Review – Drunk, McOnie Company, Leicester Curve Studio, 28th January 2014

DrunkDrew McOnie’s Drunk. No, that’s not a criticism, it’s an exciting and vivacious evening of music and dance that had its first airing last Tuesday at the Leicester Curve. It was only a month ago that I saw his stage work for the first time in the raunchy and inventive Chicago, at the very same theatre. Now he has launched his own dance company with a new show, the exhilarating and cheery Drunk; 80 minutes of fast, frenetic, funny and fabulous choreography interspersed with the story of how “Ice” spent her evening, waiting for a date and recollecting ex-lovers by means of Grant Olding’s wistful and witty songs.

Gemma SuttonWhilst Ice (Miss Gemma Sutton on terrific vocal form) is hanging expectantly round the bar, she encounters various customers who all take on the mantle of representing various drinks. Scotch, Martini, cider, Absinthe, vodka, champagne and rum, all get a mention in the programme but I reckon there were quite a few others there who turned up at the bar with the intention of getting smashed. Ice herself is somewhat slow to nail her drink colours to the mast, and with the others all demanding to know what she wants to order, the pressure is on – and she can’t decide. It’s as though her senses are assaulted by the huge variety of alcoholic choices; confronted by an overload of optics one might say. Surprisingly, Ice isn’t a great mixer;Anabel Kutay I guess when the heat is on she tends to water down the contents a bit. Thus she looks horrified when getting coerced into a dance routine by those reckless spirits cavorting around her, although she soon gets the hang of it. As each digestif gets digested, she starts to loosen up, and as the evening comes to an end, she finally melts and makes her choice.

Ashley AndrewsFrom my position in the front row of the Curve Studio last Tuesday, I felt a tremendous impact from the show. It’s like a waft of pleasure that just hits you direct from the stage. The set is simple but effective. You’re in a nightclub, with the wonderful band amassed on the other side of the bar, who create a fantastically sophisticated sound that incorporates jazz and swing, with elements of musical theatre; in fact, the score contains a wide variety of musical influences and absolutely calls out for a cast album to be made. Along the bar counter are enticingly shaped frosted glasses and bottles that the dancers will later take to both their mouths and their hearts; apart from that there are just a couple of stylised box seats scattered around and an empty stage for the eight superb performers to fill. The majority of the costumes are in various shades ofSimon Hardwick grey and white, which look classy and elegant by themselves and then take on the livelier colours of whatever light is being projected on to them, creating an almost chameleon effect. The whole thing is a cunning combination of classiness and self-indulgence; in a nutshell, it all looks and sounds gorgeous.

Katy LowenhoffThe real impact though is from the incredibly lively and strong dancing. These eight performers really know the meaning of entertainment. At close range, you can see so clearly the huge effort and stamina required for them to do what they do, and I am full of admiration. I don’t know how collaborative the choreographic process is – very, I expect – because each dancer seems to have their own particular moves or styles at which they excel and which form a major part of their contribution to the show; for example no one does slinky sexy quite like Miss Anabel Kutay, and no one does athletic high kicks quite like Mr Ashley Andrews, and both of them have great routines that encourage them to dig deep and absolutely perform their socks off.

Daniel CollinsWhat sets this show apart from many other excellent dance pieces is its clear narrative, as expressed through the songs, rather than being a group of scenes each with equal abstract weight from which you assemble your own interpretation of what’s going on. That’s what makes it feel more like a one-act play, enhanced with music and dancing, instead of simply a piece of contemporary dance. It has the “one woman’s journey” element of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Tell Me on a Sunday, but with those great moves to accompany it, it’s a lot more entertaining.

Lucinda LawrenceThe whole show flows beautifully from scene to scene, and each scene generates its own humour or pathos as well as its superb dancing; but I’d be lying if I said I didn’t have my favourite moments. I loved the humour and choreography of the opening routine where all the dancers start chatting up their chosen drinks and the “drinkies” themselves start to respond back, so that they end up almost making love to each other. The thought of Mr Simon Hardwick’s slightly shocked response to his bottle snuggling up to him (“oh, that’s a bit intimate”) still makes me laugh. Another highlight was Miss Katy Lowenhoff’s glittering (literally) appearance as Champagne, the belle of the bar, whizzing about in an appropriately bubbly fashion, whilst everyone else was singing from their pompous wine tasting notes. But perhaps the funniest sequence featured Messrs Andrews, Collins, and Misses Kutay and Lawrence as four posh sporty types, chukka-ing their polo ponies and getting down to some very close quarters rowing. It had the audience in hysterics.

Fela LufadejuDrunk has a very grown-up feel to it, and it doesn’t shy away from a number of adult themes, which absolutely proves that top-quality dance is probably the most expressive form of theatre you can see. In productions like this, you don’t need words to be eloquent. It was one of those shows where you came away at the end a better person than the one you went in as. I sense this new show is going to make a big impression on the dance world, and it was a privilege to be part of its first ever audience. There’s only a handful of seats left for Saturday’s performance at the Curve, but it’s going on for a month’s season at the Bridewell theatre in London in February. Really tempted to go again!

