Eurovision 2014 – Semi Final Two

Hello again gentle reader, following on from my last blog reviewing the sixteen songs that make up Semi Final One in this year’s Eurovision Song Contest, here are the fifteen (yes just fifteen) in Semi Final Two. As last time, I’m also giving you the betting odds, courtesy of oddschecker.com (taking all the bookmakers who will give you the first four places each way, as at 23rdApril) and also giving each song a star rating out of 5. If you’re up for the fray, let’s begin!

Malta – Firelight – Coming Home

FirelightThe moment Mrs Chrisparkle heard this for the first time she exclaimed, “I love it!” “Really?” I replied, lightly stunned. To get the full flavour of this song, think of David Gray’s “Babylon” but without the emotion, or structure, or tune. I like how they’ve devoted the video to the First World War Fallen, and I’m pleased that Richard Micallef (or Richard Edwards, however you think of him) has finally realised his dream of representing his country; but I think in previous years he’s had far better songs that didn’t win the National Final. There’s no denying that Richard and Michelle performed their socks off at the London party and can create a really nice country vibe. But for me the song doesn’t really go anywhere. 50/1 to 100/1 ***

Israel – Mei Finegold – Same Heart

Mei FinegoldHere’s a lady who really knows how to do scary. 31 year old Mei is an expert musical theatre performer and it shows with her dramatic attack in this powerful song. A memorable tune and a punchy orchestration means this song stays with you all day. You certainly wouldn’t want to get into an argument with Mei, in case she decides to “skin you out”. The song’s hedging all bets by having the lyrics in both English and Hebrew. I think this will do rather well. I doubt she got that outfit from Debenhams. 40/1 to 66/1 ****

Norway – Carl Espen – Silent Storm

Carl EspenHere’s another song that I’m slowly warming to – but very slowly indeed. A song of internal angst that would probably have them rolling in the aisles during those late nights of a Tromso midwinter, but Copenhagen in May? Carl’s a carpenter by trade apparently, which may account for his rather wooden approach to performance. But people do seem to love the song. Interesting how both Norway and Sweden have gone for an introverted miseryfest of a song this year. There’s no doubting his sincerity, but you sense he would be happier with a saw and a dovetail joint. He performed in London, and I’d describe his entertainment factor as solid. 9/1 to 14/1 ***

Georgia – The Shin and Mariko – Three Minutes to Earth

The Shin and MarikoQuite possibly one of the worst songs I have ever heard. The Shin are a band specialising in old Georgian folk music and I wouldn’t be surprised if the only people to like this were old Georgian folk. They are joined by singer Mariko who looks like she’s stuck her finger in an electric socket. It’s a no from me. 125/1 to 500/1 *

Poland – Donatan and Cleo – We are Slavic

Donatan and CleoMassively successful in Poland as a Christmas hit, the official video famously received over 15 million youtube hits in its first three weeks. This has absolutely nothing to do with the song, but with the cinematographic emphasis on the bustiness of Slavic Beauties. Cleo sounds like she has a bar of soap caught in her throat and Donatan does whatever a music producer does. I find the song extremely discordant and irritating, like one of those childish clapping songs one hoped one would never have to hear again. If it was the Eurovision Video Contest it would win hands down; but as a Song Contest I think this might go t*ts up. 40/1 to 100/1 **

Austria – Conchita Wurst – Rise Like a Phoenix

Conchita WurstNow onto la Conchita de la Saucisson. No circus freak, this bearded lady is a sensational performer as we were privileged to see at the London party. She has an amazing stage presence and absolutely radiates charisma. The song builds nicely in a very James Bond sort of way – although perhaps it is a little old-fashioned, you could imagine Shirley Bassey giving it some welly in the 1960s. I suspect this song will go huge in Western Europe but crawl under a rock in the East, which should even out to a mid-table finish. Pure entertainment, and no matter what you think of Conchita’s appearance, she’s a star. 33/1 to 40/1 ****

Lithuania – Vilija Mataciunaite – Attention

Vilija MataciunaiteSo here’s some attention seeking from Lithuania with a very shouty and irritating song which one would be very happy never to hear again. It’s all that “down, do-do-down, down on your knees” stuff in the lyrics that really gets my goat. However, with Ireland, the UK, Belarus, Norway and Georgia all voting in this semi-final, it may be a surprise qualifier. The legendary pain in the Baltics. That’s it, nothing more to add. 100/1 to 300/1 *

Finland – Softengine – Something Better

SoftengineSoft rock song from Finland, this year’s Litesound equivalent, but quite a good exponent of the genre. Smooth, competent and gently rewarding, if a bit on the repetitive side. It’s actually quite a nice story about appreciating what you’ve got – something the Twin Twin guys could learn from. I’m not entirely sure where it’s going to get its votes from though. Except from Norway. They’re very clean-cut guys; surely rock Finns are meant to have long hippy hair? Did Mr Lordi teach them nothing? 50/1 to 100/1 ***

Ireland – Can-Linn featuring Kasey Smith – Heartbeat

Kasey SmithHere’s something a bit more arresting. I love the intro, and Kasey’s voice cuts through the atmosphere like a velvet machete. Although Can-Linn are a “typical Irish folk band” whatever that is, this feels distinctly un-Irish to me, which actually makes a nice change. It’s a shame there are so many “heartbeats” in the chorus though, with that level of repetition Kasey needs to get her blood pressure looked at. By the end I’ve got a bit bored with it. Still, it’s the product of a team with an excellent songwriting pedigree though, so what do I know? 33/1 to 100/1 ***

Belarus – Teo – Cheesecake

TeoThe title says it all really. This was yet another of those early songs that I thought was just too silly and (literally) cheesy to appreciate; but time is a great healer and today I quite like hearing Teo grappling with the moral dilemma of being called a cheesecake. In fact, if ever a man were to look like a cheesecake, it would be Teo. Mainly vanilla, with a dash of lemon. I am sucked in by the entertaining video though, despite people saying it’s a complete rip-off of Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines video. I guess both feature people and a blank background. I think the similarities end there. 100/1 to 300/1 ***

