Review – Ruby Wax and Judith Owen Losing It, Menier Chocolate Factory, February 27th 2011

Losing ItI didn’t know that Ruby Wax suffered from mental ill health, although it had occurred to me we hadn’t seen her on TV much recently. In fact, I can’t remember seeing her since her superb rendition of Avril Lavergne’s Skater Boi on Comic Relief Does Fame Academy (or is it vice versa?) Anyway, although I didn’t get much of a sense of the time scale of when her decline in mental health occurred, she does give a very lively and thoughtful account of what it’s all about.

Accompanied by her friend and fellow sufferer Judith Owen at the keyboard, Ruby gives us an emotional, funny, thought-provoking and also very sad account of what it’s like to have depression. With her usual irreverent style it comes across as a very active lecture more than a show/play/theatrical experience; and although it feels quite free-formed it must actually be scripted to the nth degree because of the seamless way Judith Owen’s musical accompaniments add a background to her story. The music reflects the mood and enhances it; and even when Judith is not playing she is acting as a foil to some of Ruby’s more caustic moments.

Ruby Wax For me the most illuminating moment was her explaining why being told simply to “perk up” doesn’t work. She said it would work if you had two brains. The working brain would be able to tell the sick brain to pull itself together. But when you only have one brain, and it’s not working properly, this is not an option. Simply put, but very revealing.

After the interval there is a question and answer session. I had thought in advance about what I might ask, if the opportunity arose and the moment felt right. As it happened, many other people had prepared loads of questions and it seemed to me that each questioner was either a fellow sufferer or very closely related to one. I sensed that they all had gained a great deal of comfort from the show and recognised their own plights within it. So I am very glad I didn’t end up asking the inane and stupid questions that I had prepared.

Judith Owen This show makes one question oneself. I sat there wondering if I had any form of mental instability. I decided that I don’t think I do. Mrs Chrisparkle was wondering the same and came up with the same conclusion (about her – history doesn’t relate what she thinks of me). But there was a question in the second half from a woman whose account of her own situation made me recognise a behavioural pattern in myself which made me wonder… Just because one doesn’t suffer from depression now, you never know what’s around the corner. Of course the Q&A session will never be the same from one show to the next, so this is a potentially explosive situation. One surprise was that one of the questioners adopted a very hostile tone, which I think startled everyone, including the two on stage. There was a lot of loud tutting and intakes of breath from the audience, and I think if he hadn’t stopped his line of questioning, there was going to be an organised lynch-mob awaiting him on the way out!

So all in all a thought-provoking and very interesting couple of hours. I think it might have a greater effect on you if you are a sufferer yourself; but for a non-sufferer it was still revealing and informative and you do come away from the experience wiser as well as entertained. Oh, and one other thing – Judith Owen has a stunning voice!

Review – Plenty, Crucible Studio, Sheffield, 19th February 2011

David Hare SeasonHaving seen Racing Demon on the Saturday matinee, we went the whole hog and stayed for David Hare’s Plenty in the Studio theatre for the evening performance.

I remember seeing the 1978 National Theatre production of Plenty with Kate Nelligan. That is, Kate Nelligan played Susan Traherne in the original production; she and I didn’t have an interval ice-cream and share a kebab after the show. My memory of that production is that it was a very strong play, with an excellent sense of story-telling, and with a super central performance by Ms Nelligan. It’s very interesting to see it again 33 years later (gasp!) especially alongside Racing Demon. Plenty is a much less mature play. I think there are aspects of it where David Hare deliberately sets out to shock, rather than let his characters tell their story in their own way. It chooses to jump about with time, maybe has some gratuitous bad language, and nudity that you could probably do without; but it’s still an enjoyable play to watch and work out your feelings about the characters.

Plenty Susan Traherne, the young Secret Intelligence officer who clearly “had a good war”, is at the centre of the play that follows her subsequent career and life through the post war years; years that were promised to be a time of Plenty, but for Susan it was a mixed bag. At times and in some aspects of her life she could claim to be very successful, but as she gets older, and she suffers a decline in her mental health, she turns into something of a failure. Much has been made of her mental instability; is it an allegory of the decline in Britain’s power? Is her mental health in any way caused by the activities of the British government and society in general? For me, no. At first she is a bright positive achiever, when everything goes her way. But when she starts to get thwarted – viz. doing a job she feels is beneath her and her transaction to get pregnant with a man she barely knows, and which is unsuccessful – she starts to lose her way. And her childlessness goes to influence much of her future, and that of those around her.

