Review – Pitcairn, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 20th September 2014

PitcairnIt was time for our second trip to Chichester this year, and we started off with another delicious lunch in the Minerva Brasserie, although mackerel pate, shoulder of pork and enough cheese to sink a battleship was a bit on the heavy side. A few hours later we were feeling like our bellies were full of old boots. Next time I think we’ll go for a lighter option.

Tom MorleyThe phrase “a new play by Richard Bean” is beginning to get a bit old hat, but it’s still something that gets your juices flowing with the prospect of a great theatre experience. For Pitcairn, Mr Bean has joined forces with Max Stafford-Clark and Out of Joint, just like he did for The Big Fellah which won the Chrisparkle award for best new play in 2010. That was an incredibly impactful drama that combined terror and humour with massive dramatic irony. I’m always hoping from Mr Bean that his next play will have the same force and edginess. Is Pitcairn going to win the best play award for 2014? I can tell you now, no.

Samuel Edward-CookI liked the fact that it was performed in a nice big empty space. Plenty of room to move around and no cumbersome sightlines. Just some rocks at the edge of the stage, with a projection of waves crashing over them, suggested that Pitcairn is both a remote godforsaken place and an idyllic retreat, as also indicated by the light projection giving us some beautiful sunsets as well. It was a shame that at our performance, a fly had infiltrated the projection equipment so our beautiful sunsets were eradicated by its frantic crawling around in search of freedom. Made me go all itchy just to look at it.

Cassie LaytonI’m not overly familiar with the whole Fletcher Christian/Mutiny on the Bounty story but the exposition at the beginning of the play gives us a really helpful explanation of where we’re at. A military expedition has arrived on Pitcairn looking for Christian to arrest him and return him to England where doubtless he’ll be hanged. They meet the only surviving man from the Bounty on the island, John Adams, who explains that Fletcher Christian is dead. He orders his wives to provide some – shall we say – entertainment and sustenance to the expedition members, and then we’re overtaken by flashback to the time when we see Christian and his men arriving on the island and setting up a utopian society. Everyone is equal and there is no hierarchy. It doesn’t work. Instead of utopia they get anarchy. There are arguments about land ownership and the allocation of wives. There is guerrilla warfare between the incomers and the native leader of the island. Everyday existence descends into a mess of violence and rape and, eventually, the women rise up and take control. It’s a fascinating little window of history, and there ought to be a good play lurking here somewhere. But you don’t feel as though this is it.

Eben FigueiredoThere are a number of problems. Breaking the fourth wall, by having members of the cast come out and ask questions of the audience, just doesn’t work here. Whilst it was the source of brilliant comedy in One Man Two Guvnors, it just feels embarrassing in this play. It comes unexpectedly, and without any real reason or purpose, so the audience are stunned into silence and more than a bit reluctant to answer back. As a result, it feels like the cast are trying to encourage simple one word answers from a very thick school class. If they’d asked me anything, I would have been very tempted to just say “I dunno….” like when I was in 5th form. It’s just the wrong play for this device. Yes, Mr Bean has given us the overwhelming hilarity and comic construction of One Man Two Guvnors, and the very direct connection between fiction and reality in Great Britain. However, in Pitcairn, you sense he is trying for a comic slant with the badinage between the characters and the audience, but it’s dead in the water.

Unconvincing pullingIt works in “One Man” because its structure, opening with the skiffle band playing music directly to us the audience, and being an adaptation of a commedia dell’arte, tells us that it’s more a show than a play right from the start. It works in “Great Britain” because the character of Paige soliloquises with us from the beginning, commenting throughout on the other characters and events. But in Pitcairn, it’s half-hearted. We’re about a quarter of the way through the play, which has been otherwise been thoroughly standard and straightforward, when suddenly a character starts addressing us. Why? He’s not making great ironic comments like Paige Britain. He’s not involving us in one huge pantomime like Francis Hensall. It’s almost as though Mr Bean now simply can’t write a play without audience interaction, even when the play and the structure don’t call for it.

Tom Morley and Eben FigueiredoAs a result the whole vision of the play feels muddled. You’re really not sure what Mr Bean is trying to achieve. There’s a nice twist in the story which is cleverly set up and effectively carried out, but in order to get there we have to endure some pretty odd scenes, including a brutal rape. Mrs Chrisparkle found the rape scene and the other scenes of violence quite upsetting. In fact, within its context, we both found it more disturbing than the seven Soviet soldiers cannibalising each other in The Curing Room; at least there it was the natural, overwhelming urge for survival that brought about the gore. In Pitcairn, it felt quite gratuitous. There’s also a dildo dance. Yes, that’s right; a scene which seems to have no other purpose other than to have one of the island women doing a rather suggestive dance with not one but two dildos. Who knew that 18th century Pitcairn had its own Ann Summers? Even the curtain call culminates with the cast doing a haka. I can only presume they did it simply to show us that they could. Pitcairn can’t decide whether it’s a historical drama or some kind of Tahitian Fantasia. I wouldn’t have put it past them to do the finale on ice.

