Eurovision 2012 – The ones that got away

It’s that time of year again, gentle reader, when it is my duty to let you hear a few gems that did not make it through their national qualifying heats and therefore will not be gracing the stage of the Crystal Hall in Baku, if they build it on time. It’s been a good year, although perhaps not a great one, for the National Finals. I’m going to start of with an absolute classic. Petter Øien and Bobby Bare got into the final four in Norway with their simple country song, Things Change. It stands out not only because of the different genre, but also because it’s a fine old tune. If Bobby Bare had made it to Baku, he would have been 77 years old; that young whippersnapper Engelbert Humperdinck would be in short trousers by comparison.

Next up is a wonderful dramatic piece from Iceland, not that this year’s Icelandic entry lacks a sense of saga. Hugarro, which my online translator says means “Peace of Mind”, is sung by Magni Asgeirsson. He has one of those voices that makes you think he’s experienced a lot of troubles in his life, and this was his 4th attempt to represent Iceland at the Eurovision Song Contest. Last year he came 2nd with “Eg trui a betra lif”; and this year he slipped down to 3rd, so he’d better pull his socks up in the future. The opening keyboard sound has something of the Merry Christmas Mr Lawrence about it. See what you think.

Over to Hungary now, and a strong final as this year’s Hungarian entry by Compact Disco is definitely one of my favourites. But there was plenty of other prospects to tickle your tunebuds. Take for example this quality ballad, Vizio (Vertigo) performed by the amusingly named Caramel. If you were ever going to name a bloke Caramel, this is not how I would imagine him to look. Maybe he has a soft centre. He won Hungarian Pop Idol in 2005 and is now a judge on the show, so he probably knows his nougats from his pralines.

Double-dipping in Hungary, here’s the song that came draw 2nd with Vizio, Learning to let go by Gabor Heincz, or Heincz Gabor if you prefer. It couldn’t be more different from Mr Caramel’s offering, as it’s light of note and jaunty of step, one of those songs that require you to hop from one side to another in your brain as it progresses. He was a backing singer in the Eurovision a couple of years ago, and the song’s a jolly little thing with a certain je ne sais quoi; if I knew quoi, I would tell you.

I know what you’re thinking – where are the girls? Well here’s one. Ditte Marie from Denmark singing Overflow, another bright upbeat dancy little number that came nowhere in Aalborg. It probably doesn’t examine the human condition in any great depth, but you can have too much philosophy. Wearing an ice queen leotard rummaged out of the seconds bin – check out the rips on her arms – she does a nice line in stage-strutting without it ever being over-the-top. It’s certainly jollier than the song that will represent Denmark this year. Have a listen.

I feel like a touch of the Baltics after that, so let’s nip over to Estonia avoiding the “Kuula” – I’ll dissect that one day soon – and keeping it light let’s have a listen to You’re Not Alone by Birgit Õigemeel (try saying that after a few bottles of Saku) and Violina, which I think of as a prettier version of the James Last Orchestra. Birgit won the first season of Estonian Idol and has recorded loads of singles. This song came 7th in their national final and I think was under-rated. Admittedly it’s not as good as the wonderful Violina/Rolf Junior attempt from 2010, “Maagiline päev”, but I think it deserves an honourable mention here.

Look I don’t want to bore you for too long so I’ll just suggest a couple of others for you. Over in Austria, a chap named Norbert Schneider sang this very “different” number called Medicate my blues away. It couldn’t be further away from the Trackshittaz. Norbert’s into his blues in a big way, and although this wouldn’t normally be my Tasse Tee, I rather like its smooth chirpiness. It’s the title track of his new album too. It didn’t make the superfinal in Austria – probably to his credit.

Whilst we’re in Austria, have a listen to Englishman James Cottriall who also failed to make the superfinal with his song, Stand Up. He moved to Vienna as part of his German and Philosophy degree at Nottingham University, where his part-time busking and other gigs took off so well that he remained there to pursue his music career – very successfully as it turns out. Stand Up is a nice anthemic song and doesn’t feature rappers with dodgy lyrics or a bearded lady.

