Review – Hardeep Singh Kohli, The Nearly Naked Chef, Royal, Derngate, Northampton, 21st July 2011

Hardeep Singh KohliThis was one of those shows that I booked by instinct. I didn’t know much about Hardeep Singh Kohli; we’d seen him once on Question Time and also in that series about celebrities seeing what it’s like to be homeless, which despite extensive use of Prof. Google, doesn’t seem to be researchable anywhere.

So what would the show be? A comedy stand up? A chat with the audience? A cookery demonstration? Would he be nearly naked? Actually it was a mix of all of the above, the nearly naked element being the fact that he wore a kilt and therefore one presumes he would dress traditionally.

I wouldn’t normally be the kind of person who would be interested in a cookery demonstration. Cooking for me is a passive affair. I am happy to hunt down the necessary elements from Waitrose for Mrs C to reassemble into a meal, and can stretch to preparing pasta with a sauce that goes ping after one minute fifteen seconds. Anything more in depth than that and we would probably both head for one of our seemingly endless range of delightful eateries within 500 yards of Sparkle Castle.

But, actually, Mr HSK’s combination of cookery and chattery works effortlessly well. His ability to divert and cook at the same time proves that not only women can multitask. To this end, he’s definitely on a par with Meera Syal. His insights into what goes on in the kitchens of one’s local Indian Restaurant were fascinating and made perfect sense, and he provided a lot of I’m sure useful information about how to create the perfect lamb curry, to which I listened, smiled and forgot.

It’s a most unusual evening’s entertainment; quiet, convivial, infused with a gentle humour, satisfying in a charming sort of way. The only other one-man show I’ve seen that had a similar atmosphere was when, several decades ago, Mrs C and I saw the Rabbi Lionel Blue eloquently rambling away at an evening event in Aylesbury Church. Time moves on, and Mr HSK uses a few more four-letter words than the good Rabbi did, but then he was cooking as well, which the Rabbi wasn’t.

I think I would most liken it to spending the evening in the kitchen at a dinner party, conversing genially with your host as he prepares a toothsome repast, swapping stories about twitter and ingredients, seeing the meal come together; and then the final act of the show, which happens after curtain down, is to be imagined in his comfortable dining room over poppadoms and port.

Lamb CurryThere’s no doubt that Mr HSK is a fine cook, as I was one of the lucky ones chosen to sample his Lamb Curry, recipe thoughtfully provided in the very reasonably priced programme. Actually I think it was the minty dressing that made it. He had a relaxed rapport with the audience, and I think we all went home nourished to some extent.

It’s not a show for everyone; if you’re expecting lively stand up and a bunch of jokes you’d be disappointed. One person appeared to walk out because he wasn’t Delia Smith. Another person, for no reason whatsoever, announced that he didn’t follow him on twitter. On second thoughts, that was me, sorry about that. Definitely an evening with a difference.

Review – Our Country’s Good, Community Actors Group, Derngate, Northampton, 18th July 2011

Our Country's Good“Our Country’s Good”’s been around since 1988, so how come Mrs Chrisparkle and I had never seen it? Well 1988 was a time of Us Doing Other Things and theatre wasn’t on the agenda that often. I’d heard that it was a well thought-of play about life in a penal colony in Australia and that it had won awards and is studied in schools. And so it is. It’s a tough play in many respects – it doesn’t hesitate to show the savagery of the penal colony, the hopelessness of the inmates, and the sad loneliness of the officers too (some of them – not the ones who are being sadistic, they quite like it.)

So I jumped at the chance of seeing it on stage. I was impressed at how the play takes on many themes. On the one hand, it’s an historical account of the penal colony and how the first ever production of a play on Australian soil came about. On another level, it questions loyalty within subgroups – literally honour amongst thieves; the part the arts can play in redeeming a criminal soul; and the rights and wrongs of a sadistic justice system. The play is just on for three nights at the Underground at the Derngate, performed by the Derngate’s Community Actors Group. (What a shame they decided to add an apostrophe on the programme!) We’d seen members of the group a couple of years ago when they performed Alan Ayckbourn’s Revengers’ Comedies as part of the Derngate’s Ayckbourn summer season, and that production proved a most enjoyable and important part of the programme.