Siubhan Harrison and Samuel Edward-CookThe muddle continues with the characters. Whilst the men are well delineated – the violent one, the learned one, the mischievous one, and so on, the women are almost completely interchangeable. I found myself constantly checking back on my programme, working out which one was who. It doesn’t help that they all appear to sleep with everyone else anyway, whenever any of the men demanded a changeround of domestic arrangements. It also doesn’t help that the only thing the women talk about is getting lots of sex. They’re sex mad. That’s why the whole subplot of young Hiti, at 17 desperate to lose his virginity, didn’t ring true to me. With all that talk of sex, those women would each have had him deflowered by the time he was 14. The poor lad wouldn’t have stood a chance.

Henry PettigrewNotwithstanding all this, there are some very good performances. I liked Tom Morley’s portrayal of Fletcher Christian as a noble character gone wayward, trying in vain to hang on to his ebbing principles. There’s a very strong performance by Samuel Edward-Cook as the evil Quintal, his bulging eyes maniacally staring out at you as he brutalises his way round the island. Eben Figueiredo’s Hiti is convincingly keen to prove himself a man not a boy and you feel very sorry when he comes a-cropper; but because this play has one foot firmly in fantasy, he doesn’t stay dead for long. Amongst the female ensemble, Cassie Layton stands out as Hiti’s love interest Mata. Her having to ask the audience cringingly embarrassing questions about their own sexual attitudes and experience ought to merit a sympathy award at least.

To be honest, it’s not a terribly good play. The subject matter is fascinating, with interesting characters, and there is much scope for a dramatic examination of how a utopian ideal fades and dies. Sadly the writing is somewhat chewy and you come away feeling this is one serious play that has been negated by much gratuitous nonsense. It will be very interesting to see how it does on its tour to Shakespeare’s Globe, then Plymouth, Warwick, Guildford, Eastbourne, Oxford and finishing up in Malvern in mid-November.

Review – Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, 13th September 2014

Richard IIIYou know that thing when you’re really, really looking forward to something and then, for whatever reason, you don’t enjoy it like you think you’re going to? Welcome, dear reader, to my Richard III experience.

Martin Freeman as Richard III? Yes please! That was my instant reaction when the production was announced. I got on the internet as fast as my ATG Theatre Friends membership card would take me, and there was a great choice of seats everywhere. That’s when I realised there would be stage seating too. I’ve only done that once before – almost forty years ago, when I was on a school outing to see Equus (I know, but we were very advanced). In addition to the usual stalls, circle, balcony seats in what was then the Albery theatre (now the Noel Coward), that original production also had benches on the stage, behind the action, not particularly comfortable but with a significant rake that gave an excellent view of what was going on. It was odd to be in that position, and of course, there were times when the actors played out front and not to us so you missed a bit, but my memory of that is that it wasn’t a problem, and us lot at the back certainly got our fair share of attention from the cast. And of course we were so close to the action; I recall it felt incredibly exciting; a unique experience, in fact. So, remembering all that, I plumped for the stage seating for Richard III. I was reassured by the fact that it wasn’t cheap – if it had been, I would have been suspicious, and would have upgraded us to the front stalls in the traditional layout. It’s important for me to have good seats at the theatre – if I can’t see or hear as clearly as I want, my enjoyment level absolutely plummets. But – apart from those goddam Premium Seats – those stage seating seats were top price. So they’ve got to be a quality place to sit. Haven’t they?

Martin FreemanNo. They are awful, awful seats. Just awful. From our position of BB 11 and 12, the view was extremely obstructed, although primarily not from the people in row AA, but by the furniture and props that littered the stage. This is a very heavily “furnitured” set. The Trafalgar Studio 1 stage is not particularly big, but for this production it houses two long tables and about six other office desks, stacked high with pot plants, typewriters, telephones, and so on, to give you the impression of a 1970s office. It’s set in the 1970s, by the way, so that they can make the “winter of discontent” speech have a double meaning. Otherwise, there’s no particular link made from the play to the era. The offending desk that Mrs Chrisparkle and I mainly resented was the one right in front of us, at which no one sat, no one made a phone call from the phone, no one typed on the typewriter and no one watered the pot plant. If it hadn’t been there, we could have seen something, and it wouldn’t have affected the rest of the staging one iota.

The layout and blocking of the whole production is purely for the benefit of those in the regular seats. There are a few short scenes that take place very far stage right – I don’t know if they were on or off the stage as such as we couldn’t see. “Helpfully”, every so often a member of the cast swings an old TV set in front of us in the stage seating so that we can see what’s happening (these are £52.50 seats remember, not described as obstructed view), but either they didn’t leave it in the best position for us to see or it was obstructed by the people sitting in Row AA right in front of it. So that was a waste of space.

