Review – The Phantom of the Opera, Milton Keynes Theatre, 30th October 2012

Phantom of the Opera 1986Picture the scene. The date: Friday, 17th October 1986. The location: London’s glitzy West End. Her Majesty’s Theatre is the place to be, as Phantom of the Opera had opened a couple of days earlier to sensational reviews. In Stalls seats B9 & B10 (costing a stupendous £18.50 each) were a young Mr and Mrs Chrisparkle (actually she wasn’t Mrs C then, still the demure Miss D). Behind us, in inferior seats, the comedian Dave Allen (very short, accompanied by a very glamorous lady); a couple of rows back, to the side, Australian ex-Prime Minister Gough Whitlam. On stage: Steve Barton – a heroic Raoul; Sarah Brightman – a stunning Christine; Michael Crawford – a gobsmackingly brilliant Phantom. Such nights are the stuff of life-long memories.

Sarah Brightman and Michael CrawfordAnd we’ve never seen Phantom since, until this week when the current touring production has come to haunt the Milton Keynes theatre until 24th November. The original, of course, is still on in London, but this touring production has a different director – Laurence Connor; a different choreographer – Scott Ambler (one of our dance heroes); a different set designer – Paul Brown; and wisely keeps Maria Björnson’s original costume design. The overall impression of this combination of creatives is that the production is overwhelmingly beautiful; it looks and sounds luxuriously sumptuous throughout.

Our old ticketsThe set in particular is just superb. From my memory, I think it’s scaled down only a tiny bit from the original production but looks just as opulent/mysterious/bleak delete as appropriate, depending on the scene. As in 1986, we were sat directly underneath the notorious chandelier. In the original production the Phantom famously sends the chandelier hurtling down towards the stalls, or, if I remember rightly, what actually happened was that it floated gently like a glittery blancmange and we didn’t feel remotely threatened by it. In this production, it shakes violently and little shards of broken chandelier drops land on your head – very clever and effective. I also loved the way it came to life in the opening auction scene, a brilliant bit of design magic.

Sarah Brightman and Steve BartonThe scenes depicting the staged operas are lavish; the scene where they descend the side of the building to reach the Phantom’s boat is still extraordinarily atmospheric; the owners’ office is plush and comfortable; the rooftop is chilling and threatening. Whilst outstanding in itself, the set never dwarfs the action, rather it becomes an extension of the action, complementing it superbly. Similarly, Scott Ambler’s choreography for the ballet scenes convincingly suggests a highly skilful production of Hannibal or Il Muto, whilst not actually drawing our attention too much from the plot of Phantom. And the orchestra under the direction of Craig Edwards is officially fabulous. Romantic one minute, scary the next, it’s a brilliant score and they give it everything – you’d have thought there was a full symphony orchestra out there.

Michael CrawfordSo what of the performances? And how do they compare with the originals, or is that a really cruel thing to do? For me, there was one absolutely standout performance that was at least as good as back in 1986, and that was Katie Hall as Christine. She looks perfect for the part, in that she is beautiful in a fragile sort of way, and she has a superb, clear, powerful and emotional voice. Her love for both the Phantom and Raoul felt absolutely genuine and gave the love triangle a real bite.

Phantom of the Opera 2012I’m uncertain as to how Raoul ought to be played really. Should he be very keen but a bit wet behind the ears, or should he be dashing and brave and heroic from the off? Simon Bailey’s performance edges towards the heroic by the end but, as Mrs C observed in the interval, despite his reassuring words promising protection to Christine in “All I Ask of You”, Mrs C says she would have had more faith in George Osborne. Nevertheless, he looks right, he’s a very good singer and he got a very warm reception from the audience.

Katie HallActually, this was one of the most genuinely enthusiastic rounds of applause at curtain call we’ve ever heard. Mr Bailey had quite a few cheers, Miss Hall had loads of cheers, and as for Earl Carpenter, playing the Phantom, well, I thought some of the ladies in the audience were going to need St John’s Ambulance assistance. At least I would expect a run on Ventalin from the local pharmacies. For my part, Mr Carpenter has a great voice and can belt out a great tune, but I thought he enunciated some of the lines almost oversensitively; in attempting to convey the Phantom’s heartbreak and internal agonies his voice pussy-footed through some of the lyrics making them a little bit hard to hear. Additionally, there were a couple of times when the Phantom’s disembodied voice is making demands on the other characters, when I felt that he sounded too soft and insufficiently threatening in comparison with the other onstage noises – doubtless a sound engineering/mixing problem. Mrs C said she remembered being totally moved by Michael Crawford’s performance but that this didn’t move her at all. I have to agree, I didn’t quite get the emotion from Mr Carpenter either – but judging from the reception, we were in the minority.

Simon BaileyThe other roles were all performed very well – I particularly liked Elizabeth Marsh as Madame Giry, an excellent mix of the charitable and the domineering, and Angela M Caesar as Carlotta, giving us some superb coloratura and also bringing out the comic elements of the role in a credible, non-pantomime way.

Earl CarpenterA pet hate: all three of the main performers, particularly Mr Bailey, in moments of high emotion, changed “all I ask of you” into “all I ask of yew”. A simple mispronunciation; yew is a type of tree. I may have to set up a campaign for the re-introduction of “yoo”.

