Review – Fully Committed, Menier Chocolate Factory, 28th September 2014

Fully CommittedI didn’t really know what Fully Committed was going to be about when I booked it; it was a comedy and I had faith with the Menier that nine times out of ten their productions are well worth the visit into town for Sunday matinee. A week or so before we went I discovered that it was actually a one-man, one-act 70 minute show, but didn’t think much more about that apart from what time train we would need to catch home. I also found it that was about the trials and tribulations of someone manning the reservation phone line at an exclusive and desirable restaurant. I knew it starred Kevin Bishop; and I knew I knew his name, but I couldn’t quite think how or put a face to the name. It was only reading the programme before the show that I realised everyone else in the audience would probably have seen him loads of times on TV but to us he was a complete unknown – we really don’t watch the box much at all.

Sam is an actor – much more out-of work than in- – so makes a living working for a tyrannical chef and other beastly colleagues at this upmarket Manhattan restaurant where you have to reserve your table at least two months in advance. Primarily his job is to man the phones, and take the reservations and queries. Sounds like an easy job? Think again. Massively high pressure, dealing with all sorts of rude and unpleasant people; it reminded me of when I was in charge of the team taking refuse collection complaint calls back in the 90s. Sam has to balance reasonable requests from ordinary people with outrageous ones from VIPs – and what a VIP wants, they get. He also has to juggle with his family life and Christmas commitments and the important task of taking auditions. It’s not an easy life.

This play was just the second to have been produced at the Menier when it opened in 2004, then starring Mark Setlock, who has directed this production. Both Mr Setlock and Becky Mode, the writer, have worked within the New York Restaurant scene so you can presume that there’s an awful lot of truth in what you see on stage. As for me, the difficulty of getting a booking at a restaurant is something I hadn’t really considered. If I try and book and they say they’re full, I just say “OK never mind” and end the conversation. It isn’t something I dwell on. Apparently, that’s quite unusual.

Kevin BishopLet’s start with the good things. It’s a very smart and watchable production. The fantastically messy set by Tim Shortall reminded me of my own work desk, dominated by this huge desk diary and dozens of scrunched up pieces of paper all around. The play relies heavily on a very complex and active sound plot – constant phone calls and buzzers coming in from all directions, and if any of that were to go wrong the whole show would be ruined – but it all takes place with pinpoint precision. The script, for the most part, is very funny and written with a great understanding of telephone manners, boasting an array of never-seen larger-than-life characters both inside and outside the restaurant that give it a sense of huge variety for a one-man show. Above all, there’s a tremendous performance by Kevin Bishop.

It’s a real tour-de-force, with his not only playing Sam but also adopting all the different voices of all the different callers and colleagues, in a fast-paced, energetic performance. In fact he doesn’t just adopt their voices but takes on their physical appearance too so you can really imagine how these “other people” look and act, as vividly as if they were actually being presented on stage by another actor. From his cast of dozens – hundreds even – I particularly liked the tenaciously exuberant Bryce, and manager Jean-Claude’s diva-like reaction to one of their uglier contacts. There’s also the rather charming way all Sam’s family have of signing off as they put the phone down – very nicely observed.

But, having started with the good things, you can tell I’m holding back on some not so good things, can’t you. You know me too well, gentle reader. The play itself is very slight. Whilst generally entertaining from start to finish, and whilst there is some character and plot progression during the course of the play, it still feels much more like an extended sketch than a play in its own right. It’s one of those pieces where, once you’re about fifteen or twenty minutes in to it, you feel like you’ve got its measure and it’s not going to have any more surprises for you; and largely, you’re right. Were it not for Mr Bishop’s remarkable performance, I’m not sure it would really hold your attention.

Secondly, it’s a bit confusing from a time perspective. At the beginning of the play Sam comes on, obviously just arriving for work, sometime in the morning. From then till the end of the play (with one brief exception where he goes off and cleans the toilets) it’s non-stop interruptions from the phones and colleagues, giving you the impression that it’s a punishing job where you never get a chance to stop and think. But then, 70 minutes later, when the play ends, he’s clearly reached the end of the working day. So you come to understand that it’s actually not all taking place in real-time, but is actually some kind of concatenation of chunks of the working day all stitched together to give the impression of one relentless nightmare of a day. If they’d had specific scene changes you could have made it feel like a full day. But as it is, it feels artificially compressed, deliberately pressurised by the writer, thereby becoming neither one thing nor the other – and that didn’t work for me.