Hattie Monahan Hattie Monahan plays Susan head-on, full of determination. Full of fear in her young war days, full of confidence in her early postwar days, full of manic glee as she declines in the late 50s and 60s. It’s a hard role, she’s rarely off stage, and she does it well. But the supporting cast almost take on that “supporting” role deferentially – which I wasn’t sure about. They help her with costume changes on stage between the scenes, which is a nifty way of getting it done, but I don’t think it should imply they are of lesser importance to the production. I have to say I was uncomfortable with the curtain call. All the cast except Ms Monahan come on stage and take their bows, then they all applaud as Hattie joins them and takes a separate series of bows. But it’s an ensemble piece. I don’t think it requires that differentiation between star and others, and it felt at odds with the otherwise egalitarian nature of this theatre.

Kirsty Bushell Alice, her friend, of whom she is sometimes jealous, sometimes dependant, is played with mischievous charm by Kirsty Bushell. The episodic nature of the piece allows the character of Alice to develop alongside Susan and they make a decent contrast. I thought she very nicely conveyed the almost patronising way one sometimes accidentally adopts when dealing with someone with mental health issues. It was like a bland kindness, but sincerely meant. Edward BennettThe other major role is that of Raymond Brock, Susan’s husband, who comes in and out of her life at different times and whose promising diplomatic career she ruins. Brock is played by Edward Bennett, who we saw in the titular role of the notable RSC production of Hamlet when David Tennant was the troubled Dane but then went off sick and Laertes took over the role at short notice. He was excellent in Hamlet and is excellent in this, giving some humanity to the otherwise stiff and starchy diplomatic staff; barkingly angry with his wife as she embarrasses him at social events.

Mrs Chrisparkle found herself talking to a lady next to her during the interval, who turned out to be Edward Bennett’s Auntie. His dad was sitting behind us. It was almost a family gathering in the stalls. In the first scene Brock is fast asleep naked and Alice picks up and holds his penis. I told you Hare was in a mood to shock. How embarrassing to have that done to you in front of your Auntie. I could never be an actor.

Whilst the seating is not as comfortable in the Studio as it is in the Crucible main house, the Studio is still a very engaging small space in which to stage an intimate piece. Plenty lends itself very well to this small area, even though as a play it has big staging moments – an airdropped spy coming in with his parachute attached for instance – and it’s a rewarding, thoroughly decent production, giving the audience lots to consider on their way home. You do feel sorry for Susan, who ended the war with the hope of “days and days like these”, but who had too much too young and basically fizzled out. You have to admire David Hare’s ability to create gripping characters.

Review – Racing Demon, Crucible, Sheffield, 19th February 2011

David Hare SeasonI think it’s about eight years since we last visited Sheffield. The approach to the theatre complex now is so smart and elegant, full of welcoming restaurants, with beautifully lit municipal buildings with lovely fountains, and a real walk-through Winter Garden, that I barely recognised the place.

The Crucible too has had a refit since our last visit and it must be now one of the most welcoming and comfortable theatres in the country. Really impressed. All this, and ridiculously cheap tickets too. We had seats three rows from the front but slightly on the side (didn’t matter at all not being at the front because the show was so sensibly blocked, unlike….) and they were only £13 each.

Racing DemonSo we went to Sheffield to get a bit of the David Hare season action. He is a writer I have always admired, and even when his plays are a bit on the dark side, he is still thought-provoking and substantial. Racing Demon is his 1990 play about the ups and downs of a parish team of four vicars, with a wider questioning of the rights and wrongs of the Christian Church. At that time Mrs Chrisparkle and I didn’t see a lot of theatre so this play was brand new to us. And what a play it is. Believable characters, extremely funny, serious issues, heartbreaking moments. It really deserves its reputation as one of the best plays of recent years.

