Review – Matthew Bourne’s Early Adventures, Derngate, Northampton, 29th May 2012

Early AdventuresEvery few years a revival of Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake comes around and it is compulsory under Artistic Law that you must go and see a performance because it is just the greatest thing since sliced entrechats. Mrs C and I have seen it probably ten or so times now and it never fails to amuse, beguile and horrify. But what of his other work? We’ve seen his Cinderella, Highland Fling, Car Man, Nutcracker, Dorian Gray and Play Without Words and they have all been fine entertainment in their own way – I list those productions in what I think is ascending order of excellence – but to be honest none of them come close to Swan Lake for its combination of aching emotion, inspirational choreography and downright funniness. So it’s fascinating to have the opportunity to see (for the first time, for us) three of his earliest works, to compare them with his later works, and also to compare them with contemporary pieces of today.

Lez BrotherstonThe set and costume design are by long-term collaborator Lez Brotherston. When you see Lez’s name in a programme, you know you have nothing to fear. Incredibly simple staging proves wonderfully versatile, as through the course of the evening a simple mini-proscenium arch and a few benches coupled with effective lighting suggest townhouses, countryside, railway stations and all things Paris.

SpitfireThe first piece, Spitfire (1988), is brief in more ways than one. Four poised and posy guys in a variety of vests and pants present us with a stately pas de quatre. The humour comes from the juxtaposition of their classical attitudes danced to a full orchestral Glazunov score, with the ridiculousness of their undies appearance. It was very nicely done, and I particularly liked the way some of the dancers looked snootily down their noses when their colleagues were performing their variations – very Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo; as was the suggestion that they were sexually interchangeable, sometimes doing more ballerina-type moves. I thought Christopher Marney was splendidly lugubrious in his pomposity. A very good curtain-raiser.

Christopher Marney Next we had Town and Country (1991), with “Town” coming before the first interval and “Country” coming after. For me this was the most entertaining of the three pieces. Both parts are basically sequences of vignettes showing aspects of life in the town, and then the country, set distinctly in the early 20th century. “Town” starts with the arrival of grand people at a grand house, having the servants bathe them, while a couple of gay guys get to know each other over a genteel cup of tea – a super performance of aloofness from Tom Jackson Greaves. The scene changes to a railway station with a splendid tribute to Brief Encounter, complete with amusing waiters, which finishes with a clever bittersweet ending to the two couples involved. This is all Bourne at his story-telling best. “Country” features some typical bumpkins doing what turns out to be a lethal clog dance, some excellent recreation of horse and hound-land and some effective depiction of unsophisticated rumpy-pumpy. Whilst there are comparisons between the town and country lifestyles I don’t think the dance as a whole is meant to draw any major insights from putting the two together, which is probably a trick missed.

Town and CountryAfter the second interval it’s The Infernal Galop (1989), an homage to la vie Parisienne, with music by Charles Trenet and Edith Piaf amongst others. More apparently unconnected vignettes, featuring lovers and sailors, including some rather unsubtle stuff at the pissoir and culminating in a version of the can-can that is diametrically opposite from what you would expect, which was a nicely subversive ending. I did feel this particular piece lacked narrative though. Whilst I love Trenet’s “La Mer”, Paris is approximately 110 miles from the sea, so I couldn’t quite understand its relevance, and whereas the scenes in Town and Country followed quite a meaningful sequence, I didn’t get any sense of unity with “Galop” apart from the setting itself. A lot of the dance work also involved quite intricate mime. Sometimes the characters seemed to be communicating with each other with elaborate hand gestures reminiscent of Give Us A Clue, and if you didn’t get what they were trying to convey (as I didn’t) it was like being left out of a conversation. I would have preferred them to try to convey their message through the wider choreography rather than concentrated manual shenanigans.

Tom Jackson GreavesWhat was particularly interesting in these three pieces was recognising the early use of some trademark Matthew Bourne choreography moves made famous in Swan Lake. We saw on more than one occasion dancers outstretching the left arm straight ahead whilst placing the right over their head and pointing their fingers in the same direction, in precisely the same way he choreographed the general appearance of the Swan Lake swans’ heads. In both Spitfire and Galop a dancer was on the floor, his upper body at 90 degrees to the floor with right leg stretched out and the left bent inwards, toes pointing in the same direction as the right leg, arms in fifth position, exactly as the Swan appears on the lake. On another occasion dancers depicted animals by simply touching their two hands together at the wrists and making a snappy clapping sound by bringing the tips of the fingers together, very much as a savage Swan Lake swan would. Mrs C recognised the swaying motions of dancers that reminded her of the basic dance moves of the Major Domo character. There’s probably a thesis to be done tracing the development of Bourne’s hallmark motifs.

The Infernal Galop The genius, if that is the word, of Matthew Bourne’s works is more in the wider interpretation and the mise-en-scène than in the detail of the choreography itself. He is great at taking a well known story or situation and putting it in a different place to maximum comic and/or shock effect. Throughout the whole evening you get the feeling that his primary aim as a choreographer – in these early pieces at least – is to make you laugh. Recently we have seen both the Balletboyz and Richard Alston Dance Company and in both cases, the physical demands and level of technical expertise required from the dancers far outshone what was evident in these Early Adventures. That’s not a criticism of the dancers in this production who literally did not put a foot wrong. But Bourne’s choreography did not challenge me to the same artistic degree as those other companies. I asked Mrs C if she thought the choreography was deceptively simple, or just simple. She agreed that she thought it lacked the technicality of some recent productions we have seen; and when you take all the ingredients together that make up the perfect night at the ballet, it’s an area where this production is slightly lacking.

