Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Derngate, Northampton, 28th October

Gary DelaneyAnother very good night at the Comedy Club, with Dan Evans compering again. An excellent crowd, one of those nights when they had to bring in extra seats, and that always helps the atmosphere.

First act was Gary Delaney, who shot off loads of one-liners throughout his set. 90% of them were really funny, although possibly not suitable for your maiden aunt. He had a great confident delivery and you were never worried he was going to dry up. In fact you felt he could have gone on for hours!

Sally-Anne HaywardSecond was Sally-Anne Hayward, who we had seen here before, on the 11th March to be precise. I don’t think her act had changed much, and so I don’t feel it was as funny this time round. But she ends on a great line – complaining to her mother about her boyfriend’s snoring, her mother advises her that it’s a shame but in a few weeks she’ll be complaining that he’s still breathing.

Steve Day Finally we had Steve Day, whose set was the best of the night. Really funny observations on life from a deaf point of view, and specifically being a deaf performer, but without ever trading on it. An excellent line about taking a leaf out of David & Victoria Beckham’s book and naming their children after where they were conceived, thus the twins are called Elephant and Castle.

Next time it moves to a Friday. It will be interesting to see if they get more people. Judging from last night, they’ll need a larger venue!

Review – The Duchess of Malfi, Royal & Derngate, Northampton, 20th October

Duchess of Malfi“Anyone local got a thurible?” came a tweet from the Derngate’s Chief Executive a few weeks ago. I knew I didn’t, so regretfully couldn’t help. But now I know why he wanted one. Because as you enter the Royal auditorium for this production of The Duchess of Malfi, you are confronted by this huge swaying thurible, puffing out its incense against the pitch black, giving that eerie sensation of a hallowed monastic environment, and bringing to mind all those feelings of religious guilt that make you shudder at the prospect of High Church. (Well it does me.)

If that thurible was being wafted around by some officer of the church, on the same scale you’d be absolutely diminutive. And so too, when the set opens up and is dominated by a large golden cross against the background, you feel really small in the stalls. It’s no ordinary cross, this one looks like a segment of an old window frame; on the same scale you’d be about the size of an ant, powerless to oppose the evil that’s about to unfold on stage, much like the Duchess herself.

Charlotte Emmerson “Webster was much possessed by death”, as Eliot says, and wasn’t he just. By the time the interval has ended and the audience is brought crashing back to attention by the sound of the prison gate clanking shut, there is no way forward but for mass destruction of almost all the main characters. I’ve never seen this play before and I haven’t read it in almost thirty years, so I wasn’t really prepared for its content. It’s fascinating to see a play that was contemporary of Shakespeare but not written by him – today we’re familiar with the usual Shakespearean play construction and poetic language, but in this play the words are so obviously not Shakespeare’s, that this alone makes for a revealing experience. To my ears, he’s less poetic, and less adept at explaining the character’s motives, but still there are some wonderful passages that you feel would not be out of place in modern drama.

Laurie SansomWell what can one say about this production. It’s sheer magic. Laurie Sansom is a creative genius. Don’t let him go to another theatre! In fact I hope they won’t let him out of the building; well maybe, tagged, and allowed to stray no further than Prezzo’s. His artistic insight is amazing, he creates a company that bonds together so well and he has an extraordinary ability to get to the heart of the text and lay its truth bare.

Daniel Fredenburgh He had the idea to introduce contemporary madrigals to this otherwise music-free play, which at first I thought might not work; but actually this intensifies the emotion and the spookiness. The singers double up as minor courtier roles occasionally taking part in the action, which allows for unnecessary passages to be cut easily to keep the pace up. The music is stunning; the effect inventive.

David Caves Charlotte Emmerson is the Duchess, with ardour, horror, compassion, sadness and forgiveness in her eyes. She takes you through the stages of recent widowhood, taking happiness with a new husband in secret, being a loving mother, kind to her lady-in-waiting; then you see her easily out-tricked, but bravely committed to survival; and finally too insignificant to fight the evil. It’s a great performance.