Elizabeth MarshAnother pet hate: the front stalls seats in the Milton Keynes Theatre were again a disappointment. We were in Row D this time, with no rake over the two rows in front of us, and not much space to put our knees. We had to inconvenience about fourteen people in order to get to our central seats, and even when people stand up, there’s hardly any room to squeeze past. I hate to think what would happen if you were in desperate need of the loo during a performance; trying to get out would cause row-rage. I’m reasonably tall, and Mrs C is a bit shorter, but neither of us could see what was going on at Stage Left floor level. I understand the Phantom was having a right woeful time of anguish at the prospect of Christine going off with Raoul but frankly from our viewpoint it was just hearsay.

Angela M CaesarHowever on the good side, they seem to have opened up that members’ only club area in the foyer that always looked virtually empty anyway, and used the space to create a piano bar. It gave the foyer so much more atmosphere and warmth, the charming piano playing lent an air of refinement, and by creating another bar counter where people could order drinks, it made the queues for the other bars much shorter, which is eminently practical when a big theatre like the MK is sold out. I do hope it’s going to be a permanent fixture, as it has transformed the vibe of the place completely – well done!

Malta – last day in St Julian’s

Portomaso MarinaLast days on holidays are always a sad occasion. They come round far too soon, when you feel you’ve hardly got your legs under the destination’s table, so to speak. And then you get sent back to where you came from, to the gloom of that 9 to 5 existence that you couldn’t wait to escape barely a week earlier. Unless you were having a rotten time, of course, in which case you can’t wait to get home.

Portomaso yachtBut we had adored our little week in Malta; and so we resolved at Friday breakfast to make the most of the relaxation options and just stay around St Julian’s for the last day. So, alas, there would be no HOHO bus trip round the south of the island; there would be no trip back to Valletta to see the Grand Master’s Palace; but as the poet once said, it gives you a reason to come back.

The MarinaMy pre-holiday planning had revealed there were some classy looking restaurants with good gluten-free options at the Portomaso marina complex in St Julian’s. We still hadn’t actually found it – I could work out from the map whereabouts it should be, but in all our wanderings we hadn’t stumbled across it. So we determined to find it, and maybe identify a nice place for lunch, or dinner, or both.

Portomaso ArchwayIt’s just off the Hilton hotel complex. You go through an arch, and then you have a wide descending staircase with restaurants off to the left and right, before you reach the water at the bottom and can then walk around either side and admire the yachts and motorboats. It’s beautifully clean, feels approachably exclusive, and makes for a nice leisurely walk.

saltThere’s a small promontory you can walk around and end up on the sea side (as opposed to marina side), with lots of fascinating little rockpools. But what took our attention the most, were the little patches of salt in the rocks, a residue of the seawater, and, as Mrs Chrisparkle pointed out, nature’s own exfoliator. Off came the trainers and we rubbed fresh salt all over our tootsies, like a pair of podiatric pixies. Incredibly effective, and left your feet feeling really soft and energised. You could pay a fortune for a pot of that stuff at home.

PortomasoWe retraced our steps back through the marina and checked out the restaurants. By now it was already an acceptable time for early lunch, but they were almost all closed. We did however note a couple of possibilities, primarily Spoon, a Chinese restaurant with a gluten-free menu. Unheard of! Mrs C’s tastebuds started to quiver. The only Chinese food she’s had since she was diagnosed about ten years ago has been eggy rice. They were closed, so we couldn’t book, but we hoped there would be some tables available for the evening.

Balluta BayBut that didn’t solve the problem of lunch. We headed back towards Paceville and thought we’d check out the Bay Street Complex again. It didn’t inspire us lunchwise, but we did get a nice bit of shopping done. Mrs C got a red shirt in a nice little boutique – not cheap but very trendy and excellent quality – and we both did well in the Terranova sale. I regret, gentle reader, that I am unable to bring to mind exactly what we eventually ended up eating. Or where. Or when. I know – I have let you down. It must have been something local, and by the same token, totally unremarkable and unmemorable. I do however remember staying out after lunch and popping into Peppi’s again, the bar/restaurant on the way into Sliema that we had visited earlier in the week, not for food but for that wonderful holiday institution, the “afternoon drink purely for the sake of it”. When we had visited before we loved the views on the outside terrace and also the wine was nice enough. We just wanted to enjoy the sit down, and to while away the sunshine of our last afternoon with a glass of wine. We’d had the La Vallette before, and it was nice but unchallenging; so, feeling bold, and trusting in the integrity of the establishment, I ordered a Half Carafe of the House White. Everything we had drunk before in Malta had been completely acceptable.

typical Maltese beachUntil now. It was like warm radiator fluid. Not that I am a connoisseur of radiator fluids, at any temperature; but Mrs C and I agreed pretty rapidly that it was totally undrinkable. Actually on reflection, I’m sorry to say, it was probably more like urine than radiator fluid. It certainly had that colour; that early morning urine that’s been building up inside you overnight and strengthening as it develops. Too much information? You should have tried the wine. I called the waitress over and said it was disgusting and could we have a half bottle of the La Vallette instead, as I knew that would at least be generally acceptable. She took the carafe away, brought the bottle and two fresh glasses and offered it to me to taste. Me: “That’s much better, thank you”. Waitress (with added tetchiness): “So, you knew you would like La Vallette, and yet you did not order it at first. Why?” Me: “Because I wanted to try something else”. She stomped off.