Matthew BourneIt’s also really noticeable how Mr Bourne creates much better dance roles for men than for women; nearly all the memorable moments – the telling facial expressions, the comic nuances, the star dance turns – were performed by men. The only exception was during Brief Encounter where the two female dancers got equal stage rights.

I don’t want this to be too introspective, because it’s a fun show of dance escapism, and not a serious examination of the human condition. A highly entertaining evening of inventive comedy dance performed to perfection by a very likeable company, the audience gave it a big reception and it deserves to have a very successful tour throughout June.

Eurovision Semi Final Two 2012 – The Morning After

pastaOwing to the lateness of the arrival of Mrs Chrisparkle slaying dragons in London business meetings late into teatime, our Semi Final Two started at approximately 9.15pm, but fortunately the chase play thingy worked ok so we didn’t miss out. I had even timed it so that I remembered at about 9.30 to stop watching for a bit and phone in my votes for my bets, I mean favourites.

After a splendid gluten-free Waitrose Bolognese Pasta treat, and munching deeply on Lady Duncansby’s roulade, it was time to assess those Semi Final Two performances. As on Tuesday, the goal was to find out own personal ten favourites who we would put through to Saturday’s final.

Serbia – A performance full of class that we all appreciated. Lady D announced her approval of it within seconds of the violin striking up. “Those sleeves are distracting” said Mrs C. There’s no pleasing some people. All three said yes.

FYR Macedonia – Its slow and slightly weird first verse alienated Lady D who said “no” a number of times. Mrs C stayed silent. I thought it was an incredibly good performance. Lady D succumbed a little to its rockier charm in the second verse. Mrs C still silent. I was very impressed. All agreed to send it to the final.

Netherlands – Within seconds of it starting Lady D was loving it. I’ve never been a fan of this song and I didn’t think Joan sang very well. Her notes were all over the place at times. By the second verse Lady D and Mrs C were swaying from side to side but I was resolutely not joining in. By the end they had fashioned a tomahawk out of a piece of cheese and were erecting a wigwam in the dining room. It just doesn’t do it for me. However, when I added up my scores in the end I found it was still just in my top ten so we all put it through.

Malta – The living room erupted into a glittering ballroom of enjoyment. Kurt did a really good performance, the stage and light show were terrific and we’ve all promised to practise our pointy shoe shuffle for Saturday night. My top score of the night. Unanimous approval.

Belarus – How many times have they changed this arrangement? It’s got slightly rockier again and I thought their live performance was better than the one on the CD. Mrs C does a similar trick with the microphone stands when she’s attempting pilates. Another song that we all gave a tick to.

Portugal – It did precisely what it said on the tin. A very good performance, even if Mrs C and Lady D made defamatory comments about Filipa’s legs. Good quality entry but just not my plate of bacalhau. Despite saying she’s not into Fado, Mrs C was the only one to approve.

Ukraine – another Sara Cox guffaw moment when she likened Gaetana to a Dolmio puppet. I felt it was much better as a studio recording than a live performance – there were too many holes in the wall of sound. Lady D thought the backing dancers were fresh out of I Claudius. We did enjoy the albeit pixilated effect of the people dancing behind her – one way to get out of the 6 person only rule. Still uplifting though, so we all put it through.

Bulgaria – Oh no, said Lady D, not at all. And we all kind of agreed. It was ok but she got a bit screechy at times. I thought Portugal was a better example of its genre than this song was of its (club style thing) and as I voted Portugal quite low I had to vote this lower. Mrs C surprised us by choosing to promote it to Saturday material.

Slovenia – Quite nice, but just not quite nice enough was the general consent. I made a rather sexist remark associating the lead backing singer and with the generously proportioned underwear outlet Bravissimo. This was the first song that none of us selected.

Croatia – And this was the second. Lady D was aghast at Nina’s knees. It also had very silly dancers. Embarrassingly so. I wrote down the phrase “deliberately awful”.

Sweden – Of all the songs in the contest this is the one that, despite my better judgment, has been VERY slowly growing on me. I still think it fails in many ways but it does have a je ne sais quoi, something I just can’t explain. Her appearance is something akin to a flesh-eating zombie Kate Bush. Lady D noted that it was nice to see Mr T again doing the dancing. Direkt til Baku.

Georgia – Awful song and ragged performance; although I did think it was a bit unfair for Anri to have to perform in the remains of Loreen’s dandruff. The worst attempt at bongo drumming I’ve ever seen. Zilch.

Turkey – I find this song intensely irritating and I thought it was another poorish performance. Still, it’s Turkey, so what can you say. It snuck in as my number 10 and Lady D also begrudgingly gave it a thumbs up.

Estonia – He really has changed the performance of this song hasn’t he? I didn’t like it much before and I probably haven’t changed my mind – it sounds really overperformed now. Mrs C actually suggested pressing the fast forward button. There was, however, some mild appreciation of Mr Lepland’s rather famous charisma implant, noticeable from most angles. Not enough for any of us to vote for him though.

