Review – The Imitation Game, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 11th December 2014

The Imitation GameThere are secrets and there are secrets; but one of the best kept secrets in the history of mankind must be that of the wartime activity that happened within that innocent looking compound at Bletchley Park – the home of the code-breakers, whose success is believed to have shortened the length of World War Two by two years, saving an inestimable number of lives. Personally, I feel a certain affinity with the place. As the infant Chrisparkle, I spent my first five years living in the nearby village of Newton Longville; the Dowager Mrs C had a cousin who worked as a typist at Bletchley Park during the war – but of course we never really knew what she did; the Soviet spy John Cairncross, who also worked there, was the brother of the Master of St Peter’s College Oxford, my alma mater. Forsooth, Enigma is the life blood coursing through my veins.

CodebreakersAlthough Bletchley Park is now open as a museum (and a jolly good place to visit too), many secrets from its past still remain; and that’s probably right and proper, both to protect the innocent and in the interests of national security. But it’s also important that we can consider it a national shrine to the memory of Alan Turing, code breaker extraordinaire, computer creator, and victim of anti-homosexual legislation which required him to be chemically castrated and led him on to suicide. From today’s perspective it seems at best bizarre, at worst immoral and criminal, that he should have been treated this way by the country that owed so much to him; but, as Chapman wrote in 1654, the law is an ass and will always remain so.

Keira passes the testThe screenplay for The Imitation Game is written by Graham Moore and is based on the biography Alan Turing: The Enigma by Wadham College Mathematics Fellow Andrew Hodges, so it’s got a reliable pedigree. The title comes from Turing’s own words, his description of an experiment to define a standard for a machine to be called “intelligent” – which later became known as the “Turing Test” and which, even today, is an essential concept in the philosophy of artificial intelligence (according to Wikipedia anyway, so it must be true). Relaxing codebreakersInterweaving three timelines of Turing’s life – his schooldays at Sherborne, his working life at Bletchley Park and his final days at Manchester – the film tells his story clearly, compassionately and with a good deal of humour. In real life, Turing was doubtless something of a rum cove, too cerebral to waste time on friendships or personal relationships, and too literal to converse normally with his colleagues. This is amusingly portrayed in the scene where Turing is told by one of the chaps “we’re going for lunch” – with the unspoken implication “do you want to come too?” – but Turing only hears and deals with the fact that the others are going for lunch which is a mere statement that doesn’t affect him.

Alan Turing being restrainedNevertheless, Turing does have a close friendship with Newnham College alumnus Joan Clarke, a whizz at cryptanalysis, and to whom he was briefly engaged before admitting to her his homosexuality. Turing was definitely turned on by her intelligence – cue for another delicious scene where she is hilariously patronised when taking a test to see if she is brainy enough to work at Bletchley Park. One of the most intriguing things about the film is that it makes you want to find out more about some of the other people in Turing’s orbit at the time – like Joan Clarke, John Cairncross, Commander Alastair Denniston, and International Chess Master Hugh Alexander. Turing’s story has a very rich cast of supporting characters about whom one feels one ought to know something, and the film is definitely a good starting point to find out.

Charles DanceDespite the frequent flashes of humour, and the gathering momentum as the team get closer and closer to cracking the code, the main emotional sense from the film is one of sadness. For me, the two most poignant sequences showed the developing friendship between young Alan and his school friend Christopher Morcom, their messages passed to each other in code to help mask the necessary secrecy of the growing love between them – and how it ends; and the pathetic shell of a man that Turing becomes as a result of the enforced medication to reduce his libido, quaking with tears at the degradation he faces, an old man well before his time.

Alan and JoanThe film is beautifully acted throughout but boasts at its heart a real star turn from Benedict Cumberbatch as Turing. He absolutely gets that sense of edgy, uncomfortable, reserved intelligence, together with a dedication to his task, a justifiably high opinion of himself and a superior hollowness where his emotion should be. It’s only at the end, when he completely breaks down, that you see the years of repression spilling out, and it’s extremely moving. He is matched by a superb performance from Keira Knightley as Joan, irrepressibly and irresistibly upbeat, and determined to be seen as an equal in the misogynistic world of code breaking. Matthew Goode is excellent as Alexander, his nose put out of joint by Turing’s rise to power, congratulating his achievements with still a hint of resentment; and there’s a brilliant performance by Charles Dance as the no-nonsense Commander Denniston, permanently irritated by Turing’s lack of respect for his position, and always looking for a revengeful way to regain supremacy.

Turing and NockI also very much enjoyed Mark Strong’s quietly assertive and wryly humorous performance as MI6 boss Stewart Menzies; and Allen Leech played John Cairncross almost precisely the same as he plays Branson in Downton Abbey, but seeing as how they’re both socialists in a world of nobility, I guess that makes sense. Topping and tailing the timelines of the story I was very impressed by Alex Lawther as the young Alan – repressed, tight-lipped, tentatively pushing at the open doorway of a burgeoning relationship – and Rory Kinnear is as eminently watchable as he always is as the apparently sensitive, but ultimately law-enforcing, Inspector Nock.

MenziesAn engrossing story of one of the most important aspects of the Second World War, lucidly told, and compellingly acted – we really enjoyed it. It also gives you a lot to think about secrecy, intelligence, loyalty and justice. This one’s going to be around for a long time – and it’s got to be in line for loads of awards!

Review – John, DV8, Lyttelton Theatre, Royal National Theatre, screened at Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton through the NT Live process, 9th December 2014

JohnThis was our very first foray into the world of live theatre screened direct to your local cinema. I’d heard both good and bad things about this form of presentation; that it’s just like being there in real life and that the camera angles are amazing; and I’d also heard that you just sit there and sigh “I wish I could be there in person”. Having experienced it first hand, on the whole I’d agree with the first statement. The camera angles are indeed amazing, and you get an excellent combination of both close-up and the wider full stage view; and because you hear the audience’s reactions and indeed see the audience settling down at the beginning, and leaving at the end, you really do get a sense of being there. And of course, all this for half the price of the train fare to get to London in the first place. The only mental sideswipe I experienced was at the end not being able to join in with the London audience’s applause – that really did emphasise the fact that you weren’t there. But, as like as not, if you hadn’t seen the NT Live coverage, you probably wouldn’t have seen the show either. So I classify the whole enterprise as A Very Good Thing. And also, presumably, someone somewhere has a nice recording of the performance so that it can be kept for all time.