It’s a delight to see the play performed in the Underground Studio, with the seats lining the edges of the room so as to create a very intimate theatre-in-the-round effect. Having just a few props and items of furniture encourage your imagination to fill in the gaps, which is something I always enjoy in the theatre; although to be fair, I was also impressed to see a rowing boat in this production! Attention to detail was very good, with excellent costumes and sensibly evocative sound effects.

Meryl CouperThe cast work together really well and have an obvious affinity for the play itself. There were some excellent performances – Meryl Couper as the unashamedly tricky Liz Morden, has some of the best lines and delivered them with a great mix of comic timing and vitriol. At the beginning of the second act is a speech as full of difficult to comprehend words as some of the most intractable lines of Jacobean Tragedy – yet she actually made it understandable. Sue WhyteDelivering tough justice, Sue Whyte played Major Robbie Ross as a hard warden and a critical colleague; a very strong and memorable performance. She also did a great comic cameo as Meg the whore.

Will AdamsWill Adams brought natural authority to the role of Captain Philip, the man in charge of the penal colony, trying to balance natural justice with the need to run the place effectively. I also very much liked Paul Tunnicliffe’s John Arscott, the keen but troubled convict actor, whose clarity of speech and terrific acting skills could fill the National Theatre. Adam Kozuch grew into the character of Harry Brewer, and the scene depicting his hallucinations of guilt, as a result of arranging the deaths of convicts whom he had started to like, was very powerful. Adam Kozuch Righting the wrongs of last year by dealing with the sin of omission, I should have blogged (but never did) the excellent Northampton Town Walk “Town, My Town” in which Adam Kozuch made a couple of memorable appearances, especially when he came to life as the man reading The Crucible on the Church park bench. If you experienced it, you’ll definitely remember it.

All in all, a very enjoyable evening, and a vivid and clear presentation of an emotionally tough play.

Review – Avenue Q, Derngate, Northampton, 9th July 2011

Avenue QThis was our second stroll down Avenue Q, the first being about five years ago. We had such happy memories of this hilarious show that we knew we had no choice but to see it again. I remember very clearly buying the tickets the first time. The lady at the box office almost wanted us to swear on the Bible that no children would be attending, lest they witness the horror of puppet sex. We were able to reassure her on that point, and almost began to be alarmed at what effect it might have on us.

The puppet sex – inter alia – is still performed with blissful abandon, I’m delighted to report. The success of this show is the winning combination of the daily problems that beset human beings – being out of work, troubled relationships, ambitions, self-deception, discrimination, and so on; but being performed by Sesame Street style puppets. The witty songs all have great insights into modern day life, and the whole thing overwhelms you with its utter charm and honesty.

PrincetonCentral to the show is the on-off relationship between Princeton and Kate Monster. He’s the new kid in town, she’s the one who can never keep a boyfriend. There’s an instant attraction; and after the liberated night of passion (viz. paragraph 2) Kate Monstercareless talk and misunderstanding drives them apart. Princeton rebounds into the arms of Lucy the Slut, a singer of dubious decency; but she’s not a Nice Girl and only wants Princeton for his physical prowess. Kate is on the viewing platform of the Empire States Building, alone and forlorn like Princess Diana at the Taj Mahal,Lucy the Slut where she unwittingly causes a catastrophic accident to Lucy, and there’s a hope that her relationship with Princeton just might have a future.

RodA concurrent tale of another turbulent relationship is that of Nicky and Rod. They house-share but have never been honest with each other about their sexuality. Rod is firmly in the closet, behind several locked doors and chains; Nicky is peeping out from the closet and just wants to be buddies with Rod, no matter what his sexual predilections.Nicky Rod is so repressed that he eventually chucks Nicky out, who ends up begging on the street. Neighbourly advice and self-realisation eventually win over Rod’s self-delusion, he accepts Nicky back, and all three live happily ever after.