Review – The Pride, Richmond Theatre, 27th January 2014

Richmond TheatreA couple of years ago, I saw that “The Pride” was being revived at the Sheffield Studio, directed by Richard Wilson, and, reading the promotional blurb, thought it sounded like a fascinating play. Unfortunately we just couldn’t fit it in to our busy schedule. “You can’t see everything”, as Mrs Chrisparkle frequently advises me. Then I saw that it was on at the Trafalgar Studio last year, but, again, we couldn’t get around to it – and it now featured one of my favourite actors, Mathew Horne. The post West-End tour wasn’t coming anywhere near us, but the enforced absence of Mrs C on the second leg of her American Business Odyssey meant I would have more time to travel to a distant theatre to see it. Thus is it was I took the long trek by train and tube to Richmond last Monday.

It was also about time that I visited this theatre. It’s extremely beautiful, one of those old Victorian palaces dedicated to the Thespian Muse. As it’s part of the ATG group and I have one of their lovely membership cards that gives you 10% discounts, when I got to Richmond I thought I’d check the theatre out and see if they had a restaurant or a café, as I would be needing some sustenance after my long journey. Alas, no. Just a bar. Do they serve sandwiches, I asked? Crisps, came the reply. So, reflecting sadly on the loss of 10% off my dining bill that night, I sought out the local Pret for a baguette and a coffee; quite a soulless, desolate place as it turned out.

The bar at the theatre is long and narrow, but with a nice range of wines and a surprisingly large number of chairs, tables and benches on which to perch and peruse your programme. Inside the auditorium, the decoration around the stage and the walls is baroquely beautiful, but the chairs themselves are a bit unyielding. The stage is really high, so from Row D of the stalls I did a lot of looking up, but that also meant that if you had a tall chap in front of you, you would still have a very clear view of the action.

The PrideAnyway, the play’s the thing. This is Alexi Kaye Campbell’s first play, originally staged by the Royal Court in 2008 and already coming back for revivals, which must be an indication that it’s going to last a long time. Unlike the Sheffield version, this production is directed by Jamie Lloyd, who also directed it back in 2008. It’s a beautifully written, complexly structured, robust comparison between a 1950s illicit gay relationship between Oliver and Philip (who is married to Sylvia) with a 2000s open gay relationship between Philip and Oliver (whose best friend is Sylvia). They may have the same names, but they are not the same characters; and scenes of yesterday and today criss-cross each other on the stage with remarkable ease and a telling sense of juxtaposition.

Al WeaverThe 1950s affair is a destructive thing. Oliver thinks he’s found true love, only to have his hopes dashed and his newly established self-knowledge ridiculed and exposed. Philip suffers from having that part of him he has been fighting all his life shamefully revealed; and both he and Sylvia have to endure the breakdown of their marriage, she with the added burden of having introduced the two men to each other and dealing with her subsequent sense of abandonment. The 2000s relationship is more positive, even though Philip and Oliver’s relationship is extremely rocky and Philip walks out; but they meet again at a Gay Pride event where they observe the self-confidence of everyone around them, which leads on to a very optimistic ending that looks forward to an accepting, non-prejudicial future. What links the two separate stories is Oliver’s sense of “The Pride”, essentially the ability to be oneself, and what it means to the six main characters (that’s the three main characters, times two).

Harry Hadden-PatonIt’s a very cunning set, with two hidden doors in a glass backdrop, the surface of which looks as though it’s been artificially antiqued like one of those Victorian mirrors that has lost some of its back lining, so that it’s part reflective and part see-through; a visual metaphor no doubt for a mixture of the clearly obvious and the secretly hidden. An almost violent use of light and sound startles and disconcerts you as characters are suddenly revealed or concealed behind the glass. Those are the harsh moments, which are tempered by the softer transitions from scene to scene where one actor will enter the set to assume their place for the beginning of the next scene, whilst the previous scene is still finishing, thereby giving the whole play a great feeling of flowing inexorability.

Philip and SylviaIt’s acted throughout with great commitment and sensitivity by a terrific little cast. I was really impressed by Al Weaver as Oliver – the 1950s version being polite and respectable, with just a hint of those “mannerisms” that Philip would later complain about, then later with a sad guiltiness yet still retaining complete integrity throughout the whole exposure of the relationship. His modern Oliver is 100% out and proud, portraying the character’s addiction to sex with strangers with humour and ineffectual regret, whilst also revealing his lack of self-confidence by his total reliance on Sylvia and his clinging to Philip. It’s a beautiful performance: funny, heart-breaking and dignified. I really enjoyed how he flipped between his two characters with great fluidity in an instant; and throughout the evening he had his hand and wrist strapped up, presumably due to some injury, so to perform like that when not being properly match-fit is remarkable.

