How to entertain two nieces on the Sunday of a Bank Holiday Weekend

Your mission – should you choose to accept it – is to divert and amuse two little girls on a day out in London.

Very well; we accept the challenge.

Subject One: Secret Agent Code November, aged 10. Strengths: sophisticated, gourmand, snappy dresser. Weakness: aversion to exercise.

Subject Two: Special Agent Code Sierra, aged 9. Strengths: analytical, fearless, optimistic. Weakness: prone to get over-tired.

Mission One – morning at the Science Museum.

Rendezvous 10.45am, single yellow lines by Royal Albert Hall. Met with Agents’ female parent, M. Arrival Science Museum, 10.55am. Reconnoitre toilets. Estimated time at Science Museum: 1hr 30mins; aim: to see it all.

Science Museum - FlightFailed on aim completely, as 2 hrs 5 mins later we had still only visited level 3. But it’s an amazing place. Firstly we saw the “Flight” area, which has examples of old aircraft, a cut-through segment of a jumbo jet, a cockpit of an old plane, simulation of Air Traffic Control and much more. Even if you’re not overly interested in aeroplanes it’s still very interesting and kept us all amused and astounded.

Then we went on to “In Future” and had to grapple with difficult subjects like should men be allowed to have babies, and should cars be able to drive themselves. Your answers get fed into a big database and you can see how many people have answered yes or no to a number of modern dilemmas. Fun and interactive, but it didn’t take up too much of our time.

Next was Health Matters, a subject of considerable interest to Special Agent Code Sierra who recently announced she was going to become a “Baby Doctor”. This display area was full of interesting facts about the growth and development of antibiotics, vaccinations and even the contraceptive pill. Didn’t take too long, but very absorbing.

Heat Seeking CameraFinally we ended up in Launchpad, a highly interactive area full of experiments and displays, with which everyone is positively encouraged to play. Mrs Chrisparkle and I peered at each other through two telescopes separated by a brick wall. How did that work? “Have you realised how it works yet?” asked a charming young lady dressed in a red t-shirt with the word “Explainer” on it. “Is it a question of hidden lenses?” asked Mrs C tentatively. “Yes, that’s right” beamed the explainer. “I thought it was Paul Daniels’ magic” I offered lamely. She smiled politely as she is paid to.

Actually the explainers are great. There are loads of them and they are tireless in taking the kids through the experiments and encouraging them to understand the basics of science that the displays reveal. Plastic bottles full of water zooming around the room; electrical circuits being connected and dismantled; positioning building blocks so you could construct a bridge solid enough to walk over; we did all these and more and it was a real wrench to cut short our visit as we had run out of time. Highly recommended, and the Agents made M promise that they would return to the Science Museum another day.

Mission Two – afternoon Thames Rib Experience river speed ride.

London EyeRendezvous: meant to be on easy parking near Embankment Pier in good time for 1.45 pm check in and decking out in fleeces and sou’westers; in effect we couldn’t find any parking until 1.35pm almost a mile away, so we had to walk ultra-fast and indeed run to get there on time. I ran ahead to make sure they didn’t go without us. Got there about five minutes behind schedule and panted “Thames Rib experience, five people, late, gasp, pant” and I was shown where to check in. The lady there didn’t seem too concerned. Anyway I was panting like a dog in a hot car for at least the next 40 minutes. Thought I was fitter than that, dammit.

Thames Rib ExperienceThe good news is we all got on board. The boats take a maximum of twelve passengers and there were eleven of us on ours. The guide tells you about the notable things you see between the Houses of Parliament and The Thames Flood Barrier, which is where you turn around and come back. The difference from your ordinary boat trip is that once you get past Tower Bridge, they open up the speed and it becomes a really exciting fast dash across the waves with some exhilarating tossing and turning, like a scene out of The Persuaders or The Saint, showing my age. I know for a fact I had a fixed smile on my lips the entire 80 minutes, as did Mrs C, M and Secret Agent Code N. Special Agent Code S spent most of the time with her eyes shut. Additional amusement is provided by the guide’s patter which is chock full of jokes, some really funny; and sometimes you pierce the waves to appropriate musical accompaniment, I’ll say no more.