St Julian'sWe drank the wine; we lingered over the view; we rested and relaxed and watched the world go by. It was lovely. Then started the nagging internal question: would they charge for both wines, or just the nice one? No doubt they will have just tipped the rest of our carafe of urine into their simmering cauldron of bodily fluids out the back, so they would barely be out of pocket. The bottle was emptied; the bill requested; the waitress brought it over. They charged for both. €6,50 for the urine and €6,00 for the wine. I did a quick mental calculation: €6,50 + €6,00 + impertinent waitress = no tip. And no recommendation from me, either. Avoid them like the plague!

Canine skipperThe last afternoon nap of the holiday is a bit of a damp squib as it gets overtaken by that thing called “packing”. All those fine bits of clobber you’d painstakingly prepared, folded and placed just-so in the outward suitcases now get screwed up and bundled back in any old how. Well that’s what I do; I think Mrs C comes along behind me and unscrews things and folds them out a bit more neatly. Not quite sure why – they’re destined for the washing machine, after all. One good thing – at least we weren’t flying Ryanair, so we didn’t have to dread unpacking everything in the airport concourse to satisfy their need to humiliate their passengers.

gluten free ChineseSo it was the last evening; and we wandered back up towards Portomaso in the hope that the Spoon would have a table for us. But first, pre-dinner drinkies at the bar just outside the Hilton Complex. Lovely setting; the service was a bit slow, but we didn’t mind that; and we entertained ourselves by eavesdropping into the conversations of some of our posher co-drinkers. It was about 9.30pm now so our tummies were more than ready for a spot of Chinese. Spoon was very busy but they found us a table. And sure enough, there was a gluten-free menu! Part of the fun of a Chinese is to order lots of different meals and then all share them, so I ordered from both the g-f and the ordinary menus. The only thing I had that wasn’t gluten-free were the barbecued spare ribs, so I slavered over them completely by myself and I have to say they were gorgeous. We had seaweed and soup, crispy duck and beef with cumin. It was all a very plucky attempt to create a g-f Chinese banquet, and much of it was very tasty, if a little dry – especially the beef with cumin. It lacked that aromatic gloopy sauce that would have made it taste sensational, but which would almost certainly have enough gluten in to flatten your cilia at fifty paces. We still enjoyed the meal though; it was relaxed and elegant, and with a lovely view over the marina; and once again it made Mrs C feel a bit more mainstream in her restaurantability.

A fiendish knockerAnd that was it! Dinner over, we slunk back to the hotel miserably; well not really, we’d had a wonderful holiday and relished every minute. We didn’t have to get up too early the next day; the hotel arranged for a taxi to take us to the airport; transfers, flights and so on all took place smoothly; we were back home by 6pm. Verdict: Malta is a great place for a holiday. We could have done and seen much more, but we wanted it to be relaxing and it absolutely filled the bill. Now it’s your turn to visit!

Review – God of Carnage, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 24th October 2012

God of CarnageYasmina Reza’s characters enjoy a good argument, don’t they? In Art (admittedly the only other Reza play I’ve seen) friendships get destroyed over the purchase of a painting. In God of Carnage two couples meet to discuss a fight their sons had, that resulted in one of them losing a couple of teeth. Unlike in the first play, these people have never met before so don’t have established friendships at risk; however, by the end of the play any pretence at middle-class politeness and structured problem solving has gone right out of the window.

Alan and Annette are at a disadvantage though; not only is it their son, Ferdinand, who has committed the alleged attack, they are at the “away ground” that is Bruno’s parents’ (Veronica and Michael) living room. Veronica is in charge of negotiations – Michael is obviously just there for back-up – and Alan (a pharmaceutical company lawyer) is playing a subtle defensive bat looking to disallow inappropriate words and assumptions. Annette is the soul of politeness and impeccable behaviour until she has an unfortunate attack of nausea – with explosive results. It’s the kind of nightmare event that, unless you were with good friends, would be absolutely impossible to overcome and your relationship – whatever it was – could never be the same again. While Veronica and Michael are clearing up the mess, Alan overhears them laughing at their guests’ awfulness – and that’s the cue for the arguments really to begin.

Michael and VeronicaIf you’ve read some of my other theatre reviews, gentle reader, you will know that I tend to question productions that don’t have an interval. I love an interval. It’s a chance to reflect over what you’ve seen in the first half and consider what might happen in the second half; on a practical level it’s the opportunity to stretch your legs, nip to the loo, have a drink or an ice-cream and indeed wake yourself up if the first half has been dull. It’s also an opportunity for the theatre to make some money from bar sales – don’t knock it, they need to raise revenue for the good of us all. So if there’s no interval – as in this case – I ask myself why. If it’s a good reason artistically – as in the recent Bully Boy – then so be it. If there’s no particular reason apart from wanting to go home fifteen minutes earlier – as in the Menier’s revival of Educating Rita – then it’s very annoying. There’s no doubt in my mind that God of Carnage could not sustain an interval – but that’s because at 90 minutes duration it is, in my mind, about 30 minutes too long and would be much better off as a classic one act play, ideally to be shown together with another one act play either side of an interval.

