Review – Carmen, Ellen Kent Productions, Derngate, Northampton, 24th February 2013

CarmenI’m quite partial to a spot of opera. I’m no buff, mind you – so basically, when it comes to working out what’s good and what’s not in the opera world, I can only go with my gut reactions. We’ve seen Carmen three times now – the first time was an infamously modern interpretation by English National Opera at the Coliseum in 1986, which sparked a lot of furore at the time – but we rather liked it. Then we saw it about eight years ago at the Leipzig Oper, which was very entertaining – but mainly remarkable for the fact that my shoe fell apart during the course of the evening and I had to hop back to the hotel afterwards. And now the third time is Ellen Kent’s touring production at the Derngate.

Carmen and her stallionWe’d not seen any Ellen Kent productions before. Their advertisements always proclaim they’ve got something potentially gimmicky in the show – for example, in this Carmen, there is a “majestic Andalucian stallion” ** (see double asterisks in the advert – which signifies “certain venues only”.) That get-out clause passed me by when we booked to see it – thus we saw neither the horse nor the rider (geddit?) Tosca, which was performed the following evening (which we didn’t see) apparently featured a magnificent Golden Eagle **. (**Same rider applies). The £5 souvenir brochure (toppy for the provinces) features a quote from the Times in 2006, saying that Ellen Kent’s spectaculars are the “Las Vegas of opera”. Well, I confess I have never been to Las Vegas, but I really would hope that their shows are a bit glitzier than this one.

Nadezhda StoianovaI guess any opera production will succeed or fail on the singing and the orchestra. Well to my mind and ears, this all sounded pretty good. The orchestra obviously wasn’t enormous, but they played with good attack and at a good volume, and got the Spanish feeling across very nicely. I missed the two entr’acte pieces of music though – it was a shame to cut these, as they are two of Bizet’s greatest hits IMHO. The singing was also of a very good standard. Carmen was played by Nadezhda Stoianova, and she had a lovely rich voice and an understated sexiness – Carmen has to be sexy, doesn’t she? She was alluring and her eyes suggested a subtle promise of naughty things if you managed to keep in her good books. As the perfect opposite, I really liked Ecaterina Danu as Micaela, pure and virginal, keenly reporting her messages from Don Jose’s mum, and shying away from those nasty rough soldiers. I thought her Act One duet with Don Jose was stunningly beautiful. Sorin Lupu sang Don Jose, and he has a refined tenor voice which was very enjoyable. Iurie Gisca was the embodiment of how you would imagine Escamillo to look if he played rugby – stocky and forceful, and with a good strong voice. I also very much enjoyed Maria Tonina and Olga Busuioc as Frasquita and Mercedes, plotting mischievously and singing beautifully, and together with Anatolie Arcea as Dancairo and Ivan Dogot as Remendado, as well as Miss Stoianova, they performed the Act Two quintet “Nous avons en tête une affaire” with a very amusing lightness of touch. Finally Iurie Maimescu sang Zuniga very well and gave a great “drunk act” performance in Lillas Pastia’s bar.

Ecaterina DanuThe other good thing about this production is the costume department. The soldiers’ uniforms were colourful and eye-catching; the Spanish gypsies had just the right combination of style and colour, all fringes and lace which looked just right to me – mind you, what do I know about costumes; and the parade (such as it was) of picadors, banderillos, and matador looked elegant and their garish gear was suitably peacock-like.

Sorin LupuSo far, so good then. The trouble is, for me the show was not the sum of its parts. Whilst the backing chorus characters sang very well – most notably in the Act Four bullfight scene – they looked incredibly under-rehearsed, shifted self-consciously from position to position, and spent far too long gazing for inspiration at the conductor rather than interacting with each other or looking at the audience. To be honest, many of the main performers did that too – and you lose confidence in a singer when they’re eyes are transfixed on the podium like rabbits in headlights. Miss Stoianova and Miss Danu were the notable exceptions here. The cigarette girls squabbling between each other and allegedly “attacking” each other in Act One was possibly the least convincing catfight ever seen on a stage. I found it embarrassing to watch. There were a few scenes that caused some members of the audience to laugh out loud in a rather scornful way, simply because the direction and staging was so lame. Mocking laughter really undermines a performance. The set itself looked cheap and shoddy – you could see a distinct gap between panels that were meant to represent the solid wall outside the cigarette factory – and when the doors to the factory were open, the side wall was missing and you just saw the performers moving to and fro on their way on and off the stage. When Escamillo entered the stage for his Toreador song in Act Two, he bounded on full of fearless confidence and stood on the table ready to sing – but it looked like he got there about twenty seconds too early, so all he could do was look around a bit sheepishly waiting for his song to start.

Maria ToninaAnd we didn’t get the stallion. I realised afterwards that the Derngate was obviously a no-stallion zone; but I heard mutterings in the audience about the non-appearance of the equine star. “He was neigh there” joshed Mrs Chrisparkle. “Maybe Findus got him first” said someone else. Instead we had a donkey. He came on for a few minutes in Act One, chewed a bit of hay and then got led off. If there were an award for the most pointless appearance of an animal in an opera, I know who I would have my money on. Still, at least he was continent. At the end, there was an announcement that there would be a collection for the Donkey Sanctuary. I’ve nothing against donkeys, but to be honest it’s not high up in my charity priorities. Nevertheless I scrambled around for some change – only to find on exit that there was no one collecting after all. They even managed to get that wrong.