Thames BarrierUnfortunately one of the other passengers wasn’t up for the speed and complained he couldn’t breathe properly so our return journey was a little more stately than we had hoped. Not a lot you can do about that – and it’s of course right that they put their clients’ health and safety first. Wuss -ruining it for the rest of us! The Thames Rib Experience is something I would definitely recommend, and we will certainly go again, maybe even quite soon. It hadn’t occurred to me how little of the river-scape east of Tower Bridge I knew. Greenwich, O2, Thames Barrier, Canary Wharf – all new to me, and the views are astonishing.

Mission Three – picnic in Trafalgar Square.

Couldn’t park anywhere near Trafalgar Square, so we went on to Westminster and found some quite easy parking and picnicked instead in the park adjacent to the Houses of Parliament watched over by the good Burghers of Calais. Another superb river view; late afternoon sunshine; cheese and ham rolls; crisps and cakes. Code November and Code Sierra both voted it a successful day out. Transferred responsibility of young charges over to M, got in the car, drove home, and slept. Woke up just in time to go out for some pub grub. Great day out!

Review – The Deep Blue Sea, Festival Theatre, Chichester, August 20th 2011

Chichester Festival TheatreOur second helping of Rattigan last Saturday was the much acclaimed “The Deep Blue Sea”, originally produced in 1952 in a run that lasted 513 performances. This was a time when Rattigan’s career was really riding high, and in fact many commentators think this is his best play. In “Rattigan’s Nijinsky”, with which we matinéed earlier, Rattigan says “my women are women, and they’re bloody well-written ones”. Hester Collyer, of whom we see a very turbulent day in a rather depressing life, is probably the epitome of this statement. Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, the play starts with her failed gassing suicide attempt and ends with her again turning the gas on but this time merely to light the fire. The character progression prompted Mrs Chrisparkle to announce that the play was a supreme statement of optimism. I just found it hard to get past the sadness that Hester wanted to commit suicide.

The Deep Blue SeaWhat is notable about this production is the way it faithfully represents the 1950s and presents that rather dark age in a completely ungimmicky and unembellished way. If you look at the photo of the 1952 set, it’s virtually identical to the set at Chichester. The main difference is that the gas fire is now downstage so that Hester more or less has to look the front stalls in the eye when she turns the fire on, whereas before it was more discreetly positioned against the upstage wall. The furnishings are practical rather than comfortable; the costumes reflect the repressed and impoverished surroundings. Philip Franks the director has adhered to the three-act format – morning, afternoon and evening of this rather enormous day – and not caved in to the modern desire for the symmetrical structure of one central interval. You feel as though this is exactly how this play would have been presented sixty years ago.

Amanda RootYou must draw your own conclusions at to the precise reason for Hester’s suicide attempt, but her two options for bliss are current companion Freddie, who was probably once a bit of a wartime hero but is now an idle drunk, and previous husband William, who is willing to accept her back, but as a possession rather than because of love. Amanda Root’s Hester is brave, calm, sometimes in control, often in agonies of despair. As the two men interact with her you see her formulating her views on them, shoring herself up for the future, and gaining strength from every resolve she makes. It’s a very good performance; tugging at the heartstrings at the right times whilst maintaining whatever dignity she can muster as a failed suicider.

John HopkinsJohn Hopkins is Freddie; another good performance combining the roguish charm that presumably first attracted Hester with an irascible post-war self-disappointment which has resulted in his becoming a waster. In the RAF he had been a dashing test pilot; with the benefit of hindsight you would now consider him a prime candidate for Gulf War Syndrome or a possible beneficiary of Help for Heroes. There were times in the first act when I felt John Hopkins rushed and garbled his lines a little – so much so that I found some of his speeches a bit hard to follow. And that’s before the character had had too much to drink. Still he very much looked the part and the agonies that Freddie feels came across as real and disturbing.

Anthony CalfAt the other end of the social spectrum, Anthony Calf’s Sir William Collyer is the embodiment of buttoned-up stiff-upper-lippishness, his ultra-respectability in the rather slovenly surroundings effectively suggesting that their two lives are long past the chance of converging. When he offers to take her back, pointing out that she is devaluing herself by staying with Freddie, there is barely any increase the warmth of his voice, and you know that it’s not a question of love. It’s another very effective performance; I only know Anthony Calf as Strickland in TV’s New Tricks, and I just got a sneaking suspicion that he feels comfortable playing rather cold, authoritarian figures. Was the whole role just a little too easy for him?