Naomi SheldonHarry Hadden-Paton is also superb as Philip, especially the 1950s version – a chummy, confident, sociable gentleman at first, visibly completely wrong-footed by his sudden realisation of attraction to Oliver, stumbling through his cover-up and then taking it out on Sylvia by cruelly over-reacting to her questions. The stress that the subsequent relationship puts on him brings out a surprisingly violent streak, and the horrific impact of the final scene before the interval has you clenching your teeth in shared agony. The modern Philip is perhaps not quite so fully written and you don’t have quite such a grasp of what the character is like – apart from being generally decent and unable to cope with Oliver’s promiscuity. Naomi Sheldon, a brilliant Hermia in last year’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, is painfully good as the 1950s Sylvia, her beautifully clipped Standard English accent suggesting the epitome of post-war respectability, slowly putting all the pieces together to come to a conclusion about Philip’s odd behaviour. When she finally confronts Oliver about the affair, it’s a fantastically moving speech with so many conflicting emotions bubbling over one another but all kept as quiet and respectable as the times dictated – a really stunning performance. She’s also excellent as the modern Sylvia, trying to juggle her own life and hopes for a new relationship whilst maintaining and managing Oliver’s dependence.

Mathew HorneMathew Horne provides additional light and shade with the three minor roles, all of whom make a big impact on the stage – the Nazi (I shan’t explain how a Nazi crops up in the story, suffice to say it’s both disturbing and hilarious), the Lad’s Mag editor Peter, and Philip’s doctor. I loved his performance as Peter – a riot of Saaf Laandaan laddishness, very jokey, a true cock-of-the-walk; but when it comes to discussing how he saw his Uncle Harry’s eyes for the last time, it really brought a lump to the throat. And he was perfect as the doctor, clinically aloof from Philip’s distraught and self-disgusted voluntary patient at the aversion therapy clinic, as he explains in cold detail the heartless procedure Philip will undertake; a stand-out scene that was just too tragic for words.

Oliver and PeterIt’s a very thought-provoking, emotional play, benefitting from superb performances and an intense, thoughtful production. For their final curtain call, the cast come on holding placards that read “To Russia with Love”, showing that there are still places in the world where the play’s call for acceptance and equality falls on stony ground. There’s only a few more performances left at Richmond this week, but I’m sure this play will continue to resurface every so often – it’s too fascinating not to!

Review – Priscilla Queen of the Desert, Milton Keynes Theatre, 23rd January 2014

Priscilla Queen of the DesertFirst there was Mamma Mia, the musical featuring the songs of Abba, which we took a long time getting around to see; but when we did finally catch it, we loved it. Then every other musical seemed to feature pop songs rather than original music, and that just didn’t inspire me very much as a theatregoer. Putting a story together where the action has to match a group’s songs that may have been recorded decades ago struck me as putting the cart before the horse. And one of the shows that was born during my “No Pop Song Show Thank You Very Much” period was Priscilla Queen of the Desert. We hadn’t seen the film anyway, and the prospect of watching drag queens on a bus driving round the outback to an 80s disco soundtrack just didn’t do it for me; it felt both too surreal from a story point of view, and too unoriginal from a music perspective.

Alan HunterHow wrong was I? I should have known better. I’d already realised that the use of Abba songs in Mamma Mia is incredibly inventive and adapts beautifully to an enjoyable original story; as an example, if either Mrs Chrisparkle or I are feeling downbeat because something sad has happened, the other one is bound to open a conversation with the words “Chiquitita tell me what’s wrong?” (If you haven’t seen Mamma Mia, 1) you won’t get that and 2) why not? Go this instant!) Similarly the use of established pop songs in Priscilla enhances the little ironies of the story and emphasises its comic or sentimental aspects. From the parental love of “I Say a Little Prayer” to the use of “Don’t Leave Me This Way” at a funeral, from the soggy culinary disaster of “Macarthur Park” to the Ping-Pong ball possibilities of “Pop Muzik”, a lot of thought and inventiveness has gone into the structure of this show.

The DivasIt also hadn’t occurred to me quite how funny it would be – not only from the comedy dance routines but also from the actual story and script, which is buzzing with jokes and brilliant observations. For instance, there’s a killer line that describes how the late character “Trumpet” got his nickname – and no prizes (but it works well all the same) as to which soap character Jason Donovan’s Tick fancied the most. The staging is smart, colourful and extremely camp, the costumes are way way way over-the-top and a hideous delight, the choreography is fast, funny and expertly performed, and the acting is of a very high standard indeed.

Giles Watling and Richard GrieveIn a nutshell, Sydney-based drag performer Tick responds to a guilt-trip request by his ex-wife Marion (who manages a casino in Alice Springs) that he should take his drag act for a show at the casino and in doing so finally get to meet his eight year old son Benji. He enlists the help of two friends, transgender Bernadette (who used to be a star at Sydney’s “Les Girls”) and drag queen Adam (aka Felicia Jollygoodfellow). Together they take their pink bus named Priscilla on a trip to Alice Springs via such enlightened townships as Broken Hill and Coober Pedy. On the way they meet homophobic prejudice and violence, but also unexpected kindness and support; and it all ends happily ever after, with Tick reading Benji bedtime stories, and Adam achieving his ambition of climbing Uluru, so that he can say he’s in a frock on a rock with a c**k.