Time for one more – and it’s over to Latvia, where there were a few good contenders to represent the country. Whilst I think Anmary’s Beautiful Song, that will be in Baku, was probably the perfect choice, it would be remiss not to include this final song in this memorial to songs that you might never hear again. Music Thief is a silly, funny song about plagiarism, with lyrics stolen from other songs and with musical elements you’ll recognise from elsewhere too. The lead singer’s voice gives you hope that one day you too could have a recording career. I’d like the Mad Show Boys come back next year with something equally daft.

If you got this far – and listened to the songs too – well done you. Feel free to post a comment if you like or hate any of them or if you have other suggestions. I’ll be examining this year’s proper entries soon, so you have been warned.

Review – Paul Merton, Out of My Head, Derngate, Northampton, 14th April 2012

Paul Merton - Out of my HeadSo, Paul Merton: “a return to your stand up roots for the first time this century”, according to your flyer. I can just about accept that. “A return to stand up” say some theatres’ websites. No: that is inaccurate. “Paul Merton, Out of my Head” is not a stand up show. However, actually defining what it is proves rather tricky. I think the closest you can get to it is that it is actually a fully scripted play for four performers. The text contains elements of stand up, of improvisation and of sketches, but the whole structure of the show serves to distance the audience from these elements, rather than communicate the content (and presumably some humour) to them. So unless Paul Merton’s gone all Brechtian on us, this show simply misses the mark.

The other main aspect to this offering is that it really isn’t at all funny; which is more than a shame really, because that’s precisely the reason you went out to see this show in the first place. It’s an autobiographical look-back at his life from his childhood to the present day, with a heavy concentration on his mental health problems. But you can’t compare this with, say, Ruby Wax’s Losing It, where she completely strips herself bare (figuratively speaking) and gives you first-hand genuine insight into her mental condition and her practical coping strategies. Paul Merton doesn’t open the door to his inner recesses at all. If anything, the real Paul Merton is wrapped and kept hidden well away from our prying eyes and ears. By not letting us into his real thoughts, you feel the whole thing is mere window-dressing, a deliberate obfuscation rather than using comedy to reveal the truth.

BrunelFor some unexplained reason, the set and promotional literature suggest a Victorian theme, and I suppose it is true that some of the material – the ventriloquist act, “black light” theatre animation, for example – may have been around in those days. Maybe it relates to one of the funnier lines, that Have I Got News For You has been around so long that one of its first presenters was Isambard Kingdom Brunel. Otherwise, I can’t see the point. Some of that black theatre animation was good, mind you. I liked how the ventriloquist dummy came to life, and how Sister Galista spread out all over the backdrop. Note to performers though – I don’t think The Black Theatre of Prague ever wore trainers with white flashings – kind of gives the game away.

Belisha BeaconTo be honest, I didn’t see the point of most of it. There’s a Belisha Beacon type thing that lights up and alerts every time Paul Merton swears. Given the fact that he doesn’t swear as much as most comics, it’s totally irrelevant. He constantly returns to “Little Paul”, the ventriloquist dummy of himself, but it’s not as though the dummy says the things that the real Paul wants to, but can’t, say. I’m not sure why he’s there – certainly not for humour. Little Paul, along with the rest of the cast, are all dressed like Paul Merton in his light grey suit. They all look like him; they all talk about him; it’s all about him; you sense this is therapy by vanity.

I’d like to be able to say that his supporting cast were there to lighten the mood and create a comedy buffer zone that you could dip in and out of; unfortunately, I don’t think that’s the case. Rather than they bringing the overall performance up, I think Paul Merton dragged theirs down. Certainly nearly all the little sketches were weighed down by pointless unfunniness, leaving gaps where we were meant to laugh and applaud that just got filled with embarrassing silence. On those occasions where they did have a good comic idea, it got done to death. Additionally, Suki Webster got the words to the finale song wrong which emphasised the air of amateurishness.

