Review – Legally Blonde, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 16th October 2017

Legally BlondeIt’s been the best part of eight years since I started writing this blog and imparting my words of wisdom (winky emoji) about all the shows we’re lucky to see. And the very first one that I had a crack at was the new (at the time) production of Legally Blonde at the Savoy Theatre with Sheridan Smith as Elle. We enjoyed it a lot.

LB the girlsAll these years later and we’ve now seen it a second time last night at the Royal and Derngate as the current touring production makes its way to Northampton for a week. Ohmygodyouguys you could feel the excited vibe in the packed audience. We’ve still not seen the film, and if you haven’t either, then let me explain: basically this is the story of pink bimbo Elle, who looks squeakily divine, knows every fashion trick under the sun and lives life like an article in a woman’s magazine. Long term boyfriend Warner has ambitions to become a Big Name in The Law, and plans to go to Harvard Law School to realise his dream. However, Elle is the archetypal pretty vacant girlie, and she’s the wrong image for his ambitious plans; ergo, ditched. To win him back, Elle vows to get accepted at Harvard Law School too. Warner’s horrified to find she’s followed him there – especially as she discovers he’s now going out with serious student and certified bitch Vivienne. Will any of them take it lying down? And does Elle have what it takes to become a successful lawyer, or is her brain as windswept as an aircraft hangar? You’ll have to see it to find out!

LB Elle at HarvardHaving loved the original production, I had high hopes for this new version; and I confess that I was a little disappointed in it. There’s no doubt that this is a good musical, but last night’s show was beset by quite a few problems that I hope get ironed out before any more performances take place. Up until the interval the sound quality was frankly poor. The performers and the orchestra were way over-amplified, resulting in vibrating booming from the pit and unintelligible lyrics from the singers and dancers. This is a real shame, because I remember that the lyrics and book are very witty; but at least half of it came over as garbled and very hard to follow. Some technical whizzkid obviously worked wonders during the interval and the second act was much more pleasing on the ear. Even so, there were still a few rather embarrassing moments, like seeing stagehands run in at the back to hold part of the set in place, having the restaurant scene and one of the hairdresser scenes take place on wobbly platforms, a stagehand smoothing out the edge of the big Irish flag that descended onto the stage, dancers colliding during one of the numbers and a swing boy getting tangled up in the skipping rope during a dance routine. I’m wondering if they were late getting installed because it didn’t feel like they’d done any kind of run through in the new theatre.

LB HarvardWhilst I’m in grumpy mood, we both thought the production looked a little cheap. I’m sure the idea behind the set designs was to create a kind of childish environment – rather than going for reality, they go for full-on cutesy, to reflect the personality of Elle and her UCLA cheerleaders. Accordingly, the library at the Harvard Law School and the court room both have a quirky, slightly fairy tale appearance, as though they’d just evicted the old woman who lived in a shoe. Fair enough I guess; but I didn’t at all like the backdrop they used to suggest the gardens – it was painted in a very lifeless and amateurish style. All it lacked was the pantomime horse.

LB the partyLet’s concentrate on some good things. Once you can actually hear what’s being said and sung, it is a very well-written and funny show, with some great set routines and scenes; such as the party where Elle turns up as a bunny girl, and the whole courtroom, bend and snap, gay or European routine. The audience, who clearly didn’t see it coming, were gobsmacked at the private scene between Elle and Callahan, which has been brought into sharp relevance with the recent Harvey Weinstein allegations.

LB ElleThere are also some very good performances, in particular Lucie Jones as Elle. You might call me biased, gentle reader, but I really admire the fact that her participation in the Eurovision Song Contest for the UK is listed as the top achievement in her programme bio. So many other actors who have performed at Eurovision erase it from their history (Samantha Womack take note). Lucie has a tremendous voice, full of colour and emotion, and she sings the whole show sensationally. She also brings out all the humour to give an excellent comic performance too.

LB EmmettDavid Barrett is also excellent as Emmett, selflessly helping Elle to make the most of her opportunities, coming out of his shell in his sharp suit (which got an ooh from the audience) and showing that the ugly duckling can sometimes go to the ball (if that’s not mixing my metaphorical fairy tales). I was also very impressed with Laura Harrison as Vivienne, deliciously revelling in Elle’s misery until she sees the error of her ways, and Helen Petrovna as both fitness queen Brooke and Vivienne’s catty friend Whitney. There were also a few performances that I didn’t really rate, partly explained by some surprisingly dull choreography, but I’ll leave it there.

LB Paulette and KyleI really wanted to enjoy this show so much, but for me there was too much that wasn’t quite right that stopped it from soaring. Still, I expect it will be way better in a couple of days’ time. Its lengthy tour continues all over the country, right round to next June, so there are plenty of opportunities to catch it.