Annette and AlanI felt that once the initial scenario is played out – polite discussions of children’s delinquency which gets overtaken by the parents’ falling out over it – there really wasn’t very much further that the play could go. Yes, the characters are revealed as more selfish, bigoted and generally unpleasant than you might have thought them at the beginning, but I didn’t feel they were sufficiently developed so as to give you a greater insight into the human condition. There is a sense of a sex war going on, as the men find a certain understanding between them over a glass of excellent rum, whilst the women, descending into drunkenness and abandon, commit acts of violence and destruction on the men. As Mrs Chrisparkle pointed out, these sequences are funny in themselves but would not have been so had the acts been committed by the men on the women. As a study of a polite group of people turning against themselves because of underlying bigotry, this is no Clybourne Park; and as a study of hosts turning on their guests to mask their own unhappy relationship this is no Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf. Don’t get me wrong – I enjoyed the play; it was fine; I just wasn’t challenged by it in the way I’d hoped.

Technically it’s a very good production. We both admired the set’s back wall of individual tulips, like a vertical garden, cleverly lit so that it looks as though they are either leaning inwards either in support of each other or sparring with each other. The change to red lighting gave an eerie sense of blood, which was quite alarming. Otherwise it’s a simple, narrow set, with a floor sloping down towards the audience, giving you a slightly uncomfortable sense of imbalance, visually underlining the claustrophobia and the inevitability of things (handbag contents, vomit, for example) toppling down towards you. There’s also no doubt that the play’s coup-de-theatre, the nausea attack, was achieved brilliantly believably and with delightful messiness.

Sian ReevesThe four characters are all very well acted by the highly talented cast. Sian Reeves as Veronica is perfect as the super-polite hostess with the hidden agenda of coercing her guests into accepting full responsibility for the “disfigurement” to her child. She does a very nice line in smugness about her writing achievements and goes scarily maniacal as she is let down by her husband later on. It’s a very funny performance.

James DohertyAs her more down to earth husband Michael, James Doherty has an excellent set piece early on when he talks about hamstergate, and his inability to understand why no one agrees with him on this is very funny. He absolutely gets that sense of rivalry with his more educated foe Alan, and when he becomes simply angry at all the shenanigans his portrayal of that anger is very clear, straightforward and believable.

Simon WilsonSimon Wilson’s Alan, enthralled to his Blackberry, is a very credible ruthless lawyer who requires that the world bow down to his requirements. He has a superb inscrutable look and you can just imagine that he has workplace bullying down to a fine art. When Annette takes his communication lifeline away he is completely lost and powerless – all that’s left is his husk. You’d feel sorry for him if the arrogant wretch didn’t deserve it so much.

Melanie GutteridgeAnd Melanie Gutteridge as Annette lives and breathes every moment of the play – her social dilemmas of when and what to say whilst they’re all being polite; suffering the embarrassment of vomiting everywhere; beginning to stand up to her hosts as they accuse her son unfairly; taking revenge on her husband; and finally trying to find a way forward out of the mess. She’s superb. On the night we went, she was still brushing away real tears during curtain call.

All in all some very good elements make up an entertaining evening, but for me the play was a bit disappointing; too long for a one-acter and lacking a decent denouement, but with four very committed performances.

Malta – Gozo

HOHOing round GozoYou will recall, gentle reader, that having got ourselves thoroughly lost in and around Bugibba on the Monday we ended up having to get an ordinary bus back to St Julian’s, rather than ending our Hop-on, Hop-off experience in the usual hopping back on again way. We bought 7-day passes, so we thought there was absolutely no point getting around the island any other way apart from Arriva-style. However, those sneaky so-and-so’s in the bus department have decreed it that the all-over Malta tickets are not acceptable in Gozo, and vice versa. That’s a bit off, isn’t it? They are the same country after all. It would be like your London Midland train ticket not being valid on Virgin Trains. Oh hang on…

Cirkewwa ferry terminusWell, anyway, that decided us. We wanted to revisit Gozo, so we chose to combine our options and take an Arriva bus to Cirkewwa for the ferry, and then once we were on Gozitan territory, to take the first Hop-on hop-off bus we saw. It’s a long bus journey to Cirkewwa, about an hour or so from St Julian’s, and it got pretty packed pretty early. By the time we reached the ferry terminus we had all been very tightly squeezed in together, and as the doors opened we basically fell out of the bus with the pressure. I had found myself pinned up near the doors so got splatted out of the bus first; whereas Mrs Chrisparkle, in her usual polite British way, had allowed everyone else to barge in front of her. Now, just as at the Sliema ferry terminus, you don’t get anywhere near your intended destination before being descended upon by hordes of HOHO bus salespeople. I ignored the first two. The third was more pestersome. I had barely caught my breath before he asked “would you like to buy tourist bus tickets for Gozo?” “No,” I replied, “at this stage I just want to be reunited with my wife”. I intended that to be a rather sarcastic and petulant comment. He, however, found it hilarious. Indeed, he didn’t stop laughing until Mrs C and I had been reunited. Maybe that was his ploy. “Now you buy tourist bus tickets?” I didn’t see the point of holding out as that was always our intention anyway. He told me all the benefits of purchasing his particular tickets, over anyone else’s, which included a discount on the ferry crossing. So we were suckered. At least we had the tickets, and at least we should get a discount. Wrong! When we asked for the discount the ticket booth lady looked at me as though I had asked to fondle her grandmother. Funnily enough, the young salesman lad was nowhere to be seen by then.