Nick BloodDaniel Fredenburgh as the Cardinal has an excellent steely glare; and there is a marvellously realised scene in the confession box where his hypocrisy is most obvious as he paws at his mistress Julia. There is superb use of the chorus of madrigalers in this scene too. David Caves’ Bosola is no ogre but a calculating chancer, with a warped but understandable morality, and Nick Blood’s Antonio convinced throughout as the scribe who had greatness thrust upon him and who was out of his depth in the trickery and evil of Calabria.

But the real star of this show is Laurie Sansom. The sound effects; the lighting effects; the clever cutting, the deft use of the Royal’s stage, which isn’t big – sometimes people just try to cram too much on there. The man is gold dust.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Derngate, Northampton, 14th October

Dougie DunlopLast night’s Screaming Blue Murder was quite an odd affair really, as there were only about 60 people in the hall. Normally they get at least twice that. So the atmosphere was a little on the quiet side, and you felt the comics had to work twice as hard to get the laughs, and possibly took fewer risks as well. In addition, some of the crowd were a bit…odd… You know it’s going to be a strange night when Dan Evans (compere again, on good form) asked a guy in the front row what he did for a living and he said he worked from his bedroom…and the first thing he did in the morning was to “knock one out”….

Windsor Moving on. Fortunately the turns were all great. The first comic was Dougie Dunlop, an Islington Scot with excellent observations about the stupidity of the world. Clever stuff, very funny. Next was Windsor, the only comic (Dan Evans aside) who we have seen more than once at this club. I think he did precisely the same act as he did the time before, but luckily, it’s a very funny act. Nice observations from a more villainous perspective. A West Ham fan too, so clearly a Good Man. Christian Reilly Last up was Christian Reilly, using his guitar as prop, very funny musical jokes (something in the style of another, I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue inspired I feel), looked slightly more alarmed at the sparse numbers of the audience than the other two, but still got plenty of laughs.

One more session two weeks time of this show being on a Thursday, and then it moves to Fridays. I think that will increase the numbers (and therefore the hilarity). I’ll miss my Friday night drinkies and curry routine though.

Review – A Month in the Country, Chichester Festival Theatre, October 9th

A Month in the CountryEvery year we take an annual pilgrimage to Chichester to see a production at the Festival Theatre. This is our fifth year – and I reckon this is the second best production we’ve seen there. (The two part dramatisation of Nicholas Nickleby is still tops.)

When you enter the theatre you’re in for a treat. The stage appears enormous! You see the back of the Islayev house, and the garden – and the trees! Trees shoot up from the back of the stage and their branches overhang the auditorium right up to the back row, welcoming you into this idyllic environment. You get to see inside the house, through windows, pathways round the back, and the details of the garden – real plants, a real water pump (with real water!) This is the kind of realistic staging you can imagine would have been the norm in the Victorian era. And it feels luscious.

Then you have what turns out to be a damn good story. I’ve not seen or read this play before, and I was very impressed. A bored lady of the house with a wandering eye is bewitched by the enthusiastic and unsophisticated charms of the young tutor brought in to teach her son. Unfortunately, so is her 17 year old ward, who age-wise is a much more suitable match. Problems ensue.

Janie DeeIt’s a marvellous production. Janie Dee plays Natalya, her soul aflame with love that she knows she really shouldn’t consider, with complete conviction. You get every nuance of her emotions from her expressive eyes, the twitches of her mouth, her languid/coy/come-on body postures. Wonderful. James McArdleJames McArdle, as the target of her affection Aleksey, does an excellent line in gauche enthusiasm, faltering delivery and youthful charm, a Turgenevian David Tennant. You can see how he has been completely overwhelmed by his surroundings and fallen in too deep, without being able to do anything about it. Michael FeastMichael Feast, as the family friend Michel, who has held a candle for Natalya for decades by the sound of it, is by turn impressively forlorn, confused, distressed and decisive. Kenneth CranhamKenneth Cranham, blustering about as the incompetent and corrupt Doctor Shpigelsky, and looking like Stinky Pete from Toy Story, also gives a first-rate performance. In fact there are no weak links in the cast at all.