Malcolm SinclairIt’s largely a bare stage with occasional furniture brought on to suggest locations, but the dominating scenery is the Mackintosh-inspired back wall which lights up to create different shapes suggesting a church or a cross, and which conceals doors to the back. It’s very impressive. The play opens with the Rev Lionel Espy apparently praying but really, deep down, arguing with God. It’s a brilliant opening speech and completely sets the scene for the whole play. Malcolm Sinclair’s performance perfectly conveys a man desperately trying to do his best in a job he has been in too long. He wants to succour his flock, but he doesn’t believe the Church is supporting him in the right way – and in truth he is more interested in politicising his sermons and pastoral work with a practical anti-poverty stance, rather than by taking the sacrament seriously. Sometimes he resists the powers that work against him; sometimes he crumbles. It’s a fantastic performance, wholly credible.

Jamie Parker It’s his young curate, Tony Ferris, played by Jamie Parker, possessed of too much of the fire and zeal of the evangelist to be satisfied with Espy’s relaxed form of vicaring, who starts the rift that will ultimately be Espy’s downfall. We saw Jamie Parker in another Hare play last year, My Zinc Bed, and he gave a very convincing performance of the misery of alcoholism. Here his enthusiasm for Christ rides roughshod over all his relationships and his progress towards what you expect will soon become slight insanity is chillingly told. There is a particular scene where he discusses his past relationship with his ex-girl friend, and his emotional disconnection with the real world actually makes the audience gasp. Fantastically well done.

Matthew Cottle The whole cast are wonderful actually – it’s all completely convincing. I loved the contrast between the ways the four vicars are shown in their quiet moments with God. It’s the writing that does it, but Matthew Cottle’s simplistically happy Rev “Streaky” Bacon wonderfully offsets the darker side of religious doubts offered elsewhere in the play. Jonathan Coy Jonathan Coy as the Bishop of Southwark was genuinely scary in his anger – although his main argument is with the ordination of women bishops – it was 1990 when this play came out, and how many women bishops do we have today? Ian Gelder Excellent support from Ian Gelder (who I remember seeing as Private Steven Flowers in Privates on Parade way back in 1978) as the Rev Harry Henderson, outed as gay by a tabloid paper – today that would be redundant but in this play has a greater effect, which is the only sign of its slight “dating”; although even then it becomes a revealing barometer of the times. Paul RattrayMore excellent support from Paul Rattray as his friend, and Jane Wymark of Midsomer Murders fame as Espy’s long suffering wife. She prepares coffees on a tray for Espy and his guest and leaves with a concerned look and the serious question “Are you all right with the pouring?” Jane WymarkWith that line she superbly encapsulates so much of their relationship together.

This definitely deserves a transfer. Important subjects are tackled intelligently and acted beautifully. Daniel Evans’ direction allows the story to develop at a decent pace, with clarity and emotion. It’s a winner through and through.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Derngate, Northampton, 18th February 2011

Another night in the Underground in Northampton for this excellent value comedy night out. Dan Evans was our host again, as always in a very good mood and interacting cheekily with the audience.

Ivo Graham First main act was Ivo Graham. He’s only 19 and that must be really tough to cope with a crowd like ours, but he did it admirably! He had nice lines about facebook like hiding what he was really doing online by discovering which Disney Character he would be. I also liked the idea that he would describe a reviewer with the alternative job title, “c*** with a pen”. He also rose to the challenge of an unpredictable audience when a very alluring young lady left her seat during his act and when he challenged her she announced she was “going for a poo”. It very much threw the rest of his act away but he interacted with it very well, he sustained the humour of that moment extremely well and turned it to his favour. One to watch, methinks!

Barry from WatfordSecond up was a change to the billed proceedings, Barry from Watford. Now I was very surprised to hear that Barry from Watford would be there as I thought he was something of a superstar in the comedy club world, as he is prominently on Radio 2 with Steve Wright and I believe fronts some very large gigs. So I was delighted at the prospect of seeing his act.