Gina McKeeShakespeare’s Richard III is a cruel, vicious swine. The rather simple story is that he kills everyone who can possibly get in the way of his becoming King, and once he is king, he’s got a bunch of rebels on his hands, one of which eventually kills him. Not a nice chap. This is quite a bloody production, and we get to see him despatch all his enemies and many of his friends too. Well, that’s the case if you’re sat in the traditional seats. From our position, we could only guess that was what was going on. Clarence dies by foul means involving a fish tank, but whether he was drowned, had his throat slit or got attacked by a piranha I don’t know, as his murderers masked the action from our sight. For Rivers’ death, it was one of the pesky long tables and chairs that got in the way of our view. At one moment, he was chatting away – a bit anxiously because he knew things were not looking good – the next he was writhing on the floor, doing a very convincing death rattle, but we had no idea why. Someone must have done something to him but who? And what? Stabbed? Poisoned? Disturbed his feng shui? We couldn’t tell. Then there was the death of Lady Anne. This took place right at the front of the stage, which is physically quite a distance from the stage seating. There was some unexpected movement from Richard and suddenly she was gargling. We think a phone wire was used, but as it all took place obstructed by that sodding typewriter, don’t take my word for it. During her death, to emphasise the atmosphere of anarchy and terror, some bright spark (the director?) decided to make the lift doors continually open and shut, open and shut, like something invisible was trapped there, thus creating a terrible din that really – REALLY – got on our nerves.

To say the production suffered from gimmicks would, I think, be an understatement. A week or so before we went, I received an email saying that you might get spattered with blood if you sit in rows A-D or in AA, so dress accordingly. Excuse me? Not only do you take £52.50 from people to sit somewhere they can’t see what’s going on, you’re also going to add to their laundry bill? I could see that a member of staff was addressing the people in the front three rows before the play started, presumably giving them warning. T-shirts were provided that you could put on to protect yourself. Only a few people did. The blood spattering comes from Richard’s doing away with yet another enemy – a man who was already very blood soaked from the start of the scene, but neither Mrs C nor I could recognise him or work out who he was. Researching for this blog, I now realise it was Buckingham – couldn’t tell from our angle. Not quite sure how it happened but we saw blood spurt out from around his neck high into the air and then splash down on the front rows. A lady in the front row who had obviously declined the T-shirt rushed for paper tissues from her handbag and was looking exceedingly annoyed. But it’s all pure gimmick. There was no need for it. Just come upstage a bit and the blood spurt wouldn’t have reached the paying punters. The same disregard for the audience that fleeces us for obstructed view seats also takes it for granted that we’d love to have our clothes all blood spattered before going out for a nice meal. We’re clearly the least important people in that production.

Jo Stone-FewingsOne more thing – Seat AA8 was allocated as a wheelchair space. Now, no criticism of the wheelchair user herself, of course, but I would question the wisdom of that allocation. The lady who sat there had a very tall wheelchair. If you looked at the height of the heads along the row, everyone was more or less the same height until you came to this last lady whose head came at least a foot taller than the rest. For the lady sitting directly behind her the whole performance must have been completely invisible. I can only hope she got the ticket for free or successfully asked for her money back, because it really was stupid. Her husband, sat next to me, had to constantly duck and dive in order to see anything; and indeed, for a lengthy time in the first act, he simply decided to go to sleep as it wasn’t worth the candle. Mrs C did the same thing too – when she realised what a struggle it was going to be to follow what was going on – she just gave up. Wheelchair seating can be a sensitive issue – they’ve definitely got it wrong here.

As for the production itself, we both felt it was very chewy and hard to follow in the first act. I admit it’s not a play with which I am particularly familiar, but even so, all the gimmicks and all the furniture simply got in the way of understanding. In an attempt to recreate the 70s setting, they had nearly all the men looking like each other. They each had the same Tom Selleck moustaches, the same severe black rimmed spectacles, the same swarthy complexions. I couldn’t tell Catesby from Buckingham from Richmond. Queen Margaret kept on drifting in and out in such an ethereal way I presumed she was meant to be a ghost. The second act was easier to follow, simply because less happened, but as Mrs C pointed out, even more of what did happen happened at the front of the stage and was spoken out to the main audience so that we heard very few of the speeches. Acoustically the setup is a shocker, and when an actor is out front declaiming to the stalls, we couldn’t hear a darn thing. Technically, it wasn’t a great performance; one of the few things we could see was a fax coming through on a printer that an actor tore off and read, but with that old fashioned sound of a dot matrix printer printing away long after the fax had been torn off and whilst the printer was at a complete standstill. It could have been straight out of Noises Off; bit pathetic, really.

Gabrielle LloydWe thought Martin Freeman, as far as we could judge, was really good in the role. He has a very intense stare and would be a really scary boss. His timing is great, and we assume he does a great line in quirky looks and comic asides, from the sound of the audience out front enjoying them, although we couldn’t see them. There’s a very strong scene between him and the excellent Gina McKee as Queen Elizabeth, when she is condemning him for murdering her sons and trying to protect her daughter from being next on the list. Miss McKee gave a great performance as the grieving and bitterly furious mother. Fortunately that was one scene we could see properly. Jo Stone-Fewings was very good as Buckingham, professionally malign to further his cause with the king-to-be, then wounded and furious when he finds he has been duped; and I thought Gabrielle Lloyd as the Duchess of York lent the production some much needed gravitas – no gimmicks, nothing sensational, just clear enunciation and proper understanding of the text.

