Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 27th February 2015

Screaming Blue MurderOnce again it was a full house at the Screaming Blue Murder, with Lady Duncansby procuring the last available ticket just a couple of days ago. Regular host Dan Evans had his work cut out to keep order at first, with a number of late arrivals, some of which were rather on the noisy side; some chatty ladies in the front row, some older blokes who carried their years well, a couple who brought their own curry takeaway, a rather vague student from Liverpool University, and, in comparison, the most demure and elegantly well behaved hen party imaginable. But Dan was on excellent form as usual, with an engaging mixture of new and old material that went down a treat. As proof of how good he was, he even sold a few copies of his book.

Susan MurrayThere was a little uncertainty before our first act appeared, because she should have been our second. Our original first was apparently suffering from something icky in the stomach department and couldn’t be prised out of the loo. Nice way of announcing the guests! So we stared off with Susan Murray, a somewhat regular comic here as this was the fourth time we’d seen her! She’s always good for a laugh, with less accent-based material than usual and more about, well, sex. With jokes about vaginas being too big and the positioning of a six-inch tattoo on her thigh, there was more than enough to get your teeth into, so to speak. By bouncing off the Liverpool student, she did quite a lot of scouse jokes, which rather alienated Lady D – pick on any part of the country and you’re bound to offend someone somewhere.

Paul T EyresOur second act, who should have been our first, was Paul T Eyres, who was new to us, a bright, entertaining young chap with lots of good material about class, relationships and kids. I enjoyed his confident delivery and easy style with the audience. A superb performance if he was actually suffering from a dicky tummy. One to watch, methinks.

Markus BirdmanOur headline act was someone we’ve seen twice before, the splendid Markus Birdman. Winner of the Chrisparkle award for Best Screaming Blue Murder Standup in 2013, he has an amazing lightness of touch combined with genuinely fantastic material. There was a fair deal of repetition from his act a couple of years ago, but like New York, it’s so good you can hear it twice. There’s no finer joke to be heard than his one about the “speed of ejaculate”, trust me on this one. Since we last saw him he’s now coping with having a ten-year-old daughter and a marriage breakup, which in typical Birdman fashion becomes the springboard for lots of brilliant observational comedy. I admit it, I’m a fan.

Next show is in two weeks. You’d better book up quickly!

Review – Peter Pan Goes Wrong, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 26th February 2015

Peter Pan Goes WrongIt was only last year that the Cornley Polytechnic Drama Society showed us their Murder at Haversham Manor and what a thrilling night of drama and suspense that was. Their immensely flexible approach to riding the storm when things occasionally went wrong showed them to be troupers beyond compare, and so to endorse their true spirit of The Show Must Go On, we thought we would return for their Christmas play (not a panto) Peter Pan, which due to an administrative oversight, would be staged in February.

DarlingsFifteen minutes before curtain up things were still – shall we say – falling into place. The stage manager and his ASMs were still searching for a hammer, handing our hard hats, and getting the people behind us to tear paper up into really tiny pieces – because without it, the snowflakes would be too large. Nevertheless, there was still a sense of hope and confidence crackling in the air as one of the stars of the play, Francis Beaumont, joined Mrs Chrisparkle and me for a chat in the stalls. Not just us, he walked around welcoming everyone to the play; a very thoughtful and personal touch. He seemed extremely happy when he discovered a celebrity in the front row, Simon, who apparently had appeared in Skyfall, and we all sang him Happy Birthday, before discovering it wasn’t his birthday after all. Chris Bean, the dactor, that’s a director and actor to you and me, was also scurrying around in a very fetching Pringle top (the woollen mill, not the crisps), before officially welcoming us all from the stage together with co-director, I mean Assistant Director, Robert Grove.

Peter PanIf you’ve seen The Play That Goes Wrong – and if you haven’t you really need to get on over to the Duchess Theatre – you might be asking yourself, do I also need to see Peter Pan Goes Wrong, are they basically the same show in a different setting? Well, the answers are yes and yes. Once again the excruciatingly awful actors of the CPDS are to be seen desecrating the beautiful Royal theatre with their ham-fisted performances, overweening self-belief, and a set that has a mind of its own. This kind of humour is not for everyone. It is hugely slapstick, totally lacking in subtlety, and encourages you to laugh at things that in many respects one ought not to find funny – like an out of control wheelchair. It is also immensely likeable, enormously character-driven, and performed with a degree of accuracy, timing and all-round skill of Bolshoi proportions (if they were doing dance). Which they’re not.

Hooky and the BoysIt may be easy to dismiss the play itself as being just a box of tricks, but actually it’s extraordinarily well written and beautifully structured. Something in the text and performance encourages the audience to shout back and participate in the play in a way you wouldn’t dream of in any other comedy; it’s like a mutual confidence between cast and audience grows organically as the show develops. There’s a wonderful scene where Laurence Pears, playing Dactor Chris Bean, playing Captain Hook, is really losing it. So many things have gone wrong and the audience are laughing at him when he’s not meant to be funny. “Stop laughing at me!!!” he bellows, like the spoiltest brat in the school, which only makes us laugh at him more. He starts picking on individual members of the audience who have heckled in previous scenes, but they only heckled because the play welcomed it. “It’s not a panto!” he exclaims. “Oh yes it is” we all reply. And so on. As we learn more about what they all think of actor Max Bennett, our sympathy for him grows so that eventually his every movement is greeted with enthusiastic support and appreciation – note to audience, it isn’t real, it is just a play. They must have a Plan B for a smaller or less enthusiastic audience, but they certainly didn’t need it last night (the Royal was pretty much full, as it is for the rest of the run).

Tight squeezeTechnically it’s a dream of a show, with so much of the humour depending on the unreliability of the set. From falling trees to collapsing bunks, an overly choppy sea to an amazing revolving set that just refuses to stop, no potential technical disaster is overlooked or under-utilised as a comic weapon. And that’s even before we mention anything to do with flying. Quite rightly the three technicians join the cast on stage for the curtain call – the actors would be lost without them. Everyone works together so seamlessly for the show to succeed – mentally they must be all joined at the hip, if that’s not a mixed metaphor.

