Independent Traders of Northampton – Independence Day Fair at the Guildhall – Shopping, Gastronomy and Something Lovely to Drink

Holy SepulchreYesterday I wrote about the Northampton arts scene and how it thrives through independence and individuality. Now let’s have a think about some good old shops! It isn’t easy being an independent trader. The Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle ran a pub for decades – in the old days where you were more likely to be a tenant of the brewery rather than a manager. I’m still in awe when I reflect on how hard she worked – and what long hours. Mrs C and I have observed a number of people going-it-alone in the world of retail self-employment; it can be a risky pastime for some. So anyone who makes a successful living out of independent trading is a pretty amazing person, I reckon.

Church's ChinaCertainly one of the great things about living in Northampton is the wide range of independent shops, restaurants, cafes and businesses that are found everywhere around the town centre, alongside the big chains that you can find up and down the country. Things change of course; new businesses start, others close; and whenever Mrs C and I find out about an independent trader, who has had to shut up shop, our hearts go out to them. Internet shopping was a death knell for Church’s China store on St Giles Street, which closed its doors in 2011 after more than 150 years of trading – although kudos to them, because they developed an online presence instead. If you can’t beat them…! One man’s poison is another man’s meat as we now see the new Pamukkale Turkish restaurant occupying the same downstairs premises, which, in a few months’ trading seems to be gaining a very good reputation.

BondsSt Giles Street is actually jam-packed with independent retailers, including some of our favourite places to shop and dine. Bonds Jewellers at 41-43 St Giles Street is always a pleasure to browse through, and many of Mrs C’s Christmas and birthday pressies started their life here. The staff were also really helpful when I had to get something for the young Baron Brownhills’ 18th birthday. They create the perfect shopping environment – no pressure when you’re in there, you could spend as much time as you want; but if you need some help they give you their undivided attention and advice. We also love going to the Chata Restaurant at 58 St Giles Street. ChataHere you can get fantastic hearty Polish food like goulash and dumplings although my personal favourite is the Bigos (Hunters Stew) and Mrs C always has the Golabki (Stuffed Cabbage Leaves) with a gluten-free tomato sauce. She also thinks the date, plum and bacon starter is to die for, and they also do a gluten-free cheesecake which is ace, and also a delicious apple cake. You can also embarrass your friends by getting them to try the “naughty dessert for ladies or gentlemen”, one of which leaves little to the imagination and has to be approached hands-free. Their wine is good quality but I recommend a Polish beer (Tyskie is my favourite) as the perfect accompaniment! The welcome and service is always friendly and attentive, and it really isn’t like any other restaurant I know this side of the Vistula.

PeppertreesI’ve been addicted to Peppertrees’ card shop ever since we moved here six years ago, for its bright, appealing atmosphere and entertaining selection of greetings cards and giftware; I’ve heard very good things about the Are You Being Served café, although we still haven’t visited it yet; and next door the Magic Bean Emporium looks fun too, running children’s storytime sessions as well as providing the more usual types of café fare. You wouldn’t get that in your average Costa Coffee. There’s also independent ladies clothes shops, the Seafood Café, Abraxas Cookshop (where I am sure we would visit more often if we didn’t eat out so much), Dreams Coffee Lounge, and even the little Sewing Studio for all your haberdashery needs. Once or twice we have been bewildered and entranced by the range and delicious smells from the St Giles Cheese shop at No 77, but if I so much as look at a piece of cheese I put on a stone.

Caffe d'ItaliaThere’s more to the town centre than just St Giles of course. On high days and holidays I meet up with my friend James-the-Poet and we put the world right over a cup of hot chocolate. Not any old hot chocolate mind, it has to be the frankly fabulous French hot chocolate at Leopold’s at 6 Abington Street. Whereas your average hot choc comes in a mug, this one gets served in its own two-cup-big pot, with a little tray full of whipped cream and another little tray full of mini-marshmallows. It’s just really fortunate that food you eat outside of home doesn’t contain any calories – I’m sure I read that somewhere. They’ve opened a second branch opposite Debenhams now, so good luck to them. Whilst on the subject of café experiences with friends, the other day I went out for a massive caffeine-fix with my friend the Doge of Dunstable. Being Italian, he suggested the Caffé d’Italia, a modest-looking place on Fish Street, which I confess I’d never visited before. But it really is like a little slice of genuine Italy. Delicious coffee, splendid desserts (I had a yummy Tiramisu and the Doge had a Rum Baba), a warm welcome from proprietor Manual and a relaxed atmosphere. A perfect place for a self-indulgent hour or so. Apparently Russell Crowe never goes anywhere else for his coffee.

Church RestaurantFor big celebratory meals our favourite restaurant in town is The Church Restaurant, at the bottom of Bridge Street, one of five excellent venues run by the Richardson Group, each with its own unique atmosphere and service. If you didn’t know (I’m sure you did) The Church really is a deconsecrated church, with stained glass windows and ghosts to boot. The service is professional but friendly, relaxed but smart, with top quality food and an atmosphere that can fit your own mood – it can be cheery, it can be romantic, it can be formal – however you want to play it really! It’s always our first choice for a special event. I’ve heard good things about Sophia’s but still haven’t got round to visiting them, and the same goes for Nuovo, a new Mediterranean restaurant on Abington Street – might make a point of going there soon. Saigon A little gem we did try recently is the Vietnamese Restaurant on Gold Street, Saigon. Two very welcoming and knowledgeable ladies there will take you through the menu minutely, suggesting meals that will suit your own taste buds’ preferences. Again it’s somewhere we know Mrs C will be absolutely safe with her gluten-free requirements. I remember not really enjoying Vietnamese food that much in Vietnam – too harsh and inharmonious for me – but the Northampton version is scrumptious.