Iurie MaimescuWhich brings me to the curtain call. This actually summed up the whole evening. Despite the good singing and the nice costumes there was something about this production that drained you. The audience weren’t energised by Bizet’s fantastic tunes, we were enervated by the whole thing. Why else would a packed house start up the round of applause at the end of the show, only for it to die down and actually stop before the curtain rose for the cast to take their bows. That’s a sign of extreme indifference by the audience. As the performers came out and took their bows I did find myself saying to myself, “oh yes, I liked him” and “actually, she was good”, but despite all this the applause had to be wrung out of us. When Mr Lupu came out to take his applause, he was full of grand gestures, the hand across the heart, wearing almost a belligerent smile, and then he shocked us by victoriously thumping his hand on the stage floor as if he had just broken his personal best at La Scala. Well I’ve never seen that done before – maybe it’s de rigueur in Romania.

Suffice it to say that Mrs C has begged me not to book for their return later in the year. A real shame, actually, as it’s obviously an honest endeavour and there is a lot of talent on display. But really, to call it “Am Dram” is to give “Am Dram” a bad name.

Review – A Chorus Line, London Palladium, 23rd February 2013

A Chorus Line 2013Probably not so much of a review, more a reverie…anyone who knows me well – especially if you’ve known me for many years – will know that A Chorus Line is my favourite show of all time. I first saw it featuring the Toronto cast when I was 16 at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane on 29th December 1976 (matinee – yes I am that anal) and before I had reached 17 the following April I had seen it twice more. By the time the run closed I had seen it 8 times, including the last night. I remember spectacular, moving performances from the British cast – including Diane Langton, Michael Staniforth, Petra Siniawski, Geraldine Gardner, Stephen Tate, and many others. Alas some of them are no longer with us. Then Mrs Chrisparkle and I took the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle to see a touring production in Oxford in 1987 (Cassie played by Caroline O’Connor, Maggie was a 19-year-old Ruthie Henshall); there was a production about ten years ago (if not more) at the Sheffield Crucible; and then Mrs C and I saw it in New York in 2008 during a week’s holiday. And now, it has come back to London, and the prospect of seeing it again made me bristle with excitement.

A Chorus Line 1976You know the basic story of this show, don’t you? It’s an audition for eight places in the chorus to back the star in some unnamed Broadway musical. Zach the director has the unenviable task of whittling down the 24 or so wannabes to a shortlist of 17, then the final eight. Their personalities are dissected; their dance abilities scrutinised; their attitudes tested. At first, you join in with the selection process, and pick who you would like to get through. But at some point, your admiration for them all means you cannot choose between them, and you just will them all to succeed. My attitude to this show has never changed, all through the decades. It takes young, ambitious and talented dancers who otherwise never get to shine on stage, and brings them into the full gaze of “the line”, thereby giving them a character voice they don’t normally get and exposing the fragility of their lives and careers. It’s full of respect and understanding, and it taught the young me an awful lot about life and people. It’s also very funny, very sad and has the most wonderful expressive choreography by the late Michael Bennett. The songs are showstoppers. I can’t see why it wouldn’t be everyone’s favourite show.

Toronto Cast 1976So you can understand that I have some difficulty trying to observe this show and describe it reasonably impartially! What I am genuinely delighted is that it remains more or less precisely the same as it was nearly forty years ago, and that it can still pack out the Palladium and get a standing ovation. Mind you, I’m sure that the audience – first Saturday evening after press night – was full of fans from the old days. As far as I could tell, the choreography and costumes were unchanged, the set (which is just a few mirrors and a sparkly backdrop at the end) is the same, the songs are the same, and there are just a few minor changes to the text.

London Cast 1977Those changes are very interesting in themselves. When Judy (a delightfully dotty and heart-warming performance by Lucy Jane Adcock) first introduces herself, she says her name is Judy Turner, but “my real name is Tina Turner!” Cue a “ta-da!” pose and affectionate laughter. This has been modernised from the 1970s’ “my real name is Lana Turner!” Same “ta-da!” pose. I’m not entirely sure why. Sure, today I don’t suppose many theatregoers will be overly moved by likening someone to a film actress who died aged 74 in 1995. However, the show is full of other references to stars of yesteryear – Troy Donohue (died 2001), Steve McQueen (died 1980), George Hamilton (still alive at 73), Robert Goulet (died 2007), Maria Tallchief (still alive at 88). I’m not sure why poor Lana Turner has been kicked into touch whilst the others are still part of the show.

UK Touring Cast 1987Another text change shows a significant movement in what’s considered humorous material. In the sequence “And….”, Val originally sang, “Orphan at 3, Orphan at 3, Mother and Dad both gone, Raised by a sweet ex-con, Tied up and raped at 7, Seriously, Seriously, Nothing too obscene, I’d better keep it clean”. In this production, the “tied up and raped at 7” line had been replaced by something much more anodyne (I’m afraid I can’t remember the replacement line) but which didn’t really make sense when she went on to say “nothing too obscene” – as the replacement line hadn’t been obscene at all. I guess the powers that be just think that kind of reference is no longer appropriate in the 21st century.