Hannes LangolfWe’d seen DV8 once before, at the Wycombe Swan in 1997, performing Bound To Please, a curate’s egg of a show that took on the subject of age and beauty, with the bold highlight of the evening being the sexagenarian Diana Payne-Myers, elegantly and gracefully dancing naked in full balletic style. But the piece was hampered by a rather ham-fisted desire to turn against and humiliate the audience which wasn’t really necessary. We also saw their television film The Cost of Living, which I remember being rather entertaining and very positive. Although much of those shows is now a distant memory, I am convinced that John is a far superior work to either of them.

Hannes LLloyd Newson’s initial creative idea was to interview a number of men about their attitudes to sex and love, and to see what themes emerged as a result. What emerged was the remarkable character of John, his story, his relationships, his struggles. About half a dozen of the people interviewed are represented in this piece, but John is by far the most predominant. As this is a verbatim production – nice new buzzword there – all the lines spoken by the performers are precisely as John and the other men spoke them at the interview. As a result, it’s a 100% true production. The issues raised, the events experienced, the hopes and fears discussed are all real, identified and probed during the interviewing process. This gives the production an unbeatable integrity, acting out real lives through physical theatre, paying homage to genuine experiences and real people.

H LangolfIf you are one of those lovely folks who checks into my blog on a regular basis, gentle reader, then you will know my mantra that I much prefer to see a brave failure than a lazy success. I love to be shocked and challenged in the theatre – and if Quentin Letts considers this as sleazy, amoral and a national disgrace, that’s all the incentive I would need to go and see it. John is full of bold and brave subject matter, and takes it head on in a no-holds-barred exposé – and overall the production is much more a success than a failure. Andi Xhuma and Ian GarsideMuch has been made of the extended sequence of the comings and goings in a gay sauna, which of course will not be to everyone’s taste, but personally I rarely have a problem with seeing anything sexual on stage, and am much more likely to be offended by violence. There’s quite a bit of that in the first half of the show, as we see John’s early family life, which is damaged by a rapist of a father, a drug dependent mother and siblings in and out of trouble. John takes us on a journey of petty crime, drug addiction, and through a sea of girlfriends – very cleverly suggested by their dresses on hangers – eventually to prison and then an attempt at rehabilitation. His efforts to trace his long-lost son are beautifully told, and end with heart-breaking sadness. This whole sequence was storytelling by dance and physical theatre at its finest.

I Garside and A XhumaAnd then it very much becomes a game of two halves as the scene changes to the gay sauna in an instant, with no preparation for it, and nothing in the earlier material to suggest something like this might be on the cards. It’s just a very sudden change of scenery, emphasis, characterisation and subject matter. At first I found the change rather annoying, as I still felt I wanted to find out more about the John whose character had been built up so effectively by his own words and Hannes Langolf’s magnificent performance; then I found it intriguing to see if the extraordinary juxtaposition between the two threads would work; and then after a while I wanted to go back to the beginning again, as the length of the sauna sequence is simply out of balance with the rest of the performance. The first half of the show reflects John’s first thirty-plus years; in the second half John admits he’s only been to the sauna three times over a period of about six months, so the time spent observing the sauna activities carries an inordinate weight in comparison to the time spent accompanying John through his struggles.

H Langolf as JohnThere is a loss of momentum too, as John plays a much smaller part in the second half than in the first – presumably this is where the other voices who were interviewed get to play their part in the proceedings. Nevertheless, it was interesting to hear the day to day activities and concerns of the guys who run the sauna – including their constant battle with the evil and ubiquitous poo, which provided unexpected comic relief; and the sexual proclivities of the teacher were rather amusing – if extremely irresponsible and unwise. But you can’t overcome the fact that the sauna scene has a distinct Lack Of John about it. Nothing against the performers who took a more major part in that scene – it’s just that we’d built up a relationship with John and it was left mid-air. But then, such is the challenge of a DV8 piece – never expect it to comply with the norm.

In the saunaIt’s a really strong production. I loved the revolving stage, so that, in order to remain in full view of the audience, John has to keep pacing through doors and in and out of rooms, providing a visual metaphor of his progress through the stages and locations of his life. The combination of John’s speeches and the dance movement serves to emphasise both; staccato movements accentuating tough words, flowing intimate movements accompanying more personal and private moments. Hannes Langolf has a lot of words to say as John, and it is a testament to his personal fitness that his energy keeps high throughout the whole show, his accurate and demanding dance movements never losing power as his verbal dexterity continues to deliver John’s thoughts and experiences. We really feel as though we know John, and despite (maybe because of) his demons and his struggles, we really like him. Mr Langolf creates a real man out of this interview material.

Intimate momentLloyd Newson’s choreography has his performers depicting everything from the Neanderthal to the sophisticated and they do him proud. Whilst Mr Langolf is extraordinary in his physical presence, the rest of the cast also form an incredibly good ensemble. Ian Garside provides some memorable moments as John’s son and, along with Taylor Benjamin, as one of the sauna owners. Simple devices, such as the seamless removal of a t-shirt worn by one dancer and on to another give hints of intimacy; whilst the rapid undressing and dressing and undressing again and dressing again by various performers in the background whilst the sauna owners talked about their problems gave the impression of a constantly active and busy changing room, without having a large cast. The dance action/physical theatre is constantly engrossing throughout the performance, and even when the narrative itself loses strength, you always admire the skilful and creative movements of the performers.

