Review – Sunny Afternoon, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 10th & 11th January 2017

Sunny AfternoonYes, gentle reader, you did read that title correctly. I loved the new touring production of Sunny Afternoon so much that I had to go back to see it again on the matinee the next day. The only other time that we were so overwhelmed by a show that we had to see it the next day was for the brilliant Mr Whatnot – if you were lucky enough to catch it, give yourself a huge pat on the back in self-congratulation.

sa9Mrs Chrisparkle and I went to see Sunny Afternoon in London two years ago, and, for my reflections on what the show’s about, its structure and so on, I can’t do better than to refer you to my original review. I could finish there, really, but seeing as you asked so nicely, I’ll continue. The show tells the story of The Kinks; how they formed, their early days, how they put together those iconic guitar riffs, how their success exploded under their posh management duo, Wace and Collins; how they got into trouble in America, how they interacted with one another, and how their relationship with their managers ended. All this to the accompaniment of Ray Davies’ beautiful, melancholic, introverted, enthusiastic, heart-warming lyrics and melodies.

sa16They didn’t rip out the first few rows of seats at the Derngate to create cabaret tables like they did at the Comedy, I mean Harold Pinter theatre. They did, however, have that very useful apron that allows the cast to catwalk into the auditorium, and if you’re seated close to it you get an exciting sense of extra stage dimension. It really enhances the relationship between the performers and the audience, and is also a great view for appreciating the 1960s Pan’s People-type choreography. I’d say the ideal place to sit would be centre stalls, one row further back from where the apron ends. You’re welcome.

sa10Having a different cast performing in different theatres inevitably sometimes changes the emphasis of the show. This time round, I was much more struck by the irony of the group’s prohibition from working in America; working class lads being caught out by the intricacies of union dues. When Mr Sinatra’s representative tells them to look after their teamsters, they (unsurprisingly) haven’t got a clue what he’s on about. There’s a nice nod to McCarthyism with the suggestion that both Ray Davies’ wife Rasa (Lithuanian) and their baby (a baby) must be communists. Ray’s retort that the UK gave her refuge when she and her family were in need sounds (sadly) like historical rhetoric in these post-Brexit days. When they’re in America, they’re very uncomfortable fish out of waters.

sa7The other aspect of the show that was more pointedly highlighted in this production is the extreme youth (but not naïveté) of Dave Davies. He can’t sign the agreement with the managers because he is only 16, so his father is required to do to it for him. And when the band starts to do well, and the fans start throwing themselves at them – well, Dave instantly has girls on tap, and there’s no doubting that he enjoyed more than his fair share. Easy access to drugs and drink clearly isn’t beneficial to Dave’s health. But the show is very forgiving of him – he’s “just Dave” – and with all that self-indulgence, the show would have you believe he simply had a pretty darn good time. His big on-stage fight with drummer Mick really did happen; it’s presented in the show almost as a pantomime, with the copper running after him, wagging his truncheon almost Benny Hill-style, but in reality, he needed sixteen stitches to the head.

sa3So why did I enjoy this revisiting this production two years on so much that I had to go again the next day? Primarily, I think, it was because of the music. That early scene, where Ray and Dave are perfecting the guitar intro to You Really Got Me, got my goosebumps jumping like Mexican beans; and it gets louder, and it gets rawer, and it gets unruly – and I really loved it. I think I already knew at that stage I had to come back. In the second act, Andrew Gallo, as Mick, gives us a truly exciting and delightfully reckless drum solo, that really stands out. At the other end of the scale, Lisa Wright performs I Go To Sleep with the most painfully poignant expression; you can almost feel the emotional gulps in each word – and it’s a stunning arrangement by Elliott Ware. Her performance as Rasa is outstanding throughout the whole show. That’s definitely one of Sunny Afternoon’s strengths – how it takes an original Kinks song and then covers it in a truly creative way. The acapella performance of that lovely old song, Days, for example, puts a strongly emotional slant on it, the five guys singing barbershop style, led with beautiful clarity by Joseph Richardson as Robert Wace.

sa13Of course, any production is going to rely heavily on the actor playing Ray, and in Ryan O’Donnell, they’ve come up with an absolute cracker. Not only is he the spitting image of the young Ray, he sings like him, recreating his phrasing perfectly; he portrays the character’s quiet determination, his artistic imperative to create the best recording possible, and his emotional vulnerability. Ray isn’t all about sparkly charisma and showbiz pizazz, he’s the guy who observes the crack up in the ceiling, who quietly gazes on Waterloo sunset, who’s not like everybody else. Mr O’Donnell carries it off brilliantly. As his madcap and uncontrollable brother, Mark Newnham plays Dave like the school misfit, mischievously contrary whenever he can be, playing the idiot because it gets him the best attention. He handles the guitar like a dream, and is out to screw the last remaining jot of pleasure out of anything and everything (and everyone) he does – which probably is a very good representation of the real Dave.

sa15Garmon Rhys’ Pete is the perfect downtrodden sidekick; completely unsuitable for a world where he is on show, a simple man thrust into a complex limelight, and he doesn’t like it. When he tells Ray why he wants to leave the band, it’s very hard for the audience not to respond with a big pantomime “aaaaah”. Andrew Gallo’s Mick is an unsophisticated bruiser but his heart’s in the right place; but, primarily, provider of great drum accompaniment. Joseph Richardson and Tomm Coles as Wace and Collins are a great posh boy double act, and Michael Warburton brings a steely edge to his role as music publisher Kassner. I also really liked Robert Took and Deryn Edwards as (amongst others) Mr and Mrs Davies Senior, the decent, respectable but poor people living on Dead End Street.

sa1When they all come out for the final rock concert scene, with a mix of All Day, Lola, and You Really Got Me, it’s such an exhilarating and feelgood sensation to be upfront close to that performance. I absolutely loved it. So did Mrs C, who was, frankly, jealous of my return trip the next day. No need for you to be jealous – go and see it! The tour continues into May, visiting Cardiff, Nottingham, Oxford, Liverpool, Llandudno, York, Bradford, Bristol, Dublin, Canterbury, Norwich, Wolverhampton, Belfast and Plymouth. If you remember the Kinks with affection, or want to appreciate a chance to revisit their songs in a new setting, this show is definitely for you. And if, like me, you saw the original London show and think there’s no need to see it again, think again – this new cast is an absolute knockout!

