Indochina – Cambodia – Phnom Penh

Leaving Chau Doc for CambodiaMeanwhile, back in Indochina…. a few weeks ago, gentle reader, I left you playing Hunt the Gecko all night in our hotel room in Chau Doc, not really the best preparation for our triumphal entry into Cambodia the next day. Nevertheless, we emerged from our sleep, ready to take in our final Vietnamese morning, and the exciting prospect of a four hour speedboat trip up the Mekong, into Cambodia, and on to Phnom Penh. What a stylish way to go from country to country! The boat belongs to the Victoria Hotel and they use it for day trips to the Cambodian capital as well as for proper international travel. There was plenty of room for us intrepid five to relax, stretch out and take in the beautiful scenery.

Vietnamese/Cambodian borderThere was no particular problem at the border crossing, although it was a slow process. Fortunately the hotel provided a guide who explained precisely all the forms we would have to complete, which booths to stand at, which fees to pay, and so on. We were expecting quite a major border post, considering it’s an international boundary on one of the world’s biggest rivers; instead, it was like a couple of garden sheds and a Portakabin, surrounded by a few obligatory shrines and a mangy dog. Bureaucracy took its usual unhurried pace, and, about an hour later, with ID’s confirmed and dongs exchanged for riels, we were back on the river. The rest of the journey was uneventful with nothing to do but observe river life, until, as often seems to happen on the Mekong, the boat broke down. En route to Phnom PenhThe Captain and the guide weren’t the remotest bit concerned though – I got the impression this happened all the time. The Captain did whatever is the naval equivalent of getting under the bonnet and wiggling a few connections, and off we went again. The Captain returned, somewhat smug at his engineering prowess, to his steering wheel. However, in doing so, he accidentally kicked over a bucket of iced water that had been keeping soft drinks cold for us so that the water went cascading all over the inside of the boat, splashing up the sides of our legs and ruining any delicate shoes that might have been worn. With a hundred sorries imparted to a few discomfited Brits, the Captain wasn’t looking so smug any more.

Arriving at Phnom PenhArriving anywhere from sea is an exciting view – we’ve been on cruises that have called at Valletta and Venice, for example, and nothing can prepare you for the exhilaration of seeing these places from the water, as the land gets closer. Well, arriving at Phnom Penh from the Mekong is a similarly amazing sight to behold. From some distance you get the promise of all these gilded temples with their pointy roofs and elaborate finials shaped like the “nagas” of Buddhist mythology, although they remind me more of birds of prey talons, or those very ornate fingernails Thai dancers have. The initial sensation is one of elegance, a treasury of history, a place where time has stood still so that these extraordinarily beautiful buildings can co-exist with recent functional architecture in a modern frenetic city. You can’t wait to get off the boat and explore the city.

Elephant BarBut first we checked into our hotel – and how fantastic it is. We were at the Raffles Hotel le Royal, and it’s probably the second most beautiful hotel I’ve ever stayed in (want to know which is the most beautiful? It’s the Oberoi Amarvilas in Agra). The bedrooms and the public rooms are immaculate, and they really get the service right too, being the perfect blend of friendliness and politeness. The Elephant Bar is a wonderful place to unwind at the end of an evening, the poolside terrace is exquisite, and the main restaurant simply fab – as we would discover the next evening.

Royal PalaceAfter lunch it was time to head back into town and meet our guide, Phaly (I think that’s how you spell it – pronounced Polly). She was an extraordinary person with a very personal understanding of the sorrowful history of Cambodia over the last forty years. We would learn more about that, and her own experiences, the next day. Meanwhile, on a happier note, our afternoon was spent visiting the Royal Palace, whose intricate spires and quirky shaped temples had welcomed us at a distance on the boat that morning.Royal Palace another view You would think that the Royal Palace might be centuries old, but actually it only dates from the mid-nineteenth century, and is the official residence of Cambodia’s reigning monarch, King Sihamoni. There are many buildings that make up the whole Palace complex, including the Throne Hall, the Pavilion of Napoleon III, the Dancing Pavilion and the Royal Treasury. As you would expect, they are adorned with stunning decorations and it’s all landscaped to immaculate smartness; there’s hardly a leaf out of place. Costumes exhibitionOne of the halls has a rather bizarre costume exhibition; not that you wouldn’t expect an exhibition of costume in a place like this, but some of the models made it look as though they’ve been transported from a tatty 1980s boutique that’s having a hard time shifting some old stock. Alongside the Royal Palace you can also find the Silver Pagoda, with its stupa that holds the ashes of the current King’s grandparents, its Equestrian Statue of King Norodom dressed as Napoleon III, and its Buddhist temple.

Wat PhnomWe then moved on to Wat Phnom, a very lively and happening temple built in 1373 to house some early Buddhist statues; now it’s a market and a meeting place as well as a place of worship. It’s very colourfully decorated, verging on the gaudy more than the tasteful. Very prevalent in Cambodia are the people near to temples selling caged birds – the idea is you buy a bird and then set it free – it gives you good Karma. One of our group decided to buy one of these wretched animals trapped in its tiny cage; she paid over her money and received the little cage, which she then opened – shook a little – Wat Phnom clockand the bird just dropped dead out of it onto the floor. I’m sure that didn’t do anyone’s Karma rating any good at all. Whilst I was trying to stifle a smile remembering Monty Python’s Norwegian Blue, our fellow intrepid traveller just marched straight back to the bird seller and demanded a fresh one. It all seemed very strange to me. The new bird flew away and Karma was restored. Outside Wat Phnom there is a big garden clock, set in the lawn adjacent to the temple. It still works – although I doubt it’s been there since 1373.

