The Wine Connection, Northampton, Wine Tasting, 27th July 2013

Wine ConnectionGentle reader, if you’ve read between the lines in some of my blogs about theatre-going and travel, you might have come to the conclusion that Mrs Chrisparkle and I are partial to the occasional glass of something grapey before a show; and at the interval; and with dinner; and on holiday; and so on. Up until recently we would happily imbibe any old Pinot Grigio or Sauvignon Blanc that a pub, restaurant or theatre would serve us; and for home consumption, we would have been happy to stock up (half-a-dozen at a time of course, to get the discount) on happy wines from the aisles of Tesco or Waitrose without too much deliberation – we knew what we liked, and we liked what we knew.

Earls Barton CiderBut recently, we’ve noticed something rather alarming. That chirpy pub wine that always kept us contented now seems to have gone off the boil, not that you would boil wine, but you get my drift. The favourite old bottle choices in the Indian or Thai restaurants are no longer hitting the spot. Why? Because for the last six months or so, we’ve been buying our wine from Northampton’s new independent wine retailer, the Northampton Wine Connection, 11 Derngate, in the heart of the town. The shop is run by Graham, Mark and Laura and their passion for their product is palpable. What they don’t know about the wines on their shelves, really isn’t worth knowing. And it’s not just wine there either. They’re particularly hot on local producers, so they have a range of Northamptonshire beers, and the (increasingly famous) Warner Edwards gin that is distilled in Harrington. They also stock white wines from the New Lodge Vineyard at Earls Barton, and they’ve even got some really appley cider that’s made there too. Mrs C very kindly bought me a celebratory bottle of Cognac a few weeks ago, and, not knowing her Colombard from her Ugni Blanc, sought advice from them as to which of their extensive range she should buy. She bought the surprisingly reasonably priced Jacques Denis Grande Champagne 1er Cru, and, I can tell you now, it’s utterly sublime.

Wine TastingThe big question when it comes to wine is, does it taste totally yummy? There’s only one way to find out – to taste it. And that’s one of the very entertaining aspects of the Wine Connection; on the last Saturday of every month they hold a wine tasting where you can try a dozen or more wines from their current stock. We’ve been a few times now, and it’s always a jolly, sociable event, where your taste buds get to broaden their horizons and maybe try some wines that you wouldn’t normally consider.

MoscatoAt last Saturday’s wine tasting Laura took us through the first few bottles. We started off with their two Le Magnolie wines; a prosecco and a spumante rosé. They are superb. Light and celebratory, we’ve already bought a number of these and they’re great for parties or just for starting an evening off with some crisps or nibbles. Actually, we didn’t need to taste these this time round, as we feel we already know them intimately! The first wine we did taste was a Moscato 47 AD, from Roncade in the Veneto district of Italy. It has the added bonus of only being 7.5% strength – Mrs C and I always like to go for wine with a lighter alcohol content wherever possible, as they’ve got fewer calories and you’re less likely to get plastered. It’s ever so slightly sweet and sparkling, which makes it a perfect solution to the rather intoxicating alternative of the Champagne Breakfast.

Wine ShopStaying with the sparkling but getting much more serious we tried Vixen, a sparkling red from McLaren Vale in South Australia. At 14% it’s a heady brew; a devilish mix of Shiraz, Cabernet Sauvignon and Cabernet Franc, and instantly appealing as a result. It’s after trying about four or five wines at a wine tasting that you remember that you’re just meant to have a sip or two and then pour the rest away; that way you can remain relatively sober and alert throughout the tasting so that those you taste at the end are appraised just as critically as those you tasted at the beginning. That’s what you should do… but it’s terribly hard to waste such nice wine!

SoaveOn to stage two of the wine tasting, downstairs with Graham, and four champagnes awaited us. Mrs C and I are extremely fond our champagne, and will crack open a bottle at the slightest opportunity. “It’s Wednesday! Yeah! Let’s have some champagne.” The first we had to try was the Charles Chevalier Champagne which the Wine Connection have adopted as their House Champagne. It blends Pinot Noir, Chardonnay and Pinot Meunier grapes and at 12.5% it packs a really tasty punch; also it tastes every bit as good as one twice its price. I shall definitely be stocking up on some of that soon.

Charles ChevalierThen came three champagnes from the Maison Borel Lucas, supplied by a local guy who has started up his own small champagne import business. In order, they were the Cuvee de Reserve, a Rosé NV and finally a Grand Cru. They’re all very satisfying; but I particularly liked the Rosé as normally I would expect it to be a little sweeter somehow; this example was extremely serious. Then there were two other whites to try – a 12% Soave by Serenissima, remarkably smooth and rounded for a good value Soave, which I would normally associate with a much dryer taste; and a Piantaferro Falangina which was very nice but not entirely to my taste – in an evening of taste sensations that one just sat on my tongue and did nothing much. One final rosé on offer – again by Serenissima, a Merlot rosé which is an assertive and serious wine that we’ve bought before. As we knew what it would taste like we had no need to try it again; but somehow that didn’t seem to quite matter.