Lucy Jane AdcockThe other change – which kind of makes sense – is that the dancers no longer give the year in which they were born in their introduction. In the first production, they were all born in the early 1950s. That would sound odd to today’s audience, even though the setting makes it clear that we are in 1975. In the Oxford production, if I remember rightly, they brought forward the years by about ten so that it still sounded believable. I think in the Sheffield production they went back to the 1950s birth dates – and at the Palladium, they just say I was born April 13th (or whatever) and I’m 25 (or whatever). The trouble with that is that Zach doesn’t really want to know the birth date – after all, he’s not going to buy them a birthday card or check their horoscope – he just wants to know their age. So the birth date part of this sequence, rather like committing suicide in Buffalo, is redundant.

John Partridge Apart from that, it very much is the original article. I’m sure back in the old days it used to run for just over 2 hours 10 minutes, but they seem to have shaved five minutes off it now. Maybe they’re dancing a little faster! There’s still no interval – something that Mrs C reminds me I am normally very critical of in other shows – but for me it is completely appropriate that it runs straight through without stopping, as any break would arrest the momentum of the show. Anyway I think it was ground-breaking at the time to have no interval. Any production team nowadays, who simply want to wrap up and go home early, go for the “no-interval” option.

Scarlett Strallen It’s a great cast of superb dancers and actors – I understand they all had to attend “boot camp” held by Baayork Lee (the original Connie) to get into shape before rehearsals started, and it shows. One of the great things about A Chorus Line is that it is “the ensemble show par excellence”. Misleadingly the producers revealed early on who would be performing the “star roles” of Zach, Cassie, Sheila and Diana, which somewhat misses the point of the show itself – as Cassie herself says “we’re all special. He’s special – she’s special. And Sheila, and Richie and Connie. They’re all special.” However, let’s take those star roles first.

Leigh ZimmermannJohn Partridge is Zach the director. Of all the Zachs I’ve seen, he feels far and away the most closely associated with the rest of the dancers. Sometimes Zach can be aloof to the point of hostility, but this Zach works with the dancers’ responses with the greatest sense of understanding and appreciation that I can remember – and it really benefits as a result. Zach’s still a rather scary powerhouse of directorial pizzazz; you wouldn’t choose to waste his time. But I found his reading of the role really credible. It’s full of energy and authority; and when he joins the rest of the cast for the One Singular Sensation closing number, you have never seen a performer look so happy to be out there on stage. Some friends also went to see the same performance – they booked separately and so we didn’t sit together – and they were seated alongside Mr Partridge at the back of the theatre, as his voice booms mystically from the dark. Apparently he genuinely checks all the characters against their resumés as the show progresses. Who knew?

Victoria Hamilton-Barritt Scarlett Strallen is Cassie – and first of all I must say that she performs The Music and The Mirror with extraordinary artistry and movement; I really loved it. She can pop the hip for me anytime. Her painful recollections of a career that never took off are movingly relived, and the “dirty linen” sequence when she and Zach pick over the remains of their previous relationship has tangible bitterness and disappointment. Again, another superb performance.

Vicki Lee TaylorSheila is played by Leigh Zimmermann, whom we last saw many years ago in Susan Stroman’s Contact. Perfect casting for the seen-it-all, done-it-all, world-weary but still with a mischievous sparkle, Sheila. When she opens up her heart in At The Ballet you feel like it’s a genuine insight into the parts of her character she wants kept locked up. And her last distant look at Zach, at the end of the show, says everything about ambition, bravery, distress and sadness. Really beautifully done.

Adam SalterVictoria Hamilton-Barritt is Diana, and something of a revelation, as I’ve not seen her before and she’s really terrific! She put her heart and soul into “Nothing” (Mrs C’s favourite number in the show) and she made it a real victory song. Endearing, quirky; and when she is called back in line at the end after Zach makes a mistake, everyone gasps. Of course, it falls to Diana to sing “What I Did For Love”, which is NOT about Zach and Cassie’s relationship as Richard Attenborough’s travesty of a film would have you believe, but is the simple answer to “what do you do when you can no longer dance”. She sings it beautifully – and the searing chorus that builds up around her is just magical. A brilliant performance.

Andy ReesBut the whole cast turn in wonderful performances. For example, I loved Vicki Lee Taylor’s Maggie – a voice of crystal clarity, and who invests Maggie’s role in At The Ballet with such empathy and understanding – outstandingly good. Adam Salter’s Mike is called on to do the acrobatic “I Can Do That” early on, and it’s a wonderfully funny and credible performance. You really do believe he didn’t like his mates calling him Twinkletoes. Andy Rees plays Greg with terrific comic timing – it’s a gift of a role, of course, but all the stuff about being (if I may be so direct, gentle reader) “hard” on the bus was really superbly done. I very much liked Harry Francis as Mark. That was the role I always associated myself with, when I were a lad. He brought all the necessary youth and embarrassing earnestness in his wish to do Harry Francisreally well in his first major job. He’s also an amazing dancer. There’s a sequence in “Hello Twelve, Hello Thirteen…” where he leads an arrow-shaped phalanx of dancers darting left and right across the stage, in true show-off Michael Bennett style, and he does it brilliantly. And James T Lane’s Richie is a little powerhouse of energy and humour, and his (again turn away if you’re likely to be offended) “Shit Richie” chorus was fantastic. I could be here all day talking about every member of the cast – and frankly they would all deserve it.