Taylor Benjamin and Garth JohnsonIf you’re a fan of physical theatre and you like to be challenged this is an excellent production which will give you much to think about and admire, capturing the essence of an unknown person and doing him justice. Technically superb performances are the icing on the cake. To Quentin Letts I say grow up and get real. To be honest, unless you’re straight and you’ve never been confronted with intimate homosexual behaviour, you’re unlikely to be too surprised by anything you see. Years of attending Eurovision discos means Mrs Chrisparkle and I are old hands at that! And I did get an insight into how a couple of gay friends, who met at a sauna, might have started their long-lasting relationship. No names no pack drill! It’s not a perfect show by any means but its positives more than outweigh its negatives and I’d definitely recommend it.

Production photos are by Laurent Philippe, Gergoe Nagy, Kris Rozental and Hugo Glendinning.

Here’s a trailer that gives you a good idea of the show.

Review – Alan Davies, Little Victories, Derngate, Northampton, 28th November 2014

Alan DaviesI always enjoy seeing Alan Davies on TV – whether it’s on panel shows (not that we watch them much), doing a bit of stand-up, or appearing in Jonathan Creek, which we used to watch avidly in the early days, but then kind of went off it after a few years. Nothing wrong with Mr Davies’ performance in it though – I just thought the storylines were a bit duff.

We’d never seen him live however, and I was confident that he would be able to fill the Derngate auditorium with laughter and merriment for a good two and a half hours on a Friday night. And that, indeed, is what he does, although I was expecting him to have a little more bite and attack. It’s more like an evening spent continuously smiling dotted with healthy amounts of laughter rather than the other way round.

A DaviesHe has a very relaxed approach to his art, with very un-showbizzy entrances and exits, and pacing around the stage as though it were a leisurely stroll with lots of stop and sit opportunities. There was some gentle mocking of the few latecomers, but nothing too savage, and nor were their cards marked for later in the evening. He seems to value the audience as company more than anything else. I really enjoyed his warm-up device, which was to ascertain the age range of the audience – I’ve not seen that done before. Firstly, he identified who was the youngest in the audience – it was someone born in 2000. Then he started calling out all the decades going back in time and if he called out the decade in which you were born you shouted out a big “hurrah”. The Eighties were quite popular, the seventies very popular, the sixties pretty popular too (Mrs Chrisparkle and I both shouted out our hurrahs – and he welcomed all the Sixties Kids as “my people”); then fifties – much smaller shout out, forties – very few and far between; and finally we identified the oldest person in the audience, born in 1935. A simple device, but very effective – you all know where you stand as far as your fellow audience members are concerned – you almost establish a pecking order amongst you – and you got an opportunity to do a shout out for fun too.

The show is called “Little Victories”, but it’s a title and topic that’s only very lightly touched upon. When Alan (and Mrs) Davies finally had kids, Mr Davies’ not-very-warm father had a somewhat aloof relationship with his new grandkids, and it obviously still irks Mr Davies (Jnr) that his father didn’t seem to care much about them. He tells a story about how his father once dismissed the grandkids with some ill-chosen words, and then, sometime later he gets his own back on his dad by tricking him into agreeing that he likes blackcurrant jam – I know it sounds like a non-sequitur, but it works. And this is what Mr Davies describes as a “little victory”. Not sure that I could identify many other little victories in the rest of his material though – but I expect they’re there if you look.

Alan Davies Little VictoriesTwo things stood out for me about Mr Davies’ act. The first is that his supremely confident delivery means he is not remotely scared of silence – he will use pauses in the flow of material constructively to emphasise elements of what he is saying; in other words, I guess, great timing. The other is that while some comics would spend their two and a half hours encompassing a wide range of scenarios, Alan Davies only discussed about four topics the whole night long. You could interpret that as a strength – going really in depth about situations and examining them thoroughly; or as a weakness, if those topics don’t particularly tickle your funny bone you might have quite a long wait until the next belly laugh.

Much of his material concerns the trials and tribulations of having two young children, which is probably going to appeal to parents more than non-parents. I very much liked the observation that anyone seen apparently mistreating children – giving them a clip round the ear, bawling the riot act them – is definitely going to be their parent and not some “stranger danger” character. Dotted throughout the evening are stories which end up with his daughter shouting out “you’re hurting me” because she knows it gets attention and is a potential minefield in public. A common problem – I remember my young cousin in Toronto at the age of three having sudden tantrums in shopping malls for no apparent reason other than sheer mischief, crying out “Don’t Beat me Daddy” much to his surprised daddy’s enormous embarrassment. There is also a very entertaining extended routine about Mr Davies getting stuck in a children’s soft play zone as he accompanies his rather scaredy-cat daughter through the padded climbing frame ups and downs, negotiating the seas of soft balls and unexpectedly scary slides.

Alan DBut as a non-parent I rather preferred his material about things with which I could more easily identify. He did some great material about the horrendous things that boys do at school, including brewing and nurturing farts so that they can be released at a time and place where they could wreak maximum havoc; and how school trips abroad simply turned into (apologies, gentle reader) wanking contests. He has a very funny sequence about how, in changing rooms, men hardly ever seem concerned that they’ve omitted to put on their pants although they’re perfectly happy to bend over to reach lockers for hours on end; and there’s a really funny (albeit not overly original) routine about the aches and pains of sexual intercourse when you reach more mature years. This is very much geared towards a man’s-eye view of life – I’m not quite so certain if it appeals equally to the ladies in the audience.

So, all in all, an entertaining night’s comedy, looking at the domestic side of life that will particularly appeal if you’ve ever had (or indeed currently have) a young family. Alan Davies is a shrewd comic who paces his material perfectly and creates a very enjoyable rapport with the audience – without your ever being scared he might pick on you too much. He’s got a few more dates in December and then comes back with a bang next March. Well worth a punt!