Phnom PenhAnd that concluded our afternoon sightseeing. Like all Asian cities Phnom Penh’s roads are a battlefield between car, cyclist and pedestrian, although it wasn’t as terrifying as Vietnam. We safely made our way back to Raffles for afternoon tea and a nap, before returning into town to try the FCC for dinner. That’s the Foreign Correspondents Club to you and me. Railway StationIt’s somewhere people rave about, but to be honest, we couldn’t see what all the fuss was about. My pizza was cold, and Mrs Chrisparkle discovered she had a big ugly black thing walking over her hand at one point, at which she let out a shriek, some good old Anglo-Saxonisms, and the big ugly black thing fled for its life.

Post OfficeThe next morning we all went for a leisurely walk around Phnom Penh’s old historic centre, to observe its fascinating mix of Khmer and French colonial architecture. We drove past the Medical University and the main railway station, which reminded me a little of the old Hoover building in Perivale. We saw Telecom Cambodia and the Children’s Hospital, where the streets were thronging with parents and children anxiously going in and out for appointments, then happily chatting about diagnoses and medications. A once elegant hotelWe saw what once was an imposing elegant building but with its façade damaged, its paint peeling from the surface, overrun with vegetation and surrounded by a collapsing corrugated iron fence – this was right in the heart of the city. Apparently it once was a very grand hotel, but once it had been attacked and had fallen into disrepair, it’s just been left to rot. We saw the Main Post Office, stately, as they often are; and a fruit and veg market, glistening with goodies and not as stomach turning as some markets can be.Regular market We visited the modern market hall, circular in design, with entrances north, south, east and west; and with outside rows of stalls lining the four entrance paths – it must look very elegant from the air. We took in the National Museum, with its four pavilions housing the most striking statuary – a beautiful building in itself and there are some amazing exhibits there.

Modern marketAfter all that edification, it was definitely time for lunch. It was yet another of these youth projects, Friends, and their Romdeng restaurant. It was possibly the most impressive of all these restaurants, that aim to train former street children, give them a career and also provide a splendid culinary experience. National MuseumThe food and service was great, and if it’s still on the menu, the chocolate and banana spring roll with strawberry sauce is To Die For.

Wherever you go in Phnom Penh, you cannot escape memories of the Pol Pot regime. These beautiful, kind, gentle people were subjected to the most brutal and cruel subjugation that virtually eradicated an entire generation.Hard work It’s very striking in Cambodia that you see many people aged around 25 or younger, and many 55 or older; but disturbingly few in between. They simply didn’t survive. Those that remain have few assets, as their property was seized or destroyed – our guide Phaly told us that she works to maintain the rest of the family and all eight of them sleep in one room. Her parents were killed when she was young and as a result, she doesn’t actually know her birthdate or age. Phnom Penh roadsThings one takes for granted in the west are precious commodities in Cambodia. Yet they don’t appear to resent the past, they seem to accept it in a very Buddhist way, and overall it’s a very peaceful, welcoming place, much more similar to Laos than to Vietnam.

Genocide museum - gibbetThus, having spent the morning taking in the sights and sounds of modern Phnom Penh, and the beauty of its archaeological and artistic heritage in the National Museum, it was time to turn to sadder things. The Tuol Seng Museum of Genocide is situated in a former school in the centre of the city, that was used as a prison by Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge and has been left as a reminder future generations. Genocide museum - rulesIt’s a harrowing and haunting experience, but essential to understand the true nature of what went on and to admire the indomitable spirit of the victims. Outside you see a sign with the prison rules – designed to intimidate and bully the victims into acceptance of their fate. Inside, on top of the spartan beds in each cell lie instruments of torture; on some of the walls you see pictures of people who spent their last days in those cells; the white and yellow floor tiles are blackened with the spilled blood of the murdered. When you hear what actually happened it chills you to the bone. Pol Pot’s terrorists,Genocide museum - cells who gathered together all the intellectuals, the professionals, the teachers, the doctors – everyone except the farmers by the sound of it – and tortured and despatched them, were mere boys aged 12 to 16, encouraged to let loose their bloodlust on the terrified population. It’s extraordinary to think that this sector of the community – one that under ordinary circumstances society educates, assists and nurtures – should turn on its fellow citizens in such a barbaric way.

Genocide museum - victimsFor me the most memorable exhibits in the Genocide museum were the galleries of photographs of some of the people imprisoned and who knew they were going to lose their lives. The majority looked – unsurprisingly – devastated, broken and desperately sad. A few looked furious, arrogant, proud and determined not to give in. That spirit of defiance was awe-inspiring. Illustrations on the walls showed the torture methods they used and looked positively medieval in their cruelty.

SurvivorOut of all the thousands that passed through its gates, only seven people survived the prison experience. On the day we were there, one of them, Chum Mey, now into his eighties, was giving a talk to a group of students, as well as selling copies of his book, Survivor. It was an honour to meet him, but I also felt a distinct degree of discomfort at freely wandering round the prison where he had suffered such appalling hardship. He seemed very happy to meet tourists though.

Killing Fields - pavilionIn for a penny, in for a pound. Once we’d been well and truly humbled by our visit to the Genocide museum, it was time to visit the Killing Fields. It’s an appropriate end to the day, as you’re following the route of those prisoners who were shipped off from the Tuol Seng to be sent the five miles out of town to the deceptively peaceful setting of the former orchard at Choeung Ek, to be killed. It’s an extraordinary place to visit – for so many reasons. At its centre is a memorial pavilion, built in 1988, with glass panels around, and inside you can see approximately 8,000 skulls of victims found at the site. It is gruesome – but it’s also strangely dignified and noble.

