Review – Marcus Brigstocke, Why the Long Face, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 20th October 2016

m-brigstockeWe last saw Marcus Brigstocke four years ago in the very same theatre when he was giving us his views on The Brig Society, a first rate comedy diatribe on David Cameron’s Britain. Now he’s back with a reflection on why the long face; in other words, why, given that he has a privileged existence, do so many things annoy or upset him. Rather like the Ancient Mariner – a sadder and a wiser man – Mr Brigstocke has gone through a few upheavals since we last saw him. Thus he digs into some of his personal recollections and confessions to excavate some painfully touching observations and create one of the most open and honest comedy shows (and funniest) I’ve ever seen. He really lays himself bare for our consideration and reaction – in fact, slightly barer than one might expect, come the end of the show.

Marcus BrigstockeThe EU referendum is something of a gift for Mr Brigstocke. Not the result, far from it; but it gives him a raft of brilliant material which dominates the first half of the show. For staunch, moaning, metropolitan elite remainers like Mrs Chrisparkle and me, his wallowing in sheer rage and his deft destruction of Brexit’s immense stupidity was like therapy. At (very) long last, I felt empowered to laugh at the result and not merely be miserable or disgusted by it. It was like popping a champagne bottle of pent-up frustrations and letting it overflow out into the stalls. It has to be said: if you are a proud Brexiteer, you are going to hate this show. I really couldn’t recommend it to you, because you will feel attacked, humiliated, shamed and probably in a woeful minority. For those of us who take the opposite point of view, for one magical evening we were allowed to share in blissful mockery. It was heavenly.

marcus-bThere’s a lot of audience participation but none of it is scary. He achieves this in a number of ways, for example, ascertaining who the teenagers are and making sure they’re enjoying their lives – then identifying everyone else by their age, decade by decade, peaking at the 60+ bracket. A lot of his material bounces off the fact that he is a straight white male (all the SWMs have to cheer to identify themselves) but nevertheless he likes musical theatre (another cheer to prove that, yes, we do exist). He asks us to shout out our favourite stage musicals – Les Miserables, Rocky Horror and A Chorus Line (my contribution) proved to him that we were camper than we looked. He asks the audience how many of us are the happiest we’ve ever been – which creates some rewarding and funny responses; he discovers how many of us have been on a speed driving awareness course – so many! There’s a cringe-inducingly brilliant sequence where he describes being accosted by a non-empathetic Geordie, the reason why Ed Miliband lost the last election and his take on a girl’s reaction to her first period – which not many male comics would be able to get away with. So there’s a lot more than just post-Brexit angst to enjoy.

Marcus BrigstockeMr Brigstocke was absolutely on fire last night. His rapport is instant, his confidence reassuring. He’s not afraid to speak his mind, but you sense he would be respectful in debate (not that anyone was disagreeing with him). He really lets you into his own private world and makes you welcome. His material is fresh, original and very funny. Two hours in his company was a tonic for the soul. (Does not apply if you are pro-Brexit!) His tour continues into December and I couldn’t recommend him more strongly!

Review – The Eleventh Annual Malcolm Arnold Festival, The Voice of the People, Gala Concert, BBC Concert Orchestra, Craig Ogden, Derngate, Northampton, 16th October 2016

11th Arnold FestivalAn interesting change of personnel for this year’s Malcolm Arnold Festival Gala Concert; in previous years we have enjoyed the performances of the Worthing Symphony Orchestra, operating as its alter ego, the Malcolm Arnold Festival Orchestra. But whilst we still had John Gibbons as our conductor, this year he was wielding his baton over the BBC Concert Orchestra. The concert was being recorded for Radio 3 so I don’t know whether that was a reason for the change – after all, other orchestras are available, as the phrase goes. They were on great form though. I’m not sure we’ve seen this excellent body of musicians before but they filled the Derngate auditorium with their stunning virtuosity and created brilliant musical pictures from the works they played.

malcolm-arnoldWe could tell this was going to be a fantastic concert from the first item – Arnold’s Tam O’Shanter Overture, Op 61. Mr Gibbons gave us a brief introduction as to what to expect, but nothing could really prepare you to appreciate what an exciting and uplifting piece of music it is. It boasted a fantastic use of percussion (actually the drums and percussion were a big hit for me throughout the entire evening) but the whole orchestra gave it their all and it was a superb way to start the concert.

