Review – This Evil Thing, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 14th November 2017

This Evil Thing ProgrammeI have no information about my ancestors’ involvement in World War One. All my grandparents died before I was born. My maternal grandfather was born in 1900 so would have been too young for conscription and didn’t enjoy good health anyway. Of my paternal grandfather I know hardly anything. About World War Two I know a lot more. My father served in the Royal Navy and was totally scarred by his experiences which I researched and wrote about here and here. All I know of my maternal grandfather’s WW2 is that he was stationed at Stirling Castle, saw ghosts and was never the same man again. My mother was in the ATS and told me how she once spent Christmas Day sending out death notices to grieving families. Was she sympathetic to the stance taken by conscientious objectors? Absolutely not. Cowards who made it worse for themselves was her uncompromising attitude; and I’m sure she was in the majority.

TET1As Michael Mears points out, in his exceptionally fascinating one-man play This Evil Thing, in our generation, we have not been tested. If we were called up to go to a war where we’re simply cannon fodder, how would we react? Would we put Queen and Country first? Would we engage in acts of disobedience? It really makes you think hard. If the Falklands Conflict had escalated out of hand and turned into full-scale war between the UK and Argentina, I was the perfect age to be conscripted; and I do remember it being a very active worry.

Michael MearsMichael Mears confesses from the start (if confession is the right word) that he is a pacifist, and he too wonders how strong his resolve would be if faced with the personal challenge in the same way that the brave (there’s no question as to their bravery) conscientious objectors of the First World War. This beautifully constructed work tells us the stories of, amongst others, Bert Brocklesby, schoolteacher and Methodist lay preacher; James Brightmore, a solicitor’s clerk from Manchester; and Norman Gaudie, who played football for Sunderland reserves; they were also CO’s. There were many others like them. We learn how they are abused for their principles, how they were packed off to France, unknown to the British Government, of the methods used to try to persuade them to change their minds, the punishments they received, and what happened after the war to those that survived. We also meet luminaries like Bertrand Russell and Clifford Allen, Chairman of the No-Conscription Fellowship, vigorously campaigning for alternatives to conscription; with Russell dodging both literal and metaphorical bullets in his dealings with Prime Minister Asquith. After 80 quick minutes, you feel so much better informed about this much misunderstood and swept-under-the-carpet aspect of the First World War.

This Evil Thing TextThe production was, by all accounts, a wow at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, and in many ways it’s the perfect fringe show. A blank stage, with just a few crates and packing cases utilised imaginatively, creates all sorts of settings. I love it when it’s up to the audience to interpret a minimalist set, because not even the world’s finest designers can flesh out the appearance of a stage quite like your own imagination can. It was a charming addition to the staging to have some very realistic props, like the elegant teacup and the incongruous sherry glass, which are brought into sharp focus when juxtaposed with the imaginariness of the set. The text is intelligent and creative, thought-provoking and, from time to time, surprisingly funny. The whole concept of a naked Bertrand Russell addressing Asquith with just a hanky covering his modesty was wonderfully quirky.

TET2But what really makes the theatrical experience so vivid is Mr Mears’ brilliant portrayals of over forty characters, each with their own voice and accent, tone and style. He makes us believe those people are really there. We knew that he’s an excellent actor from his previous appearances in A Tale of Two Cities and The Herbal Bed (actually, he was the best thing about both productions), but in This Evil Thing he steps that acting skill up several notches. Mr Mears’ commitment to his own material – and the verbatim testimonies of many of the people involved – is simply a pleasure to behold.

Michael MearsAnd what of that rhetorical question? If the nations collide again like they did a hundred years ago, would you, a person who respects life and would never commit a crime against another human being, refuse to take arms against your fellow man? Moreover, would you see your friends and relatives die for the nation’s cause whilst you exempted yourself from that responsibility? Brocklesby tosses a coin to help make that decision. I think I’d look at a photo of my dad in his navy uniform and ask his advice. With any luck, it’ll never happen.

This terrific little theatrical nugget is currently on a tour of small theatres, churches and Quakers Meeting Houses in England and Wales. Highly recommended!

Review – Shirley Valentine, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 2nd October 2017

Shirley ValentineOver the past thirty years or so, the character of Shirley Valentine has almost passed into folklore. Everyone knows about the kindly but downtrodden Liverpudlian housewife and mother who feels beyond her sell-by date even though she’s only 42 and has so much to give, if only she knew how, to whom and where. Whenever the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle (who loved the film and also saw Hannah Gordon perform the role in the West End as a Glaswegian Shirley) started saying “Hello Wall”, you knew she was building up to something. Whenever a guy starts spouting some pretentious twaddle about something they know nothing about (honestly, it can happen) Mrs Chrisparkle (along with many others I’m sure) will adopt a sideways glance and say, to no one in particular, “aren’t men full of shit?” Whenever you meet an awful couple on holiday, don’t you always expect their names are going to be Jeannette and Dougie?

Nicky SwiftWilly Russell’s film adaptation of his own stage play has to rank as one of the best stage-to-cinema conversions there’s ever been. Actually to see the people in Shirley’s life, that she only talks of in the play, really brings the story to life; and Joanna Lumley and Tom Conti, amongst others, are just so good that it’s very hard to think of those characters as any other life-form. Even when you see a brand-new stage version like this, it’s still hard not to hear the voice of Joanna Lumley say through Shirley’s mouth “but darling I’m a hooker” or to hear Tom Conti ask “you think I want to make f* ck with you?” It’s all so engrained in our communal psyche. Twenty years ago, when two or more people were gathered together they would quote from Monty Python. Now it’s much more likely they’ll quote from Willy Russell.