Production photos by Kevin Cummins

Review of the Year 2016 – The Seventh Annual Chrisparkle Awards

It’s time again for the whole Chrisparkle team to meet in secret (well, in the living room) to determine who should win the gongs in this year’s annual Chrisparkle Awards. The world of the arts is once again on tenterhooks to discover who will be the chosen few. Eligibility for the awards means a) they were performed in the UK and b) I have to have seen the shows and blogged about them in the period 15th January 2016 to 13th January 2017.

Let’s do this thing!

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

We saw five dance productions this year and this is the top three:

In 3rd place, the exciting return of Nederlands Dans Theater 2 with their unpredictable mixed programme at the Birmingham Hippodrome in May.
In 2nd place, the amazing story-telling and fantastic performances in Drew McOnie’s Jekyll and Hyde at the Old Vic in May.
In 1st place, for the fourth time in five years, the breathtaking programme by the literally unbeatable Richard Alston Dance Company that we saw at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in October.

Classical Music Concert of the Year.

Of the five concerts we saw in 2016, these are the top three:

In 3rd place, the stirring eleventh Malcolm Arnold Festival, The Voice of the People Gala Concert with the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by John Gibbons, with soloist Craig Ogden, at the Royal and Derngate, in October.
In 2nd place, Alexandra Dariescu Performs Rachmaninov, a programme of German and Russian music with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Fabien Gabel, at the Royal and Derngate, in May.
In 1st place, the storming Alan Buribayev conducts Sheherazade, with soloist Anna-Liisa Bezrodny, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal and Derngate, in February.

Best Entertainment Show of the Year.

By which I mean anything else that doesn’t fall into any other categories – for example pantos, circuses, revues and anything else hard to classify. Very hotly contended this year so we’re going to have to have a top five – and last year’s winner, the annual Burlesque Show, which, whilst excellent as always, doesn’t feature in the charts this year!

In 5th place, the wacky surrealism of Spymonkey’s The Complete Deaths at the Royal in May.
In 4th place, the supremely inventive and unfailingly polite Jamie Raven at the Royal and Derngate in June.
In 3rd place, another magic act, the brilliant and funny Pete Firman in TriX, at the Royal in November.
In 2nd place, the filthy and hilarious Cinderella, at the London Palladium, in December.
In 1st place, the masterclass of hilarious mime that is The Boy with Tape on His Face at the Royal, in November.

Best Star Standup of the Year.

We saw eleven big-name stand-up comics this year, and they were all various shades of brilliant! So it’s going to be hard to whittle them down to a top five:

In 5th place, the long lasting warm glow of an evening spent in the company of Tommy Tiernan (Out of the Whirlwind Tour), at the Royal in March.
In 4th place, the ever-waspish and never unfunny Julian Clary (The Joy of Mincing Tour) at the Royal and Derngate in April.
In 3rd place, the supremely intelligent and devastatingly funny Dane Baptiste (Reasonable Doubts Tour), Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, in March.
In 2nd place, simply because he finally allowed me to laugh at the Brexit result with all my pain proudly on display, Marcus Brigstocke (Why the Long Face Tour) at the Royal in October.
In 1st place, the woman of the moment, and that’s because she just makes you laugh so much, Sarah Millican (Outsider Tour), at the Royal and Derngate in July.

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

As ever, a hotly contested award; now that the JAM Comedy club shows have started at the Ark, comics appearing there are also eligible for this award. From a very very long shortlist, here are the top five:

In 5th place, the infectiously manic stupidity of Steve Best (16th September)
In 4th place, larking around where angels fear to tread, Tez Ilyas (21st October)
In 3rd place, the new prince of high camp, Stephen Bailey (4th November)
In 2nd place, turning a gig into a party, the awesome Jonny Awsum (18th March)
In 1st place, last year’s winner and still unbeatable, Ian Cognito (21st October)

Best Musical.

Like last year, this is a combination of new musicals and revivals; I only saw eight this year but they were (almost) all excellent! Here are the top five:

In 5th place, the wonderful depiction of Latino life in Washington Heights lived to the full, In The Heights, that we saw at the Kings Cross Theatre in December.
In 4th place, the captivating and satisfying revival of Sondheim’s Into The Woods, at the Menier Chocolate Factory, that we saw in September.
In 3rd place, the stunning revival of Funny Girl, at the Menier Chocolate Factory, that we saw in February.
In 2nd place, the show I hadn’t wanted to see, just caught it before it closed, and I’m so glad I did, Bend It Like Beckham, that we saw at the Phoenix Theatre, in February.
In 1st place, because it’s text book in how to stage a show and gives you such a feelgood factor, Half A Sixpence, that we saw at the Noel Coward Theatre in December.

Best New Play.

Just to clarify, this is my definition of a new play, which is something that’s new to me and to most of its audience – so it might have been around before but on its first UK tour, or a new adaptation of a work originally in another format. An extremely difficult decision, as you have to compare such different genres; but somehow I chose a top three from the eight contenders:

In 3rd place, actually three plays, the extraordinary National Theatre of Scotland production of The James Plays, at the Royal and Derngate Theatre, Northampton in April.
In 2nd place, the brilliantly written and performed The Herbal Bed, at the Royal Theatre, in February.
In 1st place, the hauntingly unforgettable Soul, at the Royal Theatre, in May.

Best Revival of a Play.

