mind, it doesn’t say much for her regard for her audience. It makes you feel like you’re not that important to her. So if you are a fan of Ms Gabrielle, check she plans to show up the same night as you. I am going to move on now.

Lori Haley Fox“Alternative Anna” was therefore played by Lori Haley Fox; and she has a beautiful singing voice and absolutely looks the part. I felt she was a cross between Maureen Lipman and Joyce Grenfell, although not particularly Lipman as Grenfell, if you see what I mean. She put Mrs C in mind of Julie Andrews – and I can see the likeness, perfectly clipped syllables and splendid diction. At times I didn’t get a huge sense of emotion from her though. When she sings the song “Shall I tell you what I think of you” when she is venting her spleen with frustration at the way the King behaves, I thought she was a little too polite and reserved. But she did sing “Hello Young Lovers” very touchingly, and her “Shall we dance” with the King, both romping round the stage, was a delight.

Claire-Marie HallContinuing the theme of beautiful singing – and this production is notable for that – I really enjoyed the performance of Claire-Marie Hall as Tup-Tim, the new bride from Burma who is secretly in love with Adrian Li Donni’s Lun Tha. She sings like a dream, and her tragic story makes a really strong subplot. Their love scenes together are very tender and affecting, and really delicately done. I didn’t know how the story was to unfold and was quite upset that it didn’t end happily ever after.

Maya SaponeI wasn’t quite so sure, however, about Maya Sapone’s Lady Thiang. She makes a splendidly authoritarian chief wife, delivers the lines amusingly and effectively and looks the part perfectly; but I wasn’t sure about her singing. It seemed as though she ran out of breath and or saliva during the song “Something Wonderful”, and I found it a strangely uncomfortable performance. Maybe she wasn’t very well.

Matthew RussellThe rest of the cast are all absolutely fine in their roles and a “big up” to thirteen year old Matthew Russell who played the part of Anna’s son Louis at the show we saw – quietly confident, sure-footed, a very good singer, perfect demeanour; all in all a very enjoyable performance.

But I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t highlight a couple of things that really got on my nerves with this show. First – the set. If you read other reviews of this production you will see comments on how magnificent the staging is, how lovely the set, glorious the lighting and so on. Well, it is; but there is a big problem. The show has so many changes of scenery – not only does each of its eleven scenes take place in a new location (obviously) but within those scenes they’ve decided to do things like move the big Buddhas, bring down a light screen and have silhouettes behind, and similar kinds of exotic effects; and in order to achieve this, they have to trundle on massive tall screens that move – rather noisily and distractingly – in front of the set, backwards and forwards, meeting in the middle, moving apart, so that changes can be made to the beautiful set behind. The bizarre consequence of this is that – it seemed to me – an awful lot of the action ended up taking place in front of these screens on a tiny strip of stage, cramping the otherwise expansive nature of the staging. Added to which, the screens themselves are plain and rather ugly. You would guess you were looking at the back of them. I found it really irritating.

Second – and there’s nothing anyone can do about this – the show comes from an era where it was de rigueur to have a “dream ballet sequence”. I blame Oklahoma. In “The King and I”, it comes in the form of a play within a play: Tup-Tim’s version of Uncle Tom’s Cabin – designed to ruffle the feathers of the King in its criticism of slavery. It’s such a shame, because it puts the brakes on what is, up till then, a pacey, funny and rewarding second half. And, boy oh boy, does this sequence go on. It does precious little to move the story forward, and, no matter how well it is performed, how elegant the costumes, how pleasant the music, how skilled the make-up, “etcetera, etcetera and etcetera”, it is so boring. Sorry to have to say it.

To sum up, I think the name of the game here is nostalgia. There’s no doubt this production sent home over a thousand very happy people last night, as I am sure it will every night till the tour ends in May. If you think you are the kind of person who will enjoy this show, I am convinced you will. And why wouldn’t you – great songs, great singing and a huge wallowful of nostalgia. But it didn’t elicit a tear from Mrs C.

Review – Spanish Fiesta, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Derngate, Northampton, 5th February 2012

Spanish FiestaFirst visit by the RPO to the Derngate in 2012 for the much awaited Spanish Fiesta, which includes four crowd-pleasing familiar pieces and a first performance. So it was with great anticipation that we took our seats.

