It was a couple of weeks into the Strictly Come Dancing season of 2019 that Chris Ramsey announced his forthcoming tour and we thought “he seems a funny chap, let’s risk it”. Two years, and much anxiety, later, his tour is finally underway and he reached Northampton only ten months later than originally planned. Well, they say good things are worth waiting for, don’t they?
In those intervening two years it’s become clear that Chris Ramsey has become a very different comedy commodity now from then. In those days, his and his wife Rosie’s Shagged Married Annoyed podcast was in its infancy, and I’d certainly never heard of it. Today it’s about as big as podcasts get, and we quickly realised that by far the majority of people in the audience were aficionados of the bickering bonhomie that takes place between him and his wife Rosie. As non-listeners to the podcast – to be honest I’m only just coming to terms with the loss of VHF – when any of the material strayed into his podcast material, we felt a little left out of the joke. Just something to be aware of. He and Rosie are conducting a separate tour of the podcast at the same time as he’s doing his own stand-up shows, so I guess it’s inevitable that there’d be some crossover.
Anyway, I’m getting ahead of myself. First up we had Chris’s support act, Carl Hutchinson, and they’re obviously old mates as he features predominantly in the aforementioned podcast (see observation above). Carl’s a very likeable guy with a slightly laddish demeanour and a confident but never aggressive delivery. He explained that he had spent most of Lockdown playing FIFA against 14 year old boys, which is all very well until it comes to the inevitable post-match trolling. He did a very funny routine about drinking on aeroplanes which was something everyone could relate to. And he taught us the difference between a man’s barbecue and a couple’s barbecue and was spot on at every level. Very funny and very recognisable observations – he gave us about forty minutes and it flew by.
After the interval, we returned for Chris Ramsey, who confesses that one of his worst decisions was to name his new show the 20/20 tour; and proceeded to start his part of the show with what he had written for the show the year ago – as if the intevening months had never happened. Whether his original introductory choice of material was true or not, it was a great idea and a hilarious opening. Chris has a wonderfully engaging personality, full of warmth and humour; the kind of guy you’d stay late at the pub without realising what time it was. Podcast material aside (see above), he has some terrific sequences of comic observations, including Alexa hearing his innermost secrets but not showing the discretion you’d expect from her, the tendency of small children to take inappropriate items with them on a day out, and the embarrassing description his youngest son has decided to give to his, i.e. Chris’s, erm, penis. And if anything ever seems less than classy, or less than efficient, or less than tasteful, well, that’s South Shields for you.
It’s always a delight to be in the presence of a comic master, and that’s definitely what Chris Ramsey is. A beautifully balanced show, with room for some audience participation, some unexpected callbacks, plus the occasional use of video screens which works really well. He ends the evening with a few observations about Strictly, which is rather where we came in two years ago. He has a simple, frank and refreshing sunniness about him that just fills the auditorium. One of those comics whom you could see again and again. Great work!
This production of Priscilla Queen of the Desert at the Royal and Derngate has been the best part of two years in the expectation, with tickets going on sale late summer of 2019, for an original run in April 2020, and finally coming to fruition in August 2021. The tour actually started in September 2019 in Dartford but then had to be postponed in March last year due to the dreaded Covid. Patience is a virtue, they say; but all good things are worth waiting for. And was this show one of them? On the whole, yes. Certainly, this was the first time that most of the good burghers of Northampton had a chance to let their hair down in a theatre and just allow themselves to enjoy a good night out, and they took it with open arms. There was no doubting the sense of release and feelgood fun around the place. It’s been a long time, for example, since I’ve seen perhaps ten or more people from further back in the stalls come to the front of the auditorium just to watch the orchestra perform the play-out at the end, as if they’d never seen one before; I’m assuming – perhaps they hadn’t.
However, this didn’t feel like an ordinary night at the theatre for us, and that might be a reason why I didn’t quite enjoy the show as much as I’d hoped. We’d already been to see ten productions since restrictions were lifted in England, but each of them had been with a socially-distanced audience. Now, for the first time since March 2020, we would be sat next to, behind and in front of real people. And, I must confess gentle reader, thirty minutes before curtain-up I still hadn’t decided if it was worth the risk. Nevertheless, with our faces swaddled in super strength FFP3 masks, which we didn’t remove the entire time we were there, we plucked up the courage to go. And I’m very glad we did – if for no other reason, it broke the back of the fear, because once we were in situ we both felt more or less safe. I would estimate at least 95% of the audience decided in favour of going maskless, so the law of averages tells you that COVID19 will have been doing some swarming around that auditorium last night; we’re just trusting to the double-vaccination and the industrial quality masks.