Wendy and the CrocJust as in Noises Off, actors play characters playing characters, which gives a double level of fun. The pompous Jonathan (Peter Pan) and the dreadfully over-acting Sandra (Wendy) are in a relationship but useless Max (Nana the Dog and the Crocodile) fancies her something rotten. Added to which, Chris (George Darling and Captain Hook)’s mum appears to have taken up with Robert (Starkey, and for this performance, Michael). Meanwhile, Dennis (John and Jukes) still can’t remember his lines without technical backup, Annie, now upgraded from ASM, (Mary Darling, Lisa, Tinkerbell and Cecco) has too many roles to cope with the costume changes, and Lucy (Tootles) is so traumatised by falling set early on so that she can barely speak and is forced to spend the rest of the performance in a wheelchair. And all that’s before you actually dig down to the Peter Pan level.

Choppy seasThe cast are fantastic throughout, and it would be wrong to single out any individual performer, so I’m going to mention them all! Laurence Pears’ Chris is a fantastic study of finite ability stretched too far, patronising both cast and audience with his self-obsessed status. Cornelius Booth makes an ebullient Robert, with a penchant for parking in the ambulance spots, a marvellously whiskery young Michael, enthusiastically encouraging the boys and girls to cheer (which Chris the dactor finds so distasteful) and is comic genius as the unintelligible Starkey, flapping his boat in all angles to knock down anyone in his orbit. He performs some great physical comedy – I particularly loved the scene where he was constantly trying to pick up his hat, his pipe and his paddle. Matt Cavendish’s boisterous Max, too useless an actor to be trusted with speaking roles, loves to come out of character to take additional bows like an old ham, and Leonie Hill’s Sandra was obviously told she was extremely gifted just once too often in her childhood, with her wonderfully over-the-top gestures.

Cap'n HookJames Marlowe plays a continually perplexed looking Dennis, desperately relying on electronic prompts to remember his lines, no matter how obviously irrelevant they are; Harry Kershaw is a splendidly refined Francis, narrating from the book at all angles and playing Smee as the feyest pirate you’ve ever met. Alex Bartram is a clean cut Jonathan, a spirited Peter Pan with no control over his flying, and Rosie Abraham a resilient and positive Lucy, for whom physical trauma and temporary paralysis are no reason not to tread the boards.

TinkBut I think my two favourite performances were from Chris Leask as the tireless Stage Manager Trevor, with a high enough impression of himself to wear a T-shirt that reads “Trevor”, but is hopeless enough to spill beer all over the mixer desk to completely destroy the sound plot. The running gag of his ever-increasing builder’s bum was brilliantly well done. And I really loved Naomi Sheldon as Annie, on a constant quest to change costume, becoming less sweet and more vindictive with every passing disaster.

CasualtyWe both found it hysterically funny, and I am in absolute admiration for the proficiency and accuracy of the physical comedy of all the performers. It’s a wonderful piece of insanely entertaining stupidity; touring till July, but I doubt that will be the last we see of it. Hurrah for Mischief Theatre!

Production photos by Alastair Muir.

Review – Saturday Night Fever, Milton Keynes Theatre, 24th February 2015

Saturday Night FeverDid you see the film of Saturday Night Fever? I loved it. I was exactly the right age for it, being 18 when I was taken for a night out in Toronto by my cousins for a meal, some drinks and a movie. Originally I’d wanted to go to the USA as part of my gap year, but staying with relatives in Canada was so much cheaper and easier, and I had a whale of a time. And at least Canada was on the right side of the Atlantic to watch Saturday Night Fever. It felt remarkably cosmopolitan to see it surrounded by genuine North American accents.

Danny BayneI’d already taken the songs to my heart. I especially liked Stayin’ Alive, with that John Travolta video of the arrogant Tony Manero walking down the street, in the opening sequence of the film. It was strangely aspirational to be like him, even though, for the most part, the character is a complete toe-rag. Cool, trendy, successful with girls. What’s not to like? I actually learned the dance steps to the song Night Fever so that I could be a wow at the disco. Not that I hardly ever went to discos. I can still remember some of it – twisting the torso left and right with your arms spinning into claps whilst your feet traced out the letter N on the floor. If I did it now I’d need an immediate appointment with the chiropractor. I remember how the story of the film turned dark, with the tragic suicide of Bobby falling off the bridge and the rape of Annette whilst she’s stoned. That all brought a lump to my throat first time round. I couldn’t remember how it ended – which is with Tony and Stephanie, his dance partner, sharing a quiet moment where he tries to make good all the bad things he’d done. Cue end credits.

Naomi SlightsYou can’t deny that the current touring production of Saturday Night Fever, produced by the Theatre Royal Bath, and this week at Milton Keynes, isn’t true to the original, apart from two rather odd inclusions. When Bobby sings about his troubled existence the song they use is Tragedy, not an inappropriate choice by any means, but which is from the Bee Gees’ Spirits Having Flown album, which came out in 1979, two years after the film of Saturday Night Fever. Not that anachronisms seem to be a problem here. The show starts with President Jimmy Carter’s 1979 TV address to the nation as a result of the current “crisis of confidence”, whilst New Yorkers queue up to buy gasoline, even though that’s again out by two years. The programme notes show that was a deliberate decision to change the setting to 1979; but with Saturday Night Fever being so definitely part of the 1977/78 me, it jarred. And anyway, why would all these trendy young disco-goers be dancing to songs two years out of date? They’d have moved on to Chic and Shalamar by now.

Bethany LinsdellThis is a good show but not a great one. There are plenty of positives: for example, the lighting is superb. All the way through, the use of colour and dazzling light, as well as subtle shadows, gives you all the sensations of those disco days. The pulsating lights on the dance floor, vivid projections, and gloriously colourfully beautiful scenes evoke disco memories from way back when. The lighting enhances the all-round excitement and entertainment factor of the show, and it really contributes to show-stoppers like the performance of You Should Be Dancing just before the interval. This is another of those productions where the performers play the instruments on stage, and the music they create is amazing. For me it’s the brass that really stands out, and gives extra drive and power to all those famous songs. The choreography is faithful to the original style but is new for this production, and is probably the best I’ve ever seen from choreographer Andrew Wright; and the performers dance with style, attack and conviction. This is evident not only in the classic disco numbers, but also the Latin American sequences danced by Cesar and Maria in the dance contest (Michael Stewart and Alishia-Marie Blake on stonking good form). Simon Kenny’s set adapts and blends constantly, recreating the disco, the bridge, the rehearsal studio, and various cafes and restaurants with apparently effortless ease. We particularly liked how it created those intimate booths you get at restaurants and bars – really inventive.