Encouraged by the slightly mysterious Mr (Don’t call me Doctor) Miller who attends to her medical needs, Hester’s decision to let both men go their separate ways and to live her life alone is the big positive step at the end of the play. However, despite its forward-looking conclusion, it’s not the kind of play where you bounce out of the auditorium at the end and click your heels jauntily on the way to the car park. It’s a deep, thoughtful and moving play, and this production gives it the full respect it deserves.

I don't believe it!Celebrity news: whilst I nipped to the Gents, Mrs Chrisparkle queued to pre-order interval drinks, and in line in front of her was none other than Richard Wilson. That’s twice we’ve been in the same audience as him. Naturally when she told me later I had to let rip an “I Don’t Believe It”, which is the ordained form of response whenever his name is mentioned. One last piece of advice – if you pre-order tea and coffee for the interval, by the time you get to drink it, it’s cold. Stick to the Chenin Blanc in future.

Review – Rattigan’s Nijinsky, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 20th August 2011

Chichester Festival TheatreFor this year’s Chichester trip, we thought we’d immerse ourselves in the joys of Terence Rattigan’s centenary year. So on a whirlwind day out, we took in a matinee and an evening performance of two different plays, one a Rattigan perennial, the other a more experimental experience, both directed by Philip Franks, and with a number of the same actors in both.

Rattigan's Nijinsky A few years before he died, Rattigan was working on a TV screenplay about Nijinsky (not the racehorse) and his relationship with Diaghilev. The story goes that Rattigan pulled it from the BBC production team because of an argument about its content with Nijinsky’s widow Romola. Thus it was never made, performed or even published. “Rattigan’s Nijinsky”, by Nicholas Wright, takes Rattigan’s screenplay – or some of what remains of it – and creates a new play with Rattigan himself centre stage, in a suite at Claridge’s, having meetings with Romola and his BBC director, but principally seeing his screenplay unfold through his mind’s eye; observing the interactions between Nijinksy, Diaghilev, Romola, and his other characters. So there is the challenge for the director – making the reality of the Claridge’s suite and the imagination of the screenplay co-exist on the stage.

In the words of Linda Barker, I thought it worked really well. The occasional change of lighting, and occasional soft sound effect, help separate the two but for the most part, it’s as real on stage as it is real in Rattigan’s mind. Upstage becomes a dance studio or a ship’s deck; centre stage is Claridge’s sofa and champagne, with characters from the hotel drifting in alongside characters from the story. But what’s the purpose behind it all? My original thoughts were that a lot of it was about the vividness of the creative experience – Rattigan imagining the play going on around him – enjoying some of it, finding other parts disturbing, rather like an ordinary member of the audience. Mrs Chrisparkle felt it was more of a drug trip. Rattigan’s declining health is causing a lot of pain and he frequently reaches for a dodgy elixir acquired in Bermuda. The more he drinks this painkiller, the more bizarre some of the apparitions become. On reflection, I think she’s got it right. This raises lots of interesting questions about what is real and what is imagined, and gives the whole play an additional dimension of curiosity.

Joseph DrakeHaving the same actor play Nijinsky and Donald the room-service boy, who wants to provide Rattigan with something distinctly off-menu, (or is that Rattigan’s wishful thinking?) is very effective as characteristics of the one get merged into the other. Joseph Drake puts in two very good performances in what must be a physically demanding two and a half hours, with several costume as well as character changes. Similarly, Jonathan Hyde plays both Diaghilev and Cedric the BBC man. These two characters couldn’t be further apart. Jonathan HydeDiaghilev is eerily elegant, with something of the vampire in his appearance, feasting on easily-led young men, and not used to being thwarted; Cedric is a scruffy laid-back guy, appreciative of Rattigan’s artistry but more concerned with the practicalities of dealing with the BBC hierarchy. Jonathan Hyde captured the essence of both men really well, and despite his affected appearance made Diaghilev a totally believable character.

