Review – An Evening of Music and Dance with the Birmingham Royal Ballet and the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, Derngate, Northampton, 20th January 2018

An Evening of Music and DanceHaving an affinity for a particular theatre company, or dance company, or orchestra, is a matter of habit. For four years from 2003 to 2007 Mrs Chrisparkle and I were regulars at the Birmingham Royal Ballet. We would take our little nieces, or our Godchildren, plonk them down in the middle of the Birmingham Hippodrome stalls and they would be overwhelmed with the excitement, the colour, the beauty and the artistry of the dancers. We used to love it too. Then for some reason, we stopped. Mentally I still admired them from afar, but it’s taken ten full years since then to re-establish our proper and much missed acquaintance.

David Bintley

David Bintley

David Bintley, who compered this evening of Music and Dance, told us these shows were a regular phenomenon in Birmingham and have gone down a storm at the Symphony Hall for many years. For the first time they were stretching their wings and taking the show out of town – first stop (and indeed, only stop) Northampton. Thank you so much for thinking of us, BRB, because this was an evening of unmitigated delight that transported the audience from a wet January Saturday to a land of magic and escapism. Everything was beautiful at the ballet, sang the girls from A Chorus Line and if you ever needed proof of that, look no further.

Paul Murphy

Paul Murphy

When you enter the auditorium, the Royal Ballet Sinfonia are all in place on the stage and there’s a large empty area in front of them where the dancers can perform. Will the orchestra distract from the dancers? Will the dancers distract from the orchestra? Neither, somehow the staging seems to complement each other perfectly. Our conductor was Paul Murphy, an enthusiastic chap who’s not above encouraging the orchestra with a bit of jazz hands when a mere baton isn’t enough. He reminded me of a clean-shaven, smartened up and sober version of Father Jack. His utter delight in his work clearly transmits itself to the orchestra who in turn convey it to us. When you see an orchestral performance with a soloist on the violin or the piano, you know that the conductor has to split his attention 50:50 between orchestra and soloist. Similarly, it was fascinating to see how Mr Murphy had to keep one eye on the dancers as well as his musicians in order to keep perfect time with their moves. I’m sure that’s a particular skill that takes many years to achieve and he did it brilliantly.

SinfoniaThe structure of the show is that the Sinfonia performs one orchestral piece, then dancers come on stage and the Sinfonia play the accompaniment; then another piece, then another dance, alternating throughout the evening so that we enjoy twelve items in all – six orchestral pieces and six dances. To be honest, the balletomane in me would have been happy for each of the twelve pieces to have featured dance – I guess that’s what I was expecting – but I appreciate that the alternating pattern sustained the variety of the entertainment, which was probably wise. You can have too much of a good thing, after all.

Celine Gittens and Tyrone Singleton

Celine Gittens and Tyrone Singleton

We started with the cute confection that is the prelude to Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel – Mrs C was a little disappointed that this wasn’t an orchestral version of The Last Waltz – and then our first dance was the Act III pas de deux from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty. Can’t beat a spot of Petipa, and Principal Dancers Céline Gittens and Tyrone Singleton danced it magnificently, decked out in stunning white brocaded costumes. It wasn’t until this first dance that I realised our third row seat gave us an unusually close view of classical ballet – normally with an orchestra in the pit in a large theatre even front stalls seats can feel quite distant from the dancers. Not so this time; and our proximity to the stage gave me an opportunity to concentrate on the technical achievements of the dancers – the balance, the strength, the accuracy, which I find irresistibly rewarding to observe.

Jenna Roberts as Juliet

Jenna Roberts as Juliet

Elgar’s Wand of Youth Suite no 2, The Wild Bears, followed; I’d never heard it before and I was impressed by the way the orchestra threw themselves into its frenzied excitement – one of those pieces that is just great fun. Then our next dance was the pas de deux from After the Rain, by Arvo Pärt, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. The poignant, elegant music is played by just the solo violin – Sinfonia leader Robert Gibbs – and solo piano, played by Jonathan Higgins, which made a solemn contrast with the liveliness of what had gone before. It was danced by Principals Jenna Roberts and Iain Mackay on his very final show with the company; he’s been 19 years with the Birmingham Royal Ballet (I’m sure we saw him in Carmina Burana many years ago) and it turned out to be quite an emotional night. The dancers simply immersed themselves in the elegant choreography which managed to be both acrobatic and stately, and the power of the performance was literally breathtaking.

James Barton

James Barton

The next musical item was Korngold’s Adventures of Robin Hood Suite, another piece new to me that had something of a military march to it – I have to say it’s nothing like as evocative of Robin Hood as Carl Sigman’s TV theme, but then what do I know? I was more looking forward to the last dance before the interval, the famous and funny clog dance from La Fille mal gardée choreographed by Frederick Ashton. James Barton, fresh from his year dancing in An American in Paris, danced the role of the Widow, with a cheekily sprightly step and a scarcely suppressed titter. Four soloists, Yvette Knight, Laura Purkiss, Yaoqian Shang and Yijing Zhang completed the coquettishly clogging quintet. Enormous fun, and of course such a catchy piece of music played by the Sinfonia.

Cesar Morales

Cesar Morales

After the interval, we returned to hear Dvorak’s Slavonic Dance Op 46, No 8; the Slavonic Dances are among my favourite pieces of classical music and they gave it a blistering performance. Next up was Weber’s Spectre de la Rose, choreographed by Fokine and danced by Arancha Baselga and Cesar Morales. A very stylised piece, it features Ms Baselga languishing in a posh chair whilst Mr Morales leaps in through the (imaginary) window and cavorts around her. Despite occupying all the available dance space it still comes over as a remarkably intimate piece; and Mr Morales’ Nijinskyesque leaps were pretty phenomenal. A perfect balletic blend of the pure and fragile with the powerful and muscular – a superb performance.