Matthew QuinnSome of the set piece drama moments worked extremely well. I thought the return of Frank Jnr, Tony’s ex-priest brother, was very convincing – with the chillingly cold response from his parents compared to the warm brotherly relationship he would continue to enjoy with Tony. Matthew Quinn played Frank Jnr with sincerity and anguish, almost tongue-tied at his inability to really explain his decision to leave the priesthood, and amusingly out of place in the New York discos. Rhona McGregor was their deeply religious mother Flo, extracting all the catholic guilt and intolerance she could out of her few angry and pious scenes; and Mike Lloyd was also excellent as their hypocritically idle father, quick to criticise but slow to set an example. The death of Bobby and the rape of Annette were moving and uncomfortable to watch. And I really liked the scene were Tony, Bobby and their other two hoodlum mates Joey and Double J were complaining about how dead-end their existence is, then creating the rhythms to their performance of Jive Talkin’ by banging on the side of boxes and bouncing their basketball – very dramatic and effective (and it had to be played with very deft use of props or else it would have been a disaster!)

Rhona McGregorThe main problem with the whole show is that felt to me very unbalanced. I went into the interval feeling quite exhilarated, and appreciative of the great songs, dance routines and general technical prowess of the whole thing. By comparison the second act seemed really quite dull. Unfortunately, by then they’ve used up most of the best songs, the pace seems to drag, the party feel dies away as the story gets darker, and the whole show seems to run out of puff. When Tony and Stephanie sing How Deep is Your Love on the steps to her apartment, I had no idea at all that was going to be the final scene. Suddenly various dancers are appearing front stage and taking their bows and I actually said out loud, “Wow, is that it? Has it finished?” Indeed it had finished, bar a party style finale where some of the best songs are reprised but by then we were largely too sapped to care, too down to be up. The cast did their best to get us dancing but they didn’t succeed. I felt rather sorry for them really.

Mike LloydDanny Bayne who plays Tony is an excellent song and dance man and comes close to encompassing the character’s vanity and essential cruelty, but both Mrs Chrisparkle and I felt that the combination of him, Rory Phelan as Joey and Llandyll Gove as Double J just somehow lacked a certain oomph. The characters seemed almost interchangeable; they didn’t (for me) establish much of an individuality. Not so with Alex Lodge as Bobby, because his character is so different from his mates and he does a good job of conveying Bobby’s anxieties and fears, as well as his frustration at not being understood.

Alex LodgeNaomi Slights’ Stephanie is a no-nonsense smarty-pants with her sights set firmly on climbing the social ladder, which reveals itself as she shows off in front of Tony’s pals without any sense of self-awareness. She’s a great dancer and looks terrific, and handles the tense relationship between her and Tony with admirable assertiveness. I also really liked Bethany Linsdell’s performance as Annette, desperate for some affection, faithful to Tony like a spanked puppy that keeps coming back to its master – she’s also a superb dancer. I was also impressed with CiCi Howells as the Club Singer – a great voice and stage presence, I rather think she might be Someone To Watch.

CiCi HowellsAll in all, an enjoyable night out, with some great singing and dancing, and a visually stunning stage show to watch. In the final analysis though, it just left me a bit cold. Brighton, Bradford, Birmingham, Richmond and Cardiff are the last places on its tour still to come; but I’m sure there will continue to be revivals after revivals.

Review – Blasted, Sarah Kane Season, Studio at the Crucible, Sheffield, 21st February 2015

BlastedThanks to Jack Tinker, theatre critic of the Daily Mail from 1972 to 1996, Sarah Kane’s Blasted will always be referred to as a “feast of filth”, a beautifully alliterative phrase dismissing what he regarded as “a play which appears to know no bounds of decency yet has no message to convey by way of excuse”. I always enjoyed reading Jack Tinker. He had a very entertaining style, and for many years was the only possible reason for buying the Daily Mail. Now that the Mail’s theatre crits are written by Quentin Letts, there’s no reason at all to buy it. Of course, Sarah Kane got her own back on him in her own inimitable style by naming a sadistic concentration camp manager in her play Cleansed after him. It’s what he would have wanted (not!)

Jessica BardenBlasted first saw light of day in 1995 at a time when Mrs Chrisparkle and I rarely saw plays in London. I remember the controversy about it at the time, and hoped that one day I would get to see the disgraceful filth for myself (having researched stage censorship as a postgraduate, dirty plays have always been my *thing*). Lo and behold, twenty years later, the Sheffield Crucible decide to mount a Sarah Kane season. I’m sure the fact that Daniel Evans, the Crucible’s Artistic Director, was in many of Miss Kane’s original productions, will have been a contributing factor to this decision. After a little research, I discovered we were to be treated to nudity, oral sex, cannibalism, racism, rape (twice), and other assorted violence. I admit, I do like to be challenged in the theatre.

Mark StanleyThere’s a very interesting introductory note by her brother Simon in the programme. I expect you know, but just to fill in the gaps if you don’t, Sarah Kane suffered from severe depression throughout her short life and committed suicide in 1999 at the age of 28. Before she died, she left instructions that no one should ever write a biography of her, she destroyed her diaries, and requested that none of her friends should ever publish any letters of hers. Those wishes have all been respected; but as a result there has been much in the way of guesswork and fantasy in trying to fill the consequent knowledge vacuum about her life.

Martin MarquezBlasted is, in many ways, an extraordinary play, taking the relatively simple basis of a couple staying in a hotel room, and then subsequently blowing it apart – literally. So much of what it’s about appears to be in what’s not said. Again, from Simon Kane’s introduction: “she once told me that everything you need to know to understand the plays is contained within the plays themselves; anything else is as likely to be misleading as it is to be enlightening. So when you’re watching them, keep an open mind…. the plays are as much about you as they are about her”. Wasn’t it Ronan Keating (I think it was) who said, “you say it best when you say nothing at all”? Much of Blasted is littered with silences and pauses, enough to make even Pinter believe the actors had forgotten their lines. But whereas in Pinter, the silences are sometimes so portentous – and loud almost – that they’re like the contributions of additional invisible characters; in Blasted, the silences are just that – moments when there isn’t anything to say, because the characters are merely thinking, or waiting, or daydreaming, or conspiring. It feels like a very realistic conversational style in a way that Pinter often (to me) feels very artificial. The speech patterns throughout the play have a surprising delicacy despite the harshness of the actual words being spoken. Sarah Kane had a remarkable feel for language.