Slovakia – Lady D confessed she didn’t mind the song, and to be honest I quite like it too. I thought Max was out of tune for most of the performance – pitched far too high, unlike his waistband. Nul points.

Norway – Thought it had a bit of a ropey start, and a bit of a ropey end, but somehow he got through it ok. Catchy enough to survive. Three votes for yes.

Bosnia Herzegovina – Dull, dull, dull. Performed quite well. Dull, dull, dull. No votes.

Lithuania – A great performance of a slushy song. Not much more to say really. The PC part of me finds the whole blindfold thing a bit tasteless. Lady D and I put this through.

So the scores for last night were that Lady D and I both got 8/10 and Mrs C just 6/10. Just the big night on Saturday to look forward to now!

Italy – Venice

Venetian arrivalI have two self-contradictory comments to make about Venice. On your first visit there, it looks precisely as you had always expected it to look. The basic vistas have not changed since Canaletto set up his easel, and you are staggered how accurately he captured the place, all those years ago. So in a sense you already feel slightly acquainted with it. But – and here’s the contradiction – nothing can prepare you for the majestic awe you experience when you emerge from Santa Lucia Station. You look around you and all you can see is Venice. Venice everywhere; it takes your breath away. Gondolas, water taxis, vaporettos, bridges, people, pigeons, canals, wooden poles stuck in the water, blue and white stripey shirts, pastel coloured buildings, all of it constituting huge dollops of Venice.

Duodo Palace water entranceNot only laden down with suitcases but also with a packed lunch we bought at Padua station – as we assumed all the eateries in Venice would be ridiculously expensive – we slowly wended our way down one of the world’s longest train platforms – or so it felt. We had arranged with our hotel that we would be met at the station by a water taxi and “hostess” to take us to our hotel. The hostess was a loud in-your-face tourist guide who took the mickey out of my surname and faffed around for ages trying to find us a water taxi. But when we did eventually get going it was a marvellous 25 minutes journey, delving deep into the canal system; and by the time we got to our hotel we felt like we’d had a really privileged excursion. As many do, our hotel – the Duodo Palace – has a land and a water entrance, and walking straight into reception direct from the boat is a very swanky feeling.

Duodo Palace at nightTop marks to the Duodo Palace for a terrific welcome. If felt as if the concierge and I had known each other for years – extremely friendly and helpful but also extremely polite; a perfect blend. The Duodo Palace is a converted palace, you won’t be surprised to hear. As a result it is very elegant and attractive, quaint and irregular. Our third floor room was comfortable but a little squashed. The bathroom was quite big though and everything worked. Lady Duncansby’s room was on the floor below, and in all the time we were there we never worked out how you went from the third floor to the second floor by foot. If you walked down the stairway from the third floor you emerged at the first. It’s almost as though you can only get to the second floor from Platform 9¾. Fortunately there was a lift so we didn’t spend too much time worrying about it.

The walk to St Marks SquareBefore we left for a mosey into town, our new friends at the Conciergerie suggested another water taxi tour later on in the afternoon. They described it as an hour of pure relaxing pleasure. Would 5.30pm be suitable? It sure would. At 130 euros for an hour, to include a bottle of Prosecco, it wasn’t cheap entertainment but we were well in the mood. Time to go out now; being just a relative stone’s throw from St Marks’ Square, we headed in that direction. Of course, every street in this neck of the woods is lined with gift shops, so progress is slow, as Mrs C and Lady D inspected every item of jewellery, handbag and dress en route. Fortunately they’re not into carnival outfits.

Picnickers viewSt. Mark’s Square is thronging and fabulous. Very posh and expensive cafes line its sides, with string quartets and similar musical entertainment pushing up both the style and the costs. We took our little picnics down to the water’s edge, sat on some steps opposite San Giorgio Maggiore, consumed now rather warm and soggy sandwiches and it was bliss. You are completely surrounded by thousands of people yet there is an enormous feeling of peace and relaxation. It is simply an extraordinary place.

Doges Palace There was no queue to visit the Doges’ Palace so we thought we’d give it a try. It’s a grand old place and very attractive, particularly the marvellous Sala del Maggior Consiglio with Tintoretto’s magnificent Paradise covering an entire wall. When you see it, the scale of it is breathtaking. But the whole palace is architecturally very stirring. You also get to see all the prisons and walk across the Bridge of Sighs, which I always – erroneously – thought was so-named because it was so beautiful. Wrong! The sighs are because you’re just about to be chucked in the clink.

CampanileWe popped briefly into St Marks Basilica but it was a bit too busy to appreciate. You quite quickly get satiated with artistry and opulence, so we admired the outsides of the buildings and promised to return later. Other stunning sights in the square include the Campanile and the beautiful astronomical clock. I quite fancied visiting the Clock Tower but simply couldn’t locate the entrance. Another reason to return another time.

Water taxi to the RialtoSo we hot-footed it back to the Duodo Palace for our 5.30pm appointment with the man with the water-taxi, and a gift of a bottle of Prosecco from Signor Concierge and we sat back and let Venice engulf us. Actually, we didn’t sit at all – it was all far too exciting. We all stood at the back of the boat, bottle or glass in hand, cameras and phones ready to capture anything that passed us by and we had a whale of a time. Our route took us up the Grand Canal right to the sea’s edge, round the outside a bit and then back into the city plunging through small waterways that you would otherwise only see on the map. We must have taken hundreds of photos; just a magical, privileged afternoon, and the only way to see Venice in style. 130 euros don’t go that far in Venice, but it really was one of those “you only live once” moments.