It’s not all deep and meaningful. The scene with Cedric, for example, is also hilarious, as is the scene between Rattigan and his mother, and much of the play has a very nice undercurrent of humour that keeps it moving along. Personally I thought the second act got slightly bogged down at one stage; Mrs Chrisparkle thought I was being too critical. Chenin Blanc Maybe that was the effect of the interval glass of Chenin Blanc that I can highly recommend. Something we both completely agreed about was a really awful moment early on in the play when Nijinsky as a boy is being taken through his paces by the Ballet Master. The boy is challenged to leap high, over a stick held out by the Ballet Master; which the boy then raises, implying he can leap higher than that. Nice, I thought; shows his confidence and arrogance, and also implies he’s a damn good leaper. But then his leap is represented by them lifting the boy up so that he is held in a tableau pose that I can only say makes him look like Michael Flatley’s love child in some nightmare form of “Lord of the Dance”. It’s ridiculous, unsubtle and a bit embarrassing. I’m sure a talented director like Mr Franks could have found a better way of communicating that to the audience. No criticism of young Jude Loseby playing the nine-year-old Nijinsky who I thought otherwise was rather good.

Malcolm SinclairAt the heart of the play is Malcolm Sinclair’s performance as Rattigan. He’s quite a favourite actor of ours, having been in the wonderful Racing Demon earlier this year – we still don’t understand why that didn’t transfer. Here again he commands the stage with a natural authority, engaging easily with the audience so they are completely on his side; his facial expressions and vocal delivery allowing us to see into the real Rattigan, the one we could never see when he was alive. It’s a great performance – but I also think Nicholas Wright has written a pretty good role too. I confess I was moved to buy the play text afterwards.

Susan TracyIt’s an excellent ensemble, and everyone carried it off well; perhaps an additional mention to Susan Tracy as (inter alia) the elder Romola, full of tight-lipped ire in a superbly well-written scene, and also as Rattigan’s mother, desperately trying to pry into her son’s private life but still never seeing the truth.

It’s an experimental production, and definitely worth the experiment. It gives you much to think about, and is definitely one of those plays you discuss for some time after. I still think a lot of the play is about the creative experience – something I always enjoy in a piece. I also find it satisfying when the characters don’t end up at the same place as where they started – and Rattigan’s character development keeps you on edge, let alone the very active and absorbing story about Diaghilev and Nijinsky. The audience at last Saturday’s matinee was disappointingly small – perhaps half full – but very enthusiastic in its response. There are only three performances left before it closes on 3rd September; if you can get it to see it, I would highly recommend it.

Home Composed Song Contest 2011 – Calling all composers!

Home Composed Song ContestAre you a fan of the Eurovision Song Contest and an amateur songwriter? If so, here is your chance to hit the big time!

The 19th Home Composed Song Contest is now up and running and you have until 2nd October to get your entries in.

UKYour host for this year is Andy Brook from London, who won last year’s contest for the United Kingdom with the rather sublime “Running on Empty”, performed by Londonvision featuring Tiina.

If you think you’ve got what it takes songwriting-wise, visit the contest’s website to get all the details.

TiinaI’ve been listening to the songs in the Home Composed Song Contest for a few years now and it’s always an enjoyable mix. I’ve been lucky enough to be on the Radio International jury in the past but every visitor to the site who listens to the songs can have a vote. So even if you aren’t a composer (like me) there’s still a lot of fun and musical entertainment to get out of the competition. And if you are a composer, who knows where it might lead! Good luck!

If you’ve got any queries about the contest, contact Andy through the HCSC website.

Review – Comedy of Errors, Oxford Shakespeare Company, Wadham College Oxford, 13th August 2011

Comedy of ErrorsThere are few greater privileges in life than to be able to relax in the beautiful gardens of Wadham College Oxford, take in a picnic, enjoy a bottle of something velvety, and watch a performance by the Oxford Shakespeare Company. We’ve been coming here for many years now, and it’s always a joy. Some years are more joyous than others, depending on the plays. This summer they are bringing back two of their greatest hits. One is The Importance of Being Earnest, which we saw first time around, and is a super show. We may, if we get time and the weather is kind, try and see it again. The other is The Comedy of Errors, first performed by the OSC in 2004, one year before we discovered them. So it was with relish that we bagged our front row seats for last Saturday’s matinee.

Even if you’re a Shakespeare purist, “Comedy of Errors” is one of those plays that really lends itself to modernising and being messed around. On paper, the opening scene is exceptionally wordy and really rather tedious; but there’s no escaping it, otherwise the rest of the play doesn’t make sense. Chris Pickles’ delightful production does a huge amount of messing around with the play, re-inventing that opening scene in Ephesus TV’s studio as a game show, with host and hostess in sparkly garments, challenging Egeon to raise the money for his liberty else he dies, and all just for a bit of fun.