MgarrNever mind. It was a very easy and comfortable crossing. I remember it taking a long time back in 1993, but this was only 25 minutes and you get picturesque views of the islands as you cruise along. You arrive at Mġarr, where your HOHO bus is waiting for you. This time we were on one of the red ones. I got the sense it was in a little better condition than the blue ones we had used on Monday. Once everyone was on board (not particularly full to be fair) we were off and away to our first port of call.

XewkijaThe first destination of any real interest is Xewkija. Its main claim to fame is its Rotunda church – not old, built between 1951 and 1971, but an attempt to rival the grandeur of Mosta, which it achieves in height, if not diameter. We had a lot to get through on the day, and it had actually taken us quite a lot longer to get started than we had intended, so we decided to enjoy the sights of Xewkija from the comfort of the bus and not hop off. It’s actually a very attractive little place.

VictoriaThe bus trundled on into Victoria – as Queen Victoria liked Rabat to be called – but Rabat as the locals prefer. We remembered that last time we spent a goodly time here but felt there wasn’t a lot to see – so again we thought we’d stay on board and if time permitted later, get out for half an hour’s nose around.

DwejraOnwards through the countryside, with distant views of Ta’ Pinu church which we also saw in 1993, and on to the first place that we definitely wanted to visit – Dwejra. First impressions aren’t that promising – the sea looks inviting but it appears that all you’re going to experience there is a rather dull car park. Fortunately Mrs C spotted the tiny sign that pointed to where you can take a boat ride out to the Azure Window. So we were beckoned by an enthusiastic young chap – Malta seems to be full of them – who plonked us down in as safe position as possible in his little motorised rowing boat, ready for the trip. “Open that box and put on the life jackets” he insisted. We got them out, put them over our heads and started faffing around with the securing cords. “No need to tie them up, just have them over your head”. Oh; I’m not entirely sure that’s up to EC Health and Safety standards. However, we didn’t want to appear namby-pamby tourists so we did what we were told.

Rock formationsThe little boat gets into speed gear and chugs its way through a huge rock formation arch and out into the open sea. The two most extraordinary things about this area are the amazingly dramatic coastline, with its steep cliffs, little caves, and breathtaking arches; and the stunning blue colour of the sea itself. It’s absolutely the same colour as that cobalt solution you used to play with in your chemistry set. The enthusiastic young skipper pointed out all the interesting formations, such as the Elton John-inspired Crocodile Rock, and was keen to check that we were enjoying ourselves. We were – it was great.

Crocodile RockHalfway out to sea there was a serious change in his tone as he said: “Right, you’ve got two choices.” I was expecting the worst. Sink or swim? Give him all our money or get shot? Not quite that dramatic, as it turned out. We could either just do a 15 minute trip at the Dwejra end of the coast, or we could pay him double and do a 30 minute trip to see Fungus Rock as well. Relieved as much as anything else, we opted for the 30 minute trip; and his voice reverted to the happy-to-be-on-a-boat-at-sea tone he’d adopted previously. I think he just got anxious worrying about cashflow. It’s definitely worth staying on for Fungus Rock because it’s a fascinating place, and the little boat ride gives you a real exhilaration buzz. When we got back to Dwejra I didn’t actually want it to end – I could have gone around again.

FontanaBack on the HOHO bus, the route now takes you to Ta’ Pinu church – glimpsed earlier – and now is your opportunity to get off and have a look round. If we’d started earlier in the day, we probably would have checked it out – I remember it being quite impressive from our 1990s visit – but time was against us, so we decided simply to pose for photos and move on to the next destination; which is another opportunity to get off at Victoria, which was another opportunity we didn’t bother with. Carrying on, the bus makes a ten minute stop at Fontana. This is so you can pop into the lace making place and spend a few Euros, but primarily so that the driver can have a ten minute rest. We had a little look at the ancient springs that give the village its name. Whilst doing so, angry sounds of vehicles honking horns drew us back out of our medieval reverie. Our bus had parked at a jaunty angle on a bend. Approaching from the other direction, another coach. Behind it, several cars. Behind our bus, more cars. I’m sure you can guess the outcome. Despite remonstrations from many of the drivers, our busman refused to move the vehicle until he’d finished his statutory ten minutes coffee. Tempers got a bit heated. Our driver was rabbiting on in Maltese the equivalent of “oh go on, you could get a bus through there” (which he plainly couldn’t). Once the ten minutes were up – and not a moment before – he smacked his lips to get the final coffee dregs and then leisurely sauntered back to the bus and edged it backwards, so that traffic could flow freely again. I don’t think he was very popular with his fellow Maltese drivers. But then again, I don’t think he cared.