I’m sure you know the plot; drag queen Tick (Mitzi Mitosis) has avoided his responsibilities as a father and never met his six year old son Benji – but his mother runs a club in Alice Springs and insists that he brings a travelling show to perform at the club so that he and Benji can finally meet. Gathering his old supporting cast of Bernadette Bassenger and Felicia Jollygoodfellow, they take the slow road from Sydney using a battered old bus that they name Priscilla. Via a series of vehicle breakdowns, homophobic attacks, tourist encounters and an understanding mechanic, they finally make their way to The Alice just in time to perform. All this to a soundtrack of unforgettable 70s and 80s disco hits.
One of the repercussions of the pandemic is that the uncertainty of whether a production is going to go ahead or not meant that there were no programmes available for the performance – not even online, which I think is a bit of a swizz. The only way you can find out about the show is by visiting its own website and even then, there isn’t a list of the musical numbers, no name or bio given to the child actor playing Benji, nor details of the writers, and so on. Can’t help but feel the creative team get a bit short-changed by that. But then, it occurred to me that Priscilla, Queen of the Desert is a bit like Priscilla, Parable of the Pandemic. Out of work stage performers go on a long and arduous journey before they can finally perform together again. And the show is all about the journey – rather like the last 18 months has been for us all.
I understand that this production of the show is a slightly pared-down version of the original, and I’m not sure that the tweaks have done it any favours. I know comparisons are odious, but we saw the touring production in 2014 at Milton Keynes and my memory of it was that it was funny, glamorous, full of pathos, joyous and – in short – fab. Despite the best efforts of a very talented cast, seven years later, this show strikes me as falling short in all those aspects. The nuanced wit that I remember (with a couple of laugh out loud exceptions) now seems rather crude and obvious; the glamour felt artificial; the pathos was either laid on with a trowel or underwhelming; and there didn’t seem to be much joy at all. The stand-out scenes were those where the homophobia was at its most prominent, with the aggressive pub landlady in Broken Hill, and where Adam/Felicia got beaten up in Coober Pedy; the vicious realism of both situations impacted us all with its horror and injustice.
Probably resulting from the uncertainties of Covid, overall it wasn’t quite as polished a performance as I would have expected, with a couple of the performers occasionally vague as to where they should be standing, the odd timing issue with the orchestra, and a scene that should have been a truly heartfelt moment suffering from sound issues.
Nevertheless, it’s still a very good show, with loads to recommend it. The ensemble cast are excellent, with terrific dancing to Tom Jackson-Greaves’ energetic and expressive choreography; Mr J-G’s experience working with Matthew Bourne in many of his New Adventures productions comes across in many Bourne-like choreographic twists. The ensemble are convincing in both their guises as showgirls and cowboys, which is an achievement all by itself. The three Divas, Claudia Kariuki, Rosie Glossop and Aiesha Pease, who pepper the show with their vocal dynamism, have great stage presence and brilliant voices; it’s such a shame that they’re required so frequently to stand in positions that obstructs our view of them. Talking of which, the big Ayers Rock scene at the end of the show was ruined by the same awkward staging; our three hero/heroines achieving their goals after the most gruelling journey, celebrating in song, only to have their fantastic costumes obscured from the waist down by some corrugated iron. What were they thinking?
Gracie Lai gives a couple of scene-stealing performances as the unpredictable Cynthia (although as time goes on, I feel that Asian stereotype characterisation is beginning to feel slightly dodgy). In the leading roles, Nick Hayes is suitably irrepressible as the bitchy but vulnerable Adam/Felicia, and Edwin Ray brings all his song and dance experience to the central role of Tick. But for me by far the most impressive performance came from Miles Western, who cut just the right amount of elegance as Bernadette, a wounded character slowly finding her feet and a voice of reason against a choir of chaos.
The tour carries on all the way through to November in Glasgow, pandemic permitting. With so much commitment and talent you really hope it comes off for them. Certainly, there’ll be no shortage of audiences supporting them on their way!