Simon WrightThe conductor this time was Simon Wright, a relaxed, avuncular looking man, who looks as though he enjoys the après-concert to the full. I felt that the first piece, Bizet’s Carmen Suite No 1, could have done with just a tad more attack. Rather reflecting the conductor’s appearance, it luxuriated in the soft and the stately elements of the music, bringing out its tunefulness very well – the Carmen suite is basically a medley of songs from the world’s best musical after all – but I didn’t get the spine shiver I would normally like from Les dragons d’alcala entr’acte music, and perhaps the Séguidille lacked some emotion. All was put right though for the Toreadors tune, which went like the clappers and never fails to bring a smile to the face and an air-baton to the hand.

Then we had Fauré’s Pavane. This beautiful piece was perfectly played and was as comforting as nestling in a high tog duvet with a bowl of whipped cream. It clearly suited Simon Wright’s laid back style. Measured and resonant; simply gorgeous.

Stephen GossThen we came to our première. Stephen Goss’ Guitar Concerto was commissioned by the soloist Graham Roberts. Messrs Goss and Roberts go back a long way and have played together in the Tetra Guitar Quartet for over twenty years, so they should have a pretty good understanding of how to get the best out of each other. The first movement is described as “bold and bright”; let’s take that first. It starts stunningly; and there’s no doubting Mr Roberts’ mastery of the guitar – although I was expecting an acoustic Spanish guitar rather than the mellow electronic guitar sound we got. It’s also a fantastic piece for the percussion who gave it plenty of welly. As the first movement progresses it loses some of that electronic flamenco feel and becomes more lyrical, but possibly not to its advantage. Mrs Chrisparkle thought – perhaps a little unkindly – that there was an element of lift music about it. I must say it put me in mind of a film score; but I guess the point is we both felt it was rather “background” music rather than something that commanded one’s attention.

The second movement is Adagio sostenuto, an homage to Elgar. The programme notes explain that Graham Roberts asked Stephen Goss to come up with a British alternative to the slow movement to Rodrigo’s Guitar Concerto de Aranjuez, and that the result is something very Elgarian in mood. He’s not kidding. As you get into that second movement it screams Nimrod at you. Possibly a little too much for me, as I felt it stopped being an homage and became more like a derivative influence. The kind part of me tells you it was splendidly played and a clever, tuneful doff of the cap to Elgar; and the unkind part of me tells you I would have preferred to have stayed at home with my CD of the Enigma Variations. The truth is somewhere between the two.

The finale, allegro molto, was, we both agreed, the most rewarding of the three movements, with fantastic Cuban rhythms and more wonderful contributions from the percussion. It was full of attack and very tuneful. However, during the interval both Mrs C and I agreed that – just maybe – the concerto would have worked slightly better as a purely symphonic piece. But then, what do we know?

Graham RobertsAfter the interval, Graham Roberts was back to give us his Rodrigo’s Guitar Concerto. Acoustic Spanish guitar this time, perhaps? No, it was a distinctly plugged version. In both his performances Mr Roberts had struggled a bit with the tuning – he actually told us that the dressing room was too cold for the strings to warm up – and whereas I didn’t think that affected his playing of the Goss, I did feel there was some detriment to the Rodrigo, particularly in the third movement where I thought he was distinctly off a couple of times. Additionally, I also felt in the first movement, the orchestra was a little loud for the guitar – or the guitar was too soft for the orchestra. Just a couple of times you couldn’t quite hear where Rodrigo was going with it. But no real worries; it is of course a mellifluously lovely piece of music and it’s really delightful to let it waft over you, transporting you to your own private Spanish heaven; and in that super second movement, Graham Roberts teased some extraordinary delicacies out of those strings.

Top of the bill, so to speak, and because you really can’t play anything after it, we were treated to a performance of Ravel’s Bolero. We saw the RPO perform this here two years ago and it was stunning. Again, it was a superb performance, and particular commendations have to go to the man on the snare drum. He starts the whole thing off and has to keep going right to the bitter end – an extraordinary feat I think. He was great. All the woodwind too, especially the flute and clarinet, were particularly splendid in that performance and made those early moments of the piece really sweet and exotic. When the strings kicked in they were majestic too. It seems a shame to mention the celeste, but unfortunately it squeaked a little painfully alongside the piccolos; not quite sure what went wrong there. But the whole thing built to a magnificent climax and ended as dramatically as you could imagine.