In a nutshell, Ian and Cate are staying in a hotel room in Leeds. He’s much older than she is, and has poor health, no doubt in part due to too much smoking and drinking; she has some form of learning disability causing her to stutter when stressed and occasionally faint. They’ve obviously had some kind of relationship in the past and it quickly becomes clear that he is hoping for lots of sex from their hotel stay and she is hoping to avoid it. In the world outside there is warfare, with soldiers on the streets; in the world inside there is the more conventional champagne and room service. The following morning it’s obvious that he’s raped her, and she takes her revenge in a number of ways (especially painful ones). She escapes through the bathroom window, and when a knock comes at the door, Ian, expecting a waiter with more food and drink, lets in a fully armed soldier, desperate for food, and seemingly ready to kill. A mortar bomb blasts through the wall (a literally smashing special effect), and the ordinary, unremarkable hotel room is transformed into Armageddon. Facing very little resistance, the soldier rapes Ian, then sucks out his eyes and eats them. The next scene shows the soldier having committed suicide, and Cate returned with a baby, that she has been given on the street to rescue. The baby dies, Cate buries it under the floorboards; then there are some short scenes featuring Ian in various stages of distress, including digging up the baby’s body and eating it. Cate appears one last time with some food and drink which she shares with Ian. Curtain. As we got up from our seats at the end of the play, Mrs C turned to me and said, “Well, Leeds has gone down a bit”.

IanI’m getting a number of references here. Not only do you have Pinteresque dialogue, there’s some Edward Bond with the dead baby (Saved), there’s Gloucester’s eyes being put out (King Lear), Ian’s head alone being visible above the floorboards suggested to me Winnie being buried up to her neck in Beckett’s Happy Days, and the cannibalism brought to mind certain religious rituals. If everything you need to know to understand the play is contained within it, then you have to piece together the clues from what you hear and what you see. Thus clarity in the direction and presentation is absolutely vital. The clarity of the spoken word was excellent – I heard every word that every character said because they were enunciated to perfection. However, visually, I’m sorry to say I think this is where this production slightly falls down.

CateIt’s directed by the redoubtable Richard Wilson, who knows a thing or two about modern texts and bringing life to difficult drama. I thought the first two scenes, with just Ian and Cate, were clear, powerful, full of tension and dark humour; but once the soldier had arrived the clarity started to wane. Things that should have been fully visible were obscured. Although we were one of the first people in to the Studio to “bags” our good seats (reasonably central, more or less eye level with the actors), from our viewpoint (and I’m sure for many people) the soldier’s dead body was obstructed by an overturned table. As neither of us were familiar with the play, we couldn’t work out what had happened to him. I guessed he was dead, but how? Mrs C could see his leg; I could see his leg and some blood, but neither of us could see the gun that he was apparently holding. Kane’s characters don’t remark on the body; it’s not as though Cate trips over him and says, “oh I see the soldier is dead, did you kill him or did he shoot himself?” That turned into an unnecessary mystery for us.

Ian and CateThe play contains a lot of graphic images and gruesome content, all of which contribute to Tinker’s feast of filth. But in Richard Wilson’s production all this tough material was staged in an extraordinarily discreet way. It’s as though Mr Wilson has done his best to make the play acceptable for a Women’s Institute coach party. For me it felt almost sanitised. The final scenes where Ian is, inter alia, masturbating, strangling himself, defecating, laughing hysterically, having a nightmare, and hugging the dead soldier gave Mrs C the impression that Ian had fallen into some kind of general madness, and made me think he was trying to relieve his intense hunger. Of course, it’s fine for two people to interpret what they see differently. But because some of these actions took place in hidden corners of the set, it wasn’t easy to draw a conclusion as to what you were actually seeing.

SoldierEarlier in the play, when Ian takes his clothes off, faces Cate and tells her to “put your mouth on me”, he stands at an angle where I would estimate maybe a maximum of 10% of the audience could see what happened (if anything did). The scene where Cate bites his penis in revenge, the other masturbation scenes, the soldier’s rape and the brief defecation scene are all staged so that you can’t really see what’s going on. Now I don’t wish to sound prurient, but Sarah Kane’s text and stage directions don’t pull any punches and I would have thought that the additional visual shock element would have been much truer to her intentions. Considering the subject matter, I just found the whole presentation, using discreet angles, and obstructing sight-lines, remarkably coy.

Ian and SoldierOne thing that was made very clear from the play – and the production – is that rape is an act of power, not of sex. It’s used as a tool to dominate, both by the pathetic Ian and the murdering machine that is the soldier. The soldier’s behaviour with Ian, from urinating on his pillow (also shown discreetly) to raping him, reminded me of two dogs, working out which one was the higher in the pecking order. But why did the soldier commit suicide? After all, he was riding high with power, and everything was going his way. But he was also devastated at the loss of his girlfriend, due to her being raped and murdered by another soldier. That’s why he did what he did to Ian. It was like passing on the baton in a relay. I also have a theory that there may be a connection between the otherwise unexplained war on the streets outside, and its incursion into the hotel room, with Sarah Kane’s own state of mind. Maybe she saw the warfare as all the darkness of depression that’s within constant touching distance, whilst the hotel room is a kind of sanctuary, a scene of normality. After Ian has desecrated this haven by committing rape, the forces of mental darkness encroach the room, both in the form of the soldier and in the mortar blast that takes away the wall. Or this could be precisely the kind of guesswork that Simon Kane believes to be unhelpful.