I remember the late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle always used to refer to gin as Mother’s Ruin, and, watching April de Angelis and Lucy Rivers’ new musical about that particular demon drink, it’s no surprise that she did! Apparently, there was a time in the 18th century when the average Briton drank 1.5 litres of the stuff a day, not that any of them would have had a clue what a litre was. Then again, I don’t think they took measures into account; a dram of mothers’? Just swig it, knock it back, get it down you. It was, after all, just an easy exit into oblivion away from the hardships of the world.
Meet the ladies of Gin Lane, and listen to their tales, not only of drunkenness, but of rape, prostitution, murder, robbery, degradation, imprisonment and so on. No wonder they turned to a spot of Gineva to make it go away. There’s Suki – everyone knows Suki, always happy to help you out if you’ve got a baby you can’t afford to keep; she’ll make sure it’s safely looked after. There’s Moll, with her ready wit and personal charms who’ll always let you have your way with her if it keeps her in gin for an hour or so. There’s Lydia, selling top quality gin from her barrow, with her friend Mary; they’ve both got secrets – and you know how secrets have a way of finding you out. And there’s Evelyn, selling her lousy gin and losing her custom to Lydia and Mary; but revenge is a gin best served icy cold.
We also encounter novelist Henry Fielding, who went on to become a magistrate and co-found The Bow Street Runners with his brother John, and we meet his sister Sarah, also a writer and early feminist, encouraging (but not too much) well-meaning but impoverished young women to improve their lot. But how do these historically real people fit into the fictional (?) world of Gin Craze!? You’ll have to see the show to find out.
This magnificent show has success written through it like a stick of rock. Hayley Grindle’s set – a labyrinth of stairs and scaffolding – suggests the dingy streets and sordid alleyways of a Hogarthian London, and the costumes are fantastic – billowing gowns that you can imagine were once grand, but years of grime have worn down; wealth and poverty brought together in sharp focus. April de Angelis’ book and characters are full of wit, depth, and emotion, and there’s a fascinating and strong moral compass at play. Lucy Rivers’ music is melodic, reflective, and engrossing, whilst also capturing a spirit of raucous entertainment. I could list the songs that I enjoyed the most, but I found I was listing almost all of them, so there’s no point doing that! As a mark of a decent musical, each song either extends our understanding of the character singing or progresses the plot so that you never leave a song in the same place that you entered it.
As for the performers, it was one of those rare occasions where every single member of the cast delivered a performance that was 100% faultless, in word, in action, in voice, in musicianship. They form a most extraordinary talented ensemble. This is one of those on-trend productions where each of the cast members also plays an instrument, and the music and book integrate seamlessly. At the heart of the show is the partnership between Mary and Lydia, conveyed perfectly by Aruhan Galieva as Mary and Paksie Vernon as Lydia. Their harmonies when they sing together are just sublime. Ms Galieva has a deceptively simple way of making our heart melt when her character is in trouble (which is a lot of the time) but also rejoice along with her when things are going well. Using the awkward J word here, Ms Vernon delivers a strong and convincing performance of a character who goes on an extraordinary journey throughout life, adapting to her circumstances, surviving against all the odds, until making a final devastating sacrifice. It’s a fantastic performance.
Debbie Chazen is also superb as Moll, who may be addled with alcohol but still has a remarkable eloquence and gives the show huge boosts of humour every time she appears. She is also hilarious as the ghastly Germanic Queen Caroline, wrapping her vocal cords around such delightful phrases as “when things go Titten hoch” with tremendous gusto. Rachel Winters is great as the super-posh Sarah Fielding, slumming it in prison to do research for her latest book, drilling Mary in the ways a woman might succeed, extending her charity just so far – but no further. Rosalind Ford plays with the audience’s emotions in the difficult role of Suki, conveying the fine balance between anger at her deceit and sympathy for her plight. And Paula James is very entertaining as the furious Evelyn, who then becomes a victim of her own heart; her reaction to why her love cannot be requited gets the biggest laugh of the night.