Matthew J HenryOther characters populate the street – real humans! In a sense they kind of bring the fantasy down, although the human/puppet mix underlines the melting pot of life on Ave Q. There is a character called Gary who is meant to be the child star Gary Coleman from “Diff’rent Strokes”. This worked fine back in 2006, but now that unfortunately the real Gary Coleman has died, this doesn’t seem to me to work so well any more. It makes it rather dated. I can see how it would need considerable rewriting to overcome this; but it just didn’t feel right. This is no criticism of Matthew J Henry in the role who had a great comic presence.

First Bad Idea BearMuch better are the Bad Idea Bears! Two evil little “butter-wouldn’t-melt” critters, who joyously come up with irresistibly bad ideas, on whom the whole of humanity can blame its mistakes. They are the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of Error. Second Bad Idea BearI’d forgotten how for years after we saw the show the first time, the Bad Idea Bears would constantly invade our house and interrupt our conversations. They’ve already moved in to our new place and I’m sure they will stay some considerable time.

Adam PettigrewThe show is marvellously performed by a young skilful cast, especially those who bring life to their puppet characters, effortlessly swapping identities and voices during the whole performance. Adam Pettigrew as Princeton and Rod does a superb job, making Princeton a real “Everyman” character and delving deep for the complexities of Rod. Rachel JerramRachel Jerram brings the infectiously goofy charm of Kate to life, making her a really loveable character, whilst having a great time portraying the languid whoredom of Lucy. Chris ThatcherChris Thatcher voices Nicky with a childish innocence, and Trekkie Monster with bestial knowingness; and both he and Katharine Moraz as the Bad Idea Bears endear themselves into being your wannabe best friends – Katharine Morazwhich in itself would be a Very Bad Idea Indeed.

It’s a technically fantastic revival. It felt slicker and more professional than the West End production we saw five years ago. Let’s hope it doesn’t go away too long.

Review – The Burlesque Show, Royal, Northampton, 3rd July 2011

This was a complete leap into the Unknown. What would “The Burlesque Show” involve? The theatre’s website promised us a top magician and an exotic dancer. Well we certainly got them, and a whole lot more. So what is Burlesque? Well, from having seen just one evening’s entertainment, it’s largely old-fashioned variety with some titillation thrown in for good measure. But it also seems to have some retro style, and judging from the audience, seems to appeal to women more than men. Doing a bit of online research it looks like it’s a growing cult entertainment, with a considerable following. Well it’s never crossed my path before, but then I have led a sheltered life.

Kiki KaboomAnyway the good burghers of Northampton know their Burlesque as the Royal was packed again and the audience were in an extremely good mood! Our hostess was Kiki Kaboom (it didn’t take me long to realise some of these performers work under a Nom-de-Burlesque). She is a bright funny lady who got us warmed up with her rendition of “I’m a little girl from Maidstone”. She had great interaction with the audience and kept the whole evening going at a good pace and with an endearing warmth.

Elle AmourOne aspect of a burlesque evening seems to be that you get attractive young ladies taking the majority (but not all) of their clothes off. Far be it from me to judge which of Elle Amour, Kittie Klaw and Dani California did it best; but they were all entertaining, stylish, and performed with coquettish humour. Kittie KlawI particularly enjoyed La Klaw’s battle against a seemingly endless supply of spiders nestling about her body, which (of course) required the removal of clothing to get rid of them. Dani CaliforniaElle Amour did two routines, the second of which was particularly edifying as it involved quite a lot of bottom shaking. The interesting thing was how the whole thing really was done “in the best possible taste”.

Mat RicardoIt wasn’t all titillation though. There were some really funny and entertaining variety acts too. For example, we had Mat Ricardo. He’s a juggler – incredibly skilful, with very funny patter, a likeable personality; and he did two routines, both of which were ace.