I think the rest of the run is now pretty much sold out. If you’ve got tickets for the ordinary seats, you’ll definitely derive some enjoyment out of it. If you’ve got stage seating, I wouldn’t throw good money after bad by buying a train ticket.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 12th September 2014

Screaming Blue MurderHurrah! Welcome back Screaming Blue Murder season! We’ve missed you. Where else can you get three incredible acts, two wonderful intervals, and a jolly jackanapes of a host all for £11.50 (provided you’re a friend of the Royal & Derngate, which of course you should be anyway). Our host was the inimitable Mr Dan Evans, who has an unbeatable ability to warm us up with anything between some gentle teasing and outrageous insults. He still seems a little sore at my comments (somewhat historical now) about reusing old jokes, but he does come back each week with fresh material, which I for one definitely appreciate and he’s always a joy to watch.

Dan EvansWe normally like to sit close-ish to the stage, but not so close that you’re in danger of being picked on by one of the comics. Four rows back, on the central aisle, is just perfect. However, since Mrs Chrisparkle and I went to Edinburgh this summer and ended up at the front in many comic shows and revues, being an unwitting part of the act now holds little fear for us. Paul Ricketts called me a “silver fox” (ready for a care home); Paul Savage had me standing in front of the crowd reciting love poems from the Song of Solomon to Mrs C in the audience; James Loveridge and the Spank! team probed into our relationship and pet names for each other; we danced with Russell Grant; and we were teased by New Zealand’s Mika. Our former role of being a shy, retiring audience member is now a thing of the past, and sitting at the front has become more attractive a prospect. However, for Screaming Blue Murder we were accompanied by My Lady Duncansby who would sooner sit out on the street in the rain than risk being talked to in the front row; so we took our usual four-rows-back place, in (apparently) safe contentment. However, no one else took the seats in the second and third rows in front of us – so you can guess what happened.

Craig MurrayCue the first act, Craig Murray, new to us, and whose act is very much based on getting into conversations with the crowd. It wasn’t long before he had eyeballed me and I knew the game was up. Not just idle conversation; he wanted my name, how long we’d been married, how and where we met, whether it was love at first sight, etc, etc and etc. Only one thing you can do under those circumstances – jump in feet first and go with it. His responses to what I’ve always thought were our perfectly mundane circumstances of meeting made me sound like a creepy stalker, had Mrs C in the role of Scouse car-parker and Lady D as a bitter and twisted control freak. (Well, she shouldn’t have interrupted). It’s like he knew us intimately. But seriously, his is a really good act, with terrific observations about relationships, confident delivery, great timing and very funny material.

Juliet MeyersNext up was Juliet Meyers, who we’ve seen twice before. The first time we saw her she really nailed her material and she was fantastic. The second time, she seemed to be off the boil somewhat and it never quite hit home. This time, she was again slightly under par but still good; she still likes to assess her audience with an early use of the “c” word – and it seems to me that the more we laugh at that, the more relaxed she becomes, and the more successfully the act as a whole develops. She’s a bright, in your face, likeable, attacking comic and, for the most part, her material went down well.

Mitch BennLast act was Mitch Benn, who we’ve never seen but of whom I’d definitely heard. He’s a man with a guitar and a lot of pluck, which is a useful combination. He did a song about Eurovision to which I bridled instinctively because no comedian is ever going to say anything complimentary about our blessed contest; but in fact it turned into a very clever and funny song about xenophobia, which not only insulted every country throughout Europe but also turned the prejudice on the singer – so that worked well. He had a tender little song that explains how men’s grunts and bodily function noises may be translated into terms of affection; and another that was an homage to the Very Hungry Caterpillar. With very good material, he kept the atmosphere very lively and the audience were loud and enthusiastic in their appreciation.

Quite a good turn-out but we could definitely do better. You must come to the next one!

Review – Regeneration, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 8th September 2014

RegenerationBack to the charming Royal Theatre for another of this year’s Made in Northampton productions, Nicholas Wright’s adaptation of Pat Barker’s Regeneration, the much loved novel about World War One, and indeed a Booker Prize nominee. It’ll probably come as no surprise, gentle reader, that neither Mrs Chrisparkle nor I have read it, nor seen the film, nor knew anything of what it’s about. So we came to the theatre with no prior knowledge and no preconceptions. Of course, I knew of Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Rupert Graves. But I’d never heard of Craiglockart Army Hospital, and certainly didn’t know that Sassoon and Owen were both patients at the same time.