And I haven’t mentioned the gents! Alex Mugnaioni is brilliant as the urbane Henry Fielding, delivering witty (but inappropriate) after dinner jokes about Plato, failing to conceal his automatic stiffy when in a clench with the maid, although later becoming an ultimately callous magistrate. I also liked him very much as Jekyll the courtier and the Constable, torn between not agreeing with the new laws but having to enforce them. And Peter Pearson is also excellent as the hypocritical reverend Thomas Wilson and the blind John Fielding, identifying drolly through sound alone which items of crockery are being smashed around him.
This show just blew us both away with its brilliant mix of comedy and sadness, the quality of the story-telling, the beauty of the music, the wit of the language, the excellence of the performances and the sheer joie de vivre of the whole gin-soaked thing! It’s on at the Royal and Derngate until 31st July but it would be a crime against theatre if this didn’t go on to have a long and successful life hereafter. Also – a cast recording please!
P. S. By the way, this is a very bawdy show; no nudity or anything like that, but the language could, in Henry Higgins’ words, make a sailor blush. Definitely not one for the kids, and possibly not one for Granny either, depending on her sensibilities – but always remember, never underestimate Granny; she’s seen more years than you have.
Fresh from a successful week with their production of Animal Farm, the National Youth Theatre are back at the Royal and Derngate with Othello, abridged by Dfiza Benson, and directed by Miranda Cromwell. When I originally read about the production, I expected it to be closer to a serving suggestion than anything approximating the original Othello. But well over 99% of the text is pure Will; and, anyway, Shakespeare is big and strong and tough enough to lend his work to all manner of adaptations and no number of radical reworkings is ever going to eliminate the Bard’s original plays. More about the language later…
We’re in the Club Cyprus, Manchester. It’s 1991 – thirty years ago. The joint is jumpin’ and the ravers are ravin’. Othello has just got married to Desdemona and they are now wife and wife, much to the fury of Brabantio. Iago, bouncer at the club, is the evil link that binds the story together, manipulating everyone to his own advantage, all of his villainy stemming from that one vital belief: “I hate the Moor.” It’s fascinating to see how this production, incidentally, with its gender-blind casting, strongly brings out the original themes of racism, but there’s not a whiff of homophobia. Brabantio is not remotely concerned that his daughter Desdemona has married a woman; it’s her colour that’s the issue.
The NYT cast and creative team have thrown everything at this production to make it a spectacle of light, colour, sound and movement that assaults the eyes and ears and gives the audience much to enjoy and appreciate. The commitment and creativity that has given rise to this 21st century Othello is to be applauded. And there are some superb performances. From the start, Francesca Amewudah-Rivers stands out as a truly noble and dignified Othello, crystal clear in her oratory, superbly at ease with taking centre stage with this enviable role. Her stage presence shines bright and she is very, very watchable. And she is matched by a fantastically confident performance from Connor Crawford as Iago who delivers an unusually frantic and jumpy reading of the role, but which makes absolute sense. This is a Iago who knows he is chancing his arm all the way through, desperate to achieve his goals, but with none of the laid-back, quietly superior attitude of some Iagos. This one has to work hard to engineer what he wants, and it works extremely well.
Ishmel Bridgeman gives us an amusingly cocky and vain Cassio, pretending to be streetwise but still a lightweight, wet-behind-the-ears kind of guy, so that he quickly finds life inside the Club Cyprus a dangerous environment. Julia Kass is excellent as Emilia, already knowing she is being duped by her husband when she gives him Desdemona’s scarf (there are no handkerchiefs in 1990s Manchester). And I really liked Jack Humphrey’s Brabantio, all powerless bluster and fury, seeing his paternal influence disappear in front of his eyes as old age inevitably gives way to youth. He almost makes you sympathise with his character despite his racism, which shows just how subtle a performance it is.
I firmly adhere to a belief I’ve held for decades now, which is that I would prefer to see a bold and brave attempt to do something new, even if it fails, than a lazy or complacent success. And that’s exactly how I feel about this production because, as a whole, it doesn’t fully work. There are two big innovations with the structure of this show. One is making Othello a woman, married to another woman, and that works extremely well. The other is the introduction of a Chorus, everyman characters whose voices emerge from the recesses of the dance floor whispering their words of suspicion and jealousy to Othello. At first, I thought it was a clever notion, representing all those unidentifiable thoughts that come into everyone’s head when you have a doubt about something. But the Chorus’ whisperings and warnings, endlessly repeated, soon took away the subtlety and nuance of Iago’s persuasions and influence. No wonder Othello fell foul of jealousy; it was delivered all around him like a sledgehammer. So, personally, that didn’t work for me.