John GibbonsAs a contrast, the next piece was William Walton’s Funeral Music from Hamlet. I hadn’t heard it before and as it started, it seemed to be taking on an interesting and complex shape. And then, once I had settled down to appreciate it in full, it finished. And not with a bang, but a whimper. I felt slightly short-changed by Mr Walton!

craigogdenHowever, my reward was to follow next in what would be my favourite item of the evening – Malcolm Arnold’s Guitar Concerto Op 67. Our soloist was Craig Ogden, a relaxed kind of guy, the essence of smart casual in comparison to the BBCCO’s formal attire; I liked his straightforward approach to the whole event, not too showy, there simply to make music. He really made his guitar sing – each pluck creates a full, earthy, reverberant sound; the kind of playing where you appreciate each note. Again, I hadn’t heard the piece before, but the Guitar Concerto is a terrific piece of music. Forgive me if I show my (lack of) class, but I felt the Allegro first movement could have been written by Mike Oldfield – it would have fitted perfectly into something like Hergest Ridge. This was followed by the Lento, which brought to mind the melody of Jupiter from Holst’s Planets suite. I thought both movements were absolutely stunning. The concerto finishes with a Con Brio – which for me was a slight disappointment in terms of the creativity of the composing, but Mr Ogden gave it all the brio it required and rounded off a superb and musically eloquent performance.

william-waltonAfter the interval we returned for Walton’s Spitfire Prelude and Fugue from The First of the Few. An excellent piece to get us back into the mood – the prelude was full of stately dignity and the fugue really took off, like its eponymous aircraft, with a mixture of cheeky pride and lamentation. A fantastic performance. Next, we welcomed back Craig Ogden for Arnold’s short but sweet Serenade for Guitar and Strings, Op 13; another simply beautiful work where the juxtaposition of the lush orchestra strings against the resonant guitar chords really stands out.

bbccoOur final piece was Arnold’s Sixth Symphony. Mr Gibbons introduced it by way of comparison with other notable composers’ sixth symphonies – they often get overlooked. Arnold’s sixth gives you an almost complete impression of everything that he could achieve in an orchestral piece. Pageantry, jokiness, suspense, terror, peace and anger. The second movement in particular – Lento allegretto lento – was especially unnerving and spooky. But the whole piece was really invigorating and rewarding – and, as I said earlier, I really loved the drums!

A very enjoyable yet also challenging concert, bringing out the best of both Malcolm Arnold and the BBC Concert Orchestra. Be there for next year’s festival!

Review – JAM Comedy Club presents Comedy at the Ark, Northampton, 12th October 2016

The ArkA few weeks ago, a flyer popped into my letter box, advertising a comedy night at the Ark Restaurant, in Midsummer Meadow, Northampton. That’s only a short distance from us. I’d seen that the Ark was – shall we say – being underused at the moment; so it seemed not only an excellent idea for it to be the location for a comedy club but also for us to go along and check it out. I’m happy to report back that it’s a great venue for an intimate’s night comedy. Not sure what its total capacity is, but I reckon there were about 35 or so of us there last night and it felt comfortably full but not squished. By the way, I can recommend the Malbec at £15 per bottle – good quality and tasty; we didn’t sample the light bites but they looked and smelled delish.

mr-andyJAM Comedy Club is new to me and I hadn’t come across any of the acts before (although I had of course heard of the final act, if you read on…) Our host for the night was Mr Andy, a big engaging chap with a relaxed way about him, who obviously wants to have as much fun from the evening for himself, just as much as he wants us to enjoy it too. He has some great material, some of which he spins off his own blindness in a way that’s genuinely funny – and I liked how he generously bigged up the excellent, also blind, Chris McCausland too.

pete-teckmanOur first act was local man Pete Teckman. He’s a naturally very funny guy, who you sense has built up his range of comic material from a lifetime of unglamorous living (and I mean that kindly). He had some terrific jokes about… well, sex, mainly; the method of his sperm count test and his personal accounts of enjoying oral sex come to mind, if you’ll pardon the expression. He has some great recollections about his German ex-girlfriend, and I really loved the throwaway line about seeing Predator at the cinema. He has an excellent stage presence and a strong, confident voice and manner, and is someone I’d definitely like to see again!