Sam on the phoneAnd then of course, you’ve got the slightly disappointing nature of a one-act play that isn’t really long enough to sustain an evening’s or an afternoon’s entertainment just by itself. It would be fine on its own at somewhere like the Edinburgh Fringe, where it would dovetail into one’s daily schedule perfectly; or combined with another one-act play to create a meatier programme. We once went to the Oxford Playhouse to see Ennio Marchetto, the amazing paper-costume mime artist – but it started at 7.30 and was finished by 8.20 and so we were twiddling our thumbs for the rest of the evening. You get a similar sensation with this production.

It could be the shortness of the duration that may have put some people off, as I have to say this was the smallest audience (probably half full) of any that we’ve seen in the Menier since we started regularly going there about seven years ago. It certainly merits a larger audience, and the people who were there were absolutely thrilled with Mr Bishop’s performance, many of whom gave him a standing ovation. If you’re happy to go and see a divertissement that you can fit in before dinner, then this is a very entertaining way to spend 70 minutes; and Kevin Bishop’s performance is definitely well worth seeing.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 26th September 2014

Screaming Blue MurderAnother great night of comedy entertainment at the Underground last Friday, even though the numbers were a little sparse; Mrs Chrisparkle and I took our usual seats in the third row by the centre aisle, but no one sat in front of us, so we defaulted to becoming “front row” again. However, we fortunately managed to largely avoid the limelight this week (unlike last time). The evening was MC’d under the comic guidance of our host Martin Coyote. Martin CoyoteHe normally comes up and hosts a show at least once a season, and his very direct, attacking style makes a refreshing contrast with usual host Dan Evans, who’s much more laid back. Mr Coyote’s always got lots of topical material; this time he had some great observations about the Scottish Referendum, including Salmond’s, Darling’s and Brown’s input, and what would have happened if the yes’s had won. We’re not known for responding to political humour here in Northampton, but this was good stuff!

Iszi LawrenceThe first of our three acts, and new to us, was Iszi Lawrence, a delightfully well-spoken, Home Counties, tomboyish young lady, with some cracking observations about other posh people – we loved the idea of cocaine being acceptable providing it’s Fairtrade. She’s got some excellent material about coming out as bisexual, how irritating it is to flatshare with Christians because they’re so nice, and what career opportunities there are with a First in Geography. Whilst some elements of the audience were a little resistant to her humour, Mrs C and I thought she was great.

Troy HawkeSecond, and also new to us, was Troy Hawke, one of Milo McCabe’s comic creations who had his own show at Edinburgh this year (but alas we didn’t see it). He’s a really funny persona; suave, debonair, vain, slightly childish and occasionally challenging. Imagine Clark Gable telling (forgive me, gentle reader) c**t jokes and you’re partway there. He went off on an amazing flight of fantasy reading all sorts of hidden meanings into the Mr Men and Little Miss books that was comedy genius. One member of the audience challenged him on pronouncing cravat as crevette; I doubt she’ll do that again.

Nick WiltyThe headline act was someone we have seen twice before, Nick Wilty, who delivers a fast and wry routine jam-packed with subtle asides and self-deprecation. He bases a lot of his comedy on places he’s been round the world. It’s a very sure-footed act and you can’t fail to find him funny, although to be fair it has been more or less the same routine now three times in a row.

You missed it, didn’t you? Why didn’t you come and sit in front of us? You must come next time! A great night out for approximately 7p per minute!

Review – She Stoops To Conquer, Northern Broadsides, Oxford Playhouse, 23rd September 2014

She Stoops To ConquerI’d heard good things about Northern Broadsides, and it’s been decades since I’ve seen a production of She Stoops to Conquer, so I thought we’d give this one a go. This perennial favourite by Oliver Goldsmith was first performed in 1773, so how do you describe it? It’s too late for Restoration Comedy, so maybe it’s more a Comedy of Manners, and has always enjoyed regular stage revivals and ben studied by diligent English and Drama students for donkeys’ years.