The club/disco setting also begins to pall as the play progresses. Whilst there’s no doubt about the ensemble’s commitment to keeping that rave movement going, rather than enhancing our understanding of the story and the characters’ motivations, it becomes a distraction. It takes away from our understanding – and it certainly takes away the audibility of some of the more important scenes in the latter end of the play. As a result, the whole evening, which starts off very pacey and on-the-nose, begins to get a little drawn-out; and at 105 minutes with no interval, it feels surprisingly long.
Dfiza Benson’s new text takes much of Shakespeare’s original, replaces the Iago/Cassio drinking scene with the disco – which is clever, removes Iago’s last line (a shame, because his final silence is one of the most intriguing things about the play), and adds about twenty instances of the F word. Gentle reader, I am no prude. And it made me laugh that f**k was the first word uttered (much better than the original Tush!) But it didn’t always sit well for me. Othello always expresses him/herself with nobility and dignity, and imagination. Would Othello, who elegantly says Keep up your bright swords for the dew will rust ‘em, turn to Desdemona and storm off with a WellF**k You? It’s Othello’s language that raises the character out of the commonplace. By bringing her language down to the level of the others, it diminishes this stature. If the aim of the production is to establish Othello as a powerful, queer, black woman (quoting the online programme), I feel this use of language doesn’t help.
I also couldn’t understand why the play was set in 1991. Othello and Desdemona are proudly married – not just living together but the full legal ceremony – but equal marriage wasn’t introduced in the UK until 2013. In 1991, the country was still in the grip of the dreaded Clause 28 and LGBT rights were being eroded. Surely it would have made more sense for it to be set in the here and now – pandemic notwithstanding?
For me, although the show is a plucky failure, that’s actually a much better thing than it seems at first sight. It takes one of the great theatrical classics and transports it into our lifetime with our cultural references and shows how we still have to learn the age-old lessons about racism, jealousy and man’s (in this case woman’s) folly. It’s also performed with huge confidence and style by a very talented company. Maybe it’s not for purists, but then maybe purists shouldn’t be such snowflakes (to use the pejorative term of the era). Quentin Letts would hate it, so that can only be a good thing.
You don’t know how good it feels, gentle reader, simply to be able to type the words “Review – “ followed by the name of a show again after fourteen months away from a theatre. The last play I saw last year was in the Royal Theatre, and the first play this year is in the very same space – seems almost poetic.
Before talking about this new production of Animal Farm, a few words about how the Royal and Derngate are welcoming us back safely in this new COVID world of ours. Timed entry to the theatre, one-way systems, mask on whenever you’re inside (unless you’re eating or drinking – we didn’t), the shortest of intervals – just enough time to nip to the loo which was well marshalled for extra safety, bars closed (you can pre-order drinks), no programmes on sale (there’s a downloadable programme on the theatre website) additional ventilation and the all-important social distancing.
I confess, when I first saw what seats were available for this performance – and bearing in mind the seats are sold within pre-determined bubble groupings – we thought we’d opt for super safety and actually bought a bubble of three seats when there are only two of us. Selfish perhaps, but for us safety measures means baby steps at first, and it just felt safer to have an additional empty space around us. All in all the theatre did a great job in making it a safe and secure occasion. Nevertheless, I’d be lying if I said I was completely relaxed. It’s hard to unlearn the lessons of fourteen months.
I had thought hard in advance whether social distancing would affect the atmosphere for the show. And, fascinatingly, it doesn’t. You’re not so remote that you don’t have other audience members in your peripheral vision, and of course you hear their laughter, and any oohs and ahhs. So if you thought that social distancing would take the heart out of a play – it really doesn’t.
But, as someone significant once said, The Play’s The Thing. Animal Farm is, of course, George Orwell’s allegory of the rise and further rise of Soviet communism told by the metaphor of animals who take over the running of their own farm and chase their drunken, cruel and wasteful farm-owner away. It’s a brilliant piece of writing, full of pathos, tragedy, wit, humour and the inevitability of disastrous failure. So how does this new adaptation by Tatty Hennessy, directed by Ed Stambollouian, bring the pages of this 1945 novel alive onto the stage, to be performed by members of the National Youth Theatre, under its new arrangement with the Royal and Derngate?