Yummy fishy lunchOn again to Xlendi. We remembered visiting here before and our recollections were that it has a beautiful small bay. As we got off the bus, the driver asked “are you having lunch here?” We said yes. He gave us a business card of a restaurant on the sea front that would give us a discount if we showed them the card and mentioned the bus. We mumbled thanks and headed off in the general direction. Now, I know it’s daft, but whenever anything like that happens my natural inclination is to steer clear of it. He’s going to get a cut of the profits; they’re generally overcharging; the quality is only going to be good enough for tourists; they’re desperate for trade; any combination or all of these is enough to put me off. We had a look at the place – it was the Boat House. It looked very nice. With the benefit of hindsight I see it is Number 3 of 21 restaurants in Xlendi according to tripadvisor. However, instead we ate at the St Patrick’s Hotel, further along the seafront. Feeling bold, we thought we’d try the fish “Catch of the Day”. Not an excuse for Gary Lineker to indulge in piscatorial punditry, but instead Mine Host brought out a choice of four fresh – if dead – fish for us to choose from. I wouldn’t be able to tell one from another, or what identifies a fine healthy specimen fish from one with emphysema. Anyway we went for the Sea Bream and the Lampuki, half a specimen each. I tell you – they were bloody gorgeous. So tasty; perfectly cooked, and with some yummy chips and a Pulitzer Prize-winning salad – all washed down with some Gozo wine, can’t remember which I’m afraid, but it was super.

XlendiDoing justice to that meal took a while – including the time spent wandering inside the hotel trying to find a place where the credit card machine can connect to the internet – so we missed a few hop-on opportunities, but it was worth it. It gave us time to have a little look around Xlendi – it’s pretty small so it doesn’t take long. It is still very attractive – one of those places that you feel it’s a privilege to experience. In one of the tourist shops, Mrs C bought a pair of rustic looking sandals that looked very nice, and for only 15 euros, but a few days later they ripped her feet to shreds, so beware.

AltarsDefinitely deciding there would not be enough time to visit Victoria, we had two more ports of call to negotiate. The Gġantija Temples are 5,500 years old and sounded fascinating so we had to get off there and have a look round. The bus driver looked a bit surprised. “You’ll have to run, they close shortly”, he advised. Why do they offer HOHOs at places beyond their opening hours? It doesn’t make sense! Anyway we hoofed it up the hill and they were still open. An old man, easily 70 years old, possibly 80, was hovering around the entrance wanting to sell a guidebook. It looked interesting and Mrs C was tempted. However, in our haste to get inside the complex I simply couldn’t get the right cash out of my pocket; tissues, maps, English money, but no euros. “Don’t worry”, he said, “take the book and pay me on the way out”. We took it off him and ran in.

Gġantija TemplesIt’s well worth the visit. There are two temples, and you can walk inside and all around them. There’s some graffiti on one of the walls, dated 1840 – seems quite old but I guess that’s relatively recent in comparison with the age of the temples. Cooking areas, altars, receptacles for offerings, etc are all clearly distinguishable. We spent about half an hour soaking in the ancient atmosphere. Perhaps unsurprisingly, we were the last people to leave. The old man was still waiting outside. We thanked him for waiting and told him his book was very useful – which actually it was. We paid him and then he told us that he wrote the book, and gets it published himself, and stands outside the temples every day hoping to sell a few copies. Oh, and he also lets some holiday apartments. Living proof that age is no impediment to the entrepreneurial spirit.

Ramla BayOne more stop on our HOHO bus – Ramla Bay. We thought we might as well – time allowed it, and it looks nice in the pictures. What makes it special is the beautiful rich colour of the sand – you could almost be in Devon. If you were a beachy person, you could spend the whole day here in a state of paralysed relaxation. We aren’t beachy people, so just half an hour’s walking along the water’s edge was a perfect way to wind up our Gozitan experience.

and back againWe got the last HOHO back to Mġarr, and on to our ferry with ease. The 25 minute crossing was fine, but that hour or more bus journey from Cirkewwa to St Julian’s was utterly knackering. We got off at our hotel totally exhausted. Trouble was, we were also quite peckish. So the afternoon nap got demoted to a fifteen minute sit-down on the balcony and then we were off again, foraging for food. We ended up at Café 516, where Mrs C sampled their gluten-free pasta in the form of a Spaghetti Carbonara. I had a Capricciosa Pizza. It was all very nice. To accompany, a bottle of very acceptable La Torre Chardonnay, and we finished off with gluten-free Snickers cake too. Mrs C was in coeliac heaven.

Review – Seventh Annual Malcolm Arnold Festival – A Night at the Ballet Gala Concert, Worthing Symphony Orchestra, Julian Lloyd Webber, Derngate, Northampton, 21st October 2012

Seventh Malcolm Arnold FestivalLast weekend was the seventh annual Malcolm Arnold Festival at the Royal and Derngate in Northampton, celebrating one of the town’s most famous sons. If you’re into the works of Arnold, this weekend is definitely for you. Concerts and talks abound, and this year they mounted a concert performance of Malcolm Arnold’s opera The Dancing Master, its first ever public performance because way back in 1952 it was considered too bawdy for the TV screen for which it was originally written. And all this entertainment for a ridiculous knock-down price too.