St Marks at nightAfter the statutory afternoon nap, we headed out for dinner. I had done some research and it seemed to me the only way to get a decent meal in Venice was to pay through the nose for it; and even then, it’s no guarantee. The place is so full of tourists staying for just a short time, that restaurateurs never expect to see you again, and accordingly don’t bother to make an effort. First we headed back to St Mark’s Square to see it lit up in its finery – a spectacular sight. Then we eventually settled on the Osteria San Marco. It’s a very welcoming little place and quite authentic, you feel. Our plan was to go there just for a drink first but decided the vibe was nice enough to stay. Not a great meal, but certainly good enough, and the three of us had quite sufficient to eat and a perfectly reasonable bottle of plonk for less than £100.

Campo Santo StefanoDay two in Venice – and the morning revealed the only weak link in the Duodo Palace’s chain – breakfast. To be fair the food itself was perfectly adequate, once we got it – but we had to wait a long while for a table to become available. The breakfast area is crammed into two small rooms and it wasn’t really comfortable. No doubt the hotel was full but the area given over to breakfast simply isn’t big enough. Not that it would stop me from returning – I thought it was a terrific little hotel.

Ponte dell'AccademiaWe thought we’d head out west and explore the Dorsoduro district. Venice is at its best when you simply go and walk somewhere. Deliberately get lost if you like, and just see what each corner you turn has to offer. We discovered the Campo Santo Stefano, which was a charming square, with its elegant church to the side, which inside displays a painting of Pope John Paul II which looks more like Les Dawson. From there it’s a nice, relatively quiet, walk through to the bridge over the canal opposite the Accademia. You have an amazing view from this bridge, every Venetian cliché you can think of is here. The bridge itself is teeming with people but eyeball a picturesque spot, stick to your guns and linger while you can. It’s lovely.

San Nicolo Dei MendicoliStill heading west we discovered the charming little church of San Trovaso, kept walking along side little canals towards San Sebastiano church (for which we decided not to pay the entrance fee), Angelo San Raffaele, which was worth a short visit, and finally on to San Nicolo Dei Mendicoli which is a little stunner. You’re not meant to photograph inside but I’m afraid it was irresistible. It’s one of those little churches where not a scrap of plaster is undecorated. Absolutely beautiful.

Scuola di San RoccoA much needed coffee break at a little café gave us the fortitude to head north east towards the Campo Santa Margherita. There we espied a little place that looked like it would be good for lunch later on. Interestingly the square had a few fish stalls and they must have been fresh because there was no smell at all. Further along, past San Pantalon, we carried on to what turned out to be a major highlight of our visit – the Scuola di San Rocco. Adjacent to the church of the same name, which is quite nice but nothing outstanding, the Scuola was originally a charitable confraternity. In 1564 they commissioned Tintoretto to decorate the walls and ceilings, which you could say was a wise move, with the benefit of hindsight. The ground floor is stunning enough but upstairs is breathtaking; a vast salon of incredible artwork where you could spend hours – it’s definitely a must-see in Venice. There was a small film crew there too, filming a young couple meeting outside and then walking in to the building. If they did it once they did it twenty times. They might have been Italian starlets. Who knows?

Campo Santa MargheritaIt was without doubt now time for lunch and we did go back to that place on Campo Santa Margherita for lunch – Pier Dickens. Just a pizzeria, but probably the best meal we had in Venice, as it wasn’t trying too hard and the food was pretty darn good. All in a lovely, not too touristy location. Really recommended.

Ca' RezzonicoTime for a bit more culture so we called at Ca’ Rezzonico, an old palace that houses a museum of 18th century Venice. It belonged to Robert Browning, and his son Pen, and is worth a visit to get a feel of the time and to enjoy being inside a typical Venetian palazzo. It’s notable for the extravagant (if perhaps surprisingly smallish) ballroom. Upstairs are some new art galleries and I must say I found the art on display there rather fresh and stimulating.

Santa Maria della Salute Needing to get outside after all that art, we wandered back towards the Accademia but then carried on to the end of the promontory where you find Santa Maria della Salute church. It’s a rather unusual shape – an octagon; quite grand on the outside, slightly workaday on the inside. But from there you have spectacular views back over towards St Marks Square. We walked right to the end of the promontory and were surprised at how windy it was! And that really was quite enough tourism for one day. On the way back to the hotel we found a little pub. Unpretentious and simple, it wouldn’t have been out of place in Stratford on Avon. Can’t remember it’s name, but it was perfect.

Ristorante San StefanoAfter a much needed nap, we went out on our usual forage for food and drink. We decided to start off at Caffe Brasilia, very informal, quite expensive, but comfortable, friendly and much used by locals. Good for pre-dinner drinkies. For dinner we chose the Ristorante San Stefano, which was a complete tourist trap and offered a lazy, uninspired, barely adequate, expensive meal. Never mind, some you win, some you lose.