Cate and babyThere would have to be a huge sense of trust between the three actors to convey the content of such a vivid and daring piece of writing. Jessica Barden as Cate stood out for me as an immensely strong yet fragile creation, as pale as a porcelain doll, concealing her emotions behind an exterior of pure practicality, making the apparent inconsistencies within the character appear perfectly reasonable. Her chilling, mocking, slightly unhinged laugh, which she can turn on or off in an instant, provides the biggest clue to her personality. A very unsettling, unpredictable and amazingly effective performance. Martin Marquez is an excellent Ian, a moral lowlife throwing out racist and homophobic insults like confetti, wheedling out the occasional “I love you” to Cate, (which sometimes you believe and sometimes you don’t), living his life selfishly as he expects it not to last much longer. Like all bullies, when confronted with a stronger force he just caves in. It’s hard to make such an unpleasant character the object of your sympathy, but Mr Marquez makes Ian so utterly pathetic, especially at the end, that I think he succeeds. Mark Stanley’s soldier is an excellent study in animalistic brutality whilst still believing in his ability to love; a truly ominous outside influence that breaks and enters the real world with devastating effect.

At an hour and three quarters with no interval, it’s certainly an intense experience, but thrilling too. This was the final performance of this run, but if you’re up for it, there’s more to come in the Sarah Kane season in March. This is an excellent opportunity to judge for yourself her place in modern drama. Give it a go!

PS. Richard Wilson sat behind us for this performance. Before it started, part of me was itching to turn around and let out a huge “I don’t belieeeeeeeeve it!” just like Father Ted did when he kept bumping into him. However, Mr Wilson has that serious look that implies he doesn’t suffer fools gladly, so I thought discretion was the better part of valour. Instead, I resolved to tell him afterwards what a terrific production it was. Trouble is, for the reasons mentioned earlier on, I didn’t think it was that terrific a production, so for the moment, Mr Wilson and I remain strangers.

Production photos by Mark Douet.

Review – The Absence of War, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 21st February 2015

Great use of colourFirst produced in 1993, David Hare’s The Absence of War centres on a pleasant but unconvincing leader of the Labour party who fails to win a general election – again. Is this ringing any bells? In the previous year, the pleasant but unconvincing Neil Kinnock snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in the general election – again, having failed to win as Labour leader in 1987 as well. And here we are in 2015, with the Labour party led by the pleasant but unconvincing Ed Miliband, and there’s a general election due on 7th May. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that the nine-venue tour that starts this week in Norwich will finish on 2nd May.

Rally speechGeorge Jones, the aforesaid (fictitious) Labour leader has a natural ability to rise to the top through his sheer strength of personality, but he has surrounded himself with a team of advisers who tell him what he can and can’t say (people like the word “fairness” but they’re not so keen on “equality”), what he should and shouldn’t believe, and what he must and mustn’t do. He’s running around on auto-stifle. There’s something of the Shakespearian tragic hero about him; he has vision, sociability, kindliness and bravery; he is decent to the extent that it works against him, maintaining loyalties where he should be suspicious. And despite all his good works and good intentions, you know that, at the end, he will be found wanting. There is no surprise, victorious ending; he is destined to fail. For him, it is a personal tragedy. Jones is a cultured man, a charismatic man, an inspirational man; but in the final analysis he lacks the ruthlessness and sheer hunger for power that a successful party leader requires.

Reece DinsdaleIt’s more than a little appropriate that this co-production between Sheffield Theatres, Headlong and the Rose Theatre Kingston should start its life at the Crucible. For it was in Sheffield that Neil Kinnock held his famous pre-election rally, culminating in his over-animated, over-passionate and over-confident appearance at the podium, where he shouted interminably “We’re Alright!” several times before saying anything of consequence; and it is widely held that that is where he lost the election. But George Jones is no Neil Kinnock. When he is encouraged by the election campaign manager to deliver a powerful, sincere, no-notes, from the heart speech from his podium, he starts off all emotional and idealistic, giving the rally just what they want. Then he just blanks; he can’t think of another fire in the belly thing to say; he scrabbles around for his notes and looks totally incompetent. If this were a job interview, and he was required to do a presentation as part of the selection process, he’d be back on the dole faster than you can say Downing Street. It’s a brilliant piece of theatre, mind you; your toes curl in cringing embarrassment.

Helen RyanDavid Hare’s play is immaculately structured, starting and ending with the traditional Armistice Day ceremony at the Cenotaph; at the beginning with Conservative PM Charles Kendrick leading the floral tributes, followed by George Jones; and at the end, Kendrick is still the PM, but is Jones still the leader of the opposition? We’re then taken to Jones’ private office, where new publicity officer Lindsay Fontaine is bursting at the seams to make him electable, despite the distrust of other members of the team, including his intimidating political adviser Oliver Dix and his personal minder Andrew Buchan. A TV switched permanently to the Ceefax page (what a wonderful trip down memory lane to see one of those again) flashes political news, including the sudden announcement of the General Election, which catches the Labour party unawares; George Jones is rightly furious that it means he will have to miss seeing Hamlet that night. The Ceefax page also occasionally shows the weather, which is a nice touch. TV cameras concentrate on the pompous Prime Minister, always accompanied by his silent wife, at his side like a faithful hound, and we too see the simultaneous TV broadcast of him outside No. 10 (another nice touch). A campaign strategy is rapidly assembled; old hands like Vera Klein (she’d probably be the equivalent of a Barbara Castle figure) turn up to the dismay of the entire team (except of course that George Jones is far too decent and polite to kick her into touch); no one really knows what they’re doing, but somehow things fall into place. We go into the interval with a sense that the campaign has started, and, despite complete disarray backstage, it’s not looking at all bad.

Barry McCarthyAfter the interval Sauvignon Blanc, you quickly realise that all the positives that have been mounting up in Act One are about to get knocked down in Act Two. A thrilling “live” TV debate with Rottweiler broadcaster Linus Frank goes badly wrong as Jones is side-swiped with a question about Mortgage Interest Relief at Source. Remember MIRAS? So many things in this play remind you of the good old days; Gordon Brown abolished it in 2000. There’s a riveting showdown between George and his (allegedly) faithful cabinet colleague Malcolm, where George finally realises that his blue-eyed boy isn’t as faithful as he had thought – the scene got its own round of applause. Then there’s the end-of-campaign rally, where everything falls apart, and the final ghastly defeat, where the Labour leader even has to endure the humiliation of being rounded on by the tea lady.