a-burgessUnfortunately, he proved a hard act to follow, and, given there was an interval as well, it was very difficult for our second act, Anthony Burgess, to regain the momentum that Mr Teckman had set up. For whatever reason, he failed to make a connection in his first few interactions, and basically he spent the rest of his act treading water. He did a fairly lengthy sequence about someone or something called Screech, from some programme we had never seen (Saved by the Bell, I remember now) and it meant absolutely nothing to us. Nevertheless, he has very good comic timing, and obviously can incorporate music into his routine too, so maybe with some better material and a more confident delivery he could do well.

reverend-henry-kingHot on his heels came the Reverend Henry King, the Bishop of Bletchley. I have a sneaking suspicion, gentle reader, that he may have falsified his ordination certificate and isn’t really a bishop at all. It’s a great persona, this street-talking, crime-approving parody of a man of the cloth, and at times it really works. His side-swipes at his diocese are cruel but very funny. But I think there is an inconsistency to his material that lets him down a bit; and naturally it’s a character that is inevitably going to rub some people up the wrong way. I sensed he divided the audience somewhat; there was an element of homophobia in one of his gags, and that always puts my back up – we’re not a sophisticated comedy audience in Northampton by any means, but the one thing we are not is prejudiced. Nevertheless, he is a funny guy; what he lacks in PC he certainly makes up for in attack, and he did make me laugh.

masai-grahamAfter a second interval, and a refresh of the Malbec (just one more glass, not a complete bottle, obviously!) it was time for our final act, Masai Graham. Mr Graham won this year’s “Joke of the Edinburgh Fringe” award, and no sooner had he started to tell it, then someone from the audience leapt in and delivered the punchline. I wonder if that happens to him all the time? He’s a class act – he’s funny, he’s open, he’s likeable and he has fantastic, deceptively simple and deadpan material that just gets you laughing your head off. I’m still giggling about the fat badger, and that Royal Mail joke was simply ace. As adept with clean jokes as he is with naughty ones – in fact the clean ones are particularly crafted to perfection. We both thought he was pretty darn brilliant.

The stageLet’s hope this becomes a regular comedy club – it was a really enjoyable night and it deserves to become a success.

The Agatha Christie Challenge – The Floating Admiral (1931)

Floating AdmiralIn which the members of the Detection Club each write a chapter on how Inspector Rudge investigates the case of the death of Admiral Penistone, found floating on a boat with the vicar’s hat. The book is relevant to our challenge, gentle reader, as one of the chapters was written by Agatha Christie. As usual, you can safely read this blog post and not discover whodunit!

Rule Book More of an exercise in cleverness than a real attempt to write a proper detective book, members of the Detection Club each wrote a chapter with the following rules (and I am indebted to the introduction by Miss Dorothy L Sayers for this explanation): “Each writer must construct his instalment with a definite solution in view – that is, he must not introduce new complications merely “to make it more difficult.” He must be ready, if called upon, to explain his own clues coherently and plausibly; and to make sure that he was playing fair in this respect, each writer was bound to deliver, together with the manuscript of his own chapter, his own proposed solution of the mystery.” Chapters I to XII were written first, then bizarrely the prologue and the introduction. The result is a patchwork quilt of styles and content; the overall effect is one of unbalance but strangely intriguing.

opium-denG. K. Chesterton’s prologue, “The Three Pipe Dreams”, briefly provides the reader with three rather ethereal scenarios, that serve merely to give us the presence of a valiant sea captain who has passed out under the influence of drink and drugs. It brought to my mind those Princess Puffer scenes in Dickens’ Mystery of Edwin Drood. As Simon Brett points out in the foreword to the edition I’m reading: “the prologue […] seems to bear no relation to anything in the ensuing novel.” No real reason to linger here.