Poderi Colla NebbioloThen we moved to the reds: first up, a 13% Sicilian Syrah from Piantaferro that was absolutely superb. I wonder if the first red you taste after lots of different whites and rosés always tastes great? But I thought it was yummy. Then the last two bottles in the “proper” wine tasting were the big guns. A Poderi Colla Nebbiolo, 13.5% and every 0.1% of it latches itself to your juices. Once it’s washed around your mouth a couple of times, it sticks solid; you’ll taste it for ages afterwards. This is the kind of wine you drink one evening and on the next morning you’ve got a mouth like a birds’ cage. But I really loved it. The only thing that could beat it, was the final wine of the night, a 2008 Scuola Grande Amarone. It’s like the Big Daddy of the Valpolicella family. It’s 15.5% would you believe, so you really have to stagger your drinking of it – or it will stagger you; or make sure you’re sharing it amongst a number of like-minded friends. It was simply beautiful.

Save WaterEven though that was the end of the “official” wine tasting, back upstairs Mark has an add-on treat. Every so often they keep aside a few bottles for tasting in order to get feedback from their customers as to whether we think a wine is a good choice for them to stock and whether we would be likely to buy it at any given price point. There were six extra wines to try, all from small producers in Spain. The first, a white, was simply delicious and they had already wisely decided they were definitely going to stock it. The next four were red Riojas, all at different stages of oakiness. The first was a Joven, i.e. young and without oak and everyone agreed it was a super wine and they would definitely buy it. The next three had been in the oak for six months, one year and two years respectively. General consensus was that the six month and the one year wines didn’t have that much of their own identity, and that in comparison, the cheaper Joven, or the more expensive two year wine, were a much better bet. Finally there was a wine called Ciceron, and that was gorgeous too; but by this time I was unable to take any meaningful notes to explain its wonders any more fully. I’m sure you’ll understand why.

Scuola Grande AmaroneSo if you’re into decent wines or want to broaden your knowledge and sample some classy vino, why not try attending one of the Wine Connection’s Saturday night tastings. You get a good discount if you buy twelve bottles and I can vouch for the fact that every single wine we have bought has tasted just as good at home as it did in the shop. Spend over £75 and you don’t have to carry any purchases home with you – they will deliver locally. You can follow them on Twitter (@NorthamptonWine) or Facebook too. Great fun, great tastes and great service – you can’t go wrong!

Review – Trap For Cinderella, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 23rd July 2013

Trap For CinderellaI think it’s fair to say we were a select little crowd that attended Tuesday night’s showing of Trap For Cinderella – I’m not sure we quite made it to double figures. Maybe the rather lame reviews it has received were to blame; and indeed I wasn’t expecting an awful lot from the film as a result. But both Mrs Chrisparkle and I were pleasantly surprised. We found it a very engrossing, well-told psychological thriller, with many a winding plot turn before the final reel.

Tuppence MiddletonTo reveal too much of the story would spoil it for you, so I’ll be careful. Micky and Do (who are both girls, you wouldn’t know that from just seeing their names written down) were childhood friends who used to play together on holiday in France. Many years later they meet up in London where they both are now working. But Micky can’t remember anything of their old friendship, as she suffered terrible injuries from a gas explosion accident in the interim period, which resulted in considerable plastic surgery and 100% memory loss. All she can do is piece together her life up until the accident by discovering diaries and other documentation. Do, whose affection for Micky borders heavily on the creepy side, moves in with her and their close friendship seems to be secure until it all starts to unravel. And anything more I say will ruin it!

Alexandra RoachMicky is played by Tuppence Middleton, and she gives a great performance. She’s charismatic, enigmatic and very believable as both the girl who has completely lost her identity due to her accident, and as the lively outgoing arty girl with whom everyone wants to be friends. Alexandra Roach is superb as the rather unhinged Do, ebullient in the satisfaction of being best friends with Micky, and seemingly capable of any retribution when thwarted. Their on-screen partnership is really effective and the occasional hint of their relationship getting a little steamy is tastefully and subtly done. There’s also a very strong and slightly spooky performance by Kerry Fox as Julia, Micky’s aunt’s PA who has acted in loco parentis, but might not be as trustworthy as she seems. There’s classy support from Frances de la Tour and Alex Jennings too.

Kerry FoxIt’s adapted from a 1963 French novel by Sébastien Japrisot and is directed by Iain Softley. It’s a very atmospheric and stylish film, with a tight script, strong performances, and some moments of great suspense. It’s also a very attractive picture to watch, with wide sweeping views and a nice attention to detail with its French locations. The story resolves itself in a very satisfactory way – sufficiently intriguing to keep your attention all the way through, all loose ends are tied up and you even get a sense of justice at the end. There may be a question mark over some of the motivation for what happens, but in a sense that only serves to keep you guessing and talking about it on the way home. I don’t think it deserves its poor reviews, and you should give it a try!

Review – Barnum, Theatre in the Park, Chichester, 20th July 2013

Barnum 2013Having seen “If Only” at the Minerva theatre in the afternoon, we took a leisurely stroll through the town to Marks and Spencer to buy a picnic, which we subsequently enjoyed sprawled out in the glorious early evening sunshine in the grounds of Chichester Cathedral. Prawn crackers, various salads, lots of fruit and a bottle of Macon Burgundy. Occasionally the CCTV camera turned its lens towards us, and I did wonder if perhaps we were breaking some bye-law, but I doubt whether the Powers That Be were over-concerned at a middle-aged couple taking a relaxed, if slightly boozy, repast in God’s Garden.