SaffronWhilst I’m recalling happy yummy meals from the past – and plenty more in the future I trust – I’d like to recommend two other town centre eating places that we always enjoy. Saffron, at 21 Castilian Street, has been our Indian restaurant of choice ever since we moved to Northampton, with a lovely range of vegetarian and meat dishes to suit every level of spiciness. Inevitably we always order the same meals – to start, I’ll have the Assortment of Snacks and Mrs C will take the Saffron Mix, then we’ll share a Vegetable Coriander and a Vegetable Tawa, probably with some side veg stuff too. There are some smart wines on offer, which is definitely a plus. Naz and his team always make us very welcome and we’ve had a few memorable family gatherings here. Our other favourite haunt is the little Turkish restaurant, Marmaris, Marmarison the corner of Fish Street and St.Giles. You may think it’s just a take-away but they can seat a surprising number of people and the dramatic aromas of the freshly grilling kebabs are out of this world. Again, we always have the same food – Set Meal A – which gives you a tasty and varied meze starter followed by a seething mass of grilled meats with rice and salad. They also sell a splendid Turkish red wine, Yakut, which is full of flavour. It’s not a “fine dining” experience, but it’s fun, welcoming, friendly and tasty, which is good enough for me.

Wine ConnectionPubs also, noticeably, fall into two categories: independent houses and national chains. We have our fair share of chains – O’Neills, Wetherspoons, Chef & Brewer, and so on, but none of them are a patch on places like the Wig and Pen, the Lamplighter or the White Hart. And if you’re interested in wine, there’s no finer place to visit than the Northampton Wine Connection on Derngate, where they have monthly wine tastings, an incredible range of wines that you won’t find in any supermarket, free local delivery and an unparalleled knowledge of their products and the wine industry. They can help you match the perfect bottle to a particular meal, and there’s even an art gallery to enjoy at the same time!

Montague JefferyIn an industry that seems to me to be dominated by a few leading brands and outlets, there are a surprising number of independent clothes shops in the town centre. Montague Jeffery could perhaps be considered the daddy of them all, having been established way back in 1901, and still offering that timeless, personal service and traditional, quality product for gentlemen. I bought my Union Jack waistcoat there (for Eurovision night of course!) and have also acquired some outrageous boxer shorts (not for public consumption) and flashy swimming shorts there too. Voni BluAt a more modern end of the spectrum, Mrs C always enjoys popping in to Voni Blu at 14 Castilian Street for a nice chat and a mooch around; she inevitably tries something on, which inevitably looks great on her, and inevitably is very good value.

I’ve only scratched the surface here, but there really is a huge variety of independent traders in the town centre. What sets them apart from the national chains is a quirkiness, a variety, and the sense that they’re interested in you the customer and your needs in a way that the chains frequently don’t have the need for. Let’s call it a state of independence.

Love Northampton FairSo Saturday 4th July this year is not only Independence Day, but also Independents’ Day, with a Love Northampton Fair from 11am – 4pm at the Guildhall in heart of Northampton. A number of local independent businesses will have stalls to promote their wares and services, and you can meet them and have a chat about what they do. You can taste some food and drink, discover special offers, and much more. We’re definitely going to pop in and see what’s going on. There’s bound to be some companies or shops or restaurants that we don’t know about, and it’s important to support your local independent retailers – use them or lose them, and the ones we’ve got are too good to lose!

Independent Traders of Northampton – Independence Day Fair at the Guildhall – The Cultural Quarter

Stars and StripesWith 4th July looming, I was thinking about the nature of independence. Yes, I know it’s not like me to be that deep, gentle reader, but bear with me. Generally speaking, I can see there may be two stages of independence – the first, breaking away from a position where you are dependent – like a grown-up child leaving home, or the United States no longer being one of our little colonies; the second, maintaining and generally being independent, like that grown-up child taking the responsibility for his own life (and any who become dependent on him), and the United States growing into the most significant country in the world. Or at least until it was taken over by China.

North Korea flagFor the most part – not exclusively, because life isn’t like that – it strikes me that independent people, countries, businesses, institutions, and so on, thrive through being independent, rather than following someone else’s rules, making someone else richer, or living out someone else’s dream rather than one’s own. We all like to have our own identity, to create our own space, to apply our own intelligence to our own lives, to make the world a better place. Otherwise we might as well set up shop in Pyongyang.

Cultural QuarterThere’s going to be a Love Northampton Fair at the Guildhall in the town centre on Saturday July 4th, (Independence Day – appropriately enough) to celebrate and promote the town’s independent businesses and traders. One might think this just means shops, or cafés and restaurants, or bars. And of course, such places play a huge role in creating the individual sculpture that is our beloved town, and I shall be thinking about some of those places in another blog in a day or two’s time. However, there is more to it than that. In the middle of Northampton you find the classily demarcated zone of the “Cultural Quarter”, an area where many of the arts come together to form a solid heart in what would otherwise be a commercial centre. For example, here you will find the amazing museum with its massive collection of boots and shoes – a testament to Northampton’s shoemaking heritage – and NN, the Northampton Contemporary Art Space at 9 Guildhall Road, the home of the Northampton Art Collective, moved on from its now non-existent previous premises in the Fishmarket, which just goes to show you can’t simply demolish the arts. We actually popped into the NN Café upstairs last Saturday lunchtime for a glass of Pimm’s and a light bite – hurrah to them for providing top quality gluten-free paninis!

Royal and DerngateHowever, in the local arts scene, you won’t find a finer example of independent trailblazing than with the Royal and Derngate Theatres and their fantastic sidekick, the Errol Flynn Filmhouse. Comparing with our neighbour Milton Keynes, there they have a wonderful big theatre, but everything that runs there comes through the Ambassador Theatre Group chain – an assembly of big shows that tour the entire country. So what you see in Milton Keynes can also be seen in Birmingham, Woking, Wimbledon, Bromley, Richmond, Aylesbury, or Glasgow – and plenty more places besides. It’s good business for the theatre industry and I’m not knocking it. But it does lack a certain individuality.