Saw ten revivals, all of which were worthy of consideration. Here’s the top five:

In 5th place, the highly innovative and enjoyable reworking of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, co-produced by the R&D and the National Youth Theatre, at the Royal Theatre, in June.
In 4th place, breathing new life into a play that could easily be a little sterile, Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land, at Wyndham’s Theatre in October.
In 3rd place, the hilarious and brutally honest revival of Terry Johnson’s Dead Funny, at the Vaudeville Theatre, in December.
In 2nd place, Christopher Luscombe’s electric production of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in October.
In 1st place, the production that had me sweating with excitement and exhilaration, the late Howard Davies’ production of Christopher Hampton’s new translation of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in May.

As always, in the post-Christmas season, time to consider the turkey of the year – the one that stuffed us all as the biggest disappointment was the drabfest that was Breakfast at Tiffany’s at the Curve Theatre, Leicester, in March.

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

Best play – Edinburgh

We saw 16 plays in Edinburgh, and here are the top 5:

In 5th place, the elegant and moving story of post World War One England with Aulos Productions’ Lest We Forget (Bedlam Theatre)
In 4th place, the funny and unsettling Partial Nudity produced by Fandango Productions (Monkey House @ Zoo)
In 3rd place, the stunning one-man play set against Cardiff’s nightlife, Saturday Night Forever, produced by Aberystwyth Arts Centre and Joio (Underbelly Med Quad)
In 2nd place, the brilliantly stereotype-challenging Jumping The Barriers by The Courtyard Players (Space on The Mile)
In 1st place, the emotionally charged and truly creative Us/Them by Bronks/Made in Belgium (Summerhall)

Best Individual Performance in a Play – Edinburgh

This was a very difficult choice this year as most of the plays we saw were superb ensemble efforts where you couldn’t (well I couldn’t) identify one particular individual over the rest of the cast. However, I have no hesitation in recommending to you this top three:

In 3rd place, Adam J S Smith for Jumping The Barriers (Space on the Mile)
In 2nd place, Chris Daley for Jumping The Barriers (Space on the Mile)
In 1st place, Delme Thomas for Saturday Night Forever (Underbelly Med Quad)

Best stand-up comedy show – Edinburgh

Thirteen shows but a shortlist of just four gives this top three:

In 3rd place, for the honesty of his material the likeable and hilarious Dave Chawner (Cabaret Voltaire)
In 2nd place, for nailing the Zeitgeist with 10 Things I Hate About UKIP, Joe Wells (T-Bar)
In 1st place, again, the unmissable late night laughter line-up that is Spank! (Underbelly Cowgate)

Best of the rest – Edinburgh
This has been a ridiculously hard choice to make and I have to leave out at least seven brilliant shows that I would happily see again. Still, no one said life is easy. Here’s the top five: (As an aside, I was called out of the audience to participate in three of them!)

In 5th place, for brilliant impressions in a cleverly constructed show, Luke Kempner’s Judi Dench Broke My Heart (Pleasance Dome)
In 4th place, one of the best (arguably THE best) variety line-ups ever assembled and hosted brilliantly, Lili la Scala’s Another F*cking Variety Show (Pleasance Dome)
In 3rd place, the quick-fire inventive sketches that featured me but also Foil Arms and Hog – Doomdah! (Underbelly Cowgate)
In 2nd place, early morning hilarity with a beautifully written and performed subversion of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare for Breakfast (C Venues, Chambers Street)
In 1st place, a truly winning combination of parody, pressure and hot pan, Kev’s Komedy Kitchen (Just the Tonic at the Mash House)

This year’s Edinburgh turkey, which wasn’t as bad as all that, (although it wasn’t that great either) was the two-hander play involving night-club Mafia, The Club.

And now for a new award. This year I have seen many more local productions. They are mainly (but not exclusively) by students at the University of Northampton; but there are also the Royal and Derngate Actors’ Company, the Youth Companies, other local theatre groups and the National Theatre Connections to consider. So this is the First ever Chrisparkle award for Best Local Production – taking all aspects of the production into account.

In 5th place, from the Flash Festival, Infuse Theatre Company’s X or Y
In 4th place, by the current 3rd year students at the University, She Echoes
In 3rd place, again from the Flash Festival, La Zenna Theatre Company’s The Final Cut
In 2nd place, the Royal and Derngate’s Actors’ Company’s production of Market Boy at the Royal Theatre.
In 1st place, the University’s production of Blue Stockings at the Royal Theatre.

Best film

I only saw four last year, and, while I have to recognise the brilliance of I Daniel Blake, personal involvement (including being an extra in it) means I must award it to The Girl With All The Gifts. If you haven’t seen it – See it!!

Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical.

This is where it gets personal. Nine contenders in the shortlist, and here are the top three:

In 3rd place, Emma Williams as Helen in Half a Sixpence at the Noel Coward Theatre in December.
In 2nd place, Devon-Elise Johnson as Ann in Half a Sixpence at the Noel Coward Theatre in December.
In 1st place, Sheridan Smith as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl at the Menier Chocolate Factory, in February.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical.

Eight fine performances in the shortlist, producing this top three:

In 3rd place, Tony Jayawardena as Mr Bhamra in Bend it Like Beckham at the Phoenix Theatre, in February.
In 2nd place, Sam Mackay as Usnavi in In The Heights, at the Kings Cross Theatre in December.
In 1st place, Charlie Stemp as Kipps in Half a Sixpence at the Noel Coward Theatre in December.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Play.

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

In 5th place, Sophie Walter as Prosper in The Tempest at the Royal in June.
In 4th place, Adjoa Andoh as Alberta in Soul at the Royal in May.
In 3rd place, Clare Foster as Cecily in Travesties at the Menier Chocolate Factory, in October.
In 2nd place, Lisa Dillon as Rosaline in Love’s Labour’s Lost and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing at the Festival Theatre, Chichester in October.
In 1st place, Katherine Parkinson as Eleanor in Dead Funny at the Vaudeville Theatre in December.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Play.