Barnum 1981Then it was back to the Festival theatre site. Not to the Festival Theatre itself, as it is currently being renovated to celebrate its first fifty years. I am sure they will do a splendid job of it. So there are no shows in that theatre this summer; but they have come up with a splendid alternative, the Theatre in the Park. The park in question is Oaklands Park, adjacent to the Festival theatre, and the Park theatre is a big top canvas type structure that resembles a circus tent –Theatre in the Park and what better show to revive for this season than Cy Coleman and Michael Stewart’s Barnum. It’s an enchanting walk up the path to the theatre – staff are now positioned at various points along the way to welcome you, much like the gamesmakers at last year’s Olympics. Once you reach the theatre there is a real summer circus vibe, and inside they have constructed a really useful and lively acting space – horseshoe shaped, much like the Festival theatre, with a big round stage and circussy drapes at the back that hide the band and all the backstage gubbins.

Jenny Lind inviteI remember going to see the original production of Barnum at the London Palladium with the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle – on 3rd August 1981, according to my ticket stub; look – I even still have my invitation to Jenny Lind’s free concert on the White House lawn! The show starred Michael Crawford, who was probably at the peak of his stage prowess at the time and he gave the most starriest of star performances. He had this extraordinary ability to convey showmanship and vulnerability at the same time, and no opportunity was missed to impress you with his style and panache or to take you all the way down to whicheverMichael Crawford emotional depths he wanted. Mrs Chrisparkle and I also saw a touring production in July 1996 at the Wycombe Swan with Andrew O’Connor in the role. I remember enjoying it very much, but it doesn’t seem to have left a mark in history.

Christopher FitzgeraldAnd now on to 2013 and our new Barnum, Christopher Fitzgerald; a rising star on Broadway but pretty much unknown in the UK. At 5ft 5in, he’s a mini powerhouse of talent; engaging, funny and he packs a great vocal punch. He’s great at doing clever comic business and communicates well with the audience. On the night we saw it, which admittedly was still a preview, he didn’t get all the way with the tightrope act, although I understand he’s got better since then! Mrs Chrisparkle and I really enjoyed his performance; but comparisons with Michael Crawford would be odious, so I won’t go down that route. He really did excel though, in the “Barnum’s Lament” sequence, sat on the edge of the stage looking as though the Earth had caved in on him. That’s when he really tapped in to the emotions.

Tamsin CarrollTamsin Carroll is Chairy, his long-suffering wife, and she gives a cracker of a performance. I’m sure every husband in the audience winced at her withering expressions as she attempted to keep her Taylor in check. She’s also a great singer and has terrific stage presence. One of the perplexing things about the show is how readily Chairy accepts Barnum back after he’s been gallivanting with Jenny Lind for six months; considering that at other times he has to act the lion tamer to her man-eating beast, it’s a bit of a character inconsistency. Nevertheless, Miss Carroll and Mr Fitzgerald together create a terrific stage partnership.

Aretha AyehAs for the rest of the cast, they’re all excellent; the majority of the other main characters have one big song each, and they all carry them off superbly. I loved Aretha Ayeh as Joice Heth, the oldest woman in the world, singing that great song “Thank God I’m Old” wheeling around in her bath chair; it comes quite early in the show and really gives it a superb lift. Jack North is a cheeky little General Tom Thumb tapping his way through “Bigger Isn’t Better”, nearly but not quite being upstaged by the inventive stage appearance of Jumbo the elephant. And there’s a fabulous performance by Anna O’Byrne as Jenny Lind, who really could be the new Swedish nightingale; she’s stunningly beautiful, has the voice of an angel; no wonder Barnum was led astray.

Jack NorthThe staging of the show is really arresting – the big numbers are exceptional and memorable. The band members entering the auditorium individually at the beginning of the second act for “Come Follow The Band” sent a shiver up my spine – but then I do always have a weak spot for traditional circus; plus we got some great acrobatics performed right up close to us. “Join The Circus” is a stirringly wonderful song that the whole cast and audience can get behind; but definitely one of the main highlights for me was “One Brick At A Time”, where the whole ensemble chuck bricks around the stage to build the American Museum, and it’s a mesmerising routine. One dropped brick and the whole thing would be a disaster!

Anna O’ByrneIt’s an ensemble that’s chock-full of talent; amongst them, I was really impressed by James O’Connell who is a great dancer considering he’s a relatively big chap and in the final scenes of the show he turns in a very convincing appearance as Mr Bailey, Barnum’s business partner with whom he worked for the last ten years of his life. There are some strong guys in that ensemble too, especially those holding the planks of wood that Chairy climbs up; there’s obviously an enormous amount of respect and trust between cast members – the two guys that hold her secure as they turn the plank around with her standing on it do a fantastic job!