Made in NorthamptonOf course the Royal and Derngate will take some of those shows too, but more interestingly they also create their own home-grown productions. The annual Made in Northampton season is always a remarkable achievement, with six or more plays that make the best of local staging; and that challenge both the creative teams and their audiences with a season that does not shy away from taking on major projects and carrying them out magnificently. In the six years or so that I’ve been closely following the R&D’s output, they’ve created dozens of independent productions including transfers to the West End and Broadway (End of the Rainbow) and Shakespeare’s Globe (King John). Their productions have toured to Oxford, Leicester, Liverpool, Wolverhampton, Edinburgh and many other venues. They’ve been delightfully experimental too. The audience has joined the performers on the stage (Private Fears in Public Places, Town) or in the Rehearsal Room (Midsummer Bacchanalia), at the Holy Sepulchre (King John), in the Mailcoach pub (Honest), in Beckets Park (Decky Does a Bronco) or in the Chronicle and Echo Print Works (The Bacchae). Now that’s what I call inventiveness!

DesksAnd of course there’s also the Underground, a venue with its own tricks up its sleeve, where Mrs C and I have spent many an uproarious night with the Screaming Blue Murder comedy nights, but which can also lend itself for very experimental theatre experiences. The Actors’ Company performed Ayckbourn’s Revengers’ Comedies there in 2009, with the audience seated around the walls in a complete rectangle. Only a couple of weeks ago we saw the Young Company create their spellbinding Kontakt experience in a murky mist of incense and school desks. And I’ll never forget the extraordinary intimate staging of The Body of an American in 2014.

Errol Flynn Effie AwardsIn addition, for the last couple of years, we’ve had the Errol Flynn Filmhouse, an oasis of celluloid culture where the cinema actually treats you like an adult. Reclining leather chairs, a state of the art sound system, films you actually want to see, decent food and drink including several lines from local producers, and above all you get the feeling it’s a place that wants to show you a film rather than a place that wants to sell you a vat of popcorn and chuck a movie into the bargain. It constantly rates highly as one of the Northamptonshire’s most popular attractions on Trip Advisor, and it certainly encouraged us to go back to the cinema after a long estrangement from that genre.

78 DerngateJust across the road is somewhere I regret that I still haven’t visited but I have heard great things about – and that’s the Looking Glass Theatre. They have a theatre school for 8 – 18 year olds and regularly present children’s shows and pantomimes, as well as having a major costume hire service. Further down Derngate you come across the extraordinary house at No 78, the only house designed by Charles Rennie Mackintosh in England. This is now an independent tourist attraction, welcoming visitors from all over the world who are attracted by Mackintosh’s unique style. Not only can you learn about the history of this fascinating building but it also has a fantastic restaurant, The Dining Room, which offers so much more than your usual museum café.

Love Northampton FairSo wedged within this small cultural enclave are a wide variety of attractions, and we are very lucky to have them. We all know of shops, restaurants, pubs that have closed down due to lack of customers. Don’t let that happen to our wonderful arts spaces. Use them or lose them – they’re far too good to lose! Why not show your support for our independent artistic adventurers in the Cultural Quarter by visiting the Independence Day Fair at the Guildhall on Saturday. It’s free to get in and you might discover something new to enjoy!

Review – Kontakt, Royal and Derngate Young Company Immerse, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 21st June 2015

KontaktYou don’t need me to tell you, gentle reader, that with a bit of ingenuity and some thinking outside the box you can make theatre out of anything. I love experimental theatre. I love to be challenged, to be shocked, to be made uncomfortable. I want to come out of a show a changed person from the one I was when I went in. I want the cast to speak to me in a new way, for us to develop a relationship together, and to have a shared experience with the rest of the audience that you can talk about and reflect on long into the future. This is a big ask, and you don’t often get it. But Kontakt is one of those theatrical experiences that really offers something different, and has certainly led to more thoughtful and questioning post-show discussions than many a standard drama. For one thing, although Mrs Chrisparkle and I went along together, we had completely different experiences, and being able to compare and contrast our own reactions and recollections of what went on was fascinating in itself.

You have some basic information about the show in advance, but not enough to reach any substantial conclusions about what’s in store. “One table, two chairs, an actor and you. If a young person could ask an adult anything, what would it be?” When I first read that, I found it (naturally) intriguing, but I had a vision of a small audience sitting in a circle around an actor performing a fully scripted monologue involving a not inconsiderable amount of soul-searching. Well, how wrong was I?

I’m going to tell you my own experience with this show, which will be different from anyone else’s. If you’re about to see a production then I suggest you don’t read any more. The element of surprise is vital for its success, and you won’t thank me for spilling the majority of the beans. Still with me? Great! There is a constantly changing dynamic within this show that continuously wrongfoots the audience member. You’re forever swapping a sense of self-confidence for one of doubt and mystery. No sooner do you get accustomed to the current mood then you get whacked into a different one.

Let’s start at the beginning. You choose a number at random (I chose 6 because it’s my lucky number), receive a (rather antiquated) mobile phone and then you stand in a square drawn on the floor, awaiting….something. You’re not sure what, but let’s call it Kontakt. You’re on display, your usual props of self-protection are removed from you, and apart from maybe a couple of nervous chats with other people in other boxes you feel surprisingly alone. From the corner of your eye you notice a line of young people walk into an upstairs foyer, stand at the railing, and look directly down on you. They say nothing. They betray no thoughts. Do you look at them? Do you look away? I did both. They disappear silently.

Your phone rings. It’s not your phone, it’s the one they gave you, and, if you’re like me, you struggle to work out which button to push to receive the call. I guessed right. “Hello?” “Hello, my name’s Sam. What’s your name? “Hi Sam, my name is Chris”. Seven other people are having more or less the same conversation and you find it hard to hear the person talking directly to you. “How was your journey?” “Fine thanks, we only live a short walk away”. Another question, but I couldn’t hear it properly. “Sorry, can you repeat that?” He repeated it, but I still only half-heard, and answered the question I thought he asked. There was a pause. I must have answered the wrong question. I surprised myself by how much I wanted to make a positive impression. He’s going to think I’m an utter idiot, I thought. Sam sounded upbeat though. He directed me which way to go. “When you come in, I’m sitting at the desk nearest the entrance door, on the right”. “Well, I will be the last person in the queue to walk in”. Assignation made.