Answer – incredibly well. As the play progressed, the parallels with life today in the UK become horrifyingly clear. Squealer, the master of propaganda, is the ultimate spin doctor who makes you disbelieve the truth even when you have seen it for yourself. Clover is the kindly follower who wants to believe in the cause and is sadly gullible to every lie that the state reiterates. Boxer is the (literal) workhorse who works every hour of the day to the detriment of his own health – and then when he falls ill is sent straight to the knacker’s yard. Snowball is the scapegoat on whom the state can heap all the blame for their own deficiencies. Napoleon is the Machiavellian trickster who’s in the right place at the right time, a media-friendly figurehead with huge self-confidence, an opulent lifestyle, and no real ideas of his own. At the end, even Clover realises that they’re all in on the game, each one with their trotters in the trough, champagning it with the enemy; but it’s far too late to do anything about it. A story of the Russian Revolution and subsequent rise of Stalinism? Yes, but with so many similarities to the last thirty years of the UK as well.
Ed Stambollouian’s lively production is full of colour, noise, movement and song; sometimes harsh to the ears with the stomping and shouting, but this is no drawing room comedy. Out of necessity, Tatty Hennessy’s adaptation plays with some of Orwell’s characters – the book has a large cast of creatures that has to be shrunk down to fit a cast of sixteen – and the order of events is occasionally moved around. But the adaptation, though occasionally wordy, tells the story clearly and with no holds barred. The scene, for instance, where four of the animals are summarily executed hits you with its cleverly suggested brutality, and stays in your head a long time.
The cast put their heart and soul into the show and form a tremendous ensemble who work together superbly and generously. Jack Matthew has terrific stage presence and in his performance as Napoleon, we clearly see his character’s double standards and ambiguity towards both the truth and the society that looks up to him. Will Atiomo’s Boxer is the pinnacle of dignity and honesty; I don’t know how he does it, but he subtly contorts his face in a way that really suggests a noble horse’s head – it’s a wonderful achievement. Adeola Yemitan is also superb as Clover, her slow kindness and supportiveness radiating in every scene; whenever she questions the original policies that were agreed at the first meeting and doesn’t realise they’ve been manipulated by the Party, you can see, through her pained eyes, her thought processes slowly drifting into acceptance and the realisation that she must have been wrong. (She wasn’t).
There’s an excellent and agile performance by Ben Wilson as Snowball, bringing huge energy to the movement and dance sequences, and eclipsing Napoleon with his oratory skills. Matilda Rae’s Squealer is delightfully slippery and manipulative – her occasional firm and ruthless killer lines are brilliantly delivered. I thought Ishmel Bridgeman was brilliant as Blue the dog; starting off as a playful and impudent pup, but by the time he’s been “trained” by Napoleon, he’s turned into a savage Rottweiler who carries out his master’s orders with clinical malice. Will Stewart was also excellent as the vain Molly, desperate to cling on to her ribbons and rosettes because that’s the only identity she has.
James Eden-Hutchinson’s Milo was a favourite with the audience, breaking the fourth wall with his reflections on what’s happening so far – and also entertaining us with his music-hall style advice for how we should behave during the interval! I also really liked Connor Crawford’s grotesque caricature of both farmers, dominating the other animals with his physique and suggestions of violence. But all the performers give excellent performances; a technical thing that’s often overlooked, all the actors had terrific clarity of diction which is always appreciated by a theatregoer who’s getting older!
In the programme notes, Tatty Hennessy writes that she hopes the play makes you angry. It did. But our anger is not only directed to the Napoleons and Squealers of this world, but also to the Clovers and the Boxers for making it so damned easy for history to repeat itself.
Despite the slight unease about being back in a theatre, it was just such a thrill to be back in the Royal, witnessing the magic that only live performance can create. So, thank you – to the cast for their performance, to the creative team for organising it, to the theatre staff for making us safe and welcome, to our fellow audience members for simply being there and witnessing the return. And let’s hope for another return – to some kind of normality. With the rise of the Indian variant, it’s too early to know; but at least last night we could celebrate the here and now, and that was a wonderful thing to share.