FYR Macedonia – Tijana – To The Sky

TijanaThere’s always room for some rock chickery at Eurovision and I’m delighted to say that Tijana (without Herb Alpert or any brass) fills that bill nicely. She’s a lot less scary than Mei Finegold, for starters, and she’s doubtlessly the nearest thing they get to Pink in Skopje. Whilst she’s definitely going to miss the support of Bosnia, Croatia, and so on, I think the song has a strong enough appeal to be only the second from this country to qualify. Great tune, and with an uplifting feel. A keeper. 100/1 to 350/1 ****

Switzerland – Sebalter – Hunter of Stars

SebalterReach for the Marmite again. When I first heard this song, Seb’s whistling got right on my nerves and I had to bury the whole thing in the sand – figuratively speaking. But actually, it’s a really entertaining and catchy tune, and once you hear that whistle in your head, you know you’ve lost control of your mind and it won’t be yours again for ages. He’s a bit of an unknown character – playing in bands and keeping quite a low profile – and then suddenly sprung into the Eurovision bear pit. He’s a very entertaining performer (as we can testify from the London Party) and this is definitely one of my favourites this year. The video is great, if you haven’t seen it; the moral of it being, never employ Sebalter in your hotel. Switzerland rarely qualifies though, and I think it’s unlikely to have a change of fortune this year. 100/1 to 250/1 ****

Greece – Freaky Fortune featuring RiskyKidd – Rise Up

Freaky Fortune and RiskyKiddRap usually sinks without trace at Eurovision, but I just wonder if this song could be its turning point. A couple of years ago Greece went for a similar act with Watch My Dance (one of Mrs Chrisparkle’s favourites) which finished a credible 7th. This year they have Freaky Fortune (like youthful Greek Pet Shop Boys) fronted by singer Nick, who, I can tell you, having seen them in the London Party, is a complete showman – and rapper RiskyKidd (that’s Shane from London). You couldn’t call this a complicated song by any stretch of the imagination, but I like it. Impossible to stay still whilst it’s playing. With a title like “Rise Up”, I’m sure it’s going to be associated with some ribald jokes on the Eurodancefloor. It’s Greece, so it’s a certain qualifier, and definitely top ten material for Saturday night. 33/1 to 66/1 *****

Slovenia – Tinkara Kovac – Round and Round

Tinkara KovacUnlike Ireland, Slovenia is this year’s Irish sounding song. That is, until Tinkara starts singing in Slovene (unsurprisingly). In fact the foreign language elements serve as nice pieces of bread enclosing a rather delicious sandwich filling of enigmatic English lyric. Known for her expert flautistry, she’s obviously the Slovenian James Galway. Except better looking, and considerably younger. This is one of those songs that is quite hard to recollect off the top of your head, but once you remember it, you really enjoy it. A good draw in the semi might get her through to the final. 100/1 to 200/1 ****

Romania – Paula Seling and Ovi – Miracle

Paula Seling and OviThe second of this year’s returning acts, and also with a song vastly inferior to their previous effort. Paula and Ovi sang “Playing with Fire” at the London Party and it was definitely the best song of the night. Ovi’s a real live wire on stage, and was hugely entertaining to the London crowd, but I thought Paula rather phoned her performance in. Mind you, it was very late. Miracle is a triumph of style over substance, a sequence of jingles strung together to make a song – nearly. But if they’re on top form on the night there’s no reason this won’t go as high as Paula’s vocal range. Keep your dog away from the TV set. 20/1 to 28/1 ***

And that’s your lot for Semi Final Two. With only five songs getting eliminated at this stage, and only two days between this semi and the big night, does that give a slight advantage to these qualifiers? My guess is that we can say goodbye to: Georgia, Belarus, Switzerland, Lithuania and Finland. You can watch the Semi Final Two in the UK on BBC3 at 8pm on Thursday 8th May, and this is the semi that the UK can vote in, so take your responsibilities seriously. I’ll be back with my run-down of the big five and the host nation on Thursday!

Eurovision 2014 – Semi Final One

Yes gentle reader, it’s that time of the year again. Amsterdam’s “Eurovision in Concert”, London’s preview party at the Café de Paris, Boom-Bang-a-Bang preview evenings in London and Manchester, they’ve all been and gone and Eurovision fans are now girding their loins and fanning their fervour as the magic week approaches. As in previous years, I’m going to introduce you to the songs in the order in which they will be performed on the night – the night in question for Semi Final One being Tuesday 6th May – bearing in mind this has been put together by Danish TV in an order they think makes a good show (and gives an unfair advantage to the countries of their choice). I’m also giving you the betting odds, courtesy of oddschecker.com (taking all the bookmakers who will give you the first four places each way, as at 15th April) and also giving each song a star rating out of 5. Here goes!

Armenia – Aram Mp3 – Not Alone

AramMP3And we hit the ground running with the song that has been the bookmakers’ favourite since the day betting started, and certainly before the song itself was chosen, which in itself is bizarre. Not Alone is a sombre, serious ballad with a rousing arrangement; but just when you think it’s going somewhere, it doesn’t quite. My initial reaction to it was that it was a snoozefest; nevertheless, and I like it more each time I hear it. Do you reckon Mr Mp3 thought his real name of Aram 45rpm sounded a bit outdated? I know people who love this song and other people who hate it. Mind you, I think I could say that about each of these songs. He performed at the London Preview Party and I was impressed by the “Mr Entertainment” vibe he gave off. Is he really only 30? He must have endured some hard winters in Yerevan. Evens to 15/8. ***

Latvia – Aarzemnieki – Cake to Bake

aarzemniekiIt’s a funny year. The first few songs I heard during this National Finals season were all silly. Flippant daft nonsense. Too silly to enjoy. I thought I’d wait till I heard the big songs from the big countries. Trouble is, they were all the same. Ploddy female ballads, mainly. So I found myself having to reappraise the silly songs. And I have to say, Cake to Bake is the silliest, but best, of the bunch, and probably of the year. I know that’s a controversial thing to say. But this is the only song that really lifts my heart and makes me want to sing along. And I rather like the premise that the poor chap can do all these extraordinary feats of intelligence and planning, like cleaning Central Park and reversing the law of gravity, but hasn’t a clue how to bake a cake. I can sympathise with that. Live, I think they’re a little ragged round the edges. Infectiously cheerful Jöran, the lead singer, is from Germany, hence the name of the group. Didn’t you know aarzemnieki is Latvian for foreigners? I think this is going to need all the self-raising flour it can get to qualify – but I love it. This too was performed in London – and from where I was standing, all I could see was the tops of their heads. 100/1 to 400/1 *****