James T LaneSo I am thrilled to see A Chorus Line back on the London stage after 34 years, and in a production that is a credit to that amazing original creative team, nearly all of whom have shuffled off to that great audition in the sky. I can’t recommend it strongly enough, and I’m sure that won’t be the last time I go to see it!

PS On the way out of the theatre, there was a cameraman and a sound boom man who said they were making a documentary for NBC about the late Marvin Hamlisch. Basically, they were asking for people to sing a snatch of a Hamlisch song for their programme. So guess who got to do a bit of their “Dance Ten Looks Three” routine? I might be on the telly!

Tunisia – Tunis

Welcome PartyAll European cruises always include a non-EU destination so that it can be duty-free, and on this MSC Splendida itinerary last December, that honour was to be bestowed on Tunis. Looking out to land as the ship came closer to shore, we saw a friendly welcome party of four musicians and three camels outside a fast food outlet. I sensed we were in for a cross between the Arabian Nights and an Out of Town retail park.

State of EmergencyWe decided to do the tour that explored the souks, and on the whole it was a pretty wise choice. As the coach took us into the centre of town, we realised there was a heavy military presence. Our guide explained that the country was still in a State of Emergency following the Arab Spring earlier in the year. Barbed wire lined the pavements, camouflage trucks graced the boulevard outside the Catholic Cathedral of St Vincent de Paul and the statue of Ibn Khaldun gazed sorrowfully at a socking great military tank.

Siège de la MunicipalitéWe got out of the bus at the Siège de la Municipalité, where bright red Tunisian flags were flapping in the breeze and the military police were watching every step we made. It was a little uncomfortable, to be honest, but being unfazeable travellers we fixed the police with our “so what” stares and followed our guide down the steps, alongside some Moorish buildings till we came to the little alleyways that would lead down to the souk.

Souk doorsWe studiously noted the designs on the great yellow wooden doors that were dotted along the alleys, where Jewish Stars of David made out of studs were closely intermingled with Islamic crescent moons – a symbol that the area had always been one of freedom to follow your own faith, with both communities living happily side by side. Rather superb. There’s also a very interesting clock tower on one of the government buildings in the area – with a normal 1 – 12 clock face on top (the type we all recognise) and an Islamic clock beneath.

Inside the souk (1)Anyway, bypassing the last remnants of the barbed wire, we trudged through the small alleyways and entered the souk at one of its many gates. As soon as you enter, you realise what a hive of activity the place is. Every single nook and cranny seems to be populated with intent, hardworking people, quietly going about their business; cooking, mending, cleaning, stacking, making, cutting, chatting, buying and selling.Inside the souk (2) We saw guys arranging stacks of beret-like caps; a man carefully sewing and stitching an exquisite over garment; and of course, plenty of little cafeterias and drink stalls. It’s a veritable warren of interweaving alleys, full of Arabian mystery. You end up exiting the souks by one path, going outside for short way – maybe seeing a small mosque or some charming typical blue balconies – only then to get plunged back into the warren for some more crisscrossing pathways.Inside the souk (3) At one point you’re standing outside what is apparently still a maternity hospital; at another you’re at a craft market; still another, you’re all trying different scented oils in what appears to be a converted harem. Virtually all trades are represented there – with plenty of precious stones, good quality clothes and mystic antiques to take your fancy.

Terrace viewFrom the souk it’s just a very short walk to an open air terrace that offers tremendous views (that’s my estate agent voice talking again) of the city. The terrace is rather unpromisingly at on the top floor of a souvenir shop but all guides seem to find it, so do as you’re told and you’re bound to get there. At that terrace level, minarets, roofs, but above all, satellite dishes abound. Back downstairs and you have to go through the excruciation of the shop proprietors unfurling endless carpets to entice your hard earned cash out of you, and what you desperately hope is that someone elseMore shopping in your party shows interest and flashes some cash so that you can slink off without causing offence.

Back into the souk again, and time for some souvenir shopping. There’s plenty to choose from. Lanterns, exotic slippers, Italia Football T-shirts, leather goods, even a fez, they’re all here. Mrs Chrisparkle decided not to get a belly-dancing outfit; I thought she was being a bit of a spoilsport. Talking of which, that was the last part of our tour – a trip upstairs in another shop to see two ladies giving it the traditional belly-dance routine, to the plaintive sounds Belly Dancingof an old bloke puffing on a horn instrument, whilst British tourists sat around looking slightly bemused. It was a fascinating glimpse into the world of the souk, and although you felt a lot of it was “put on for tourists”, there’s no doubt that this traditional way of life is still thriving. Very enjoyable, and a bit of exotic escapism!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 22nd February 2013

Angie McEvoyYet another full house at the Derngate for the Screaming Blue Murder club! Great news that it is tapping so successfully into the area’s communal funnybone. This time our host was Angie McEvoy. We’ve seen her a few times and she always a good laugh. I rather like her MC’ing style. She’s quite relaxed, and wants us to have a good time in an ostensibly caring sort of way. But she’s also deadly skilful at keeping order, and she played off the weird whims of the first few rows to great comic effect.

Keith FarnanThe first act was Keith Farnan, a long haired whirlwind of comic attack with plenty of genuine Irish blarney. He had lots of great material and he seemed to cover loads of subjects, so his act was always lively and fast moving. Nice tantric references! He was very popular with the crowd and we both rated him very highly.