James HarknessJeremy Herrin’s production is crisp and entertaining, making great use of the apparently “old technology” (like the Ceefax screens) and TV cameras; projecting the live rally action against the Labour banner is visually a very powerful effect. Bold colours on the backdrop fill the stage with a real sense of life and vigour, as well as reminding us of the association of specific colours with specific political parties. The cumulative excitement of the election campaign is well paced and full of dramatic power, even though you know it’s as doomed as Private Fraser in Dad’s Army. Mike Britton’s useful set relies on a few office desks, suggesting functionality rather than lavishness, and uses screens and blinds to suggest further activity at the back of the stage whilst largely leaving the front free as a big acting space. And there’s an excellent cast who all portray their roles very convincingly.

Cyril NriReece Dinsdale plays George Jones with charm, integrity and honesty, and just that touch of being flawed, as every good tragic hero should be. It’s a strong, serious central performance, and he really shines out in those big scenes like the showdown with Malcolm and the disastrous rally speech. But David Hare’s text provides many of the other characters with some of the best quips, as they pass judgment on the action, and their leader, from the side-lines. Cyril Nri plays political adviser Oliver as a hardworking, quick to ire, slightly larger than life character – you’d imagine he’d be a difficult boss, and you wouldn’t want to get on the wrong side of him. Another solid performance, maybe a little underplayed at times, but very credible as a result. I really enjoyed James Harkness’ good-humoured performance as Andrew, George’s minder, projected into a world of cut-throat high flyers from what you sense is a very ordinary background: “Croissant? I’m from Paisley!” He very nicely gives the impression of someone who enjoys playing with the big boys, occasionally to get brought down a few pegs just to show he’s not as significant as he’d like to imagine.

Charlotte LucasCharlotte Lucas is excellent as publicity adviser Lindsay Fontaine, the new broom attempting to sweep clean in what she sees as a very backward looking office, and of course coming up against a lot of resistance en route. Gyuri Sarossy plays Malcolm as an untrustworthy cold fish – not inappropriately – he and his minder Bruce, played by Theo Cowan, coming across as the new brand of Labour, riddled with posh school mentality. They are the complete opposite of honest working class George, and Bryden, his campaign co-ordinator, played with down to earth gusto by Barry McCarthy. Maggie McCarthy (any relation?) gives great support as the long-suffering diary secretary Gwenda, as does Don Gallagher playing a number of roles including the condescendingly slimy PM, and the irascible argument manipulator Linus Frank. Amiera Darwish is a busy and sincere press secretary Mary, Helen Ryan excellent as the seen-it-all-and-would-rather-see-no-more veteran politician Vera, and Ekow Quartey gets some of the best laughs in the play with his deftly delivered vignette as George’s Special Branch protector.

Maggie McCarthy“Peace is not an absence of war, it is a virtue, a state of mind, a disposition for benevolence, confidence, justice.” So said the 17th century philosopher Spinoza. If this play is about the Absence of War, then is Hare arguing that it does not represent peace or benevolence, confidence or justice? And about what? The Labour party? Modern Britain? Democracy? Or just the flawed character of Jones? You decide! It’s an excellent, thought-provoking play, produced at a most timely moment, and performed with great conviction. We saw it on its last day in Sheffield, but now it goes on to Norwich, Watford, Bristol, Cheltenham, Liverpool, Glasgow, Oxford, Kingston and Cambridge, before we see whether George’s fate presages that of Ed Miliband in May.

The Absence of WarP.S. Pet hate time. Last day of the show and they had run out of programmes! As Mrs Chrisparkle pointed out, as I let out a disgruntled squawk, the usher who handed me a photocopied cast list beamed his most appeasing of smiles; but, for someone who’s kept all their programmes as far back as 1967, it’s a resource lost. I was tempted to rename the play The Absence of Programme, but that’s probably taking it a bit too far. Just one of my first world problems!

Review – Oklahoma! Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 19th February 2015

OklahomaWhen it comes to writing the annals of the development of Musical Theatre, few productions are more significant than Oklahoma! Based on Lynn Riggs’ play Green Grow the Lilacs, this was Rodgers and Hammerstein’s first partnership. It wasn’t foreseen that R & H would be a dream team together, even though they’d had considerable successes in previous partnerships (Rodgers and Hart, Hammerstein and Kern). Given that the source play had been a flop on Broadway, chalking up only 64 performances, and that Oscar Hammerstein had had a string of disasters throughout the 30s, commercial backing was hard to come by. Few people thought a folksy musical set in historical Indian Territory would be The Next Big Thing. But those few people who did, laughed all the way to the bank as the original Broadway production of Oklahoma! ran for 2,212 performances (at the time a Broadway record) from 1943 to 1948, and the West End production didn’t do badly either, opening in 1947 and running for 1,543 performances. In London, Curly was played by a young Howard Keel – so young, in fact, that at that stage he hadn’t yet changed his name from Harold Keel. And there was the film version too, directed by Fred Zinnemann in 1955 – I expect that made a few bob.

Ashley Day and Charlotte WakefieldBut it’s not only as a commercial success that it’s significant. Stylistically it was way ahead of its time. Usually musical shows would open with a big ensemble number to get the mood swinging – after all, the musical is the perfect vehicle for upbeat, uptempo, comic, all-singing and all-dancing theatre. The original production of Oklahoma! (like Oliver! you must never forget the exclamation mark) started with an old woman churning butter and a young cowboy singing Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’ offstage, on his own, with no accompaniment. From glitzy and glamorous to minimalist in one fell swoop, you couldn’t get a more reserved, introverted start. In this new production directed by Rachel Kavanaugh, Curly does actually come on stage before he starts singing, and Aunt Eller is washing shirts rather than churning butter, but I guess that’s progress.

Charlotte WakefieldThen there is the subject matter. Forget your Irving Berlin and Cole Porter fripperies of the 1920s and 30s, here we have a tale of survival, of ruthlessness, of potential violence. In its exploration of adolescent love there’s an element of Spring Awakening; in the character of Jud Fry you have a brutal sex pest, the cause of which may be due to his mental deficiencies; with his murder at the hands of Curly, you have the heroic young male lead killing off his rival in love. There were certainly elements of the story with which Mrs Chrisparkle wasn’t comfortable. There’s a scene where Curly shows Jud how easy it would be to hang himself, using a rope tied round a conveniently protruding beam end. The song Pore Jud is Daid is a fantasy about how, after he has died, everyone realises what a great bloke he was (he wasn’t) and how much they will miss him and weep for him (they won’t). Where else would it be acceptable to laugh at a scene where a young man tries to convince his mentally challenged rival to top himself? It’s definitely the stuff of Orton or Bond – hardly what you would expect from a jolly Rodgers and Hammerstein musical from the 1940s. But that is the power of the musical – it can explore such difficult material whilst retaining the veneer of light entertainment.