Estonia – Tanja – Amazing

TanjaPeople are turning off this song because they say it’s too like Euphoria. No – Germany’s Glorious last year, that was too like Euphoria. I think this song has its own personality. It has a groovy clubby feel (not that I would know what that means) and it would certainly inspire me to create some interesting shapes on the dancefloor. It went down quite well at the London Preview party post-show disco. Mrs Chrisparkle found it instantly likeable too. Excellent eurofodder, with a strangely haunting atmosphere. 50/1 to 100/1 ****

Sweden – Sanna Nielsen – Undo

Sanna NielsenSo fan fave Sanna Nielsen finally makes it to Eurovision after what seems like decades of having stab after stab after stab. And after all the lovely songs she’s had in the past, she makes it with the criminally unrewarding “Undo”. There are the makings of a good song here I’m sure, but it’s just not there yet. To me it feels whingey and self-pitying. Of course, since winning Melodifestivalen, “undo my sad” has become “undo my sad love”, in a foolish attempt by people for whom English is not their first language to pretend that it is. But whereas “undo my sad” was quite yoof and street, “undo my sad love” hardly makes any sense at all. I’ve got a new version of the chorus if Sanna is interested – “Undo my sad, I’ve been quite bad, Now you’re a dad, Guess I’ve been had”. I think it has legs. 11/4 to 5/2 ***

Iceland – Pollapönk – No Prejudice

pollaponkThis song was complete drivel when it won the Icelandic National Final but since then it’s been French polished and given some clean straw to sleep in and now it’s not half so bad. Originally “no racism” it’s now the slightly less specific “no prejudice”, but I’m sure its heart is still in the right place. Performing from position 5 in a semi is about as bad as it gets though, so I don’t suppose we’ll see the Pullaplonkers on the Saturday night. 100/1 to 300/1 ***

Albania – Hersi Matmuja – One Night’s Anger

HersiOne Night’s Anger is rather an in-your-face no-holds-barred title for such a sweet sounding little song, although apparently it’s all about the dangers of letting anger guide one’s decisions, and the importance of thinking before reacting – so you have been warned. Hersi’s a graduate of the prestigious National Academy of St Cecilia in Rome, whose alumni include piano maestro Rachmaninov; so she ought to know her onions. The song doesn’t really do a lot for me, but Albanian songs rarely do, and the timbre of Hersi’s voice grates on me a little. One night’s anger might be how she reflects on failing to qualify on Wednesday morning. 80/1 to 250/1 **

Russia – Tolamchevy Sisters – Shine

Tolmachevy SistersJust what the Eurovision Song Contest needs – another song called “Shine”. Almost pointless their being there really, as I can’t imagine many countries are going to clasp Mother Russia to their hearts this year, seeing as how she’s generally behaving like a right old cow at the moment. At the age of 17, the Tolamchevies are old hands at this Eurovision lark, having won the Junior version back in 2006. The song is perfectly pleasant and I’m sure Mr Putin will be singing along to the lines, “sending out a message up above, telling all the world to show some love”. Five people are credited with creating this masterpiece including Russian volcano-lover Philipp Kirkorov and Maltese pop-creator Gerard James Borg. Bananarama-lite, this is going to sink deeper than Putin’s human rights record. 14/1 to 50/1 ***

Azerbaijan – Dilara Kazimova – Start A Fire

Dilara KazimovaI have a sneaking regard for this one. It ticks lots of the boxes and whilst never really becoming the sum of its parts, they’re quite good looking parts on the whole. Dilara’s got a great voice and she’s rather a sultry lass too. Too jazz-based for Eurovision perhaps? 1979’s Heute in Jerusalem resurrected for the modern era. It’s Azerbaijan, of course, so there’s probably already several hundred thousand votes in the bank before it started. Oops, did I say that out loud? #justjoking. 10/1 to 22/1 ***

Ukraine – Mariya Yaremchuk – Tick Tock

Mariya YaremchukMay I refer you back, gentle reader, to our earlier discussion regarding Latvia, when I said how I initially disliked all the early silly songs and then went back to them after I’d heard all the later dirgey ones. Well, this is one song where my initial impression hasn’t budged an inch. I don’t care for it at all. 21 year old Mariya’s performance at the London party was sexier than it ought to have been because although the lyrics are all about “lurve”, the tune, with its Tick Tock Title, is like a nursery rhyme. No doubt there’ll be some international border-incursion-based sympathy votes, but musically it’s vapid. 10/1 to 16/1 **

Belgium – Axel Hirsoux – Mother

Axel HirsouxHere’s a Marmite song if ever there was one. Three minutes of contrasting emotions to grapple with. Axel is a terrific singer, and it’s a stirring, memorable tune. In the cynical UK it’s going to go down like a lead waffle, this big girl’s blouse singing romantically about his mum. Unless, that is, you are a Saturday night, light entertainment-watching mother or grandmother yourself, because your heart will go all gooey at M. Hirsoux’s plaintive serenade, directed personally at you. I think it will also do well in countries where they don’t speak a lot of English, and they can’t understand quite how essentially icky the lyrics are. But all power to his larynx, he’s a great performer. And the Go Compare man had better fear for his job. 16/1 to 28/1 ***

Moldova – Cristina Scarlat – Wild Soul

Cristina ScarlatAlthough Cristina really gets into it and gives it all she’s got, I find this one as forgettable as bin bags on a shopping list. She’s a pretty scary lady with no feelings of mercy and I’m not sure Europe’s voters will have either. Without their friends in Romania voting for them in this semi-final, will it make it to Saturday? Whatever, I hope they tone down that rather irritating percussion. It’s louder than a deep scratch on an old 45. 66/1 to 300/1 **

San Marino – Valentina Monetta – Maybe

Valentina MonettaMaybe – Valentina will win; maybe – their chances are thin; maybe – pestilence will begin – before Ralph Siegel retires; maybe – they might qualify; maybe – expectations are high; but I fear – it’s Terminal One on Wednesday.