Production photos by Robert Workman

Review – The Twelfth Malcolm Arnold Festival, Gala Concert, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Derngate, Northampton, 15th October 2017

Twelfth Malcolm Arnold FestivalOnce again the Royal and Derngate played host to the annual Malcolm Arnold Festival, celebrating the work, life and influence of one of Northampton’s finest Local Boys Done Good. This year’s title was “His Music Abounds in Singable Tunes”, and I can’t imagine a more fitting tribute. A dozen events – concerts, talks, even the re-enactment of a radio programme – all took place over the weekend, culminating in the usual pizazz of the Gala Concert in the Derngate auditorium. Again, we had the pleasure to welcome the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of John Gibbons who’s been conducting these Malcolm Arnold concerts since he was about five years old, by my reckoning.

For reasons that he explained later, Mr Gibbons had decided to shuffle the order in which the pieces of music would be played. We started off with Arnold’s arresting River Kwai March from Bridge on the River Kwai; a perfect starter with its rousing atmosphere and cheerful arrangement. Military brass and smashing cymbals at the ready, the Royal Philharmonic gave it a great rendition and put a smile on everyone’s faces.

John GibbonsNext we had Malcolm Arnold’s Fifth Symphony. John Gibbons forewarned us that, if we weren’t already familiar with it – I wasn’t – we might find it challenging; but it’s also exuberant, cerebral, and full of singable tunes (as we had been promised.) It impressed me as a work of great variety. Premiered in 1961, Arnold included several musical references in memory of friends whom he had lost, including humourist and tuba-thumper Gerard Hoffnung, Frederick Thurston the clarinettist, and Arnold’s own brother Aubrey, who had taken his own life a few months earlier. So you can tell it’s a piece of work that demands to be taken seriously.

The first movement isn’t described as Tempestuoso for nothing. It’s full of attack, at times almost aggressive; but I did love the way the harp and celeste played together, creating the sound equivalent of fat golden droplets of rain – well that’s how it felt to me. The second movement is much more lush and warm, with the violins buzzing away together like a deep lullaby – it did actually send Mrs Chrisparkle off to sleep for a short while. The third movement (con fuoco) was one of those instant hits when you really love a classical tune, even if, afterwards, it’s really hard to recollect it. I loved that quirky rhythm and part-played, part-omitted melody. Everything gets brought together in the final movement, and I was really impressed with it. I’ll have to buy a recording of it! Again, the RPO gave it everything.

Arta ArnicaneAfter the interval, the Steinway had been wheeled into place for our only non-Arnold segment of the evening, a performance of Grieg’s Piano Concerto, with soloist Arta Arnicane. Always a favourite piece of music, I knew I had to steel myself not to sing along to the words of the Song of Norway – and I succeeded, much to everyone’s relief. Ms Arnicane looked stunning in a glistening steely grey dress – I couldn’t help but think that the long hem would have got in the way of the piano pedals, but I guess she knew what she was doing. There are so many fantastic sequences in the piano concerto but what most impressed me – and amused me – was how Ms Arnicane’s personal deportment changed with the mood of the music. For the strong, passionate parts she’d sit upright and authoritatively; for those languid phrases she’d almost flop over the keys. When Grieg got playful she’d wiggle from side to side as if preparing for a game of keyboard hopscotch. She really expressed the music so beautifully not only through the sound coming out of the piano but also through her own physical presence. I also loved her delicacy of touch, sometimes coaxing the music out with what appeared to be just the minimum of pressure. It was stunning.

Royal Philharmonic OrchestraOur final piece was Malcolm Arnold’s Heroes of Telemark. This was the first time that this piece had received a concert performance; having languished in film companies’ files for several decades after the film was made in 1965. The piece was re-shuffled to the end of the concert because, when the listing was originally produced, John Gibbons, who was creating the suite from the separate, individual passages of film, hadn’t yet finalised the work (reading between the lines, it was a much bigger job than he was expecting!)

As expected, it’s full of ravishing Arnoldesque moments, with stirring tunes, thumping orchestrations and a few delightful surprises. Mr Gibbons had told us that we would easily be able to identify the German marching songs (correct) and the big moment when the Allies exploded the plant where the Germans were making Heavy Water – also correct. I must be honest though and say that on the whole I didn’t think it really gelled as an orchestral suite. No question it was fascinating to listen to, and for Arnold enthusiasts (of whom there were plenty in the audience) a unique opportunity to hear something that’s been largely lost for fifty years; but for me, I won’t need to hear it again for a good while.

Nevertheless, a great night of classical entertainment, with a fantastic soloist and some amazing performances. Now to hunt down that third movement to the Fifth Symphony!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 13th October 2017

Dan EvansBack for another Screaming Blue Murder at the Royal and Derngate, with Dan Evans in charge (as usual) with a motley crew of punters some of whom were a bit tricky vis-à-vis letting their Friday night mood take over. But we did have the man who makes the plastic pieces that create the folds in the manufacture of cardboard boxes… so that’s all good then. There was Chris the birthday boy and Robin the front row chap who I could tell was a challenge just from looking at the back of his head. And then there was the lady directly in front of me; more of her later.