Killing Fields - noticeThere is a sequence of tourists signs denoting the places where the trucks, bringing in the victims, would stop, and from where they would be led away for immediate execution; but when the numbers got too many, it became impossible to kill them all quickly enough so they needed a detention spot where the victims could await their death – and there is a tourist sign indicating that spot too. There is a sign marking where the Executioners’ office was; and finally the Chemical Substances Killing Fields - signsStorage room sign shows where they used to keep DDT and other such chemicals which would be scattered over the corpses to obliterate the smell and also to kill off any people who had accidentally survived their executions.

What affected me most was the frequent sight of bones and clothing just peeping out of the surface of the ground. Although there was an exhumation of the Jagged edge treemass graves in 1980, there hasn’t been the time or resources to perform a thorough clearing of the site, and no doubt everywhere you walk is only millimetres above a burial site. There’s a display cabinet showing some rags of victims’ clothes that came to the surface during rain whilst they were exhuming the mass graves. It’s a particularly pitiful sight, just to see the ordinary, everyday items that people were wearing on their most extraordinary of death days. The Khmer Rouge didn’t like to waste valuable bullets on these people Killing treeif possible, so they were frequently bludgeoned to death by using blunted hoes; and some trees on the site provide branches with very sharp jagged edges that were used as tools for decapitation. There’s another tree – The Killing Tree – against which babies were flung by their ankles. I think I’ve gone into enough detail.

victims' clothesIt’s so incongruous that such a ghastly place is a tourist destination, but, like Auschwitz, it’s somewhere you have to go and bear witness to the atrocities committed by man on man, in the hope that it might prevent it from happening again. We both felt that the Killing Fields were actually more upsetting than Auschwitz. Auschwitz is a site of enormous dignity and reverence. The Killing Fields had an ice cream stall, souvenir shop and a children’s playground nearby. There were ladies walking round selling pashminas. I guess life goes on.

enjoy lifeI can’t imagine anywhere more welcoming than the Raffles after such a harrowing afternoon. The juxtaposition of present day luxury and 1970s genocide is surreal. However, you can’t change the past and can only live fully in the present and look to the future. So for dinner that night we ate at the Raffles Restaurant Le Royal which was hideously expensive but a real celebration of enjoying life.

Review – Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris, Charing Cross Theatre, 10th November 2014

Jacques Brel is Alive and WellI think I’d heard of “Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris” before I’d actually heard of Jacques Brel himself. The show first saw the light of day in 1968, off-Broadway, and gained something of a cult status as it clocked up a four year run in its initial production, plus the many other international versions that followed. But through my early years the work of M. Brel remained something of a mystery to me. Then about fifteen years ago my friend the Lord Liverpool introduced me to the album “Scott Walker sings Jacques Brel” and particularly the song Jacky, which famously was banned by the BBC because of its lyrics – you won’t want me to reprint them here. Suffice to say, I loved it – and the rest of the album, with my other favourite being the savage Next – more of which later.

Gina BeckThe album also features If You Go Away, but to be honest I always preferred Terry Jacks’ 1974 version, his follow up hit to “Seasons in the Sun”, (always enough to reduce a grown man to a deluge of tears), and which was itself an adaptation of Brel’s Le Moribond. But I realise now that in comparison to the originals, these Scott Walker renditions are really overblown, over-orchestrated and over-fussy. So when I saw that “Jacques Brel IAAWALIP” was having a revival at the Charing Cross Theatre I thought it was a perfect opportunity finally to acquaint myself with this cult show. However, I knew that it wouldn’t be Mrs Chrisparkle’s thing. If I’d said to her, “would you like to see a show based on the songs of a Belgian who died in 1978” she would have looked at me more than askance. But my friend HRH the Crown Prince of Bedford is another Brelhead, and so it was that he and I went to see the show last Monday night.

Daniel BoysI’d never been to the Charing Cross Theatre before. When I was growing up it was the Players Theatre Club, having been home to the original production of Sandy Wilson’s The Boy Friend in the 1950s. If my memory serves me right, in the 1970s members of the Players Theatre used to perform on the BBC’s Good Old Days programme (all together in your best Leonard Sachs voice: Once again, Good Evening, Ladies and Gentlemen!) But today it is its own little theatre in its own right, seating 250 at a push, and with a rather charming atmosphere, helped or hindered (you decide) by the regular rumblings of trains passing overhead, and with a comfortable bar/restaurant offering an excellent and filling pre-theatre dinner at a much cheaper price than is decent for such a Central London location.

Jacques BrelTo say the show has a simple structure would be something of an understatement. If, like me, you were expecting some kind of narrative, or some theme to the evening, you might be in for a disappointment. I had thought it would be a kind of Side By Side By Brel, with some Ned Sherrin style bonhomie taking us through his career and illustrating it with choice examples of his work. Alternatively, it might have been an early example of the Mamma Mia genre, where you have an original plot but into which the Brel numbers would have dovetailed perfectly. But it’s neither. You simply have a running order of 28 songs, performed by the cast of four, accompanied by Dean Austin’s splendid five piece band nicely integrated with the action, scattered around the set, which resembles a modest cabaret club. The cabaret feels spills out into the auditorium in fact, as the usual first few rows have been taken out and replaced with five cabaret tables, each with four chairs. His Majesty and I sat at one of these and I have to say that, although you really have to look up high, our proximity to some of the action was breathtaking. At times it was as though we were on the stage with them, or they were performing promenade style around us – Miss Gina Beck even poured us out a glass of water. There’s no particularly rhyme or reason to the sequence of the songs that I could make out, no attempt to create a real narrative strand; but that’s not a problem as each song is its own mini masterpiece of a drama, and there are plenty of opportunities for the cast to excel both musically and dramatically.