The most hotly fought for award, with twenty contenders in my shortlist, and I whittled it down to this:

In 5th place, Hugh Bonneville as Dr Stockmann in An Enemy of the People, at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in May.
In 4th place, Tom Hollander as Henry Carr in Travesties, at the Menier Chocolate Factory, in October.
In 3rd place, Nathan Ives-Moiba as Marvin Gaye Jnr in Soul at the Royal Theatre in May.
In 2nd place, Sir Ian McKellen as Spooner in No Man’s Land at Wyndham’s Theatre in October.
In 1st place, Edward Bennett as Berowne in Love’s Labour’s Lost and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing at the Festival Theatre, Chichester in October.

Theatre of the Year.

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

It’s been another fantastic year – 140 productions seen in all – and thanks to you gentle reader for continuing to read my theatre reviews. Let’s look forward to another wonderful year of theatre in 2017!

Review – Annie Get Your Gun, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 7th January 2017

Annie Get Your GunFor the second part of our Sheffield extravaganza, Lady Duncansby, Sir William, Mrs Chrisparkle and I were joined by our esteemed friends the Sheriff of Shenstone, Lady Lichfield and the young Baron Brownhills. It’s always a pleasure to spend time with friends and family around the New Year, seeing what musical theatre delights the Crucible have arranged each year. In the past, we’ve been spoilt by seeing Company, My Fair Lady, Oliver, Anything Goes, and Show Boat; how will this year’s offering Annie Get Your Gun compare?

agyg1I hadn’t seen this show before. It was always a favourite of the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle, having seen it at the London Coliseum not long after the war. I remember her singing You Can’t Get a Man with a Gun with alarming enthusiasm at inappropriate moments. The show is jam-packed with show toons that are long-lasting standards, but I’d forgotten the rare beauty of I Got the Sun in the Morning which I hadn’t heard for decades. I also realised this was the first time I’d seen a musical written by that much-renowned composer Irving Berlin. It would be fascinating to compare his style with his contemporaries like Cole Porter and Rodgers/Hart/Hammerstein.

agyg2Production values, as always at the Crucible, would be high. The choreography is by Alistair David, who had added his touch of magic to all those previous Crucible Christmas shows. Playing Annie is Anna-Jane Casey, who’s always a hit whether she’s lampooning others in Forbidden Broadway or stuck in a rut of a relationship in Company or hoofing her way into the talkies with Mack and Mabel. Feisty and dynamic, but also a brilliant singer and dancer, there’s probably no better fit for the role of sharp-shootin’ Annie Oakley.

agyg3Ah yes, Annie Oakley. I guess this was the aspect that I had overlooked when I enthusiastically booked all those months ago. Annie Get Your Gun tells the story of the romance between Annie Oakley and Frank Butler, the original sharp-shooter from Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. So the setting is pure Cowboys and Indians, Chief Sitting Bull of the Sioux tribe, and much talk of redface and paleface. And then you have the arguments. Oh my God, the arguments; they’re so tedious. The show predates Porter’s Kiss Me Kate by two years, but the structural similarity between having cantankerous, nay bitchy, arguments between the two leading characters in both shows is obvious. In real life, Annie and Frank had a long, harmonious marriage. The show, however, is powered by the imagined antagonism between the two caused by jealousy.

agyg4I may as well confess it; I really, really wanted to like this show for so many reasons, but I’m afraid I really, really didn’t. It’s not the production’s fault – on the whole – although I think a little more set design might have helped explain and contextualise a few of the scenes a bit more. No, it’s the fault of the show itself. It survives on discord and rivalry. Anything you can do, I can do better, as the song goes. But it’s not portrayed like a schoolyard chant, a little silliness where two assertive people each want to have the last word; it’s portrayed as a serious, permanent rift in a relationship. In Kiss Me Kate, you just know that Fred and Lilli have a powerful physical attraction that’s going to knock everything else sideways. But by the time you get to Anything You Can Do, and Annie and Frank start reopening old wounds yet again, you just want to knock their heads together and tell them to grow up.

agyg5That’s at the end – but let me go back to the beginning. The lights dim, and a disembodied voice from the back starts to sing There’s No Business Like Show Business. Eventually your eyes locate Frank at the back of the auditorium, singing it with pompous gravity as though it were a hymn. The ensemble come out on stage and sing and dance as the number progresses – but there’s no set so you don’t know where you are, you don’t know who they are, and you wonder why the show’s big song gets such an early airing – surely it’s wasted in this warm-up position? They’ve got a solution to that – repeat it ad nauseam a few more times during the evening. [If you’re interested, it wasn’t the opening number in the original 1946 production; the song sequence changed with the 1999 Broadway revival] Maybe it’s a note of respect to the daddy of all 40s musicals, Oklahoma!, and its unconventional opening with Curly offstage singing about a beautiful morning. That works brilliantly, because we all understand the appeal of a beautiful morning without any further context. There’re no people like show people, on the other hand, just comes across as arrogant and self-aggrandising. We’re show people – you aren’t – therefore we’re better than you. You have no context within the show as yet for this outrageous statement but even so you already resent the characters for their big-headedness.

agyg6Now I accept that the first scene after this opening number shows cast members from Buffalo Bill’s show being turned away for accommodation at Wilson’s hotel because they’re showbiz types. They can’t be trusted, so the implied glamour of that overweening first number is turned into a sweet and sour rejection. There’s no business like show business is maybe ironic, after all. But that idea doesn’t get taken any further. Just occasionally, Anna-Jane Casey lets us see a little of Annie’s sensitive side. Ben Lewis, playing Frank, however, gives us a one-dimensional sharp shootin’ suitor, with precious little insight into his motivations or character. Shame – having seen him in Forbidden Broadway and Candide I know he’s capable of much more.