Another piece of inventiveness in this production is the use of Hollywood style songs, which certainly raise a smile and have been chosen cleverly to reflect the story. Some of the cast prove themselves to be very good at the song-and-dance routines! As a device, this didn’t quite work for me, but mainly because of the way I first encountered this play. When I was 17 I was lucky enough to be in the front row at the Aldwych for the RSC’s production by Trevor Nunn, with songs by Guy Woolfenden and starring Judi Dench, Michael Williams, Roger Rees, Francesca Annis, Mike Gwilym and many other brilliant performers. Guy Woolfenden took Shakespeare’s lines and wove them into brilliant, story-progressing songs. The Hollywood songs in this production are apt, but they don’t move the story forward – my bugbear in musical theatre.

Another joke that wore thin for me was the use of sound effects. Maybe I’m still suffering from Government Inspector overkill. Part of the circus/madcap/Keystone Kops element in this production includes cheeky sound effects to accompany many of the bits of comedy business. A horn honk for a slap on the tummy, a kazoo rasp for a kick up the bum, a fart sound for… well a fart actually; you get the picture. Funny and clever – at first… but then I have to confess it did slightly get on my nerves by the time we approached the interval. There was one extremely good sound effect – the sassy symbols that heralded each arrival of the Courtesan, more of whom later.

Howard GossingtonNow those topics are out of the way, I can tell you about the wonderful cast. One actor plays both Antipholuses and one both Dromios. That calls for a lot of hard work! Stand out brilliant was Howard Gossington as Antipholus of Syracuse and Ephesus. I had wondered how they would differentiate between the two characters – costume changes I supposed. And yes they do – Antipholus of Ephesus wears a gracious tie and sports a well to do hat, whilst his Syracusian brother has a tie-dye type thing and a fedora. But it’s almost unnecessary, as Mr Gossington invests both brothers with completely different vocal patterns and mannerisms; Ephesus is a rather posh travelling type who obviously went to a good school, and Syracuse is a bit of a Millwall supporting troublemaker. Both characterisations really worked well and it’s a great performance.

Nick ChambersNick Chambers as the two Dromios also puts in a good comic performance but the differences between the two servants are not so easy to define and so we rely a little more on his changing hat – white for Ephesus, black for Syracuse. I particularly enjoyed the relish with which he described the ghastly Nell, who had fallen for him.

Alicia Davies For the Antipholine love interest, Alicia Davies is a stunning Adriana, in a sexy red dress and with cleavage bursting for freedom. She captures all the comedy of Adriana’s shrewish tendencies superbly, although she may slightly underdo her tenderer moments. Alyssa Noble Alyssa Noble makes an excellently bookish Luciana, and preens with hilarious pleasure when Antipholus makes amorous advances towards her.

Benjamin WellsThe other members of the cast all bring great verve and vivacity to their characters; amongst the many parts they play, Benjamin Wells’ Angelo is Alan Sugar with added elegance; Kai SimmonsKai Simmons is a superb Marlon Brando Godfather Balthazar, with a brilliant Mafia voice and mannerisms; Andrew Piper’s Officer is a hilarious sixth member of the Village People; and stealing every scene,Andrew Piper James Lavender, appearing as every other female character, creates a Germanic Jessica Rabbit Courtesan with a high level of naughtiness about her – which included in the show we saw, her singling me out for some amorous attention and the promise of free Bratwurst after the performance. That was just one of many really funny interactions between cast and audience throughout the whole show that were carried off with great aplomb.

James LavenderThere’s a marvellously surreal sequence where Dromio appears to apologise for a bad bit of acting because he can’t quite understand Shakespeare’s drift, whereupon the whole cast turn into a bunch of text-dissecting pretentious luvvies trying to get to the heart of the meaning. I was completely fooled by the scene and genuinely thought Dromio was annoyed with his performance, until the rest chipped in. It’s a magnificent piece of invention. There’s also a bang up-to-date scene with Antipholus’ shopping bags with light references to looting and cross-dressing. Extremely funny stuff.

I’d highly recommend it. Even the aspects I didn’t really care for didn’t in any way spoil my enjoyment of this gusto-filled performance by a captivating cast in fabulous surroundings.