Eve PolycarpouThe structure of the show means that its success or failure lies completely with the quality of the songs and performances; and for me I can definitely say it was a resounding success throughout. The songs that I recognised, I loved; and those that I didn’t know were, almost without exception, exciting discoveries. The cast are a superb combination of young, pure and idealistic (Gina Beck and Daniel Boys – brilliant in last year’s High Society) and the more mature and experienced (Eve Polycarpou and David Burt – an excellent gangster in Kiss Me Kate and hilarious in Hamlet the Musical), giving a nice sense of balance to the production. The evening begins with Eve singing Le Diable (Ça va) in both French and English, creating a very moody and melancholic atmosphere, which leads into If We Only Have Love and the sumptuous Alone. The English lyrics, by the way, were written by Eric Blau and Mort Schuman who together created the original production of the show. Other first half highlights included a very original presentation of Jacky by David, with a laid back, reflective, self-satisfied first verse, which then gains triumphant self-confidence as the song progresses. David also performed a very emotional rendition of Fanette which I really loved; and the whole company joined together for The Desperate Ones – again with the performers right up close to us you could see their unflinching commitment to what they were doing which somehow made it even moving; these Brel songs can be very raw as you witness the passion and pain in the performers’ concentration. There was also a very perky performance of Timid Frieda by Gina and then David took us into the interval with a rousingly angry (as is traditional) version of Amsterdam.

David BurtAct Two began with the whole company performing Madeleine (HRH’s favourite) – a tune that I now realise was shamelessly ripped off in the song Veronique in the 1970s musical On The Twentieth Century. Act Two continued with some spectacular performances including Eve singing Ne me quitte pas in French, sat on the edge of the stage with her guitar, right in front of us – a right goose-bumps moment if ever there was one; Daniel and David doing a very funny version of Middle Class (during which David cheersed me with his champagne glass; Gina singing a very moving Old Folks, David providing a hilarious and immaculately timed Funeral Tango, Daniel performing a very touching Song For Old Lovers and the whole company presenting a highly disturbing and effectively staged Next (Au Suivant), the least romantic song about sex that you could imagine. There is some nice subtle updating going on with a few of the numbers, with Iraq and Afghanistan taking their place and even Nigel Farage muscles in on the action at one point.

Monsieur BrelI really enjoyed the show, but what was the reaction of a true Brel aficionado? The Crown Prince was extremely impressed with it, and was in fact on tippy-toe point of leading an ovation when a sudden wave of self-consciousness overtook him, which he regretted all the way back to the station. Despite the fact that it is now 36 years since Jacques Brel literally was alive and well and living in Paris, the show gives us another opportunity to appreciate his extraordinary contribution to 20th century music and is a fitting and lovingly performed tribute to one helluva character. The show is on until 22nd November and if you like your musical entertainment to be francophone and with a bit of bite, I can’t think of anything better.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 7th November 2014

Screaming Blue MurderIt was just about to happen yet again. Mrs Chrisparkle and I had taken our carefully selected seats on the aisle of the third row which is normally just far enough back to be out of participatory reach of the comics, but close enough to feel involved. However, recently there haven’t been quite so many people coming to the Screaming Blue Murder, and we’ve ended up as default front row, as everybody filed in and sat behind us. Same again this week. With one minute before “curtain up”, no one had sat in front of us. Sigh. I was practising in my head my responses to the usual questions a comic will ask the audience members. “What do you do here in Northampton?” “I tend to write about things I see at the Royal and Derngate”. But then – bliss, as a late arriving veritable coachload of punters (teachers at a local school) trooped in after scoffing down a rushed meal at the restaurant across the road and provided Dan Evans (MC) and the other comedians a feast of material for the rest of the evening.

Dan EvansIt was a welcome return for Dan, who’s not been well recently, poor lad, but he was back on fine form and warmed us up tremendously with new and old material and comedy gold badinage with the schoolteachers. It was the Assistant Principal (Maths) guy who made it so easy. Apparently he was sitting there with a face like a slapped arse, and from my angle looked as though he wanted the earth to swallow him up. There were other late arrivals too, whom Dan interrogated thoroughly before they’d even had a chance to locate some seats. Woe betide the Late Arrivals at the Comedian’s Ball.

Matt PriceOur first act was Matt Price, whom I thought we hadn’t seen before but as his routine developed, we both remembered him from our very early days at Screaming Blue Murder, before I started blogging, circa 2009. He has a terrific comic persona, that of an ungainly and somewhat overweight Cornishman with a tendency to sacrifice politeness for honesty. He saw the Assistant Principal (Maths) guy as a personal challenge, and despite giving us a hysterically funny set, it sounded like he failed. He did some nice sequences including white kids who think they’re black, which I have heard others do, but then matched with black kids who think they’re white, which gave it a very enjoyable balance. He told us of his experiences of performing in Broadmoor (which was what we remembered from years back), and a perfect one-liner involving an unfortunate sexual act with someone with a prosthetic limb. He went down extremely well.

Benny BootNext was Benny Boot, who we definitely hadn’t seen before. Australian, and extremely anarchic, he occasionally built up a really good comic momentum but had a tendency to throw it away with poor timing or inadequate punchlines. He’s the kind of guy you’d dread having as a friend because he will just say the most inappropriate thing at the wrong time, and leave you squirming with embarrassment – as he did when he just went into too much personal interrogation with one of our regular comedygoers who happens to be blind. Not sure how embarrassing it was for the blind guy himself, but enquiring deeply into the nature of his disability simply wasn’t funny – and he definitely lost the majority of the audience as a result. A perfect example of going down the wrong route.