So explain this then? I find Paul Merton very funny when I see him on “Have I Got News For You”, and when he’s on radio’s “Just a Minute”. But this show is hugely disappointing. He seems to be at his best when he’s interacting with other people, talking as unscripted as possible, and doing his celebrated flights of absurd fancy sequences. Sadly this show has very little, if any, of that. There is an “improvisation” sequence, which perked the show up a little – just because it was a change of pace – but again it showed off the performers’ technical ability more than actually being “funny”.

car-crash Quite a few people left halfway through. At only 1 hour 50 minutes, it’s a short show including the interval but I’m reminded of clouds and silver linings. The odd thing is, that, despite all this criticism, both Mrs C and I found it strangely watchable – we’re not sure why, as it wasn’t for the comedy. It wasn’t even the ghoulish pleasure of witnessing a car-crash – it didn’t have enough energy to crash. To be fair, there were a few laughs occasionally tucked away, frequently when he was quoting other, funnier, people like Max Miller and Julian Clary. I think only the politeness of the audience and their overall respect for his back catalogue prevented him from being mercilessly heckled. A fairly full house was buzzing before it started but had flatlined by the end. This is touring till the end of May, so you’d better bring your own jokes with you. An evening of Slight Entertainment.

Review – Toma Fund Presents Eurovision Reunited, The Sage, Gateshead, 11th April 2012

Eurovision ReunitedAn unlikely charity inspires an unlikely event in an unlikely location on an unlikely date – but what a combination! Toma Fund’s Eurovision Reunited was a great show and it would be fantastic if it could become an annual event.

Toma FundThe Toma Fund is a charity that supports children, teenagers, young people and their families in the North East and Cumbria who have been affected by a diagnosis of childhood cancer. It is dedicated to the memory of Jordan Thompson and Sophie Atay who were cousins who died of childhood cancers in 2007 and 2010. The fund is run by Jordan’s mother Andrea, who, together with fundraiser Sue Lawrence – a Eurovision fan, came up with the idea of having a concert at the Sage in Gateshead of previous Eurovision winners and performers, with all the proceeds going to charity.

The concert was held on Wednesday 11th April. The choice of a midweek date was, in a sense, both the strength and weakness of the event. Strength, in that it meant the likelihood that the acts would be available was much greater – at the weekends they would more than likely have previous work commitments. Weakness, because it was harder for people other than locals to attend without taking time off work. This actually meant that many Eurovision fans from abroad who would have liked to attend simply couldn’t. The location – Gateshead – was also not advantageous as far as overseas travellers were concerned – flights to Newcastle are considerably more expensive than to London, and there are fewer of them.

Still – who am I to quibble about these things. With some judicious adaptation of the “working from home” concept, and a couple of half-day leaves, Mrs Chrisparkle and I were able to attend, together with our German friend JP, who has a weekly show – Radio International – on Dutch radio about Eurovision, and indeed on which you can hear me every month or so, rambling on about something Eurovisiony. So the three of us were very privileged to get backstage and post-show-party access to record some interviews for the radio show and to hob and to nob with the great and the good.

Nicki FrenchWe got lost trying to find the hotel and arrived at the Sage later than we hoped, so our window of interviewing opportunity during the sound checks had passed. In fact on arrival we were escorted to the Artists’ Dining Room where they were having their pre-show meal. A word about the Sage – it’s a glorious building from the outside, with massive airy public spaces and the Concert Hall is a stunning piece of modern architecture. However, I was surprised how drab the backstage areas are! There are (I think) two main dressing rooms where lots of people share, and a few others for individuals or groups but there would be no room if you wanted to go cat-swinging as well. The Artists’ Dining Room was grey and featureless – apart from an open canteen area and some big tables. Still I am sure it fulfils its purpose.

Linda MartinMany of the artists were having their dinner and it seemed extremely rude to interrupt them, but two we spoke to were Nicki French, who is preparing for a new theatre role in “Guilty Pleasures”, coming to a theatre near you soon, and Linda Martin, whose cup is currently overflowing with the job of mentoring Jedward for this year’s Eurovision Song Contest. I can tell you from our chats with Linda that she is very excited at working with Jedward – she admires their ability to learn and soak up new ideas like a sponge, as well as their commitment to their fans. She’s thrilled with the song “Waterline” – as soon as she heard it, she knew it was the right one – and they are also planning something spectacular for the presentation in Baku. She couldn’t say what, precisely, but she assured us we would all go “wow” in a very big way.