Otiz CannelloniNext was Otiz Cannelloni, the only act whom we’ve seen before. I remember that we absolutely loved him when we saw him last time, and indeed he achieved a very respectable 2nd place in the 2010 Chrisparkle Awards for SBM Comic of the Year. I think he more or less repeated the identical act but it’s still extremely funny – a great mixture of word play and rapid fire wisecracking, and with a few clever bits of magic chucked in. He also has very nicely understated comic facial expressions, and his material is largely very clean; I’m no prude, but I do admire a comic who can bring the house down with the minimum of swearing.

Ian CognitoFinally the headline act was Ian Cognito, a rather splendid stage name (I assume!) He also has great attack and an assured level of self-confidence. He’s a kind of aggravated-bloke-down-the-pub character, and whilst his material was very funny his act lacked a little subtlety for my liking. His delivery is what Mrs Chrisparkle likes to describe as “relentless”, and, I have to admit, I did nod off towards the end. Probably a combination of jetlag and Sauvignon Blanc, I readily admit. He went down very well with the audience though.

More in two weeks’ time!

Spain – Barcelona

Sagrada FamiliaI can’t tell you the number of times I’ve been to Barcelona. It all started when I was eleven. My dad had died a few months earlier so Mum decided a Spring holiday to the Costa Dorada would be a boost for both of us. We stayed at the cheap and cheerful Hotel Internacional in Calella de la Costa; went up the Costa Brava coast to Pineda (where I loved the trampolines on the beach), Blanes (fish market), Tossa (rocky coves), Lloret, and as far as San Feliu de Guixols; another day we went to Montserrat (still haven’t been back and I really want to); another day to Gerona (I felt so cosmopolitan); and yet another to Barcelona, where in a whirlwind tour that seemed to last all day and all night we saw the Ramblas, the Sagrada Familia, did a harbour tour on a little boat, saw the Spanish Village, and ended up watching a horse show at Montjuic which culminated with the stunning magic fountain display. I slept all the way home but I don’t think I had ever had such an exciting day.

Custom HouseSince then Mrs Chrisparkle and I have been back to Calella, and had a couple of days in Barcelona; we’ve stopped off there on a number of cruises, and we did once have a long weekend there too. So we really feel an affinity for the city; and whenever we go there on a cruise, we basically have the same routine – a very leisurely walk up the Ramblas; get lunch at El Corte Ingles food hall; and either visit the Sagrada Familia or the Seu Cathedral en route back.

Christopher ColumbusIf you get the “disorganised” tour from the ship – basically a transfer in and out of town – you’re disgorged at the bottom of the Ramblas, near the splendidly marine monument to Christopher Columbus. The old Customs House greets you in its stately glory too. Near here, you can go out into the tourist trap haven that houses the Maremagnum shopping complex. On a sunny day, it looks very enticing. However, I can only recommend a quick wander around and then back into town. Do not, as we did some years ago, have lunch at one of the restaurants. The food was run of the mill, and the service slow, brutish and off-hand. It was one of those rare occasions when I deliberately didn’t leave a tip as we had been treated so poorly. The waiter looked disappointedly at the cash we had left and remonstrated on our way out with the words, “but service isn’t included” to which I replied, “you’re telling me!” Never again.

DragonA gentle stroll in the winter sunshine up the Ramblas is the perfect relaxation exercise. Quieter than usual – it was rather early on a Monday morning – nevertheless the cafes, market stalls, and living statues all have that welcoming feeling, and it’s also a perfect opportunity for people-watching. I always love to catch sight of the stylised dragon emerging from the corner of the old umbrella shop at Plaça de la Boqueria. As we were there on 17th December,Santa Claus Santa Claus also had a big presence in the Ramblas, and was seen clambering in and out of many a balcony and window. Further up the Ramblas and we took a diversion into the food market of Sant Josep, always a colourful and assault of the senses – and mostly it smells ok too. Back on the Ramblas, past the stalls selling guinea pigs, bunny rabbits and fishy-wishies (sorry I couldn’t help myself) which looks anomalous today to a Brit abroad, and upward to the Plaça de Catalunya at the top end.

Sant JosepThis is normally a very welcoming sight, but it had been largely boarded over for some exhibition or other. Still it makes a useful place for a rest, and to devour the lunch titbits that we had bought at El Corte Ingles, which has a pretty substantial separate gluten-free area in the foodhall. Suitably nourished, we decided to go to the Sagrada Familia, but we wanted to go by metro. Plaça de Catalunya has one of the largest and most useful metro stations, so we headed into the bowels of the earth to try to work out how to buy tickets. There were seven of us, and there had been a bit of a kerfuffle at one stage as one of us got lost and another tripped over, so we must have looked like the tourist family from hell. Our defensive guard was down as we were dusting each other off and counting how many children were left and thus we forgot about being aware of our environment. fishy-wishiesEnter a gentleman wearing a uniform who was very helpful to guide us through the intricacies of the metro system. Mrs C and I are always worried about this – as we remember the “helpful gentleman” in Paris back in 1985 who guided us through the ticket buying process and we ended up with an invalid ticket for which we had to pay him top price, and all the ticket inspectors at Charles de Gaulle airport were just waiting to fleece every tourist as they knew we’d all been caught out. Not a very pleasant experience. However, this Barcelona guy seemed genuine. Or at least until after we’d done the deal when he then asked for some money for his help. That was when I realised the uniform was make-believe. Sigh, caught again, I thought. Nevertheless, his advice was good, and he didn’t rip us off, and when we showed our tickets to the ticket inspectors, they were obviously valid. Phew!