Rialto at nightToo early for bed, we decided to do a nighttime walk to the Rialto Bridge. Nowhere is that far away from the San Marco district and we were surprised how quickly we got there. It’s definitely a tourist attraction at night – heaving with people it was, but with a good friendly vibe. Rather like the Ponte Vecchio in Florence, the Rialto still has its shops on the bridge, and it’s another must-see. Having retraced Shylock’s steps, we returned to the St Marks area, looking for one last place for a late night drinkie. We found a nice little place, just to the side of St Mark’s Basilica; full inside but it was mild enough (just) to sit at the pavement tables and drink in the atmosphere and Chianti. We were happily sat supping away when a bunch of clean cut American youths appeared and basically asked the waiter if he would give them something to eat if they sang. Intrigued, the waiter asked to hear them at work – and then these lads suddenly came out with the most wonderful a cappella music, totally unexpectedly. The waiter was impressed, and they got some pasta. The odd things you see on your travels!

charming little caféThe next day was to be the start of our cruise adventure, but we still had a free morning in Venice, and had no wish to miss out on any of it. So we headed east from the hotel, past St Marks and the Doges’ Palace, into the Castello district; a charming network of narrow canals and even narrower alleys; nothing especially outstanding or beautiful, but overwhelmingly picturesque taken as a whole. Mrs C and Lady D plundered a couple of jewellery shops – considering the location, they got some really nice stuff at very low prices. We wandered past the Campo San Martin and ended up near the San Giovanni in Bragora church, having a light early lunch in a simple authentic little café, on the corner of Calle de la Pieta and Calle del Dose. Refreshed in the sunshine, it was time to head back to the hotel to catch our water taxi to the Passenger Terminal. Yes, yet another water taxi ride; each one a different kind of bliss. It was a really splendid way of arriving for a cruise, speedboating alongside the liner as you headed for the shore. I’d really recommend it!

leaving VeniceLater on, when the cruise ship finally gets going and leaves Venice, you are treated to the most amazing view. The height and distance of the ship is just perfect for the grandeur of St Marks Square from the water. Admittedly we were a bit late in staking our perfect spot for the view so had to watch through a window but it was still glorious. A wonderful way to say goodbye to Venice and to look forward to the week ahead.

back in VeniceWe would have one more morning in Venice at the end of the cruise before getting the train back to Verona for our flight home. Getting from the ship back into Venice “town centre” was an adventure in itself. Doing what I would never normally do, I responded positively to some bloke meeting the ship offering people taxis to the railway station. With “safety in numbers” in mind, I was grateful that another couple also eventually consented in the same way. After a very long wait we were finally escorted to a very decent looking taxi that did indeed take us to the railway station for 10€ each. But what a strange route! Through industrial zones, over railway lines, opening barbed wire gates, backs of farms… hardly any of it properly tarmac’d. The thought did drift through our minds that we would be all found as skeletons in some lime pit in fifty years time, but of course we were safe. The Left Luggage provision at Santa Maria station works fine, so unencumbered we were able to saunter back into the Saturday throng.

Campo San Giacomo dell’OrioWe started off inspecting the elegant interior of the Scalzi church next door to the station. It’s amazing how many of these small churches are as opulent as any cathedral. Then we crossed the nearby bridge and lost ourselves in the Santa Croce district. In desperate need of a coffee we found a nice little place on the Campo San Giacomo dell’Orio with swish toilets and an ace view of the piazza. Then we continued to the Campo San Polo with its super campanile and fun lion statues. Our goal was to check out the Rialto by day, having only seen it at night before. And we made it with ease, to find out it was equally busy as it is at night. With all the shops and markets open it’s a really lively area to waste an hour or two – which we didn’t have, unfortunately. We popped into the rather bizarre little church of San Giacomo di Rialto, which basically seemed given over to the sale of concert tickets; and then joined everyone else posing for photos on the bridge itself.

Strada NovaTime was against us, and we needed lunch, so after a couple of false starts we found a little restaurant on the Strada Nova. I can’t remember its name now which is probably just as well. The wine list was a board outside that advertised Pinot and Soave. Let’s have some Soave, I thought. When I ordered it, the waiter seemed perplexed, as though no one had ever done that before. He went away and brought the Maitre d’ (quite a posh name for the kind of guy he was in all fairness). “I recommend the Pinot”, he said. “I don’t think we have any Soave left, but I will *check* if you like” – in a tone designed to convey that it would cause him enormous inconvenience. I held my ground and let him be inconvenienced. He returned saying we were “in luck, and there was one bottle left”. He left it to his little mate to open the bottle and serve. I noted the age of the wine – 2007. That’s a bit old for a Soave, I thought. He poured a small taster into the glass. It had a colour best described as “first urine of the day”. It was repulsive. Mine host knew full well it would be. “May I suggest the Pinot then sir” was his rather barbed defence. Pinot it was. The meal was fine actually, and the wine experience humorously bizarre! Why didn’t he just say, in best Basil Fawlty tradition, “sorry, Soave’s off”?

on the train leaving VeniceWe made it in good time to get back to Santa Lucia station, reunite ourselves with our luggage and get our train back to Verona; our final lovely 1st class Trenitalia experience. On arrival we decided to get the shuttle bus from Verona station to the airport, which worked fine – we just bought the tickets from the tobacconists inside the station complex. But it dawned on me afterwards that with three people a taxi to the airport – of which there was a plentiful supply – would have been cheaper and quicker. No worries. The plane was late; and Verona airport is a bit of a boring place to be fair. But we’d had a fantastic time away.

However, gentle reader – this is not the end of this story; oh no, you don’t get away with it that easily! What happened on the cruise itself is a tale yet to be told….

