Breaking our usual rules about only seeing things in Edinburgh that we would not be able to see at home, we’re next off to see Northampton’s own White Cobra Productions’ performance of Another Fine Mess at Space 2 @ The Space on the Mile, 80 High Street, at 19:05 on Thursday 25th. Here’s the blurb: “Laurel and Hardy’s slapstick comedy still makes people laugh nearly 100 years after they made their first film together. Their rib-tickling rendition of The Trail of the Lonesome Pine even got to number 2 in the UK Singles Chart in 1975. Theirs was a partnership – and friendship – that lasted a lifetime. In Another Fine Mess, we meet Stephen and Phil, whose tribute act to the duo includes some of their classic sketches. But as they rehearse in the back room of a pub, a shocking revelation from Phil threatens everything.”
We’ve seen these performers a couple of times now, so I’m looking forward to seeing them again in something new; and this sounds like it should be a lot of fun. Check back around a quarter past eight to see how much we laughed, and by then the preview blog for our next show should be available to read too.
Intriguing little play depicting the real life anguish of three old friends – two of whom form a Laurel and Hardy tribute act – as they come to terms with some bad news… I’ll say no more on the plot front! Richard Jordan and Paul Fowler’s loving interpretation of Laurel and Hardy is delightfully observed with an excellent feel for the relationship between the two and brings back that charming age of vintage comedy. You’ll be singing The Trail of the Lonesome Pine for the rest of the evening! The packed audience gave it a great reception and if you like Laurel and Hardy you’ll love this!
Having discovered White Cobra Productions back in April when we saw their jolly Shakespeare Revue, I was keen to see what other tricks they had up their sleeve. For their current show, September in the Rain, they have left behind the world of song and dance and gone for a traditional two-hander play, written by John Godber. It was first produced back in 1983, and is largely drawn on and inspired by his own grandparents’ lives, and their annual sojourn to Blackpool for their holidays. I usually associate John Godber with more rough and ready settings, like Bouncers or Up ‘n’ Under, so to discover this rather gentle and Alan Bennett-esque play was a very pleasant surprise.
We meet Liz and Jack, an elderly Yorkshire couple, preparing to go on their week’s trip to Blackpool, and, as they reminisce about previous holidays, the play takes us back to their younger days so that we can relive many of their experiences with them. The play becomes an amalgamation of several holidays, which, whilst there are occasional sunny days, mainly reflect several Septembers in the rain (hence the title). We see their fondness for particular guest houses; fish and chip suppers (mainly takeaway, occasionally the treat of an eat-in), dealing with the donkeys on the beach; memories of their children doing daft things; and it’s all interlaced with an elaborate sequence of bickering that acts as a cement to their entire relationship.
This is one of those plays which triggers your mind and memory into recollections of events in your own childhood. We never used to go to Blackpool as a kid (far too Northern for the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s liking) but we would go to Devon, or Bournemouth, or Ramsgate; and, as Liz and Jack encourage their kids to be the first to spot the Blackpool tower from the car, we always had the race to see who could be first to spot the sea. I remember the long walks along the beaches; my dad in a deckchair barely taking off his tie; tickets for the end of the pier show; sharing tables with other holidaymakers (sometimes nice, sometimes tedious); staying up late to watch Match of the Day in the guest house’s TV lounge – televisions in your room were just unheard of! Just as Liz and Jack’s daughter Pam sings at a seaside talent show, I remember being entered for the Butlins Bognor Picture of Health contest, amongst dozens of others equally bored children. I didn’t win. I also remember being forced to wear those ghastly pacamacs that Liz and Jack sport because of the inevitable downpours associated with the English summertime. I quake with embarrassment at the memory of being caught out in the rain on the Isle of Wight one year with no rain hat (shock horror) and the only alternative the Dowager could find for me in the local shops was…. a tea cosy. I spent the afternoon with this ****ing tea cosy on my head in case I caught a cold. I should have phoned Childline.
I don’t think Liz and Jack would have been that cruel to their kids – instead they would have saved their verbal cruelty for each other. I doubt if there would be anyone who’d been on a family holiday as a kid who hadn’t witnessed their parents rip each other to shreds like Liz and Jack do. Because that generation worked really hard, and laboriously, and probably only had one week off a year, the pressure to enjoy themselves on the annual summer holiday was really intense. There’d be months and months of happy expectation, and then it would be all over in a flash. And of course holidays are never that perfect, and travel plans always go amiss somewhere along the line. So while Jack takes a relaxed and practical view of the travel plans, Liz is frantic with packing, traffic, the weather, the destination, and every minutiae in between. Once they reached Blackpool, it would be Jack’s turn to get agitated when things go wrong – the room too small, the waiter too handsome, the donkey too flea-ridden. Hs method of complaining would be virtual fisticuffs, much to the embarrassment of Liz who would far sooner see it out in silence – until she got Jack on her own, that is.