Brotherhood of ManAfter the artists had dispersed back to their dressing rooms we thought we’d try our luck with one of the big names. Tentatively we asked Brotherhood of Man if they would mind giving us an interview, and no question, we were invited into their dressing room, even though they were in the middle of getting ready for the show, and gave us loads of their time. We reflected back on their success of 1976 and they came up with their memories of the time; we talked about their subsequent career, how important their Eurovision win was in terms of their career, right up to the present time with with their current touring show, The Seventies Story. We also established that they weren’t from the Isle of Man! I was able to tell them how “Save Your Kisses For Me” cheered me up when I was in hospital aged 15 – shortly before the 1976 contest – and they said that they had spoken to so many people who associate the song with a significant event in their life. They were charming, funny and generous with their time – a real pleasure to meet them.

Sheila FergusonHanging around the corridors outside we bumped into one of the presenters – Sheila Ferguson, one time lead singer with the Three Degrees. She was dressed stunningly, in a gorgeous black evening dress but I thought she looked anxious and concerned about things. I thought perhaps we shouldn’t interrupt her at this point – but no sooner had he seen her JP instantly asked if she would give an interview and she beamed with delight and said she would love to. She was really funny – quick witted, eloquent, warm and friendly too. I reminded her of her TV sitcom, Land of Hope and Gloria, in 1992, and she was very proud of the fact that she was the first black woman to have the star role in a UK sitcom. She now lives in Majorca, and in fact had a flight back at 5am the following day. But her conversation was peppered throughout with hilarity and we spent the entire time laughing through the interview. A memorable moment came when JP referred to the Three Degrees song “Dirty Ol’ Man” as “Dirty Ol’ Bag” by mistake! I said one of my favourites was “Year of Decision” and she said she always hated that song!

Anne-Marie DavidWe spoke briefly to Mr Johnny Logan, and to Miss Anne-Marie David, two Eurovision legends. The time and situation wasn’t really right for interviews with them though. We spoke to “Captain” Russ from Scooch, who was very happy to do an interview except that he didn’t know where the rest of his group were. Later on we met “Head Stewardess” Caroline, but then Russ was absent – and neither of them had seen “Head Purser” David. The fourth member, Natalie, had just had another baby, so she was described as being on “breast-feeding leave”. Bobbysocks to the rescue! Hanne Krogh and Elisabeth Andreassen were both eager and happy to talk to us and gave us a hilarious interview which talked about their careers and the night when Victory finally was Norway’s, but also involved a considerable amount of flirting between the four of us and which involved some – I can only describe it as – “breast action” from Ms Andreassen, which made me blush from top to toe. “My wife and your husband are watching!” I said; “they should be pleased for us” was her slightly bizarre reply. Later on that evening, Ms Krogh was last seen at the after-show party standing up and proposing a toast to everyone and getting really rather emotional about it all. I think it had been a long night.

BobbysocksMeanwhile, backstage, time was running out, and we had to get to our seats to see the show. It was great. For me, the two stand out performances were when Anne-Marie David sang Je suis l’enfant soleil, her French entry from 1979, and Paul Harrington and Charlie McGettigan singing their winning Rock ‘n’ Roll Kids from 1994 with a stunning purity and simplicity. But everyone was in great voice and turned up the entertainment knob to the top notch. With two songs from Anne-Marie David, Johnny Logan and Linda Martin, and one from everyone else, the evening flew by. Co-hosting the show with Sheila Ferguson was a bespangled Christopher Biggins, as irreverent and cheeky as you would expect.

scoochAfter the show, all the acts (bar one) sat at a row of desks in the foyer and virtually the entire audience trooped by them, one by one, chatting, getting signatures, photos, buying CDs and so on. It was a great opportunity for the fans to meet the acts, and it was again very generous of the acts to give their time so generously. We joined the back end of the queue to get a couple more interviews. At last all of Scooch had found each other, so we were able to talk to them about their careers and what they are doing now – which appears to be a lot of theatre. Black LaceDavid – who is local to the north-east – was also extremely happy to announce that he had got married the day before. I resisted the temptation to say he finally had something to suck on for landing, sir. We also spoke to Ian and Dene from Black Lace, who were a good laugh and very down to earth. Later at the aftershow party, they would somewhat bizarrely sing Agadoo with a karaoke machine to their own backing track.