Soldier's DeclarationThe action takes place between 1917 and 1919. Second Lieutenant Siegfried Sassoon makes his “Soldier’s Declaration”, and refuses to return to duty, because “the war upon which I entered as a war of defence and liberation has now become a war of aggression and conquest”. Instead of receiving a court-martial, he is sent to Craiglockart to undergo psychiatric treatment at the hands of the enlightened doctor Captain Rivers. Rivers’ somewhat bizarre task is to treat his shell-shocked patients and make them well again – so that they can go back to the front. That is his military, if not medical, brief. It sounds like something straight out of Catch-22. Whilst at Craiglockart, Sassoon meets Wilfred Owen, who idolises the older man for his war poetry, and before long there’s a certain spark between them too. Part fact part fiction, the story includes many other patients including the non-officer class Billy Prior, and the play follows their progress through the war years, as well as Captain Rivers’ own personal and career development. To tell you more than that would spoil the plot for you.

Stephen BoxerRegeneration – it’s quite a cynical name for the play. Apparently, the title refers to Rivers’ research into what he called “nerve regeneration”. The OED defines regeneration as being brought again into existence, of being reborn. It’s true that Rivers, and other doctors like the sadistic Yealland, are trying to bring their patients back from their muteness and other mental incapacities; but not to reintegrate them back into a more normal society, but just so that they can be more cannon fodder. The name also implies that the concerns of this play continue to be relevant throughout the generations – through the Second World War, to the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns of our own time. Certainly the play makes you feel uncomfortable about the effects of war and the treatments available, both then and today. When you see how fragile humans are, how we crumble when exposed to the excesses of war, when you know the level of cruelty with which man can treat his fellow man on the battlefield, it makes you despair that we still haven’t learned a better way to solve ideological and territorial differences. In amongst all this, Regeneration also brings us close to the War Poetry of the time; gut-wrenchingly heart-breaking, classically beautiful, idealistically noble, with death a terrifying inevitability. It may well send you back to your poetry books to rediscover the works of Wilfred Owen – I’d forgotten quite how devastating they are. It’s a very emotional play, and a very sad one; although it has a lightness of touch throughout that brings out the humour and the positivity in the characters and by extension in all of us.

Technically it’s a solid, classy production. The simple set works on our imagination to recreate not only Craiglockart but also the Conservative Club (class differences are very nicely observed in this play), the picnic field, and Yealland’s comfortless electro-shock therapy room. The military uniforms that were compulsory at the hospital are a permanent reminder of the wartime background and the deathly threat that awaits any recuperating patients. The lighting and the music combine to punctuate each scene and create some very eerie moments, including one major sudden shock that had Mrs C reaching for the Shiraz.

Tim Delap and Garmon Rhys There are some fantastic performances. Stephen Boxer is overwhelmingly good as Captain Rivers. Quiet, unassuming, but with a steely glint that cuts through the crap and continually analyses patients, colleagues, situations, anything he comes across. Mr Boxer is a master of the throwaway line, with immaculate timing to both comic and tragic effect. This Captain Rivers would be an amazing boss to work for. Tim Delap brings us all the natural authority of Siegfried Sassoon’s self-confidence and aristocratic demeanour, but also his tangible moments of anxiety, and, in the last scene, an immense sense of resigned anguish. Garmon Rhys also gives a great performance as Wilfred Owen, enthusiastic, idealistic, desperate to please his mentor Sassoon, failing to conceal the huge mancrush he has on him. Their final scene together, which starts so warmly and ends in disarray, was superbly riveting throughout. Never has a ten pound note been so disappointing. In addition, I must point out that it is extraordinary how similar these three actors, when in character, resemble the vintage photographs of Rivers, Sassoon and Owen themselves. Quite remarkable! I was also really impressed with Jack Monaghan as Billy Prior, his working class accent standing out like a sore thumb against those of the officer class with whom he is hospitalised, his war trauma deeply felt and expressed with complete conviction.

Tim DelapThe rest of the cast are also great – I particularly liked Simon Coates’ “chastising” Dr Yealland and Lindy Whiteford’s kind and strict Sister Rogers. But the whole team give a crisp, unsettling and emotional performance. Also – a simple note of appreciation but one that is genuinely meant – I heard every word that every actor spoke. That doesn’t always happen; but when you don’t have to fight to understand what’s being said it really does enhance your enjoyment of an evening at the theatre!

Jack MonaghanOn the night we went, it was followed by a Post-Show Discussion with members of the cast. Mrs C and I are happy quietly to follow such conversations rather than pitch in with any observations we might have – we know our limitations. But I was really impressed with the obviously intelligent way in which the cast have prepared for the play, their own background reading, the insights they have into their characters, their thoughts about what the play should do and how we should receive it. It’s an intelligence that really pays off on stage. This is a thought-provoking, hard-hitting and very dignified production and I would whole-heartedly recommend it to you. After Northampton it embarks on a three month-tour to York, Edinburgh, Bradford, Nottingham, Cheltenham, Richmond, Wolverhampton, Darlington, Oxford and Blackpool. Catch it if you can!