Elliot MasonThen there was Elliot Mason, a singer of comedy songs about the most unlikely subjects. Two of his really funny songs were about corporate rebranding and the delight in finding sufficient washing up liquid left on the sponge in order to wash the cup that was left out of the dishwasher. He has a great attacking style and involves the audience so that it’s impossible to resist singing along with his ridiculous songs, even though you can’t. Great fun.

Dolores DelightWe had the singer, Dolores Delight, who really came into her own with her second half number, Moon River, performed alongside the most massive balloon you’ve ever seen (hot air balloons excluded). The balloon took on the appearance of the moon and it was a really charming performance.

Fancy ChanceYou couldn’t get more different from Dolores to Fancy Chance, who had two thoroughly memorable routines. In the first half she did a perfect parody of Prince (the “Squiggle” singer), in what I guess is the absolute true spirit of Burlesque. It was amazingly funny. Her second half performance was an homage to North Korea, which quite simply involved a bit of everything. It was just extraordinary!

Paul ZenonTop of the bill – in a sense – was the magician Paul Zenon, who did two excellent tricks; one which Mrs Chrisparkle says she has seen before (I don’t know who she was with because it was new to me), where he spun a full pint of Newcastle Brown around and around while it was perched inside a snooker triangle. Fantastic stuff. Even more effective was another routine where he invited a gentleman up from the audience who was wearing a smart jacket, got him to remove said jacket, whence he proceeded to stab a hole in the back of the jacket and pull endless bits of lining out of the hole he had made, right in front of the poor jacket owner’s nose, then only to present the jacket back unharmed. We spoke to the jacket’s owner on the way out – he said that although he was within inches of the trick being performed he had no idea how Paul Zenon had done it.

Jim DevereauxOne final act was Jim Devereaux; he starts off being a stagehand and ends up being an Elvis impersonator. He was brilliant! I’m not a great Elvis fan but he did his very best songs and it worked extremely well. Would you believe he is the grandson of Ed Devereaux of Skippy fame? Now there’s quality.

This is not in any way meant as a pejorative comment – quite the reverse – but I found the entire show to be the absolutely best “End of the Pier” night you could possibly imagine; or alternatively, the tip-top in cruise entertainment. If you’ve ever been on a cruise ship and seen really really good variety, you’ll appreciate just how excellent this show was.

The only thing that slightly confused me was the advisory age restriction notices placed outside the theatre. Not recommended for the under 16s. 16??? All you saw was one nipple and even that was due to a wardrobe misfunction. The language was milder than most other comedy acts we have seen. By contrast, when I was 13 I saw “Birds of Paradise” at the Garrick Theatre, where Miss Moira Lister was in charge of five rather lovely young working girls, who went topless for the majority of the second act. No one raised an eyebrow at the sight of a 13-year-old in the front row. The only raising was done by the 13-year-old in question. I do feel the age restriction for the Burlesque Show was misplaced and unnecessary.

Nevertheless, it was a really terrific night’s entertainment, which went down a complete storm with the audience. I definitely hope this becomes a regular feature; the Royal is the perfect environment for this sophisticated variety show.

Review – The Lady in the Van, Oxford Playhouse, 1st July 2011

The Lady in the VanFather, would you hear my Confession please. It’s been 15 months since my last visit to the Oxford Playhouse. Last time we went, the staff were very offhand, signage was poor and it all felt a bit substandard. Great news is that it’s back to its former welcoming self, with polite and friendly front of house staff, and a clean and bright foyer that actually makes it feel bigger than it really is. They still don’t have a sign up saying which side of the auditorium you should enter to get closer to your seats, and you have to rely on the ushers to point you in the right direction, but at least it didn’t cause the same confusion as last time. And Father, you might enjoy the play, it’s got quite a lot of Catholic references.