Howard ChadwickGiven it’s been around for almost 250 years, I hope I won’t spoil it for you by outlining the plot. Mr Hardcastle wants his daughter Kate to marry wealthy young gent Charles Marlow, and she’s not at all averse to the idea, but the trouble is Marlow has a psychological hang-up and goes all nervous and timid in front of well to do young ladies (like what Kate is); although with common lasses he’s quite the opposite. At the same time Mrs Hardcastle wants her son Tony Lumpkin (from a previous marriage) to marry her niece Constance, simply so that the family jewels can be kept within… well, the family; sounds a bit incestuous to me. However, Tony and Constance hate each other. Tony would prefer snapping at the heels of an alehouse wench and Constance has her eye on Marlow’s friend Hastings. After much shenanigans involving Marlow and Hastings believing Hardcastle to be an innkeeper and a plot to steal Constance’s jewels from Mrs Hardcastle, both Kate and Constance pair off with their respective chaps leaving Tony free to continue with his dissolute lifestyle much to his mother’s annoyance.

Gilly TompkinsIt’s an entertaining play that makes some interesting observations on class structure and is still just as relevant today as it was back in the late 18th century; and this production is enjoyably acted and straightforwardly presented, without any gimmicks to get in the way of the text. However, there were a couple of aspects of it that didn’t quite sit properly with me.

Jon TrenchardFirst – the staging. It’s nearly all set inside the Hardcastles’ country seat apart from a scene at the Three Pigeons alehouse and a scene in the Hardcastles’ garden. As a result, chairs and tables from the country house compete with illustrations of trees and bushes on the back wall and the pub sign and counter throughout the whole performance, creating a very messy stage. These suggestions of different locations don’t dovetail nicely and complement each other, they get in the way of each other. Whilst there’s still plenty of acting space available, I found the set jarring and it irritated me.

Lauryn ReddingSecondly – the interpretation of the character of Tony Lumpkin. Nothing against Jon Trenchard, who gives us a very lively, physical performance full of stamina and enthusiasm, but it’s just not how the character is usually played, or how I would imagine him to be. To be fair, Goldsmith doesn’t actually stipulate in the text what kind of mannerisms Lumpkin possesses, although Hardcastle describes him as “fat”; but his name suggests a cross between a useless lump and a country bumpkin, lacking in the niceties of refined behaviour that might otherwise have attracted him to Constance. However, this Tony Lumpkin is foppish. He preens and he poses, he giggles girlishly, he dances around the stage. It’s a very, very different reading of the role from the norm, where you would almost expect Lumpkin to be chewing an ear of wheat – and as everything else in this production is pretty standard and safe, it just feels misplaced.

Mrs Hardcastle and Tony LumpkinNevertheless there are some very entertaining performances. Howard Chadwick’s Hardcastle is full of robust bluster, nicely sarcastic with his wife, but with genuine love for his daughter and slow to ire when Marlow and Hastings treat him like dirt. Oliver Gomm, a brilliant Lysander in the Royal and Derngate’s Midsummer Night’s Dream last year, gives a very good comic performance as the either too terrified or too vagabondish young Marlow, shuddering like a genuine nervous wreck as he tries to speak to Kate. Gilly Tompkins is a delightfully strident and painted Mrs Hardcastle, and there’s a splendidly understated comic performance by Alan McMahon as, inter alia, Pimple the Maid. But for me the two stand out performances were from Hannah Edwards as Kate and Lauryn Redding as Constance. Hilarious before they even open their mouths with their ridiculous coiffures and massively tall hats, they both take their roles seriously and play them straight without ever going over-the-top, giving a slightly hard-edged reality to the story, and allowing the humour to flow naturally.

Oliver GommIt’s a good production – and particular congratulations to the wardrobe department for the brilliant costumes – but, overall, it never really wowed me. I quite liked the fact that they hadn’t tried to tamper with it by setting it in a different era or location, but nevertheless I never really warmed to it. Perhaps I just wasn’t in the mood for an 18th century comedy of manners. One isn’t always; but plenty of other people laughed their heads off. The tour goes on until December and visits Harrogate, Cheltenham, Winchester, Scarborough, West Yorkshire Playhouse, Newcastle-under-Lyme, Liverpool, York, Huddersfield and Salford.