Belinda LangSo it’s great to welcome this new production of Oklahoma! to the Royal and Derngate before it embarks on its national tour. The performance we saw last night was its first preview before opening on Monday and you could almost taste the excitement from the stage as the cast gave it all they had and seemed to have a great time in the process. Francis O’Connor’s set slowly opens out in the first few moments as the back flies up to reveal a hint of the bright golden haze on the medder; Aunt Eller’s front porch looks poor but hospitable; the ever revolving windmill sail keeps on turning and it’s easy to imagine yourself taken back to the Indian Territory of 1906 before it is assimilated as the 46th state of the USA as Oklahoma. Stephen Ridley’s ten-piece band plays the amazing score like a dream (there isn’t a duff song in the show, although occasionally some of them end a little more suddenly than you expect), and the volume amplification is set to just perfect (something that’s so easy to get wrong nowadays).

Gary WilmotThe choreography is by Drew McOnie, who basically seems to have choreographed every show we’ve seen recently, and is a joy to watch. You can see that a lot of it is inspired by the action of getting on or off your horse, with a sense of cowboy machismo running through it like a stick of rock. Typical of these early-mid twentieth century musicals you’ve also got a dream ballet sequence to contend with. As an audience member, if you’re not attuned to the choreographer’s style than these can be anywhere on a scale from dull to excruciating. But Mr McOnie has created an exciting, dynamic piece of modern dance, including aspects from other numbers and routines elsewhere in the show, and really bringing to life the tangibility of Laurey’s dream, with its sensual delights and terrifying horrors in equal measure. No dull dream ballet this, but a riveting dance drama, fantastically performed. Oh, and there’s dancing with bales of hay. Where else would you find that?

James O'Connell and Lucy May BarkerThe show is blessed with a talented and likeable cast who give some tremendous performances. At its heart is the on-off love interest between Curly and Laurey and you really need to believe the relationship between these two for the show to work – and they express that relationship magnificently. Early in the show Charlotte Wakefield’s Laurey is to be found moping on Aunt Eller’s porch, sending off hostile vibes to Curly; but she has a glint in her eye from the start and really captures that sense of a young girl being swept away by her emotions. She is a brilliant singer, and brought a massive amount of warmth and affection to the role. She was perfectly matched by Ashley Day as Curly (who we last saw as one of those nice Ugandan missionaries in The Book of Mormon) at first feigning cocky confidence over his wanting to take Laurey to the box social that night, but soon unable to conceal his true feelings for her. I can imagine there’s a considerable sense of responsibility in delivering the iconic Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’ by yourself, right at the beginning of the show, but Mr Day carried it off with ease. Vocally the two blend stunningly. I really enjoyed the whole Surrey with the Fringe on Top routine, and they did more than justice to People Will Say We’re In Love, a song I learned in my infancy, it being one of the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s favourites. These are two young actors to watch – they’re definitely on course for a great career in musical theatre.

Charlotte Wakefield in rehearsalThere are also a couple of actors who are already at the peak of their fantastic careers, and these performances will do no harm to their CVs either. Aunt Eller is played by Belinda Lang with amazing conviction. She’s on stage a lot of the time, even if she’s just washing shirts or observing conversations. We both loved how she expressed the kindliness of the role with very little sentimentality. It was a harsh world in those days, and you can see it in Miss Lang’s eyes. She also turns on the comedy with a great deftness, particularly in the Act Two opener, The Farmer and the Cowman, wielding a rifle that’s almost bigger than she is. And of course there is everyone’s favourite song and dance man, Gary Wilmot, as the Persian peddler Ali Hakim, with a comic performance that’s part pantomime, part music hall, whilst never going over the top or losing sight of the genuine concerns of his character. We’ve seen Mr Wilmot a few times recently – in the Menier’s Invisible Man, the Birmingham Hippodrome’s Snow White and in Radio Times at the Royal, and if ever there was a born entertainer, it’s him.

Belinda Lang in rehearsalThe ensemble boys and girls all sing and dance with great verve and enthusiasm and brighten up the stage whenever they are on. But there are also some great performances from other members of the cast. I was very pleased to see that one of my favourite performers was in this show, James O’Connell as Will Parker, the not-overly intelligent suitor to Miss Ado Annie Carnes, who has been told to save $50 before her father will agree to their marriage; and who every time he amasses $50, he spends it. We saw Mr O’Connell in Chichester’s Barnum a couple of years ago and he’s a great combination of character actor and dancer. What I particularly admire about him is how nifty he can be on his feet without being one of the more svelte members of the cast. I’m sure he’s also going to have a great career. Lucy May Barker was Ado Annie, and gave us a brilliantly funny I Cain’t Say No. It’s a great fun role, being hopelessly attracted to every man she meets, and Miss Barker does it with great aplomb. There was also excellent support from Kara Lane as the horrendous Gertie Cummings, laughing hideously as she gets more and more attached to the unfortunate Ali, and Paul Grunert as Ado Annie’s inflexibly stern and protective father Andrew – who also allows Curly to get off scot-free at the end.

Nic GreenshieldsAnd that nicely brings us to Nic Greenshields as Jud, which has to be one of the most serious roles in all musical comedy – and maybe thankless too, as the audience doesn’t like the character even though you’re not a typical stage villain. Mr Greenshields has a fantastically imposing stage presence, and he creates the most expressive and moving performances of the songs Pore Jud is Daid and Lonely Room. There is a fine line to be trod with the character of Jud – part thug, part bumpkin; the kind of guy who will line the walls of his living room with the equivalent of Page 3 Girls, and fantasise about gadgets that will kill a man without his having a clue he’s in danger; but who on the other hand is simply desperately lonely and in need of some female company. Mr Greenshields treads that line perfectly – I thought it was a tremendous performance.

Gary Wilmot in rehearsalOklahoma! is scheduled for a national tour from now until the middle of August. Whilst it may be a little old fashioned for some people’s taste, nevertheless when you have a score as rich and entertaining as this, as well as an excellent cast, great singing and dancing and plenty to think about on the way home, I unhesitatingly recommend it as a terrific revival of one of the most significant shows in American musical theatre. Oklahoma, OK!