Funmbi OmotayoWe’d seen all the acts before but they were all on cracking form; when that happens it’s like choosing your favourite pizza toppings because you don’t always need to try something different. Our first act was Funmbi Omotayo, whom we saw last year at the Edinburgh Fringe. He’s a disarmingly charming, friendly guy who uses his humour to challenge some notions of racism but he does it oh so kindly. I loved his take on how he ought to be a real tough dude, overflowing with intimidating attitude, but it doesn’t work because he can’t stop his coquettish little smile peeping through. He’s got some great material, including changing a tyre with the police, a glance at the Paralympics and his analysis of living in Hackney. He even gave us some political observations; that’s normally a kiss of death in Northampton because for some reason collectively we just don’t care, but he actually hit the mark with that too. Very likeable, very funny, and a great way to start the night.

Eleanor TiernanNext up was Eleanor Tiernan, whom we saw at Screaming Blue Murder last year when she was slow to warm up but then exploded. This time she was absolutely on the ball from the start. With that lovely Irish lilt to her voice, she has a wonderfully self-deprecating style, bringing in some subtle Brexit material by revealing that she had no idea that Ireland was in the EU. As usual she really comes to the fore when she’s (comically) examining aspects of the vagina – I won’t spoil it for you but she shared the most fantastic metaphor which still has me laughing out loud three days later. She also looks on hand dryers in exactly the same way as I do. A brilliant routine.

Andre VincentOur last act was André Vincent, whom we last saw at precisely the same Screaming Blue last year as Eleanor Tiernan… is this significant? We should be told! He’s the kind of chap you can imagine was a right Jack-the-Lad 25 years ago, and probably not much has changed since. He told us the problems of growing up as an André in Brixton, and survival at the Bestival Festival; he’s got a winning way about him in the same way you’d have fun with one of your dad’s mates who ought to know better. He was given a classic opportunity to go off-piste when the lady directly in front of me (see paragraph one) suddenly nodded off during his routine in the most dramatic way, head lolling all over the place, obviously taken into that very deep slumber moment when even a fire alarm wouldn’t wake her up. André’s reaction was hysterical, suggesting we all tiptoe off and leave her to wake up in the morning; when she did come back to the land of the living she was left in no doubt that her ten minutes of coma hadn’t gone unnoticed. By everyone. He rounded off his set with a great story about him meeting milfs in Halifax when he was a youngster. Beautifully told, and really funny.

An excellent night’s comedy! It’s on again in two weeks, but sadly we can’t make that one… line up looks great too…. You’ll have to let me know how it went!

Review – Education, Education, Education, The Wardrobe Ensemble, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 11th October 2017

EducationEveryone remembers the answer Education, Education, Education, but can you remember what the question was? Actually, I don’t think there was a question. It was Tony Blair’s description of his priorities when taking over as Prime Minister in 1997. Ah, those halcyon days. A time for celebration, for romance; indeed, a time for Tamagotchis, remember them? Everyone has their own memory of the 1997 General Election (if you were old enough to stay up late, that is.) We stayed up for Portillo was a phrase bandied around the watercooler (it was too long ago for social media) – as indeed did Mrs Chrisparkle and I. I can’t quite remember if we celebrated Stephen Twigg’s victory in the same way that teachers Louise and Paul did, but I bet there were a few Twigglets born the following February.

EEE would you work with teachers like thisIt is altogether nostalgic, and charming, to remember the hope of those days. There was a spring in our step and a glint in our eye. Cool Britannia was all the rage – were you Blur or Oasis? – Geri sizzled in her Union Jack dress, and Katrina won Eurovision for the UK to round off a fantastic weekend. (We’ve only won Eurovision once under the Tories, four times under Labour… #justsaying). Blair was going to make all the nasty things go away and bring in only nice things. One of those was spending a whole lot more money on education (education, education).

EEE Emily up to no goodSo it’s appropriate for this devised play to be set in a fairly progressive school back in 1997; with a range of teachers (from the idealistic to the realistic) and students (from the compliant to the complainant, in this case Emily Greenslade, played by Emily Greenslade). Yes, that’s not a typo. In fact, all the students at the school have the same names as the cast; if that doesn’t show how much they identify with the story they’re telling, I don’t know what does. But the students (apart from Emily) take a back seat as this play primarily explores the relationships between the teachers.