For several years Alan Bennett’s garden became the home to the Lady in the Van – Miss Shepherd, who apparently lived in the van, and several other vehicles besides, for many years. A combination of her self-confidence, his soft-heartedness and a rather Zen acceptance that This Was How It Was Going To Be created this surreal neighbourly situation. And the presentation of the story in this play is pretty surreal too.

Alan Bennett is played by two actors, who simultaneously provide two changing aspects of his personality. This could be Bennett the talker and Bennett the thinker; Bennett’s actions and Bennett’s conscience; later on in the play it becomes Bennett the neighbour and Bennett the writer. This sounds a bit confusing but actually it works effortlessly well. Miss Shepherd’s conversation drifts from flights of fancy to the banal, and her larger-than-life character fits well into this surreal environment. Towards the end of the play she gets even more surreal, but I won’t spoil it for you. There is also a shadowy figure, who comes knocking at her door at odd intervals, using threatening obscenities – which seem a little out of place – and which doesn’t get explained until right at the end (and only then just).

Nichola McAuliffeThe best aspect of this production is that there are some excellent performances. Nichola McAuliffe is Miss Shepherd and she is every inch the feisty, cheeky, emotional character you would expect her to be. Nichola McAuliffe always brings huge gusto and verve to every part she plays and in this role she can be as brash, bold, wily and beguiling as she likes. You can always be assured of vocal clarity with Miss McAuliffe. Nobody sleeps while she’s on. It was because she was in the cast that we decided to see this play. She’s great. She’s one of Mrs Chrisparkle’s favourites.

Paul Kemp The two Alans were Paul Kemp and James Holmes and they gave very credible presentations of someone who the general public probably feels they know inside out – that must be a hard task in itself. I thought James Holmes in particular caught Bennett’s genteel ironies especially well. James Holmes The story takes place at a time in Bennett’s life when he was also dealing with the dwindling health of his mother, and that was very sympathetically put forward. They got a huge reception from the audience at curtain call.

Tina Gambe Two other performances I would single out are Tina Gambe, in the role of the social worker, who has some fantastically funny lines as she subtly imbues Bennett with the role of carer; Martin Wimbush and Martin Wimbush as the scary threatening figure, if for no other reason than he is the original Mr Crisparkle (without the H) from Edwin Drood – and therefore one of my favourites.

Bennett seems to like to put a “big event” in his plays. When we saw “Enjoy” a few years ago (a dreadfully overrated play I thought), the big visual impact moment came when the walls of the house were flattened out and the acting area became the whole stage – surrealism again. In “Lady in the Van” a similar moment comes when Miss Shepherd’s campervan is chained up and slowly raised into the sky. It sparked a round of applause from the audience. I always find it slightly depressing when something like that receives that level of appreciation – it’s just a device; something incidental to the story, the writing, the characterisation, the drama.

And that it the main problem with this play – I didn’t feel as though it had a lot going on in the Drama Department. It’s as though – much as Miss Shepherd herself points out – Alan Bennett could not decide whether the play was about Miss Shepherd or Alan Bennett. Apart from the fact that she lived in his garden, in reality their paths didn’t seem to cross much. He obviously decided it would be about both, but I’m not sure it worked.

I’ve done a Venn Diagram to show the problem. Bear with me, I’m no graphic designer. The black bit in the middle shows where the lives of the two characters cross, and that’s basically the drama of the play. And as you can see, it’s only a small percentage of their existences. The white unshaded bits might have made for a more focussed play. In addition to this, I have to say there were a few dreary speeches as well. Miss McAuliffe did her best to maintain the energy of the play at those times but it was an uphill struggle. So whilst it’s a good production, and with some excellent performances, as a whole I found it curiously unsatisfying.

Also, please spare some sympathy for people sitting in the first few rows. They could hardly have seen a thing. The stage is very high – I presume because there has to be a revolving circle to the stage floor so that Miss Shepherd’s vehicle can swing around. I’m guessing the Oxford Playhouse doesn’t have a revolving stage, so they had to build it in on top. Bear this in mind if you’re going to see it in Harrogate or Bradford in the final weeks of the tour.