James O’ConnellIt’s an intriguing decision to remove the traditional role of Ringmaster and make it into a puppet-style performance with an off-stage voice; I’m not sure it has quite the same impact as the original presentation – Mr William C Witter who played the Ringmaster at the Palladium was constantly doing circus tricks and stunts throughout the show. However, we loved the simple but effective suggestion of the fire at the museum by the use of flares thrown down on to the stage; and I should also give mention to the brilliant band under the direction of Adam Rowe, whom the audience didn’t want to let go home as we kept demanding encores after the show had finished! They make a fantastic contribution to the show.

EnsembleYou come away with a lightness of heart and a touch of magic in your soul, which is only enhanced by the nighttime view of the park and the lights outside that lead you back to civilisation and the car park. It’s a superb revival with some class performances and a great ensemble and I would be very surprised if it doesn’t get a well-deserved transfer. If you’re in Chichester this summer, it’s a must.

Theatre lit upPS Last year, on our eternal quest for some decent gluten-free breakfasts, we discovered Spires Bakery on Crane Street. We went back again this year, and it’s as good as ever. Not only did we have top quality cooked breakfasts on Sunday morning, but we popped over for a cheeky Saturday lunch, where Mrs C asked for a Brie and Bacon gluten-free toasted sandwich and she said it was to die for. High praise indeed.

Review – If Only, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 20th July 2013

If OnlyOnce again it’s time for Mrs Chrisparkle and I to go on our annual pilgrimage to Chichester. Time was, when we lived in a little hamlet in north Bucks, that we thought Chichester was the centre of the universe; so much life there, so cosmopolitan. So many shops, restaurants, pubs and, of course, its amazing theatre. Now, we live in the thumping heart of the lively metropolis that is Northampton, we realise that Chichester isn’t all that lively really. It’s a sleepy little place where it’s very hard to get a drink after midnight, and trying to get a meal much past ten at night is a challenge too.

Nevertheless, we still enjoy our visits for the local charm and summer picnics, and the theatre. Because it’s almost a three-hour trip we tend to get tickets to a matinee and an evening show and stay overnight – make a weekend of it. And this year, for our matinee choice, I chose David Edgar’s new political work, If Only. When I was a teenager I was really impressed by his big work for the National Theatre, “Destiny”. It seemed all-encompassing, as it looked back from current day 1976 to partition in India in 1947. Later, of course, he would be responsible for that wonderful two-part adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby, which condensed 900 pages of prose into 8 hours of thrilling stage drama. I’ve not seen anything else by David Edgar, so I was very keen to see how he would tackle a political drama about the coalition.

Eve PonsonbyIt’s an interesting premise. The first act shows our three political animals, one Labour, one Lib Dem and one Tory, stuck at Malaga Airport in 2010 whilst all the flights are cancelled due to the Icelandic Volcano. The general election is in a few weeks and these are important times for campaigners, MPs and wannabe MPs. Basically, the three of them need to get home as soon as possible, but every option seems to turn to dust. Eventually they buy an old banger, which gets them – neither quickly nor easily – back to the UK via Rotterdam; but in the getting there they hold all manner of discussions about the possible outcomes to the election and how they might best be dealt with. Add to this a young student who hitches a lift and throws many a spanner into their communal works, and it’s a real hotch-potch of political ideas, fears and plans.

After the interval we are propelled into a future world – summer 2014. Not long till the general election, UKIP are riding high in the polls, Christine Hamilton is an MP, our Lib Demmer is an MP with more influence than she could have imagined she would have, and our Tory MP is clinging on to the wreckage with concerns for the future. He’s on a mission to change what he fears will be the result of the next election but he needs the help of the others to achieve it; and the success or otherwise of that venture is where the rest of the play suspends.

Jamie GloverThere’s a lot of good in this play. It certainly gets you thinking about political scheming, and warns against extremism in a very clever and entertaining way. The set is really engaging, with an anxiously pixelating video wall that identifies the time and location of each scene, and which at one stage opens up to reveal a garage and real live Peugeot 205. The set changes completely for the second act, when it simply and effectively recreates a French battlefield chapel. There are some excellent witty observations in the text – I loved the reference to think tanks with a one word Latinate name, and also the fact that the Lib Dem has given up vegetarianism in the second act, which leaves an obvious deduction to be made about principles, just hanging in the air. There’s also the very interesting concept of the eighteenth camel, which gets used to great effect – Google it if you don’t know.

Martin HutsonDespite all this though, I don’t really think it’s quite the sum of its parts. Whilst the play is thought provoking it’s also very wordy, and you frequently get the feeling – well I did anyway – that there are aspects of the plot that you haven’t quite understood and regrettably there is no time to catch up. I was also a little disappointed that the three main characters were so stereotypically predictable. The Tory is a toff, the Labour guy is an “angry young man”, and the Lib Dem lady is a well meaning balanced right-on person in the middle of the spectrum. It’s a pity he couldn’t have swapped them around somehow; that could have been very entertaining. The two male characters were a bit shouty – one of Mrs C’s pet hates – and it all seemed to take place at the same pace – which was rather relentless, in fact. This made it feel that it didn’t have a lot of light and shade. There was also a sense of an unbalanced structure; the first act was full of short scenes in different locations, which lent an atmosphere of variety, but the second act was just one scene in one location, which got a bit – dare I say it – boring.