EEE scary Ms TurnerYou’ve got polar opposites of approach to teaching between the two female teachers, Louise (Head of Discipline) at whose feet everyone cowers and disperses, and Sue (Head of nothing at all) who promotes fun over study in her English lessons. Headmaster Hugh sees his job as motivating his students through treating them as equals and heaping praise wherever possible; whereas teacher Paul is matter of fact and morose, probably doing the bare minimum to get by. Sports teacher Tim is relaxed and amenable, happy to stand in for the French teacher, même though il ne peut pas hardly speak a word of it.

EEE the thoughtful TobiasAnd then we have the new teacher, Tobias, from Germany; thoughtful, introverted, not exactly taciturn but definitely reserved. He might seem unemotional, but he’s genuinely hurt by Emily’s insult; he just has a quiet and balanced way of expressing it. An outsider, Tobias acts as our narrator; introducing the school and its people, commenting on the action from the sidelines, breaking the fourth wall with his interactions with Fergus the tech. If I was being pretentious, I’d describe Tobias as the still point in the turning world, as T. S. Eliot would have it. However, pretentious is the last thing I am, so I’ll keep that thought to myself. Tobias’ narration leaves us in no doubt that Blair’s fantasy world of educational quality through more money was only ever going to be a pipedream. It started well, but look at us today….

EEE look at the roofThe show is directed by Helena Middleton and Jesse Jones, whose superb production of Market Boy for the Royal and Derngate’s Actors Company was the talk of the town (Northampton town) last summer. The structure of the show is madcap, manic and surreal; over the course of 75 minutes so much content gets chucked at the audience that you can hardly pause for breath (unless we’re having a Tobias moment.) It’s beautifully character-driven and characterised, showing how the misfortunes of Emily and Sue clash on one terrible day, with one causing the downfall (literally) of the other. It’s also very funny and very quirky, with tremendous use of popular music as well as other fantasy sound effects. With inventive use of precious little scenery or props they work on our imagination to successfully recreate all parts of the school, indoors and out.

EEE kindly Mr MillsTom England’s hipster Hugh is a delight, with his amazing dad-dancing and championing the unexpected; he’s like a cross between Tom Hardy and David Brent. Jesse Meadows’ Sue blends the strength of idealism with fear of confrontation to produce a well-meaning but ineffectual teacher who’s pushed to risk her own safety for the benefit of others. Emily Greenslade’s Emily is a smart cookie who rails against injustice and fights battles she can’t win to her own detriment. Greg Shewring’s Paul is dour and dismal, in the way that many of my teachers were – did he go to my school, I wonder? Kerry Lovell’s Louise is a terrifying stickler for tradition, demanding absolute obedience, delivering education (education, education) by the book. Ben Vardy’s Tim is your typical nice bloke with one solution for every problem – pub? James Newton’s Tobias is a hilarious study of a jumble of Teutonic attributes but which strangely never comes across as a stereotype but just as an intelligent, logical, practical chap; in the guise of a comedy German.

EEE Mr Pashley on formThis was a big hit at this year’s Edinburgh Fringe and I can imagine exactly how well it would have fitted in there. An intriguing co-production between the Wardrobe Ensemble, Shoreditch Town Hall and the Royal and Derngate, I hope their paths may cross again to produce future exciting work. Its tour continues to Eastleigh and the Bristol Old Vic in October and November and I’d thoroughly recommend it!

Production photos by Richard Lakos

Review – The Norman Conquests, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 7th October 2017

The Norman ConquestsSome scenes are just iconic, aren’t they? Lord Liverpool (who accompanied us on this full-day outing to see all three of Sir Alan Ayckbourn’s Norman Conquests, along with the Countess of Cockfosters and Professor & Mrs Plum) and I both vividly remember watching the 1970s TV version of Table Manners and seeing Tom Conti wax lyrical about the delights of Puffa Puffa Rice. You don’t get that sort of entertainment any more.

NC Annie in Round and Round the GardenAt least, not till now, with Blanche McIntyre’s immense new production of this wonderful trilogy gracing the stage at the Chichester Festival Theatre. In a nod to its original layout, they’ve converted the back of the set to take more seating, so that the plays are now performed in the round. Having had a miserable experience with “on stage seating” at the Trafalgar Studios’ Richard III a couple of years ago, I’m a great believer in once bitten twice shy and so we happily occupied the centre of Row C of the regular seating.

NC Sarah and Annie in Living TogetherIn case you don’t know, Annie has arranged that her nice-but-dull brother Reg and his uptight control freak of a wife Sarah will come down for the weekend to look after Mother whilst Annie has a much-deserved weekend away for a rest. So why is her brother-in-law Norman (married to her sister Ruth) lurking in the bushes of their overgrown garden? Is there really an assistant librarian’s convention that weekend? And what about vet Tom, who holds a candle for Annie but is too emotionally reserved to do anything about it? He keeps coming over to check on Annie’s pussy (yes, I know it sounds as though it’s written by Mrs Slocombe, but bear with me). The pussy’s in the tree with a septic paw, and all Tom can do is shout “Pussy!” occasionally. Over the course of the weekend, all is revealed; no one finds happiness but just maybe they might in the future….