Review – Road Show, Menier Chocolate Factory, London, 7th August 2011

Road ShowThe great news is – it’s a new Sondheim! Well, reasonably new. This show first saw the light of day back in 1999, and has since undergone re-writes and re-titles, all of which made me think – uh oh, here we go, another show that ought to be really great but will probably turn out to be a bit duff. But the even better news is – I was wrong! This is a terrific little show, beautifully played, excitingly staged, with a classy classic Sondheim score emotionally realised.

It tells the story of the brothers Mizner, instructed by their father on his deathbed to go out into the world and make something of themselves, and how they follow their various lucky stars all round the world, through the Alaskan Gold Rush, poker games, rich widows, fabulous success in architecture, dabbling in sports promotion, playwriting, and much more. It would either have to be a monstrously large and long production to get these two vividly lived lives studied in detail; or a 95 minute romp that tickles the surface but gives us just enough information to flesh out the aspects of their lives in our imagination. The 95 minute romp wins; and as such it’s a fast, furious, engaging piece and I loved every minute. Mrs Chrisparkle would have preferred it to be a 115 minute romp to include a 20 minute interval. I have some sympathy with that view. Even improved as they are, the Menier seats are not the most comfortable. Commercially I never understand a decision to do away with the interval and its associated opportunity for food and drink sales. However I can also see that its uninterrupted presentation increases the sense of relentless urgency as the brothers’ lives are played out.

John Doyle has directed it so that the staging is in traverse. Sat in the centre of Row A you are so intimately involved in the production that not a bead of sweat, nor a raised eyebrow, nor a turn of the heel goes unnoticed. When you’re so closely wrapped up in what’s going on, it couldn’t be more thrilling – although the gentleman to my left spent I$300 think 75 of the 95 minutes fast asleep. Must have had a large lunch. Action takes place in front of you, but also to the extreme sides, so that at times you have to dart your attention all round the room like a lizard at a tennis match. But it’s well worth the effort, as the entire cast hold the mood and never let their attention slip for a second; every person you watch at any time is deeply in their role. A major aspect of the staging is the way that people chuck money around – literally. It’s a really strong visual assertion of how much cash went through those brothers’ hands during the course of their lives. I have never seen so many 100 dollar bills scattered around me, even if they are “for theatrical use only”.

David BedellaThe two brothers are very much at the heart of the story. I had read criticism that the two actors are so different in their appearance and expression that it is too much of a leap of faith to imagine they are brothers. Well, I say nonsense to that. Yes they are different, but so – very much so – are the two characters. David Bedella (a real star who we twice saw and loved in Jerry Springer The Opera) as Wilson is brash, charming, a rogue and a villain, with pizzazz written through him like a stick of rock. Michael JibsonMichael Jibson’s Addison, on the other hand, is hard-working, astute, cerebral and restrained. It comes as no surprise that it is he who is left to care for his mother whilst Wilson is gambling and living the high life; and in a knife-twisting moment his mother reveals that despite Addison’s care it’s Wilson’s charisma that gives meaning to her life.

Both David Bedella and Michael Jibson (new to me – a star in the making) are superbly cast and run through the gamut of emotions with watertight perfection. David Bedella’s honey voice oozes confidence and fantasy success; Michael Jibson’s more delicate tones are set firmly in reality and day to day problems. It’s a great pairing.

Gillian BevanGillian Bevan and Glyn Kerslake, as their parents, give encouragement and a sense of belonging, both alive and dead, to the sons as they make their way round the world with varying degrees of success and failure. Jon Robyns, as Hollis, who inspires Addison to his greatest success both in career and love, has a great singing voice and presence; and how grown-up it is to have a gay relationship as a central tenet of the plot dealt with completely without judgment or sensationalism.

Glyn KerslakeThe remaining cast are strong musically and in their minor characters, and bring Sondheim’s new songs to life wonderfully well. There are some great songs here – including “Waste”, that sets the opening scene and acts as a finale too; “That Was a Year”, that enumerates the elements of Wilson’s erratically brilliant early career; “Isn’t He Something”, where Mama Mizner reveals her true feelings about Wilson; “You”, where Addison dispenses architectural joy around Palm Beach; and “The Best Thing That Ever Happened”, where Addison and Hollis touchingly and simply reveal their love for each other.

Jon RobynsYay! You can now select your seat online, rather than trust to the Menier’s system to deal with your seat request fairly, which has in the past made one very grumpy indeed. Thank heavens for that improvement. It’s so rewarding to see the Menier back on really top form again too. After a number of flops and so-so shows, it’s back where it should be, hosting one of London’s must-see productions.