Review – Guys and Dolls, Festival Theatre Chichester, 20th September 2014

Guys and Dolls 2014Wasn’t it Stephen Sondheim who said (and I think it was) that the best musical ever written is Carmen? Or maybe it was me. No, it wouldn’t have been me because my favourite musical of all time is A Chorus Line, and nothing is ever going to change me from that – inflexible though that sounds. But of all the other musicals ever written, a big contender for the title of Best Ever is without doubt Guys and Dolls, which fills your heart with happiness and pathos non-stop for two and a half hours and is jam-packed with a score that soars.

Guys and Dolls 1982It’s based on the Broadway-based short stories of Damon Runyon and tells the tales of two ladies. Miss Adelaide is the star at the Hot Box revue and has been engaged to Nathan for fourteen years. Unsurprisingly, she’s getting a bit fed up of her status, which has brought on psychosomatic sniffles. Nathan’s a bit of a lazy so-and-so and just makes his money from organising floating crap games – and although he’s promised Miss Adelaide that he’s stopped this reckless and illegal way of making a living, he hasn’t. Sister Sarah Brown is a prim but kind-hearted Salvationist at the Save A Soul Mission. If she doesn’t get more sinners to attend her meetings, the mission is going to get closed down. Enter inveterate gambler (and charmer) Sky Masterson, who wins a bet and the lady’s heart even though he’s not at all the kind of guy she’d imagined she’d want. Do Miss Adelaide and Nathan eventually get married? Does Sky arrange for all the local gamblers to attend the prayer meeting and convince Sarah that he’s the right guy for her? Of course they do!

The Oldest EstablishedAlthough it is undoubtedly a top-notch show, it’s not perfect – it breaks the Chrisparkle Cardinal Rule for a great musical, which is that every song must move the story or character development forward. There’s nothing worse than a musical where you have plot development then stop for a song, then more plot development, then stop for a song, and so on ad nauseam, mentioning no names (42nd Street). Guys and Dolls has two songs that are simply excuses for Miss Adelaide and the Hot Box girls to show us what they’re made of – the rather silly Bushel and a Peck, and the utterly brilliant Take Back Your Mink. They’re nothing more than dramatic interludes, but I break my Cardinal Rule and forgive them for that, due to the sheer entertainment value. There are also two sequences that seem rather dated today but fit perfectly to the “standard musical formula” of the time – this was written in 1950 – the ubiquitous musical ballet sequences. Think Oklahoma’s Dream Ballet or Carousel’s Billy Makes a Journey. However, they do have a purpose. The Havana sequence allows us to see Sarah Brown let her hair down, and the Crap Shooters’ Ballet serves as a lively aperitif to – indeed almost an extension of – Luck Be A Lady.

Take Back Your MinkChichester’s production of Guys and Dolls is a spectacular success. Beautiful to look at, thrilling to hear, and with some sensational performances that really take your breath away. Every department – lighting, sound, costume, choreography – excels. This was only the second time in all my years of theatregoing that I’ve seen this show – and it was Mrs Chrisparkle’s first. I remember with huge affection the National Theatre’s amazing production that I saw at a preview performance on 4th March 1982, starring a most glorious cast. I know it’s rude to compare, but it’s my blog and I’ll compare if I want to. Sadly, I may have to use the phrase “the late great” a few times in this paragraph. Miss Adelaide was played by Julia McKenzie, absolutely at the top of her musical skills and she was fantastic. Big Jule and NathanFor Nathan Detroit we had none other than the late great Bob Hoskins, and you can just imagine how much characterisation he gave it. Sarah Brown was the wonderful Julie Covington, who put such sincere expression into every scene, and Sky Masterson was the late great Ian Charleson – if only he had lived he would have undoubtedly been one of the greatest ever actors. Even dropping down the cast list there were some incredible names – Nicely-Nicely Johnson was the late great David Healy, beaming with happiness and brilliant throughout. Benny Southstreet was Northern Broadsides’ very own Barrie Rutter; Arvide Abernathy the late great John Normington; Harry the Horse was the amazing Bill Paterson; Brannigan was the late great Harry Towb; and Mimi in the chorus was played by someone called Imelda Staunton. With the help of a superb cast album, so much of that production is alive in my mind as if it were yesterday. So this Chichester revival had a lot to live up to – but without question it achieves it.