I don’t know if it is the brilliance of Turgenev or Brian Friel who has adapted the work for this production, but I really enjoyed the use of soliloquies for Michel and Natalya, asking themselves about their inner feelings and reactions to a situation in a way that I know I do frequently. Very believable.

I also very much enjoyed the use of British regional accents to emphasise who’s “in” and who isn’t. Teddy KempnerThe well-to-do members of the household have splendid clipped southern English accents, whereas the servants are from Lancashire; and the incomer Aleksey is pure Glasgow. The other accent employed was over-the-top German by Teddy Kempner as Herr Schaaf, which was appropriate for a role whose main reason it seemed to me was to laugh at his misuse of language.

Another marvellous aspect of this production is the terrific lighting. The lighting plot takes us through all times of the day and night and plays an important part in the realism of the design. Especially Natalya and Aleksey in the moonlit garden – you could almost touch the moonlight halo that framed their bodies, incredibly effective. It’s officially fabulous.

It’s a super production that certainly deserves a life hereafter.

Review – The Talented Mr Ripley, Royal & Derngate, Northampton, October 6th

The Talented Mr RipleyI love going to the Royal and Derngate. Such variety. Such good value. A friendly, creative environment where anything can happen. That’s not particularly relevant to my thoughts about The Talented Mr Ripley, but I thought I’d state my case anyway.

It’s not often you get a story about someone who is completely without any redeeming features. Tom Ripley is first seen posing as a taxman, terrorising some poor pap who didn’t pay enough of his debt to the state. But it’s the power that enthrals him more than the financial gain, as he patterns delicate cigarette burn holes in the cheque he has fraudulently obtained rather than trying to bank it. If he goes on a journey – and I’m not sure he does really, he’s a bad bastard at the beginning and a bad bastard at the end – I guess he moves more towards the financial gain aspect of his machinations.

Skip this paragraph if you don’t want to know the story. Ripley establishes his badness credentials by hoodwinking an old/sick couple to send him to Italy in an attempt to track down their missing son Ricky so that he can return to the US before his mother dies. Ripley quickly tracks him down; falls in love with him (or not – you decide); manipulates him out of love with his girlfriend; ingratiates himself in his affections; then bumps him off in a boat and takes on his identity. Meanwhile another guy Ricky knows in Italy smells a rat, and in attempt to find out where Ricky has gone also gets himself bumped off by Ripley. The girlfriend retires hurt, like a gracious cricketer; Ricky’s parents decide to bestow all their worldly goods on Ripley instead of Ricky; and Ripley lives happily ever after.

Kyle Sommer It’s a thoroughly nasty story. Ripley is a thoroughly nasty person; but to get away with it the character must have a Charisma As Big As The Ritz. Although technically I thought Kyle Soller as Ripley gave a faultless performance of a very demanding role, I personally couldn’t see his charisma. He portrayed Ripley much more as the conniving weaselly little s**t that he really is. He was particularly sinister when laying out Ricky’s clothes and assuming his appearance. But if I were Ricky, I would never have trusted him.

Sam Heughan There were some excellent performances from other members of the cast – Sam Heughan as Ricky credibly showed all aspects of his personality – the all-American sports hero, the guy who likes to have a good time with his mates, the weak-willed potential rapist (a nasty scene if ever there was one), the guy who was under-prepared for surprise attacks by the person who he thought he could trust.

Michelle Ryan Michelle Ryan, too, very good as Marge, the wronged girlfriend – and possibly even better doubling up in the minor role of Sophia the prostitute who nearly gets raped. Chris Ravenscroft Nice to see Chris Ravenscroft again, once sidekick to TV’s Detective Inspector (“there bin a murder”) Wexford. Not overly convinced by his performance as Ricky’s father, but very effective as the Italian detective who’s just beginning to suss out Ripley’s guilt – a cross between Columbo, Morse and Topo Gigio.