DesksI walked in, to the space I know well as the Underground, where we regularly see the Screaming Blue Murder comedy nights, and a few other experimental productions. But with dim lighting and a vaguely smoky atmosphere of burning incense, it could have been another world. In front of me, a number of identical looking school desks, and audience members individually greeting their Kontakts. Sam gets up and looks expectantly. “You must be Sam,” I say, shaking his hand. He courteously offers me the chair in front of his desk, and invites me to stow the phone in the pocket attached to the back of the chair. I sit down, and he sits down. He starts to converse. At the same time, all the other Kontakts start to converse, each saying precisely the same words. The consonants of eight actors echo and clatter in the eerie atmosphere. It’s a private conversation, but it’s shared too. It feels unique – but seven other people are having the same experience, so it can’t be unique. It’s already breaking so many rules.

Sam lifts up the desk lid to create an instant barrier between us. It had all been so friendly up to this point, but this one action disconcerts and stops you from saying anything. From behind the desk he slowly, silently, and incredibly threateningly, starts putting on a pair of surgical latex gloves. Your brain says “WTF?” but your mouth stays silent. It brought to mind the terrifying Act Four nurses in Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, strumming their gloved fingers with potential abuse, as if by some devious manner Sam was about to lobotomise me without my consent. It’s a Verfremdungseffekt that would have Brecht curling his toes in ecstasy. “I’m hoping you’re hungry” says Sam suddenly, as he puts the desk lid down and reveals a picnic. A Tupperware box with two slices of bread and a rather sweaty looking slice of cheese; some bags of crisps, some strawberry jam, some Nutella. A big tub of Utterly Butterly. This is not the toolkit of a lobotomist. I’d not actually eaten anything since breakfast, so was pleased to opt for a cheese and crisp sandwich. The latex gloves came into their own as he deftly unwrapped the Kraft Cheese Slice and plonked it hygienically onto the bread. He carefully positioned crisps on top of said slice and delicately placed the other slice of bread on top. In this alien atmosphere it’s amazing how much you notice the slightest detail of what’s going on in front of you. It’s as though your brain is telling you to be on heightened alert because you don’t know what’s coming next. It could be fight or flight. “Triangle or square?” I chose triangle. He cut it diagonally and we shared a convivial cheese and crisp sandwich as Sam reflected that no one had chosen to mix jam and crisps, to some disappointment on his part.

Top TipsAnd so it goes on. Light hearted conversation as we do a maths puzzle together; a game of Jenga where each piece has a number that refers to a question we ask each other; a game of noughts and crosses which he kindly lost; an exchange of top tips for life; discussions about our fears, irrational and otherwise; an unexpected group participation dancing to Aqua’s Barbie Girl and ending with a card trick that neatly brought the whole event full circle. That all sounds rather jolly and genial, doesn’t it? And indeed it was. But it’s not natural. It’s not organic. It’s fully controlled – or should that be kontrolled? Separating every seemingly genuine conversation, there’s a detached, non-sequitur-like, disquieting sequence. At one stage, a disembodied American voice starts giving advice on how to get the most out of life – and you notice your Kontakt is silently saying the same words, miming along precisely with the same rhythm and expression. I watch Sam’s lips intently as he intones the anonymous advice, like he has been possessed by some spirit. I appreciate the anomaly of someone young enough to be waiting for his GCSE results to come through, giving me, who has already started to draw down his pension, advice on how to lead a good life. But you find yourself responding, silently, to the points he is making. When you really agree with him, you mouth “absolutely!” or nod profoundly, and I discovered, to my surprise, that I was actively giving advice back without actually saying a word. And that’s when it was that I realised I had connected – or should that be konnected – with Sam. I gained a sense of confidence with him. I realised I was on his side. Later on, there was a sequence where all the Kontakts talked about the things in life that annoyed them. One person stood up to give one example, then another, then another. It was like a competition between them to out-declaim the others. I realised that I wanted Sam to “win” this game – to give the best examples of things that annoy, and to deliver them in the most telling or humorous way. And, of course, naturally, because I was on his side, he did. I was Team Sam.

We discovered – or should that be diskovered? – that we shared the same irrational fear of flying insects. I dismayed him by the fact that I actually like Barbie Girl and could embarrass him with my Ken impersonation. I gave him a congratulatory handshake for his excellent card trick that I still don’t know how he managed. A few times he hooted with barely suppressed laughter. I couldn’t tell if that was genuine, scripted, or somewhere in between. We drew a picture of each other, despite both of us having no artistic skills whatsoever. This was a surprisingly personal thing to do – and I felt rather embarrassed at how horrified he looked at the image of him that I was creating with my pencil. There was another sequence – I can’t quite remember how it fitted in to everything else that took place – where nothing was said, or done, except that he was trying to outstare me. I stared back. He took the liberty of repositioning my pen on the desk. Well, I wasn’t having that. I swivelled his noughts and crosses paper from portrait to landscape. He looked affronted. I started to smile. I felt mischievous. I looked up at the dangling light bulb above our heads. He looked startled. Still staring at him, I slowly raised my arm toward the light bulb. He appeared transfixed at what I might do next. Eventually I gave the light bulb the tiniest tap with my finger so that it wobbled fractionally. “Beat that” said my eyes. The sequence ended at that point, so I won that one.

At the end, I asked him why it was called Kontakt and not Contact. He wasn’t sure. He thought it was something to do with the original developer of the show back in 2008, but before we could discuss it further, came the signal that it was all over. The lights went down. We all knew that when they came back up again, we’d be alone at our desks. And, sure enough, when we could see again, we were, like a modern day debit card, contactless. Or should that be kontaktless. But I know why it’s Kontakt. A genuine meeting between two people, where you just chatted and organically shared experiences would have been a contact. But this is not that. It’s similar; it sounds the same, but it looks different. The actor calls the shots. For you at times it feels like it’s interrogation, a test, an interview, an assessment. You are powerless to steer the course of these 45-60 minutes. It feels like the actor decides when each segment ends. He decides when a genuinely heartfelt and concerned conversation about how we deal with ISIS, changes into a surreal scripted monologue, or a stare-athon. And of course it’s the same for all the actors; their rules, their mood-swings, their agenda, their control; their Kontakt. Even after the show was over, I was at a disadvantage. We all received texts from our Kontakts, thanking us for participating. My instant reaction was to text back, but my ham-fistedness on an unfamiliar phone meant that I couldn’t even formulate the word “thank” – it became “thigh”, which wasn’t an entirely suitable response. So I ended up not replying, which felt thoroughly ungrateful.