Sky and the gangSophie Thompson plays Miss Adelaide like she’s been waiting all her life to do it. I’ve only seen her once before, in Clybourne Park, where she gave a fantastic performance. But her Miss Adelaide is just wonderful. Delivering all the sadness as well as the humour in the brilliant Adelaide’s Lament, timing it to perfection with some daringly long pauses as you see the truth of her situation slowly occurring to her. There is an element of caricature to her performance, but then there’s more than an element of caricature about the whole character of Miss Adelaide, and it’s a perfect fit. She’s vivacious in the Hot Box songs, moving and funny in her arguments with Nathan, and just sublime with Sarah in Marry The Man Today. Quite simply a star performance.

Sit DownPeter Polycarpou plays Nathan Detroit with a downtrodden, can’t-ever-win attitude, which really emphasises the humour of his situation and character. He’s got natural stage authority and is a superb singer. His is a very different Nathan from Bob Hoskins’, who was more cheeky and chancy; Mr Polycarpou’s Nathan is quieter and wiser – less caricature, more real. As Sarah Brown, Clare Foster is a revelation, with an incredible vocal range and she switches from the prim and proper Sarah to the letting-her-hair-down Sarah really convincingly. I’d forgotten that we’d also seen her in Merrily We Roll Along, where she was extremely good, but here in Guys and Dolls, her performance is an absolute stunner. I was also very impressed with the way she kept up with the other sensational dancers in the Havana scene – choreographer Carlos Acosta couldn’t be a more appropriate choice. And Sky Masterson is played by the excellent Jamie Parker, who’s always rewarding to watch, and is perfect casting for this charismatic and enigmatic character.

Sarah and SkyThe biggest number of course comes from Nicely-Nicely Johnson leading the sinners in the rousing Sit Down You’re Rocking The Boat. Harry Morrison gives it great attack and comic vitality, and sends it as way over the top as it can be, which is perfect for this tongue-in-cheek homage to being good without being godly. It went down a storm, as it always does. However, I was reminded of the 1982 version, which David Healy and the whole ensemble delivered so magnificently, that it literally stopped the show. Harry Towb came on as Brannigan to deliver his next line that moves us on from the song, and he waited, and he waited, but the audience wouldn’t let up with its noisy delighted applause, and in the end he threw up his hands and went off again while they all did a full encore. That was a theatrical magic moment. But comparisons are indeed odious, and that takes nothing away from Mr Morrison’s tremendous performance. He also does a fantastic job, with Ian Hughes as Benny, with the song Guys and Dolls, a really lively, funny, and engaging rendition of that number.

Marry the Man todayI loved Neil McCaul’s robust delivery of More I Cannot Wish You, very different from John Normington’s more sentimental delivery – I think I preferred Mr McCaul’s interpretation. And he gets a round of applause for his killer exit line. Very pleased to see him on stage again, I’ve not seen him since “Privates on Parade” in 1978. Nick Wilton (hilarious in the Menier’s Two into One earlier this year) is a wonderfully gruff gangster of a Harry The Horse, Nic Greenshields an amusingly imposing Big Jule, and the chorus ensemble are all just superb. As for the band, we had absolutely no choice but to stay behind to hear them finish their outro at the end of the show. Fantastic!

It’s a bit of a cliché to say that it would be a travesty if this doesn’t transfer, but, there, I’ve said it. If you were lucky enough to get to see it – wasn’t it great? If you didn’t see it – I bet you’re kicking yourself now.

Review – Pitcairn, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 20th September 2014

PitcairnIt was time for our second trip to Chichester this year, and we started off with another delicious lunch in the Minerva Brasserie, although mackerel pate, shoulder of pork and enough cheese to sink a battleship was a bit on the heavy side. A few hours later we were feeling like our bellies were full of old boots. Next time I think we’ll go for a lighter option.