Publicity photos by Pamela Raith

Review – Aftermath, IMMERSE Company and Actors’ Company, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 13th February 2015

AftermathThe centenary of the outbreak of the First World War has sparked a great deal of worldwide interest over the past few months. Not only the moving ceremonies held in France that we all watched on television, but also there have been many local exhibitions, services, and other commemorations up and down the country, bringing back the reality of the horror of that war to today’s generations. Last year the Royal and Derngate added to this remembrance with the excellent new adaptation of Pat Barker’s Regeneration. Daniel Bye had also explored some aspects of the effects of war in his Story Hunt that we enjoyed last year; and now he is back in Northampton with a new project, assembling a play from the both the knowledge and indeed the understandable ignorance of war from the performers, drawn from workshops with both the Royal and Derngate’s Actors’ Company and their Youth group.

There’s hardly anyone left alive who experienced first-hand the 1914-18 War. There aren’t many whose parents did. Therefore it’s not surprising that the day to day details of what life was like during that period are becoming progressively sketchier. Of course we still have literature and film to remind us, original news coverage and a wealth of history books, but there’s nothing like actually listening to someone who was there to have the utmost authority on the subject. So our understanding of what happened in the war is inevitably going to decrease in the future, and it’s constructive and educational – as well as dramatic – to have plays like Aftermath being created to fill that gap. By participating in such plays both as performers and audience, we remember the sacrifice made by those who died in that war; and we try our hardest to create a world where such a war no longer exists – sadly, not always successfully.

12 Section, 'D' Company, 6th Service Battalion, Northamptonshire Regiment 1915.The youth company and the adult company dovetail together perfectly to bring together a deliberately stagey experience. Whilst the older members of the cast sit silently on their chairs at the beginning of the play, groups of young people scattered around the auditorium start having a conversation about what the First World War means to them – and to what extent they were confused by the names, dates and facts about both World Wars. It was a brilliant theatrical device! When the initial conversation started in one of the boxes I was really taken in at first – if it hadn’t been for the fact that they were being subtly illuminated I really would have thought it was a question of young people not knowing how to behave in the theatre! My bad. I think there were a couple of audience members who hadn’t twigged and got shirty at the youngsters, so well done for conning them so convincingly!

This led into the opening scene, a vaudevillian music hall act hosted by Frank and Maisie, with a lot of I Say, I Say, I Say about it – think The Good Old Days meets Passchendaele. Juxtaposing old fashioned comedy with the general tragedy of war shows that, often, humour is the only way you can get through the really bad times. It also allows a continuation of the already established blurred relationship between what’s the play and who’s the audience, as our two Music Hall stars are very much doing it for the crowd, like any comedians. It also became the main structure holding the whole play together.

It turns out that the two kids who first start talking are the grandchildren of an older man and his lady friend – the kids don’t seem to recognise her – who have gone back to France to try to piece together the final days of his own grandfather who died somewhere on the front and to find his grave. There they are greeted by the locals as wartime heroes themselves, so grateful are they for the sacrifices made by their liberators. As they go off on their quest, Dave the grandfather finds the grave and, in his imagination at least, is reunited with his own dying grandfather, and can himself come to terms with what happened as a result. The young people too can witness for themselves the personal aspect of what otherwise might just be a dusty history lesson.

Barratts Factory NorthamptonI’d never really contemplated before the local-ness (for want of a better word) of the groups of men who went out to fight. Of course, I’ve understood the concept of regiments, and I know the stories and scenarios of the recruiting officers hiring their cannon fodder on a local basis, but it wasn’t really until I saw this play, with the scenes of friends and relatives all signing up together in the pub, mainly from Northampton, teasing each other about the uselessness of their local football team (some things never change), that I really got a sense of the camaraderie that must have been in place when whole groups of families and friends signed up together, fought together, died together, came home together. That was a very effective aspect of this play.

It’s probably the use of nearby locations that drives that local connection home all the more. There’s a scene where all the women left behind are working in the boot factory, making the boots for the soldiers on the front (that’s how Northampton made its international mark, as I’m sure you know). There’s plenty of scope for rivalry and friendship to rub along together in that factory setting. 16 year old Eddie meets 23 year old Elizabeth at the Racecourse just before he goes off to fight (they were meant to be at least 19, but a mixture of self-sacrificial heroism and official blind-eyes meant that age was really no barrier). They swap details and agree to write to each other. You see Eddie go off to war and get injured, whilst still optimistically writing to Elizabeth (although not to his mother, apparently!) Whether or not he were to survive the war, there would be no future for them – she looked on it as no more than some kind of civic duty, whereas he held the promise of a future together as being a driving force to cling on to. These scenes were performed with great sensitivity and were very moving.

Meanwhile, back at the front, there’s a field hospital run by a no-nonsense Matron and new girl Elsie has arrived to start working as a nurse, with woefully little experience but lots of keenness. It’s not long before Elsie is an old-hand at dispensing care. We see Eddie, trying to maintain his good humour, the poor man with the appalling gas gangrene who’s not going to hang on much longer, and Dmitri, the communist, applying political theory and logic to a desperate humanitarian situation where you can’t make sense of anything. And we meet George. There were a number of personal sagas that we caught a glimpse of during Aftermath – but maybe none more acute than the story of George, wounded at war with a complete loss of memory, so that he could not identify himself to the medical team caring for him. Back home his wife grieves at his presumed death, but George’s cousin Enoch steps in, looks after her and their children, and they slowly become romantically attached. There’s a beautiful scene where she glories in the fact that Enoch has bought her an engagement ring and they are blissfully happy together. Then George reappears, his memory having finally returned, to discover his wife is now with his cousin. Do they revert to the original relationships, or do they stick with Plan B?

Northamptonshire Regiment Territorial Cap BadgeThere were no programmes available so I can’t identify any particular performers with their roles – although I did recognise a few faces from previous productions, and I’m sure the grandfather was played by Mr Church from the old independent china shop on St Giles’, sadly no longer in operation. Members of both companies gave excellent performances and Mrs Chrisparkle and I were both particularly impressed at the standard of the singing – there’s a lot of musical harking back to those old wartime numbers. There were just three performances of Aftermath, but the memory of some of those personal stories will linger for a long time. A very moving and rewarding production.