 Iain Mackay in Taming of the Shrew

Iain Mackay in Taming of the Shrew

The Sinfonia then played Sibelius’ Valse Triste, a delicate and moving little piece that sways along; perhaps a little faster than it is normally played, and I think all the better for it. Compere David Bintley returned to introduce Jenna Roberts and Iain Mackay in what was to be his very final dance on stage in his career, Bintley’s own choreography to the much-loved Adagio from Spartacus by Khachaturian, a personal parting gift to the dancer from the director. Mr Mackay danced Spartacus and Ms Roberts his wife Phrygia, in a piece where she informs him she would be giving birth to his son. It was a truly wonderful piece of choreography; very moving, very joyous, and absolutely jam-packed with all different sorts of emotions. Fokine marvellous, in fact.

Momoko Hirata

Momoko Hirata

Before the final dance fireworks (Mr Bintley’s words – and so right he was), the Sinfonia performed two dances from Manuel de Falla’s The Three-Cornered Hat, the instruments positively buzzing with Falla’s fiery orchestrations. Our last item was the pas de deux and solos from Don Quixote; Petipa at his extravagant best. The dancers were Principals Momoko Hirata, performing those crowd-pleasing pirouettes with total joy, and Mathias Dingman who attacked those solo show-off sequences like there’s no tomorrow – his brisés in particular were immaculately executed.

Matthias Dingman

Matthias Dingman

The final standing ovation went for a very long time, with of course special hugs and appreciation for Iain Mackay’s two decades of duty with the company. What a hugely entertaining show; every orchestral piece brimmed with excitement, and every dance was in-your-face fantastic. It was a real privilege to be there. Birmingham Royal Ballet, I apologise for ignoring you over the last ten years. It’s been too long. Hope you’ll make this a regular date and even bring one of your full-length ballets our way some time soon.

The production photos are from a variety of online sources, and from different ballets from those performed in the concert; if they are yours, please let me know if you would like me to remove them.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 19th January 2018

Screaming Blue MurderNow that 2018 is in full swing, it’s great to see that the Screaming Blue Murder comedy nights are back with several superb line-ups between now and May. Our genial host Dan Evans is also back in situ, this week trying to keep control of a very motley crew. Even before the show started the front couple of rows had turned into party central with endless selfie competitions, and a challenge to see which girl could manage the loudest cackle.

Dan EvansIt wasn’t long before Dan identified her, and indeed she jumped up on stage with him at one point; poor lamb got a terrible fright (him, not her.) Our audience also boasted the man with the coolest job in the world, training the seals at Woburn Wildlife Park, and a firefighter who was having difficulty with Dry January. He felt embarrassed to mention it but we gave him a good cheer anyway.

Matthew OsbornSo on with the acts, and some new ones for us; first up was Matthew Osborn, whom we’d not seen before. He’s quite a dapper little chap, with some brilliant material, and that’s not just the cut of his suit. Imagine the Daily Mail’s Quentin Letts doing stand-up. He has a wonderful confident delivery, happy to take it all at his own pace; and he trades on the fact that he looks and sounds totally respectable and then delivers some powerful and rather rude punchlines. I loved all his sex jokes – so much more inventive than the average comedian’s. His reaction to the girl who told him to treat her like a whore, what happened when he went down on one knee, and also when the Jehovah’s Witness tried to open the boot of his car – all really clever stuff. Very impressed, and he went down a storm!

Iszi LawrenceOur second act, and the only one we’d seen before, back in September 2014 was Iszi Lawrence. She creates a lot of humour based on her lesbian chic looks and her posh heritage, and has some great material about being bisexual, the unglamorous sexuality. To be fair, it was pretty much the same routine that we saw last time, but it works well, so I guess why change it? She sets up a slightly intriguing and challenging rapport with the audience but her quirky approach appealed to us and we very much enjoyed her set.

Brendon BurnsOur headline act, who apparently has been on the scene for decades, but I’ve never come across him, was Brendon Burns. He has attack by the bucketload, and quite an aggressive delivery but his material is superb. He’s a full-on agenda comic; pro-equality, he sees men who describe themselves as feminists as deliberately invading one of the few areas in life where women can take control. Much of his comedy is about sex but approaching it from angles that you wouldn’t normally consider funny (that’s the material, not the sex). He has great material about how teenagers today, in this Internet porn age, are being told in sex education to have realistic expectations from sex – definitely food for thought. At the end of his act, on the one hand you feel like you’ve been aggressively diatribed against; on the other you have the beauty of insightful, revelatory comedy. Most impressive, and he got a great reaction from the audience.

Next one is on 16th February. See you there!

Review – A Passage to India, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th January 2018

Passage to IndiaGentle reader, if you know me IRL, as the young people of today like to say, you’ll know that Mrs Chrisparkle and I are both Indophiles. We try to go there every year if possible, and there’s something about the country and its people that is beyond magical. So if there’s anything ever on offer that involves the concept of “India”, it’ll instantly grab my attention.

PTI11Thus I was excited at the prospect of this new adaptation of E. M. Forster’s A Passage To India, a book I was required to read at school when I was nothing like mature enough to understand it properly. But I have fond memories of the film, with Peggy Ashcroft struggling in the heat as Mrs Moore becomes oppressed with the caves and the echoes. You don’t need me to tell you that Forster was not only a superb writer but also had an amazing ability to write books that cry out for being made into films. PTI1And indeed plays – this is not the first time the book has been dramatised for the stage, with a play hitting the West End back in 1960 before transferring to Broadway two years later.

But that is a different play from the one currently on offer in Northampton before it embarks on a brief tour. This has been adapted by Simon Dormandy, and, for the most part, I would say it is pretty faithful to the original and, wisely, eschews the trappings of modern stage design by conveying caves, courtrooms and the teeming world of India with thePTI8 help of just a few packing cases and some bamboo rods. You wouldn’t believe how creatively you can present the illusion of an elephant, with ladies riding in the howdah, using just a few boxes, some sticks and a length of material. There’s a lot of psychology and imagination at work in the book, so it’s entirely appropriate for the audience to have to employ their own imagination fully to appreciate the setting for the play.