Tom MorleyThe phrase “a new play by Richard Bean” is beginning to get a bit old hat, but it’s still something that gets your juices flowing with the prospect of a great theatre experience. For Pitcairn, Mr Bean has joined forces with Max Stafford-Clark and Out of Joint, just like he did for The Big Fellah which won the Chrisparkle award for best new play in 2010. That was an incredibly impactful drama that combined terror and humour with massive dramatic irony. I’m always hoping from Mr Bean that his next play will have the same force and edginess. Is Pitcairn going to win the best play award for 2014? I can tell you now, no.

Samuel Edward-CookI liked the fact that it was performed in a nice big empty space. Plenty of room to move around and no cumbersome sightlines. Just some rocks at the edge of the stage, with a projection of waves crashing over them, suggested that Pitcairn is both a remote godforsaken place and an idyllic retreat, as also indicated by the light projection giving us some beautiful sunsets as well. It was a shame that at our performance, a fly had infiltrated the projection equipment so our beautiful sunsets were eradicated by its frantic crawling around in search of freedom. Made me go all itchy just to look at it.

Cassie LaytonI’m not overly familiar with the whole Fletcher Christian/Mutiny on the Bounty story but the exposition at the beginning of the play gives us a really helpful explanation of where we’re at. A military expedition has arrived on Pitcairn looking for Christian to arrest him and return him to England where doubtless he’ll be hanged. They meet the only surviving man from the Bounty on the island, John Adams, who explains that Fletcher Christian is dead. He orders his wives to provide some – shall we say – entertainment and sustenance to the expedition members, and then we’re overtaken by flashback to the time when we see Christian and his men arriving on the island and setting up a utopian society. Everyone is equal and there is no hierarchy. It doesn’t work. Instead of utopia they get anarchy. There are arguments about land ownership and the allocation of wives. There is guerrilla warfare between the incomers and the native leader of the island. Everyday existence descends into a mess of violence and rape and, eventually, the women rise up and take control. It’s a fascinating little window of history, and there ought to be a good play lurking here somewhere. But you don’t feel as though this is it.

Eben FigueiredoThere are a number of problems. Breaking the fourth wall, by having members of the cast come out and ask questions of the audience, just doesn’t work here. Whilst it was the source of brilliant comedy in One Man Two Guvnors, it just feels embarrassing in this play. It comes unexpectedly, and without any real reason or purpose, so the audience are stunned into silence and more than a bit reluctant to answer back. As a result, it feels like the cast are trying to encourage simple one word answers from a very thick school class. If they’d asked me anything, I would have been very tempted to just say “I dunno….” like when I was in 5th form. It’s just the wrong play for this device. Yes, Mr Bean has given us the overwhelming hilarity and comic construction of One Man Two Guvnors, and the very direct connection between fiction and reality in Great Britain. However, in Pitcairn, you sense he is trying for a comic slant with the badinage between the characters and the audience, but it’s dead in the water.

Unconvincing pullingIt works in “One Man” because its structure, opening with the skiffle band playing music directly to us the audience, and being an adaptation of a commedia dell’arte, tells us that it’s more a show than a play right from the start. It works in “Great Britain” because the character of Paige soliloquises with us from the beginning, commenting throughout on the other characters and events. But in Pitcairn, it’s half-hearted. We’re about a quarter of the way through the play, which has been otherwise been thoroughly standard and straightforward, when suddenly a character starts addressing us. Why? He’s not making great ironic comments like Paige Britain. He’s not involving us in one huge pantomime like Francis Hensall. It’s almost as though Mr Bean now simply can’t write a play without audience interaction, even when the play and the structure don’t call for it.

Tom Morley and Eben FigueiredoAs a result the whole vision of the play feels muddled. You’re really not sure what Mr Bean is trying to achieve. There’s a nice twist in the story which is cleverly set up and effectively carried out, but in order to get there we have to endure some pretty odd scenes, including a brutal rape. Mrs Chrisparkle found the rape scene and the other scenes of violence quite upsetting. In fact, within its context, we both found it more disturbing than the seven Soviet soldiers cannibalising each other in The Curing Room; at least there it was the natural, overwhelming urge for survival that brought about the gore. In Pitcairn, it felt quite gratuitous. There’s also a dildo dance. Yes, that’s right; a scene which seems to have no other purpose other than to have one of the island women doing a rather suggestive dance with not one but two dildos. Who knew that 18th century Pitcairn had its own Ann Summers? Even the curtain call culminates with the cast doing a haka. I can only presume they did it simply to show us that they could. Pitcairn can’t decide whether it’s a historical drama or some kind of Tahitian Fantasia. I wouldn’t have put it past them to do the finale on ice.