captain-birdseyeChapter I – Corpse Ahoy! was written by Canon Victor L Whitechurch, a clergyman who wrote detective stories featuring his creation Thorpe Hazell, described on Wikipedia as “a vegetarian railway detective, whom the author intended to be as far from Sherlock Holmes as possible”. He wrote 26 detective novels, the first published in 1903, and died only two years after the publication of The Floating Admiral. This opening chapter introduces us to the character of Neddy Ware, ex-sailor, well-known fisherman; not local, only having lived in the area for ten years; and discoverer of the body of the late Admiral Penistone, clad in evening clothes, his white shirt front stained with blood, floating away in a boat with only Mr Mount (the vicar)’s clerical hat for company. Inspector Rudge is called in to investigate and quickly meets two hearty young lads – the vicar’s sons – who take him to see Mr Mount where Inspector Rudge drops the bombshell that his hat has been found near the dead body: “Your boat was drifting with the tide up-stream. And in her was the dead body of your opposite neighbour, Admiral Penistone – murdered, Mr Mount.” You can almost feel the shock.

vicar2Chapter II – Breaking The News was written by husband and wife team G D H Cole and M Cole, writers of 35 books of detective fiction between 1923 and 1948. The change of writing style is immediate and very noticeable. Whereas Whitechurch had been quite stately and elegant in his writing, the Coles were quite slovenly by comparison, adopting a much more conversational style and concentrating more on detail, less on the bigger picture. In particular, Mr Mount’s voice changes from Whitechurch’s rather formal and thoughtful tones to the Coles’ garrulous and wandering ones. The change really does not help the narrative thread at all, as you can’t believe it’s the same person talking. It’s more successful when we meet the Admiral’s niece, Elma Fitzgerald, because her character can be completely created anew. But the main feeling you get from this chapter is one of bluster and hurry, exhaustion and talking just a bit too much.

tidal-riverChapter III – Bright Thoughts on Tides, was written by Henry Wade. He wrote twenty crime novels, but moreover, under his real name of Sir Henry Aubrey-Fletcher, 6th Baronet, was awarded the DSO and Croix de Guerre for his bravery in World War One and was also High Sherriff of Buckinghamshire. He died in 1969 and I have a tiny memory of him presenting programmes on BBC Radio Oxford when I were a lad! Whilst remaining largely conversational in format, Sir Henry’s natural authority absolutely shines through his words and again makes a stark contrast to the Coles’ more humdrum contribution. I like the way Inspector Rudge coaxes information out of people in this chapter – not only suspects and witnesses but also his police colleagues. Sir Henry must have had excellent coaching skills to tease further thoughts and explanations out of people. Regarding plot development, the chapter concentrates on the activities of Fitzgerald’s maid and how the tides might explain at what time and where from the boat carrying the dead body set sail.

stilettoChapter IV – Mainly Conversation, by Agatha Christie (and therefore my main reason for blogging this book!) Christie decides to continue the conversation that had brought the previous chapter to a conclusion. After sending Appleton back to the vicarage to ask a very sensible question about coats, Rudge asks Hempstead for advice on where to get the best gossip – and Mrs Davis certainly fulfils that role. It would appear that Christie is still in Miss Marple mode! Peter and Alec the Mount boys reappear and pester Rudge for a job in the investigation – it’s a very Christie trait for people other than the police to do the investigating – and he sets them off to look for the murder weapon. And trust Christie to be the first writer to pen anything remotely xenophobic in the story. “One of those nasty murdering Eyetalian stilettos. Wops they call them in New York – the Eyetalians I mean…” As you would expect, Christie fills in a lot of detail and raises a few issues that are bound to turn out to be red herrings; and drives the story on with the big piece of information that the Admiral was in the Lord Marshall pub just a few hours before he was found murdered.

hotel-front-deskChapter V – Inspector Rudge Begins to Form a Theory, a rather long-winded chapter title for the contribution by John Rhode, the pen name of Cecil John Charles Street, and a Major in the First World War. Under that nom de plume he wrote no fewer than 72 novels featuring his detective Dr Priestley, 6 other John Rhode books, 63 detective novels written under the name Miles Burton, 4 as Cecil Waye and approximately another ten in various other guises. Talk about prolific, he makes Christie look like an amateur! However, long-winded seems to be the tone of the chapter, with Rudge having conversations with the porter behind the hotel desk, and going back out to seek more information from Neddy Ware about tides; and although he gathers quite a lot of information, I found it quite a boring chapter. Maybe the next one will liven things up again?