To be fair, it’s a grower, but that’s not very helpful when you want instant impact. And with Italy voting on the Second Semi, I don’t think it’s going to survive. Even the Social Network song had a bit of beep beep to it, but this is just drama by numbers. Sorry, because I do think Valentina’s an excellent performer, she just never has the chance to show us! 80/1 to 225/1 **

Portugal – Suzy – Quero Ser Tua

SuzyNow here’s a song that’s really gone up in my estimation since we went to the London Preview Party. Suzy’s a great entertainer, a stunning statuesque lady, and when she does the Suzyshake you can feel everything quiver. On paper it’s nothing much, but if she can nail the vocals on the Tuesday night it’s a real feel-good number. One of those songs where the chorus just blurts out of your mouth when you’re not expecting it. Poor Suzy only seems to have one dress, but at least it’s a nice one. 100/1 to 300/1 ****

The Netherlands – The Common Linnets – Calm After The Storm

The Common LinnetsAfter some Mediterranean sunshine, the Netherlands bring us back to earth with some Blue Grass moping. Dutch singer Ilse is a highly successful country singer in her own right and she has been united with Waylon to form The Common Linnets. Anyone who likes this kind of music is not going to be watching the Eurovision Song Contest in the first place. Having gone for Anouk last year, the Netherlands are continuing to specialise in providing the wrist-slitting opportunities for the evening. A drab dirge, I’m afraid. Perhaps the “Pizazzy Linnets” would have been more uplifting. Wasn’t Sandra Reemer available? 66/1 to 250/1 **

Montenegro – Sergej Cetkovic – Moj Svijet

Sergej CetkovicIn a year with a large Balkan contingent, this would have done really well. As it is, I still think it will produce Montenegro’s best result ever (not hard, as they have yet to qualify out of the semis). Twelve points from Albania will help. Sergej’s got a very relaxed style – perhaps a trifle too underplayed, as his presentation almost became boring at the London Party – Montenegro’s answer to Val Doonican, perhaps. This is no Lane Moje but it’s not bad at all, and it has a very satisfying video. 50/1 to 125/1 ****

Hungary – Andras Kallay-Saunders – Running

Andras Kallay SaundersFrom a gently lyrical song about love to a nifty ditty about child abuse. Who would expect that at the Eurovision? It’s a powerful song, and if you don’t watch the video or follow the lyrics, it’s very enjoyable, with the urgency of its chorus and its contemporary sound. I’m just not sure it’s Saturday night light entertainment material. New Yorker Andras had a song in last year’s Hungarian National Final too, so it was only a matter of time before he represented his maternal homeland. Hungary’s maintained a really high standard of songs over the past few years, and this is up amongst them. 10/1 to 16/1 ***

So there you have it, Semi Final One. Pick the bones out of that lot and tell me who’ll qualify. I think the likely non-qualifiers are: Iceland, Moldova, Netherlands, San Marino, Albania and Latvia. You can watch the Semi Final One in the UK on BBC3 at 8pm on Tuesday 6th May. Meanwhile, I’ll be back with my run-down of Semi Final Two on Wednesday!

Review – Every Last Trick, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 25th April 2014

Every Last TrickAmong the great names of theatrical comedy, Georges Feydeau is still worthy of a very high place. During a phenomenally successful career spanning more than thirty years he wrote 38 farces, not only popular in his native France but translated all over the world. They also lend themselves very well to modern adaptation, and I remember hooting with delight at Leonard Rossiter in 1977 when a schoolmate and I went to see “The Frontiers of Farce” at the Old Vic, the first act of which was Feydeau’s “On Purge Bébé”, concerning the plight of a manufacturer of unbreakable chamber pots – which broke; and in 1988 when the newly married Mrs Chrisparkle and I took our parents, again to the Old Vic, to see “A Flea in her Ear”.

The Whole CastMy memory of those shows is that they were standard revivals rather than re-workings. Many of Feydeau’s plays are good enough simply to translate them and get on with it. But that’s not the kind of thing one has come to expect from Spymonkey on their regular visits to the Royal and Derngate. They’re back – well half of them – and working with Told by an Idiot’s co-artistic director Paul Hunter, and two fresh but equally wacky cast members, on a modern re-telling of Feydeau’s Le Système Ribardier, sometimes translated as Every Trick in the Book, but here, in Tamsin Oglesby’s version, as “Every Last Trick”.

Toby Park and Adrien GygaxThe result is a brilliantly hilarious evening at the theatre, not quite in the usual Spymonkey tradition of an improvised, entirely original, surreal, abstract hotch-potch; but with a proper script, in a proper recognisable setting, and with proper characters. To give you a clue as to what goes on: Juan is Angela’s second husband, he a roué with a Spanish accent, she paranoid about the infidelity of men – Juan in particular – as her first husband, Jacques, had obviously put it about a bit. Juan is a member of the magic circle and has found a way of carrying on affairs behind Angela’s back – he hypnotises her every time he goes out and has his way with the wine merchant’s wife, then wakes her up on his return. Unless you know the magic words that will make her sleep and wake her up, you’ve got no clue as to how it happens. Hence the trick of the title. Into this deception stumbles Tom, who has carried a candle for Angela for many years, as he has heard that she is no longer married. But he didn’t realise she’d already married Juan, so, deeply disappointed, he prepares to head back to Burma/Borneo on his elephant. But, not so fast, they want him to stay – which he accepts, in the hope himself of a spot of hows-your-father with Angela, and by the time we’ve got to that stage of the plot, the only way out is completely nonsensical – not that there’d been much sense this far.

Aitor BasauriYou can’t understate the brilliance and comic inspiration of the team when it comes to creating ludicrously funny situations and following them through to their illogical conclusions. Whether they do it to music, or by involving the audience, or using ham magic, the lengths to which they will go knows no bounds. At least in this show they do manage to keep their kit on, which is not something you can always guarantee. It’s virtually impossible – and not very helpful – for me to attempt to explain some of the things they do; it’s much better if you go and see it for yourself and allow yourself to be stunned and marvelled at their ridiculous exploits.

Adrien GygaxI can tell you though that the cast of four are just superb throughout. Spymonkey boss Toby Park is Tom, arriving in England in his jungle outfit, hot off the elephant, the very embodiment of stiff upper lippishness, which means he can be both noble and a prat at the same time. Sophie Russell is wonderful as the paranoid and magically narcoleptic Angela; she’s also delightfully frightfully English, juxtaposing nicely with her tap dancing eccentricities and surprising tendency to bully the menfolk. Spymonkey’s Aitor Basauri is just sensational in his clowning, which can be deft and subtle, or outrageously overblown. He has the ability to render the audience helpless with laughter with just one twitch of an eyebrow, and he sets up such a brilliant rapport with us that you sense you know precisely what he’s thinking all the way through. I think he may have become my favourite comedy actor after this performance. The final member of the quartet is Adrien Gygax, who also gives a splendidly funny physical comedy performance as the dipsomaniac servant Gus. They all work together so well though, that the whole show is a complete team effort.