I was surprised to realise I hadn’t seen Shirley Valentine on stage before the Menier production starring Meera Syal seven years ago. There’d been a traditional Scouse Shirley and a Glaswegian one in the past; why not an Asian one? And it worked very well. In this production, directed by Glen Walford, who commissioned the original play and directed the first production, it’s back to the trad version, with Jodie Prenger playing the role at most venues on the tour, and Nicky Swift as Shirley in some selected venues, of which the Royal and Derngate was one. I wasn’t aware of that; I was fully expecting to see Ms Prenger in her pinny preparing chips and egg and when I realised, last-minute, that was not to be the case, I confess I was a tinge disappointed, as I’m something of a Jodie fan.

Jodie Prenger as SVIf you’re in the same boat, gentle reader, fear not. Nicky Swift gives us a lively and endearing Shirley, full of hopes and dreams, affection, kindness and cheekiness. This is a very positive Shirley, always looking on the bright side, with that desire for adventure very near the surface. There could never be any doubt that this Shirley would get on that plane for Greece, come hell or highwater. She was always going to fare well abroad. And when her friend lets her down by getting off with a guy on the plane so Shirley’s all alone in Greece, you sense she would consider this just all part of the adventure. She’s delighted to be on her own at last, that’s why she finds the quietest and most remote part of the beach as possible. For someone this self-reliant, the only surprise is that she didn’t do it years earlier.

As usual, we get treated to the sight of someone genuinely cooking chips and egg on stage; there’s no disguising that delicious waft heading over the stalls. Amy Yardley has created a very serviceable kitchen of which Shirley is the mistress; all mod cons and no expense spared on making her domestic life as pleasant as possible. No old-fashioned frying pan for this Shirley, her chips are done in the most discreet of deep fat fryers.

Willy RussellIt’s a sad little play in many respects, but Nicky Swift’s performance removes a lot of the sadness and replaces it with hope. If her Milandra thinks Shirley’s Greek Odyssey is disgusting, she needs to take a long hard look at herself and be grateful for having such a forward-thinking mum. A packed audience really enjoyed this beautifully performed masterpiece of a play. It’s still got Plymouth, Newcastle and Dartford to go at the end of this long tour. Worth paying good drachmas for!

Review – Des O’Connor and Jimmy Tarbuck Live, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th September 2017

Des O'Connor and Jimmy Tarbuck LiveWhen I saw these two legendary names were appearing together on stage I had absolutely no hesitation in booking straight away. They were among the very first famous people I ever saw on stage as a child. Jimmy Tarbuck played Jack in the London Palladium pantomime Jack and the Beanstalk back in Christmas 1968 – New Year 1969; it was my first visit to a London theatre and my first ever pantomime. The Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle couldn’t wait to get me in the front stalls to see how I’d react to the Palladium environment (which she adored) – verdict, I loved it. But, even earlier, in the summer of 1967, I was taken to my first ever professional stage show; on holiday in Bournemouth, the 7-year-old me had a seat to see Showtime at the Pavilion Theatre, featuring Kenneth McKellar, Jack Douglas and starring – you guessed it – Des O’Connor.

Jack and the Beanstalk 1969 castI’d seen Des O’Connor live just once since then, when I took a young female friend (in the days before Mrs Chrisparkle, c. 1984) to see a recording of Gloria Hunniford’s TV chat show Sunday Sunday – it used to air on Sundays, I kid you not. Amongst the guests was Mr O’Connor. At one point all the lights blew and they had to stop the recording for about twenty minutes. Gloria Hunniford retreated into her shell and wouldn’t make eye contact with the audience. Des O’Connor, on the other hand, got up and did twenty minutes stand-up off the top of his head, and, let me assure you gentle reader, he was absolutely on fire! From that moment, I’ve always had immense respect for him.

Des O'Connor and Jimmy Tarbuck 1I’d not seen Jimmy Tarbuck on stage since that panto, and of course it’s been many years since he’s been a regular on TV; so I was very interested to see how he’s progressed, the young feller-me-lad. Well, I can report that he’s doing very well indeed. He’s 77, but looking at him you wouldn’t place him older than his mid-fifties. He still has that irrepressible cheekiness, a very nice line in occasional self-deprecation, natural confidence and authority, and absolutely immaculate comic timing. It’s true; some of his material isn’t very 21st century. Whilst Mrs C was pleased to note the total absence of mother-in-law jokes, they had been replaced by “ugly women” jokes. To be fair, they were often very funny.

Des O'Connor and Jimmy Tarbuck 4Mr Tarbuck (hereinafter Tarby) still uses that classic structure for many of his showpiece jokes – I mean those that aren’t one-liners. He sets them up with a statement that will end with a certain sequence of words; pause. Then comes another statement, ending with the same sequence of words; another pause, whilst suspense/curiosity/anticipation builds. There might even be a third statement, that ends with the same sequence of words – audience by now making up their own punchlines. Then comes the killer final statement that will take the sequence of words and turn them on their head to potentially devastating comic effect. I remember him doing that in the 70s, and he still does it today – brilliantly.

Des O'Connor and Jimmy Tarbuck 5Mr O’Connor (hereinafter Deso) has quite a close association with our beloved Northampton, as he was evacuated here during the Second World War, worked at Church’s shoes (very posh) and even had a stint playing football for Northampton Town. Today he still has that wicked glint in his eye, and at 85 he can still look down on young Tarby. But he did admit that he wasn’t feeling too well, with an ear infection affecting his balance, and would we mind if he sat down for most of his set; of course not – huge kudos to him for still going on with the show despite his health issue.