Pierre HollinsOur headline act was Pierre Hollins, whom we have seen here before in 2010 and 2012. Pierre is good ol’ blokey bloke with hugely confident delivery and very funny material about everyday life and relationships. It was hard for his act to get going because one lady near the back developed a disturbingly loud guffaw which she let rip at least every twenty seconds. Mr Hollins played off it very well and it became the centrepiece for a lot of his routine. Once she started to get tedious, he carefully ignored her and got back on his own track again – very skilfully done. Again, he was very popular with the audience.

Only one more Screaming Blue Murder left this season, in two weeks’ time. You’d be a fool to miss it.

Review – Pete Firman, Trickster, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 6th November 2014

TricksterI love magic. Deep down in my heart I know it’s not real, and that what Pete Firman was doing on that stage last night was simply being a Trickster (as the title of the show confirms), but wouldn’t it be great if it was genuine? If he was somehow an innocent conduit for things beyond our ken, who discovered that he had this gift to astound and surprise, but didn’t know how he was able to make these things happen? I want the world to be a place where magic truly exists. Mrs Chrisparkle, realist to her fingertips, looks on magic as a sub-genre of End of the Pier shows, or as just one element of a variety night on a cruise ship. How I managed to slip two tickets under her radar to see Mr Firman’s show, I’ve no idea. Years of practice I guess.

Actually, it was an easy no-brainer. We had seen Mr Firman before, as a guest in the most recent Burlesque Show at the Royal. Not just guest, he was top of the bill, and thoroughly excellent too. I’d expected his Trickster show to be part variety/revue and part magic, but no, it was just Mr Firman, his props, his ingenuity and his rapport with the audience that sustained the whole evening. There is a touch of the Eric Morecambe about him – you can catch it when he adopts that cheesy, toothy grin when he’s putting a brave face on something that isn’t quite quality; you can hear it in his vocal tones when being stagily mock-pompous about his skills. He is a naturally very funny and likeable guy, and, considering I normally quake at the thought of being picked on by a comic, if he’d invited me up on stage to help with a trick I’d have felt relaxed and at ease. He didn’t though, despite our being in Row C of the stalls. Swine.

Pete FThere was, however, lots of crowd participation throughout the course of the evening – I’d estimate that one in two of his tricks involved at least some element of an audience member getting up on stage with him or his coming down into the stalls to talk to people. That sense of involvement really helped the bond between audience and performer, making us one big happy family. Despite its not being a variety show, there is nevertheless a huge amount of variety within his act. Big scale, small scale; up close with a camera; mind reading, and then transferring the same thought to another person; even a trick outside the theatre (with which the whole the audience takes part), and another that took place over 25 years ago. For me though he had two particular corkers, the one that led into the interval and the one at the end. I could go into details about the tricks he performed but that would only spoil it for you if you haven’t seen it yet, and I wouldn’t do that to you, gentle reader, that wouldn’t be fair. So I’m going to be deliberately vague about exactly what happened.

Pete FirmanYou can sit there for hours and wonder, how did he do that? For the most part, “the way it’s done” is simply unguessable. Occasionally you think that if you’d somehow recorded it, and could play it back a few times, you’d be able to see the sleight of hand, the hidden prop, the way something appeared from off-stage. But that would ruin it, wouldn’t it? For the mind reading tricks, there has to be some form of mental suggestion technique involved, and we think we recognised a trigger action; not that that in any way explains exactly how the tricks were done. The “end of part one” trick involved Mr Firman getting a member of the audience to think of a number and then his guessing it, by means of a few pertinent questions and some elaborate statistics. It’s a delightful tour de force! I have a number in my head that I would always think of under such circumstances. It was the number of my locker at school, it would be the number of the box I would choose on Deal or No Deal if ever I was to appear on it (I won’t). It wasn’t the same number that our audience member chose. So if it had been me thinking of a number for Mr Firman to guess, I would have chosen that one, without question; and I just don’t see how the trick could succeed if it had been my number…But I guess that’s magic.

Pete FirmanSimilarly, that final trick left me having to collect my jaw from the floor. Unless the audience is full of stooges – and I don’t think that for a moment this is a magical version of One Man Two Guvnors – there’s only one possible way that trick could have been done; but I’m blowed if I can imagine how he physically managed to do it. If I wasn’t already returning to the Royal and Derngate this evening for another show, I’d be very tempted to see Mr Firman do the show again at the Corby Cube tonight just to firm up in my brain what I actually saw last night. It would be fascinating to observe what’s different between the performances, and even more so to see what isn’t.

A thoroughly enjoyable night’s entertainment that wowed even the cynical Mrs C and left me gobsmacked with mystery. If you love a bit of magic, he’s your man! Go see for yourself.

Review – Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook, aka from Squeeze, The “At Odds Couple” Tour, Derngate, Northampton, 3rd November 2014

At Odds CoupleI used to love Squeeze, they’re very much “my era”, but I haven’t played any of their music for years. My good friend the Sheriff of Shenstone is a big fan and has seen them a number of times over the years, but Mrs Chrisparkle and I have never seen them – and indeed I had to remind Mrs C who they were on our way to the theatre. “You know, Cool For Cats – Coooooool For Cats” – I saw a faint glimmer of recognition; “and so it’s my assumption, I’m really Up The Junction” – nothing. “Take Me I’m Yours, because dreams are made of this” – “Oh I like that one”, she perked up. I had a feeling I was going to have a great time and she was going to have a bit of a long night.

Cool For CatsAfter a long hard day at the office Mrs C has to rush around in the manner of what my late father would have called “a blue-arsed fly”, in order to get home, get changed, get fed and get out for a 7.30pm show. Still, we’ve got the whole routine down to a fine art now, and we arrived at the Derngate with about twelve minutes to spare – enough time to order the Malbecs and check out the Merch. However, when we got there we discovered that the start time had changed to 8pm. Sigh; all that rushing around for nothing. Still, it gave us longer to peruse the wine list (“I’ll have that one at the back with the white label”) and to consider the exclusive items on sale for besotted fans. “Do you want a Difford and Tilbrook tea towel?” asked Mrs C, in a tone that already answered her own question. Given that I try to avoid drying-up at the best of times it seemed impertinent to show an interest.