agyg7To mirror the front row disharmony between Annie and Frank you have second row friction between the two show manager rivals, Nicolas Colicos’ Buffalo Bill and Mike Denman’s Pawnee Bill. Mr Denman has a go at bringing a little characterisation and magnetism to his role but Mr Colicos gave me no insight into his character at all. Of the other cast members, only Maggie Service seemed to have any real sense of occasion, portraying Dolly as a lovelorn, overlooked but will-stop-at-nothing type who is both villain and object of sympathy. The ensemble gave it all they’d got though, which really helped me get through it, and their dancing was excellent. But, all in all, I’m afraid I found the show quite boring and lacking in theatrical magic. When Annie’s sharp-shootin’ at balloons, one of them failed to burst, which really did nothing for the overall effect. Nevertheless, it was only the presence of Anna-Jane Casey that made the whole show watchable.

agyg8It really split our group too – Mrs C and the Sheriff agreed with me that it was lacklustre and dated; Lady L quite enjoyed it but couldn’t get into it; Lady D, Sir William and the young Baron all enjoyed it. You might very well too, and it’s on until 21st January. A good enough production but I think the show should be consigned to the history books. Disappointed!

Review – Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, Lyceum Theatre, 7th January 2017

Snow White and the Seven DwarfsIt’s that time of the year again when Mrs Chrisparkle and I take Lady Duncansby and her butler Sir William for our annual Sheffield shindig, comprising of panto in the afternoon and Crucible show in the evening. It’s never failed yet. Of course, the main attraction of seeing the Sheffield panto is one’s annual fix of Damian Williams as Pantomime Dame. No one can do it quite like him. And it will come as no surprise that, as always, this season’s Sheffield panto was a laugh-a-minute engaging delight.

sw1So then, Snow White. We all know the story. Poor girl and prince fall in love but wicked queen gets her to eat a bad apple and falls into a coma. Should’ve gone to Waitrose. Prince wakes her up with a kiss and they live happily ever after (Sondheim’s Into The Woods notwithstanding.) So what’s different about this Snow White? Two of the villagers are performed by circus artistes, so there are some balancing acts and roller skating to enjoy. And, naturally, it features some Sheffield-only specialities. The voice (and indeed disembodied face) of the voice in the Mirror (who tells the queen who is the fairest of them all, keep up) is none other than Broomhill’s own Michael Palin, delivering his wisdom with a thick South Yorkshire accent and saying “Up the Blades” a little too often. This year, the famous returning Lyceum Theatre bench/ghost scene has been up-spec’d, as we are called on to don 3-D glasses to see real ghosties – not just actors covered with sheets – looming at the back of the set. This works really well – they interact with the audience with alarming dexterity, and the whole thrilling scene is worthy of its own spot at Disneyland.

sw2And of course, you have Damian Williams as Nurse Nellie, in a series of preposterous outfits, including as the biggest Brownie you ever saw (outfit was good value – 50% off Guide price, boom, boom). His interplay with the boys and girls of the ensemble is as wicked as ever, with sideswipes like “three years at RADA for this”. The ensemble, by the way, are really excellent this year, full of fun and really good singers and dancers. When Prince Charming first arrives, everyone believes he is looking for a wife. At the very thought of it, one of the village girls swoons. When the Prince clarifies that that might not necessarily be the case, one of the village boys swoons. Very nicely done!

sw3But the absolute highlight of the panto was the sequence towards the end when Herman the Henchman, played with great enthusiasm by Richard Franks, finally gets to realise his dream of singing to a live audience, as he turns into Freddie Mercury and presents a sequence of Queen numbers with full backing cast all Mercury-moustachioed. Damian Williams came on for no more than a few seconds looking the spitting image of Mercury in the I Want To Break Free video. The Bohemian Rhapsody element was best of all, as the stage went black and the lights just picked out the seven moustachioed dwarfs in formation giving it the full Scaramouche Fandango treatment. Inspired and brilliant.

sw4Without getting into awkward pitfalls on the subject, I was pleased to see that the seven dwarfs were really that, rather than seven uncomfortable actors hobbling around on their knees. It’s patronising and it looks ridiculous. Our seven chaps brought loads of character to the show, and I particularly enjoyed Deano Whatton as trendy Groover, Graham Hughes as the cynical Brian, and Craig Garner as Cheeky, who sings an overly sentimental song to Snow White yet manages to stay on the right side of mawkish. We’d seen Mr Garner a couple of years ago when he played Dick Whittington’s rather loveable cat, and it’s good to see him back. I loved Jite Ighorodje’s (Brains) game with the audience where he randomly multiplies any set of numbers they threw at him – he’s one smart cookie. And big up to Andrew Martin, who plays Sarge, for his incredible sporting achievements – he’s currently the world number two ranked singles player in Para-Badminton.

sw5Snow White also presents an opportunity for a feisty, larger than life lady to get her teeth into the villainous role of the wicked queen – in this show she’s named Ivannah, which, surprisingly, isn’t used for a series of puns. Wendi Peters takes the role with great gusto; she’s a fantastic singer and the production really uses that strength to great effect. Phil Gallagher is excellent as the friendly and engaging Muddles, and I actually felt sorry for him when his kiss didn’t wake Snow White up. I know, I’m getting very soft in my dotage. Oliver Watton sang well and looked the part of Prince Charming whilst fending off Nurse Nellie’s passionate kisses; and Joanna Sawyer’s powerful voice made for quite a forceful Snow White. They looked great together and will have beautiful babies.

img_8471One final unusual twist – we were encouraged to take photos of the final scene and post them on social media! I guess everyone always wants to see pictures of a Royal Wedding. So here are a few of mine! 2017’s panto willimg_8473 be Mother Goose and will be Damian Williams’ tenth anniversary of playing the dame at the Lyceum. I trust they present him with his own bench, engraved with the words: well! We’ll have to do it again then, won’t we! I have no doubt we’ll be there.

img_8475P. S. No better way to end a panto than to have streamers cascading from the ceiling. I managed to wrap a good strong one round my head and chest, img_8479determined to take it home. Then I saw a little girl two seats away from me desperately looking for some streamer-souvenir. Bravely, I vowed to give her mine if she didn’t find her own. She did!! I kept mine!! Win-win!!!