Des O'Connor and Jimmy Tarbuck 3I’m going to forgive him for starting the evening with a terrible homophobic joke and put it down to the infirmity of his age, as Regan said of Lear. Moving on, with the aid of a big screen, he reminisced about some of his favourite TV appearances – with Morecambe and Wise (naturally), Rod Hull and Emu, Benny Hill, Bernie Clifton and many more. We sang with him as he accompanied himself on a video of him singing with Neil Diamond (are you still with me?) and bizarrely it worked, as the rafters of the Royal and Derngate rang out to the chorus of Sweet Caroline. Deso also led singalongs to Carole King’s Will You Love Me Tomorrow and Tony Christie’s Is this the way to Amarillo, but, sadly, no Dick-a-Dum-Dum, which I’ve always thought was a truly charming look at Swinging Sixties London. Isn’t always the case that artists never perform your favourite song? It’s an unwritten law of Live Performance.

Des O'Connor and Jimmy TarbuckThere was precious little hesitation in the audience to rise for a standing ovation for these two grand old chaps. For Tarby, he absolutely deserves it for still delivering 45 minutes of cracking stand-up. For Deso, he deserves it in recognition of all the years of happy entertainment he’s provided, even from before I was born. They’re still touring this unique get-together show for a few more dates this year: 7th October in Harlow, 29th October in Reading and 5th November in Newcastle. These young lads deserve your support!

Review – Rules For Living, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 14th September 2017

Rules for LivingThe curtain rises and straight away you recognise that comfortable setting; Christmas Day, the living room and the kitchen, a half-decorated tree, and two young people perched expectantly on the sofa. Is it going to turn into Alan Ayckbourn’s Seasons Greetings by another name? With surprise artificiality, a device projects the words “Rules for Living” on the roof of the house, as if we’d already forgotten the name of the play. Then another surprise; before anyone says anything, the set divides; the living room heads off stage left, the kitchen swerves stage right, leaving a big empty void in the centre of the stage. It already feels like technology is taking over this everyday suburban Christmas scenario.

RFL1Sam Holcroft’s Rules for Living first appeared at the National Theatre’s Dorfman a couple of years ago, where it got something of a mixed reception: ambitious and funny, but peculiarly stressful seemed to be the gist, and I entirely understand where that’s coming from. In a nutshell, Matriarch Edith is trying to create the perfect Christmas Day lunch (always a disastrous idea) to welcome back her husband Francis from hospital, who’s been suffering with some undisclosed ailment. Sons Matthew and Adam will be in attendance; Matthew with Carrie, the girlfriend he’s been going out with one year, Adam with his wife Nicole and their teenage daughter Emma, who suffers with depression. As you might expect, the relationships between the sons, their other halves and their mother get progressively strained as the day wears on. Francis comes home, more severely afflicted than Edith had let on, and the day degenerates even further.

RFL2But there’s a twist: and it goes back to that artificiality/technology influence felt in the opening moments. Each of the characters (apart from Francis and Emma) has an individual behavioural trait that they use to cope with stressful situations. Matthew, for example, has to sit down in order to tell a lie. We know this, because it’s projected on the walls and roof. So when Carrie asks Matthew if his mother likes her, and he sits down to say yes, we know he’s lying; you get the picture. Nicole must take a drink in order to contradict. As you can imagine, during a typical lively Christmas Day, quite a lot of contradicting takes place so Nicole gets somewhat boozed up to satisfy this particular behavioural need. And so it goes on. There’s an enormous amount of genuine hilarity to be enjoyed recognising how each character meets their psychological responses.

RFL3Sam Holcroft was partly inspired to write the play as a response to her own experiences of CBT – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Emma is undergoing CBT, and it makes her question her own response to the various challenges she faces. Nicole would like Adam to accompany her on some therapy sessions but he’s not remotely convinced. Of course, all the behavioural idiosyncracies that the characters display are ripe raw ingredients for a CBT session. The stress of learning a new card game is another new challenge for Christmas Day; Bedlam – that’s the game – where the rules include your requiring to identify others’ behavioural responses, which the characters attempt to do, whilst still having to obey their own. The furore this causes strongly reminded me of Reg’s wretched board game in The Norman Conquests. No wonder Christmas is stressful.

RFL5It’s a really clever construct; but I always felt aware of a greater being influencing the activities of the characters. The unseen writer truly plays the role of the puppet-master, creating a series of individual havocs that her characters must endure, almost at her random will. I guess that’s the case for any writer creating a story – their characters have to comply with the events that the writer chucks in their path. But the artificiality of it all is really emphasised with this play and production. It’s a most unusual experience. A small part of me wondered if it was an easy cop-out; should we be able to see, through the nuances of the writing, how the characters need to follow certain behavioural paths without having their rules of living flashed up so obviously on a colour-co-ordinated screen? Doing it this way certainly means that the rules are in charge, not the people. The characters even stop what they’re doing every time the rules change, then resume their path to their fate, like flies to wanton boys.

RFL4The cast absolutely pull out all the stops to mine as much humour from the situation as possible, and there are some beautiful moments of physical comedy, classic farce, and an outrageous food fight to enjoy. Jane Booker’s Edith is a superb portrayal of a control freak who needs her own versions of a “little helper” when she’s thwarted. Carlyss Peer turns into more and more of a musical theatre travesty as she shows Carrie’s way of coping with anxieties and rejection. Ed Hughes’ Adam turns from nice guy into sarcastic sod in order to protect himself from his own self-loathing, Jolyon Coy’s Matthew is up and down like the proverbial whore’s drawers reflecting his permanent state of mendacity, and Laura Rogers’ Nicole’s tongue gets loosened by alcohol the more belligerent she gets. It’s almost as though Derren Brown has had a session with them before they went on stage so that they react to individual trigger points. There’s a nice irony in the fact that the physically suffering Francis, a delightful performance by Paul Shelley using only a few words but wicked facial expressions, is the only character who mentally knows precisely what he wants and has no compunction about getting it.