But, you know, there are problems. Boy are there problems.

The end of act one has a most ingenious way of showing the boat on which Ripley and Ricky go further out to sea, and from whence only one of them would return. But – really – the “fight” between them was choreographed as balletically hokily as you could imagine and I found it laughable. It was the least convincing stage fight I have ever seen. I was waiting for the handbags to come out. And then there was a video projection which (I assume) was to convince the audience that two people were struggling underwater and one of them was drowning. Hmmm. Sometimes the imagination can work much better.

Another problem was the ending. If ever a play ended with a whimper and not a bang, this is it. Possibly because Ripley never gets a well-deserved come-uppance, one feels really deprived of a proper denouement. His aunt has come out to see him in Italy and is droning on about something boring – a hideously boring speech. Now – this is a long play. Too long. I don’t think I fell asleep. Very hard to do so from Row B of the stalls because you feel (normally) so involved in what’s going on. But maybe I did, as during the course of this speech my brain decided it had had enough and didn’t want to follow it any more. So I thought to myself I’d let this bit pass, and then catch up with the story in the next scene.

Only there was no next scene. The boring speech ends, and so does the play. Having tuned out, I was suddenly rather freaked by the fact that it had all finished and I hadn’t noticed it. And I don’t think I was alone in that thought in the audience. It took a long time for the applause to start up – I think there was a mutual feeling of “That can’t be the end, can it???” and then I have to say I thought the applause was tepid and short-lived at best. Shame because it was a hard working cast who deserved more.

The play would definitely be improved with a few cuts – probably a bit of a re-write really, to prune it back by about half an hour. A lot of the dialogue at the beginning of the play was very stilted and unnatural. It didn’t really pick up until Ripley arrived in Italy.

So – in brief – a lot of effort, a lot of effective sinisterness, some good staging ideas, but with a feeling of overall disappointment at the end. At times this could have been a four-star show; but on reflection it’s more of a plucky two-star than solid three-star. Pity.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Derngate, Northampton, 30th September

Dan Evans' bookAnother £10 well spent at the Screaming Blue Murder show in the Underground at the Derngate. Dan Evans was the compere again, and although he did his “Staying at the Travelodge Wake Up Call” routine yet again, he was still on good form and I actually bought his book at the end of the evening. He signed it for me. Looks like it will be quite funny.

Tom PriceFirst comedian was Tom Price and he was excellent. He did a nice line in the problems with having a posh accent (something with which I can sympathise as mine is not dissimilar) – one’s inability to negotiate with car mechanics, or to talk dirty. Very good!

Marian PashleyNext was Marian Pashley, again very good but didn’t quite connect as well. She has a very laid back style, and I just don’t think us Northampton comedy audiences are that sophisticated. We like it loud and inyerface. But she had some good observations – pity I can’t quite remember any of them off hand.

Alistair Barrie Last act was Alistair Barrie; he provided the most mirth of the evening, with the best lines and the most professional delivery – not entirely sure we got to know the real him though, there was in fact a bit of human warmth lacking from all three acts last night.

Sounds like I’m a bit grudging about last night’s show – but I’m not really. We had a very nice time. Sometimes it just can be very difficult to remember the details….

Actually, a funny thing happened last night. Normally people hang around in the bar outside until someone wearing a Royal & Derngate t-shirt opens the door and checks your tickets. As it’s unallocated seating, you have to get in prompto if you want a decent seat – ie in the middle, not too near the front or back. But last night some people just started walking in and taking their seats, and then others followed… being a law-abiding citizen I knew This Was Wrong but I also didn’t want to end up in the front or back row. So we also went in. So I reckon there were about 150 people in there last night, and not one of them had their ticket checked!