Review – Calamity Jane, Milton Keynes Theatre, 25th November 2014

Calamity JaneAs soon as I saw this touring show was coming to Milton Keynes, I knew I had to book straight away. Not only does it star one of our favourite performers, Jodie Prenger, but Mrs Chrisparkle was raised on a diet of Doris Day movies, with Calamity Jane being her favourite childhood memory. We only have to go out in a gentle breeze for her to suddenly burst forward with a chorus of “the windy city is mighty pretty….”, or to walk up a small hill for her sing “oh the Deadwood stage is headin’ on over the hills…” – I’m sure you get the picture. The young Miss Duncansby (as she was then) was never happier than when riding shotgun through those rough areas of New South Wales where she brought up, knocking back the sarsaparillas, dressed as a squaw.

Jodie PrengerFortunately times change, but her fondness for that old film and its songs is unshakeable. Consequently, it’s fairly amazing to think that, in all these intervening years, she’s never got me sat down to watch the film on TV, so I didn’t know what to expect from the story. If you don’t know the plot either, here’s a brief outline. Calamity Jane (Calam to her friends) is the tomboyest tomboy this side of the Black Hills of Dakota, and rides the stagecoach, shooting to warn off (I hope not to kill) those pesky Injuns with their arrows. She’s pals with Wild Bill Hickok, but has a yearning for Lt Danny Gilmartin that isn’t reciprocated. One day Calam has to ride into Chicago to bring back a famous actress that the men of Deadwood fancy something rotten, to appear at the Golden Garter saloon. Tom ListerNone of them has ever seen her, they only know her from her image in much lusted after cigarette cards. Thus Calam mistakenly brings back the wrong girl – a wannabe singer/actress – who gets found out, and it could have ended very nastily were it not for the fact that the wrong girl is a very sweet girl by the name of Katie Brown, who beguiles all the men, becomes best mates with Calam and indeed they end up sharing the same chalet. How does this menage à quatre sort itself out? That’s the show.

Jodie Prenger and Tom ListerI’ve rarely been in a theatre where the atmosphere of expectation and excitement was as tangible as it was in Milton Keynes on Tuesday night. The show opens with the curtain down, a banjo hanging from a hook in full view of the audience; on saunters Jamie Noar (I think) as Hank, takes down the banjo and gently starts to strum – and half the audience started humming along with him! I felt as though I was in another world. When the curtain eventually opens up it reveals the Golden Garter saloon, and it’s as Wild Westy as you could imagine. A shoddy little stage at the back, a plinky plonky piano up front, bare wooden chairs and balconies, and everyone dressed like they’re in a John Wayne movie. It’s a very convincing staging – the only criticism I would have is that there’s not a huge amount of space left for dancing, but the cast cope with that problem admirably.

Calamity Jane musiciansThis is a Watermill Theatre production, so you know what that means, don’t you? No separate orchestra or band, instead the cast members play the instruments themselves on the stage, integrating the acting and the music to perfection. The first time I saw this trick (in Chess) it didn’t really work that well for me – it made the stage very messy and created blocking problems. Since then I’ve seen it done a few times and they’re getting better and better at it. Indeed I recognised a few members of the cast from the similarly staged production of Fiddler on the Roof earlier this year – I guess if you have the skill of being both an actor and an instrumental soloist, you’re in luck where it comes to this kind of production. Suffice to say the musical performances were all terrific.

Phoebe StreetI must say that technically also this was a faultless performance by the cast. With all those instruments, loads of prop handling (guns, lassos, glasses, bottles), lots of choreography, special effects, costume changes and so on, they didn’t put a foot wrong. It must be rehearsed to within an inch of its life, yet it all still looks really natural. So, it was incredibly disappointing that the sound amplification in some of the big numbers let it down. To be honest, at times it sounded absolutely awful, especially before the interval. If it were an old hifi system, you’d say that the treble was turned up too much, creating a strange distortion. The instruments themselves sounded fine – but the voices could have been singing in a foreign language, it was that hard to make out the words. Sadly, this was most problematic for Ms Prenger, who’s got a belter of a voice and could have filled that auditorium without the need for a microphone.

Alex HammondDuring the interval I walked Mrs C over to the Merchandise stall and offered her a Calamity Jane mug, which she refused, a Calamity Jane hoodie, at which she looked daggers at me, and a Calamity Jane soundtrack CD which she said she would never play. Sigh; you just can’t help some people. Still she’s going to be most amused to find a Calamity Jane Stetson under the tree on Christmas morning.

Calamity Jane stageI don’t know if they tweaked some knobs during the interval but the voices were much clearer in the second half which was a huge relief. The amplification issue notwithstanding, nothing could detract from the standard of the performances, which were terrific and made the whole evening enormous fun from start to finish. Jodie Prenger has a wonderful stage presence and is the focal point for the whole show with her bubbly personality. She makes the most of all the comedy in the role, but is also very moving when it comes to the character’s inability to girl-up. Tomboy she may be, but inside she’s all woman. For me the highlight of the entire show was her incredible performance of Secret Love which gave me goosebumps – emotional, beautiful; it really soared.

Jon BonnerTom Lister as Wild Bill Hickok also gives a tremendous performance, mixing humour and pathos, and revealing a superb voice, particularly in Higher Than a Hawk, which had the audience so spellbound you could hear the proverbial pin drop. With Alex Hammond as Danny, the two leading men give a very entertaining “rivals in love” performance, and together with Phoebe Street’s charming performance as Katie, they’re quite a show-stopping foursome. The man sat behind me was really enjoying the show, getting totally carried away with the story. When Danny finally planted a smacker on Katie’s lips, he let out an involuntary “Go on, my son!” much to everyone’s amusement.

Martin McCarthyFinishing with an ending of almost Shakespearean comedy marriage dimensions, there are also very enjoyable musical and comic performances from Rob Delaney as Francis Fryer and Sioned Saunders as Susan. The rest of the cast all turn in excellent performances, and I was particularly impressed with Anthony Dunn’s hearty Henry Miller, Jon Bonner’s amusingly squeaky Doc, Paul Kissaun’s laid-back Rattlesnake and Christina Tedders’ bitchy Adelaid. Plus, as dance captain, Martin McCarthy as Joe is obviously keeping everyone on their toes with some really well executed dances, most obvious in the delightful curtain call which turns into a wonderful reprise-led hoe-down.