sitting-and-thinkingChapter VI – Inspector Rudge Thinks Better of It by Milward Kennedy. According to Simon Brett, he specialised in police procedurals, and wrote 20 books between 1928 and 1952. A new writer and a new method for Inspector Rudge – sitting and thinking. Then there are more questions – primarily of Emery and the vicar’s sons (one of whom uses the N word in a simple statement that strongly defines the era in which it was written) – and also discussions between the police officers trying to fill in the blanks of the case. We do get an important new piece of information though – why Miss Fitzgerald departed so rapidly.

hong-kong-1911Chapter VII – Shocks for the Inspector by Dorothy L Sayers. I was looking forward to this chapter because I have long enjoyed Miss Sayers’ detective stories featuring Lord Peter Wimsey, and one day I must get around to re-reading them too. The chapter’s initial conversation between Rudge and Peter Mount instantly makes you realise what a much more elegant writer we are dealing with here; and also how much more interested in the religious aspects of the vicar she is than any of the previous writers. Of the many little extras that this chapters gives us in the way of understanding the case, is the first mention of the Admiral in Hong Kong back in 1911 – which ties us in with the rather woolly prologue. And the chapter ends with a definite bang (as opposed to a whimper) with the dramatic return of Elma and Holland.

cartoon-dead-bodyChapter VIII – Thirty-nine Articles of Doubt, written by Ronald Knox, more known for his religious and non-fiction books than his detective novels, which featured his sleuth Miles Bredon. It doesn’t take long, as you start reading this relatively long chapter, what a very different style Knox had. This is very formal, almost turgid writing. As a contrast with Sayers’ delightfully elegant style this was like wading through treacle. The thirty-nine articles of the chapter heading are the questions that Rudge poses to himself in his night-time memorandum; and by the time he’s written them all out, Knox concludes the chapter, leaving any potential for solution to the next writer! I did enjoy his contemplations about why the body was found in the boat – that for me was the most thought-provoking of his Articles. But, well thought out as they may be, the thirty-nine Articles look like someone saying, I’ve read it very carefully so far and showing off with their ideas. It doesn’t have much of a literary style, and kind of stands out like the proverbial sore thumb.

sleepy-town-at-nightChapter IX – The Visitor in the Night, by Freeman Wills Crofts. Crofts was most famous for his Inspector French novels – the detective semi-parodied in the story The Unbreakable Alibi in Christie’s Partners in Crime. He wrote 33 detective novels between 1920 and 1957. This chapter follows Rudge as he investigates the mysterious lady who arrives in town late at night. It’s quite nicely written on the whole, and I won’t say any more!

shaveChapter X – The Bathroom Basin by Edgar Jepson. This was towards the end of his life, having written forty books all in all, between 1885 and 1938. This brief chapter starts with the surprising news that one of the police officers is related to someone in the book – but I don’t think it will turn out to be relevant to the case. The prime purpose for this chapter is simply to prove that someone has shaved their beard off. When, we have a rough idea; why, there are some possibilities and who, that’s to be discovered shortly.

daggerChapter XI – At the Vicarage, by Clemence Dane. The writer of over thirty plays and sixteen novels, her writing career started in 1917 with Regiment of Women, a somewhat controversial novel that included lesbian relationships in a school setting. This little chapter is charmingly and amusingly written, with a deft turn of phrase that makes me think I would like to read some of her books. Not a lot actually happens during the course of this chapter, apart from at the very end, when the plot development takes a huge turn for the better; getting a kick up the backside that it really needed to keep the reader’s interest alive.

whodunitChapter XII – Clearing up the Mess, by Anthony Berkeley, one of the founders of the Detection Club, creator of detective Roger Sheringham, writer under many pen names, including Francis Iles’ whose Before The Fact (1932) would be adapted to become Hitchcock’s classic film, Suspicion. Thus, as the chapter title suggests, it is left to Anthony Berkeley to make some head or tail of the previous eleven chapters. And he does a pretty good job! Finally, the book gathers some suspense as Rudge, with Chief Constable Twyfitt, tie up the Hong Kong background and at one stage I thought it was going to turn into a kind of Murder on the Orient Express, with everyone being implicated in the crime. Although it’s one long chapter, it’s split into separate sections, with plenty of opportunities for some excellent cliffhangers. And there’s no doubt that the revelation of whodunit is a humdinger.