Charlotte LucasThe performances are all very good, although I particularly liked Eve Ponsonby as Hannah, the student, who is awkward and funny in the first act, and returns alarmingly more mature – or at least different – in the second. Whenever she’s on stage, her presence shakes up the other characters and creates more drama and tension. Without her, it’s a little like watching three TV talking heads at times, with a lot of verbiage to take in but not a lot to stimulate the other senses. Jamie Glover plays Peter Greatorex, the Tory, with a nicely played line in automatic arrogance and short temper; and his concern at how he perceives the 2015 election will go is very credible. Martin Hutson makes a good irascible Labour researcher with an indefatigable desire to get the last word in every argument and perpetually prove points. Charlotte Lucas’ Lib Dem Jo Lambert is in many ways the most interesting character as you see the effect that a little sudden power has on her, and she plays it very well. We enjoyed it – to be honest I think Mrs C enjoyed it slightly more than me, as she was more stimulated by the political arguments and concepts. But on balance, I was expecting something slightly more insightful and dramatic.

PS. Sorry to have to say this, but I think the bar at the Minerva is one of the most inept anywhere. When we visited last year, we caused the staff huge inconvenience by requesting a glass of wine. Apparently it was unheard of. This year, they took our interval order, but when we came out at half time they hadn’t prepared them, so we had to chase around from bar to bar trying to find someone to attend to us. Odd, considering that in the Festival theatre they are supremely professional at the beverage catering.

Review – Paul Weller, Alive at Delapre, Northampton, 19th July 2013

Whilst we were arrivingA real live music festival on our doorstep! That was the prospect we awaited with the new Alive at Delapre Festival in Northampton that took place over the weekend of 19th –21st July. Paul Weller on the Friday, The Wanted and Lawson on the Saturday, James Morrison and Bo Bruce on the Sunday. You spoil us, Mr Ambassador. Actually, owing to other commitments, the Paul Weller concert was the only date we could make, but I was there amongst the keenest of festival fans queuing at the Royal and Derngate box office to buy our tickets the moment they came on sale. Even the local paper was there to report the ticket queue. Queuers were interviewed, would you believe. “Are you a die-hard Paul Weller fan?” they were asked. “Ah yeah man, he’s really great”. I desperately hoped no one would interview me, because I didn’t want to have to answer that, actually, I prefer theatre, Eurovision and contemporary dance. Fortunately they missed me out, phew.

ToyTo be fair, I used to love The Jam in the 70s. They were savage enough to be meaningful but tuneful enough to be commercial. I quite liked The Style Council years too, but after that only the die-hard fans would know anything he did; although I do recollect a single, “It’s Written in the Stars” from 2002 that I bought. Anyway, I would always try to support any new entertainment venture in Northampton, so there was no question that Mrs Chrisparkle and I would be up for attending the concert.

Paul Weller takes to the stageFortunately I had read all the rules of engagement before setting off, which said you could take picnics (hoorah!) but no glass or tins, and all crockery and cutlery had to be plastic. So, like the law-abiding citizens we are, I swapped out our picnic set metal knives and forks for plastics, and decanted two bottles of wine into empty San Pellegrino bottles, saved specifically for the purpose. Middle class, don’t speak of it, savoir faire, we reek of it. Our starter was a big bag of Sweet Chilli Kettle Chips; our main course was two big helpings from the Morrisons’ Salad counter; our dessert two small helpings from their fruit section. Like Billie Jo Spears, we put our blanket on the ground, not too far from the stage, spread out in the beautiful evening sunshine, kicked off our shoes, and relaxed. It was great.

In full swingThe last concert like this I attended was way back in 1982. Yes, honestly. It was Genesis, the last tour that featured Peter Gabriel, at the Milton Keynes Bowl, on a day when it bucketed it down. I went with some friends from university and we all got totally drenched. The car got bogged down in mud; such happy days. The support act that day was Talk Talk. Not that rather iffy communications company, who leave you in the lurch when your phone won’t work, but the terrific little band that sang wonderful numbers like “Today” and the eponymous “Talk Talk”. I loved them. Everyone else in the Milton Keynes Bowl hated them, because they were soaked to the skin, just wanted Genesis to come on and sing some songs, then we could all rush for cover. Talk Talk did their thirty-minute set to boos and slow-hand-claps. When they had finished all their contractually obliged numbers, the lead singer just said “thank you for your patience” and they all slunk off. Fortunately nothing like that happened this time. There was a support band, Toy, of whom I know nothing, apart from the fact they are from London and their lead singer has a somewhat terse attitude to audience communication. “This is a new one”. “Fanks”. “This is an old one”. “Ta”. You get the picture. They were fine; but they were no Talk Talk.

Grainy close upAfter a short break, Paul Weller and his backing band took to the stage, and sang some songs I didn’t know. It didn’t matter, because they were very enjoyable. Mr Weller is still in excellent voice, his band was rocking, the sound quality as projected to the gathered crowds was top notch and everyone seemed to have a wonderful time. Something I remember about Paul Weller – his songs have always tended to be quite short. This is A Good Thing – because if you don’t like this one, another one will be along in a minute. As it turned out, I only knew five songs that he performed all evening, and even then I only knew “Wishing On A Star” because of Rose Royce; I didn’t know he’d covered it. He only did one Style Council number, “My Ever Changing Moods”, which is a great tune, and got everyone really bopping. My favourite of the ones I knew was “That’s Entertainment”, a superbly bitter-sweet indictment of societal woes in 1980 and no less relevant today. He did it brilliantly.