Rob DelaneyIt’s a really entertaining show that we both enjoyed tremendously. For me it was fascinating to see how all these well-known songs fit in to a story that I didn’t previously know; and the natural fun that comes from the story and the performances just seeps into your soul to send you home with a real feel-good feeling. The audience adored it – and I guarantee you’ll be humming The Black Hills of Dakota for days. There’s a long tour ahead, so you’ve plenty of opportunities to catch the show – it’s travelling all over England and Scotland between now and next July.

Sioned SaundersP. S. This was the first time I’ve ever seen a musical where the programme didn’t list the musical numbers. What’s all that about then? Makes reminiscing about it much harder, and you don’t know whereabouts you are in the show as it progresses. Minus mark for the programme writer! However, to make up for it, their marketing department did create this brilliant little trailer which should get your toes tappin’ in anticipatory glee!

Review – Maximum Rhythm and Blues with The Manfreds, Derngate, Northampton, 23rd November 2014

The ManfredsI didn’t realise the complexity of the whole Manfreds set-up. I still think of them as Manfred Mann, chart toppers with Paul Jones singing the crowd pleasing but not that intellectually-stimulating, 5-4-3-2-1, Do Wah Diddy Diddy and If You Gotta Go, Go Now. I didn’t realise that Paul Jones left the group in 1966 to be replaced by Mike D’Abo, although I knew he was a member of the band – somehow I think the two of them co-existed within the original group. Then I didn’t realise that Manfred Mann’s Earth Band (purveyors of such musical riches as Joybringer, Blinded By The Light and Davy’s On The Road Again) was a completely different band. Primarily that’s because I also didn’t realise that Manfred Mann was actually the name of the group’s founder, and original keyboard player, as well as the group itself. And here’s me thinking I knew about pop music.

Paul JonesI always considered it was a bit of an affectation for the group now to call itself the Manfreds, but I’m wrong, there’s a good explanation for this: a) the group’s original name was Manfred Mann and the Manfreds (the “Manfreds” bit was dropped at the request of the record label) and b) without Mr Mann touring with them (he doesn’t) it’s a bit cheeky to use his name. The current line-up includes original members Paul Jones, Mike Hugg and Tom McGuinness, plus Mike d’Abo, and new recruits, drummer Rob Townsend, bass player Marcus Cliffe and saxophonist/flautist Simon Currie.

Manfred MannI always liked Manfred Mann growing up in the 1960s. They weren’t Premier League, like the Beatles, the Stones, the Kinks and the Monkees (my blog, my rules), but they were definitely riding high in the Championship, along with Herman’s Hermits, Dave Dee Dozy Beaky Mick and Tich, and The Beach Boys. One of my earliest memories is amusing my parents by singing If You Gotta Go, Go Now (at the age of 5), obviously not having a clue about the “staying the night” overtones of the lyrics. One other song of theirs had great significance for me growing up, more of which later.

Mike d'AboI did wonder how well the original performers will have stood the test of time – not only in the continued appeal of their songs but also how well they are still able to perform. I had no need to worry on either count. At the age of 72, Messrs Jones, Hugg and McGuinness (and a youngster at 70, Mr d’Abo) are still fantastic musicians, able to belt a song out with enormous pizazz and vitality; Tom McGuinness is still great on his guitar and Mike Hugg masterful on the keyboard. As far as the songs are concerned, well, to be fair, some of the big popular songs of the Paul Jones era are lyrically quite weak in comparison to the later 60s songs – but they make up for it with their really rousing tunes and classic 60s punchiness.

ManfredsSo what of this latest tour? Personally, l had a fantastic night of it. Mrs Chrisparkle is less familiar with their oeuvre, and therefore found some it a little inaccessible. I liked the fact that it was staged as a traditional pop/rock concert – the band’s instruments all neatly laid out around the stage, the front men at the front, the backing guys at the back; an entertaining video screen behind them all which blended 1960s footage of the original performances with the guys as they are today; it was an honest presentation not trying to be clever like another concert we have seen recently. The group’s appeal is definitely to the older pop-picker; there were plenty of walking sticks and motorised wheelchairs in evidence – one was never going to get out of the centre stalls quickly for one’s interval drink. But it was a knowledgeable and appreciative audience, and the band played all the songs you could have hoped to hear and more. In fact there was only one number they played that I hadn’t heard before – which has to be a good thing, none of this “and now we’re going to play something from our latest album” nonsense. No! We want to hear the old stuff!

Ha Ha Said the ClownAfter Paul Jones led a musical introduction to all the members of the group, we went straight into one of my favourite Manfred Mann songs, Ha Ha Said The Clown – my dad also loved this song, and he would sing “Ha Ha said the clown, as his trousers fell down” much to my hoots of laughter. I loved the arrangement, with Paul Jones on the harmonica (at which he is still extraordinary), Simon Currie on the saxophone, and bright spiky vocals by Mike d’Abo. It’s a perfect example of the group’s later 60s style – a quirky, eccentric rhythm, lush unusual orchestration, subtle intelligent lyrics.

Fox on the RunAlternating lead vocals throughout the evening, next it was Paul giving us a rousing performance of Sha La La. I can’t say that it was ever a favourite; at the time I much preferred the similarly sounding Sha la la la lee by the Small Faces. Still, Paul used the song to get us all singing along and I did so, despite thinking it was a song not really worthy of my vocal cords. I much preferred joining along with Mike in the next song, Fox on the Run, with which I encouraged Mrs C to join in, except she looked at me blankly as she’d never heard it before; I’ve clearly been remiss in her 1960s musical education. Great song, really well performed. Paul then surprised me by singing Oh no not my baby, which I didn’t realise was a Manfred Mann song; I always thought Rod Stewart’s 1973 version was the original. In fact the original was by Maxine Brown way back in 1964, written by Gerry Goffin and Carole King. Although Rod Stewart’s version is one of my top three “Rod” records (all very much from his early days, I should add), I liked Paul’s softer, more heartfelt delivery of this great song.