writers-own-solutionsBut it doesn’t end there. If you remember, Dorothy L Sayers said in her introduction: “each writer was bound to deliver, together with the manuscript of his own chapter, his own proposed solution of the mystery.” So we now get to read all the contributors’ own solutions to the story. Two, Whitechurch and the Coles, don’t bother – so I hope they got kicked out of the Detection Club. Some provided very peremptory solutions, almost a five-minute rushed job. Sayers provides a hugely intricate and detailed solution. Between them, the eleven contributors (we ignore Berkeley who provided the denouement for the book) lay the crime at any of five people in the story; only two accurately identified the murderer, Rhode and Sayers.

The Sittaford MysteryAnd that concludes this little look at The Floating Admiral. It was an interesting book to read on the whole, although more for the exercise than any real literary thrills. If you’ve read it too, I’d love to know what you think. Please just add a comment in the space below. Next up in the Agatha Christie Challenge we’re going back to her “proper novels” and her 1931 whodunit, The Sittaford Mystery. As always, I’ll blog my thoughts about it in a few weeks’ time. In the meantime, please read it too then we can compare notes! Happy sleuthing!

Review – Jimmy Osmond, Moon River and Me, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 10th October 2016

moon-river-and-meI’m not sure what expectations I had of Jimmy Osmond’s tribute show to Andy Williams, Moon River and Me. I wouldn’t call myself a fan of Andy Williams, although many of his recordings are absolute classics, and really stand the test of time. I guess you’d say that it just hasn’t ever been very trendy to like him. Similarly, I wouldn’t have called myself an Osmonds fan, but I liked most of their records (OK when they got very slushy I’d have to reach for the Junior Seltzer) and when we came to see them at the Derngate a few years ago, I was very impressed.

jimmy-osmondAnd none is more impressive than Jimmy Osmond – he’s 53 now, so I think it’s fair to have dropped the “Little” from his name. He embodies showmanship in a very unflashy, respectful, kindly, welcoming way. He is the perfect front man, still with a great voice and a warm personality, not remotely afraid to take the mickey out of himself, and very generous with allowing other performers to shine on the stage. When we saw him in Cinderella at the Royal and Derngate in 2008, not only was it his first appearance in panto, it was also our first attendance at a Royal and Derngate show. So I reckon Jimmy and me go back a long way.

andy-williamsMoon River and Me takes as its starting point, and its backbone throughout the evening, the career of Andy Williams, and how it was firmly linked with the early days of the Osmonds – they guested on his TV shows back in the 60s and it was where they got their first big break. Clearly there was a great chemistry between Mr Williams and the Osmonds – an affection that has carried on to this day, despite Mr Williams’ death in 2012. But the show is not (to my surprise) exclusively Williams. There’s a whole range of ballads and pop, mainly from the 1960s, as well as an Osmonds section. And it’s not just Jimmy Osmond singing – he has two guests: the charming Emily Penny who gives us a fun Downtown and a brilliant Anyone Who Had a Heart; and the amazing young Charlie Green who astonished me with his vocal maturity with songs like Born Free, Alfie and (my favourite performance of the night) Maria; all backed by a great four-piece band.

emily-pennyTechnology also allows Andy Williams to join us in some of the numbers; I’m never entirely sure about how I feel about seeing entertainers, who have died, still virtually performing alongside live performers, but Jimmy’s duet with Andy on Moon River worked extremely well. A word of appreciation to the technical crew – the show looks great, with lots of video footage and photos montaged on screens, as well as the apparently live Mr Williams at the top of his game. But also the light show was just perfect to enhance but not overwhelm the performers and the sound quality was absolutely superb; not over-amplified, never distorted, always crisp, clear and in total balance so you could hear every word.