P. S. If I have a suggestion for how it could feel even more secure in the theatre, I was expecting a more orderly and structured plan for everyone leaving the theatre at the end. Having carefully avoided each other with one-way systems and toilet marshalling, it was a bit of a free-for-all with the complete breakdown of social distancing. Next time I think we’ll deliberately wait for everyone else to leave first.
It’s been ten years since our spiritual home at the Royal and Derngate Theatres re-opened after their redevelopment, and the Derngate auditorium was born. In those dark days of 2006 we were strangers to Northampton, gentle reader, so I have no recall of the impact of the new complex at the time – although I bet it was major.
Yesterday they had a bit of a party to celebrate ten years of achievements – artistic, educational, community-based; and to look forward to the next five years with some special projects they’ve got up their sleeves – more of which shortly. But it was really enjoyable to wallow in the memories of some of those great Made in Northampton productions that Mrs Chrisparkle and I have been privileged to see over the last seven years that we’ve lived locally: the Ayckbourn season (before I started blogging); the brilliant early Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill plays Spring Storm and Beyond the Horizon; the Broadway-transferring End of the Rainbow; the haunting Duchess of Malfi; the hilarious Diary of a Nobody; the stunning Bacchae; the uproarious Mr Whatnot (so funny that we had to book to see it again the following day); the incredible impact of The Body of an American; the gripping King John; the challenging Brave New World; and dozens more besides. The associations with Spymonkey, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Richard Alston Dance Company. The annual Malcolm Arnold festival. Great musical productions like Oklahoma and Fiddler on the Roof. All the comedians. All the Screaming Blue Murders. The brash and colourful Derngate pantos and the enchanting Christmas plays in the Royal. On top of all this, there’s the creation of the Errol Flynn Filmhouse, No 1 in Northamptonshire’s Fun and Games choice on Trip Advisor. I could go on but it would be self-indulgent.
As you would expect, they’re not sitting on their laurels (although they’re continuing to accumulate them at quite a rate.) Plans for the next five years include creating a brand new cinema complex in Daventry – learning from the whole Errol Flynn experience (which is the most comfortable and grown-up cinema I’ve ever experienced; a new school for Northampton which places cultural and creative learning at its heart; and, (and this one excites me the most) being part of a consortium of greats to commission new music theatre, ranging from opera to musicals, to be presented in a festival format using a brand new portable venue called The Mix, which can seat between 200-400 and can pop up in situ in a matter of 48 hours. I’m very excited to see how that evolves. I’m reassured to know that they’re not losing sight of their core activity either and the new programme for next year’s Made in Northampton gems will be coming out in a few weeks – can’t wait.
To everyone who works at the Royal and Derngate, you play a part in creating the most welcoming and invigorating hub of artistic pursuits and pleasures. We moved into Northampton at the end of 2008 but I don’t think we’ll ever be able to move out – I just can’t imagine not having the R&D on my doorstep. You’ve spoiled us, Mr Ambassador! Royal and Derngate Theatres – so good they named it twice. Here’s to the next five years, ten years, and happy ever after.
When I booked for this production a number of months ago, it was just called “A New Play”. But I had already come to the conclusion that you can really trust the Royal and Derngate’s Young Company to deliver top quality entertainment through the power of drama, performed with maturity beyond their years. So I was happy for them to surprise me with their new offering, no matter what it might be.
Over the course of the last year the Young Company has divided in two – the Immerse group worked with the Actors’ Company on Aftermath, a play that explored Northampton’s involvement in the First World War, and most recently Kontakt, where individual members of the audience sat at a desk opposite a young actor, for a private yet shared fifty minute journey of personal transactions. Both were wonderful productions. For Immune, the Create group has workshopped various methods of story-telling and direct address on stage and fed back to writer Oladipo Agboluaje for him to start working on this “new play”. In addition, two other groups of young actors, from the West Yorkshire Playhouse and the Theatre Royal Plymouth, have been through the same process, to help create a brand new work which will have three individual productions at each of the theatres, each with their own director, set designer, and sound designer. So this is not a touring production, but a different realisation of the same play by three different creative groups. It would be really fascinating to see them all.