My Name is JackThen came what I knew would be probably my biggest highlight of the night – Mike on vocals for My Name is Jack. I cannot think of this song without a shudder of emotions going through me. I remember it coming out in 1968, and found it a fun, singalong song that I really enjoyed. It was another of my dad’s favourites too. Then in January 1969, I went to my first ever Palladium pantomime with my mum, and they used this song as the opening number of the show – Jack and the Beanstalk – when all the villagers were going about their day to day business and introducing us to Jack, played by Jimmy Tarbuck. For me, going to the Palladium for the first time was a magic moment; and for the next few years, I would regularly reflect on the Palladium singers and dancers performing this song, and it became synonymous in my head for everything being all right with the world, knowing I was lucky to be enjoying a happy childhood.

Jack and the Beanstalk 1969Then on 1st January 1972 my dad died, and although I still felt positive about life in general (you do as a child) I also knew that life would never be the same. After that point, whenever I thought of My Name is Jack it filled me with sadness that those happy-go-lucky thoughts that I associated with it were probably gone forever. If ever I would put the record on I would end up in tears. In the end, my mum had to hide the record from me, so that I couldn’t play it. So, you see, this song has a major significance in my childhood memories. And even today, if I hear the song, it’s 50-50 whether or not my eyes will get a bit misty. But I do love the song, and was very happy to sing along with it at the concert – indeed it felt an honour, and by sharing that live experience with the performers I feel I might finally have laid to rest some ghosts.

Pretty FlamingoNext up, and very much a change of mood, we had Paul leading the vocals on Watermelon Man, the jazzy Herbie Hancock composition that Manfred Mann recorded in 1965; very laid back and sophisticated. After that we were instantly taken back into the commercial pop of the 60s with Semi Detached Suburban Mr James and Pretty Flamingo, followed by yet another change of mood with Build Me Up Buttercup – the song that Mike d’Abo co-wrote for the Foundations – but this time performed as a ballad. To be honest, I think I prefer it up-tempo, but nevertheless it was curious to hear it performed this way. At that point, Paul chose to deliver a rather long encouragement to go and visit the Merchandise stall in the interval, and I felt it was a bit desperate and embarrassing. I know he was trying to be tongue-in-cheek about what was on offer and what good value it was but it came over as excessive. Less is more, Paul! Back to the music, and the first half ended with an excellent performance by Paul of Smokestack Lightning, Howlin’ Wolf’s haunting bluesy classic that Manfred Mann covered in 1964.

I've been a bad bad boyAfter the break, the guys came forward a little and grouped in a semi-circle at the front of the stage to perform acoustic versions of some well- and less well-known songs, and it was a very intimate presentation. Paul sang I’ve been a bad bad boy, at the request of a couple who’d seen the band at a previous gig and were disappointed that the song was missed out of their repertoire that night! To be fair, it was never a Manfred Mann song, but credited just to Paul Jones (as was High Time, another song I really used to like, which they didn’t perform). Tom McGuinness sang the McGuinness FlintMalt and Barley Blues (yes, he was the McGuinness in McGuinness Flint) hit Malt and Barley Blues, which I used to have on a little cassette compilation played on one of those old early 70s oblong cassette players. Mike did a great version of Bob Dylan’s Just Like a Woman, Paul sang I’m Your Kingpin – the B side to Hubble Bubble Toil and Trouble, and the only song of the night that I hadn’t heard before; and Mike wrapped up this section with a stunning performance of Handbags and Gladrags, a song he wrote for Chris Farlowe in 1967 and which has tRagamuffin Manaken on a life of its own over the years.

After a charming keyboard interlude from Mike Hugg – sorry, didn’t recognise the tune – Mike d’Abo came back with a rousing rendition of another old favourite of mine, Ragamuffin Man, with which I sang along to my heart’s content whilst Mrs C looked on in bemused ignorance. Then came a song she did know – 5-4-3-2-1, a.k.a. the theme to “Ready Steady Go”, Mighty Quinnperformed to a fantastic lively arrangement, with Paul going great guns on the harmonica. Another softening of the mood followed with Paul’s vocals on Come Tomorrow, which led on to another McGuinness Flint song, When I’m Dead and Gone, which got one of the warmest receptions of the night. Home stretch now, with the lyrically surreal but very rewarding Mighty Quinn, which I really enjoyed; and Do Wah Diddy Diddy, a crowd pleaser par excellence, which is just as well as the guys treated us to about 20 minutes of it, so you’d better like it. Do Wah Diddy DiddyIt’s what Mrs C would describe as “dragging the arse out of it”. For an encore they came back with If You Gotta Go, Go Now, which was a great way to end the night.

I was really impressed with their continued ability to perform both vocally and instrumentally, and the concert demonstrated the group’s wide range of talents and output. A fantastic night of nostalgia, and, for me, a grateful opportunity to show my thanks for all their great songs that contributed to my childhood. The current tour ends on 6th December in Folkestone, so get booking – if you’re a Manfred Mann fan, you’re in for a real treat.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 21st November 2014

Screaming Blue MurderThe Underground was completely packed for the final night of this season’s (and this year’s) Screaming Blue Murder comedy nights – which meant people arriving late not only had the ignominy of being picked on by our host Dan Evans (in rip-roaring form) but they also had to stand around whilst new chairs were sourced from other parts of the building. Dan was also able to warm us up nicely by finding out all about the people in the front row, including Peter the rather bashful Civil Engineer, Charlie who was most definitely not his girlfriend, and two “beautiful couples” including a 25th birthday boy, who was given Jimmy Carr tickets as a gift – cue lots of entertaining jealousy humour from Dan.