John Gibbons in rehearsalWe usually just go to the final concert of the weekend, which this year was A Night at the Ballet with the Worthing Symphony Orchestra under the baton of John Gibbons. Mr Gibbons is an enthusiastic supporter of the festival, and conducted Arnold’s 9th Symphony last year. I didn’t think that as many people attended the concert this year as last – possibly a sign of the recessionary times in which we live. If it’s because the Northamptonians are insisting on only the best – we are used to the Royal Philharmonic after all – then let me assure you, in no way are the Worthing Symphony Orchestra inferior. They were all on fine form, and indeed we recognised the formidable presence of Mr Russell Gilbert amongst the violins, who also appears with the RPO.

At the beginning of the concert, Mr Gibbons’ arrival onstage started inauspiciously. As he walked down the stairs and the orchestra rose, like you did when the Headmaster walked in on a lesson, the musician playing the – is it the celeste? – for the first piece shifted his seat away with a flick from the back of his knees and thus his chair thereby obstructed the conductor’s path to the podium. Thwarted, Mr Gibbons had to double back and wend his way through the violins. We reckon Mr Celeste did it on purpose.

Malcolm ArnoldIt was an evening of well-known pieces and (for us) a number of pieces we hadn’t heard before. We started with Arnold’s Homage to the Queen Suite. This is an absolutely charming, warm, lusciously tuneful piece, like a musical equivalent of comfort eating. I suppose you could call it the “greatest hits” version of the full ballet, which made it a little lop-sided structurally; quite long movements interspersed with some very short ones made it hard to tell when the piece had reached its natural conclusion. I cheated and watched till the musicians came to the last page of their sheet music so that I knew it had ended. Highly enjoyable though, and a recording of it will definitely go on my classical wishlist.

Next was the Adagio from Spartacus by Khachaturian. Old Khachaturian knew how to write a tune, didn’t he? John Gibbons said people aged 50+ will recognise it as the theme to the Onedin Line. Well, Mrs Chrisparkle, who certainly wouldn’t thank you for erroneously including her in that age bracket, was taken back to childhood reveries as she remembered watching the programme back on the old Cattle Station in the New South Wales bush of her youth. She was positively beaming throughout. The orchestra did play it stunningly beautifully. Never having liked the Onedin Line as a kid I was always a bit prejudiced against this piece of music; I may have to reappraise that unnecessarily deep-seated reaction.

Julian Lloyd WebberOn to Delius’ Cello Concerto, with soloist Julian Lloyd Webber. We saw Mr Lloyd Webber about the same time last year with the Royal Philharmonic playing Elgar’s Cello Concerto, and there’s no doubt that he’s a total star. The Delius Cello Concerto was new to me, and I thought it was stunning. Moody and tuneful, romantic but also quite violent at times I felt, you run the full gamut of emotions in less than half an hour. From a clothes point of view, which is perhaps not the best way to appraise Mr Lloyd Webber, he was in an oversized rustic white shirt, having borrowed Olivia Newton John’s headband from the “Let’s Get Physical” video. An incredibly expressive performance, and so generous to the input of the rest of the orchestra as well. For his encore, he fittingly played the first movement of Arnold’s Cello Fantasy, written for him in 1986. That sounded stunning too. During the interval, Mr Lloyd Webber signed CDs and photos in the foyer, just like he did last year. He is clearly the Tom Conti of the classical music world.

Worthing Symphony OrchestraThe second half was due to start with another Arnold piece, his Sweeney Todd Op.68, but Mr Gibbons announced, in the style of London Midland (his description), that owing to earlier delays the Sweeney Todd departure had been cancelled. It’s true, if they had played it as scheduled, the concert would have gone on long past 10.00. However, the sigh of disappointment from the audience was tangible. I’m not sure if I’ve ever seen an item removed from a running order simply because of earlier delays.

Instead we moved straight on to Tchaikovsky’s Nutcracker suite and then Ponchielli’s Dance of the Hours. The Nutcracker is always such a crowd-pleaser. But for me I felt there was just something held back from the orchestra; I couldn’t put my finger on it, it just sounded a little safe, a little reserved somehow. One forgets how delightful the Dance of the Hours is, and that was another beautiful performance; and I promise that I did not sing to myself either “Everyone’s a fruit and nut case” or “Hello Muddah, Hello Fadduh” to either of these fine classical oeuvres.

John GibbonsWe were promised some fireworks with Malcolm Arnold’s Electra, and we certainly got them. An extraordinary piece, wild and fiery, full of clashes and attack, making the orchestra work hard to do justice to Arnold’s demanding score. Short – stunning – breathtaking. Then to round the evening off in a more genteel way, we had Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty suite; utterly charming, totally elegant, returning us to serenity for the journey home. Fantastic work by Julia Thornton on the harp, by the way.