charlie-greenAs always, when you go to see someone live, they don’t perform your favourite songs. It’s an unwritten law of live music. My favourite two Andy Williams songs are Home Lovin’ Man and It’s So Easy – and neither got an airing. In the brief (too brief?) Osmonds section, my favourite song of theirs, Goin’ Home, was also sadly missing. But we did get a great singalong version of Love Me For a Reason, a funky rock Long Haired Lover from Liverpool and a pyrotechnic Crazy Horses, so that can’t be all bad. From the Andy back catalogue, it was great to hear Jimmy do a fantastic rendition of Happy Heart, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house after his Danny Boy. But Charlie’s Music to Watch Girls By was pretty darn sensational.

jimmy-osmond-moon-river-and-meThis is a high quality, nostalgic, entertaining and thoroughly enjoyable wallow in some great old music and a fitting tribute to one of popular music’s most outstanding interpreters by one of entertainment’s greatest showmen. What’s not to love?! The tour continues throughout the whole of October – enjoyment guaranteed!

Royal and Derngate Theatres Northampton – Happy 10th Anniversary!

10th anniversary partyIt’s been ten years since our spiritual home at the Royal and Derngate Theatres re-opened after their redevelopment, and the Derngate auditorium was born. In those dark days of 2006 we were strangers to Northampton, gentle reader, so I have no recall of the impact of the new complex at the time – although I bet it was major.

FactsYesterday they had a bit of a party to celebrate ten years of achievements – artistic, educational, community-based; and to look forward to the next five years with some special projects they’ve got up their sleeves – more of which shortly. But it was really enjoyable to wallow in the memories of some of those great Made in Northampton productions that Mrs Chrisparkle and I have been privileged to see over the last seven years that we’ve lived locally: the Ayckbourn season (before I started blogging); the brilliant early Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill plays Spring Storm and Beyond the Horizon; the Broadway-transferring End of the Rainbow; the haunting Duchess of Malfi; the hilarious Diary of a Nobody; the stunning Bacchae; the uproarious Mr Whatnot (so funny that we had to book to see it again the following day); the incredible impact of The Body of an American; the gripping King John; the challenging Brave New World; and dozens more besides. The associations with Spymonkey, Figuresthe Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Richard Alston Dance Company. The annual Malcolm Arnold festival. Great musical productions like Oklahoma and Fiddler on the Roof. All the comedians. All the Screaming Blue Murders. The brash and colourful Derngate pantos and the enchanting Christmas plays in the Royal. On top of all this, there’s the creation of the Errol Flynn Filmhouse, No 1 in Northamptonshire’s Fun and Games choice on Trip Advisor. I could go on but it would be self-indulgent.

Facts and figuresAs you would expect, they’re not sitting on their laurels (although they’re continuing to accumulate them at quite a rate.) Plans for the next five years include creating a brand new cinema complex in Daventry – learning from the whole Errol Flynn experience (which is the most comfortable and grown-up cinema I’ve ever experienced; a new school for Northampton which places cultural and creative learning at its heart; and, (and this one excites me the most) being part of a consortium of greats to commission new music theatre, ranging from opera to musicals, to be presented in a festival format using a brand new portable venue called The Mix, which can seat between 200-400 and can pop up in situ in a matter of 48 hours. I’m very excited to see how that evolves. I’m reassured to know that they’re not losing sight of their core activity either and the new programme for next year’s Made in Northampton gems will be coming out in a few weeks – can’t wait.

PartyTo everyone who works at the Royal and Derngate, you play a part in creating the most welcoming and invigorating hub of artistic pursuits and pleasures. We moved into Northampton at the end of 2008 but I don’t think we’ll ever be able to move out – I just can’t imagine not having the R&D on my doorstep. You’ve spoiled us, Mr Ambassador! Royal and Derngate Theatres – so good they named it twice. Here’s to the next five years, ten years, and happy ever after.

Review – Richard Alston Dance Company, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 4th October 2016

Richard Alston Dance CompanyIf it’s October, it must be Richard Alston! This marks the (wait for it) 14th time we’ve seen them tour, the first being back in 1998. When you follow a company like this over the years, you get the privilege of seeing the tentative first steps of the new recruits; how the best of them blossom into world class dancers; then the slightly older years, when their influence is more in their presence and experience than in their athleticism; with finally a move maybe into choreography or another part of the business. It’s like watching the new generations of an ever-developing family. Every time we see them it’s like a coming home party.