P. S. Can I also recommend you visit theatrecloud for much more information about the production? It’s an excellent additional resource!

Review – Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Savoy Theatre, 6th September 2014

Dirty Rotten ScoundrelsI hummed and hahhed about booking this show because, deep down, gentle reader, I’m a little fed up of the trend to reinvent successful films as stage shows. The story’s already been told in one format – does it really need to be in another? I know there have been loads of great musicals as a result, but I’d really like to see something a bit more original. So at first I ignored it; then ATG tickets rang me up with an offer I couldn’t refuse, so I changed my mind. Yes, the decision to go was price-based. Still, the show sounded funny; and I’ve always got a lot of time for Robert Lindsay on stage.

Well, I’m very glad that my inflexibility didn’t get the better of me, because Mrs Chrisparkle and I had an absolute whale of a time at this show. We had seen the film before – but it had been some time ago and we’d both forgotten it. Suffice to say, we knew that we enjoyed it, but not why. I remembered it contained a couple of dirty rotten scoundrels, but that’s no great achievement when the clue is in the title. So the plot unfolded to us as a new story, which was very satisfying as it has a delicious twist at the end that came as a complete surprise.

Robert LindsayWithout giving too much away, it’s about rogue serial swindler Lawrence Jameson, who spends his summers in a fashionable French resort, conning rich ladies out of their considerable fortunes. He’s assisted in this by his accomplice, Andre, an Inspector in the local police force. But their happy little business becomes at risk when another chancer arrives on the scene, the American small time crook Freddy, who’s in the same line of work and who threatens to blow the gaff on Lawrence’s little game. To preserve his way of life, Lawrence agrees to teach Freddy the finer points of scoundreldom; and thus they end up working together, challenging each other to swindle the most money out of the next lot of victims. Into their life steps heiress Christine Colgate, and the game is on.

I’d forgotten how good Robert Lindsay is. We last saw him a few years ago at the Old Vic in John Osborne’s The Entertainer, where he was great; but Dirty Rotten Scoundrels is the kind of show where he really excels – a proper old-fashioned musical, with a bit of a song-and-dance, some showmanship, and some stagey razzmatazz. I first saw him in the original cast of Me and My Girl at the Adelphi in 1985 and was astounded at his ability. In fact, I think his only rival for the title of Best Charisma on Stage in a Musical is Michael Crawford. He’s one of those actors you just can’t stop watching. Every little gesture, every look, every aside, is filled with meaning – whether it be revealing something about the character, or letting you into a moment of emotion, or being just downright hilarious. The role of Lawrence is just perfect for him, allowing him to preen, pose and vain it up like a peacock, whilst being brought down to earth with regular thumps every time things don’t go his way.

Rufus HoundMuch of the fun comes from how he so nearly (but not quite) breaks the fourth wall on so many occasions, such as his look of incredulity directly at the audience when we applaud Rufus Hound for some comic business, or, after the wonderful and surreal Oklahoma number, when he offers us a silent throwaway “wtf?” You come away from the show feeling that his performance has been one long tongue-in-cheek in-joke, and all the funnier for it. Actually the script is full of quirks that teeter on the edge of normal stagecraft, teasing us with breaking the usual rules of theatre; like when Act Two begins in the same place that Act One ended, and they make fun of the fact they’re performing the same scene twice. Overall Mr L gives us a wonderful comic performance, let alone his still being light on his feet at 64 (apparently), and vocally still really strong. A true star of the stage. He is of course matched with a fantastic performance from Rufus Hound; it’s the first time we’ve seen him live and I was really impressed at his accomplished stage presence. Relishing every opportunity to look as stupid as possible, as when he is playing out the role of the brother from hell Ruprecht, or being ferociously whipped and having to mask the pain, he gives an incredibly active and physical performance, and together with Mr L they create a perfect comic partnership.

Samantha BondSupporting is a wonderfully funny and surprisingly tender performance by Samantha Bond on top form, as the lovelorn Muriel, always wanting to give Lawrence (masquerading as the Prince of some threatened Ruritanian province) a little more money to help his country’s fight for survival. She’s got great comic timing, and acts out a charming love story that develops with Andre; and I loved the moment when she hangs on to the disappearing balcony rail in another of those quirky stagecraft scenes. In the performance we saw, two members of the cast were indisposed so their understudies were called on, and, my word, did they give good accounts of themselves. Darren Bennett played Andre with wit and panache, and Alice Fearn was a beautiful, seemingly kind-hearted Christine Colgate, with a super stage presence and a fantastic voice. We were also really impressed with the statuesque Lizzy Connolly, who played the horrendous Jolene with enormous verve and a great sense of fun. The sets look opulent, and really reflect that sunny Riviera feeling, as do the costumes; and Jerry Mitchell’s choreography is funny and engaging, bringing out the best in the talented ensemble dancers. The songs are catchy and amusing, and the book is extremely funny – all in all, it’s something of a dream combination.