PTI2It’s 1910, the British Raj is in full control and there are some voices of dissent from the local people. The majority of the Brits in India are a snooty bunch who have no desire to integrate nor any intention of doing so. Furthermore, if they see any crossover between the two sides they do their best to dissuade any form of contact; using soft, persuasive tones on the polite English ladies, and barking cruelty to any native-born Indian who presumes to have Ideas Above His Station. One such man is Dr Aziz, respected in his own community but distrusted by the ruling magistrate, tax collector, chief of police and the like. Only one British man, Cyril Fielding, principal of the Government College to educate Indians, treats Aziz and the other local people with anything approximating common courtesy.

PTI5Mrs Moore and Miss Adela Quested, who’s in line to become engaged to Ronny Heaslop, Mrs Moore’s son, arrive in India with a refreshing curiosity to see the place and not merely to be fobbed off with a life simply confined to the Britishers’ Club. The local beauty spot – and all-round location of intrigue and fascination – the Malabar Caves, is a short distance away and Dr Aziz promises to show the ladies around it, much to the mistrust of the local Raj supremos. The caves are dark and mysterious, and any sound creates an extraordinary echo that disconcerts visitors and plays on their fears and imaginations. Mrs Moore can’t take it, PTI10the place gives her claustrophobia and she makes an early departure. Miss Quested, on the other hand, seems lost inside the caves and when Aziz tries to find her can only spot her abandoned field glasses. When she is eventually found Miss Quested accuses Aziz of attempted rape (only expressed in much more Edwardian language) and the justice system slowly wheels into action. He denies it of course, but only Fielding among the Brits gives his story any credence. What tenuous relationships there are between the two sides break down and life will never be the same again. And did he do it? You’ll have to watch the play to find out.

PTI4The production is at its best when it is working on our imagination; such as meeting the aforementioned elephant, creating the Malabar Caves out of bamboo sticks, suggesting a full and antagonistic courtroom with a few boxes and half a dozen people. Although, to be fair, I thought the depiction of two rowing boats on the water and their collision was less successful – there was simply too much happening on stage at one time to take it all in. Gauzy material strips, dangling down in front of the back wall, part conceal, part reveal the people who walk behind, giving the impression of thronging multitudes in all their colours. PTI6Slightly offstage musicians Kuljit Bhamra and Asha McCarthy deliver trickles of Indian music at moments of suspense and intrigue and it really augments the atmosphere. But the most impactful sound in the play is the ensemble’s often repeated mumble grumble bumble aboom aboom aboom of the echo in caves. It unsettles the audience just in the same way that it would have disconcerted Miss Quested. It’s not – actually – enjoyable to listen to. It’s quite irritating, repetitive, potentially silly and childish; annoying even. Just as it would be to the English ladies. So I guess it’s doing its job properly.

PTI12However, I got thoroughly confused towards the end. One of us lost the plot – was it me, or was it the production? The story has moved to the province of Mau where Aziz has made a new life for himself. He is (largely) reconciled with Fielding; but then it all seems to go off-piste. What was all that bouncing around between the two men, being trapped by a ribbon at the side of the stage then flung out into the centre again by two teams of villagers? It was like a rogue episode of Jeux Sans Frontières had rocked up in Kashmir. I half expected Eddie Waring to introduce the Fil Rouge. It felt like the ending of the story had become unnecessarily complex and that consequently it was failing to portray it clearly. The curtain suddenly falls on darkness and silence and everyone in the audience wonders – is that it? I suppose if the creative team are taking the earlier emotions of disconcertion and carrying them on to the bitter end, then it was successful; otherwise, I have to confess, it didn’t do it for me.

PTI7At the heart of the play is a very engaging performance by Asif Khan as Aziz. A beautifully enthusiastic delivery, revelling in the linguistic details of all his lines, superbly portraying that essentially Indian characteristic where you want to pull out all the stops to impress your guests. Once the shine has gone off the relationship, he also conveys that bitterness of disappointment and a refusal to pander to others’ whims. I also loved the natural dignity that accompanied every aspect of the personality he was playing. A really excellent performance.

PTI3He is matched by a cracking performance by Richard Goulding as Fielding, exuding generosity and decency, and tangibly hurt when it isn’t reciprocated. Liz Crowther is also splendid as Mrs Moore, a character who is so much more than just an archetypal little old lady. I enjoyed Nigel Hastings’ performance as Turton the Collector, ostensibly amiable and reasonable but powerfully showing his vicious and vindictive nature. Edward Killingback also gives a strong portrayal of how a baby face can conceal a really nasty personality! But everyone gives a good performance and there are no weak links in the cast at all. Inventive, creative and thoroughly enjoyable, my only concern with the production is in how it seems to lose its way in the final furlong. After its brief run in Northampton it travels on to Salisbury, Bristol, Liverpool, Bromley and finally with five weeks at the Park Theatre in Finsbury Park.

Review of the Year 2017 – The Eighth Annual Chrisparkle Awards

Once again the world of the arts is holding its bated breath to hear the results of who has won this year’s annual Chrisparkle Awards. The whole team has scurried away to a dark place (my study) to determine the identities of the chosen few. Eligibility for the awards means a) they were performed in the UK and b) I have to have seen the shows and blogged about them in the period 14th January 2017 to 11th January 2018.

Are you all sitting comfortably?

The first award is for Best Dance Production (Contemporary and Classical)

So we start off with a slight problem. Apart from at the Edinburgh Fringe, we only saw one dance production all year. One measly production! Not that it was a measly production but only seeing one is definitely measly. For a time the Committee wondered if, for this year, the award should be temporarily withdrawn, but that didn’t seem fair. So we have compromised, and included the two dance shows we saw in Edinburgh as well as the one, non-Fringe show we saw elsewhere. At least that gives us three shows to consider, and this is how they place:

In 3rd place, the honest and daring piece for two, Together Alone, from the Taiwan Season at Dance Base at the Edinburgh Fringe in August.

In 2nd place, Really Nice Theatre Company’s funny and acrobatic production of Two Little Boxes at Greenside at Nicolson Square, at the Edinburgh Fringe in August.