Toby ParkSpymonkey just get better and better each time you see them. Whether it’s the collaboration with Paul Hunter or the fact they’ve got a more tangible script to deal with, I don’t know; but I think this particular show has absolutely brought the best out of them all. They’re having so much fun out there themselves, that it really spreads to us in the audience. There were a large number of corpsing moments last Friday night – which in a production like this just adds to the general hilarity – and you’ve got absolutely no idea whether they’re intentional or not. That’s the magic of live theatre – no two performances are ever identical – and I would imagine that rule applies to this show more than most. It’s on at the Royal until 10th May – and if you like an evening of blissfully stupid comedy, you can’t go anywhere better.

Sophie RussellP.S. The programme alerts us to the fact that Spymonkey regular Stephan Kreiss is currently under the watch of heart surgeons, which Mrs C and I were very sorry to read. However, I have it on good authority that he is well on the mend and will be back with more lunacy soon. We wish him all the very best for a speedy recovery!

Review – Fiddler on the Roof, Derngate, Northampton, 23rd April 2014

Fiddler on the Roof 1983I booked this on the strength of its being a fine old musical that I haven’t seen for many years – and Mrs Chrisparkle has only ever seen the film, on which, if truth be told, I don’t think she’s that keen. But it was one of the Dowager Mrs C’s favourites, and I have happy memories of learning to play all its top tunes on the piano when I was a teenager, at her behest. My piano playing style was always… direct, I think would be a complimentary term; my friends used to call me “Thumper” when it came to the keyboard. Many’s the evening where I would thump out melodies such as “Fiddler on the Roof” and “If I were a Rich Man” to my heart’s content. I actually remember in my very early days of theatregoing how all my parents’ friends and relatives would go overboard with excitement about seeing this show in London, starring Alfie Bass. He was their hot ticket. I never saw Alfie Bass; but I did accompany the Dowager to see the show at the Apollo Victoria in 1983 starring the legendary Topol. She absolutely loved it.

Fiddler on the Roof 2014All these recollections came back to me as we waited in our excellent seats at the Royal and Derngate for what has turned out to be the penultimate week of this national tour of Fiddler on the Roof starring Paul Michael Glaser (yes, Starsky) and directed by Craig Revel Horwood. Not inappropriately for a show that is shamelessly sentimental, it made me feel somewhat, as the poet once said, totes emosh. When I was that teenager banging out showbiz tunes on the Joanna, I remember wondering if I would ever get to be old enough for the, what I considered at the time, self-indulgently naff lyrics of “Sunrise, Sunset” actually to have any significance for me. Well, forty years on, I can tell that arrogant teenager that yes, when you’ve survived this far, it touches you more than you could imagine.

Paul Michael GlaserAnyway, I’m digressing before I’ve started. It was a packed house for a midweek evening performance of Jerry Bock and Sheldon Harnick’s long-lasting and not remotely dated musical, which chalked up 3,242 performances on its original Broadway run (making it the longest running show at the time) and also a highly respectable 2,030 performances on its original West End run. Joseph Stein’s book is based on Sholem Aleichem’s stories of Tevye the Milkman, written and set in what is now Ukraine in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Liz Singleton and Steven BorBroadly speaking, we’re talking the Russo-Jewish change agenda of 110 years ago. It’s set in a place (the small Russian village of Anatevka) and at a time (1905) when local traditions and practice were being uprooted on a political, national level, as shown in the heartless pogroms against the Jewish towns and villages; but also on a personal, familial level. Tevye’s firmly rooted in his “Tradition” values, where it’s the Papa who decides which of his children will marry the person the Papa chooses. However, Tevye’s three daughters have other ideas, and it’s the lengths to which Tevye manages to compromise, or not, with his strict religious and societal beliefs that provides the plot development of the show. As a result, you get to run the gamut of emotions all evening long, as we experience with Tevye and his family their friendships, love, hopes, fears, hatred, joy, sadness, and more. It’s all there. As the “disturbances” against the local Jewish community get progressively more violent, their options for survival get more limited. Hence the fiddler on the roof herself weaves in and out of the action, a symbol of irrepressible quirky spirit and continued precarious danger, played with impish charm by Jennifer Douglas. No wonder it’s a three hour show.

Neil Salvage and Michael PaverYou have to hand it to them, this is one terrific production. Diego Pitarch’s set is perfect for the job, with a central revolving pod that can serve as the outside of Tevye’s house and can also open up to reveal the internal living areas; and to the sides of the stage two static structures that can be Motel’s workshop or the entrance to the inn. It folds back completely to host the wonderful “To Life” scene at the inn. The costume designs accurately reflect the workaday nature of the locals’ lives and their level of poverty – hard up, but not without income and provisions. In what is becoming something of a trademark approach with a Craig Revel Horwood production, there isn’t a separate, remote band, but the on-stage actors all play orchestral instruments as well as performing their roles. This has a great unifying effect, as you appreciate the skill and creativity of all the people you can directly see on stage. Individual instruments also become additional voices for their associated characters, and it works a treat. It is so much more successful here than in Mr Horwood’s production of Chess where the instrument-playing cast members just got in the way of the action and ended up blocking all the best views. Musically, the show is a complete treat – the orchestrations are perfect and the performers create some really gutsy sounds from their instruments – for instance, Michael Paver’s trumpet playing and Susannah van den Berg’s clarinet really stood out.