Robert Lindsay and Rufus HoundAn unmitigated joy – were it not for one really unfortunate blip. I had read reports earlier in the run that the sound system is not up to the job. We had presumed that, months on, all that would have been rectified by now, but no. What I suspect are really witty lyrics in most of the big numbers were absolutely lost by the imbalance of orchestra versus voice. You catch just a percentage of the words, by dint of heavy concentration and a reliance on lip-reading. You know the kind of thing – you catch significant rhyming words like, say, “map” and “crap” and your brain tells you “that’s a really funny lyric that links map and crap, I’m sure if I heard it in its entirety it would be incredibly witty”. You hear enough to keep abreast of plot development, but not enough to savour every moment. It’s a real shame; and we were only four rows from the front in Row C. I would imagine that at the back you would have been completely lost in those big set pieces. Disgraceful really, considering the prices of the seats. Fortunately the show is just so good that you forgive it.

A perfect light-hearted entertainment, deftly performed and very funny indeed. Despite the sound issues, I’d still recommend it without hesitation!

Review – Jasper Carrott – Stand Up and Rock, Derngate, Northampton, 4th September 2014

Stand Up and RockNeither Mrs Chrisparkle or I had ever seen Jasper Carrott live before, so I was very happy to jump at the chance to book for this show, although I was suspicious of the format, being not just stand-up comedy with Mr Carrott but also rock music with the Bev Bevan Band. “Stand Up” – yes, great; “and rock” – aye, there’s the rub. It seemed an artificial structure where Mr Carrott would surround himself with some of his best mates to mix comedy and music to his personal taste. I couldn’t help but feel that up to half of the audience might be there under sufferance for one of the elements of the evening. If you’re a fan of Jasper Carrott, would you necessarily like the same music that he does? Similarly, if you’re a fan of 1960s/70s rocky commercial pop – which is basically what the Bev Bevan band and their guests mainly perform – would you necessarily like Jasper Carrott? I thought it was a risky strategy.

Jasper CarrottHowever, it pays off, whether by good luck, great musical skill, or expert comic delivery, or a combination of all three. This happened to be the first night of their extensive 2014 tour, and all the performers were in a crisp, excited, enthusiastic mood and put on a hugely entertaining show. But, deep down, it really is a layer cake of two shows on top of each other. Comedy, then music, then interval; comedy, then music, then home. Like old-fashioned variety, Mrs C suggested; but I disagree, old fashioned variety would have had much more, well, variety. At the end of each of his comic sets, Mr Carrott shouted, “right! Are you ready for some music?!” to which we all shouted “Yes!” as we were meant to, but I for one was thinking “No!!” But it’s good to be challenged, not only in searing dramas but also in light entertainment, and I came away from the show feeling that I had enjoyed the music much more than I had expected, and the comedy perhaps not quite as much as expected.

Bev BevanThere’s no doubt that Mr Carrott falls somewhere in the “comedy genius” spectrum. I can remember when he first became known, with his late Friday night TV show on ATV in the mid 1970s. I amassed all his comedy albums, and loved all the live Magic Roundabout, Bastity Chelt, Nutter on the Bus, and Car Insurance Claims material on them that kept the teenage me entertained for hours on end. He did just one old joke off those old records in last night’s show – a musical performance of “Hangman, slacken your noose”, which ends more rapidly than you might expect, and is still funny in a nostalgic sort of way. Around 1976, Jasper Carrott was a breath of fresh air in comparison with the other established TV comics of the day, who were either slick southerners in the Bob Monkhouse mould or club northerners a la Bernard Manning. I think it was his general Brumminess, and an edgy sense of going off script, that stood out and made him different. So I was surprised to see that, almost forty years on, he’s now very establishment and in fact much of his humour struck me as quite dated.

Trevor BurtonDon’t get me wrong – his delivery is masterful, and he’s a naturally very funny person. His rapport with the audience is instant and extremely warm – he seems as fond of us as we are of him; he doesn’t use offensive language like so many of the new brigade, and he talks about feelings and situations which we can all recognise. I was, however, a little disappointed that, unwittingly or otherwise, people with disabilities tended to be in the firing line of some of his jokes. He also started off with the usual (accurate, and funny) observation that people always say they hate where they live. Many’s the Screaming Blue Murder show when the comic has said to the audience “what’s Northampton like” and the audience dismally reply “it’s sh*t”. (Even though it isn’t). Similarly, Mr Carrott did a pretend conversation with himself, brightly saying “It’s nice here in Northampton, isn’t it”, Geoff Turtonto which he then glumly moaned, “you ought to live here… can you speak Polish?” At this, 95% of the audience went into hoots of laughing appreciation. For fifteen seconds or more it felt like we were at a UKIP rally. Mrs C and I felt most uncomfortable at the instant prejudice. Still, for the most part, we laughed a lot and found his material very funny.