Great to see a really packed house enjoy such an enjoyable programme of music, especially the combination of the familiar with the new. It wasn’t perfect, but it was played by humans, and humans aren’t perfect. Moreover, it was played with huge skill and commitment, and, as ever, we walked home grateful for the privilege of having a theatre like the Derngate with an orchestra like the RPO on our doorstep.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground, Derngate, Northampton, 3rd February 2012

Karen BayleyWith a change to the advertised line-up it turned out that we had actually seen all four of the comics on show at last Friday’s Screaming Blue Murder before. No matter, sometimes watching a repeat can be comfort for the soul. The compere this week was Karen Bayley, who we saw here a couple of years ago. Then, as this time, she very much tailors her act to the women in the audience, sometimes to the slight exclusion of the men; but no doubt there are many male comics who do the same and I just haven’t noticed. She was excellent at interacting with the crowd and also kept things nicely on course when the unruly elements of the audience got even unrulier. Mrs Chrisparkle particularly liked the line about her having tried speed-dating; well, parents/teacher night.

Dave Thompson First act was Dave Thompson. I recognised him, and I have to confess, my heart sank, as I recall his being totally unfunny and failing badly on his last visit to us. To be fair, he was much funnier this time, and I do rather like his performance when he heads into the world of the surreal for his comedy; but unfortunately that isn’t the majority of his act. He still uses a lot of material that simply lacks humour, and does part of his routine based on living in Brighton and having a handlebar moustache, cue for some riotous (not) lines about “not being gay, honest.” I’ve said it before – we may not be over-sophisticated in Northampton but we don’t go for homophobic laughs. Dave Thompson was sacked from his plum job as Tinky Winky. I throw that in for good measure.

Jeremy O’DonnellThen we had Jeremy O’Donnell, who compered here last May. He has great attack and an even greater stripy shirt. Very fast and furious, he sometimes assumes an air of not doing very well at the comedy whereas he actually hits the spot nine times out of ten, which is a pretty good spot hit rate. I’m afraid I can’t quite remember any of his lines, which probably means I was just enjoying it without trying to memorise it – another good sign. He can come back again.

James DowdeswellHeadline act was James Dowdeswell, who headlined here last March. On that occasion, he was Mrs C’s favourite act of the night, and so he proved again this time, even though I don’t think there was a lot of variation from the material he did the previous time. An unusual looking guy, full of confidence, naturally funny, and who puts down the hecklers with an effective and a seriously-no-chance-of-any-conversation “shush”. He paces it perfectly and you never fear he’s going to run out of stuff to say.

Maybe because there was little new to us I can’t say the evening ever really soared, but it’s incredible value for what you get and I would say Karen Bayley’s extended act mixed with her compering was the highlight of the evening. Plenty of people in attendance, which is great for the comedy club as laughter breeds laughter. Next one in two weeks!

Review – Jeremy Hardy, Royal, Northampton, 27th January 2012

Jeremy HardyHere’s another famous name on the comedy circuit with whom Mrs C and I were fairly unfamiliar, apart from occasionally catching on the odd radio programme. I thought he would be dry and wry but I wasn’t sure what else to expect. I wasn’t expecting over two hours of self-assured, intelligent, observant left-wing comedy, which was a constantly refreshing joy.

Mr Hardy appears modest and slightly undynamic in appearance – he’s wearing a top not a cardy, because he says a cardy would make him look like Rigsby out of Rising Damp – but it’s a mask for a razor sharp wit and an agreeable sense of justice which is the root of much of his comic observations. He moves swiftly from subject to subject without politics ever going too far off the horizon. Here’s a good impression of his approach to politics: everyone hates Cameron but at least he’s honest that he’s a bastard, but everyone doubly hates Clegg because he’s a bastard’s bitch; and Cable is the reasonable image of the LibDems because he oppresses the poor in their own accent. Jeremy Hardy shares a disappointment that life isn’t as good as it should be, and points out all the rotten aspects of life where, really, humanity should try harder. His observations really hit the target.

It’s all absolutely effortless though, or at least it seems to be, so you have a very warm and comfy feeling of being gently led past all the dreadful aspects of society by this kind and caring guide, pointing out all the pitfalls that might accidentally lead you into despair were you to go down that path. At the end of this “comedy therapy”, you feel refreshed and hopeful that life might turn better if everyone heeds Mr Hardy’s advice; but also distressed that everyone else doesn’t share the same political beliefs as you and him.

With no supporting act and just a brief interval it is indeed a tour de force. It’s so rewarding to enjoy comedy with a left wing slant that is uncruel, insightful, and above all intelligent.