Paul Michael Glaser and Jon TrenchardBut of course the show is all about Tevye. In fact it’s hard to name a musical with a more dominant central character, so any production of Fiddler on the Roof could succeed or fail on the strength of one performer. Well, there was no need to worry on that score. Paul Michael Glaser is an astoundingly good Tevye; thoughtful, reflective, gently self-deprecating, and thoroughly realistic. It would be easy to go over the top with caricature, funny accents, and silly physical comedic gimmicks in this show, but Mr Glaser sets the tone perfectly with his naturalistic, warm, and wry characterisation. He creates an instant rapport with the audience – who very nearly broke into a star applause welcome when he first appeared (but just held back) – even occasionally connecting with patrons in the front stalls when he’s seeking agreement or confirmation with his mind-musings. There’s no denying it, Topol was great, a marvellous entertainer and charismatic performer; but where he could occasionally drift into caricature and become slightly ridiculous (think of the body swagger in “If I Were a Rich Man”), Mr Glaser just acts like a genuinely kind, straightforward old man, cherishing his dreams, putting his family first. And what a voice he has! Rich, full, strong; a perfect match for those classics he has to sing. It’s not the voice of a 71 year old man. Starsky 71? No wonder I’m feeling old!

The three daughtersHe has a great connection too with Karen Mann as his wife Golde, enjoying the subtle “long-suffering” act that any husband does about his wife if he has a third person watching. However, her long-suffering responses are the more genuine, confirming, if you were in any doubt, that us men are generally much harder to put up with overall. Their “Do You Love Me?” duet was a sheer delight, her batting off his attempts to wallow in self-praise, his refusing to be thwarted. It was a very funny, but loving scene, beautifully performed.

Claire PetzalThere are plenty of other fantastic performances to match the central characters. Emily O’Keeffe’s Tzeitel is a splendidly responsible oldest daughter, ostensibly attached to her parents’ traditional values – but she will have you holding back the tears when she begs not to be married to Lazar. Liz Singleton is a self-assured and spirited Hodel, responding bravely to Perchik’s tradition-breaking advances and following him in his latter exile; and Claire Petzal is a charming and coquettish young Chava when first approached by Fyedka, but surprisingly and sadly resolute in her ability to withstand her father’s disapproval. All three sing stunningly – their “Matchmaker, Matchmaker” was exquisitely performed, a marvellous testimony to the optimism of youth.

Paul Michael Glaser and Emily O'KeeffeI really enjoyed Jon Trenchard’s performance as the nervous but gradually more confident Motel, withering visibly as he tries to tell Tevye that he wants to marry Tzeitel, proudly displaying his sewing machine more than his baby, and giving us a genuinely joyful rendition of “Miracle of Miracles”. Steven Bor makes for a suitably radical Perchik (the role played by Paul Michael Glaser in the film), mischievously incorporating Bolshevik views into his tutoring but proving himself to be as drippy as any lovesick boy imaginable when Hodel accepts his humorously business-like proposal.

Jennifer DouglasLiz Kitchen is a delightfully meddlesome and gossipy Yente the Matchmaker, always failing to mask quite how self-obsessed she is; Eamonn O’Dwyer makes an amusing if unexpectedly camp Innkeeper, as well as a polite but ruthless Police Constable, Neil Salvage a hilariously woolly Rabbi, Daniel Bolton a dignified Fyedka, and Susannah van den Berg a wonderfully scary resurrection of the late Fruma-Sarah, hovering over Tevye and Golde’s bed like a flying operatic bat.

Paul Michael Glaser and Karen MannThere’s only a few more days left to catch it at the Derngate, and then a week at Eastbourne before it wraps up for good – for a show this enjoyable, it would be a crime to miss it. Great to see it still commands a big audience, and it reminds us, through the medium of musical comedy, of a harrowing time in history that must not be forgotten.

Review – Blithe Spirit, Gielgud Theatre, 19th April 2014

Blithe Spirit 1970I can still remember the excitement felt by the ten-year-old me going to see Blithe Spirit in the very self-same Shaftesbury Avenue theatre in 1970 (it were called the Globe when I were a lad). Patrick Cargill as Charles Condomine (I used to love “Father, Dear Father”), Ursula Howells as Ruth (she played Patrick Cargill’s ex-wife in that sitcom) and Beryl Reid, would you believe, as Madame Arcati. God I felt grown-up. Mrs Chrisparkle and I have a memory that we saw another production in the not too distant past, maybe at the Wycombe Swan, but I can’t find the programme, and all other details about the show escape me. I have a feeling it wasn’t that great.

Blithe Spirit 2014It is an extremely funny play though. I’m sure you know the premise – Charles and Ruth Condomine host a séance with their friends the Bradmans; and it’s all run by the medium Madame Arcati, going into hokey trances to connect with the “other side”. Unfortunately for Charles, she’s a bit too successful and brings back Charles’ first wife, the late Elvira, as a ghostly apparition that only he (and we) can see. Elvira’s quite a handful and Ruth doesn’t appreciate being sidelined, as Charles spends a bit too much time catching up with his dead missus. Things come to a head as Elvira gets more and more jealous, and mischievous, with rather bizarre consequences. In the end, Charles’ life comes crashing down upon him. Literally.

SeanceMichael Blakemore directs with a nice sense of fun and ease, getting the best out of his talented cast. Janie Dee (always a favourite) is a fantastic Ruth, elegant and charming at first, but also delightfully furious at Charles’ behaviour and then perplexed at trying to understand exactly what’s going on with her barmy husband and his pre-enamorata. Jemima Rooper is a very mischievous and cheeky Elvira, who successfully conveys the sense of a girlish, immature wife taken from her husband too soon – although I thought she could have been a bit more petulant at times. Charles Edwards plays Condomine as an avuncular fellow, who rather enjoys the continuation of his present and past relationships more than is good for him. I have a recollection that Patrick Cargill was a far more exasperated Condomine – by comparison, Mr Edwards is rather Zen in accepting his lot. There’s some excellent support from Serena Evans as the tactless Mrs Bradman, Simon Jones as her respectable Doctor husband, and Patsy Ferran as the breakneck-speed Edith, one of Noel Coward’s hallmark comedy maids.

Angela LansburyOf course in 1941, this was structured as a classic three act play, but nowadays we’re not allowed to linger in a theatre that long any more. So the sole interval comes after the original Act Two Scene One. On the plus side, I rather liked the stage projections that explained the time and place for each scene; however I did also feel that many of the scenes ended rather suddenly, without a real visual or verbal punchline. Whether the “curtain down” wasn’t snappy enough, or if Coward got it wrong, I’m not sure.