It’s a very funny, charming and nostalgic play, and you feel Kate Billingham and Richard Jordan get right to the heart of their characters. There’s something of the Olivia Colman in Kate Billingham’s portrayal of a woman who normally manages to stay just on the safe side of high anxiety but will erupt when pushed. We both loved how you could see how one little word or action would slowly but inexorably turn her from Seaside Sunshine to Tyrantosaurus Rex. I also really enjoyed her voice and characterisation for their dining companion, all toothily smirking and snaffling the last biscuit. Richard Jordan too was perfect as the taciturn Jack, in his old age rarely needing to add more to a conversation than a considered “aye” or a risky “nay”, grimacing at the world going by, not miserably, just elderly. There were some lovely exchanges between the two – for example, an excruciatingly funny scene in the deckchairs when Liz kept on insisting that Jack took various clothes off to enjoy the sun whilst he was perfectly happy minding his own business fully clad – she would have tried the legendary patience of a saint. There’s another great scene where Liz’s travel anxiety causes a car accident – I’m pretty sure Mrs Chrisparkle recognised something from her own childhood there; a memorable moment where Jack gets his own back at Liz from the top of the Blackpool Tower; and their final scene where they go back into the pub for one last drink is very heart-warming.
It’s all neatly and simply staged, with just a few chairs, props and sound effects to awaken, in the audience’s mind, their own childhood holiday memories, both affectionate and otherwise. The backdrop slides that revealed different aspects of and locations around Blackpool weren’t really necessary as our imagination did all that work for us – although I did like the image of the Ford Popular. A very charming and funny performance of a very moving and endearing play, it’s on at the cosy and intimate Playhouse theatre in Northampton until Saturday 3rd October, and then has some touring dates later in October and November which you can find here. Definitely worth catching!
A Double First for us last night, which is something neither of us can say of our academic careers. Not only was it our first encounter with local drama company White Cobra Productions, it was also our first visit to the charming little Playhouse theatre in Northampton. Tucked away in a quiet corner of The Mounts (or should that be the recently rebranded Boot and Shoe Quarter), this little gem is full of character and atmosphere. Just like nearly every other building in Northampton that has something of a history, it was originally built as a shoe factory in the late 19th century. Since then it’s undergone a number of changes including – allegedly – at one time being a coffin warehouse. Frankly, it’s not the kind of place I’d like to be locked in alone at night.
White Cobra Productions have been going for three years now and The Shakespeare Revue is (I believe) their fourth production. The show is a vivacious assembly of over thirty sketches and songs, originally put together by the RSC for the annual celebrations to mark Shakespeare’s birthday in 1993. Just think, he would have been 429 years old. Not many people get to mark that particular birthday, but being the good egg he was, we just love him, don’t we, us theatregoers, can’t get enough of him. “What a wonderful old chap Shakespeare was, bald but sexy” as Peter Cook once intoned. The sketches and songs themselves date as far back as 1905, and flowed from such gifted pens as those that belonged to Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim, Victoria Wood, J B Priestley, and many many others.
As you might expect from such a varied collection of writers, some sketches and songs hit the funnybone with a bit more pinpoint accuracy than others, but even if a few of them don’t quite do it for you, another will be along in a minute. I had a number of favourites: there’s a quirky version of the Teddy Bear’s Picnic sung by the Capulets; another song, In Shakespeare’s Day, refers to the challenges in staging some of these shows with modern day performers wondering how on earth they managed it in the 1500s. There’s a pomposity-pricking sketch about the ways you might interpret the word “Time”; and a wonderful sequence when a noble wanderer returns to ask “And How is Hamlet” only to find the play’s entire cast have snuffed it.
There were two sketches that I appreciated the most. Richard Jordan took the Julie Walters’ role in Victoria Wood’s sketch Giving Notes, where he is the director taking his cast to task for not giving us their funniest of Hamlets. I remember that sketch so clearly, having re-watched the series Victoria Wood As Seen on TV dozens of times in the 1980s. A masterstroke to have it performed by a man – Mr Jordan treading a fine line between luvvie and tyrant – which gave it its own unique identity. The other really inventive sketch was the superbly written Othello in Earnest, where Othello is grilled by Lady Brabantio as to his suitability for marrying Desdemona – just as Wilde’s Lady Bracknell grills Jack over her dear Gwendolen. This gives rise to some fabulous cross-over puns, for example “to lose both sounds like hairlessness” and “the lion is immaterial”. Kate Billingham was a marvellously haughty Lady B and Fraser Haines a quite modest and genteel Moor of Venice – as superbly unlike your average Othello as is possible to imagine.
Just as each sketch or song has its own charm, each of the six performers brings their own style and character to the show too. They all worked together very well as an ensemble – not getting in each other’s way on such a small stage is no mean feat, particularly with the incorporation of choreography! The cast have a nice sense of the ridiculous, perhaps nowhere seen better than in The English Lesson where Kate Billingham and Kimberley Vaughan take on the roles of Henry V’s intended bride Katharine and her partner in Franglais, Alice. Like all the best pantos, we had a song sheet (which was, literally, a sheet) and a competition to see which section of the auditorium could sing the loudest – an interesting concept in a theatre that seats 84 max. No finer sound than a happy audience knowingly (or unknowingly) singing along to a list of double entendres.
But these are just a few highlights of a very entertaining and upbeat show performed by a talented and likeable cast. It’s only on for a brief run at the Playhouse, but there is an additional performance scheduled for July 4th in Pitsford. Catch it if you can!