Graham WeaverOne of the things we both appreciated about the show, but especially Mrs C, who grew up in Sydney in the 70s and 80s, was the entertaining number of cultural references that we both could tune into. Old TV shows and characters get mentioned; the names of favourite sweets and drinks are recalled, and there are some fantastic pure Australianisms that you think surely no one would use any more – don’t come the raw prawn with me! But best of all was memories of Les Girls. When Bernadette meets Bob, she wows him with the fact she was once a Les Girls star, as he fondly remembers seeing the show (one senses several times) during his youth. Well how about this for a local reference – our first date (Mrs C and I, in her Miss Duncansby days) was at the self-same Les Girls. Tick and BenjiIt was a tremendous revue, two shows a night, the later one being a little more risqué than the earlier; and at around midnight you went upstairs to a big disco ballroom between the two shows. The stage routines were full of glamorous women, none of whom were women; and with one poor chap called Shane if I remember rightly, and all he had to do was act as a foil to the glamour-pusses and do a strip. It was there that I had my first and only Faggot’s Finger. It was a cocktail. I’m sure you’ve got the measure of the place from my recollections. But it was real glamour – and it has a great place in our joint affections.

Jason DonovanPriscilla is quite a surreal show in many ways, but I liked the way it did absolutely no scene-setting and made no apologies for what it was going to be. Right from the very start, it just got on with it. And it has a brilliant opening with a superb performance by Alan Hunter as Miss Understanding, doing a wonderful interpretation of Tina Turner singing “What’s Love got to do with it”. No disrespect to Mr Hunter but in a sense it works as a warm-up act, and boy does he get the audience going. The three divas, Emma Kingston, Ellie Leah and Laura Mansell, make frequent appearances in a number of guises and sing with fantastic gutsiness. Giles Watling makes a bemused and amusing Bob, an icon of tolerance in a prejudiced world, Frances Mayli McCann an outrageous and hilarious Cynthia, and, in the performance we saw, Joseph Jones a confident and cute Benji, who shows that prejudice is learned, not innate.

Richard GrieveBut it’s the triumvirate of big guns who absolutely make this show. Graham Weaver is a brilliant Adam, a spoiled, bitchy, over-confident know-it-all who’s just out to have fun and to hell with the consequences. He’s an excellent singer and dancer, and I predict a great stage future for him. Richard Grieve is extraordinary as Bernadette – he doesn’t play her, he is her; you can’t see the join between performance and reality. Probably the most convincing female impersonation I’ve ever seen, both very funny and very moving. And Jason Donovan is magnificent as Tick, an everyman/woman character at the heart of the show, going on a journey (that’s a “Journey”) not only from Sydney to the Alice but from a person with something missing in his life to someone with a purpose.

It’s one of the most feelgood shows I have ever seen, and we both loved it. It’s definitely a must-see if you can; unless you’re homophobic, in which case you will absolutely hate it.

Review – Don Quixote, Moscow City Ballet, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 20th January 2014

IMG_4830Two years ago we saw the Moscow City Ballet perform Swan Lake, and looking back over the statistics, it’s been a constant source of interest, being my most-read blog post of all time. At the time we really enjoyed their “traditional classical” take on what is probably the most “traditionally classic” ballet of all. The company are performing both Swan Lake and other regular favourite The Nutcracker this week at the Royal and Derngate, but we thought we’d take the opportunity to see something we hadn’t seen before – and for one night only, on Monday, they performed Ludwig Minkus’ Don Quixote; it’s always good to experience new things.

Kitri and BasilMinkus isn’t a name that instantly comes to mind when you think of Russian classical composers, and I certainly didn’t know the music to this ballet before seeing the performance; but I found it really enjoyable. It’s perfectly suited to balletic movement, being somewhat stately, somewhat reserved, somewhat polite, but also with some upbeat jolly tunes too; making it a wonderful accompaniment to the traditional dance you see on the stage. The Moscow City Ballet orchestra conducted by Igor Shavruk were on excellent form on Monday night and played Minkus’ entertaining score with elegance, style and panache.

Don QuixoteWe’ve been lucky enough to see a number of touring companies over the years performing ballet and opera but few (if any) maintain such high standards of tradition and production values as the Moscow City Ballet. Not only do we have a talented orchestra to enjoy, but also the sets and the costumes are beautiful and of high quality. The dancers, of course, are graceful and skilful. My only slight quibble, as when we saw Swan Lake two years ago, is that you sense they are just a little under-rehearsed.

DryadsThe tale of Don Quixote, the ballet, is much shorter and simpler than the tale of Don Quixote, the novel. The ballet is based on just two chapters of the book (I haven’t read it, I’m afraid) and concerns the aforementioned Knight Errant, together with his faithful servant Sancho Panza, chancing upon an innkeeper’s daughter (Kitri) in a village courtyard, together with her lover (Basil), and the foppish nobleman (Gamash) whom her father wants her to marry. Don Quixote mistakes Kitri for his beloved Dulcinea (easy mistake) and dreams of her surrounded by a team of beautiful Dryads (as you do). Basil tricks the innkeeper into blessing his marriage to Kitri by pretending to kill himself (always a good idea), Gamash goes off in a huff and Don Quixote blunders on in search of more hilarious adventures. As you may gather, this is one of those ballets that doesn’t have that much of a plot.