Noughts and Crosses winnerThe success, or otherwise, of this experience, depends on a number of things. The audience member has to play the game. I could imagine that if you were unco-operative, or somehow destructive, or spoke inappropriately, it could be a disastrous experience all round. There’s a huge amount of trust and respect at stake here. I liked the fact that, although the allocation of Kontakt to audience member appeared to be random, each couple was either male/male or female/female, primarily because this increased the opportunities for shared experiences and opinions or advice, and reduced the potential for true embarrassment.

For someone like me, who actively enjoys the process of making new friends, this was a fascinating and eye-opening way to spend an hour with a stranger. Frustrating too, as you realise afterwards the possible/ probable artificiality of what felt like a genuine meeting. How much of that person opposite me was the real Sam? A lot, I think, but it’s impossible to be certain. Mrs C (who had got on thoroughly well with her interlocutor, Heidi) and I agreed that to carry off this sequence of Kontakts over a number of performances was brilliant training for these young people. If nothing else comes of it, they will be so much more confident in interview situations in the future, and will have developed some superb social skills. I also hope they met some nice people! Obviously, I can only speak for Sam but I thought he gave a brilliant performance – if it was a performance. The show raises many questions about public and private identity, reality and fiction, individuality and herd behaviour. I was totally wowed by it! And I want to know how Sam does in his GCSEs!

Review – The Hook, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 10th June 2015

The HookEvery so often our wonderful local theatre makes the news. One such occasion was a couple of days ago, when I got an excited phone call from Mrs Chrisparkle on her morning drive to work (hands free, naturally – the phone that is, not the steering wheel) saying “Turn Radio 4 on!” And there was the redoubtable Jim Naughtie talking about the World Premiere of an Arthur Miller play in little old Northampton. Certainly a contender for the greatest American playwright of the 20th century (Arthur Miller that is, not Jim Naughtie) – maybe even in the world – this joint production between the Royal and Derngate and the Liverpool Everyman and Playhouse is a major theatrical event. Who even knew Miller had written something that hadn’t yet been performed?

Would you trust these menThe programme (which I really recommend) has two very helpful articles about how the production came into existence and about Miller’s background and association with the longshoremen of New York. Miller had originally written The Hook as a screenplay and offered it to Hollywood, but they wouldn’t touch it with the proverbial bargepole unless Miller rewrote the characters to make the union members into communists. Miller refused to back down; Hollywood refused to take it – On The Waterfront appeared instead; and thus it sat, mouldering in a drawer somewhere, unloved and unproduced. Director James Dacre and designer Patrick Connellan have done extensive research over a number of years, discovering all Miller’s drafts (I’m sure that’s a euphemism for drinking Canadian beer), collating as much raw material as possible for playwright Ron Hutchinson to come up with a theatre adaptation that’s intense, hard-hitting, with a few meaty roles, and that tells a story from the heart.

MartyThat story concerns one Marty Ferrara, a decent, honourable man who works as a longshoreman in New York and who fights against what he sees as the rotten, corrupt nature of the union and the employers, who turn a blind eye to the dangerous conditions in which the men have to work, pay lip service to their rights, and are happy to rip off the men at every opportunity. Marty’s wife Terry wants him to be happy and to be true to his own integrity, but at the same time she needs him to earn money as otherwise the whole family will be destitute. Marty’s angry struggle takes him through some very bad times, including attempts made on his life, and culminates in his standing for Union president in a rigged election of which Kim Jong-un would be proud.

Longshoremen lifeWhy The Hook? Well it takes place in Red Hook, Brooklyn – where Miller was born, and each of the men working on the piers has his own hook tool which he uses to help lift and move the containers they are unloading. But other hooks are also at hand. Each man is hooked, so to speak, to the docks as his only means of income, and if anything threatens that dependency, like electing a new, agitating union leader, that hook just gets stronger. In the end, Marty is rewarded with a union post, thereby masking the corruption of the election, and getting the union leader off the hook. Am I taking this too far?

Opening the safeIn the course of the play Miller addresses themes of loyalty, corruption, reward and democracy, creates some memorable dramatic moments and a credible story line. However, if I’m honest, I don’t think the character of Marty is invested with anything like the tragic hero potential of Willy Loman, Eddie Carbone or John Proctor. For one thing, he lives! He survives the play and presumably goes on to have some kind of life in the future – what kind, is up to the audience to decide. For that reason I felt it had an upbeat (if extremely sudden and slightly unrewarding) ending. Mrs C took a different view – she thought that Marty’s future would be spent achieving nothing, and therefore found the end profoundly pessimistic. Maybe that’s an observation about our own differing levels of cynicism. Or maybe it’s a neat Miller trick to confound his audience at the end.

Amazing setThe production looks and sounds stunning. Patrick Connellan’s set is extraordinary and constantly reveals new capabilities through the course of the evening. It converts from office to pier to the Ferraras’ home with effortless ease. The sharp black pinstripes of the union leader and the businessman contrast perfectly with the thin and well-worn work clothes of the stevedores. The sound design by Tom Mills is amazing; tiny effects like placing a glass on a table or ominous footsteps reverberate and echo with portentous doom to create a really claustrophobic atmosphere. Isobel Waller-Bridge’s incidental music is disconcerting and brooding.

ComradesBut I have to confess to experiencing some confusion with the plot. Attuning to the accents meant that quite a lot of the early dialogue hit my ears but never quite reached my brain (not helped by two chatterbox young ladies to my right) and identifying and understanding some of the characters and story twists happened more in retrospect than at the time. Mrs C noted that at least two of the tables in the bar during the interval had people explaining to their friends who was who and what was happening. I think that was the trouble with the chatterboxes, as they were explaining to each other what was going on. Even today in discussion Mrs C and I realised that we still hadn’t quite worked out the relationship between some of the characters and what their actual jobs were. Some of the performances in the first act were also a little on the shouty side – one of Mrs C’s pet hates – although to be fair many of the characters had plenty to shout about.