NC Norman in Round and Round the GardenAyckbourn’s trilogy is beautifully structured so that you see the same story over the course of the same weekend in three different areas of the house – the living room, the dining room and the garden. Ayckbourn wrote all three plays concurrently, in chronological order; starting with Act One Scene One of Round and Round the Garden (5.30pm Saturday), then the first scene of Table Manners (6pm) and then the first scene of Living Together (6.30pm). In that way he was able to accompany Norman on his journey of havoc in the same sequence that our eponymous hero does. By the time we reach the final scene of Round and Round the Garden at 9am on Monday, we have a full picture of all the intrigues and misunderstandings that took place the whole weekend. Miss one of the plays out, and you’ll only get half an appreciation of what really went on.

NC Annie and Norman in Table MannersIt’s an absolute delight to observe how the three plays interlock. There are overlapping action moments like Reg exiting one room and entering another with a waste paper basket, and Tom exiting and entering bellowing his false and hearty laugh. There are other moments where a character has changed costume for no explicable reason, until you discover the reason why in another of the plays. Ayckbourn also sets up deliberately misleading threads for the audience. There’s more than one occasion where a character reflects that they may have upset someone or said the wrong thing; the audience makes an assumption as to what that might be, only to watch one of the other plays and find themselves proved totally wrong. It’s like a stand-up comedian with a routine full of callbacks that you don’t appreciate until they hit you unexpectedly. Round and Round the Garden contains one scene of misunderstanding between Tom and Ruth that is so blissfully executed and that leads on to further scenes of jaw-droppingly inappropriate behaviour that it’s worth the ticket price for all three shows on its own. If you miss it, then much of what happens later on in the other plays will remain a mystery.

NC Tom and Reg in Round and Round the GardenWe saw all three plays on the one day, in true theatrefest style. Living Together was on first (11am – such a treat), with Table Manners at the standard matinee time and Round and Round the Garden in the evening. Whatever you do, see the garden play last. Maybe, on reflection, you should see Table Manners first; that way the character of Norman is kept back from you till the last possible moment.

NC Annie in Living TogetherIt’s interesting to see how the plays have dated just a little in some respects. Each contains a moment of violence which is played primarily for comic effect; two of those occasions you could describe as “domestic violence”, and each time Norman is the victim. Ayckbourn always did have the knack of making you laugh out loud and then cover your face with shame for laughing. He honed that skill with developing subtlety over the years; but back in 1973 it was a little less sophisticated. At one point, Ruth uses the word “halfwit” as an insult, and it stood out to me as being maybe acceptable for a previous era but not enlightened enough for today. However, the age-old themes of marital (dis)harmony, naughty weekends away and an inability to express one’s feelings are never going to go away; nor is the mention of “East Grinstead” ever going to create anything other than risible scorn, especially to an audience of Sussex-siders.

NC Norman and Sarah in Round and Round the GardenSimon Higlett’s design preserves a hint of home counties garden at the edges (herbaceous borders I presume) for all three plays, whilst creating homely and slightly drab areas for the living and dining rooms. Would I be a tad picky if I were to suggest a larger dining table might have helped sight lines during Table Manners? From my seat I couldn’t see the visual prankstering between Norman and Tom which forms a considerable part of the comedy of the Act Two Scene One dinner fiasco, because Sarah obstructed my view. Congratulations to Lizzie Frankl’s props department for recreating a Puffa Puffa Rice box, seeing as how they haven’t been sold since 1975.

NC Annie and Reg in Table MannersIn best Ayckbournian tradition, the cast make a brilliant ensemble, with no one actor or character standing out as the star; everyone gets his or her own magic moments. Jonathan Broadbent’s Reg reminded me of the Harry Enfield father-in-law character, with his ghastly positivity, nasty driving gloves and endless insistence on everyone playing his wretched game – although, to be fair, I thought it sounded quite fun. I loved his proof that chess is no more realistic than any other game – that was the best mincing diagonal bishop ever. Sarah Hadland’s Sarah couldn’t be more different, with the white knuckled tension she brings to almost every scene. Rattling through her lines with unnerving urgency, she’s brilliant at playing that bitter, thwarted, disappointed housewife, only occasionally allowing herself a moment or two of release – such as at the end of Living Together, when the subject of Bournemouth crops up. Sarah’s grand moment of comedy comes with trying to seat everyone around the dinner table – her middle-class pretensions ruined by a bunch of unruly co-diners who don’t give a stuff about etiquette.