Josh DubovieWhich takes us on to the aftershow party, where we interviewed Josh Dubovie – the second time I’ve interviewed Josh as it happens – and he is very much looking forward to getting his first CD with his own compositions released later this year. It will be very interesting to hear what Josh’s own stuff is like. He very politely turned down our offer to suggest any words of advice to Engelbert Humperdinck! The last performer we met and interviewed was Scott Fitzgerald, known to Eurovision fans for coming second with “Go” to Celine Dion (with whom he apparently still exchanges Christmas cards) in 1988, but known to the rest of the world as one half of the duo that sang “If I Had Words” to the tune of Saint-Saens’ Organ Symphony. A very friendly and chatty Scot, he’s now living in Rotterdam, and he confessed that the Gateshead concert was only the second time he had sung “Go” in public, the first time being on the Eurovision stage.

Scott FitzgeraldAnd so the party wound to a close, but not before Nicky Stevens of Brotherhood of Man proved herself to be a right party animal, doing Tina Turner and Whitney Houston on the karaoke! An amazing night – full of great entertainment and the thrill of meeting and talking to all these people. It would be wonderful if this could become an annual event – maybe it could become a part of the April “preview party” circuit – and also to continue raising funds for this very worthy cause. I’m not sure when the interviews will all be broadcast but I am sure you will be able to find them through the “show archive” section of the Radio International website.

Review – Abigail’s Party, Menier Chocolate Factory, Southwark, London, 7th April 2012

Abigail's PartyIt’s a really big risk to take such a well known play that is so associated with one particular star performance in one particular star production and to revive it with a brand new cast. The big question is, will you be constantly comparing it with Alison Steadman, Janine Duvitski and the rest, or does the new cast stand on its own two feet and make its own mark? Without question the answer is the latter. This is a superb revival of this wonderful Mike Leigh play from the 1970s, and the cast absolutely make it their own.

The set is brilliant. Even before the play starts, there are so many wonderful little details to take in. The plastic lampshades from Woolworths; the Radio Times; the trimphone (very trendy!); the fibre optic lamp (colours a bit on the subtle side perhaps); the Spanish lady doll and traditional (on the Costa Brava at least) wine pourer; I could go on. Fantastic work by the props department – when did you last see a tub of Blue Band margarine? Superb attention to detail.

Andy NymanDespite the progress of the years, the play remains very relevant today. If Laurence despaired at Beverley’s low-brow tastes in art and music, heaven knows what he would have made of today’s X-Factor generation. Laurence remains a lone voice fighting, in his fatally inept way, for recognition of artistic endeavour in a sea of dumbing-down. Andy Nyman’s Laurence is a very angry man. The pressures of work and living with Beverley have really taken their toll on him and he finds it toe-curlingly difficult to keep his feelings in, even when he has company round for drinks. It’s a superb performance. He brings out the full crassness of Laurence’s desperate closed-questioning line of conversation: “Sue, do you like art?”, “Do you like Paris?”; “Have you read any Dickens?” One of the things that makes the play so brilliant is the fact that the character with whom one ought to have the most sympathy is more or less just as grotesque as the others.

Joe AbsolomOne part of the story that is really emphasised in this production is the mystery of what happens when Laurence and Tony go over to Sue’s house to check on the party. My memory of the original production is that in the second act Laurence and Tony exchange quizzical looks at each other as to what each of them did while they were there. In this production this has escalated to outright animosity between the two, especially from Laurence. It really spikes up the story no end and adds a level of subtlety and mystery. Joe Absolom makes a great Tony. This must be a very hard role to play as so many of Tony’s lines consist of sullen, largely monosyllabic replies – you don’t feel that the script gives you a lot of clues as to his character – but Mr Absolom was totally believable in this part – despite very nearly corpsing at the huge laugh that came when Angela said to Beverley, “well we’re alike aren’t we”.

Natalie CaseyWhich brings us to Natalie Casey’s brilliant reinvention of the role of Angela. Janine Duvitski’s interpretation concentrated on her dowdy and downtrodden nature, but Ms Casey is a much more upbeat Angela – even though she still delivers the text in that marvellous deadpan tone. I feel this Angela really knows her own mind and she’s nobody’s fool – when Beverley and Tony are dancing smooch to smooch, Ms Casey, rather than just accepting it, expresses her resentment with a change of tone and some simple but wonderful comic business. But her whole performance is a comic delight, a truly delicate balance of the grotesque and the ridiculous, infused through with a kind compassion.