Getting late nowThat was followed by another crowd-pleaser, “Start!” which is grammatically incorrect if you exclude the exclamation mark. I’d forgotten all about that one, but it was fun to hear it again. The only other song I recognised was the final number of the encore, “A Town Called Malice”, which is still a rip-roaring, hugely entertaining, piece of post-Punk protest poetry. I’d been hoping he’d play “Going Underground” and “Eton Rifles”, but alas they have to be filed under “Sins of Omission”. Massive appreciation to the Powers That Be for creating this festival, and I hope it is considered to be sufficiently successful for them to bring it back next year. 6,500 people (apparently) attended this concert and from what I could see it seemed to pass off without incident. The stewards were friendly and polite too, which is a bonus. The only slight criticism I would have of the overall management of the event is that when it was all over, there was insufficient light to find your way easily out of the venue and on to the path home – people were colliding with trees and barriers, and fumbling around in the dark which was a bit frustrating. But all in all it was fantastic, and we look forward to next year!

Review – A Chorus Line – revisited – again – London Palladium, 17th July 2013

A Chorus LineForgive me Father for I have sinned; it’s been seven weeks since my last visit to A Chorus Line. All those excited #ACLoholic tweets crossing back and forth cyberspace were making me jealous, but I knew I was pushing my luck suggesting yet another trip with Mrs Chrisparkle. It’s not that she doesn’t love it – it’s just that she has a more balanced (i.e sane) outlook than me. Thus it was that yesterday I went to the matinee with my 16 year old Godson, Bad Wolf (it’s his twitter name, who am I to judge?)

Adam SalterLove for A Chorus Line was instilled in him through the placenta as his mother adores the show; she was introduced to it by her husband who, as a teenager, saw it with me four times during its run at Drury Lane. As Bad Wolf and I enjoyed our pre-theatre lunch in Bella Italia across the street from the Palladium, I asked, “so, are you looking forward to the show then?” He eyed me with teenage derision. “It’s A Chorus Line, isn’t it?” Then he shrugged his shoulders with that “don’t you know anything” look. I took that to mean, “yes I’m looking forward to it enormously Chris and thank you very much for treating me to this nice lunch.”

Ed CurrieIf you’re looking for an impartial, balanced review of A Chorus Line then I’m afraid you won’t find it here. If you check back on my blogs of our February and June visits, you’ll see how deeply rooted this show is in my soul, and if I were to pick away at any perceived structural flaws, self-indulgent aspects or character criticisms, then I might as well tear my own arm off. And I’m not going to do that. Trust me when I say it is the American Musical Supreme, but more than that, it’s an examination – nay celebration – of vulnerable people under pressure coming to terms with their careers, their relationships, their pasts, their futures, their lives. Add in Marvin Hamlisch’s incredible score, Michael Bennett’s exhilarating choreography and the cast’s superb talent and you’ve got an unforgettable work of theatrical art to cherish.

Frances Dee But sadly, it’s going to close early. A few weeks ago, Mrs C and I took a sneaky week’s Mediterranean cruise, and we were discussing theatre with our dining companions one evening, when I mentioned how fond I was of A Chorus Line. “Ach,” said our softly spoken Scottish friend, “it’s closin’ earrrly ‘cos apparently it’s no’ verry guid”. The poor woman didn’t know what had hit her. “Au contraire, it’s brilliant”, I remonstrated swiftly and sternly; “it’s a fantastic revival, probably better than the original. The main problem is the Palladium is such a huge theatre, and there’s not a lot of money out there at the moment. It’s just another sign of the times, Miss Jones.” I’m not sure she got my Blood Brothers reference.

Simon Hardwick So when Bad Wolf and I emerged into the stalls on Wednesday afternoon I was half-expecting the place to be empty. Not a bit of it. The centre stalls block appeared to be fully booked, the side stalls were reasonably full and from what I could see the Royal Circle was packed too. Being a midweek matinee, Pensioner Power was out in force; and, without for a moment suggesting any blanket attributes to a sector of the community, there was an awful lot of sweet paper rustling and low-level chit-chat throughout the afternoon. How fondly I recall the happy days of the mid-70s when well-to-do elderly ladies came to the Drury Lane to see that “nice” musical A Chorus Line, and spent the evening tutting with disgust at mentions of tits, ass, gonorrhoea, “I’d be hard” and “I looked like a f***ing nurse”. Today they seem to take that in their stride, if they can hear the words above the chewing clacking dentures.

Harry Francis Every performance of Chorus Line is different – cast members change emphases, cover performers do it slightly differently, audience reactions very enormously. When we saw it in June I was amazed that, at the moment when the lights dim at the end of the show, Zach having chosen his successful 8-strong chorus, there was no round of applause. Silence. Incredible! Never seen that before. Not so on Wednesday, when that moment (rightly) got a big round of applause – as it nearly always does. However, then, when the individual cast members come out and take their initial personal bow before going into the big “One” routine, the whole audience clapped along regularly to the rhythm of the tune, somewhat panto-esque, rather than just clapping each performer. I’ve never experienced that before either.