RFL6It’s extremely funny and very thought-provoking; despite its Ayckbournian setting it’s a highly original look at a familiar domestic disaster zone. Abbreviate Rules For Living, add an “o”, and you get RoFL, which rather sums it up. And spare a thought for the stage management team who have to clear that mess up after every performance. If you’re wearing nice clothes, I wouldn’t sit anywhere nearer the stage than the third row! This is a co-production between the Royal and Derngate, English Touring Theatre and the Rose Theatre, Kingston, and after its few weeks in Northampton, it tours to Cambridge, Windsor, Brighton, Ipswich and Kingston. You have to see this one!

Production photos by Mark Douet

Review – Jimeoin, Renonsense Man, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 24th February 2017

jimeoin-renonsense-manWith Mrs Chrisparkle having been stranded up north the night before due to Storm Doris, and me soggy with cold, we weren’t in the best frame of mind for going out to see a comedian that neither of us knew anything about. I know that Jimeoin has been going a long time, but our paths simply never crossed. I didn’t even know how to pronounce him – indeed, he doesn’t either, as he confesses early in the show.

jimeoinHowever, within a few minutes of his ambling on, mumbling a few hellos, chucking a few quirky glances here and there, I decided that this guy is probably going to be someone I’ll really get on with. He’s like a mischievous uncle, or an office prankster who can’t take anything seriously. He’d probably drive you completely nuts if you had to live with him, but as a colleague or a mate he’d be comedy gold. What’s really extraordinary is how much he can convey with just his facial expressions. As he says, he and his wife have been together for such a long time now there’s nothing much left to say so they just communicate by glances. Thus they have a series of wordless exchanges that include the useful stop talking you’re making yourself look a fool, the dishonest who farted, and the don’t you dare think of sex routine.

jimeoin2Of course, this isn’t a mime act. For two hours, Jimeoin takes patches of his life, seemingly randomly assembled, and presents us with a combination of wry, silly, insightful and just plain hysterical observations about what life is really like. And, for whatever reason, his humour just resonated perfectly with us. It must have been one of those rare occasions when we were the absolutely perfect demographic for the show. Whether he was talking about toilet brushes, or impersonating airline pilots from around the UK, or giving us a selection of brief comedy songs on the guitar, we basically just fell apart. Mrs C was literally weeping with laughter and I can confirm that it takes some comedian to make her do that.

jimeoin1If you’re sitting in the front rows and he engages you in conversation, don’t worry, it will all be charming and friendly, but bear in mind he won’t forget your name and you’ll almost certainly be cross-referenced into some other part of his routine at a later stage. His is one of those acts that feels like he’s making it up as he goes along, but I’m pretty sure there’s a well-defined sequence of routines prepared in advance. His wonderfully laconic but communicative style helps the content flow in a totally organic and unforced way, so that you just feel you’re eavesdropping on this old geezer’s meanderings. I say “old” – he’s six years younger than me, so everything’s relative.

jimeoin3There’s also a definite edge to his comedy – it’s not all soft and fluffy by any means. For example, he asks us to admire his new boots – that’s fine – and then he explains where he got them and it’s so outrageous you wonder if you can allow yourself to laugh at it. But it’s also extremely funny and aligns perfectly with the rather irreverent persona that he presents us. It’s one of a number of occasions where your laugh catches in your throat before you feel confident enough to let it rip. Despite what appears to be a perfectly relaxed delivery, the man’s wit is razor sharp and he’s constantly reacting to what goes on around him to create two hours of superbly well crafted material.

275604-jimeoinWe kept on talking about him as we walked home, as we went to bed, as we got up the next morning, as we had dinner the next evening. Definitely a contender for the funniest comedian we’ve ever seen live. He only had a few UK dates on his tour, and now he’s back to performing in Adelaide, Canberra, Melbourne and Sydney before coming back to the UK for the Edinburgh Fringe in August. If you ever get the chance to see him, take it!

Review – Peter and the Starcatcher, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 20th December 2016

Peter and the StarcatcherWhen they announced many months ago, that the Christmas play in the Royal this year would be Peter and the Starcatcher, my little heart was filled with joy because I had heard super things about this from its New York run a few years back. Huge kudos, of course, to the Royal and Derngate for producing its UK premiere. Not the first time they’ve done such a thing and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

evelyn-hoskinsEveryone knows the story of Peter Pan, but do you know how it was that Peter became Peter, and how he ended up with the lost boys? Or how Captain Hook lost his hand? Or how Tinkerbell was created? Or why there is a crocodile and how it swallowed a clock? Wonder no more. In this very cleverly created and imaginative story all is revealed.

michael-sheaYou arrive at the theatre to see the Royal stage exposed in all its backstage rawness – ropes, bricks, painted signs – as well as an intriguing band layout fronted by a beautiful grand xylophone. All of a rush, the cast assemble on stage, Nicholas Nickleby-like, to begin the intricate exposition of the story of two associated ships, The Neverland and the Wasp, on a mission to take the Queen (God bless her)’s treasures to the distant country of Rundoon. The good Lord Aster is on board the Wasp to ensure the safe delivery of the trunk of jewels; he is father to young Molly, who is also sailing with her nana, the very alliterative Mrs Bumbrake. Subterfuge causes the precious cargo and a dummy cargo filled with sand to get mixed up; orphan boys are sold to one of the ship’s captains; Molly escapes her nana’s clutches and discovers one of the boys – named Boy, because he hasn’t a name – and after that, things start to get complicated. If I tried to write more of a synopsis we’d be here for hours.