Pierre NovellieAll the acts were new to us this week, and I reckon that’s the first time I’ve been able to say that in over three years, so we were very excited at the prospect. First act was Pierre Novellie, an imposing chap with a bushy beard and polite and friendly persona, the occasional “f word” notwithstanding. He had some nice material about the fact that, as he is of white South African heritage, racists assume he is “one of us”; and there was also some enjoyable stuff where he gives monotonous but appropriate lyrics to film scores. But I felt his approach was almost too gentle, and a lot of his material felt like padding, waiting for a punchline that might or might not eventually happen. He started his act with a good ten minutes about his name, most of which was quite boring I’m afraid. If he got some new material his act could go places – but as it stands, he’s paddling in the shallow end at the moment.

Lou SandersHowever, he was a comic genius in comparison with our second act, Lou Sanders. She looks like she’s going to be jolly, and she did have some good material in a quirky sort of way – her chat with an audience member being on Tinder was pretty good – but for some reason she didn’t build up a rapport and when she ran out of material a bit too early, something of a car crash ensued. She announced that she’d be doing her final joke, but it wasn’t that good and didn’t lead to much of a laugh; then she confessed she’d run out of things to say (they were written on her hand) and, realising she still had five minutes to do, panicked a little and it all came across as though she was begrudging us her time and attention. She had just started another joke she said would definitely be the last, when a heckle from the back put her off and she just decided she’d stop there and wouldn’t carry on. This created a surge of embarrassment-led sympathy from the front rows but she was adamant that there was no point in carrying on and that her act wasn’t for everybody.

Sean MeoThe headline act was Sean Meo, and at last we had a comic who knew how to be funny. An older chap, much more experienced, full of attack and vigour, who created an excellent rapport with the audience, using some extremely good material, delivered with terrific timing. Even so, I found one element of his act dangerously close to offensive, when he had some material about “midgets” (his choice of terminology), saying that we “tolerate” them, but don’t look at them and ignore them, which counts as disablist content in my view. Still, his masterful delivery and jokey blokey personality allowed him to get away with it, and he went down very well with the audience.

So not the best comedy night ever, but not the worst either. Let’s hope the great turn-out for last Friday’s show continues when the next season comes along in the New Year. Can’t wait!

Indochina – Cambodia – Siem Reap and Angkor Wat

Siem ReapAll too soon, an early morning start saw us leaving behind the welcoming warmth of the Raffles in Phnom Penh to take an Angkor Air flight to Siem Reap. Most people have heard of Angkor Wat, which is the major tourist attraction here – indeed in Cambodia, indeed in south east Asia, and probably in the top ten of the world’s greatest sights – but I certainly hadn’t heard of its brash little neighbour Siem Reap before. Well I can tell you it’s a complete gem of a place.

Raffles hotel poolIts name, rather belligerently, means “the defeat of Siam”, so you might expect it to be a warrior environment where, when the local lads get lairy, one says “Who you calling Siamese”, and it ends up with a head-butt and a trip to A&E. But of course not; this is Cambodia, one of the most relaxed, laid back and forgiving nations on this planet. The streets of Siem Reap are paved, perhaps not with gold, but with lovely restaurants and bars, entertaining boutiques, fashion bargains, and top quality hotels, of which the Raffles Grand Hotel d’Angkor, is surely one of the finest. It also happened to be where we were lucky enough to be staying. Elegant, refined, with some stunning art works, and the most beautiful pool beside which we enjoyed a fantastic lunch. There was only one other couple there during lunchtime, and it felt very relaxing, extremely exclusive and enormously privileged.

Preah KhanChiefly though, Siem Reap serves as the gateway to Angkor Wat and the other Angkor temples. They belong to the classic period of Khmer art and civilisation and were created by a succession of Khmer kings who presided over an empire that dominated the region from 800 AD to 1430 AD. From the 15th century, the temples were more or less abandoned and forgotten by the world, although occasionally visited by travellers including the French naturalist Henri Mouhot who is Preah Khan carvingsattributed with their re-discovery in 1861. Today the area attracts a good 2 million visitors a year, and tourism is second only to the textile industry in the country’s economy.

Our trip to the entire site was split over two days. On the first afternoon we explored some of the smaller, outer, sites, whilst saving the Main Attraction for the next day. Our first destination was the temple of Preah Khan, built between 1180 and 1215 as King Jayavarman VII’s temporary capital whilst Hall of DancersAngkor Thom (of which more later) was being restored. Not only a temple, it also served as a monastery and religious college, and the complex extends over approximately 2 square miles. Originally dedicated to Buddha, it was later vandalised by Hindu rulers who removed the Buddhist images and replaced them with Hindu carvings. There’s a marvellous welcome into the site – you walk through an arch overseen by three faces, looking ahead and to the left and right. Atmospheric Preah Khan Once in, like with all these temples, you just wander round and take in the history and the exquisite carvings, and imagine what it would have looked like at the height of its power. Outstanding sights include the engraved line of dancers in the appropriately named Hall of Dancers, and the extraordinary tree roots that have formed around the buildings, showing how, over time, nature dominates what man has created. They are amazing to see.

Ta SomAfter that, we visited Ta Som. This small temple has been the subject of extensive renovation work, and when you see how one fig tree has completely strangled the stonework at one entrance, it’s not difficult to understand why it was so necessary. The temple was built by King Jayavarman VII at the end of the 12th century and was dedicated to his father Dharanindravarman II – these old Khmer kings were a bit of a mouthful. It’s one of the lesser visited temples, and we were lucky to see it.

Banteay SreiOur final port of call was to Banteay Srei, home to some of the best preserved sculptures of all the Angkor temples. Constructed between AD 967 and 1000, the name means Citadel of Beauty, and what makes it stand out is the use of pink sandstone. Unlike most other monuments in the area, it was never a royal temple, and there are hardly any plain surfaces without some elaborate decoration. Pink SandstoneThe main central sanctuary was dedicated to Shiva, and everywhere you find beautiful carvings which are a testament to the skill of the artisans and builders who created it. It’s a stunning sight and, extraordinarily, wasn’t discovered until 1914. Our guide was very keen that we should see this place, but, Hindu carvingsunfortunately, we had spent quite a lot of time at Prean Khan, and so by the time we arrived – it was closed! But, as I pointed out earlier, this is Cambodia; so our guide simply forced open the gate even though it was locked (not very securely, obviously), and we sneakily wandered around by ourselves as dusk turned to darkness. I must be honest and say that our illicit entry gave it an extra thrill; and to know that we were the only people there made it feel extra special. Exquisite carvingsThe guide shone his torch, and also we used our torch apps on the iPhones to help us find our way around. The moving lights of course had an unfortunate consequence, and it wasn’t long before a security guard suddenly appeared to see what was going on. But this is Cambodia; and once our guide had slipped him a few quid there was no problem. I’m not normally one to advocate an illegal act – but this was well worth the trespassing.