Eurovision Semi Final One 2012 – The Morning After

Just a little wine for the eventSo here’s just a brief resumé of the activities and reactions at Lady Duncansby’s Manor last night as we sat down to watch the first Semi of 2012. Lady Duncansby had instructed Cook to prepare a fine repast of Pork steaks and salad, topped and tailed with an excellent variety of crisps and some tasty olives. We also got through a few bottles of El Vino Exquisito. Each team’s task was to identify their ten favourites to progress through to Saturday’s final.

Montenegro – Rambo Amadeus looked all the world like an embarrassing relative late in the evening at a wedding reception. Blank faces of disbelief all round. No takers.

Iceland – General approval, although I thought it was a little ragged – I expected a crisper performance. Good enough though. Got the green light from all three of us.

Greece – Slightly out of tune, but who cares when you’ve got legs like that. We’re all suckers for a bouzouki disco number. It’s a yes from everybody.

Latvia – Mrs Chrisparkle thought the first line was “I was born in Bicester 1980” which gave it an unexpected local interest. Lady D gave it a firm “no” before Annmary had had a chance to do much name-dropping. I’ve always liked this but felt it didn’t work. Nevertheless, after we had done all our tallying by the end of the evening, we all had this progressing to the final.

Albania – This song plumbs emotional depths that go sailing over the top of our heads. Mrs C noted that whoever did her facial make-up should be shot. We all guffawed at Sara Cox’s observations on Rona’s hairdo. Just too over the top for me. No one put it in their top ten.

Romania – It’s catchy, but is it art? Mrs C and Lady D were bopping away in their chairs whilst I still failed to get it. Considering the lead singer clearly had earpiece problems she kept in tune amazingly well. Our first split decision – Mandinga were in Lady D and Mrs C’s teams but not mine.

Switzerland – Loved the light show, and felt the guys did a great job. We all loved it, and all had it sailing into the final.

Belgium – After about five notes were played Lady D had got bored enough to discuss the latest Debenhams sale with Mrs C. After a shaky start Iris got into her stride but it really is an immensely tedious experience. Three rejects.

Finland – The ladies were divided on the dress, the hair, the make-up. We were however all unanimous on the boring. Sorry Pernilla, it’s a no from us.

Israel – Having liked this a lot in the pre-season, I was surprised how lifeless it appeared on stage. The lead singer came across as a bit creepy and the two backing singers posing with each other just looked stupid. Terribly cheesy. Mrs C put it through though.

San Marino – The song having been the butt of so many run-up-to-the-contest jokes, I was expecting something dreadful. What I wasn’t expecting was Valentina’s super performance. The prevalence of uh oh oh ohs on the backdrop didn’t enhance the song, but we still liked it enough to all vote for it. Beep beep.

Cyprus – My favourite song of the year. Not sure if Ivi sang it well, as I couldn’t hear her over the sound of me singing along. I must have given an impressive performance though as we all voted for it.

Denmark – Nicely dressed troupe but still dull. Didn’t register with anyone – no votes.

Russia – I wasn’t expecting six classically trained voices but really they are awful. Not only out of tune but out of time too. Not sure about the oven – even in Buranovo I bet they rely on microwaves. Yes the little one is cute but the camera dwelt far too much on her. Virtually unspeakable in every way, but only Mrs C didn’t put it forward.

Hungary – This song has been one of my firm favourites for the last few months and I was pleased that the guys absolutely nailed the performance. About a third of the way through Lady D announced that she really didn’t like it at all. Two thirds of the way through Mrs C agreed with her. That left just me raving about it.

Austria – I was surprised how this song completely lacked energy. The preview videos may have given you a sense of the obscene or depraved but it somehow it always got down and dirty in a funky sort of way. On the night I thought it was extremely boring. Lady D and Mrs C just had “Disgusted of Tunbridge Wells” looks on their faces. No support.

Moldova – I’m just loving this more and more each time I hear it. It oozes fun and I’m a big fan. Lady D wokked her popo to it. Mrs C felt by about 2 minutes 30 that it was “a bit samey”. Nevertheless we all gave it the thumbs up.

Ireland – The ladies approved of Jedward’s altered hair. Lady D already had the song down as one of her big faves and we all agreed it was an excellent performance. Unanimous approval.

So Lady D and I both got 7/10 and Mrs C got 6/10 – should have gone to Buranovskiye Specsavers.

Review – Betrayal, Sheffield Crucible, 19th May 2012

BetrayalIt’s been ages since I’ve seen some Pinter, and in fact this was Mrs Chrisparkle’s first exposure to the aforementioned late playwright. I warned her about the pauses. If they’re doing it really well, I suggested, then you won’t realise they’re pauses. If they aren’t, it’ll feel like they’ve forgotten their lines. I did once see an amateur production of The Room and The Dumb Waiter. On that occasion they really did forget their lines; and they also had no one in the prompt corner. I realised the pauses had gone on too long when one of the actors called out “Can we have a prompt please”, which was followed by a hurried scuttling of footsteps backstage, the sound of table and chair legs scraping on floors, and the flipping of paper pages before a lone voice gave them that oh so important line.