peter-upside-downThough linguistically brilliant, it’s a very densely written script and you really have to concentrate hard to understand everything that’s going on. In all honesty, I don’t think either Mrs Chrisparkle or I followed every twist or appreciated every nuance. For the most part, that’s not a problem, because you have a hugely committed cast who can carry you through any gaps in your understanding simply by their bright characterisation and lively ensemble work. It’s quirky, creative, and at times very surreal – as in the opening scene of the second act, where “starstuff” has done its magic and created a music hall act of mermaids; or on Fighting Prawn’s tropical island where every command or insult is an item of Italian food or drink. And I’d love to say that the show is a total success. Really I would, because the effort and commitment that’s put into this production is tangible. But, sadly, I can’t.

peter-umbrellasIt’s one of those occasions where you find yourself really enjoying a play, engaged by the characters and their activities, tuned into their sense of humour, and laughing at all the jokes – but then you realise that no one else is laughing. Because, for whatever reason, the spirit and humour of this play just doesn’t transmit itself into the auditorium. It’s like someone has erected an invisible Brechtian barrier and it won’t get any farther. The cast are working their socks off for comic – and indeed emotional – effect, but for 90% of the audience (as it seemed to me) they may as well have been in another room. This must be so hard for the cast to keep going with all their enthusiastic on-stage shenanigans to get so little response back. There are a few adult-only lines (to be fair, probably fewer than in most pantos nowadays) for example where Mrs Bumbrake asks Alf, who has just admired her beauty, to accompany her to the ship’s lower decks with the words “take me below”. Mrs C and I sniggered with our best schoolboy smut-appreciation, but no one else did. And I think that’s the problem – most pantos/Christmas plays try to cater for both children and adults so that it is accessible to both, with enough fun and games to keep the youngsters entertained and enough wink-wink to keep the adults on song. But I think that of all the Christmas plays we’ve seen at the Royal this is the one that treads the most uneasy balance between its two target demographics. The publicity states it is suitable for 7+ but I think you would have to be considerably older to appreciate (and assimiliate) the adventures of the story. It simply falls between two stools.

peter-stache-and-smeeWe last saw Greg Haiste as a wonderfully warm Bob Cratchit in A Christmas Carol four years ago. This time he gives us a marvellous central comedy performance as Black Stache, channelling his inner Lord Flash-Heart. How tempting it must have been for him to come up with some Rik Mayallisms – there are a few opportunities for off-the-wall script adjustments so I really was expecting one. His comic gems flow so freely at times that it’s almost impossible to keep up with him. But we thought he was brilliant.

miles-yekenniMolly is played by the spirited Evelyn Hoskins, once again portraying a thirteen-year-old, like she did in This Is My Family three years ago in Sheffield. She absolutely gets that girlish quality of boastful bossiness without ever becoming a stereotype or a Violet Bott-type pain in the rectum, and it’s a great performance. She is excellently matched by Michael Shea’s Boy – later to become Peter – with his brilliantly observed naïve other-worldliness, that conveyed possibilities of both heroism and “just wanting to be a boy”. Given this is his first professional stage engagement since leaving LAMDA I reckon he could be One To Watch. Together he and Ms Hoskins give us a touching insight into first love that is genuinely moving; I very nearly had something in my eye at one point.

molly-and-the-lost-boysIt’s a brilliant piece of ensemble acting, although other stand-out performers (for me) were Marc Akinfolarin as the sometimes kindly, sometimes villainous Alf; Tendayi Jembere (whose strong performance we remembered in the riveting Mogadishu) playing a very as the pork-dreaming Ted; and Miles Yekinni as the whip-cracking Bill Slank; never has an actor looked as though he will corpse at any moment as Mr Yekinni does when he is cavorting in a mermaid’s outfit.

peter-and-the-stageDespite the hard work that the audience has to put in to get the best out of the play, we both really enjoyed it; but were also fully aware that large numbers of our colleagues in the stalls didn’t seem too impressed. It wasn’t the warmest of receptions at curtain call, but I’d definitely recommend it, because you might, like us, find its quirkiness and surrealism irresistible. Even better, leave the kids at home and learn about young Peter without worrying whether they’re understanding any of it. It’s on at the Royal until 31st December.

P. S. We witnessed an unfortunate example of theatre rage being played out in the bar during the interval. A man was taking a couple to task because their children were flashing their light sabres during the performance and ruining his enjoyment of the play. I can understand his point. I can also understand theirs – in that the toys were bought at the theatre with the implicit understanding that they will be played with during the show. It’s an interesting question of theatre etiquette; the flashing toys wouldn’t have been half so noticeable in a proper pantomime. That said, the kids probably needed them to divert their attention from what they couldn’t understand was happening on the stage. I’d like to say that their discussion was polite and reasoned; I’d like to…; sorry about that.

Review – Marcus Brigstocke, Why the Long Face, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 20th October 2016

m-brigstockeWe last saw Marcus Brigstocke four years ago in the very same theatre when he was giving us his views on The Brig Society, a first rate comedy diatribe on David Cameron’s Britain. Now he’s back with a reflection on why the long face; in other words, why, given that he has a privileged existence, do so many things annoy or upset him. Rather like the Ancient Mariner – a sadder and a wiser man – Mr Brigstocke has gone through a few upheavals since we last saw him. Thus he digs into some of his personal recollections and confessions to excavate some painfully touching observations and create one of the most open and honest comedy shows (and funniest) I’ve ever seen. He really lays himself bare for our consideration and reaction – in fact, slightly barer than one might expect, come the end of the show.