Mariya MyshevaBut that doesn’t matter because it’s so entertaining to watch. It’s danced with a great sense of fun and wit, with some good comedy moments, lots of knowing glances between the characters and it’s also good to see that the dancers are genuinely enjoying themselves. The role of Kitri was danced by Ekaterina Odarenko, and she is staggeringly good given the fact that she’s only 18 years old; God only knows how good she’ll be in five years’ time. Immaculate on point, and beautiful in her solo work and also in pas de deux with Talgat Kozhabaev as Basil. A little more mature, he joined the Moscow City Ballet when Miss Odarenko was only five years old! He’s full of character on stage, in fact acting like a right jack the lad much of the time – think Rudolph Nureyev reincarnated as Liverpool comic John Bishop. He did some of those slow elegant walks across the stage to get to where the next dance sequence was to start, as superbly lampooned by the Trocks, but his dancing was very charismatic and entertaining even if he did travel a bit during his fouettés. There was an amusing moment where he threw his guitar into the corps de ballet, but it didn’t quite land where it was expected and thus almost brained the poor chap who was meant to catch it; and the otherwise exquisite pas de deux with Miss Odarenko that cemented their relationship finished with a slip of perilous uncertainty (hence my suspicion of their being under-rehearsed), that could have ended up in A&E if he’d dropped her. But they really were very good together; and the secondary pairing of Mariya Mysheva as the Street Dancer with Kanat Nadyrbek as Espada the Toreador also worked extremely well, both being very talented and highly watchable dancers who didn’t put a foot wrong as far as I could tell.

Those guitars have a life of their ownThe comic roles were also very enjoyable. Dmitriy Trukhachev was an amusing but still credible Gamash, posing pretentiously, gently leching after the beautiful girls surrounding him, and nicely overreacting to the trickery that put an end to his betrothal to Kitri. Lorenzo the innkeeper was danced with great gusto and humour by Yaroslav Alekhnovich; and Valerii Kravtsov, as an apparently lame Sancho Panza, turns in some wonderfully tricksy dance steps and laughter-inducing shapes. I remarked on his lively performance in Swan Lake two years ago and said surely he should be promoted to soloist soon – and now I see he has been! Together these dancers performed a charming and memorable pas de trois during the engagement celebrations. The eponymous knight doesn’t have to do much as the action largely revolves around him rather than involving him, but Aleksandr Gavrilov (also credited as Stage Manager) as Don Quixote can wield an obscenely long spear with the best of them.

GamashThere’s something so refined and quietly amusing about observing all the traditional Russian ballet etiquette. In a fantasy existence I’d like to be one of those guys who sits at the corner of the stage, watching the action and smiling benevolently at the dancers, and when one of them comes anywhere near they give them a respectful smile and generous wave of recognition as if to say, “keep it up fella, you’re doing great”. If it’s a ballerina, their smile and wave is a little warmer and means more “phwoar, looking gorgeous, honey”. There was a lot of that going on in the final act. That would be a great job. I could do that.

It’s a pleasure to see such a high quality production and committed, skilful dancers. The company’s tour goes on to mid-March, although the only other Don Quixote date left is at Crawley. But it’s well worth catching!

Review – The Burlesque Show, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 18th January 2014

Sammy Mavis JuniorThe Burlesque Show now seems comfortably to occupy a regular slot every January at the Royal and Derngate. We saw the first one, back in July 2011, which at the time hit us as a bombshell of unexpected delight. It came back six months later, with some changes but many similarities, when it confirmed its place in our portfolio of must-sees. Alas, we couldn’t make the date for last year’s show, but this year it was confidently scheduled for two nights (and both sell-outs I believe), we got great seats for the Saturday night show, and I knew we would be in for all sorts of treats.

Beau RocksBurlesque is a fascinating genre. If you’ve not been to one of these shows before, you might just be expecting a sequence of stripteases. It’s true that some rather lovely ladies peel off their layers down to a bare minimum, but, as Kenny Everett would have said, it’s all in the best possible taste. Not remotely smutty or pornographic, these routines are more titillating than anything else; they are likely to be elegant, witty, downright hilarious, or a combination of all three. In addition, you have a number of alternative acts: singers, comedians, magicians and “variety”, into which slot any number of completely screwball entertainers could fit. In the absence of a programme you’ve got absolutely no idea what they’ve got lined up for you – which gives it an additional frisson – and the sequence of acts is never predictable.

Luna RosaIf you’ve seen earlier Burlesques at the Royal, there were a few changes to the style in this year’s show (although I don’t know if these changes were in place last year). For one thing, our delightful hostess (more of whom shortly) encouraged us to react with noisy abandon each time a young lady got a little daring with her déshabillement. In the past we might have just sat there respectfully appreciative, but clearly that’s not what they want from us anymore. They want feedback! The man to my right needed no further encouragement to whoop excitedly at the merest drop of a glove, and I suspect his wife may occasionally have wanted the earth to open and swallow her up at his reactions. Still, like any good husband, he was only doing what he was told.