Susannah HarkerCompassion, but without subtlety or tact, as her wonderfully intrusive questioning about Susan’s ex-husband shows. Another wonderful performance, Susannah Harker’s Susan is not as pompous or remote as previous interpretations; she is very uncomfortable but beautifully polite, with a splendidly breathy way of saying thank you. Her distaste for some of the activity around her is perfectly realised by being delightfully underplayed, and her comic timing is superb.

Jill HalfpennyAnd of course there’s Beverley, one of the best comic roles written for a woman in the 20th century. I always thought Alison Steadman was the absolute incarnation of Beverley and that no one else would be able to match it. Wrong. Jill Halfpenny is brilliant. Very wisely, she is not doing an Alison Steadman impersonation, but fills the character really convincingly in her own way.

Where I always thought Alison Steadman’s Beverley was sexy primarily in her own mind, Jill Halfpenny’s Beverley is full-on-sexy. There’s a lengthy scene where she is sitting provocatively in an armchair, fondling her cigarette as though it were a sex toy, whilst directly opposite her Tony is silently spellbound, subtly adjusting his position for comfort, whilst the others carry on talking oblivious to the growing attraction. In a different scene, when she is quizzing Angela about what Tony is like, she gets really turned on by the possibility he might be violent. Uncomfortable but very believable, Jill Halfpenny’s central performance is just great; totally credible, never over the top in the grotesque department, not too obviously “Essex” in her approach, and above all, very very funny.

The tragedy that ends the play comes to bring everything back down to earth and to reverse the roles – with the dominant Beverley railing pathetically, the struggling Laurence put to rest and the underdog Angela taking control. Even this final scene was given a hilarious comic twist played beautifully by Ms Casey and Mr Absolom.

An absolutely first rate production, one of the best things the Menier has produced for a long time, and it would be a crime if it didn’t transfer.

Review – The Most Incredible Thing, Pet Shop Boys and Javier de Frutos, Sadler’s Wells, 6th April 2012

The Most Incredible ThingWhen Mrs Chrisparkle and I first heard that there was to be a new ballet, with music by the Pet Shop Boys and choreography by Javier de Frutos, we thought “winner!” Regrettably we weren’t able to see it on its first outing at Sadler’s Wells last year. But when I saw it was coming back for a second season, I jumped at the chance to book.

Although I knew the music was to be freshly composed by the PSBs, it did get us thinking about how great a new piece you could make by concocting a dance around some of their greatest hits, as in Christopher Bruce’s Rolling Stones inspired Rooster. You can just imagine it – London – Shopping – Rent – It’s A Sin – What Have I Done To Deserve This – Heart – It Couldn’t Happen Here. Make up your own dance story with any seven or eight PSB songs of your own choice. I would like to see that happen for real.

Anyway, I digress. That – or anything like it – was not the show on offer at Sadler’s Wells last week. Let’s start with the good points. The first – and very significant – good point is that the freshly composed music by the Pet Shop Boys is excellent. From the moment it starts, it engages you in very exciting and wide-ranging musical styles. There’s electronic, pop, classical – you can even hear borrowings from Elgar. It’s music that makes you smile; it’s music that makes you want to get up and dance. (Not recommended in the stalls.)

Secondly, it benefits from high production values. It’s a great set, including a splendid backdrop evoking houses and flats extending way into the distance, and it constantly creates new areas suggesting workplaces, the palace, the TV studio, and so on. The lighting is lively and appealing, and you can see everything properly; the sound is clear, at a perfect volume, and, for those elements performed live, played faultlessly.

Aaron SillisThirdly, the execution of the dance is terrific. I would hesitate to say there was a stand-out performance as the whole cast come across as a very well balanced ensemble – but perhaps Aaron Sillis’ dance skills are particularly strong in his role as the inventor Leo.