NC Tom in Living TogetherAs Annie, Jemima Rooper (a mischievous Elvira to Angela Lansbury’s Madame Arcati a few years ago) brings a vulnerable charm to the role, nicely blending the tomboy with the coquette as she stuffs her fists into the pockets of her shapelessly comfy old jumper that hides the alluring party frock underneath. Annie runs the gamut of emotions A to, well not quite Z but a long way down the alphabet. Flirtatious, furious, apologetic, tentative, embarrassed; these are just some of the moods that Ms Rooper uses to represent this very put-upon person whose glimmers of hope for the future are slowly being extinguished. As her wannabe suitor Tom, John Hollingworth cuts a perfectly ungainly figure; the occasions where Tom’s inability to understand the rules of a game or get a joke are genuinely hilarious, as you see the cogs turn behind Mr Hollingworth’s eyes but no ratchets engage. The physical comedy of his scene with Ruth, which ends up with them rolling down the side of the garden is just superb, as is his public-school fisticuffs mistaken defence of Annie at the dinner table. You know someone is getting the role right when the audience just affectionately groans when Mr Hollingworth lumbers on to the stage. A fantastic comedy performance.

NC Ruth in Round and Round the GardenHattie Ledbury also gives a brilliant performance as the disdainful Ruth, accepting life with Norman as a game where she constantly loses, only occasionally allowing us to see the embers of their relationship – on the fireside rug, not inappropriately. As vanity (which she denies) doesn’t permit her to wear her glasses, she stumbles myopically on the sidelines of everyone else’s relationships and doesn’t care at all who she hurts. Trystan Gravelle’s Norman is the catalyst for the disastrous weekend; an excellent performance that allows us both to empathise with and loathe him. It’s important for the plays to work that we can believe that Norman is, strangely, irresistible in a certain light – his so-called magnetism that means women just fall for him. I could just about see it, which is perfect; too obvious and he’d just be a dumb Don Juan character. Irritating, patronising, deliberately pushing for a reaction of any sort, yet also oddly fragile, Mr Gravelle gives us a great performance of a character you’d really be better off not knowing.

NC Ruth and Norman in Living TogetherOne slight quibble; I don’t know if anyone has told the cast they’ve got to get through these plays as quickly as possible because people have trains to catch, but I was surprised how much they continued to drive on with speeches after a big laugh, rather than waiting for the laughter to die down a little. Mr Hollingworth was the best at holding back and waiting; I won’t say who was the worst! But we are all there to have fun and a laugh, it only seems fair to give us a chance to get our belly laughs out of the way before they deliver us more Ayckbourn gems.

NC The whole cast in Table MannersIf you’ve seen The Norman Conquests before – firstly, you don’t look old enough; moreover, you’ll love getting reacquainted with this dysfunctional household of various reprobates. If this is all new to you, you’ve got a wonderful combination of farce and comedy of manners with a 70s twist to look forward to. An early masterpiece by one of our greatest comic playwrights. On until 28th October; it would be great if it were to transfer too.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – King Lear, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 6th October 2017

King LearThere was a positive glow of excitement last February when we found out that this year’s Chichester Festival would include a new production of King Lear with Sir Ian McKellen as the titular monarch. Not only us, but our friends Lord Liverpool, the Countess of Cockfosters and Professor and Mrs Plum all decided they wanted a slice of the regal action. In order to be within a pillicock’s whisker of a chance of getting tickets, they all joined the Chichester Friends’ scheme; and, as a result, last Friday night the six of us were all scattered round the various rows of the intimate Minerva Theatre to witness this rare sight.

KL Ian McKellen, Dominic Mafham, Patrick RobinsonActually, it’s not that rare; we saw Sir Ian play Lear in 2008 at the New London Theatre. Call me shallow, but my main memory of the evening was holding a door open for Joanna Lumley who beamed me the most heart-melting smile imaginable in gratitude. That surpassed most other memories of the production, although it was notable, of course, for Sir Ian getting his kit off completely on the Blasted Heath; more than one critic was unable to resist the every inch a king line. I wasn’t blogging at the time, but if I had been, then rest assured gentle reader, I wouldn’t have been so pass-remarkable, true though it may have been.

KL Sinead CusackI’ve seen three other Lears in my time, and they’ve all created their own special character, as you would expect. Pete Postlethwaite’s at the Young Vic was troubled but calm. Derek Jacobi’s (touring in Milton Keynes) was petulant and wheedling. Michael Pennington’s (at the Royal and Derngate in 2016) was quick to ire and was robust with dementia. Sir Ian McKellen (first time around) was simply majestic. This time, he’s still majestic, but with more of the common touch. This Lear genuinely loves the company of his retinue, and when his daughters slowly pare away the numbers they will allow to accompany him, it truly injures him to the sinews. He and the Fool are great mates and you can easily imagine them down the pub together carousing till dawn.