So what’s Immune all about then? A day that starts very ordinarily, and ends very extraordinarily. Monday morning at school. The fights and the friendships. The fancyings and the funnies. The secrets and the rivalries. The mates and the gossips. It’s a school, but it could be any environment where a group of people are made to spend the day together – on a course, in an office, on a holiday tour, and so on. You know to expect the intertwined relationships, and the typical characters. The girl who says nothing. The boy who follows Jesus. The girl who’s the brainbox. The boy who’s always picked on. The girl who knows that shaking out her hair makes her look attractive. The boy who is only known for being a knobhead. They’re all here.
So this very ordinary day starts with all their usual interactions, but particularly going through the videos that they have (or haven’t) filmed for Creativity Day at the end of the week. Then they have to go to boring Mr Brown for a boring chemistry lesson. Two boys start a fight (as they do) which causes some chemicals to be knocked over. They react (the chemicals, not the boys) and create smoke and gas, there’s a flurry of coughing and gasping, but with the windows finally opened, it seems as though there’s no harm done. But then they find that one of the class has received acid burns, and is in hospital; and later on, there are more serious – not to say apocalyptic – repercussions for other school members, and the wider environment; for the town; for the country. One ordinary day. One tiny mistake. One apocalypse. It could happen.
Technically it’s both a demanding and rewarding production, with the cast being called on constantly to change the scenery themselves, wheeling panels around, locking boxes into place, sliding doors together, all in full view of the audience, and all done with immaculate calm and accuracy. In performance, I also really loved the device whereby the whole cast stand up and chant together the lines of the otherwise unseen teachers and adults. It created a nice distinction between the reality of the human emotions raging through the main characters and the almost robotic and anonymous other characters, devoid of emotion. Very effective.
The Young Company have once again worked hard to give us a tremendous performance, with great insight into the characterisations, some wonderful comic timing, and a real feel for the horror of the apocalypse. They work together as a terrific ensemble, and are very supportive and generous to each other on stage. If you’ve seen any of them before in previous productions, it’s very rewarding to appreciate their progress both as performers and as people. For instance, over four years ago we saw Luke Nunn (who plays Samson) in The Years Between, a rather spellbinding Daphne du Maurier story about a war widow who discovers she isn’t. Master Nunn was excellent in that, and today Mr Nunn is developing into a really assured and talented actor. Immune requires a lot of direct interaction with the audience, and he has that ability to take us into his confidence, as if he’s only talking to you, down to a Tee. Jakub Madej, who played (correct me if I’m wrong) the communist Dmitri in Aftermath, brings his imposing stage presence and superbly projected voice to the role of Albert, the workshy fantasist member of class. There’s a genuinely funny and realistic performance by Owen Howard as the hapless Craig, pretty much useless at everything, but a true survivor, (that is, if any of them do…). And possibly the most natural performer of the whole cast is Jarzinho Rapoz as Eric, who communicates instantly motivation, characterisation and thought processes with just one simple roll of the eyes or jokey facial expression. Definitely one to watch.
Esme Joy Allen is a complete scene stealer with her brilliant performance as Bella, desperate to get Peter’s attention, fully aware of how she can manipulate and influence others, but as vulnerable as anyone else when the chemical spillage gets out of hand. I really liked Scarlett Jordan as Denise, big on intelligence and big on hair, very convincingly expressing that sense of power you assume when people think you are a natural leader, but without being big-headed about it. When she discovers that the problem is more than she alone can solve, her sense of inadequacy is painful – and engrossing – to watch; great characterisation. Mrs Chrisparkle and I both agreed that probably the best performance of all came from Bethany Priddy as the eloquent and emotional Bonnie, trying to protect her dad’s reputation (even though she knows he’s in the wrong), and confronted by what actually happens to him as a result of the apocalyptic nightmare. A technically terrific, and really moving performance. But all the cast members gave wonderful performances and contributed to a very entertaining, not to mention scary, evening. Congratulations to everyone involved.
So all in all, a gripping production combining a very likeable and talented cast with an excellent play, both funny and frightening. It’s finished its run at the Royal and Derngate now, but it is still to play at West Yorkshire Playhouse from 23-25 July and the Theatre Royal Plymouth from 19-22 August. If the play has one message, it is – I guess – that you should live each day like it’s your last, because one day you’ll be right. Cherish your relationships, make peace with your enemies and be true to yourself. Don’t get bitter about the pathetic little things – there’s a bigger picture out there, and that’s the one that really counts. Oh, and always keep the windows open and don’t knock over the chemicals.