Sagrada Familia window effectWhen you finally find your way in to the Sagrada Familia, and your heart has survived the double-take at the entrance prices, it’s just magnificent. We’ve been inside before but I can’t remember it looking so beautiful. The reflected light through the windows throws up a myriad of colours against the plain background of the walls and it really is breathtaking. It stuns you into silence. The place just has a feeling of overwhelming majesty. Sagrada Familia looking upThe last time we took the lift up one of the towers, the weird Gaudi shapes and angles unsettled my stomach and made me feel quite nauseous! Not so this time. It’s very exciting being up at the top, and even though it got a bit confusing as to which way you could walk around – and the space is very limited too – it was a complete thrill.View from the top If there’s a queue to go up, it’s definitely worth the wait. Outside the church there’s a lot of scaffolding and some plucky guys were swaying in the breeze all strapped up doing their work. That sure takes some guts.

And that was basically it.Scaffolders Afterwards we just got the metro back to Catalunya and retraced our steps towards the port. We did go slightly off route to see the Christmas displays outside the Palau de la Generalitat, which were highly original and reminded me of nativity scenes on space-age TV sets. They were, of course, giant Christmas tree baubles, how stupid of me. We didn’t take the opportunityPalau de la Generalitat to eat out this time, or spend large numbers of euros on copious quantities of cava sangria on the pavement. If you haven’t done that before, I can recommend it as good fun! But we thought we’d set a good example to the nieces, and we returned to the ship as sober as the day we were born.

France – Marseille and Aix-en-Provence

MSC SplendidaLet me cast your minds back to December, gentle reader, and tell you about a short sneaky Mediterranean cruise that Mrs Chrisparkle and I took shortly before Christmas. We weren’t alone; accompanying us were the Lady Duncansby, our nieces Secret Agent Code November and Special Agent Code Sierra, plus their male parent D and female parent M. We flew from London Heathrow to Nice on an early morning British Airways flight, where we were met by “representatives”, who smuggled us out of France and into Italy on the autostrada towards Destination Genoa. From there it was an easy boarding onto the MSC Splendida for a week in the pre-Christmas sunshine.

Swarovski StaircaseA few words about the Splendida. She certainly lives up to her name, being the most beautiful ship I have ever experienced. Elegantly and colourfully furnished, with a stunning central atrium and four (at least) staircases fashioned courtesy of Swarovski. Any minute you expect the Princess Crystal to leave behind a slipper at the top of one of them – especially at Christmas time. During our week on board, the place got progressively more Christmassy. A few decorations at first; but by the end it was chock full of fairy-light trees, tinsel and glitter. We had a balcony cabin which was larger than we expected and as comfortable as we expected; the food and service was excellent; the drinks and tours reasonably priced; the shows were relatively poor by MSC standards; and they made a helluva noise collecting and sorting the luggage on the final night as we were trying to get to sleep, which resulted in the normally docile Mrs C bellowing in her jimjams at bemused-looking crew members. She’s not proud of it, but to be fair she was driven to distraction.

MarseilleAnyway, our first port of call was Marseille. We’d actually cruised this identical itinerary once before in 2004 on the MSC Sinfonia. That time, Marseille was cold and wet and looked drab and miserable. This time, however, the sun was shining and the city wore an altogether glossier coat. I think someone has been around with some cash in the intervening years and definitely given Marseille a makeover. Shortly after breakfast we boarded our coach and drove along the waters edge from the port into the city centre. The marina was looking stunning, and all the shops and cafes were just beginning to wake up as we followed the road round the little harbour, past the archway with its view towards the Count of Monte Cristo’s Chateau d’If, and steeply upwards to visit Notre Dame de la Garde.

Notre Dame de la GardeThis beautiful church stands high on a hill above the city and thus offers enviable views all around, if that’s not too much like an estate agent. There’s been a religious building of some sort there since the 13th century, but this particular building was consecrated in 1864. The gilded figure of Virgin and Child atop the tower cuts a very smart figure as it gleams in the sun. Inside, it is richly decorated in a Moorish style that reminds you of the Mosque/Cathedral in Cordoba. Its maritime associations are represented by hanging models of ships – quite an amusing touch – and oil paintings of ships and boats line the walls. It also has the most difficult to find public toilets in Europe. Allow yourself at least an extra twenty minutes to track them down. You won’t be surprised to find that they are deserted.

Aix-en-Provence Christmas Market We weren’t in port for very long, so the tour we chose to do just gave you a feel of the area without any great depth; so after visiting the church it was back on the road to Aix-en-Provence. Not the Aix where they brought the good news from Ghent – that would have been a very long gallop. This Aix is a charming market town with a very relaxed feel and gently attractive French architecture; it’s the kind of place you’d want to find a quite corner and flump down with a book for a few hours. We walked along the Cours Mirabeau, a wide boulevard that you would swear would lead to a stately chateau at the end – it doesn’t, it’s just a T-junction. One side of the road was given over to a Christmas market and it was full of stylish and luxurious items – enticing looking food and drink, elegant crafts, beautiful glassware; honestly, you couldn’t be further from Milton Keynes market. Male Parent D found a café with a French girl’s name on the awning (presumably la propriétaire), but which appears amusingly rude in English, and so took a photograph of it. It’s amazing how travel broadens the mind.