Marty and TerryThe central character of Marty is given a forceful and characterful performance by Jamie Sives, promoting the workers’ causes, a natural leader, genuinely resistant to all the pressures of corruption that surround him. There’s a particularly moving scene when one of the men is writing in the dust on the floor, adding up a sum of how much money the union has cheated from them. Marty is so infuriated with it that he physically hurls himself into the dust to erase the offending calculation. It’s an extraordinary visual depiction of his deep need to eradicate the injustice against his fellow men, and to his willingness to degrade himself if necessary to achieve it.

I don't trust themAt the other end of the societal scale there’s a splendidly villainous turn from Joe Alessi as Louis, the self-aggrandising, pocket-lining, cigar-smoking, superiority-obsessed union leader whose choices in life depend entirely on to what extent they benefit himself. Today he would be in charge of FIFA. It’s an excellent portrayal of corrupted power. There’s an electric scene between him and Sean Murray as Rocky, where the two powerful men stalk each other mentally, looking for gaps in each other’s defence, like a boxing match disguised as a business meeting. Mr Murray nicely conveys an element of decency lacking in his opponent’s character elsewhere in the play – there’s a memorable scene at the beginning where Rocky’s henchman Farragut (a suitably weaselly performance by Jem Wall) dismissively tosses a spare coin to the floor so that the men who didn’t get work that day can scrabble undignified on the pavement for it – and Rocky cuts him down to size as a reward.

EnzoThere’s also a sterling performance from Susie Trayling as Marty’s wife Theresa, downtrodden yet supportive, a voice of domestic reason, but still too insignificant to him to influence his driven need to represent the working man. I also enjoyed Paul Rattray’s earnest and eloquent performance as Enzo, Marty’s most loyal comrade (not that they’re communists, see paragraph 2) and Ewart James Walters as Darkeyes, trying to make a measly living selling trinkets and taking bets; a modern Tiresias, the blind man who sees the truth. Miller loved a bit of Greek Tragedy in his plays, you know. The ensemble is augmented by members of the local community theatre who do a grand job of creating a sense of busy crowds and a wider society. I particularly liked the way a whole bunch of men suddenly appeared out of nowhere whenever the daily work was to be allocated by the bosses.

DarkeyesSo, all in all a significant new work given a very good production, although if you’re hoping to see A View From The Bridge Mark#2 you might be a little disappointed. In the year that celebrates Arthur Miller’s centenary, this is a very welcome addition to his repertoire. After it finishes its run in Northampton on 27th June, it visits the Liverpool Everyman until 25th July. If you’re interested in the works of Miller, this is a must-see.

Review – Communicating Doors, Menier Chocolate Factory, 7th June 2015

Communicating Doors 1996Hurrah for the theatre programme archive boxes in my study which quickly yielded up the programme for Alan Ayckbourn’s Communicating Doors, which Mrs Chrisparkle and I saw on Saturday 3rd February 1996 at the Savoy Theatre, with Miss Angela Thorne playing the part of Ruella. That’s almost twenty years ago. Maybe it isn’t a coincidence that twenty years have passed since the play first opened in the West End, as there are two periods of twenty years each that separate all three of the time scales in the play. But it’s not an epic staged over forty years, it all happens at the same time. Didn’t you know about that? Am I going too fast for you?

Communicating Doors 2015The scene is a grand suite at London’s Regal Hotel, in the year 2020. Poopay, a rather sassy visiting dominatrix has come to give aged and infirm client Reece a good going-over. Reece has other ideas for her though, getting her to witness his signature on a document where he confesses to have arranged the murder of both of his ex-wives. In an attempt to escape for her life, Poopay dashes through a communicating door in the hotel room, only to find that, rather than taking her to another room, it takes her back to the same room, only twenty years earlier. Thus she discovers Reece’s second wife Ruella on the eve of her murder (by his somewhat violent and wicked business partner Julian, as it happens). Once Poopay has cottoned on to what’s happening, it’s up to her to convince Ruella of the danger she is in. Fortunately, Ruella is a spirited sort who enjoys a challenge. Ruella discovers she too can go back another twenty years via the communicating door, to discover Reece and Jessica (Wife #1) on their honeymoon night. Can the three women gang up together to use time to their advantage, defeat evil and create some happy-ever-afters where the course of all three of their lives turns out beautifully? You’ll have to see the play to find out.

Imogen StubbsAyckbourn’s play is a modern classic of the “playing with time” genre. It was J B Priestley who really explored this style all hammer and tongs in the 1930s and 40s. Among his time-plays are Dangerous Corner, I Have Been Here Before and of course An Inspector Calls, rather moody, melodramatic plays, all revolving around time-tricks that are impossible in real life, with Priestley often using the device to expose hypocrisy and wickedness. Whilst the threat of violence and death is not inconsiderable in Communicating Doors, cocking a respectful hat to Psycho in one scene, Ayckbourn’s version of the time-play is nevertheless a much jollier affair, played strictly for laughs, and you don’t have to gen up on any Einsteinian time theories in advance. But I’m sure Priestley would have loved it all the same.

Rachel TuckerFor this production, the wonderfully flexible Menier space has been set up as a traditional proscenium arch, creating a very wide stage perfect for the grandeur of a five star hotel suite. Whilst the main living room area of the suite has a timeless appearance, it is perhaps stretching credulity that the ensuite appearance and tiling would be the same in 1980 as it is in 2020. But then I can’t believe I’m actually looking for consistency in bathroom fittings over a period of forty years when the play itself is a complete flight of nonsense from start to finish.