However, I have to bring this down to earth. I’m sorry to say that both Mrs C and I found it excruciatingly dull. I confess that I didn’t realise it was an adaptation of a Hans Christian Andersen tale until a couple of days after we’d seen it, and I now accept that it’s a reasonably good reworking of the tale for a modern era; but that doesn’t prevent it from being a very silly story. I’m guessing that the aim behind the creative team was to make something enchanting, something that would tap into one’s inner child, and something that would make the story’s moral (whatever it actually is) come alive with a warm glow and a feelgood outcome. It didn’t do it for us though.

The choreography is repetitive and fails to make the story clear. If it weren’t for the synopsis in the programme I don’t think I would have followed half of what was going on. Basically, the king offers the hand of his daughter to the person who invents the most incredible thing. Leo invents an amazing clock, which wins him the contest. But the clock gets destroyed by his evil rival Karl, and it is agreed that to destroy the most incredible thing is in itself “the most incredible thing”. In Andersen’s tale, the magical characters who populate the clock come back and kill Karl, which becomes in turn even more of an incredible thing, so Leo gets the Princess. I guess that might have been OK for the 1870s but today the story is shot through with holes. For example, destroying the most incredible thing is not an invention, and the programme says it would be an invention that would win the contest. The King is all-powerful – after all, he can offer his daughter’s hand willy-nilly to whoever wins the contest – but nevertheless Karl’s few henchmen – not that scary really – prevent him from taking the Princess away by means of a tiny tussle at the edge of the stage. How likely is that?

What ought to be highlights in the story are disappointing lows. The televised contest to judge the most incredible thing has an amusing trio of video judges, whose reactions actually take your eyes off the staging of the individual attempts to win. These attempts are staged, for some reason, as silhouettes behind a screen, which has the effect of stylising them and making them remote. I can’t imagine the TV audience and indeed the judges would be impressed with that as a show; and what I think could have been an opportunity for some lavish and comic choreography was lost.

However, the big dull point is the revelation of Leo’s clock. Each of the twelve hours is acted/danced out by the characters that make up the clock – Adam, Adam and Eve, Sun Moon and Stars, Four Seasons, Five Senses, and so on. There’s no real way out of this as this is at the heart of Andersen’s original tale. Boy does it go on, though. It was about this time that Mrs C gave up the will to stay awake. You know they’re Adam and Eve, incidentally, because they have the names “Adam” and “Eve” written on their undies. I would have thought fig-leaf costumes would have been more appropriate. If you don’t mind, I really don’t want to recollect the enactments of the remaining clock numbers as life is too short. At the end of this sequence a screen bombards us with about 300 names of writers, artists and the like – for no apparent reason – but which the programme says the creative team hope we will spend the interval discussing whether or not we agree with their list of them being incredible people. No. When your strength is sapped by a dull sequence of dances all about a clock, being bombarded with names is just a violent attack on the eyes of the poor audience. Discussing them is the last thing on your mind.

Ivan Putrov Ivan Putrov makes a good Karl, looking a little like a young Wayne Sleep, but I felt he was restricted by the uninspiring, robotic choreography he was given. Clemmie Sveass’ Princess looked great and gave us flashes of what could have been a much better ballet on the few occasions when she was allowed to do some proper dancing. There’s a nice (regrettably brief) early scene where she is dancing to pop music in her bedroom, and she also has a good scene with Leo where she convinces the King to allow him to compete for her hand. As Leo, Aaron Sillas spends nearly all the show looking like a needy geek rather than the “dreamer” that the programme would have you believe he is. His dancing is fantastic, but a performer of his versatility must feel so repressed having to wear that one facial expression – startled rabbit – throughout the production.

Clemmie SveassSo what does this show tell us of the human condition? Absolutely nothing. It’s a bundle of very pretty packaging but with nothing inside. Actually, Mrs C found its saccharine sweetness thoroughly nauseating. To be fair, there was a reasonably amount of (the now statutory) whooping and cheering at the final curtain call – although the interval applause was desultory. So, as you can tell, we pretty much hated it. I have no doubt this will continue to have a life after this production – I predict the big names headlining the creative team will ensure it does good box office if it tours. If you see it, I really hope you enjoy it, like we have enjoyed other pieces by Mr de Frutos. We won’t be seeing it again.