In 1st place, for the fifth time in six years, the skilful creativity of the impeccable Richard Alston Dance Company that we saw at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in October.

Classical Music Concert of the Year.

We saw six classical concerts in 2017 and they were all excellent, so it was extremely difficult to whittle it down to a top three. Nevertheless, the impossible has been achieved, so they are:

In 3rd place, Christian Kluxen Conducts Tchaikovsky, with a brilliant programme of Italian, German and Russian music including Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 6 and Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No 1 played by Martin Roscoe, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in May.

In 2nd place, Francesca Dego Performs Bruch, including wonderful performances of Brahms’ Symphony No 4 and Bruch’s Violin Concerto No 1 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Mathieu Herzog, at the Royal and Derngate, in November.

In 1st place, Jan Mráček Performs Mendelssohn, a stunning performance of the Violin Concerto together with a great rendition of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony with Martyn Brabbins conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, at the Royal and Derngate, in June.

Best Entertainment Show of the Year.

This means anything that doesn’t fall into any other categories – for example pantos, circuses, revues and anything else hard to classify. Not so many contenders this year so we’ll stick with a top three:

In 3rd place, the inimitable Damian Williams starring as Mother Goose in the panto of the same name at the Lyceum Theatre in Sheffield in January 2018.

In 2nd place, the beautiful and hilarious combination of acts that make up the Burlesque Show at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in January 2017.

In 1st place, the start to finish riot of near-knuckle hilarity that was Dick Whittington the panto at the London Palladium in December.

Best Star Standup of the Year.

We saw ten big-name stand-up comics this year, and I think it’s fair to say they were a varied bunch with a few disappointments. I listed a top five last year but this time a top three will suffice:

In 3rd place, the extraordinary experience of spending a late night 90 minutes in the company of the one and only Miss Whoopi Goldberg, at the London Palladium in February.

In 2nd place, the irrepressible silliness of Jimeoin in his Renonsense Man Tour, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in February.

In 1st place, by a whisker – or maybe two, a shared award; Tez Ilyas’ Made in Britain Tour, together with his fantastic support act Guz Khan, Underground at the Royal and Derngate in May.

Best Stand-up at the Screaming Blue Murder nights in Northampton.

Lots of great acts with a fighting chance of winning this award, but the winner was never in doubt. From a very, very long shortlist, here are the top five:

In 5th place, the parody musical magic of Christian Reilly (12th May)

In 4th place, for his amazing ability to make so much off the cuff humour from an audience member throwing up, Paul Thorne (3rd November)

In 3rd place, the mischievous intelligence of Markus Birdman (3rd February)

In 2nd place, seen many times but on this occasion absolutely on fire, Robert White (3rd March)

In 1st place, a new star is born, and receiving possibly the best reception in eight years of watching Screaming Blue Murders, Daliso Chaponda (28th April)

And now, a new category; as we have seen so many stand-up comedy acts in other clubs, such as the Leicester Comedy Festival, Bluelight Comedy, Upfront Comedy Shows and Edinburgh Try-outs in various locations, here’s the Best of the Rest Stand-up Award.

In 5th place, the larger than life unpredictability of Aurie Styla (Upfront Comedy – Comedy Summerslam), at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in June.

In 4th place, the thought-provoking, hard-hitting material in the Edinburgh Try-out of his show Your Wrong, Phil Nichol (Comedy Crate Festival) at the Black Prince, Northampton, in July.

In 3rd place, the challenging, calculating material and presence of Mickey Sharma (Upfront Comedy – Comedy Summerslam), at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in June.

In 2nd place, a hit from the previous year’s Edinburgh Fringe, the extraordinarily personal and moving show by Richard Gadd – Monkey See, Monkey Do (Leicester Comedy Festival at The Cookie, Leicester) in February.

In 1st place, for getting on for four hours of solid hilarity, Just The Tonic Comedy Club with Johnny Vegas, and guests Kevin Dewsbury, Guz Khan and Paul McCaffrey (Leicester Comedy Festival, Hansom Hall, Leicester) in February.

Best Musical.

Here’s where it gets really difficult. I saw fourteen musicals this year, mainly revivals but a few new shows as well. Competition is very fierce and some superb shows don’t get a mention. Here are the top five:

In 5th place, so good I saw it twice on consecutive days, the touring revival of the Kinks Musical Sunny Afternoon at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in January.

In 4th place, the breath of fresh air with its heart absolutely in the right place, the feelgood Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, at the Apollo Theatre, London, in December.

In 3rd place, the beautiful and emotional revival of Fiddler on the Roof, at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, that we saw in July.

In 2nd place, one of my favourite shows of all time, in a dynamic and exciting revival, Stephen Sondheim’s Follies at the National Theatre Olivier, in September.

In 1st place, with incredible impact and maybe because I’ve never seen it before, and it really took my breath away, the revival of Miss Saigon at the Curve Theatre Leicester in July.

Best New Play.

Just to clarify, this is my definition of a new play, which is something that’s new to me and to most of its audience – so it might have been around before but on its first UK tour, or a new adaptation of a work originally in another format. I’ve seen 21 new plays this year, and only a handful of them disappointed. So this is an extremely difficult decision, as you have to compare such different genres; but somehow I chose a top five from a shortlist of ten:

In 5th place, the funny and sad life laundry drama, The House They Grew Up In, at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester, in July.

In 4th place, how to make a riveting play out of dry subject matter, Oslo at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, in December.

In 3rd place, the gripping and exciting thriller based in 1980s Northern Ireland, The Ferryman at the Gielgud Theatre, London, in December.

In 2nd place, the emotional turmoil of The Kite Runner, at Wyndham’s Theatre, London, in February.

In 1st place, the extraordinary combination of political intrigue and carefree humour that forms both parts of the RSC’s Imperium, at the Swan Theatre, Stratford, in December.

Best Revival of a Play.

Saw twenty revivals, almost all of which were worthy of consideration. Nine made the shortlist; here’s the top five:

In 5th place, the high energy testosterone-fest that is Glengarry Glen Ross at the Playhouse Theatre, in November.