Lucy Briggs-OwenIt’s often been said that Ayckbourn writes great roles for women and here is a triumivirate (or should that be triumfeminate) to rank with the best. Imogen Stubbs is brilliant as Ruella, mixing hearty, brave, and enthusiastic characteristics with demure and unassuming behaviour. Mind you, she’s not above fluttering her womanly wiles at the hapless security man to get her way, manipulating in a thoroughly nice and decent manner, of course. Rachel Tucker, too, gives a delightful performance as Poopay, the dominatrix who’d probably be more comfortable tucked up with a late night cocoa, occasionally subtly revealing a hidden insight into what you imagine might be her rather sad and lonely world. As she faces her fears, running the gauntlet of Reece’s and Julian’s evil scheme, she and Ruella show great sisterly solidarity with each other, like a kind of time-warp self-help group. And then you have the wonderfully near-vacuous Jessica, played by Lucy Briggs-Owen, sweetly dippy on her wedding night, but blossoming in sophistication in later years – with a wonderfully underplayed moment where you realise what her ultimate fate will be. All three of them join forces in one amazing slapstick scene on the balcony – physical comedy at its funniest.

David BamberThe “supporting” male cast are all very good too. There’s a splendidly low-life performance by David Bamber as the irredeemably horrible Julian, dripping with snide and malevolence, ready to snap your neck as soon as look at you. Robert Portal convinces us with both the nasty and kindly sides of Reece – being nasty certainly does nothing for Reece’s health, that’s for sure (nice work from the make-up department). And there’s some wonderful comic timing from Matthew Cottle as security man Harold, both bumptious in youth and beaten by age, and who also gets his own share of happy-ever-after.

Matthew CottleWe’re pretty sure all the loose ends tie up together, and, in the strange otherworld logic of the play, it kind of all makes sense. Incidentally, the original production had the three elements of the play set in 1974, 1994 and 2014. In our more modern society, Lindsay Posner has chosen to set the “future” scenes only a handful of years away, rather than a complete generation. A result of that is that whereas the original production had the “Ruella Years” for the contemporary setting, this production has “today” hovering somewhere between the two. So it looks like the director can play with time just as much as the author. Whatever, this is a timely opportunity to catch this great Ayckbourn play with a cast that do it terrific justice.

Robert PortalP.S. Great idea at the Menier now to have the bench seats in different colour fabric every two seats. That makes it so much easier to see where you should (and should not) be sitting, and may well discourage some people from spilling over into next door’s patch. Nice work!

Review – UB40, Derngate, Northampton, 3rd June 2015

UB40You know, gentle reader, Mrs Chrisparkle and I are extremely lucky to go to all sorts of shows as often as we do and I do try hard not to take that privilege for granted; nevertheless, occasionally, something is booked and we think, “ok, I suppose we’d better go”, after a hard day, when secretly we’d prefer to vegetate in front of the telly. We’re only human. However, from the moment I heard that UB40 were going to play the R&D, and that they were going to take out all the stalls seats so that it would be largely standing, my excitement antennae went into quivering overdrive. I haven’t genuinely looked forward to seeing a show so much in ages.

Johnny Too BadAdmittedly, over the last twenty years or so, I’ve probably only given UB40 the occasional glimpse of attention, as more modern performers (not to mention real life) get in the way of one’s more youthful musical heroes. But ask anyone who knew me back in 1983/84 and they will tell you I was hopelessly addicted to UB40, especially Labour of Love and the remarkable half-hour video that accompanied it. It showed Ali Campbell falling in love, getting jilted, and being in with a generally bad crowd of petty criminals and beaters-up of cops (not that the police did themselves any favours in the story, but that’s another matter), involving betrayal and revenge. All shot in a very atmospheric black and white. The highlight for me was the fantastic Johnny Too Bad, filmed along a canal towpath with Ali, Brian Travers and Norman Hassan, arrogant and aggressive, in trouble but they don’t care because they’re all mates together. It really appealed to the streetwise part of me that I never had. Johnny you’re too bad, woy, woy!

DJThe Derngate auditorium underwent a transformation for this show. The only other time I’ve seen it denuded of seats was for the very different but nevertheless brilliant Flathampton. How do they do it? Where do they store all the seats? Is there some magical industrial sized spindle that turns around 180 degrees so that all the seats hang upside down, subterranean? Probably not. Whatever, the space that remains works amazingly well for a concert like this. Pretty good sight lines abound unless you find yourself standing behind The Tall Man, there’s plenty of space to move around and be comfortable whilst still enjoying great atmosphere and there’s easy access to the bar which delightfully remained open throughout the show. At one stage I moved away from The Noisy Chatty People and ended up behind The Tall Man, but fortunately he was also thin so was easy to look around. My guess is that the best view is probably from the circle boxes – note to self for next time.

the show startsThe tickets said the show would start at 8pm so we wandered into the auditorium at 7.45pm to find a DJ on stage whacking out some reggae hits. It felt pretty funky to old-timers like us, I wondered if that was what the Young People Of Today like to get up to on the average Wednesday night out. He was certainly getting everyone moving. I recognised most of the songs too. Bob Marley’s Jammin’, (no “g”), Janet Kay’s Silly Games, Ken Boothe’s Everything I Own; he even played Musical Youth’s Pass The Dutchie, investing it with more credibility than I ever imagined it possessed. I was hoping for Susan Cadogan’s Hurt So Good – no luck – and I knew deep down he would never play Carl Malcolm’s Hey Fattie Bum Bum, but hope springs eternal.

Earl FalconerI had no idea the DJ would go on as long as he did though. By the time we’d gone past half-eight I thought this was stretching the credulity of a warm-up act. I get the idea of the celebrity DJ but he was hardly Boy George. Really it was just a geezer playing his favourite records. Then he asked “are you ready for UB40? I said, are you ready for UB40??” Yes we were, in fact we’d told him twice. Then, with sundry reggae sounds still coming through the speakers, he slowly dismantled all his equipment, winding up cables, shutting down laptops, packed it all into his rucksack and toodled off. Cue for UB40, you might have thought. But no, there was still bags of time to go back to the crowded bar for Emergency Shiraz and it wasn’t until about 9.10pm that the UB40 chaps finally appeared.