What didn’t help was a problem with the sound. Barry’s act impersonating a wheezy and vocally strained octagenarian didn’t come over well as his audio mannerisms just sounded painful with the sound feedback. And also, although I thought he started well, to me a lot of the content of his act was rather crude and had more bad language than I thought was appropriate for the Barry character as I’ve heard him on the radio. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – Northampton comedy audiences are not that sophisticated; if you do a political act it’s likely to be met with silence; on the other hand we’re not in a Jim Davidson timewarp either, and any humour based on racism or homophobia gets met with the same stony silence. Barry did a bit of racist/homophobic stuff and it didn’t work. So for me the act was a bit disappointing. Steve BestI heard some people at the bar afterwards saying how hilarious he was, but also I noticed others not applauding much. So I guess he’s the kind of comic who divides his audiences.

Last act was Steve Best – fast and furious, engaging personality, clever use of props, although I thought his finale was borderline disgusting. He kept the energy up and certainly delivered loads of laughs. All in all a good night.

Review – The Years Between, Royal, Northampton, 10th February

The Years BetweenThe Years Between is a rather long-forgotten play by Daphne du Maurier, that takes place during the Second World War and originally produced in 1944. Thus it’s a new experience for everyone who will see it so it feels rather like going to see a brand new play. However, the serenely beautiful set welcomes us to a world of comfortable writing desks, sky high bookcases, elegant French windows and a reassuringly crunchy gravel drive outside. All it needs is a nanny and a well behaved nine year old boy and the picture is complete. We are definitely in 1942 not 2011.

But there are many similarities between that era and our own. Admittedly we don’t have to scrap the railings for salvage, send our favourite books for pulp or knit balaclavas to help the war effort, but we do send our loved ones overseas to fight in wars and sometimes we don’t see them come home.

Diana Wentworth is at the centre of this comfortable home, with loving son, devoted nanny, reliably solid cousin at the farm, and (presumably) loving husband overseas. So when he is lost at sea she faces the crisis of what-to-do; and she chooses action. She replaces her husband as the sitting MP; she immerses herself in progressive politics, playing a part in improving education and housing; she falls in love with the cousin. Then she discovers she is not a widow after all. I’m not going to tell you any more of the plot, for obvious reasons. But what a dilemma! And it could easily happen today.

Indeed it is a really engrossing story. At the interval Mrs Chrisparkle was positively intrigued at the realisation that she had absolutely no idea how Diana’s tale was going to end. It’s an excellent piece of story-telling with many relevant themes for today. Is it reasonable for someone who has been away for a long time to expect nothing has changed? How do you reconcile a couple with politically reactionary ideas and progressive ideas? Which is greater – the love for your country of the love for your partner? And do you regret the way you spent The Years Between?

Marianne Oldham At the heart of the production is Marianne Oldham’s performance as Diana. You can instantly see on her first appearance that she makes a lively juxtaposition to the careworn nanny, the anxious son and the reliably dull cousin. She is a go-getter. No nonsense, but caring with it. She wants to do the best for everyone, including herself. Marianne Oldham expresses Diana’s personality perfectly – you really feel that you get under her skin and know what she is thinking even before she has said anything. It’s a lively, entertaining but also sensitive performance.

Gerald Kyd And the perfect foil for that is Gerald Kyd as Michael, a scarred and embittered character as a result of his war experience (although you get the feeling he was always a hard man to like); by turn petulant, reasonable, selfish, kindly. He’s totally convincing and also conveys the character into the auditorium with authority and understanding.

David Verrey The supporting cast is also extremely effective; I particularly enjoyed David Verrey as Sir Ernest Foster, the cabinet minister and family friend, who strikes just the right tone of wealthy arrogant self-indulgence without ever becoming a caricature. Luke NunnThe substantial role of Robin, the son, was performed on the night we saw it by Luke Nunn and he took it with gusto – confident, amusing, clearly fully integrated with the rest of the cast as an equal.

A very satisfying evening, full of insight and provocative themes. Catch it while you can.

PS Mrs Chrisparkle and I normally have a glass of wine on arrival and another in the interval. We really appreciated the idea of the barman who suggested we buy a bottle, had a glass each beforehand, and in the interval the remainder of the bottle was waiting for us in a nice big ice bucket with two glasses. It really felt quite glamorous and celebratory!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Derngate, Northampton, 4th February

I’m sensing there’s going to be a downside to having changed the Screaming Blue Murder nights to a Friday. Yes, it’s nearly always a sell-out now, which is good – and they make loads of sales at the bar, which is also good – but the combination of the two is that we’re starting to hear more heckling nowadays. A heckle is fine if a) it’s deserved and b) it’s funnier than the comedian. Unfortunately the young drinkers of Northampton haven’t quite yet mastered that art.