C DiffordSo with about twenty minutes before it started we made our way early to our seats. I was very surprised to find the stage hidden by the Derngate’s rarely seen (but sumptuously beautiful) purple velvet curtains. How delightfully old-fashioned, I thought. Normally when you go to a concert, the stage is already all open, and you can see instruments, music stands, microphones, and all the rest of it. Sometimes you have a music playing or a video show going to get you in the mood, like when The Osmonds performed. We’ve seen all the greats here, you know: The Osmonds, Glen Campbell, K T Tunstall, Petula Clark…. Each one a different variation of brilliant. And I remember that for each of those acts the audience was buzzing with excitement (yes even the octogenarians for Petula Clark) by the time the artist(s) finally came on stage. Us lot in the stalls would have been gagging for it (so to speak) with videos, music, warm-up acts, flashing lights… intense expectation….high excitement…..

Chris DHowever, the music playing whilst we were waiting for Messrs Difford and Tilbrook was a selection of mournful saxophone solos, that sounded like it was off a CD nicked from the local crem whilst the vicar wasn’t watching. Now I suppose if you’re into really serious, introverted, wrist-slitting jazz you might have enjoyed it. Not the kind of boogie-woogie Jools Holland type of stuff (which would at least have been semi-appropriate), this was the kind of saxophone jazz that might have been written by Mahler when he had the hump. It wasn’t helping the mood. Everyone was talking over it, checking their phones, sitting silently – anything but getting ready for a night of magical musical entertainment. The music finished; the lights went low; the curtain went up. And what did we see? A 1970s set, with hideous wallpaper, a floor cluttered with things like a carpet sweeper, old lampstands, a “changing screen” decorated with bits of posters, a grille that goes on the front of a car (yes honestly), some old wig stands and other bizarre 70s studio detritus. At the back there was a double bed, from which emerged two old blokes dressed like Wee Willie Winkie, à la Morecambe and Wise, who then sat briefly at a breakfast table, chatted a bit self-consciously, then came to the front of the stage and it was only then that I deduced that they were indeed Chris and Glenn whom we had come to see. I’ve never been to a concert before when the stars basically came on stage to bewilderment and silence, instead of the usual welcoming whooping and cheers. By the time we’d recognised them I think we were a bit embarrassed that we hadn’t welcomed them earlier and louder; and then we went all British and continued to receive them politely like the opponents at a village cricket match. I have absolutely no idea why they chose to start the show like this, or set it in this 70s bedroom scenario. Is it a reference to something they used to do way back when? If so it went way over my head.

ArgybargyBut it definitely was Chris and Glenn because they went straight into “Take Me I’m Yours” and it was fantastic. Stunning acoustic guitar work, with harmonies to die for, Glenn’s expressive tenor gives you all the characterisation and individuality that are the hallmark of their songs and Chris’s raspy bass comes in underneath to give it extra grit and power. Together they still sound amazing. I did however feel a little sorry for Mrs C at this point, because, as we had identified earlier, it was the one song she remembered of theirs that she liked, and it was done and dusted within the first five minutes – not a lot to look forward to.

Chris DiffordAfter that first number some momentum had built up, but Chris Difford deflated it by going off to change out of his jim-jams, leaving just Glenn to perform Black Coffee in Bed, which I didn’t recognise but the man next to me was very pleased to hear it and a superfan in front of us went ecstatic. Then Chris came back and it was time for Glenn to get dressed (how bizarre is this opening sequence?) I can’t quite remember what song it was he played – again I think it was new to me – but Glenn only managed to rush on stage just in time to contribute his bit of guitarring skills to it. Really, a lot of unnecessary faffing around here.

G TilbrookI should mention the video wall. Yes, they had one – shame they couldn’t have used it as a warm-up tool – but the back wall of the 70s bedroom dissolved into a big screen for some of the numbers. On the whole the videos were good, either reflecting the lyrics of the song, with wistful cinematography that accompanied the sense of the song, or providing abstract patterns and shapes for others. There were a couple of problems though. It had that technical issue where the image on the screen is (sometimes) inverted, like a mirror-image. There was one song where the video showed Chris and Glenn in front of a boat, and its name appeared back-to-front; and another where we were hurtling from space down towards the UK and spiralling in until we got to a London location where the song was set – but unfortunately the image of the UK was back-to-front too, so that Kent appeared on the bottom left of the country and Cornwall on the bottom right. Made it look a little amateurish. Mrs C was irritated by the video that accompanied Pulling Mussels from a Shell – it was a clip of the group singing it presumably way back in 1980 but it wasn’t in synch with the live performance so the mouthings looked all wrong (but is she being picky here?)

East Side StoryAnd you know, there’s always a backstage person who comes on between songs and unplugs this guitar and plugs that one in, or who moves a microphone from here to there, all that kind of mullarkey – well, they’re always dressed in black aren’t they, so that you don’t notice them so much against the usual black background of a concert stage. However, our black-dressed lady was ultra-noticeable against the browns and beiges of the 70s set. When you don’t notice them, you don’t really give them another thought. But because we could see everything this lady was doing for them so obviously, I kept on thinking they ought to be audibly thanking her for helping, rather than just ignoring her. It didn’t look right – just more ham-fisted than it need have.