Watching Red Red WineWhat an extraordinary back catalogue the group have given us over the years. Loads of old favourites – not only the aforementioned Johnny Too Bad, but also Many Rivers To Cross, If It Happens Again, The Earth Dies Screaming, Don’t Break My Heart, and there’s a Rat In Me Kitchen (what am I gonna do?) Yep, you guessed it, they didn’t play any of them. Isn’t it always the way? However, they did play lots of familiar stuff – One in Ten, Cherry Oh Baby, Sing our own Song, Food for Thought, plus those other great versions that I always associate with other performers – Can’t Help Falling in Love with You and Homely Girl. Red Red Wine got a massive reception – Kingston Town maybe even more. Some of the guys look terrific for their age, some a little less so – but, hey, let he who is without sin, etc. The group is now fronted by Duncan Campbell, as Ali and the others got involved in legal fisticuffs resulting in the fact that there are now two versions of the group touring. Who would have guessed UB40 and Bucks Fizz would have so much in common?

All togetherThey are instrumentalists supreme. I had forgotten to what extent the group’s sound relies on their brass section and Brian Travers, not looking a day over 25, is a master of the sax. It was great to see him still brimming with confidence and attitude, and loving every minute of it. Jimmy Brown on the drums, Norman Hassan on percussion and trombone, Earl Falconer and Robin Campbell on guitars, plus new recruits Laurence Parry, Martin Meredith and Tony Mullings work together to create an amazing sound – a wall of reggae – and it was fantastic to witness it. The concert also looked great – with very effective lighting, and just a simple presentation with no stupid gimmicks to get in the way. However, as Mrs C pointed out, when you hear a lot of their songs together, particularly the ones you don’t know (and there were plenty of those), quite a lot of their output does sound rather samey. And while Duncan Campbell’s voice almost spookily resembles little brother Ali’s in tone and atmosphere, there’s definitely a lack-of-diction clarity issue here. In some of the songs he could have been singing a shopping list for all we could make out.

Despite these issues it was a very enjoyable night and I am really pleased to have finally seen this group for whom I held such reverence in my younger days. They have a few more dates in their UK tour between now and early July before blitzing the theatres and arenas of the land throughout October. A great blend of nostalgia with contemporary. What’s not to like?

Review – Natalie Clein Performs Dvořák, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Derngate, Northampton, 31st May 2015

Natalie Clein Performs DvorakAlways a pleasure to welcome the Royal Philharmonic to Northampton, this time for a varied programme of classical delights featuring cellist supreme, Natalie Clein. This is not the first time Miss Clein has been the soloist in an RPO concert here. In fact, five years ago, she played the self-same Cello Concerto in B Minor for us in her own inimitable style. So, either she only knows how to play the one song (probably unlikely) or she knows what the public wants and how to keep with a winning streak.

Rory MacdonaldOur conductor for this performance was Rory Macdonald. We’ve not seen Mr Macdonald before and it’s always fascinating to observe different conductors’ styles and approaches to their work. Either Mr Macdonald has a picture mouldering in an attic, or he is incredibly young. He reminded me of what Harry Potter’s younger brother might look like. I’ve checked – he’s 34. I bet he gets asked for ID in pubs all the time. He’s an enthusiastic but elegant conductor – when he gets into the vibe he gains extra emphasis by going up on tippy-toes, rather like the Eurovision cartoon conductor of 1992, only more soberly dressed.

Eurovision conductorOur starter for ten on this concert was to go straight into the Dvořák. Both Mrs Chrisparkle and I felt that, with such an impactful, dominant and significant piece, we could have perhaps done with starting with a light overture, some kind of warm up piece to get our juices flowing and our ears attuned to the magic of the orchestra alone. Starting with the Dvořák was like going straight into a Chateaubriand without having a little smoked salmon first.

Natalie CleinThere’s no denying Natalie Clein’s complete mastery of her instrument. Centre stage, she looks unassuming, but as soon as she gets going it’s like she takes on a new existence. Every fibre of her body gets wrapped up in the cello; watching them together it’s like a high octane marriage. They can be loving and sensitive together some of the time, at other moments it’s stormy and tempestuous. The immense depth of sound she gets out of her “Simpson” Guadagnini cello (dating from 1777 would you believe) is extraordinary. Dvořák’s Cello Concerto is a most invigorating piece, with plenty of opportunities for the orchestra to shine as well as the soloist, and we all went into the interval happy in the knowledge that we’d witnessed something special.

After our halftime Shiraz’s, we ventured back for Ravel’s Mother Goose Suite. This is a charming little collection of five short pieces, each representing a different aspect of the world of fairy tales – almost like a miniature classical version of Into The Woods. I’m not sure I’ve heard the Mother Goose suite as a whole before, but I definitely recognised a theme from Ravel’s Pavane pour une infante défunte in that opening section about Sleeping Beauty. I know the pavane wellBolero album because it was on my 1970s album of Ravel’s Bolero, which, as you can see from the cover, was all about the music, ahem; can’t think what drove the eleven year old me to buy it. What’s especially rewarding about this suite, along with its light-hearted effervescence and tuneful variety, is that it seems to use every conceivable instrument in the orchestra, so you get to enjoy such esoteric delights as the harp and the celeste as well as the usual brass and strings.

That piece acted as a palate cleansing sorbet before the final item – Stravinsky’s Firebird Suite. This allowed Mr Macdonald to get thoroughly swept off his feet again as he cajoled the orchestra through its lively sections (especially the Infernal dance of King Kashchei) before culminating in its grand finale. The version performed was the second suite dating from 1919, but the original version, from 1910, marked Stravinsky’s first collaboration with Diaghilev at the Ballets Russes, which made the composer an overnight sensation and international celebrity. The Stravinsky of that era was just perfect for combining dramatic accompaniment to fine dance with musical quality in its own right. The RPO gave this a magnificent, rousing performance which went down hugely with the appreciative audience.

It was all over by 9.15pm so there was a slight feeling of being short-changed time-wise, particularly as the first half really called out for a short introductory piece before the Dvořák, which would not only have got us warmed up for Natalie Clein but also extended the evening by just ten minutes or so. There are plenty of wonderful overtures out there – and that’s precisely what they’re meant to do – open the evening. Nevertheless it was still a marvellously rewarding concert, with a great soloist and the RPO on fine form. Look forward to the next one!