Glorian GrayThere were also (I felt) slightly fewer acts this time and our hostess played a greater role throughout the evening’s proceedings. No problem there, as it was the return of Sarah Louise Young, this time in her alternative persona of Sammy Mavis Junior, a trailer park slut with a heart of gold. She spoils us with some great comedy songs, like “You’re the Greatest Audience”, “Trailer Boys” and a love song to her new man, who was (allegedly) in the audience that night, where she confessed how deeply and for how long she would love him. She’s got a great rapport with the audience, convinced one poor chap to join her up on stage with her doing press-ups, and carried on her teasing of the people in the boxes, who turned out to include the same Trevor whom she sang to on her iPhone two years ago.

Rod LaverAs in previous years, we were treated to three ladies who did some stripteasing, but I think it’s fair to say they were a more varied selection than on previous occasions. Miss Beau Rocks was the opening and closing act, and she epitomises the beautiful and sensual Burlesque style (but with a nice touch of cheekiness). We also met the Exotic Luna Rosa, who performed two striking routines, and who either challenges or confirms your beliefs that tattoos are or are not sexy. And we were entertained by Miss Glorian Gray, who I think was my favourite act of the entire show, a splendidly gutsy buxom lady who danced and stripped whilst bouncing up and down on a trampoline. Yes, you read that right. It had to be seen to be believed. It was hilarious, and somehow you could strangely appreciate it as its own art form, or sport. I could imagine that at the Olympics. It’s a shame we don’t see Miss Kittie Klaw performing her routines anymore – I loved the one she did a couple of years ago that involved finding spiders between all the layers of her clothing – but she’s “management” and “stagehand” now, so we have to be content with just the occasional purr from her.

Rod Laver and Alexandra HofgartnerFor variety we had the amazing Rod Laver – no, not the legendary Australian tennis champ, but a circus performer who can do incredible things with ping pong balls. We’re not talking anything seedy Bangkok style here, more a question of holding them in his mouth, then projectiling in all directions, against all surfaces and catching them (orally) on the return. He can take five balls in his mouth; no sniggering, please. The more balls he devours the more his cheeks puff out so that he looks like the old MGM cartoon dog Droopy. Pure variety, extraordinarily skilful, and very very funny. After the interval he returned with Performance Artist Alexandra Hofgartner for more ping pong merrily on high, where the balls almost took on a foreplay role as they were passed between the two of them in all kinds of semi-erotic ways. Not quite Royal Variety Show material, but very rewarding nonetheless.

The Great VoltiniAnd then an act that defies everything you can think of: health and safety, sanity, logic, and the laws of electrical resistance. Meet the Great Voltini, whose act involves sending charges of electricity through his, and his partner Nurse Electra’s, bodies to illuminate light bulbs, fluorescent tubes and power machines. His pièce de resistance comes when he shoves an electric probe into his backside and it lights up a halo on his head. You think you’ve seen it all? Not till you’ve seen this act you haven’t. Hilarious and terrifying.

Pete FirmanIt’s always the magician that seems to be top of the bill, and Pete Firman comes completely worthy of that accolade. This chap takes sleight of hand to another planet. I’ve worked out how he does his tricks; either he can move his hands at an outrageously fast speed so that the brain can’t process what the eyes see, or he simply manages to make us look at something else whilst he’s “doing the business”. Or both. Of course, he distracts us with brilliantly funny chatting with the audience, bringing assistants on to the stage, and chucking monkey nuts around; but at the end of the day, he can really make magic happen. His trick of having someone write their name on a tenner which is then miraculously discovered in a sealed envelope inside his wallet is spectacular. But the thing that really got me was his ability to pass a handkerchief through the microphone stand. He did it right in front of our eyes. Twice. I’m a sucker for magic; I so want to believe in it, that you could fool me with the easiest trick imaginable and I’d think it was the fifth dimension. Anyway, Mr Firman was great, I could watch him for hours.

If you want to find out more about the Ministry of Burlesque (it would be great to know what their civil servants wear) you can visit their website here. Unquestionably this was another Burlesque triumph at the Royal. A little teasing, a little horror and a lot of humour. More please!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 17th January 2014

Screaming Blue MurderA New Year means a new year’s regular supply of Screaming Blue Murders at the Derngate, where, for a (relative) pittance, you can have a Friday night fix of three great comic acts, two super intervals and one humdinger of a host. On our recommendation, not only did we also have with us Lady Duncansby and her butler William, but also the Duchess of Dallington together with her Estates Manager ghillie “Mr Brown”. A disappointing show could have led to our being blacklisted by Debretts, so there was a lot at stake.

Dan EvansDan Evans is back hosting, still wearing his lucky pinstripe suit which now has got so old that it has a permanently open fly; cue for some entertaining material about its contents. Dan is still magic at warming up the audience, eliciting dubious job backgrounds from the punters in the front rows, breaking down the barriers and getting us all in the mood. And with some excellent new material too!