Production photos (apart from the Royal Wedding photos) by Robert Day

Review – Jack Whitehall at Large, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 5th January 2017

jwalFirst show of the new year – can I get an Amen? Amen! Thank you. And it was the first night for Jack Whitehall’s new At Large national tour. He’s yet another in the long line of comedians that we’ve heard about but haven’t really watched much on TV – the occasional appearance here and there, perhaps; we started watching his sitcom about being a teacher but got bored (sorry). We nevertheless booked to see him because – well, we only live down the road and he’s a big name, you never know, he might be good.

lloyd-griffithsBut first, a support act in the form of Lloyd Griffith. He’s an unusual chap. Very likeable – one of his first exchanges with the audience was a challenge for us to guess his other job. I would have said lorry driver. Someone actually said undertaker. But no, he’s a singer – and to prove it gives us an unexpectedly enjoyable aria before going onto the next joke. He’s got a couple of superb gifts, both of which are the basis for this warmup act. Firstly, he is ace at recreating the sound of sticky tape being rolled and torn off a reel. All types; all strengths. Secondly, he can give you a fact about every single cathedral in England. Whilst we didn’t have an impartial expert on hand to judge the accuracy of these fun facts, I had no reason to doubt him. So plenty of interaction with the audience as we challenge him on the more obscure cathedrals and forms of sticky tape. In many respects, a really odd act. But it worked!

jw1Back to Jack Whitehall then. You probably already know his persona – posh boy, cheeky chappie, hugely self-deprecating. He treads a very fine line between being (very) slightly camp and oozing wealth and privilege – and he meets where the two cross over. He plays up to that image immaculately – talking about his friend Dave, whom he later clarifies is the Earl of Daventry, for example. He’s a perfect example of how an excellent education gives you enormous self-confidence. He can walk with kings yet keep the common touch, as Kipling almost said. For one thing, he can do a superb ruffian down the pub accent, much better than most ruffians down the pub can do posh. If you see the show, you’ll just love his interpretation of Danny Dyer reporting back from Syria.

jw2But the key to his charm is the self-deprecation. Almost every routine will have somewhere at its heart something to do with a frailty on his part that means that life doesn’t go to plan. He may or may not blame himself, but we’ll find it funny nonetheless. There’s a sequence about his recent time spent cracking America, until he comes home with the continent still considerably uncracked. He’s merciless with the way he teases himself for his appalling luck and disastrous decisions. Because of that self-deprecation, his poshness never comes over as pompous – even when he’s dissing any other purveyor of comestibles other than Waitrose, it’s funny and not snobbery. It’s a skill, and he’s got it off to a fine art.

jw3Mr Whitehall makes sure you’re not short-changed with this tour. Especially after the interval, he jam-packs it with more material than you can shake a stick at. And – as an additional benefit – absolutely everything hit home, there wasn’t one flabby or unthought-through sequence. Amongst the subjects he considers are his new job as the voice of Asda (how ironic), Prince Harry at the Royal Variety Performance, alcohol free beer in Glasgow, stag dos and Colin (there’s always someone called Colin at a stag do), his professional rivalry with Robert Pattinson, the difference between wine consumption in the US and the UK, and what happens when you’re sat on a plane next to a man with an erection.

jw4We both enjoyed the evening very much – perhaps Mr Whitehall tapped into my comic psyche slightly more closely than Mrs Chrisparkle’s, but, after all, I did go to a good school too. As an entr’acte between Lloyd Griffith leaving and Mr W coming on stage, they play an introductory video, showing the trials and tribulations of our good host from waking up in a strange bed next to a strange man to realising he’s miles away from the theatre and working out how he’s going to get there in time. I thought it was pleasantly amusing. Mrs C thought it was a waste of time. We agreed to disagree. But don’t let that stop you booking for his tour, which carries on throughout January and February – it’s excellent and you’ll love it. That’s a promise.

P. S. First night glamour in the stalls bar at the Derngate, as Mr and Mrs Whitehall (Senior) were accompanied by Northamptonshire’s own Mr Nick Hewer. Social media was buzzing. We sat further away because We Know Our Place.

Review – Cinderella, London Palladium, 30th December 2016

CinderellaMy first ever visit to a London theatre was to the Palladium for a pantomime back in January 1969 when I was a very small wee urchin. It was Jack and the Beanstalk starring Jimmy Tarbuck and Arthur Askey and I adored it. I don’t know why I missed out in 1970, but in February 1971 I saw my next Palladium panto, Aladdin, starring Cilla Black. In January 1972, just three days after my father died, the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle still took me to see Clodagh Rodgers and Ronnie Corbett in Cinderella. And after that – for me – no more Palladium pantos! I didn’t see another panto until I was 19 (Mother Goose at Oxford, with John Inman). And after that, nada, until we took our nieces to see Cinderella in Malvern in 2006. But the London Palladium panto tradition was a very special thing, with its heyday being the late 40s, 50s and 60s. The last time one was staged was back in 1987 with – yet again – Cinderella. Now it’s 29 years later, and look what’s back!