Madame Arcati mayhemBut, make no mistake, there’s only one reason why the best part of 1000 people have crammed into the Gielgud Theatre for eight performances a week – and that’s the appearance of Dame Angela Lansbury as Madame Arcati. It’s been 40 years (apparently) since she was last on the London stage, so she’s definitely overdue a visit. Whether you think of her as Jessica Fletcher in Murder She Wrote, as the over-the-top Mrs Otterbourne in the film of Death on the Nile, as Mrs Lovett in Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd or (like me) Miss Price singing Bibbidi Bobbidi Boo in Bedknobs and Broomsticks, she’s bound to have a place somewhere in your heart.

Janie DeeAt the age of 88 (according to Wikipedia) she is in incredible form. Her Madame Arcati is every bit as loopy as Coward intended, daftly bouncing around the stage as she communes with Daphne her control, crashing to the sofa in the warm up to her trances, jangling in her Boho beads and generally running highly eccentrically amok. She is the epitome of the stagey, ham character that makes the Condomines and the Bradmans mock her behind her back. She does a very nice line in withering looks, especially when Mrs Bradman is being particularly dim and inappropriate; and she also chews on her words in that thoughtful way that makes her face frown with concentration – an homage, maybe, to the original Madame Arcati, Margaret Rutherford, with whom I always associate that particular oral tic.

Dr and Mrs BradmanGiven the resounding round of applause on her first entry, and the appreciative rounds of applause when she leaves the stage, never has there been a less surprising standing ovation at curtain call than for Dame Angela. I reckon we’d have all stood up even if she’d been lousy – but the fact that she was excellent made it all the more rewarding.

Patsy FerranThe result is a very enjoyable theatrical experience where you can both enjoy a good production of a very funny old play, and also share in the magic of witnessing Dame Angela before your very eyes, still at it. I doubt if there are many tickets still available – but if you get to see this, you’re in for a treat.

Review – Fabulous Beast’s The Rite of Spring and Petrushka, Oxford Playhouse, 15th April 2014

Rite of Spring and PetrushkaFor starters, here we have two of the most impactful and memorable pieces of ballet music ever written, IMHO; Stravinsky at his best. Petrushka’s bright and breezy tunes constantly interrupted by chords of danger and threat; Rite of Spring’s mixture of mournful introversion and brash domination jockeying for position. Two pieces that gain massive energy from the alternate light and shade within their composition.

PetrushkaThe first night of the Rite of Spring of course famously sparked a riot in the audience, between opposing factions of balletomanes who wanted either super-traditional or super-trendy. The super-traditionals lost out. I wonder how that 1913 audience would have coped with Fabulous Beast’s version? I’m sure the super-trendies would have been gobsmacked. The super-traditionals would have had to be sedated.

She'll be sacrificedI’ve said it before and I’ll say it again – I’d prefer to see a brave failure on stage rather than a lazy success. This production of the Rite of Spring is certainly experimental, brave, and challenging and doesn’t take unnecessary liberties with Nijinsky and Diaghilev’s original vision for its choreographic structure and content. In many ways it’s a very credible and modern twist on an old tale. I guess I should state at this point that there was a post-show talk at the Oxford Playhouse on Tuesday night but that Mrs Chrisparkle and I had no time to stay for it. So it is entirely possible that interpretations, motivations, inspirations and much more regarding what we saw on that stage were explained and discussed with everyone that remained; and that any comments I make about the show are way off the mark because I missed out on vital bits of information. However, I do also think that if you need a post-show talk to explain to you what the show was about, the show hasn’t done its job properly in the first place. Whatever, both Nijinksy’s and Michael Keegan-Dolan’s version begin with a musical introduction, have an old woman at the heart of the ritual, have young dancing girls, groups of apparently rival tribes, and a Sage character; and both culminate in the sacrifice of one of the young girls as part of a pagan fertility rite.

snookerdogsHowever, I think that’s about as far as you can draw similarities. Fabulous Beast’s version is littered with disturbingly violent scenes – one when the group of men turn on the one woman in their midst; another when they attack the old man; and another again when they strip the girl who will be the sacrificed down to her underwear. It’s always savage, feverish, and determined; like a pack of wild animals showing its prey no mercy. Knives are plunged into the front of the stage and remain there as icons of violence. Keegan-Dolan gives us some representation of the traditional hunt: the girls put on hare masks, the men wear dog masks – and very effective they are too at depicting these animals, with their long dog tongues lolloping hungrily in search of their targets. There’s a scene when the men are wearing their dog masks, but with their trousers undone and dropped down to the floor – and they’re just waiting around, vulgarly, for the next stage of their mating ritual. It’s a very disconcerting but memorable tableau – it reminded me of a louche distortion of those pictures of snooker-playing dogs you sometimes see in pretentious pubs. When they’re masked, the dancers instantly lose their identities – no matter that we’ve already seen their faces in earlier scenes and in the programme – they just become part of a pack, acting out their innate need to procreate.

Rite of SpringEven without the masks, this lack of individual identity is emphasised by their unthinking obedience to the Mother Earth character – they follow her every silent instruction. When she dumps a cardboard box on each of their post-coital bodies, they instinctively know their task is to assume the animal mask inside. Similarly when she and the girls present them with a twisted washing line of light summer dresses, they know their task is instantly to discard all their current clothes and put on the dresses. I don’t know if this was meant to create either a sense of bizarre humour, or a heightened sexual tension, but it did neither; even once they were in their floral dresses and therefore, ostensibly, looking totally ludicrous, that still didn’t disrupt the sense of robotic blind obedience. It’s very hard to describe. On one hand, it’s a fascinating spectacle of the absurd; and on the other, it’s strangely normal. When nature calls, you just can’t do anything about it, you just have to carry out Mother Earth’s requirements. Actually, on the subject of humour, it’s an aspect of dance that was strangely absent throughout the whole evening.

white-faced Petrushka dancerBut what of the dance, I hear you ask? Well that was a question I was asking myself too. To be honest, there’s not a huge amount of activity in The Rite of Spring that you could definitely classify under the heading of “dance”. There was a lot of enjoyable stamping about in the opening scenes, which I believed symbolised the start of Spring; but after that most dance action seemed to be confined to the girls’ very loose and relaxed dance style – fairly regular small movements of the arms and legs – and the guys’ jumping and whirling around in the dresses. Note: Mother Earth didn’t issue the guys with underpants as well as dresses, so when they whirl around you slightly get more exposure than you might have bargained for. To be fair it wasn’t the most compelling choreography I’ve ever seen. The strength of this production is much more in the spectacle and overall vision than in the dance itself.