Rejoice in the LambFor the first night in Northampton, we had one very new, one quite new, one newly revised and one not-new-but-still-fresh dance making up the programme. The first piece was the only one we’d seen before, Rejoice in the Lamb, which the company brought here in 2014. It’s the strangely wacky story of the 18th century poet Christopher Smart, who had a tendency towards religious persecution mania, would accost strangers in the street into praying with him, was later confined to an asylum, and was taken seriously only by his cat Jeoffry. Britten’s music accentuates the religious and devotional aspects; Alston’s choreography is elegant and crisp and not without its comic highlights. There are several sequences when you forget to try to interpret what you see, but just get carried away by its beauty and flow. Just as when we saw it two years ago, there’s a truly authoritative central performance by Nicholas Bodych as the misguided poet. The company is just back from having performed this in New York and I think maybe its having experienced the metropolitan madness gave it just a little extra zing this time around. A beguiling start to the evening.

Isthmus RemixAfter a pause we had the brief but high impact Isthmus Remix, Richard Alston’s revision of a duet he made in 2013. Clad in multi-coloured tabards, giving the impression perhaps of being on rival school sports teams, the dancers move to the spiky rhythms of Jo Kondo’s Isthmus, weaving in and out of relationships with each other in a state of borderline aggression. The dancers’ arms are outstretched above and to the side to occupy the biggest space possible around their bodies, which for me created a sense of a classical position gone slightly skew-whiff. It’s a truly ensemble piece and it looked stunning.

TangentOur next piece was as new as it’s possible to be without being a premiere – Martin Lawrance’s Tangent receiving only its second public performance. It’s inspired – at a distance – by the Argentine Tango but there’s nothing Strictly about this routine. The piano arrangement, played to tremendous effect by Jason Ridgway, lends a huge amount of elegance and refinement to the depiction of four couples’ relationships as seen through different seasons of the year. What I really loved here was the balance between power and control in both the actual physical dancing and also in the interactions between the individuals. Oihana Vesga Bujan and Liam Riddick in particular formed an astonishing partnership for their own duet and Nancy Nerantzi was simply stunning throughout. It was breathtaking to see how the dancers occupied the entire space of the Derngate stage for the Spring finale; how can anyone cover that much distance with such apparent ease? That, gentle reader, is why they are the dancers and I’m not. Also a word of appreciation for Jeffrey Rogador’s fantastic costumes; the colours of the dresses were just amazing – in particular Miss Nerantzi’s wow-factor Tequila Sunrise outfit; the hard-edged black semi-robotic costumes of the men made a brilliant contrast. For me that was the dance of the night.

Italian in MadridThe programme concluded with Richard Alston’s An Italian in Madrid, a two-act mini-masterpiece that tells the side by side story of Domenico Scarlatti’s tutelage of the young Princess Maria Barbara, who takes him to Spain, where he creates his sonatas with an Andalusian influence; and her encounter with Prince Ferdinand of the Asturias who seeks her hand in marriage under the distant eye and musical watch of the composer. It’s an absolutely beautiful dance simply to watch and admire, with effective, clear story-telling through the choreography, superbly atmospheric Baroque music and costume (I loved the accordion arrangements) and the chance for a few stand-out performers to give some crowd-pleasing solos. For this piece, the company has been joined by BBC Young Dancer An-italian-in-madridfinalist from 2015, Vidya Patel. She is an expert in the art of Kathak, and her contributions to the piece so beautifully blend that traditional Indian style with western contemporary dance, giving her character in this piece a thoroughly exotic edge. She has outstanding stage presence, performs her solos for the Prince with verve and grace and is one of those dancers you can’t take your eyes off! So there would be no one more technically spot-on than Liam Riddick to dance the role of the Prince, with his fantastic show-off skills and thrills, to impress the Princess. It goes without saying that both their solos received rapturously appreciative applause. Exquisitely beautiful, tremendous artistry; we loved it.

Liam Riddick and Vidya PatelThe company has one more night in Northampton (tonight – 5th October, the town loves having you!) then the tour continues to Brighton, Snape Maltings, Glasgow, Dartford and Woking. The company are always a complete pleasure to watch and my admiration for their athleticism and grace knows no bounds. Top quality contemporary dance in a nutshell.