In 4th place, a feat of great stamina and a beautiful revival, The Norman Conquests at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in October.

In 3rd place, the vividly re-imagined and exciting new production of Julius Caesar at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, in May.

In 2nd place, the spellbinding new production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London in April.

In 1st place, the production I’d been looking forward to all year and it was every bit as remarkable as one would have hoped, King Lear at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester, in October.

As always, in the post-Christmas season, time to consider the turkey of the year – the one that missed the mark the most was the Royal and Derngate’s confused production of The Grapes of Wrath in May.

Now we come on to our four categories specifically for the Edinburgh Fringe. The first is:

Best play – Edinburgh

We saw 17 plays in Edinburgh, and here are the top 5:

In 5th place, the eerie and suspenseful psychological thriller Black Mountain produced by Paines Plough (Roundabout @ Summerhall)

In 4th place, the totally convincing portrayal of a relationship irreconcilably broken down with the snappy title The Delights of Dogs and the Problems of People, written by Rosalind Blessed (Studio @ Space Triplex)

In 3rd place, the thought-provoking and opinion changing Bin Laden: The One Man Show produced by Knaive Theatre (C venues – C, Chambers Street)

In 2nd place, the riveting Gypsy Queen, written by Rob Ward (Front Room @ Assembly Rooms)

In 1st place, the play that taps into the Zeitgeist and doesn’t feel like a play, the horrifying, hilarious and brain-teasing Losers, produced by Tit4Twat Theatre (Underbelly, Cowgate)

Best Individual Performance in a Play – Edinburgh

One of the hardest categories to decide as so many Edinburgh plays are true ensemble efforts. Nevertheless, here are the top three:

In 3rd place, Rosalind Blessed for The Delights of Dogs and the Problems of People (Studio @ Space Triplex)
In 2nd place, Rob Ward for Gypsy Queen (Front Room @ Assembly Rooms)
In 1st place, Sam Redway for Bin Laden: The One Man Show (C venues – C, Chambers Street)

Best stand-up comedy show – Edinburgh

Eleven shows and a shortlist of five gives this top three (which is very similar to last year’s!):

In 3rd place, for his intelligent observations and creative thinking, Dane Baptiste’s G. O. D. show (Pleasance Courtyard)
In 2nd place, for getting the political climate fully understood, with I Hope I Die Before I Start Voting Conservative, Joe Wells (Sneaky Pete’s)
In 1st place, yet again, the unmissable late night laughter line-up that is Spank! (Underbelly Cowgate)

Best of the rest – Edinburgh

Yet another really hard choice but I’ve managed to come up with a top five:

In 5th place, the superbly constructed and brilliantly characterised Bitchelors with Anna Morris (Voodoo Rooms)
In 4th place, dropping down a place from last year but still incredibly funny and audience members really have to be alert to stay safe! Foil Arms and Hog – Oink! (Underbelly George Square)
In 3rd place, the very racey acts – including the unforgettable Betty Grumble – that made up the burlesque extravaganza, Sweatshop (Assembly George Square Gardens)
In 2nd place, as last year, worth getting up early for a bizarre version of Macbeth with Shakespeare for Breakfast (C Venues, Chambers Street)
In 1st place, the brilliant material and voices of Jan Ravens in her Difficult Woman show (Gilded Balloon Teviot)

This year’s Edinburgh turkey, which was so clever-clever and up itself that you could hardly see it, was the pretentious immersive show about throwing a surprise party, Party Game.

Best Local Production

This includes the productions by the University of Northampton students, the Royal and Derngate Actors’ Company, the Youth Companies, local theatre groups and the National Theatre Connections.

In 5th place, from the Flash Festival, Can’t Stop Theatre’s untitled one-man play with Ben Sullivan
In 4th place, the Royal and Derngate’s Actors’ Company’s production of Great Expectations at the Royal Theatre
In 3rd place, Milton Keynes College’s National Theatre Connections production of Extremism
In 2nd place, the University’s production of Vinegar Tom at the Royal Theatre.
In 1st place, again from the Flash Festival, Out of Mind Theatre Company’s production of Broken

Best film

I saw seven films last year, which must be some kind of record! Two films that have received great general acclaim I really didn’t like at all – Manchester By The Sea and Blade Runner 2049. The Snowman just about limped home, both La La Land and Victoria and Abdul were entertaining and beautifully made, and Call Me By Your Name really ought to get the award for being outstanding in so many ways. However, the film I enjoyed the most and have no hesitation in naming as the recipient of this year’s award is – Paddington 2!

Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical.

Time to get personal. Fifteen contenders in the shortlist, so here are the top five:

In 5th place, Lyn Paul as Mrs Johnstone in Blood Brothers at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in November.
In 4th place, Lucie Jones as Elle in Legally Blonde at the Royal and Derngate in October.
In 3rd place, Sooha Kim as Kim in Miss Saigon at the Curve Theatre Leicester in July.
In 2nd place, Janie Dee as Phyllis in Follies at the National Theatre Olivier in September.
In 1st place, Imelda Staunton as Sally in Follies at the National Theatre Olivier in September.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical.

Seven performances in the shortlist, producing this top three:

In 3rd place, Red Concepcion as The Engineer in Miss Saigon at the Curve Theatre Leicester in July.
In 2nd place, John McCrea as Jamie in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, at the Apollo Theatre, London, in December.
In 1st place, John Partridge as Albin/Zaza in La Cage Aux Folles at the Milton Keynes Theatre in August.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Play.

Very tough one, this one. Eight in the shortlist, but here’s the top five:

In 5th place, Samantha Spiro as Peppy in The House They Grew Up In, at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester, in July.
In 4th place, Eve Best as Olivia in Love in Idleness, at the Menier Chocolate Factory, in April.
In 3rd place, Zoe Waites as Cassius in Julius Caesar at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, in May.
In 2nd place, Imelda Staunton as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London in April.
In 1st place, Olivia Colman as Jenny in Mosquitoes at the National Theatre Dorfman, in September.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Play.