KL Tamara Lawrance, Jake MannLear’s kingdom is very autocratic. The boardroom where he invites his daughters to say how much they love him is overshadowed by a huge portrait of McKellen as Lear; imagine, instead, it depicting President Bashar al-Assad of Syria, and you’ll get the picture (literally). When the daughters are invited to praise him, they come up to a podium and speak into microphones; this is a public proclamation of love and division of the country, not just some quiet family arrangement. After Goneril has declared her undying love, Lear grabs his grand office scissors and slices through the map, handing Albany Scotland. Now I’ve nothing against the land of Loch and Trossach, but you can imagine Goneril saying to herself “Scotland? Scotland!! I was hoping for the Thames Valley at least.” Regan’s oily contribution to the debate wins her a cutting of Wales and the West Country. He really was keeping the best back for Cordelia; but she blows it (sorry if that’s a spoiler for you). Lear’s sarcastic and dismissive treatment of her whilst Burgundy and France are preparing their suit for her is tetchily painful to witness.

KL Phil DanielsMaking such a big show of the division debate means that the publicity will be enormous. The public nature of what he perceives as her denying him his rightful self-abasement means he can’t take her response rationally; everyone has witnessed her speech and he feels he has no choice but to cut her out of the inheritance. I almost felt sorry for Burgundy; he really did end up being there under false pretences. Fortunately, that nice King of France seems to love her for more than her riches (which is just as well.) We won’t see Cordelia again they’re both clad in rather dashing grey and white combats.

KL Ian McKellenJonathan Munby’s production is vivid and thrilling throughout. There’s no hiding place in the intimate space of the Minerva, so the harshness of life and the cruelty of the story are emphasised by the audience’s proximity to the action. The torrential rain that thunders down on to the centre of the stage, and soaks Lear, the Fool, Edgar and whoever else comes near, is icy and forceful. Seated in Row A, we didn’t get wet but, boy, the rain sure made us feel cold. The sadistic delight with which Gloucester’s eyes are put out results in their being squished underfoot by the ruthless Cornwall, whilst his perverted wife gets turned on by the violence. By the same token, those brief moments of kindness and love are very strongly conveyed; for example, I’ve never been more moved by Edgar’s sad and shocked realisation of what’s become of his father. However, Mrs Chrisparkle always expects to be moved to tears when Lear brings Cordelia’s dead body on to the stage; she wasn’t this time.

KL Michael Matus, Sinead CusackSir Ian McKellen is magnificent in the role, as you would expect; a tyrant in his division of the nation; a lad in his dealings with his retinue, a benefactor in his care for Poor Tom, a victim of his own folly and his power-grabbing daughters. His voice rages and cossets, demands and plays; in one moment he’s in full command, the next he’s pitifully useless. Not for nothing is this a chance to see probably our greatest actor in probably the greatest role for an older man. But there’s a tremendous cast about him that means every element of this great play is expressed to its full potential.

Danny Webb, Jonathan BaileyLear’s great supporter, Kent, is here transformed into a Countess, played by Sinead Cusack. It’s a bold move but it really works. As the Countess, Ms Cusack appears as the perfect administrative adviser, somewhere between a Chief Executive and a politician. As her alter ego Caius, Ms Cusack adopts a shapeless parka and looks for all the world like a docker has just wandered in. To be fair, the King is much more likely to spend time with the likes of Caius than he is the Countess. This is an unexpected Shakespearean cross-dressing character that you feel would be totally believable. Danny Webb is perfect as Gloucester, laddishly proud of creating the bastard Edmund because of the good sport at his making, which makes him all the more easily duped by him. You feel the tragedy of his downfall just as greatly as you experience Lear’s.

Dervla Kirwin, Damien MolonyDamien Molony (whom we last saw also alongside Ian McKellen in No Man’s Land) is an excellent Edmund; not too obsequious in his manipulation of his father, nor too pantomime villain as he plays off Lear’s daughters against each other. He’s just quietly, intensely credible. Jonathan Bailey is a smart, self-effacing Edgar who becomes a very wild Poor Tom. Dervla Kirwan plays Goneril with poise and self-assurance; you get the sense of a very practical person with a detailed plan for how she can gain influence. Kirsty Bushell’s Regan is very much the opposite; girlishly excitable, with the accent on physical enjoyment much more than Goneril’s cerebral stimulation. Ms Bushell’s glee at Gloucester’s misfortune is frankly loathsome.

KL Ian McKellen, Danny WebbI also really enjoyed the performances of Dominic Mafham as a delightfully worm-turning Albany, finally bringing some honour and decency to the Lear family mess; Michael Matus as a rather grumpy, formal Oswald; Patrick Robinson as a self-indulgent and patronising Cornwall, and, above all, Phil Daniels – inspired casting for the Fool – streetwise, scruffy, self-confident, and not afraid to use his ukulele. I have to say that I felt Tamara Lawrance’s Cordelia was very slightly underplayed; in this production of quality performers in quality roles, this is probably one of those times where “less” isn’t “more”.