Larry DeanFirst up was someone new to us, Larry Dean. A naturally funny guy, Scottish but with a hilarious “Chelsea” English accent when he chose to use it, he was cheeky and engaging and had some great material. He bases some of his act on the fact that he is gay, some of which worked brilliantly – like the possibly less obvious uses for installing Grindr on your phone – but some of which were a bit Neanderthal, like doing physical impersonations of “typical gays”, whatever that might be, and also committing the cardinal sin of using the word “gay” to mean “bad”, “like straight people do”. Errr, not all straight people, Larry. But he was bright and likeable, and on the whole we really enjoyed his set. His linking his sexuality with his parents’ enjoyment of betting was fantastic.

Susan MurraySecond was Susan Murray, whom we have seen twice before and is always good for a laugh regarding dealing with your mother on the phone and funny accents. However, this time round she seemed slightly underprepared – there wasn’t an awful lot of material, it was just general friendly (and amusing, don’t get me wrong) chatting. It felt a little like she was just coasting through this one.

Anthony KingThe headline act was Anthony King who we saw back in 2010, who was ok on that occasion but this time round his act worked really well. He’s a lugubrious character who performs comedy songs with his guitar that have an edge of psychosis to them. He has the kind of persona that makes you suspect he just might gently slaughter you while you’re laughing, given half the chance. Very funny throughout, and despite his quiet laid back delivery you never doubted for a moment that he was in total control.

It’s a great night out, and we could do with a few more people attending. Come on Northampton, where else are you going to get entertainment like this for 12 quid?

Review of the year 2013 – The Fourth Annual Chrisparkle Awards

About this time every year an esteemed panel including myself and no one else meets to assess the relative brilliance of all the shows we’ve seen the previous year so that we can recognise and celebrate the artistic fantasticity of the arts world in Northampton, Sheffield, Leicester and beyond! The coveted 2013 Chrisparkles relate to shows I have seen and blogged between 6th January 2013 and 16th January 2014. Let’s not keep anyone in further suspense – let the glittering ceremony begin!

As always, the first award is for Best Dance Production (Contemporary and Classical).

I saw nine dance productions last year, from which it was quite easy to shortlist a top five, but the top three are:

In 3rd place, the fantastic combination of skill and artistry embedded in the October programme by the Richard Alston Dance Company at the Derngate, Northampton.

In 2nd place, the hilarious but incredibly accurate and beautiful dancing of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, as seen at the Birmingham Hippodrome in February.

In 1st place, the consistently rewarding and fulfilling version of Swan Lake by Matthew Bourne’s New Adventures, that we saw at the Curve, Leicester, in November.

Classical Music Concert of the Year.

For some reason we only saw four concerts in 2013, and these are the top three:

In 3rd place, the Last Night of the Derngate Proms, by the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, at the Derngate, in June.

In 2nd place, Janina Fialkowska plays Chopin’s Second Piano Concerto, plus Beethoven’s 6th Symphony, with the RPO at the Derngate in January.

In 1st place, Alexander Shelley conducts Scheherezade, together with Peter Jablonski’s performance of Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, with the RPO at the Derngate in April.

Best Entertainment Show of the Year.

This is the all-purpose, everything else category that includes pantos, circuses, reviews and anything else hard to classify.

In 3rd place, Jack and the Beanstalk at the Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, in January 2014.

In 2nd place, and maybe misclassified here but I can’t quite bring myself to call this artistic endeavour a play; Cooped, by Spymonkey, at the Royal, Northampton, in January 2013.

In 1st place, the stunning tango extravaganza that was Midnight Tango, with Vincent and Flavia off Strictly Come Dancing, at the Derngate in July.

Best Star Standup of the Year.

We saw seven big star name stand-up comedians this year, and they were all excellent, but these are my top four:

In 4th place, Jason Manford and his First World Problems, at the Derngate, in July.

In 3rd place, Jack Dee at the Derngate, in September.

In 2nd place, Stewart Lee in Much a-Stew About Nothing, also at the Derngate, in September, who was just pipped by

In 1st place, Micky Flanagan and his Back in the Game tour show at the Derngate in May.

Best Stand-up at the Screaming Blue Murder nights in Northampton.

Of the thirty or more comics that we’ve seen at Screaming Blue Murder last year seventeen made the shortlist, and the top five are:

In 5th place, an extremely funny guy with a quirky view on urban life, Nathan Caton (18th October)

In 4th place, with an almost unique ability to make a young audience rock with laughter without any swearing, Paul Kerensa (25th January)

In 3rd place, the fantastic mix of gay and Asperger’s that goes to create Robert White (8th February)

In 2nd place, musical comedy genius Christian Reilly (8th March)

In 1st place, the most mischievous comic on the circuit, Markus Birdman (8th November).

Best Musical.

Like last year, this is a combination of new musicals and revivals, and we had a dozen to choose from. The top four were easy to identify; but the fifth place show was really hard to decide from the sixth place show. However, the panel have made their decision, and I’m sticking with it.

In 5th place, the re-invigorated Chicago at the Leicester Curve in December.

In 4th place, the beautiful and moving The Color Purple at the Menier Chocolate Factory in August.

In 3rd place, the riveting revival of The Hired Man at the Leicester Curve Studio in April.

In 2nd place, the outrageous and hilarious The Book of Mormon at the Prince of Wales Theatre in March.

In 1st place, which will come as no surprise to anyone who knows me, the painstakingly caring and reassuringly faithful revival of A Chorus Line at the London Palladium in March.