Fruit and Vegetable stallsWe turned left at the T-junction and wandered round into the old town. There we discovered a very atmospheric and typically French market, selling all the usual fruit and veg, fish and meat, fromage et charcuterie. It was charming. Further on up, towards another square, there was a milling-round of expectant looking people and a few locals with flags, all dressed like what I would imagine 16th century Ruritanian soldiers would look like. Mrs C ran ahead to see what all the fuss was about. Really, the soldier-dressing-up routine should have given her a clue. BANG! went a dozen exploding muskets, and the surprise shot her at least two feet off the ground; much to the amusement of the rest of her family, who looked on in smug non-participation. It must have been some re-enactment of some historical event; but what exactly, we did not find out. Probably the ancient practice of frightening the life out of 16th century shoppers.

Ruritanian soldiersWe didn’t have time for a long stroll – one hour was all the meanie guide would allow us, so we headed back to the Cours Mirabeau where our coach awaited. Gasping for some water, Lady Duncansby and I diverted into a quaint looking little shop that sold all sorts of groceries, where we smiled pleasantly to the staff and locals, who ignored us completely. We located the water, and queued up at the till. Our appearance seemed to ensure the slowest possible service to the people in front of us, but nevertheless we waited patiently and said or did nothing. When we eventually got to the till, we were treated to the most antagonistic hostility that I have experienced in a foreign country for some time; a combination of rude resentment and silent animosity. So, if you find that little grocers’ shop on the right hand side of the market square walking back towards Cours Mirabeau, do me a favour and don’t give them your money. Thanks. Sad that should be our parting memory of France!

Review – The Full Monty, Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, 9th February 2013

The Full MontyWhen we heard that Daniel Evans was to direct a play version of The Full Monty, in its spiritual hometown of Sheffield, it sounded like a must-see. It would be full of authentic northern grit, and maybe even carry an additional significance with a local audience. The original film is surely one of the best British movies of the late 20th century, with its combination of farcically funny and sad situations, and with some memorable performances; the kind of film only the Brits can do.

Simon Beaufoy has reshaped his original story for the stage and it transfers from projection to proscenium extremely well. Live theatre for me always has an edge over cinema anyway, and the stage version does drive home the harshness of the reality of those 1980s job losses, and also the resulting tension within some of the characters’ relationships. It also makes the prospect of the final stage show – in the flesh – something of an over-stimulation for certain members of the audience, of which more later.

Kenny DoughtyThe opening scene is superbly theatrical, as Gaz, his mate Dave and his son Nathan break in to the old factory, for old time’s sake and maybe to nick a girder if they can. There’s no gentle introduction to the action – it’s all sudden harsh lights, sound effects and the starkly unsentimental sight of disused machinery and broken dreams. It’s also very funny, right from the start, and the characters are brilliantly written so that they develop in a natural, self-discovering way. I’m sure you know the story but just in case – in brief, it’s the late 80s and Mrs Thatcher is seen to be to blame for the loss of all the traditional jobs, and we meet a few ex-colleagues at the old factory no longer able to hold their heads up, support their families or keep on the straight and narrow. One night they are shocked to see that the Chippendales are putting on a local show and all the women from near Travis Caddyand far are paying decent cash to flock to them and see their erotic cavorting. Ambitious if nothing else, Gaz reckons he and his mates could put on a similar show, and get some quick cash as a result. But whereas the Chippendales obviously don’t go any further than the final thong – being nothing if not tasteful – the local guys trump their ace by deciding to go “the full monty”. Will they have the nerve? Will they bottle out? The final outcome is in doubt until the last few minutes, and the film famously ends on that frozen tableau of the guys flinging their hats off (the ones Tom Jones said they could leave on) into the air, seen from behind, to the obvious delight of the onlooking ladies. The expectation of how the stage version will recreate that image is a driving force that keeps the energy high, both on, but mainly off the stage.

Roger MorlidgeDaniel Evans has obviously crafted a great team out of the cast, and the six guys who do the strip show have to be counted as amongst the bravest men on stage at the moment. Everything is subjective of course, I would say that at least four of them couldn’t be described as Adonises. But that is part of the whole essence of the play. These are just ordinary guys trying to make their way in the world. They’re not South Yorkshire’s Next New Model. Not being rude here, but you could describe some of them as the fat one, the scrawny one, the unfit one, and the old one. A very positive effect I got from the play was that, if any of them could do something like this, then why couldn’t I? Please don’t be alarmed – I’m not going to go the “full monty” for anyone. But I was surprised at how I did feel a confidence-boost from that aspect of the production.