KL Kirsty Bushell, Patrick RobinsonThis is one of those productions where you can say I was there – an acting masterclass that’s riveting throughout. It sold out faster than you can say nothing will come of nothing; but you might get returns if you’re lucky. A production as fantastic as you’d hoped it might be.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Richard Alston Dance Company, Derngate, Northampton, 5th October 2017

Richard Alston Dance CompanyIt feels like I’ve been watching the Richard Alston Dance Company every year since Diaghilev was a nipper. It’s something I always actively look forward to, and it never fails to make me smile, laugh, go “wow!” or simply admire the quality and commitment of the dancers and choreography. Other contemporary dance companies seem to come and go through the years, but Richard Alston and his happy crew are as constant as the northern star.

What Happens in the SilenceThis year’s programme has one dance that premiered only a couple of weeks ago, another that’s a year old, and another that’s an old favourite, returned to the repertoire after a decade in the filing cabinet. But we started with a curtain-raiser: What Happens in the Silence, a dance specially choreographed by Ihsaan de Banya and Laura Gibson as the final part of a four-month project between Two Thirds Sky and RADC. Twenty local young dancers took to the stage to perform this incredibly exciting, physical rollercoaster of a dance, showing ability and maturity way beyond their years. It absolutely deserved its place on that stage and it was a privilege to see its world premiere! This must have been a wonderful opportunity for the young dancers and I hope that many of them go on to have great dancing futures. The dance itself should also have a life beyond these two nights, as it crackles like electricity.

Richard AlstonOur first Richard Alston dance was Carnaval, and if my maths ‘O’ level doesn’t let me down, this was just its third public performance. The setting is a party where the composer Robert Schumann, accompanied by his wife-to-be Clara, are guests. Schumann had mental health problems, and as a coping mechanism he identified that he had two separate sides to his personality; Florestan, his fierce and wild side, and Eusebius, his calm and reflective side. So in Carnaval, two dancers play the interdependent aspects of Schumann whilst Clara has to manage both of them. During the course of the dance, Eusebius has to calm the aggravated Florestan in order to soothe the atmosphere with Clara; at the end, all three dance together in harmony.

lets jumpVisually this provides a rather amusing portrayal of a menage à trois, while the graceful dancing guests at the masked ball look on at these two men vying for Clara’s attention. Do they see Clara with two lovers, or with one troubled one? That’s part of the intrigue. The music, unsurprisingly, is Schumann’s Carnaval, a tempestuous solo played with expressive attack on the grand piano by Jason Ridgway. The dancers are clad in appropriately contrasting and complementary shades of grey and the whole piece looks both elegant and stormy. Nicholas Bodych brilliantly conveys the unpredictability and passion of Florestan, whilst Liam Riddick gives a typically immaculate performance of serenity under pressure as Eusebius. Elly Braund is superb as the interconnecting Clara, reflecting the various styles of her difficult paramour. I thought it was a beautiful and powerful piece and a great new addition to the repertoire.

ChaconyNext up was Chacony. Where the protagonist in Carnaval had two parts to his personality, this dance is also divided – by two separate musical chaconnes. The first is by Purcell, reflected by Restoration red frock coats and courtly charm, the other by Britten, in post-WW2 austerity and angst; riches to rags, one might say. The first part takes a very formal and charming approach to elegant dancing; the second becomes much more contemporary in feel, full of expression and sadness, but with a hope for something better to come. It’s a fascinating piece, as two very different sets of emotion are produced from two contrasting versions of the same musical structure. All the dancers were on absolutely top form and the choreography provides plenty of opportunities for them to shine individually and also work together superbly.

Gypsy MixtureThe final piece was the resurrection of Gypsy Mixture, which we’d seen twice before back in 2004 and 2007, in the days when Jon Goddard and Martin Lawrance were the stars of the company. The Electric Gypsyland music to this dance is irresistible, and the dancers sway and gyrate to its rhythms and eccentricities with unpredictable delight. Some of those male hip actions and bottom tremblings certainly got the young female dance fans in the front rows whooping with appreciation; because of the nature of this particular dance, that response was perfectly acceptable! The combinations of the dancers worked extremely well in this piece, with Liam Riddick and Monique Jonas providing the ultimate in style, and Nicholas Bodych and Jennifer Hayes nailing it with chic cheek. Jam packed with warmth and fun, everyone created a truly feelgood end to the evening.

RADC 2017The company’s autumn tour has one more night here in Northampton before going on to Brighton, Truro, Bromley and finishing in Glasgow on 23rd November. If you’re looking for creative and eloquent choreography performed with superb technique and genuine love for their art, you can do no better than this company. Already looking forward to next year!