Best New Play.

As always, this is my definition of a new play – so it might have been around before but on its first UK tour, or a new adaptation of a work originally in another format. Six to choose from, these are the top three:

In 3rd place, despite its cackling disruptive audience, the very inventive play version of The Full Monty, at the Lyceum Theatre Sheffield in February.

In 2nd place, the thoughtful and imaginative Peter and Alice at the Noel Coward Theatre in May.

In 1st place, the timelessly relevant and beautifully adapted To Sir With Love at the Royal, Northampton, in September.

Best Revival of a Play.

A shortlist of sixteen productions, but in the end relatively easy to sort out the top five:

In 5th place, the first of three Michael Grandage productions as part of his long season at the Noel Coward Theatre, A Midsummer Night’s Dream in November.

In 4th place, the hard-hitting yet strangely funny Beauty Queen of Leenane at the Curve Studio, Leicester, in October.

In 3rd place, Michael Grandage’s production of Peter Nichols’ Privates on Parade at the Noel Coward in January.

In 2nd place, Michael Grandage’s stunning production of The Cripple of Inishmaan at the Noel Coward in August.

In 1st place, the only production in 45 years of theatregoing that I loved so much that I had to see it again the next day, Cal McCrystal’s officially fabulous revival of Alan Ayckbourn’s Mr Whatnot at the Royal, Northampton in April.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical.

So many terrific performances to choose from but I have a top five:

In 5th place, Hayley Gallivan’s brutally treated Nancy in Oliver! at the Sheffield Crucible in January 2014.

In 4th place, Leigh Zimmerman’s indestructibly sassy Sheila in A Chorus Line at the London Palladium in March.

In 3rd place, Cynthia Erivo’s incredibly moving Celie in The Color Purple at the Menier Chocolate Factory in August.

In 2nd place, Julie Atherton’s tear-jerkingly superb Emily in The Hired Man at the Leicester Curve Studio in April.

In 1st place, Scarlett Strallen’s stunning Cassie in A Chorus Line at the London Palladium in March, and for her ebullient Cunegonde in Candide at the Menier Chocolate Factory in December.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical.

A really tough category and with so many great performances not getting a mention, but here’s my top five:

In 5th place, David Hunter’s triumphantly resilient John in The Hired Man at the Leicester Curve Studio in April.

In 4th place, Gavin Creel’s selfishly wonderful Elder Price in The Book of Mormon at the Prince of Wales Theatre in March.

In 3rd place, Christopher Colquhoun’s savage then partly redeemed Mister in The Color Purple at the Menier Chocolate Factory in August.

In 2nd place, Jared Gertner for his gutsy buddy-from-hell performance as Elder Cunningham in The Book of Mormon at the Prince of Wales Theatre in March.

In 1st place, John Partridge’s role-defining performance as the workaholic, passionate choreographer Zach in A Chorus Line at the London Palladium in March.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Play.

Some great performances here!

In 5th place, Isla Blair in The Lyons at the Menier Chocolate Factory in October.

In 4th place Felicity Kendal in Relatively Speaking at Wyndham’s Theatre in June.

In 3rd place Nora Connolly in The Beauty Queen of Leenane at the Curve Studio Leicester in October.

In 2nd place, the other half of that double act, Michele Moran in The Beauty Queen of Leenane at the Curve Studio Leicester in October and also for Dancing at Lughnasa at the Royal, Northampton in May.

In 1st place, and no surprise, Dame Judi Dench for her performance of consummate ease as Alice Liddell in Peter and Alice at the Noel Coward Theatre in May.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Play.

Eighteen actors in my shortlist, and I whittled it down to this:

In 5th place, Ansu Kabia for To Sir With Love at the Royal, Northampton, in September.

In 4th place, the magnetic stage presence of David Walliams as Bottom in Michael Grandage’s Midsummer Night’s Dream at the Noel Coward Theatre in November.

In 3rd place, Ben Whishaw for his threateningly unhinged performance as Baby in Mojo at the Harold Pinter Theatre in January 2014 and for his compellingly thoughtful performance as Peter Davies in Peter and Alice at the Noel Coward Theatre in May.

In 2nd place, Simon Russell Beale’s flamboyant performance as Terri Dennis in Privates on Parade at the Noel Coward Theatre in January 2013.

In 1st place, Daniel Radcliffe’s totally convincing performance as Billy in the Cripple of Inishmaan at the Noel Coward Theatre in August.

Theatre of the Year.

In addition to my usual shortlist of the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, Sheffield Theatres and the Menier Chocolate Factory, I have to add the Leicester Curve and also the Noel Coward Theatre for its Michael Grandage season. Taking everything into account – the standard of productions, the comfort of the theatre, the box-office experience, and the general feelgood feeling you get when you’re there, it’s a tight squeeze this year but I am again going to declare my favourite theatre of the year to be the Royal and Derngate, Northampton! God bless her and all who sail in her!

And thanks to you, gentle reader, for still coming back to read my random thoughts on all the shows we’re lucky enough to see. Hope you all have a very Happy New Theatregoing Year!