Daisy Maywood This audience also reacted well to the show’s “gasp” moments. The main one is during that final elimination scene when Diana gets called forward and then Zach says “I’m wrong, back in line”. That got a great gasp. But there was also a very appreciative gasp at the tumbling sequence in Adam Salter’s absolutely spot-on performance of “I Can Do That”; and also during that wonderful glitzy performance of “One” just before the final chorus – that really high visual impact moment when the lights strengthen and line is in full view at the back of the stage – it was just superb.

Gary WatsonIt’s always so satisfying to see my favourite show in such capable and responsible hands. I have now seen many of the performers play their roles for a third time and they are so comfortable in those characters’ skins. I’ve already mentioned Adam Salter’s Mike, a really engaging performance of a character who is only lightly fleshed out in the text, but who, despite having the most self-confident dance routine has this surprising underlying anxiety (“I’d like to tell you to start at the end”). Ed Currie’s Bobby is now about as good as it gets, revealing the character’s quirkiness and complete shamelessness. When he’s talking about the kid whom he spray-painted and had to be taken to hospital, you got an increased insight into the weirdness of what he did by some subtle hand gestures – I’m guessing it wasn’t just the soles of his feet that were involved. And hat’s off to him for playing the role in that jumper on one of the hottest days of the year. Bobby really is quite a weirdo in many ways, and I think he might terrify you in real life, but Mr Currie gives the character so much warmth that it’s a delight to witness.

Michael Steedon When Bad Wolf and I were talking about the show beforehand, we both agreed that “Sing” is probably our least favourite number, because of its potential to irritate; just slightly. But it occurred to me whilst watching it, that it must be extraordinarily demanding for its performers. You need the verbal dexterity of a Gilbert and Sullivan patter song, coupled with immaculate comedy timing and, from Kristine, the ability to sing credibly off-key. Frances Dee plays Kristine with superb control and it’s wonderful to watch. We don’t know much about Kristine and Al apart from the littleJon Tsouras secrets they reveal during “Hello Twelve…” Al’s enigmatic “Dad would take Mum to Roseland, she’d come home with her shoes in her hand” is one of the most evocative lines in the show and you never really quite know what to make of it. Simon Hardwick gives the character real substance by superbly contrasting the more private and thoughtful aspects of Al with his macho Bronx façade – great stuff.

Katy Hards Harry Francis is still marvellous as the young Mark, trying so hard to make a good impression, the perfect blend of exuberance and embarrassment; and I still can’t get over what a great dancer he is. Even Bad Wolf spoke highly of his skills. Daisy Maywood is now a real revelation as Bebe. She performed At The Ballet with more emotion in that role than I have ever seen. It was such a thoughtful and reflective account of Bebe’s relationship with her mother – I got a sense that this Bebe was really wounded by her family life and that the scars haven’t healed yet. And I’m still loving Gary Watson’s Don recollecting his youthful experience with Lola Latores – when she drives up in her big pink Cadillac convertible and smiles you just can’t help smiling along with him. Supersub Michael Steedon was playing Paul at this performance – we’d seen him on our previous visit and he really impressed me. This time he was a complete star. It’s such a skilful performance of Paul’s monologue; assertive, clear, brave, proud – but when he breaks down at the end, the contrast is so strong and moving that, again, I got the tears, dammit. And I was additionally moved by the little shriek of sudden pain that accompanied Paul’s fall – something that’s normally done silently – that made it all the more realistic.

Genevieve Nicole It was the first time I’d seen Jon Tsouras as Greg – he’s normally the boy with the headband who refuses to look up. Andy Rees, who normally plays Greg, is absolutely brilliant in the role; but Mr Tsouras puts a fascinatingly different slant on some of Greg’s material. His Greg is very honest, perhaps less of a show-off than others I have seen, and his account of feeling Sally Ketchum’s boobs was laugh-out-loud convincing. This is a very realistic, less bravado-fuelled, more insightful Greg and I really enjoyed his performance. This was also the first time I’ve seen Katy Hards as Diana. A demanding role, I particularly enjoyed her performance of Nothing, which was both funny and moving in all the right places. And, I’m not sure, but I think it was Genevieve Nicole who was playing Vicki, one of the characters to be eliminated early; her unruly dance steps were hilarious!

John PartridgeThe big guns are still going great as well – John Partridge’s Zach was having a slightly more belligerent day, he wasn’t going to let anyone get away with anything. It’s down step, pivot step, not pivot step, pivot step for chrissake! He plays the role with so much conviction and attack, that even just hearing his voice from the back of the auditorium it’s one of the best acting performances you’ll ever be lucky enough to experience. He can invest the word “relax” with unnerving overtones – it could almost be the last words you hear before the Sinister Doctor Zach administers your fatal drug overdose. His sparring with Scarlett Strallen’s Cassie was on absolutely top form, and of course he completely shines in the finale. Miss Strallen was mesmerising in The Music and The Mirror, as usual, and I love the way she copes with Zach and their past relationship; the agony of the memory chokes her voice up and her pain is palpable.