Marcus BrigstockeThe EU referendum is something of a gift for Mr Brigstocke. Not the result, far from it; but it gives him a raft of brilliant material which dominates the first half of the show. For staunch, moaning, metropolitan elite remainers like Mrs Chrisparkle and me, his wallowing in sheer rage and his deft destruction of Brexit’s immense stupidity was like therapy. At (very) long last, I felt empowered to laugh at the result and not merely be miserable or disgusted by it. It was like popping a champagne bottle of pent-up frustrations and letting it overflow out into the stalls. It has to be said: if you are a proud Brexiteer, you are going to hate this show. I really couldn’t recommend it to you, because you will feel attacked, humiliated, shamed and probably in a woeful minority. For those of us who take the opposite point of view, for one magical evening we were allowed to share in blissful mockery. It was heavenly.

marcus-bThere’s a lot of audience participation but none of it is scary. He achieves this in a number of ways, for example, ascertaining who the teenagers are and making sure they’re enjoying their lives – then identifying everyone else by their age, decade by decade, peaking at the 60+ bracket. A lot of his material bounces off the fact that he is a straight white male (all the SWMs have to cheer to identify themselves) but nevertheless he likes musical theatre (another cheer to prove that, yes, we do exist). He asks us to shout out our favourite stage musicals – Les Miserables, Rocky Horror and A Chorus Line (my contribution) proved to him that we were camper than we looked. He asks the audience how many of us are the happiest we’ve ever been – which creates some rewarding and funny responses; he discovers how many of us have been on a speed driving awareness course – so many! There’s a cringe-inducingly brilliant sequence where he describes being accosted by a non-empathetic Geordie, the reason why Ed Miliband lost the last election and his take on a girl’s reaction to her first period – which not many male comics would be able to get away with. So there’s a lot more than just post-Brexit angst to enjoy.

Marcus BrigstockeMr Brigstocke was absolutely on fire last night. His rapport is instant, his confidence reassuring. He’s not afraid to speak his mind, but you sense he would be respectful in debate (not that anyone was disagreeing with him). He really lets you into his own private world and makes you welcome. His material is fresh, original and very funny. Two hours in his company was a tonic for the soul. (Does not apply if you are pro-Brexit!) His tour continues into December and I couldn’t recommend him more strongly!

Review – The Herbal Bed, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 16th February 2016

The Herbal BedIf you’ve ever got a spare weekend, gentle reader, you could do no better than to book into a nice hotel in Stratford on Avon, and visit all five of the Shakespeare Properties. My recommendation would be to start off at Shakespeare’s Birthplace, then take in Hall’s Croft and New Place (although that’s currently closed for renovation) – and maybe with a side visit to the Holy Trinity Church. Then after spending Saturday night feeding your face silly and getting rat-arsed, continue the culture pilgrimage on the Sunday with a morning visit to Anne Hathaway’s Cottage and then, after a light lunch, drive out to Mary Arden’s House before heading home. We’ve done it a couple of times and it’s enormous fun.

Jonathan Guy Lewis and Emma LowndesWhilst at Hall’s Croft you can see an exhibition of 17th century medicine and of course Dr Hall’s physic garden where he grew the herbs that were used to create his magic health cures. John Hall was a most respected physician and he married Shakespeare’s daughter Susanna in 1607. Peter Whelan’s The Herbal Bed takes the true story of how their marriage was threatened by an accusation of adultery, made by a local ne’er-do-well John Lane against Susanna, accusing her of infidelity with the family friend Rafe Smith. The accusation knocks John Hall for six, and although Whelan allows us to see what he imagines did go on between Susanna and Smith, I’m not sure if you’d call it adultery. As history relates, the Halls refute the allegation and take Lane to the Ecclesiastical Court, where the case will be heard by the Bishop’s interrogator, Barnabus Goche. And I shan’t tell you what happens next – even though it is a matter of history and not Mr Whelan’s invention. Suffice to say, Susanna’s made her herbal bed – so she has to lie in it.

Philip CorreiaIt’s a fascinating, beautifully written play, with real, believable characters created out of what might otherwise just remain faceless names in a courtroom record book. It examines reputation, motives and loyalty, questions the nature and definition of infidelity, and above all shows what happens when you defy a greater authority than yourself – be it the local doctor, or the Ecclesiastical Court. It’s a little like You Can’t Fight City Hall – 1610s style. It looks at expectations of social behaviour within class, religious and professional codes; and there is a wonderful moment towards the end of the play when the value of telling the truth – or not – is explored.

Matt WhitchurchThis play has been produced by the Royal and Derngate as part of its Made in Northampton season, and co-produced with the Rose Theatre Kingston and English Touring Theatre. Director James Dacre has assembled a committed and exciting cast to create a really first class production that had Mrs Chrisparkle and me gripped all the way through. Jonathan Fensom’s simple but evocative set brings Hall’s Croft to life, and it’s amazing how the sudden appearance of one window can create the illusion of a cathedral. Valgeir Sigurðsson’s haunting music makes subtle appearances to increase the sense of danger and suspense. And there are a couple of other people that definitely merit a credit. It’s not often that I would pick out the role of “fight director” for special mention, but Terry King did something incredibly right in this production as the fight/scuffle scene, albeit brief, was the most believable and immaculately performed I have seen in a very long time. Similarly, Charmian Hoare did a great job as dialect coach as the accents were (IMHO) totally spot on and maintained perfectly throughout the whole evening.

Philip Correia, Emma Lowndes and Jonathan Guy LewisAt the heart of the production is a stunning central performance by Jonathan Guy Lewis as Hall. Authoritative but kindly, it’s a sterling portrayal of an honourable man whose decent life is within inches of collapsing, and the most he can do is to face the challenges head on, as best he can. With something of the Trevor Eve about him, he gives it great intensity with a sense of fairness – a very fine performance. Emma Lowndes is also excellent as Susanna, prim and mannerly in public, matter-of-fact and business-like with her husband, an excited little girl with special guests. You can see her eyes darting all about her head as she thinks on her feet how to extricate herself from her mess, and it’s glorious to watch her retain respectability by the skin of her teeth.