London PalladiumHaving loved my first three Palladium pantos, an irresistible force drew me to booking for this comeback show. And what a production it is! The old phrase “no expense spared” is often used, but this time it’s for real. The sets, the costumes, the orchestra, everything about it exudes riches and exquisiteness. They’ve got the old Chitty Chitty Bang Bang technology to make the pumpkin carriage fly through the air, and boy do they use it. With a nod to shows of the past, the panto includes the Sunday Night at the London Palladium theme, the famous revolving stage, and there’s even a brief homage to the Tiller Girls. The boys and girls of the ensemble and the supporting character parts give their all to make it a really entertaining night; and to top it all there is a star-studded lead cast that has to be seen to be believed. No surprise that it’s been a commercial success and that they’re already booking for Dick Whittington next December.

lee-mead-and-natasha-j-barnesWe saw a Friday evening performance – and you might expect that show to be a little more adult in its targeting than some of the matinees. To be fair, there were hardly any children there. That’s right, the Palladium, a theatre that seats over 2,400 people, showing a pantomime, and there was just a handful of kids. Mrs Chrisparkle and I had thought it would be an irreverent night full of theatrical fun, perfect for the break between Christmas and New Year, and no kids. I reckon over 2,300 other adults felt precisely the same. However, that was probably just as well, as the vast majority of the material was completely unsuitable for children. Cleverly unsuitable, for certain, in that it would go straight over their heads (possibly causing them to be a little bored occasionally) but unsuitable nonetheless. Don’t get me wrong, this is not a complaint, but merely an observation – I loved it!

julian-clary-and-a-big-clockThe last time we saw Julian Clary do his stand-up routine I questioned whether or not his act was starting to become a trifle anachronistic, poking fun at effeminacy – especially his own – in this day and age. There’s no doubt he does it brilliantly and it brings the house down, but how 2017 is it? If the jury was out on that one, it’s just come back in, because in Cinderella Mr Clary’s performance as Dandini is an absolute triumph of camp filth. Scene after scene is crammed with double (and treble!) entendres, from his opening song about exploring Soho (to the tune of Downtown), to discussions about his muff and his ring, and being pulled off. Those few children who have sneaked in are totally bemused at why the adults are laughing so much. Actually, there was one teenager that Mrs C noticed, who understood all the dirty jokes but was having to suppress her laughter in case her mother caught her. Ah, the trials and tribulations of youth.

paul-ogradyTrumping Mr Clary (although not in the American Presidential sense) – or not, you decide – is Paul O’Grady in the rarely seen role of Baroness Hardup, channelling his inner Cruella de Vil from the moment he gets out of his limo to the epiphany he has on the floor. I’d not seen him on stage before and he’s a right handful, I can tell you. As soon as an infant in the audience made a mewling noise he was straight on it: “Calpol that child, before I come down there and do it for you!” Between the two of them, Messrs Clary and O’Grady wiped the floor with the audience in a nice cop/nasty cop sort of way. They are hysterically funny. It must have been a complete toss-up (the innuendo is catching) as to which of them got top billing. I wonder who it was who told Mr Clary it wasn’t him.

paul-zerdin-sam-and-natasha-j-barnesMore for the kids – although with plenty of adult twists – Paul Zerdin is a terrific Buttons, with his ventriloquist dummy sidekick Sam, dressed as a mini-Buttons. Sam has a mind of his own and can’t be trusted with anyone, as he both chats up and derides members of the audience, including the sexually-laden line “once puppet, never look back”. His is a brilliant act – no wonder he won America’s Got Talent in 2015. At one stage, he selects a couple from the audience to do the same masked vent act that we saw Nina Conti do in Edinburgh in 2015. Poor Richard and Angela – what great sports they were.

julian-clary-and-nigel-haversAmanda Holden is a very charming Fairy Godmother, with a lot of X-Factor/Cowell/talent show material that slips out at regular intervals. I rather enjoyed her performance because she doesn’t pretend to be anything that she isn’t – and when it came to the (highly enjoyable) If I Were Not in Pantomime routine, she messed it up a bit by getting the words wrong, and I found that rather endearing. Others, I believe, have been more critical. Cinderella is played by Natasha J Barnes and is a hearty and good natured soul in the best tradition of the role. Lee Mead, as Prince Charming, allows himself to be ridiculed by constant musical references to show tunes that he has made his own in previous productions and on TV; and, on even more of a self-deprecating trip, Lord Chamberlain Nigel Havers is constantly turning up, only to find he has no lines in this scene, and begging to be allowed to participate in the next. It’s a beautifully sequenced saga of ritual humiliation.

count-arthur-strongIn a break from normal tradition, the Ugly Sisters are actually played by women! Suzie Chard and Wendy Somerville are the delightfully named Verruca and Hernia and they do a good job but they are basically outshone by the all the other stars that surround them. The only problem comes with Baron Hardup played by Steve Delaney’ alter ego, the rambling and forgetful Count Arthur Strong. As soon as the Count comes on and starts dithering it seems to sap all energy from the production. His laughs are few and far between and frankly (and this is an unpleasant thing to admit) you can’t wait for him to get off the stage. He redeems himself in the aforementioned If I Were Not in Pantomime scene, but I think his appearance is simply too much at odds with the showbizzy glamour of everything and everyone else on stage.

Still, the rest of the show is so good that this little quibble really doesn’t matter. A triumphant return of panto to the Palladium, and a packed theatre full of ecstatic punters. We’ll definitely be booking for next year!

Production photos by Paul Coltas and Steve Williams

Review – Half A Sixpence, Noel Coward Theatre, 29th December 2016

Half a SixpenceOne of the albums from my childhood was the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s Music for Pleasure record of Des O’Connor singing songs from Half a Sixpence, the 1963 musical by David Heneker and Beverley Cross, originally written for Tommy Steele. Despite – rather than because of – this recording, I’d always wanted to see the show, and we finally got the opportunity back in 2007 when we saw Gary Wilmot as Arthur Kipps in Bill Kenwright’s production at the Birmingham Hippodrome. I remember thinking at the time that the show itself was quite tame, but that it was an excellent production and I couldn’t imagine anyone better in the cheeky chappie main role than the irrepressible and brilliant song and dance man Mr Wilmot.

charlie-stempThings change, then change again. Fast forward nine years, and, remembering its rather mundane plot, when we made our selections from this summer’s Chichester Festival offering, neither of us particularly wanted to see this new production. Honestly, have we not learned our lesson? Over the past few years we’ve seen cracking good shows like Gypsy, Guys and Dolls, Mack and Mabel and Kiss Me Kate, so why wouldn’t the new Half a Sixpence – now transferred to the West End – be up there with the greats? (Spoiler – it is.)