A very hotly fought for award, with eighteen contenders in my shortlist, and I whittled it down to this:

In 5th place, Ben Turner as Amir in The Kite Runner, at Wyndham’s Theatre, London, in February.
In 4th place, Peter Polycarpou as Ahmed Qurie in Oslo, at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, in December.
In 3rd place, Adrian Scarborough as Stan in Don Juan in Soho, at Wyndham’s Theatre, London, in May.
In 2nd place, Sir Ian McKellen as King Lear in King Lear at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester, in October.
In 1st place, Richard McCabe as Cicero in the RSC’s Imperium, at the Swan Theatre, Stratford in December.

Theatre of the Year.

For the third year running there’s no change in the Number one and Number two theatres! Presenting an extraordinary range of drama and entertainment, this year’s Theatre of the Year is the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, with the Festival Theatre/Minerva Theatre in Chichester as runner-up.

It’s been another fantastic year, and I’ve seen more productions this year than I’ve ever seen in one year before – 190 productions in all. Thanks to you gentle reader for continuing to read my theatre reviews. Let’s look forward to another wonderful year of theatre in 2018!

Review – Mother Goose, Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, 6th January 2018

Mother GooseFor the second show of our Sheffield weekend we made our annual pilgrimage to the Lyceum Theatre for the unmissable Lyceum panto. This year, Mother Goose; and – as every year for the last ten years – it starred Damian Williams. Mr Williams’ tenth anniversary as the city’s favourite dame did not go uncelebrated; and quite right too, as he has carved out for himself a dream of a niche position – he is Mr Panto.

Jill, Mother Goose and CharlieWhy would you want to see the same actor every year performing more or less the same role? It’s a fair question, but the answer’s simple; he’s the best in the business. His instant rapport with the audience is a true thing of beauty. You know he will spend the whole two and a half hours taking the mickey out of himself, and of us, and of his fellow cast members, and of the show itself, and of Rotherham, and of the band, and so on and so on. Going back to the Sheffield panto itself every year is like the most self-indulgent comfort eating. Fairy GoodfeatherIt’s returning to something that you love, that nourishes you, that makes you feel all warm and safe, and that never lets you down. You know it will begin with the boys and girls of the ensemble running into the auditorium singing Bring Me Sunshine. You know the wooden bench will come out to a great fanfare and that Mr Williams and others of the cast will sit on it and sing Always Look on the Bright Side of Life whilst ghoulies appear behind them, then we shout It’s Behind You? What is? A Ghost? Is there? The other Mother Goose and the villagersWell! We’ll have to do it again then won’t we! as the ghosts pick off the cast members one by one till only Mr W is left which makes the ghosts run off in terror instead. If that didn’t happen, you’d be entitled to your money back. You know there’ll be a spurious patter sketch where they punfully mention the names of either perfumes or aftershave, board games, pop groups, local towns and villages, newspapers and magazines, or as it was this year, shop names. Every year the same. Every year a winner.

Mother Goose and Demon VanityMother Goose isn’t among the most popular of pantos and this is only the second time I’ve seen it – the first being back in 1980 with the late John Inman as the dame. There’s something much funnier and totally ridiculous about having the dame as a “fat bloke in a dress” (their words, not mine) rather than a slim, camp man who actually looks rather good in a dress; nothing against Mr Inman of course, who was a fine comedy actor. But Mr Williams delights in his grotesquerie and really doesn’t care quite how preposterous he looks. This was particularly appropriate for this panto, as Mother Goose (the character) has decided she’s fed up with being teased for her looks and wants to be thought of as beautiful. Fat chance, love. But as she tries to be more beautiful, her personality becomes more ugly. Eventually all her friends and family say she’s not the MG they used to know and love anymore. MG gives in, stops all the vanity lark, and everyone’s happy again. There’s a moral in there somewhere.

Demon VanityThe story of Mother Goose is so slight you could tell it in less than a sentence, which enables the creative team in this show to go to town on the characterisations and the interplay between the characters and the audience. Who cares about the story, when you’ve got Mateo from Benidorm getting the hots for himself in a mirror, with Mr Williams as his mirror reflection puckering back at him. There’s always one killer comedy scene in the panto, and that was it for this year. Jake Canuso, as “Demon Vanity” (who?), is playing his first pantomime (I think) and was a terrific sport, with the script absolutely playing up to his foolish and vain TV Lothario persona; never missing an opportunity to pout provocatively at anything passing by or to languish lavishly at the foot of the stage, always demanding the attention of the laydeez (and doubtless some of the gentz too). Mr Canuso impressed with his early dance training and is suprisingly nimble on his toes.

SquireElsewhere, Mr Williams was merciless with Adam Price, who played the Squire; Mr Price was giving some extra characterisation to his role with a bit of vocal trickery, and Mr Williams was like a dog with a bone. Teasing him to the nth degree, he did not let go until his prey was fully vanquished. He joked with Andy Day about he looks like Fatima Whitbread, and OMG he does; he constantly referred to one of the male dancer/villagers as Barbara – although he really didn’t look like a Barbara to me. I don’t think any of the cast got through the show completely unscathed, but it was all totally hilarious. Mr Williams picked on the hapless man at the end of the front row for a bit of audience participation, including naming the Goose that Lays the Golden Eggs. The song that was introducing her firmly suggested the name Faith would be perfect to fit in with the lyrics. His choice? Wilbur. For a female goose. You couldn’t make it up.

Fairy Goodfeather againThis year’s two best lines: 1) when dressed as a mobile phone Mr Williams said he was going off for a rest as he’d downloaded an app (a nap, geddit?) and 2) when Mother Goose was told to lose weight, she thought the advice was “Don’t eat anything fatty” whereas in fact it was “Don’t eat anything, Fatty”. There was a 3D sequence in the second half, where we all had to don our special glasses. I always get muddled up trying to put them on over my own glasses, but fortunately Mrs Chrisparkle has had special training from Help The Aged to help me put them on. In the sequence, we accompanied MG flying through the air, and at once stage through a snow storm, during which, through some clever technology, rain came down upon as all and I got thoroughly soaked! Fortunately I have a terrific sense of humour.