Siubhan Harrison and Samuel Edward-CookThe muddle continues with the characters. Whilst the men are well delineated – the violent one, the learned one, the mischievous one, and so on, the women are almost completely interchangeable. I found myself constantly checking back on my programme, working out which one was who. It doesn’t help that they all appear to sleep with everyone else anyway, whenever any of the men demanded a changeround of domestic arrangements. It also doesn’t help that the only thing the women talk about is getting lots of sex. They’re sex mad. That’s why the whole subplot of young Hiti, at 17 desperate to lose his virginity, didn’t ring true to me. With all that talk of sex, those women would each have had him deflowered by the time he was 14. The poor lad wouldn’t have stood a chance.

Henry PettigrewNotwithstanding all this, there are some very good performances. I liked Tom Morley’s portrayal of Fletcher Christian as a noble character gone wayward, trying in vain to hang on to his ebbing principles. There’s a very strong performance by Samuel Edward-Cook as the evil Quintal, his bulging eyes maniacally staring out at you as he brutalises his way round the island. Eben Figueiredo’s Hiti is convincingly keen to prove himself a man not a boy and you feel very sorry when he comes a-cropper; but because this play has one foot firmly in fantasy, he doesn’t stay dead for long. Amongst the female ensemble, Cassie Layton stands out as Hiti’s love interest Mata. Her having to ask the audience cringingly embarrassing questions about their own sexual attitudes and experience ought to merit a sympathy award at least.

To be honest, it’s not a terribly good play. The subject matter is fascinating, with interesting characters, and there is much scope for a dramatic examination of how a utopian ideal fades and dies. Sadly the writing is somewhat chewy and you come away feeling this is one serious play that has been negated by much gratuitous nonsense. It will be very interesting to see how it does on its tour to Shakespeare’s Globe, then Plymouth, Warwick, Guildford, Eastbourne, Oxford and finishing up in Malvern in mid-November.

Review – Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, 13th September 2014

Richard IIIYou know that thing when you’re really, really looking forward to something and then, for whatever reason, you don’t enjoy it like you think you’re going to? Welcome, dear reader, to my Richard III experience.

Martin Freeman as Richard III? Yes please! That was my instant reaction when the production was announced. I got on the internet as fast as my ATG Theatre Friends membership card would take me, and there was a great choice of seats everywhere. That’s when I realised there would be stage seating too. I’ve only done that once before – almost forty years ago, when I was on a school outing to see Equus (I know, but we were very advanced). In addition to the usual stalls, circle, balcony seats in what was then the Albery theatre (now the Noel Coward), that original production also had benches on the stage, behind the action, not particularly comfortable but with a significant rake that gave an excellent view of what was going on. It was odd to be in that position, and of course, there were times when the actors played out front and not to us so you missed a bit, but my memory of that is that it wasn’t a problem, and us lot at the back certainly got our fair share of attention from the cast. And of course we were so close to the action; I recall it felt incredibly exciting; a unique experience, in fact. So, remembering all that, I plumped for the stage seating for Richard III. I was reassured by the fact that it wasn’t cheap – if it had been, I would have been suspicious, and would have upgraded us to the front stalls in the traditional layout. It’s important for me to have good seats at the theatre – if I can’t see or hear as clearly as I want, my enjoyment level absolutely plummets. But – apart from those goddam Premium Seats – those stage seating seats were top price. So they’ve got to be a quality place to sit. Haven’t they?

Martin FreemanNo. They are awful, awful seats. Just awful. From our position of BB 11 and 12, the view was extremely obstructed, although primarily not from the people in row AA, but by the furniture and props that littered the stage. This is a very heavily “furnitured” set. The Trafalgar Studio 1 stage is not particularly big, but for this production it houses two long tables and about six other office desks, stacked high with pot plants, typewriters, telephones, and so on, to give you the impression of a 1970s office. It’s set in the 1970s, by the way, so that they can make the “winter of discontent” speech have a double meaning. Otherwise, there’s no particular link made from the play to the era. The offending desk that Mrs Chrisparkle and I mainly resented was the one right in front of us, at which no one sat, no one made a phone call from the phone, no one typed on the typewriter and no one watered the pot plant. If it hadn’t been there, we could have seen something, and it wouldn’t have affected the rest of the staging one iota.