pick-out-a-simple-tuneTo be honest, I still find the show itself a little underwhelming, with its somewhat dated subject matter of comedy juxtaposition between the upper and the working class, and its message that you should always marry someone of your own kind. However, Julian Fellowes’ new book and some new songs by George Stiles and Anthony Drewe have given it a well-deserved kick up the backside and created a much more entertaining and better structured show. I think one of the problems with the original version is the relative dearth of musical numbers in comparison with the length of the show. Today your average musical-goer simply expects more – a legacy of the Lloyd Webber approach, where, after curtain up, the orchestra basically never stops till going home time. I must agree with other comments I’ve read though that it is an enormous shame that they chose to do away with the original song All In The Cause of Economy, which a) is a great tune, b) is a very funny lyric and c) perfectly encapsulates the horrendous relationship between the bullying Mr Shelford and his poor troupe of resident drapers. Another problem with the original show is that, as it was specifically fashioned around the amazing talents of Tommy Steele, it’s perhaps just a little too Kippscentric. The new structure, however, is much more balanced – even though, when you look at the list of musical numbers in the programme, of the 22 songs listed, only 2 don’t feature Kipps as one of the singers. He’s at the heart of the original book so it’s no surprise he’s also the heart of the musical.

flash-bang-wallopAs I’m sure you know, it’s based on H G Wells’ 1905 novel Kipps: The Story of a Simple Soul, which I confess I haven’t read but apparently was Wells’ personal favourite of all the books he wrote. Young Arthur and young Ann share a special friendship, but when Arthur has to move away, they each keep half a sixpence as a token of their young love. When working in the drapery shop he is smitten with the delightful Helen Walsingham, but she is high born and, surely, too far above him to care. But Arthur unexpectedly inherits a great legacy and an annual income of £1200, and can thus transform himself from commoner to toff in one fell swoop. His relationship with Helen blossoms, but then it turns out that Ann (remember her?) is the Walsingham family parlourmaid… And if you don’t know how all that resolves itself, you’ll have to see the show!

half-a-sixpenceNo doubt about it, this truly is a fantastic production. Stunning to look at, amazing sets, perfect costumes, a brilliant band and a large cast of superbly talented performers. As a piece of theatrical confectionary, it is the sweetest, tastiest, zingiest show I’ve seen for some time. Andrew Wright’s choreography, particularly in the big set pieces, is overwhelmingly, in-your-face ebullient, and gives you that great to be alive feel that musical theatre can sometimes achieve. Even if you don’t take into account the performances, the visual impact of the staging of the new song Pick out a Simple Tune and the perennial old favourite Flash Bang Wallop are among the most exhilarating experiences on stage at the moment; and the “real rain” in If The Rain’s Got To Fall helps give a charming sense of pathos and drama to the end of the first act.

lady-punnet-and-mrs-walsinghamThere’s been a lot of hype about Charlie Stemp, who plays Kipps, a performer plucked from relative obscurity – his programme bio reveals just an international tour of Mamma Mia and ensemble in Wicked. Well, believe it. This is one of those toe-curlingly delightful occasions when you can say “I was there” – I genuinely believe that, with this performance in this production, a star is born. He is the natural successor to the young Michael Crawford, with his engaging stage presence, superb voice and extraordinary dance ability. Hardly off the stage for the entire performance, he invests Kipps with an exuberance that really pushes out into the auditorium. The fact that he is new on the scene is perfect for the role as it reflects the character’s own fish out of water situation – an unknown person in an unknown environment. The production, however, knows he is a winner, subtly (or not so subtly?) lighting him just a little more strongly than everyone else in the ensemble pieces. I had no hesitation in giving him the standing ovation he totally deserved.

charlie-stemp-and-emma-williamsBut this is no one-man show. He’s surrounded by a fabulous cast, our personal favourite being the wonderful Devon-Elise Johnson as Ann, nobly and touchingly handing over the object of her love to her mistress. Ms Johnson is also spellbinding in the big song and dance numbers and is the perfect energy counterpart to Mr Stemp. I also really liked Emma Williams’ Helen, a classy, elegant performance that reveals the bravery of her character’s ability to climb out of her social class and become entwined with Mr Kipps. Jane How exudes delightful superiority as the sumptuous Lady Punnet, who really believes her musical evenings are the most fun you can have, and who has a brilliant twinkle in her eye whenever she speaks to Arthur; and there’s an enormously fun performance from Vivien Parry as Mrs Walsingham, her eye on the financial prize, never quite becoming the horrendous mother in law from hell, but not far off.

gerard-carey-and-charlie-stempIan Bartholomew’s Chitterlow is a wonderfully larger than life creation, with more than a touch of Dickens’ Vincent Crummles about him; one of those few characters who is nothing but decent through and through. Mr Bartholomew brings out the humour of his songs – notably Back The Right Horse and The One Who’s Run Away – with great style. John Conroy, always masterful in authoritarian roles, is chillingly unpleasant as Mr Shalford, and Gerard Carey is splendidly slimy as the villainous James Walsingham and genuinely funny as the camp photographer, even if the characterisation is a little more 1963 than 2016. However, all the cast give terrific support and the physical commitment to the performance from one and all is just magnificent.

ian-bartholomewAn absolute treat from start to finish, we left the theatre beaming from ear to ear. You simply have to see this one!

P. S. A couple of unfortunate examples of bad theatre etiquette couldn’t erase what a wonderful show it was. But why must people be so grumpy and unhelpful when it comes to letting others past to get to their seats? It’s bad enough anyway in the New, I mean Albery, I mean Noel Coward theatre where the front stalls are as tight as a [insert rude simile here] without having to make special negotiations and pleadings to get past. There was also a mother and daughter who constantly nattered all the way through the first act. They were just out of reach for me to tell them to shut it, but maybe someone else did because they behaved like proper theatregoers after the interval. Honestly, some people!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan and Michael Le Poer Trench