Rachel LumbergGaz, the central “loveable rogue” character, is played by Kenny Doughty and he is excellent. It’s a very confident physical performance, like when he’s teetering on the edge of the unbalanced girder, and his entrance in the final scene is impressively acrobatic. The character thinks he’s God’s Gift but his rather useless vanity and unerring ability to get things wrong becomes quite endearing. But he’s also a very convincing ringleader and Mr Doughty makes all these aspects come alive. His interaction with Nathan is also very realistic and moving. In the show we saw Nathan was played by (I think) Travis Caddy and it was an extraordinarily confident and mature performance for a thirteen-year-old. The other main character is Gaz’s mate Dave, played by Roger Morlidge, Simon Rousewho has fallen into a kind of depression since the factory closed, showing no interest in his wife and constantly comfort eating. This is another very good performance, as he reveals increasing glimpses of the character’s internal agonies as the storyline proceeds – not just in his anxiety about performing the strip but also with his marriage and his appearance. There’s an ostensibly funny, but actually very sad scene involving his use of a roll of Clingfilm, which actually made me catch my breath in sympathy. His scenes with his wife Jean, Rachel Lumberg, are also really effective. Jean’s bubbly personality that we see early in the play provides a strong juxtaposition with Dave’s newly morose nature which sparks off some excellent scenes together. We also loved Miss Lumberg’s interaction with the bust of Mrs Thatcher.

Tracy BrabinThere’s another superb performance from Simon Rouse as the ex-foreman Gerald, trying to maintain both his expensive wife and his professional superiority over the other guys against all the odds. The gradual sense of inevitability and disappointment that inhabits his expressions is great. At the same time he brings a very dour humour to the role and we both thought he was brilliant. There’s an extraordinarily emotionally charged scene between him and his wife played by Tracy Brabin near the end of the play, and you could have cut the atmosphere with a knife. The silence he held in that conversation would have made Pinter proud. I also thought Craig Gazey, as Lomper, gave a terrific performance as the woebegone loner, almost simple in his speech pattern, but absolutely convincing. His is probably the character that makes the biggest “journey” in the play – and his growing confidence is both life enhancing and funny. He also turns in some of the best comedy too. Sadly, we did think a couple of the performers were rather wooden; one actor and one actress just didn’t seem to have found the voices of their characters yet, and they sounded tentative and uncertain. However, it was still a preview performance, so hopefully these will improve in time.

I was surprised that, from our position in Row G of the stalls, you could clearly see a side door in the wings through which stagehands, ensemble actors and main cast members would enter during scenes and then stand behind a piece of scenery until they were required to come on and do whatever they had to do. It was quite distracting and took away from the magic of the theatre. However, as far as a distraction was concerned, this was nothing in comparison to the behaviour of some members of the audience.

Craig GazeyThe six brave men do indeed bare all at the end in a very clever combination of light and shade which means you may or may not see them in full, depending on your angle to the stage. You may think I’m concentrating a little unhealthily on “the final view” but, given that roughly half of our audience appeared to be tanked up groups of women behaving as though they were at a strip show it’s probably important information. Now whilst I am no prude or killjoy, and I’m well aware that the whole structure of the play is to build an atmosphere and whip up a bit of a frenzy for the final scene, unfortunately the loud, irritating and uninhibited behaviour got going within the first few minutes of the play starting. In fact, many people didn’t seem to bother to stop talking when the play began and it was a good minute or so before they realised people were talking on stage. It was as though some sectors of the audience were simply there for a strip show and they expected it to start at the beginning. This uninhibited behaviour included people calling out from various parts of the audience as though they were joining in with the on-stage characters, with the result that some of the lines were not audible. On some occasions it was amazing that the actors were actually able to carry on through the script. There’s a scene roughly halfway through where the guys decide they’re going to have to strip down to underpants because, after all, it’s going to have to happen at some point. You should have heard the baying shrieks of female sexual excitement during this scene. Honestly, you saw nothing that you wouldn’t see at a swimming pool or a beach, but the over-reaction of these ladies – fuelled by alcohol to a large extent – was an embarrassment, not only to my mind, but Mrs C also cringed at the behaviour of members of her sex.

Sidney ColeStating the obvious, if this had been a crowd of men on a boys’ night out shouting “get ‘em off” at ladies in underwear, the police would quite rightly have been called. I know that if you were to challenge the loud women they would defend themselves with “it’s just a bit of fun”; but that was the excuse men used to make in the old days and which women knew was unacceptable. Somewhere along the line, the whole ladette culture has invaded the theatre and it really is not to its credit. Mind you, there were clearly grannies and great-grannies also involved in the bad behaviour, so you could hardly call them ladettes. Whilst we were there we saw a member of the audience complaining to an usher about the women further along his row; I think this would have included the lady who took every opportunity to clap her hands above her head whilst still just about holding on to her beer glass.Kieran O'Brien Mrs C saw another woman get up, push past some other people in her row and tell the beer glass lady to calm down. This is during a play! I believe that those theatres who are hosting this play during its forthcoming tour will need to keep a really close eye on their auditoriums and be brave enough to eject any theatregoers whose behaviour goes too far. This bad behaviour certainly ruined our enjoyment of the show – not completely, but certainly in part – and I think it rather pours scorn on the alleged sincerity of the creative team to recreate the authentic grittiness of the story in its hometown. I’m sorry, but to most of the audience it’s not so much about cheering the guys on in their struggle against adversity, it’s more about seeing as much c**k as possible; hence my complete admiration for the six actors.

So I came away from the show with very mixed emotions. There are some excellent performances and the authenticity of the set is stunning. It’s very funny, and in many ways heart-warming; but I despair of my fellow theatregoers! I felt like I should have gone to a pole-dancing club afterwards to regain a bit of self-respect.