Mrs C felt the programme was like a dream version of Hooked on Classics, which I’m pretty sure she meant as a sign of appreciation. It was indeed a very enjoyable evening and the orchestra gave us a great performance. For those who didn’t come, in future get those bums on those seats – you missed a treat!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground, Derngate, Northampton, 19th October 2012

Dan EvansA full house at the Underground for this week’s Screaming Blue Murder – that’s what we like to see! There’s nothing like lots of people laughing to make the humour even more infectious. Dan Evans was once again our compere and he did his usual excellent job of comic meet and greet, including dealing with a rather frosty lady in the front row who would clearly not be trifled with. He’s still having a crise de conscience with the new material, which created a lively encounter with a guy at the back who pleaded with him not to do his old stuff again. I got a name check in that little contretemps – to think that I might have spurred Dan on to write some new stuff!

Andrew WattsDan promised three great acts and two marvellous intervals and he did not disappoint. Our first act was Andrew Watts, new to us, who has a rather entertaining persona of an older, slightly posher, very unladdish gentleman, and who bestows his advice to us all about dealing with women. Very funny material, with nice use of cricketing imagery for batting away difficult questions, and I loved his stuff about being asked to give his girlfriend a mediocre night in bed; definitely worth catching his act.

Carly SmallmanNext up was Carly Smallman, again an act we hadn’t seen before – a girl with a guitar, which is almost always a winning formula for Mrs Chrisparkle and me. She had some good near the knuckle songs, starting with her brotherly incest song that Mrs C and I thought was brilliant but Lady Duncansby, also in attendance, thought was the height of bad taste. It was an entertaining act about being both a slut and unsuccessful with boys, and she had some very good audience interaction with Carl at the back, to whom she directed her amorous attentions. Again, a very funny act.

Nick WiltyHeadline act was Nick Wilty, who we had seen about 18 months ago, whose material involves lots of fast-paced one-liners, many of which were very clever indeed. He bases a lot of the act on his observations during a considerable amount of world travel and is very funny in a sarf Lahndahn sort of way; in many respects he’s the antithesis to Andrew Watts. The whole programme was a very successful combination of comics; they were all sufficiently different to make each one stand out in their own way. Book early for the next show!

Review – Julian Clary, Position Vacant Apply Within, Derngate, Northampton, 18th October 2012

Position Vacant Apply WithinWe booked this show a few months ago, and at odd moments during the interim period I would think to myself, “oh good, we’re going to see Julian Clary again soon”; and then I would instantly also think “oh God I do hope he doesn’t pick on me.” The premise of his new show is that he is scouring the country looking for a new boyfriend to be selected from the audience, and doubtless to be subjected to some extreme humiliation onstage for the benefit of the relieved guffawing onlookers.

That all comes in the second half. In the first half, we are treated to some Big Brother recollections; a Mastermind game with a lady from the audience; some advertising for Blue Nun, “sponsors of this tour” involving some extremely biting reflections on the quality of said product, and generally Julian Clary’s special brand of stand-up; punters, I thank you. The good news is that this show is a huge lot more rewarding than the last tour of his we saw – Lord of the Mince – which was funny enough but somewhat lacking in substance and material. This time Julian is back with lots of subjects to regale us with, and he was on very perky form. Only when he did a sequence reading from the local newspaper did I feel the energy sap a little.

He wore this blue suit in the second halfBut it is his search for his new husband that is the really funny element to this show. For one thing, the relief when you realise you’re safe is immense, and you can get on with enjoying the evening. I really thought I was going to be in trouble; sat in the centre of Row G, and the two spaces in front of us in Row F were empty, so when the house lights went up I must have been directly in his sights. Fortunately he obviously decided I wouldn’t be hilarious enough (good move Julian); and also that old ploy of not being on an aisle worked. If you want to avoid being one of his victims, don’t sit near the aisle. Sitting far away from the stage is no safety net though, as he brought back several hapless men – threatened with his stun gun – from the back of the theatre.

Eight suitors are chosen from the audience and herded into Julian’s mincing pen, and then each one is questioned and given a task to complete. I won’t spoil it for you with details, but some candidates have to show skills they might not normally practise. All eight of the guys were incredibly good sports, and it really was a very funny hour. Eight become four; then four become two; and finally one is chosen for the grand ceremony. Our lucky man was James, who certainly looked as though he enjoyed every minute of it. I was reminded strongly of TV’s old Generation Game; and indeed, as he gets older, I think Mr Clary is drawing on Larry Grayson’s influences more and more.

Julian ClaryThis kind of audience involvement is a perfect vehicle for his skills. Where he once would have said some rather savage things about his punters to make his point, nowadays he gets better quality laughs from treating the audience more kindly. His humour has evolved over the years – and this is reflected in the wide demographic of people attending the show. He seems to appeal absolutely across the board – men, women, teenagers, elderly, and all the gaps in between. No doubt his recent Big Brother appearance has helped widen his fanbase; but also he’s been going for a number of years now. Those people (like us) who saw him as The Joan Collins Fan Club in the 80s and have stuck with him (bless you punters) are now 25 to 30 years older – gasp – which might account for the presence of so many older people in the audience.

He landed a serious punch at the end of the show too. After all the camp gaiety of his wedding ceremony to James, he finishes with a song – chanted in the best Clary tradition – that draws on continued prejudice and inequality for gay people around the world, which made an uncomfortable but valuable juxtaposition with the humour that had gone before. Not preachy or dogmatic, but it sure made you think.

A very entertaining evening with a national treasure; I’m sure Julian will continue to enjoy warm hands upon his entrance for the rest of the tour.