It will come as no surprise that Nick Bagnall’s new production of Betrayal is a bit more professional than that. When you enter the Crucible auditorium the deceptively simple set looks stunning. How can a pub table and a couple of chairs look so effective? By the addition of a brightly lit, glass topped floor, busily scattered underneath with compartments full of detritus, providing a visual metaphor of all sorts of goings-on beneath the surface. Simple basic scenery is used throughout the play, including a bed – possibly the best symbol imaginable for an adulterous affair – that first makes its portentous appearance slowly descending down from the flies like a veritable deus ex machina. Excellent use is made of the Crucible’s revolving stage; nothing is gimmicky, everything helps to tell the story.

The trick to the structure of this play is the fact that it is told in reverse. The first scene is the final scene chronologically speaking – 1977. The last scene is the first – 1968. So our first view of Emma and Jerry is their meeting in a pub long after their affair has fizzled out, realising something of what has gone on between them in the past, and the new revelation that she has told her husband, Robert – Jerry’s best friend – about what had happened between the two of them, much to Jerry’s horror. Jerry feels he has to see Robert to talk about it; and from there we go back in time. The structure works really well as there are so many betrayals going on, on so many levels, and between so many people. You, the audience, already know what the characters don’t yet know which gives a great sense of dramatic irony, that continues throughout the journey back in time to the final (first) scene – where Pinter has reserved a last twist evident in that final tableau.

John SimmJohn Simm plays Jerry and he is superb. Born to play Pinter as he uses those pauses so naturally! Even while he is silent you just have to look at his eyes to see all the realisations, troubles, misunderstandings, and general horrors of life that his brain is absorbing before he next engages to speak. As the play proceeds, his sad and troubled world regresses back to a time of comfort, physical pleasure and, originally, excitable hope that this wonderful woman whom he adores, might – just might – adore him too. You can see the strains and worries gradually lift from his expression as he gets more youthful and more optimistic. That 1968 Jerry feels like a completely different person from 1977. He just nails every nuance of the character.

Ruth GemmellRuth Gemmell’s Emma is a more reserved kind of person. In 1977 she too is deeply troubled, and extraordinarily outraged that her husband has been having an affair, which is a beautiful example of how the play ironically and creatively tackles its twisted moral questions of loyalty and betrayal. She lightens up a bit during the most passionate days of the affair, but starts the story again as rather a reserved person, shocked but secretly delighted at Jerry’s advances, which clearly appeal to her compulsive nature. You sense a little that hers is the character that advances the story, but that’s it’s the fall-out for the men that interests Pinter somewhat more. Nevertheless it’s a really good performance.

Colin TierneyAs Emma’s husband Robert, Colin Tierney starts the play troubled but balanced, resigned to his lot and seemingly remarkably forgiving. One of the best scenes of the play is where he finds out about his wife’s relationship and you almost physically see his heart break. It’s superbly well done. At the beginning of the story, his naturally rather dour character makes a great contrast with Jerry and it’s not terribly surprising that Emma finds Jerry the more attractive prospect.

Another great scene shows Jerry and Robert dining in a restaurant, chock-full of dramatic irony. Their table slowly revolves around the stage, enabling everyone to see all aspects of the scene. First, you may be in Robert’s place, looking at Jerry trying to hide the secret of the relationship. Then you are in Jerry’s place, looking at Robert drinking too much as a way of suppressing his personal sadness. Superbly directed, and revelatory whilst still maintaining the betrayals.

Thomas TinkerThere’s also an honourable mention to the fourth member of the cast, Thomas Tinker, who plays the Italian restaurant waiter just as those waiters always are – tediously nostalgic for the glories of Venice – but moreover who spends the rest of the production as scenery shifter which could end up very messy if he gets it wrong. His discreet efficiency gives you confidence though that it’s in safe hands.

The whole production is a thing of painful poignancy, clarity and precision, and with a bizarrely inexorable journey to the beginning. So many betrayals get hinted at – we never really get to the bottom of Casey, or why Judith was at Fortnums and Masons that day. Even if they are innocent, the play just makes you suspicious of everything. In the programme, Nick Bagnall says they have tried to make this production one where they ignore anything unless it’s on the page or revealed within a moment – and it really works. They let the text do the talking, and it’s remarkably eloquent.

We saw a preview performance on Saturday 19th May. I don’t normally choose to see previews because you never know if they might change things again before the proper first night. I can’t imagine why they might want to change anything though. Maybe just refresh everyone’s memory about turning off mobiles. The final scene was all but spoiled by a recurrent ringtone which stopped and started three times. It even made some sectors of the audience titter nervously. Top marks to Mr Simm for battling through it regardless. I wonder if that explained Miss Gemmell’s withholding of a curtain call smile. Previews are fantastic value at the Crucible. A packed house saw this riveting production for just a tenner each. No interval, just 95 minutes of unadulterated adulterous drama. An excellent production of a great play.

Review – Flahooley, Lost Musicals, Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadlers Wells, 13th May 2012

FlahooleyIt’s Lost Musicals time again! We always like to go once a year, because no matter what show you see, it’s always a delight. In case you don’t know, every year Ian Marshall Fisher resurrects two or three old musicals that haven’t seen the light of day for donkeys’ years, and gets a bunch of talented actors and musicians to sit in a semi-circle, resplendent in evening dress, scripts in hand, Mark Warman on the piano, no scenery or props, and they enact the forgotten masterpiece. Sometimes they really are masterpieces. Other times you realise precisely why they have been forgotten. But even if they are lost because they’re not that great, the actual choice of which musicals to resurrect will always be of significant historical interest for some reason or other.