However, I’m talking non-chronologically. Dan was host again, still effortless at connecting with the audience and getting things off to a relaxed and funny start, but if he does that Travelodge routine again I think I might scream.

Paul KerensaThe first act was Paul Kerensa. He was very good, had nice lines about Cornish incest, was quite mainstream in his subject matter but occasionally trod very near the knuckle, and most impressively, as though he was live on Channel 4 with Davina, he did not swear. I think that he’s actually the first comedian we have seen at Northampton who did not use one swear word. And interestingly, he didn’t come across as staid or untrendy as a result. Good on him!

Susan Murray Second was Susan Murray. She unfortunately got the worst of the heckling but she handled it excellently. She did a lot of material about accents which is always entertaining, but did other stuff too, including Mrs Chrisparkle’s favourite comedy line of the year so far – “My parents never smacked me as a child. Well, maybe the occasional few grams to get me to sleep…”

Andrew O'NeillLast up was Andrew O’Neill, who makes an interesting presence as he was semi “en travestie” and slightly made up but still with a very blokey face. Very inventive and funny material, also in receipt of some heckling but only minor stuff; full of attack and extremely confident, which was just what the club needed for its final act. Enjoyed them all very much.

Don’t think the Derngate’s “Curry and a comic” thing is working well. You pay £6.50 (I think – don’t quote me) for a curry before the show. I wonder if it wouldn’t be a better idea simply to allow people to pre-order a curry type snack at the bar just like you do with the drinks and then have it at the first interval, even if it means having to extend the interval by five minutes or so. Just a thought.

Review – Fauré’s Requiem Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Derngate, Northampton, January 30th

Faure's RequiemThe Royal Philharmonic returned to the Derngate this week with a concert culminating with Fauré’s Requiem. Very pleasing to see that there was hardly a spare seat, as quite rightly these concerts attract many happy music lovers.

Owain Arwel HughesOur conductor for the evening was Owain Arwel Hughes. He has an avuncular presence on the podium, letting the music be the star, smiling encouragingly in all the right places, keeping his orchestra perfectly together and sounding sweet. Sweetness was very much the order of the day, as the central work was Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 1 with Andrew Zolinsky as the soloist. I was new to this work, and if ever a piece was delicate this is it. Andrew Zolinsky I don’t mean to sound patronising about it, but it is a thoroughly pretty piece of music. It conjures up images of waterfalls and pixies and jewels and fairy dust. Andrew Zolinsky sat tense and tetchy on his stool as the long orchestral introduction ensued, but once he started playing he relaxed into this marvellous escapist dreamlike piece. It was a very luxurious experience. Not particularly demanding for the audience. More like bathing in honey.

Northampton Bach Choir There was more oomph in the other pieces though. The evening started with Handel’s Zadok the Priest, a piece I can never recall until I hear the first couple of notes. It was full of the regality and splendour you would expect and the choirs – the Northampton Bach Choir and the Boys and Men of All Saints Church – were in fine voice. Really stirring stuff.

Boys and Men of All Saints Church After the interval we had Fauré’s requiem and again the choirs gave a super performance, strong and subtle in turn. For our soloists we had Elin Manahan Thomas for the Pie Jesu and Giles Underwood for the baritone parts. It seems slightly unbalanced that you have a singer of the quality of Elin Manahan Thomas Elin Manahan Thomas come and perform for barely three minutes, but they were exquisite ones, so I’m not complaining. I love Fauré’s Requiem and it was excellent throughout. The strings hit a forceful and portentous note from the start, the singing was haunting and beautiful and you just felt like it was a privilege to be there.

Giles Underwood There was an amusing end to the evening when after the Choirmaster had come down to take a bow to richly deserved enthusiastic applause, two bouquets were brought out for the soloists; the first went to Ms Thomas, but the second one bypassed Mr Underwood and was given to the Choirmaster by mistake, so that we had a bereft baritone! Another splendid concert by the RPO, we’re very lucky to have this season here in Northampton.