Northamptonshire Cricket Club v. India, County Ground Northampton, 6th August 2011

Northants v IndiaWhat do I know about the noble art of cricket? Which is the best guard? Seamers and spinners? Mid off or mid on? L B or W? Not much. But I thought it was high time I learned a bit, and it occurred to me that I had never been to a “proper” cricket match. And living a mere 30 minutes stroll from Northamptonshire’s Cricket Ground, where better to start than with their match against the touring India side, as yet not showing that much star form in their series against England.

Final scoreWell, they didn’t show much star form against Northants either. Their 1st innings total was 352 for 9. After contending with an unwelcome shower or two, Northants were left with 84 overs to beat that score. And they ended up at 355 for 7. That was with three balls to spare. Somehow, apparently, this score equates to a draw between the two sides because it was a two-innings match. Don’t quite get that, but it’s undeniably true that India didn’t win, as I had surely expected.

Happy crowdsSo what can I tell you of my day at the cricket? It was a sell-out, and the crowd were extremely friendly. As the day progressed, the Indian drums started, the flags started getting waved, and for the last two hours the cricket was almost secondary to the mini-parade of Indian fans dancing their way around the entire ground. Twice. A big local ginger lad, sporting a Northampton Saints Rugby shirt, seemed to take the Indians to heart and he headed the flag waving and dancing processions, much to the delight of the Indians in the crowd.

Will you marry my sister?We were seated in the midst of some Indian brothers, sisters and cousins, who were all very entertaining company and not afraid to make lively and frequently hilarious comments about the proceedings. I’m afraid I couldn’t identify any of the players, but when an Indian fielder came near the boundary where we were sitting (the County Stand as I now know) this guy behind us would shout out the cricketer’s name and things like “Hey! India’s Next Captain!” or “Hey! Will you marry my sister?” of “Hey! Give us a wave!” To a man the Indian cricketers in question ignored his calls, despite the fact that he had bigger lungs and better vocal projection than Pavarotti.

Andrew HallWhen Andrew Hall, the Northants Captain – not playing that day – was seen walking around the stands, this guy called out “Hey! Andrew Hall! Give us a wave!” To which Mr Hall duly gave a little wave, like the one Rowan Atkinson did on Not The Nine O’Clock News before he walked into a lamppost. Later on Andrew Hall, this time accompanied by an attractive young lady selling tickets, walked around again, now with the raffle prize, a framed bat signed by Sachin Tendulkar. It was drawing a lot of attention. The man on the tannoy called out: “People are asking what the raffle prize is and when it will be on sale. I’m not sure what the prize is but I can confirm tickets will be on sale after lunch.” Andrew Hall and his ticket lady looked at us in disbelief. “He’s making my job much harder” she complained. Mrs C and I went in for the raffle. I spent the entire afternoon fantasising about where we could put the bat if I won. Mrs C thought that Ebay would be the best location for it. In any case some other chap won it. Sigh.

Jilted fielderAs India performed worse and worse throughout the afternoon, the Indian supporters started to get a bit restless with their team. The fielder, who had earlier been considered marriage material for the girl next to me, returned to our section of the boundary. “The marriage is off – you’re useless!” she cried out.

Cricketers love giving autographs, notI hadn’t quite comprehended how the majority of youngsters attending the match spent the entire time running up and down the boundary trying to get the fielders to sign their mini-cricket bats. It’s a complete subculture. They must hardly get to see any of the real match, because they’re always leaning over the barrier waving their mini bats at these guys; who, let me tell you, look every inch as though they loathed every second of the attention. When they did sign the bats, they did it with the most scowly face imaginable.

Serious cricket fans, weI am pleased to tell you though that Mrs Chrisparkle and I had a splendid time. We sat down about 10.30am. At around 11, we had our first corned beef roll. Then at 12 we had a big bag of crisps. At 12.30 we had some stuffed vine leaves and a cheese roll. At 1.15 we broke open the Semillon Chardonnay. More rolls followed, and at about 3.30, in time for tea, we had some almond slices. Isn’t sport wonderful? It rained a little occasionally but for the most part the sun shone; being a woman, Mrs C was able to multitask watching the cricket and reading The Independent at the same time. It all finished at about 6.20pm. Incredibly good value we thought at £15 per person. We’re both keen to go again.