Jill, Billy and CharlieMy other favourite feature of the show was the regular appearances of Lisa Davina Philip as Fairy Goodfeather. I loved her characterisation as a truly well-urban street-Jamaican fairy. It was a brilliantly modern and inventive take on an old format and Ms Philip was side-splittingly hilarious all the way through. I’m sure her fairy dust would be littered with rice ‘n’ peas. Definitely the funniest fairy I’ve seen in many a year!

The castThe kids we saw were the Red Team and they gave it everything – some really good dancers too! Cara Dudgeon and Dylan Craig were suitably cute together as Jill and Charlie Goose, and were pretty damn good at the singing and dancing too. But at the end of the day, it’s all about the dame. There’s nothing like a dame, and there’s no other dame like this one.

Booking has already started for Peter Pan next Christmas – Mr Williams’ eleventh season. Can’t wait!

Production photos by Robert Day

Review – The Wizard of Oz, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 6th January 2018

Wizard of OzIt has become our habit over a number of years now to go up to Sheffield for the first weekend of January to enjoy whatever is their Christmas show and also the Lyceum panto all on the same day. Tradition also has it that we are accompanied by Lord and Lady Prosecco as their main Christmas pressy from us. However, in a break from tradition, shock horror, this year we switched the panto from matinee to evening, so we started off by seeing Robert Hastie’s new production of The Wizard of Oz.

DorothyA few confessions; when I read that this was to be their Christmas show I wasn’t entirely filled with enthusiasm. There’s something about the whole Wizard of Oz concept that doesn’t really appeal. Maybe because it is such a hardy perennial I feel that it’s an unadventurous option? I’m not sure. Another confession; I’ve never really seen the film. Of course, I’ve seen clips, and I know what the Cowardly Lion is all about, and I’ve seen Judy Garland follow the yellow brick road. And I know why people want to see the wizard – because, because, because, because…..because. Nevertheless, it’s always fascinating to see the full show of something you’ve only ever caught extracts from before. It’s like being familiar with old show tunes but never knowing their context within their original musical show, which is something I love exploring – it’s great for stopping gaps in your general knowledge.

FarmhandsYou, of course, gentle reader, are totally au fait with the story of the Wizard of Oz, so there’s probably not much I can tell you about it. Dorothy lives with her Aunt Em and Uncle Henry with her “only friend in the world”, Toto the dog (not entirely true; she gets on fine with the farmhands, Hickory, Zeke and Hunk, but that’s by the by). Horrid neighbour Miss Gulch accuses Toto of having bitten her (and if you were Toto, so would you) and she has a lawsuit for the dog to be taken away and dealt with – that’s one helluva euphemism. But Dorothy’s not going to take that lying down. After a futile attempt at escape she hides in the farmhouse where a massive storm tornado destroys the building and Dorothy wakes up in the land of Oz. As you do. In Oz, the farmhands have become the tin man, the scarecrow and the cowardly lion; Aunt Em is Glinda the Good Witch of the North; and Miss Gulch is the Wicked Witch of the West. Good of course triumphs, the Wizard is curiously revealed as something of a fraud, Dorothy manages to get back to Kansas and we all live happily ever after. Well maybe not Miss Gulch.

OzDespite my initial lack of enthusiasm, within about three minutes of the show starting I absolutely loved it and that feeling of wonderment didn’t let up all the way through, even with a couple of minor reservations. Having read a synopsis of the film I believe this is a very fair and faithful representation of that MGM masterpiece; so if the story isn’t perfect then I guess the film isn’t either. On reflection, it’s quite a slight tale, and a disproportionately long part of it is taken up with Dorothy meeting her three companions along the yellow brick road, and for me that did sag a little. Trouble is, that’s probably also the most famous part of the film so it wouldn’t be right to make a few cuts here and there along that particular journey to the Emerald City. There’s also a song number – The Jitterbug – that I believe was dropped from the film but has been reinstated in later stage versions. Whilst the staging of it was exquisite – more of which shortly – the song itself was one of those rather self-seeking stagey shindigs performed for its own benefit and not really furthering the story along. Let’s just say I wouldn’t have minded not seeing it.

Off to see the wizardHowever, that staging… hats off to Janet Bird for her design because it’s superb in its simplicity and effectiveness. I won’t give a detailed description of it because the transformation from Kansas to Oz is one of the show’s best surprises. Suffice to say, in a world of special effects and CGI it’s a delight to see something that is basically very straightforward and almost old-fashioned work to such a tremendous effect. She must have also had a plenty of fun creating all those different types of costumes; the farmy, Midwest domestic clothes, the outrageous witches, the scarecrow, tinman and lion, and of course the Munchkins, who all looked adorable – which is what Munchkins are meant to do, or so I understand. Richard Howell’s lighting also plays a significant and inventive role in creating with world of Oz – especially with its delineation of the Yellow Brick Road, and also in the almost disco-style ultra violet light of the Jitterbug scene. And Toby Higgins’ backstage band of ten musicians thwack out these well-known tunes with razor-sharp vitality and beautiful arrangements.

Cowardly Lion and palsAt the heart of the show is Dorothy; it’s a very big role and she’s rarely out of the action. Gabrielle Brooks impresses right from the start with her wide-eyed innocence and firm sense of justice and kindness. She has a wonderful singing voice and reduced Lord Prosecco to tears with her rendition of Over the Rainbow (oops, that’s me in trouble). I’m sure Ms Brooks can no longer be classified a “kid” but she really conveys a moving illusion of childhood in her performance. I already knew that Sophia Nomvete was a great performer, having had her move me to tears in The Color Purple, and once again she gives a beautiful, gutsy, funny performance as Aunt Em and Glinda. I was particularly looking forward to seeing Jonathan Broadbent again as he had been so toe-curlingly hilarious The Norman Conquests last year in Chichester, and he was just perfect as the Cowardly Lion, a genuinely funny and touching performance. Andrew Langtree and Max Parker as the Scarecrow and the Tin Man also give very good performances as did Michael Matus in his roles, particularly as the Oz Gatekeeper, a maniacal Rottweiler if ever there was one. Catrin Aaron is a terrific baddie as both Miss Gulch and the witch, and Ryan Ellsworth a rather mysterious Professor Marvel, and suitably understated Wizard. I’m not sure whether we saw the Yellow Brick Road Team or the Emerald City Team of munchkins, but they were great, throwing themselves into their song with true relish. And the adult ensemble too were excellent with their enthusiasm, their musicality and conveying the sheer joy of this very positive show.