Charlotte Wakefield and Matt WhitchurchMatt Whitchurch makes a splendid young roué out of the role of Jack Lane; just one of the lads in many ways, but seeking revenge when puritanical motives turn against him. Philip Correia, who really enjoyed in The Pitmen Painters a few years ago, gives a good account of the character of Rafe Smith; seemingly puritanical yet not denying his younger, more laddish past; ashamed of his personal fallibility where it comes to earthly matters, but powerless to turn away from temptation. Charlotte Wakefield, brilliant as Laurey in last year’s Oklahoma!, brings depth and insight to the character of Hester the maid, whose evidence will be so vital during the trial. Patrick Driver is the Bishop who’s as honest and as decent a man that you could expect to find in the role.

Patrick Driver and Emma LowndesBut if I gave a Chrisparkle Award for Best Supporting Actor (and I don’t) it would very likely go to Michael Mears for his ruthlessly pious portrayal of Barnabus Goche, itching to ask difficult questions, prurient antennae attuned to discovering dirt, sniffing out scandal where it isn’t, and verging on violence with his interrogational tactics. He gave a stand-out performance in A Tale of Two Cities a couple of years ago; he’s an amazingly talented and watchable character actor. In common parlance, in the penultimate scene in the cathedral, he smashed it.

Charlotte Wakefield and Michael MearsA very exciting and engrossing play that held our grip throughout. Beautifully produced and performed, it will continue to delight audiences for the next few months as it tours Cambridge, Liverpool, Exeter, Brighton, Salford, Bath, Oxford and Kingston. Highly recommended!

Review – The Snow Queen, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 4th December 2015

The Snow QueenI remember when I was about 6, the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle bought me two old books of fairy tales from a second hand bookshop. One was by Hans Christian Andersen – because she was always taken with the beautiful sorrow of The Little Match Girl – and the other was by the Brothers Grimm. They were both Victorian books and full of grand old illustrations. I loved the Grimm stories because they had such memorable characters and twisted stories like Rumpelstiltskin; I always found the Andersen stories rather tame by comparison. Both books are now, sadly, long gone; and when I saw that this year’s Royal and Derngate Christmas play was to be The Snow Queen, I confess I couldn’t bring to mind anything about the story at all.

Snow QueenOf course, that doesn’t matter in order to appreciate this highly entertaining production, because the R&D Christmas plays always work wonders in the storytelling department, and this is no exception to the rule. Georgia Pritchett’s adaptation has simplified many of Andersen’s plot intricacies. Central to the tale is the partnership of best friends Gerda and Kai, who gets entrapped by the Snow Queen, herself desperate to find her own son that the wicked troll took. As his faithful pal, Gerda devotes herself to finding Kai, here with the help of a raven, a reindeer and a Gorbals Headbutter of a Red Riding Hood. Along the way they also meet Sleeping Beauty and her prince, waiting for Happy Ever After to kick in, and a wicked witch with a cake fixation. At times it feels as though you’ve wondered into a side plot of Into The Woods, as various fairy tale characters weave in and out of the story. I understand that the original fairy tale of the Snow Queen is the inspiration for Disney’s Frozen, which I also haven’t seen; so if you’re hoping that I will make any insightful links between the two, you’ll be sadly disappointed.

Kai and GerdaThe play begins with a rather dark and gloomy explanation of why the Snow Queen had become the wicked character that she is, losing her child to the villainous troll, so that she must obey his wishes in order to get her child back. You could say she was more sinned against than sinning, thereby showing that no one (well, nearly no one?) is completely evil. But as her need to regain her missing son gets stronger and stronger, so does her ruthless cruelty. The Snow Queen will only get him back if she can find a child who willingly comes to the Snow Palace; and as she has forced Kai there against his will, he doesn’t fit the bill. However, if he stays, and Gerda willingly comes to rescue him…. The plot thickens. Will Gerda find Kai and be reunited again, or will she fall into the Snow Queen’s trap and never be seen again? Well, obviously, I’m not going to tell you that.

Gerda and RavenFor a fairy tale really to work, you have to take the element of evil seriously. It’s not like a pantomime, where the villains are – well, pantomime villains actually. It would be no good having the Snow Queen merely another incarnation of Cinderella’s Ugly Sisters or Aladdin’s Abanazar. She’s genuine human flesh and blood, with a tortured mind needing to take that step from abused to abuser. However, as a result of all that serious scene-setting, making the audience appreciate the evil of the Snow Palace, there’s not a lot of fun to be had in the first fifteen or so minutes. To be honest I found the start of the play rather stodgy and worthy. Even once we’ve had our introduction to the characters of Gerda and Kai, I found I didn’t really warm to them much at first, despite the excellent efforts of the actors. I think the change of mood from a rather pompous and portentous opening to just a couple of kids goofing around was too strong and sudden to feel real.

RudolphPoor Kai, though. He really gets a rough deal in this play. Separated from his playpal early on and doomed to spend the next hour and a half in solitary deep freeze, I can’t imagine it’s a very rewarding role to play. Nevertheless, Jonny Weldon certainly brings the character of Kai to life and makes his plight particularly moving in the second act. Mona Goodwin rises to the challenge of making Gerda likeable, as the character’s a bit stiff and starchy at first, making her perhaps not instantly appealing. There are elements of Alice in Wonderland in her characterisation as she tries to make both adults and animals alike see sense; and as the drama progresses you genuinely fear for her safety in her quest to take back Kai. As the Snow Queen herself, Caroline Head lets you see both sides of her character: ruthless and cruel when it comes to teasing Kai, but essentially a devastated mother, desperate for the return of her long lost child. Would it have felt just a little more exciting if the Queen had been more of a villain and less of a victim? Possibly. But then this play has much more complexity than your average pantomime.