Petrushka dancersAll that and we’re only at the interval! The second half is the shorter Petrushka, which again bears similarities to its 1911 incarnation. I can see that, structurally, the character played by Ino Riga (I think) is Petrushka-esque. But the story-telling element of the original is really not followed through in this production. It’s clear that we are observing a kind of audition or judgement situation, with Bernadette Iglich sitting atop her lighting rig tower, her huge handbag concealing contestant numbers for the dancers to wear, and a picnic for when she needs sustenance. She is a kind of Black Widow Simon Cowell, rejecting all the contestants at first until they improve their performance. Her face has white make-up; and steadily, as the dance progresses, the dancers too gradually assume this white painted face appearance. This all feels heavily symbolic – I can only assume that as they pass their auditions, they adopt the white appearance – they’re in the White Club. A couple of the dancers hardly do anything at all – they just sit by the back corners of the stage and watch. That seemed weird.

Dog head tribesmanThe dance starts with all the dancers tossing clothes up into the air, which made me think two things: 1) are they going to get their kit off again? (answer no) and 2) this is reminiscent of something Didy Veldman might have done with Rambert 20 odd years ago, will it be as good? (answer again no). The clothes all get bundled up into a massive bed sheet and just left on the stage; but I saw it move occasionally so guessed that there would be a performer hidden in there – and indeed, it was Mikel Murfi, who emerged in his y-fronts a few minutes before the end, and whose job seemed to me to be just to hold still the rope ladder that our Petrushka climbs up at the end, a modern equivalent of the original’s ghost haunting the roof of the theatre. Whilst this piece started promisingly, it never really developed past the whitening of the faces and a few solo dances. There was definitely more “proper” dancing, although the choreographic style was still very similar to The Rite of Spring – in other words, very loose, very relaxed, giving an impression of top quality dance but without actually wowing us with technique. Mrs Chrisparkle and I agreed on the way home that it all got rather “samey” and ended up a bit, well, dull really. Sorry, as I’m sure a huge amount of effort went into it.

Rite of Spring dancerSo yes, I think this probably comes under the category of brave failure – but I for one would never condemn a production for that. You sense the cast are really committed to their performances and you come away with some memorable visual images and a feeling of unease and being challenged. But as to the evening’s overall impact? Somehow I expected the boundaries of discomfort to be pushed even more. Nevertheless, Michael Keegan-Dolan’s cast present us with a fascinating vision for these two ballets, and if you like your dance a bit on the experimental side, it’s certainly worth giving this double bill a try.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, 11th April 2014

Screaming Blue MurderIt’s always great to see a packed house at our beloved comedy club nights here at the Derngate in Northampton, but sometimes things can just a tiny bit out of hand. I could foresee this at the bar before the show started as I was getting the drinks in for Mrs Chrisparkle, Lady Duncansby, her butler William, her lady’s maid the Belle of Great Billing, and the Duchess of Dallington – just a sweet sherry and five straws. As I was being served, a group of (already quite boisterous) guys came in and asked if they could set up a tab. “They’re planning a good night” I thought to myself. Sadly for them, tabs weren’t available, and they advised the bar staff that, in that case, it would make it very hard work for them throughout the evening with all the drinks they were planning to buy. Anyway, I gave it no more thought.

Dan EvansUntil, that is, the chattering and general noise level from the back of the room made it hard for us to hear the ever effervescent Dan Evans getting procedures underway. “I hope those drunks shut up” I confided to Mrs C. They did for a bit – and then they didn’t again. Compere Dan manfully gave us his usual cheeky welcome and great badinage with the front rows and a nice blend of old and new material, some of which the people at the back listened to. Dan noted that the audience was very blokey this week – women seemed to be in reasonably short supply. This isn’t necessarily a good thing. Anyway, for those who paid attention to Dan – he was as masterful as usual.

Carly SmallmanThen it was time for our three acts. First on was Carly Smallman who we enjoyed very much last time we saw her. She comes across as a very bright, happy, friendly kind of girl, who did a lot of “I’ve finally got a boyfriend” material, which works very well with her slightly self-deprecating image. She did struggle against the noisy blokes at the back though. She gave as good as she got (much better actually) but they did their damnedest to make her inaudible – and if you’ve seen Carly before you’ll know that’s quite a challenge. Nevertheless I really enjoyed her song about meeting the boyfriend’s parents for the first time – that’s the kind of thing that can bring back squirmy memories for many. And there was some fun banter between her and some guys in the front row whom she clearly fancied, but they were gay and so she realised was working overtime for little gain.

Russell HicksSecond up was a change to the published programme – Russell Hicks. Mr Hicks was new to us but what a discovery! I do like it when a comic has the guts to do away with what they’ve prepared and just go with the flow – and as our flow was generally all over the place, he just went with it and was amazing. In fact I don’t think I’ve ever seen anyone cope with everything an audience threw at him quite as well as he did. People from Crick, sarcastic applauders, a man with a ZZ Top beard, and Frank in the front row trying to get a word in edgeways, he gave them all just the funniest exchanges which did no end of good to smooth out the ruffled atmosphere caused by the noisy drunken lads. If anything, his style and approachable persona required us as an audience to “up” our creative game to match his parry-ripostes. He comes across as a delightfully laconic everyman figure, with whom you can really identify. We loved him and definitely want him back – whether it’s to do more of his usual act or just argue the toss with the audience, we don’t mind!

Pete CainOur headline act was Pete Cain, who I feared at first might be a bit fascist, and I thought I wasn’t going to be to my taste; but then he turned out to have a brilliant routine about how to improve the UK. No matter your politics, he gave us all a hilarious lecture on where the country has gone wrong and where we should concentrate our efforts on putting it right again. Basically, we’re all going to have to leave and be let back in one by one if we merit it. Who would be in and who out of his new improved UK? You have to see his act. He also had some great material ridiculing those posh people where he lives in Richmond who talk French in their local French patisserie – imagine a Greggs in the Dordogne – “gorra pasty m’sieur?” Very funny indeed; and he figuratively kept running with the baton of comic momentum that Russell Hicks had handed him.

So despite the tedium of the behaviour of some of our fellow audience members, this actually ended up being one of the best Screaming Blues ever. Can’t wait for the next one!