Flahooley, which opened this year’s season last Sunday, enjoyed a mere 40 or so performances on Broadway in 1951; but it was written by (inter alia) E Y Harburg, who had enjoyed great success with Finian’s Rainbow, and in his earlier days, had also written the lyrics for the songs in the film The Wizard of Oz. Being (shock horror) a socialist, Harburg had felt the rough side of the McCarthy witch hunts, and this show was a pretty thinly veiled attack on those dark days. It’s an allegorical tale of a young dreamer who creates an amazing new doll for his toy manufacturer employer, but when the market becomes flooded with them because a magic genie misinterprets his wish about how many dolls would be made (don’t ask), the dolls become valueless and are hunted down and destroyed. Are you catching some of the McCarthy allusions? There are other rather bizarre plot elements involving American-Arabian political relations, as well as the love story between Sylvester, the inventor, and Sandy.

Personally I felt the story was a little too over-the-top to take that seriously, even with the prior knowledge of Harburg’s perfectly reasonable vendetta against McCarthy. Musically, I found many of the tunes to be rather delightful, but also many of the lyrics to be syrupy beyond endurance. Still, no matter – the occasion’s the thing, and when the performers march out onto the stage and take their seats, you know you’re in for a treat.

James VaughanI was delighted to see that many of my favourite Lost Musicals regular performers were in the cast. James Vaughan has plenty of opportunities to let rip his stentorian tones in his dual roles as the March of Time voice and the Arab. Stewart PermuttHe has a face and a voice that is just perfect for both being pompous and then allowing the pomposity to be ridiculed. Stewart Permutt plays Abou Ben Atom, the genie, in his usual larger than life way, suitably camp as a row of Arabian NightMatt Zimmermann Caravanserai tents; the kindly and generous aspects of the character are well suited to his highly expressive voice; and of course his jolly mannerisms mean the show always perks up whenever he’s on. Matt Zimmermann Myra Sands(whose performances I have always enjoyed over the last 35 years – gasp!) plays Bigelow the toy manufacturer with subtle gusto. Myra Sands turns in a comic bravura performance as the witch hunting, vigilante organising Elsa Bundschlager.

Emily O’KeeffeOther very enjoyable performances came from Emily O’Keeffe’s sweet looking and sweet singing Sandy and Margaret Preece’s Princess Najla who basically has to sing a load of gibberish all the way through. That’s a take-off of the Princess Zubediyah from Kismet I thought; then I researched and found out that the musical version of Kismet came two years later. And talk about when two worlds collide – Margaret Preeceregular readers will know I’m a Eurovision aficionado; Constantine Andronikou, who is in fine voice with the role of Tonelli, has twice entered the Cyprus National Finals for the Eurovision Song Contest – in 2006 and 2008 – and indeed was one of Annet Artani’s backing singers in Athens for “Why Angels Cry”.

Constantine AndronikouIf I’m honest the show probably looked a little under-rehearsed in comparison with some of the Lost Musicals we have seen, and indeed Mrs Chrisparkle thought the musical director looked thoroughly relieved at the end of the show that they all got through it unscathed. But it is, as ever, an excellent mix of the delightful and the curious, and I congratulate Ian Marshall Fisher and his super cast for recreating this old show so vibrantly.

Review – Stewart Francis, Outstanding in his field, Derngate, Northampton, 12th May 2012

Yet another comic act in Northampton that we booked on the strength of the advertising. We hadn’t seen Stewart Francis before but our 16 year old Goddaughter, who is a Mock-the-weeker, said he would be a good bet. I sense we may have failed our Godparently duty if she’s talking about gambling like that.

Stewart FrancisNever mind – she was right. She had told us Stewart Francis is best known for his quick fire one-liners. Well he sure does have a lot of these; in fact there’s wordplay by the punful. It’s all very clever and very funny, and with a supremely slick delivery. He has a very nice way of leading you down the garden path with one way of comic thinking only to veer off suddenly in a completely different direction; and that keeps the whole routine feeling fresh, pacey and lively. I also liked his subtle interaction with the sound engineer, which brought in an additional dimension to his stand-up. There were one or two comedic alleyways he took us down that turned into dead-ends but for the most part it was all great fun.

He gets a very strong rapport with the audience, which I would like to see him develop. But you sense that if he spent too much time interacting with the audience he wouldn’t quite know how to get back to his prepared material. If you’re sensing a slight reservation on my part, I would perhaps comment that I really appreciate comedy that gives some insights into the human condition – and Stewart Francis’ material doesn’t do that. He doesn’t intend to, mind you. His humour is very shallow. That’s not a criticism; depending on the context shallow is good. If you’re happy with being bombarded by linguistic cleverness (and why wouldn’t you be?) he’s your man. But you won’t get any “Ha! I recognise that!” or “That’s just like you” moments. At the end of his act (about an hour long) he gives us a very clever and funny subversion of a typical Q&A ending, which worked really well.

Matt RudgeBefore the interval we have Matt Rudge as a half-hour warm-up. We saw Mr Rudge at a Screaming Blue Murder last year and he was very good although he didn’t go down that well. Playing a larger crowd he really got into his element and gave us some excellent observational comedy. If I’m honest his is the kind of material I prefer. I particularly liked his angst at having to come out to his parents as middle-class. Good stuff!