GlindaBut for true grit and determination, and a performance like few others I’ve seen, Rhiannon Wallace, the puppeteer who performed Toto in Oz absolutely stole the show. Oz Toto is a scruffy urchin in comparison with Kansas Toto, who struck me as being rather superior. Ms Wallace’s facial expressions constantly changing to portray the dog’s emotions was such an effective method of fully creating this character who, after all, is very central to the plot. Ms Wallace must be a contortionist to bend down constantly and get herself into all the little nooks and crannies that Toto finds home. A memorable performance!

Wicked WitchThe Wizard of Oz has been new Artistic Director Robert Hastie’s first Christmas show at the Crucible and, on this form, the tremendous standard set by Daniel Evans in the past looks very likely to continue. Demand has meant that the production is extending by a week, so you have just over a week to try to get to see it – and it’s really worth your effort. Congratulations all round for a great show!

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Dick Whittington, London Palladium, 29th December 2017

Dick WhittingtonFor the last evening of our Christmas London break we headed off to the glamour and excitement of the one and only London Palladium for this year’s pantomime, Dick Whittington. When panto returned to the Palladium last year for the first time in 29 years it was such a nostalgic and feelgood experience. Fortunately, it was also a box office smash and they soon advertised that is would be back this year. Oh yes it would.

All on deckThe Palladium pantos were always a must-see for their top-of-their-career stars, the amazing sets, the lavish dancing and their full, brilliant orchestra. Last year they showed that they were returning to the same high standards, and this year they pretty much surpassed themselves. There were a few recidivists; Julian Clary, Paul Zerdin and Nigel Havers all returned, all largely playing the identical role they played last year. Paul Zerdin – this time in the guise of Idle Jack – even chose a couple out of the audience to join him on stage for precisely the same routine as last year, where they are made to wear ventriloquist masks around their mouths so that their words are pure Zerdin but their eyes are pure panic. But it’s a very funny act, why change it?!

Dick and NigelNigel Havers this time was Captain Nigel – come on, we all know the pivotal role of Captain Nigel in Dick Whittington….don’t we? – still desperate for a decent scene, still the butt of nearly everyone else’s jokes. There was a very sweet moment when one of the four kids that Paul Zerdin got up on stage at the end of the show to sing Old Macdonald announced that his favourite performer of the evening had been Nigel. You’ve never seen a slightly maturing, thoroughly well-respected actor look quite so flippin’ delighted. Spirit of the BellsJulian Clary, fresh from his success as last year’s Dandini, returns as the Spirit of the Bells, make of that what you wish, punters. As you can imagine, gentle reader, in this particular pantomime, there was a lot of Dick. As usual, Mr Clary lets no innuendo escape unexpressed, nor does he hold back from teasing a corpse moment out of every other member of the cast. The rough, tough one out of Diversity was visibly shaking with barely suppressed guffaws as Mr C delivered him an unexpected double entendre.

Sultan and his advisorsTalking of whom, Ashley Banjo and Diversity appeared as the Sultan and his advisors, in a number of set dance pieces which, whilst not completely integrating with the show as a whole, carried on the old Palladium panto tradition of lively dance and comedy pratfalls. I looked on Diversity as the modern day equivalent of Charlie Cairoli and his clowns, who used to have me in hysterics as a lad. Diversity sure have a great stage impact, and all their contributions were very enjoyable.

Dick and EileenThis year’s other new blood were all pretty darn magnificent. Charlie Stemp and Emma Williams were reunited on stage after their superb performances in Half A Sixpence (still sadly missed) as Dick Whittington and Alice Fitzwarren. Mr Stemp in particular continued to show what a brilliant find he is. He exudes a natural happiness on stage that is irresistible – and there were plenty of references to his past and future performances; a song with the Dame had the title Flash Bang Wallop, What a Sweetshop (I wonder where they got that from) and Mr Clary gave him a huge plug for his appearance on Broadway next year. Oh, and there’s another innuendo for you.

SarahGary Wilmot was a brilliant Dame – this time the standard Sarah The Cook becomes Sarah Fitzwarren. You can just tell how much Mr Wilmot absolutely adores doing this kind of thing; and his tube station patter song was a true pièce de résistance! Messrs Clary, Zerdin, Havers, Wilmot and Stemp gave us a tremendously anarchic performance of the Twelve Days of Christmas that involved Mr C hurling toilet rolls at the audience – not entirely sure that was meant to happen – and everyone stumbling over each other to get through the number unharmed, which they just about managed. A classic Palladium panto routine, performed to brilliant effect.

Queen RatAnd I’ve left the best to last! I have nothing but huge respect for the way Elaine Paige as Queen Rat allowed herself to be sent up something rotten. Her singing parodies of her best-known songs, including forgetting the words to Memory, were simply hilarious. And what was even more enjoyable was that her voice is still astounding. When she delivered her first big number, the chills down my spine were out of this world! It made me want to dig out my old EP albums. (Don’t judge me.)

Idle JackExtremely funny, glamorous and professional, this is just a wonderful way to celebrate the Christmas season on stage. Amazingly, there were even a few children in the Friday evening audience. Can’t think what they got out of it! This is simply an opportunity for you to go out, have a great laugh, see some fabulous routines and just be a child again. Want to be the first to hear about next Christmas’s Palladium panto? Click here!

Production photos by Paul Coltas