Glenn TI didn’t know most of the songs – I’ve only got three of their albums (although they are what I would consider to be The Big Three) – but I did recognise Slap and Tickle from the Cool For Cats album, the aforementioned Pulling Mussels (from Argybargy) and – not quite sure how I know it – the song Cowboys are my Weakness, which Chris said they wrote for k d lang but she didn’t like it. All the way through the audience’s reactions had been warm and friendly but never delirious – I think we were still stunned by the lack of warm-up. As we went into the final song before the interval Glenn asked us “hope you’re enjoying it” and our reaction was as though he’d asked us if the gateau with our afternoon tea was to our taste – “oh yes, very nice thank you”. Even the superfan had long subsided into quiet reflection. Slightly disappointed, Glenn added “well thank you for tolerating it anyway” and that’s when I realised that this gig wasn’t going down anywhere near as well as it should have done. We went out into the interval on a high though, with the marvellous Up The Junction, the only song, as the Sheriff of Shenstone will tell you, whose title doesn’t appear in the lyrics at all until the final three words. Good for pub quizzes that one.

Glenn TilbrookAfter our interval drinkies, we returned to our seats to discover they were still playing that wretched morose saxophone music. It may have been a suitable choice to inter a Soviet leader but not for a light hearted concert. Anyway, once the second half was underway we had more from the wonderful world of Difford and Tilbrook, with their superb guitar work and ever delightful harmonies. All the songs were performed to either two live guitars or one guitar and the keyboard, and, over the course of the evening, it’s probably fair to say that that same arrangement can sometimes make the songs themselves sound a little samey. Fortunately it’s “good same” and not “bad same”. From those that I would have liked to have heard but didn’t, I missed It’s Not Cricket (from Cool For Cats) and Another Nail in my Heart; but Glenn did a very soulful version of Tempted, and a thumpingly satisfying Cool For Cats, which I am delighted now to have seen performed live, so I can die happy. For an encore we had the very emotional and extremely sad Labelled with Love, (Mrs C’s comment: “repetitive”) and the upbeat Goodbye Girl. (Which is also quite repetitive). We did all stand for the last three numbers – but only because Chris told us to. “Stand for Mr Glenn Tilbrook!” he exhorted, and we all sat politely and applauded. “No, stand!!” he emphasised. Slowly we all got to our feet. Mrs C and I don’t like to be told when to give ovations, so we remained seated – but then I realised they were going to sing Cool For Cats so I leapt up anyway – and Mrs C gradually joined me.

It really was a very strange concert. The content was fantastic, but because of the distracting set and the fact that we never really got warmed up properly, it never soared. The presentation wasn’t very fluid, with the guys going on and off quite a bit, and you could see a lot of the backstage machinations through the entrance gaps at the side of the set, which were surprisingly distracting during songs. Still, it was great to see Messrs D & T, and to enjoy these wonderful old songs again; and there’s no doubt that they remain incredibly gifted musicians and writers. The tour continues until 19th November.

Review – Gone Girl, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, 2nd November 2014

Gone GirlThis is the second consecutive film we’ve seen at the Errol Flynn that has been a sell-out – the other being the splendid Pride. Directed by David Fincher, who made Seven (very good) and The Social Network (a bit tedious) and starring Ben Affleck and Rosamund Pike, whose Hedda Gabler we saw in Oxford a few years ago, this is Gillian Flynn’s own adaptation of her best-selling novel.

Ben AffleckHopefully this won’t give too much away: Nick Dunne comes home one day to find a glass occasional table smashed and on its side and no sign of his wife Amy. She’s the real life version of the fictitious Amazing Amy, heroine of a series of books written by her parents, thereby making her disappearance instantly interesting to the media. Imagine if A A Milne’s Christopher Robin was thought to be at the bottom of a lake somewhere, that’s the kind of thing. Nick is initially helpful with the cops, but they start to suspect him of her murder, and he doesn’t help himself by his ability to grin inanely when posing by a poster of his missing wife, or allow himself to be hoodwinked by a pretty journo into co-operating with an inappropriate selfie. As the case mounts against him – despite the lack of a body – he enlists the help of Ace Defence Lawyer Tanner Bolt. Add to the melting point a little infidelity, harassment of his twin sister, Amy’s unpredictable ex-boyfriend, and a couple of mud-raking gossip-mongering TV chat-show hosts, and there’s plenty for Detective Rhonda Boney to get her teeth into. And there’s also the fascinating unravelling story of what actually did happen to Amy.

Neil Patrick HarrisIt’s a gripping story, tightly told, with an excellent cast and some scary moments. As usual, I missed the first few minutes of dialogue as I couldn’t make out a damn thing they said whilst I adjusted to their muttering accents. I was also struck by how dark some of the scenes were – not in a moody, portentous way, but literally lacking in light. This was particularly noticeable in some scenes with Mr Affleck, where he often seemed to be lurking in gloom, almost as though he wasn’t entirely happy with our seeing how he’s ageing. I’m sure that wasn’t the motivation, but I did find the deliberate darkness rather irritating.

Rosamund PikeWhen you could see what Mr Affleck was doing, he was extremely good. Blundering hopelessly into traps set for him, and not only by the police, it’s a very credible performance of an ordinary guy trying to cope with devastatingly public difficulties way beyond his usual experience. Even though he’s a louse in many ways, you do take his side and he actually becomes quite heroic, which is an interesting manipulation of the viewer’s morals. Miss Pike, too, was very effective as Amy, filling in her diary-driven backstory, convincingly changing appearance from society girl to trailer park trashette as the plot thickens. At times there was more than something of the Fatal Attraction bunny-boiler about her, which added a nice sense of suspense.