Happy Ever AfterThere were two comic performances that absolutely lit up the stage and frankly made you laugh your head off whenever the actors came on. Tosin Olomowewe as the Raven had a mischievous twinkle and a knowing wink, a damn high opinion of himself, wonderful comic timing and an instant rapport with the audience. It did help that Georgia Pritchett had given him nearly all the best lines; but I really loved his performance. The other star turn was from Richard Pryal as a gay and totally unselfconscious Rudolph, whose sole in ambition in life is to take charge of Santa’s sleigh (he’s a real fan, you’ll notice) and if it can be done whilst enjoying the company of muscly men, all the better. There are also excellent performances by Angela Bain as the Witch, and by Mairi Barclay as the Robber Maiden and the Princess still waiting for her Happy Ever After. And a big mention to Ti Green’s set – you’ve never seen such magic icicles!

Gerda, Robber Maiden and the RavenWhilst there are a few longueurs (especially at the beginning), once the humour and the quirky characters have taken over, it’s a charming and funny tale engagingly told in the best tradition of the Royal Theatre’s Christmas play. On until 3rd January!

Review – Light, Theatre Ad Infinitum, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 2nd February 2015

LightLast summer, Mrs Chrisparkle and I enjoyed our first ever visit to the Edinburgh Fringe, and one of the little gems that we missed was the remarkable mime drama, Light, performed by Theatre Ad Infinitum; so I was very pleased that we could have a second chance at seeing it. Sadly, after booking, Mrs C was called away to New York to have business meetings in -19 degrees temperatures and up to her neck in snow, so she still hasn’t seen it. However, as luck would have it, her returned ticket ended up being resold to my local blogging colleague Mr Small Mind at the Theatre, so we indeed formed something of a critical powerhouse in the middle of Row C.

The show runs for 70 minutes, a difficult time length to be the focus of an evening’s entertainment, unless you’re at the Fringe, in which case it’s the perfect length. But for the most part, if you’re going out for to see a show which starts at 7.30pm, you might feel a bit cheated if it doesn’t carry on a little past 8.40pm. However, Light is such an intense experience, with so much happening on stage in extremes of light and darkness, that it calls for major concentration by its audience; and if it had lasted much longer than 70 minutes I think I might have needed to be rescued from the theatre to be given some amphetamines to liven me up. It’s really exhausting (but worthwhile) viewing!

Theatre Ad InfinitumTimedate – the 21st century. Spacelocation – somewhere in the recesses of a thought police state, where everyone’s a scientist, a law-enforcer, or on the run. Cass has developed an amazing technology that allows thoughts to be transferred from one person to another by means of a coloured blob that you can pluck out of your head and then chuck to someone else, which they then in turn fit inside their brain. It’s like a thought email. But her partner – who is a bigwig in the government – has taken this force for good and corrupted it into a force for evil. And it’s their son Alex, a junior government agent, who is left to face the consequences.

The show was inspired by the revelations of Edward Snowden, and the ongoing debate about the role of an Orwellian Big Brother in our society. The totalitarian regime takes a positive invention and then manipulates it to take control of the people, by monitoring their innermost personal thoughts as well as what they say. What goes on inside our heads is one of the final bastions of privacy – no one can see inside anyone’s brain to examine and dissect their thoughts. They can record what we say – but our mind is a secret. In this 21st century state, anyone who tries to disconnect from the monitoring system automatically becomes a criminal, and is dealt with swiftly and ruthlessly. After all, if you’ve got nothing to hide…. Yes I’ve never believed that tosh either.

Clever Light ShowVisually, it’s a thrilling show. With both the stage and the auditorium plunged into darkness (hence the heartfelt request to turn off mobile phones because that really would spoil the illusion), you know things are happening on stage but you can’t see them. Suddenly a light appears and illuminates a face, an action, or a stance; then brief darkness again before another strikingly lit tableau where people will have changed position or attitude (or indeed, changed people). In another scene you might discover the bright bulbs along a table edge moving towards you, or upending on its side, serving as the show’s only real prop – apart from the very cleverly presented thought bubbles. The show consists of dozens (maybe even hundreds) of very short scenes like these, some perhaps only a few seconds long. The accumulation of scenes provides a gripping storyline, which, even though I confess I don’t think I understood absolutely, is full of drama, excitement and suspense.

The individual scenes are sometimes brutal in their depictions of pain or anguish, giving the whole piece a feeling of great savagery. It’s a world you really wouldn’t want to inhabit. The constant changes also give the show a terrific pace as well as intensity. Fast moving, exciting, dynamic; a constant challenge to your eyes to make sense of each developing scene; as well as to your ears, with its unsettling modernistic abstract soundtrack. There’s a sequence when the abstract noises are replaced by Beethoven; I found that a really moving contrast. There are also aspects of the story that are rather funny in a sentimental way – Alex’s parents first date is presented as a touchingly naïve and charming meeting, which only makes the subsequent reality of the technological ogre that is Alex’s father even harsher.

Great Use of TableAll this, and not a word spoken on stage; although there is a narrative voice over between some of the scenes. The strength of the performances comes across in the deftness of the scene changes, and the physical theatre aspect of how the actors work with their bodies, the way they occupy the stage. When it is revealed at curtain call that there are only five performers, you feel astounded that there weren’t half a dozen more. I don’t know to what extent the lighting plot is managed by a person or a machine; if the lighting sequence went wrong in any way it could really destroy the flow of the show – so whoever is behind that is an electronic genius.

A riveting 70 minutes that held a packed Royal auditorium enthralled – a true adventure in theatre. It’s touring until 16th February – and if you want to see something really different, this is a great opportunity.

You can read more about Theatre Ad Infinitum here.

Production photographs by Alex Brenner.