Scarlett StrallenHonestly, what’s not to love? As Harold Hobson said in the Sunday Times in 1975, it’s a rare, devastating, joyous, astonishing stunner and I can’t see any reason to change that opinion. Funny, sad and human to its core and I’m honoured to have seen it again. You’ve got until 31st August to see it too.

Review – Much Ado About Nothing, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 15th July 2013

Much Ado About NothingShakespeare and I have a bit of a love/hate relationship. I tend to love him, but sometimes he doesn’t like me quite so much, especially when I messed up badly in my Shakespeare paper at Oxford. As a play, Much Ado About Nothing and I have never really bonded. I’ve never seen it performed in a theatre; I read it, at university, in order to write an essay on it and some other comedies, but it didn’t bounce off the page to me, and for the most part I think it’s fair to say that neither of us have given each other a second thought over the intervening years. So when I thought I’d do a quick flick through the text before seeing Joss Whedon’s highly personal film version, I was surprised to realise that I don’t actually have an Arden edition copy. I ended up having to look through the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle’s old Shakespeare volume that was awarded to her at school in 1935 “for industry and progress”; and to be honest, it wasn’t that helpful.

Alexis DenisofAs you may know, gentle reader, I am only just starting to catch up on cinema going after about fifteen years of barely seeing a thing, thanks to the supremely comfortable new Errol Flynn Filmhouse opening up seven minutes walk from home. So the name Joss Whedon doesn’t mean much to me; I had to check all the things he’s done before on wikipedia (so it must be true), and it looks a pretty impressive CV to me. He even co-wrote Toy Story, for goodness’ sake, so he must be good. I knew that this film had some extremely esoteric elements to it – for example, it was shot in a mere twelve days; the set is Whedon’s own home in Santa Monica; the cast are largely a repertory company who have appeared in many other of Whedon’s projects; and it’s all in black and white. The first three I can understand, getting it done quickly, no commuting, and working with your friends all sounds very appealing. But why the black and white? I’m not quite sure what that gained – you definitely get a sense of it being older and more historical, even though the setting is entirely up to date. Sometimes a black and white still portrait can be more expressive and atmospheric than an identical colour version – maybe that was the effect he was trying to achieve. I’m glad I never followed a career in cinematography.

Amy AckerTo get you up to speed, the story is a simple one. In a nutshell, Benedick and Beatrice doth protest their dislike for each other too much (very reminiscent of Katharine and Petruchio in Taming of the Shrew), so their friends scheme to make them “fall in love” within a week, simply by getting them to overhear “private” conversations with others who talk about how much the one fancies the other. Alongside that, the decent but stupid Claudio, who has fallen in love with Beatrice’s cousin Hero, allows himself to be duped by the wicked Don John and his acolytes into thinking that Hero is putting herself about a bit; to the extent that he publicly jilts her at the altar. The bumbling constable Dogberry and his associates unwittingly stumble upon the plot against Claudio so that the truth eventually comes out and multiple marriages ensue; all’s well that ends well, one might say.

Fran KranzMrs Chrisparkle and I both thought it was a little slow to start; there’s quite a lot of scene-setting at the beginning and meeting a lot of people who, without the aid of a theatre programme, you really haven’t got a clue who they are. Personally I also found it very softly spoken throughout, and I certainly missed quite a lot of the dialogue at first. However, when it really starts to get going, as the mischievous plots to get Benedick and Beatrice together develop, it gains a good momentum and at times is really funny. The scene where Benedick overhears Don Pedro, Leonato and Claudio’s conversation about him and Beatrice is full of laugh-out-loud physical comedy, as is the subsequent eavesdropping of Beatrice on the similar conversation between Hero and Margaret the maid. There’s also a brilliantly funny scene between Benedick and Beatrice where he is trying to impress her with his physical exercise prowess; and the scene where Claudio rejects Hero is also extremely dramatic. Some of the best moments, however, are reserved for the final few scenes where Dogberry and his team bring the villains to book, and it all ends happily ever after.

Jillian MorgeseAlexis Denisof and Amy Acker invest the roles of Benedick and Beatrice with huge personality and splendid self-interest. They’re appropriately mischievous and waspish when sparring, and deliver some very nice pratfalls as the plot thickens. Once they have protested their love for each other, the scene where Beatrice demands Benedick kills Claudio, out of respect for her cousin’s apparent death from grief, is very moving and serious, and played with all the necessary gravitas. Fran Kranz is a very good Claudio, boyishly enthusiastic for his virtuous Hero, then turning all spoilt and savage as he laps up the poison fed by the schemers against him. Jillian Morgese is a very dignified Hero, with a very nice line in underplayed comedy in the scene with Margaret for Beatrice to overhear.

Dogberry and VergesThe other really superb performance is from Nathan Fillion as Dogberry, the character now evolved into the role of head of security at the Governor’s residence, sharp-suited yet still a totally blithering idiot, shocked but not remotely speechless at Conrade’s calling him an ass, and with a fantastically misplaced sense of his own self-importance. He enjoys terrific support from Tom Lenk as his even more ridiculous sidekick Verges.

It’s a really accessible and entertaining adaptation, sensitive to both the original text and the need to make it relevant to today. As Mrs C said on the way home, they must have had such fun making it. Definitely worth seeing.