Sela WardI was very impressed with Kim Dickens as the detective; suspicious, reasonable, firm but eventually powerless to see justice through to its proper conclusion; and I liked her badinage with her assisting officer, played by Patrick Fugit. Neil Patrick Harris plays Amy’s ex-boyfriend Desi with just the tiniest bit of the unhinged about him which makes you think the story might progress in a different direction. Carrie Coon gives the character of Nick’s twin Margo a lot of attitude, fiercely defensive of her brother and even more fiercely attacking him when he lets her down; and Sela Ward plays TV hostess Sharon Shieber with chillingly attractive venom.

Kim DickensIt’s a long film at two and a half hours, but it really does hold your attention all the way through; I wouldn’t say that the time flies by exactly, but it certainly doesn’t seem too arduous. What’s really aggravating is the uncertain ending! You’re crying out for some natural justice to win the day but it’s not going to happen. Still, it’s a realistic way of finishing the film, and you can always add your own supposition as to what might have happened next.

Arresting, exciting, with surprising plot twists and not a little disturbing; what more could you want from a thriller?

Review – Mark Steel, Mark Steel’s Back in Town, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 1st November 2014

Mark Steel's Back In TownNormally I begin these reviews of comedians by confessing that I’ve not seen them before and that I didn’t know who they were. However, this time, both Mrs Chrisparkle and I did indeed know who Mark Steel was, as we’ve seen his TV series and listened to his radio shows for many years and really enjoyed them. I’ve always loved his no-nonsense, telling-it-how-it-is political observations from a largely left-wing point of view, equally able to ridicule the nonsenses of the Labour Party as well as the Conservatives, and I was looking forward to a feast of intelligent political badinage, as when we saw Jeremy Hardy.

The Royal was yet again packed to the rafters creating its excellent atmosphere of solidarity and excitement, just like it had been for Paul Chowdhry and Hal Cruttenden earlier in the week. But unlike those two other performers, who just appeared on an empty stage, on entering the auditorium for Mr Steel’s show, the stage was already set up with a laptop projecting an image of the man himself at a Northampton landmark (in front of the big wheel in the Market Square, set up for the St Crispin’s Fair). There was also a table on which a few books stood, including “Northampton – Shoe Town, New Town” and (more unexpectedly) a Children’s guide to Exeter. I sensed this wasn’t going to be your usual evening of stand-up.

M SteelMr Steel has a wonderfully assured and measured approach to his delivery. It’s clear that he loves language, and by adopting a comfortable, unhurried pace he can give full expression to all those idiocies of life that play a part of his act, dwelling on them perplexedly in his south London tones, an accent which gives his observations an additionally realistic bite. He’s a determined performer; you sense that he knows what he wants to say, and is going to say it, no matter how the audience reacts. In the first half particularly, he hardly addressed any comments directly to the audience, simply going through his material in a well-prepared, well-scripted manner. His approach to the show reminded me strongly of Dave Gorman’s Powerpoint Presentation, which isn’t entirely complimentary.

The show is called Mark Steel’s Back in Town, and it’s very much based on his observations and experiences in towns all over the country, but especially the one where the show is taking place – so for us, Northampton. In the first half, he covers all the usual, general aspects one would expect from him – politics (not as much as I had expected), football, religion, and so on. But it’s all seen from a viewpoint of individual places dotted around the country, like Wigan, or Corby, or Huddersfield. His message seems to be that we should embrace the differences in communities, not resent them or try to eradicate them, which makes perfect sense to me.

Mark SHe gives us some wonderful examples of regional eccentricities, like the Gurkhas in Aldershot who seem to have a penchant for monopolising the park benches; or the early days of train travel between Didcot and Oxford and how the powers that be sought to keep the riff-raff out of the city of Dreaming Spires. He constructs inventive and very funny sequences of material that highlight the stupid things that happen in life, and it’s all very satisfying and thought-provoking.

After the interval, Mr Steel turned his attention directly to Northampton, and went through many aspects of life in our town, which obviously showed he had done very good research in advance. We talked Cobblers and Saints, the spooky Clown, the bus station(s), the railway station(s), the architecture, and the famous names of its past and present. It was very revealing to hear and understand the things that an outsider notices about one’s own home town. The show began to take on the guise of a comic lecture, particularly as it relied a lot on the visual prompts from the photographs that he was projecting. But for me, after this, it started to lose focus, as he continued to widen his comments to include some other places he’s visited, like the Emley Moor TV tower, or the power station at Dungeness. By talking about things in one’s own town, he really captures the imagination of the audience; but when he then starts to move away round the country again, that sense of localised interest starts to wane. He’d talk about Exeter and Monmouth, and you’d be thinking, yes but what about Northampton? He’d frequently break off and read from some of the books on the table; selected passages that show how daft some places and their residents can be; hilarious if you know precisely where he’s talking about, but merely curious if you don’t.

Mark SteelI’m all for a comic giving good value, and Mr Steel gave it in abundance! One normally expects an evening with just one comic to last around two hours, including an interval. Sometimes you get two and a quarter, occasionally two and a half. With curtain up at 8pm, Mr Steel didn’t say his final goodbyes until five minutes to eleven, way over-running on what we had all expected. We’d not eaten before the show and thought we might go for a curry or a pizza afterwards, but by that time it was too late for our digestions to manage it, so we ended up just going home and having a bag of crisps. Given that the final hour or so of the show consisted of a travelogue of places we weren’t overly interested in, I think we could have done with the show being about half an hour shorter.

So our overall experience was that it was a rather bizarre combination of very funny but sometimes a bit boring. Not even separately; he even managed to be funny whilst being boring, which is a new one on me. I really appreciated the obvious work that had gone into making the show though; for each place Mr Steel visits he must put in a lot of overtime in preparation to create a one-off experience. I’m just not entirely certain that, as a structure, it works. His tour continues all over the country, into December. I enjoyed it – but I was hoping to enjoy it more.