But how impressive were the band?! Superb. With Bev Bevan commanding centre stage with his fearless drumming and fantastic vocals and guitar work from his team, they were stunning from the very first song. Very rewarding and recognisable numbers from the 60s and 70s throughout, including Beatles, Stones, The Move (naturally, with a considerable Move contingent on stage!) The Fortunes, Spencer Davis Group, and many more. We really appreciated the brilliant contributions from guest artists Trevor Burton,Joy Strachan-Brain Geoff Turton (there’s something of the Norman Collier in his stage presence, but his voice is still amazing), and Joy Strachan-Brain, who can certainly whack out a song with huge panache and attack. For me, the best moments were when they performed slightly more unexpected songs – their version of Steeleye Span’s All Around My Hat, for example, was sensational.

A completely packed Derngate was wowed indeed and almost everyone was up on their feet at the end. If you enjoy both Mr Carrott and that kind of 60s/70s music you are in for a treat. If you enjoy one but not the other, it’s still worth the risk!

Looking back at Edinburgh Fringe 2014 – three excellent plays – No 3 – Review – Frank Sent Me, The Dairy Room, Underbelly Bristo Square, 11th August 2014

Frank Sent MeAs Mrs Chrisparkle and I were having a coffee in the summer sunshine (actually, during a brief unrainy moment) in the Underbelly Complex, a friendly chap with a handful of flyers asked us if we had “got our lunchtime theatre sorted”, whilst offering us a flyer for “Frank Sent Me”. “Indeed!” I replied brightly, “that’s the very play we’ve got tickets for!” “Oh, great!” he replied with a look of relief, “see you there”, which made me wonder slightly if anyone else would be turning up for the performance.

Fifteen minutes before it was due to start, we popped round to the Dairy Room and started to form the queue. There was one other man there. I was beginning to get worried. I needn’t have though, as loads of people suddenly appeared with about two minutes to spare, and we all trudged up the staircase into a room that I expect in real life is a rather grand Edinburgh University lecture room. The play began with a man coming on stage with not much on (but still decent) slowly getting dressed, apparently for a meeting. It was the man with the flyers, which was a good reminder that these fringe productions sometimes get assembled on the flimsiest of budgets, and with an awful lot of goodwill.

Rob PomfretHe was playing Howe, an underworld enforcer about to meet his match. Frank, the boss, has obviously had enough of him, although we never find out why; I guess all underworld enforcers have their “best by” dates. Tough, serious, knowing today’s the day he was going to be taken away and “dealt with”, Howe’s going to meet whoever it is that Frank sends to do the deed with dignity and honour, his head high, his integrity intact. But two things stand this manful stolidity on its head. One is that Howe’s partner, Wallace, is also a man – and that their relationship is never questioned as being anything other than something perfectly ordinary, which is delightfully non-judgmental for a gangsterland drama. The other is that the chap Frank sends to collect Howe is a dork called Blake, an inexperienced, ham-fisted, matey coward whose inability to do the job is the biggest slap in the face to the tough guy. Having a knobhead come to whisk him away is more insulting than death itself. When Blake, inevitably, fails at his task, it’s up to Howe to rescue the situation – but what does he do?

Matthew GibbsIt’s a surprisingly sensitive tale of a man facing death, the man who’s got to kill him, and the man who has to live with the aftermath. In amongst all the bravado this is basically a domestic black comedy; the man facing the death sentence still has to keep on the right side of his occasionally tetchy partner, as you get little insights into the rifts that have developed between them over the years. But it’s a relationship which, despite everything, is pretty solid. Tight and tautly written by Julian Poidevin, the promotional material described it as Ortonesque with which I would agree in part; but it doesn’t have Orton’s sense of the outrageous, and the central relationship between Howe and Wallace is more realistic than if it had been Orton’s work. It doesn’t really need comparing with anything else – it is its own thing, and very satisfactorily so.

Izaak CainerIt features three excellent performances. Rob Pomfret (our man with the flyers) is very convincing as Howe, never letting us overlook the seriousness of the events unfolding as the story progresses, and you can imagine he would be a slick operator with his enforcer’s hat on. Despite his job, you actually feel sorry for him and identify with him to the extent that you wonder how you would cope in the same boat. Matthew Gibbs as Wallace provides the perfect foil to him with his house-proud, rather motherly, “let’s not make a fuss” attitude. Actually he reminded me of my late Auntie Joan, keeping the place immaculate, being unnecessarily generous to guests, adopting a “shush and get on with it” manner even when the consequences could be ghastly. It’s a really persuasive study of someone who has little vision but makes up for it with heaps of practicality. And there’s a very nice comic (but not too comic) performance by Izaak Cainer as the hopeless Blake, trying to be positive and upbeat whilst stifling fear-induced vomiting. We were in the front row of this tiny theatre and the action was taking place probably no more than five feet away from our noses, and I was really impressed with the concentration and complete immersion in the characters by all three actors. They were really living it! All in all, a superb production, a satisfying and constantly surprising story performed with elegance, wit and style.

We bumped into Mr Pomfret again outside after the show. I told him it was really good – and he seemed pleased!