Getting darkOur journey back to the hotel was exciting, as it was now night-time, and we were driving through these small villages (although on relatively good roads), with no light other than that coming from the houses alongside the road. Despite its being pitch black, the area was full of activity – workers, families, children, sitting outside the houses, walking along the streets, engaging in animated conversation, preparing outdoor meals – all human life was there. It was as though the darkness had brought them to life like a colony of bushbabies.

Siem Reap by nightBack at the hotel, it was time to consider our evening meal. Having had a flashy (and expensive) dinner the night before in Phnom Penh, we thought we’d simply hit the streets of Siem Reap and (hopefully) find a good restaurant. One of our intrepid co-travellers had heard of Square 24, so booked it for all of us and it was excellent. We’d thoroughly recommend it – atmospheric, vibrant, and delicious. As in Laos, the local cuisine is delicate, tasty and rewarding – lovely, harmonised flavours instead of all those clashing ingredients you get in Vietnam.

Arrival at Angkor WatThe next day we were up early for The Big One – Angkor Wat. Of all the great sights in the world we have seen, this is one of the few that actually delivers more than you could possibly hope for – it’s a hugely satisfying place to spend a day, and in fact you could come back day after day after day and still have loads more to take in.Angkor Wat Most visitors just have the one day to sample it though, so if that’s you, make the most of your time and see as much as you can of this amazing place.

We think of Angkor Wat as being the entire complex, but in fact it is only one (albeit the largest) of the individual temples on the site. Arriving there is a beautiful experience, as you walk up a wide footway over the charming stretch of water surrounding it. You wouldn’t want to do it at night, Carvingsor if you’ve had one over the eight as there’s nothing to stop you from falling in the moat. Angkor Wat’s five great towers beckon you as you walk across this causeway, their reflections in the water teasing you forward. You share the walk with hundreds of other tourists, not to mention quite a few monks on a day out too, but the site is so vast that it rarely feels overcrowded.

MonksOn arrival you are confronted with a miraculous gallery of bas-reliefs, depicting scenes from the Hindu epic, the Mahabharata. The mass of intricately carved figures of warriors overwhelms you, as you identify soldiers, chariots and animals in a higgledy-piggledy scrum of combat. The blend of images seems to go on forever; you could easily spend an hour just observing the figures and following the stories carved out on the walls. Once you tear yourself away from this sight, you just wander around the complex, Templemarvelling at the structures and the sheer magnitude of the entire place. It was dedicated to the Hindu God Vishnu, so there are Hindu carvings everywhere. The Central Sanctuary towers over the whole place, giving the impression of a massive “temple-mountain”. Steep staircases take you up (and down) and you can walk around the galleries and admire the views both inside and out.

Ta ProhmLeaving from the back end of the complex, we made our way to Ta Prohm, which was a wealthy Buddhist monastery built around the year 1200, but is now most famous (perhaps somewhat sadly) for being the background for scenes in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider. The way the jungle has encroached on the buildings, and how the tree roots have strangled the structures is extraordinary to see. It’s a slow walk around, as everyone stops for photographs of themselves with roots – very entertaining though.

Terrace of the ElephantsFrom Ta Prohm we headed towards Angkor Thom, which means “The Great City”, and it’s a stunning sight, made up of many different elements. We found the Terrace of the Elephants, a 300 metre long structure decorated with almost life-sized elephants in procession. They look really cute. We strolled around the Bayon, a temple with no fewer than 54 towers, some with mysteriously smiling faces, as well as military and other carvings. BayonThe number of individual buildings, temples, palaces and terraces in the whole complex blows your mind. We probably only saw a fraction of it, but it will remain as one of the most memorable days we’ve ever had.

We started the visit early, so even after all this time, we weren’t too late for lunch. We went to Sala Bai, yet another restaurant designed to give training and a career to street children, and, as always with these places, Easter Eggit was excellent. From there we returned to the hotel for some afternoon chilling, where we were confronted by the most enormous Easter Egg (it was Easter Monday) – that would have taken some eating. Later on we headed out for a night on Siem Reap town, where we strolled up and down the evocatively named “Pub Street”, ending up at the Red Piano for dinner. No DrugsAs the website says, “drugs and prostitution are strictly forbidden – also the perfect spot for your afternoon coffee and snack”, so you know it’s a classy joint. Actually it was huge fun – not Cordon Bleu perhaps but good for a laugh. The music they played, you may be interested to know, included Free’s All Right Now, Dire Strait’s Walk of Life, and a French song we really like, Philippe Cataldo’s Les Divas du Dancing (Google it).

Pub StreetThe next day was our flight home, but it didn’t leave until 4pm so we had time for another trip around town in the morning, visiting the Old Market, the souvenir shops and fashion boutiques, and laughing at the signs outside the Fish Foot Pedicure establishments. “Our hungry fish are waiting for your dead skin!” “If our fish cannot make you happy we’ll not charge”. Big promises there. We ended up at a lovely wine bar/restaurant where we treated ourselves to a final bottle of Cambodian red wine (it probably wasn’t Cambodian) and I had a great big pizza.Those trees Sorry to say I can’t remember the name, but it was on the corner by the Old Market – you can’t miss it.

And that was the end of our Indochinese Odyssey. Three weeks of extraordinary sights and meeting super people; the gentle relaxation of Laos, the gritty vibrancy of Vietnam, and the indomitable spirit of Cambodia. A great trip, and one I’d recommend to anyone.