The layout and blocking of the whole production is purely for the benefit of those in the regular seats. There are a few short scenes that take place very far stage right – I don’t know if they were on or off the stage as such as we couldn’t see. “Helpfully”, every so often a member of the cast swings an old TV set in front of us in the stage seating so that we can see what’s happening (these are £52.50 seats remember, not described as obstructed view), but either they didn’t leave it in the best position for us to see or it was obstructed by the people sitting in Row AA right in front of it. So that was a waste of space.

Gina McKeeShakespeare’s Richard III is a cruel, vicious swine. The rather simple story is that he kills everyone who can possibly get in the way of his becoming King, and once he is king, he’s got a bunch of rebels on his hands, one of which eventually kills him. Not a nice chap. This is quite a bloody production, and we get to see him despatch all his enemies and many of his friends too. Well, that’s the case if you’re sat in the traditional seats. From our position, we could only guess that was what was going on. Clarence dies by foul means involving a fish tank, but whether he was drowned, had his throat slit or got attacked by a piranha I don’t know, as his murderers masked the action from our sight. For Rivers’ death, it was one of the pesky long tables and chairs that got in the way of our view. At one moment, he was chatting away – a bit anxiously because he knew things were not looking good – the next he was writhing on the floor, doing a very convincing death rattle, but we had no idea why. Someone must have done something to him but who? And what? Stabbed? Poisoned? Disturbed his feng shui? We couldn’t tell. Then there was the death of Lady Anne. This took place right at the front of the stage, which is physically quite a distance from the stage seating. There was some unexpected movement from Richard and suddenly she was gargling. We think a phone wire was used, but as it all took place obstructed by that sodding typewriter, don’t take my word for it. During her death, to emphasise the atmosphere of anarchy and terror, some bright spark (the director?) decided to make the lift doors continually open and shut, open and shut, like something invisible was trapped there, thus creating a terrible din that really – REALLY – got on our nerves.

To say the production suffered from gimmicks would, I think, be an understatement. A week or so before we went, I received an email saying that you might get spattered with blood if you sit in rows A-D or in AA, so dress accordingly. Excuse me? Not only do you take £52.50 from people to sit somewhere they can’t see what’s going on, you’re also going to add to their laundry bill? I could see that a member of staff was addressing the people in the front three rows before the play started, presumably giving them warning. T-shirts were provided that you could put on to protect yourself. Only a few people did. The blood spattering comes from Richard’s doing away with yet another enemy – a man who was already very blood soaked from the start of the scene, but neither Mrs C nor I could recognise him or work out who he was. Researching for this blog, I now realise it was Buckingham – couldn’t tell from our angle. Not quite sure how it happened but we saw blood spurt out from around his neck high into the air and then splash down on the front rows. A lady in the front row who had obviously declined the T-shirt rushed for paper tissues from her handbag and was looking exceedingly annoyed. But it’s all pure gimmick. There was no need for it. Just come upstage a bit and the blood spurt wouldn’t have reached the paying punters. The same disregard for the audience that fleeces us for obstructed view seats also takes it for granted that we’d love to have our clothes all blood spattered before going out for a nice meal. We’re clearly the least important people in that production.

Jo Stone-FewingsOne more thing – Seat AA8 was allocated as a wheelchair space. Now, no criticism of the wheelchair user herself, of course, but I would question the wisdom of that allocation. The lady who sat there had a very tall wheelchair. If you looked at the height of the heads along the row, everyone was more or less the same height until you came to this last lady whose head came at least a foot taller than the rest. For the lady sitting directly behind her the whole performance must have been completely invisible. I can only hope she got the ticket for free or successfully asked for her money back, because it really was stupid. Her husband, sat next to me, had to constantly duck and dive in order to see anything; and indeed, for a lengthy time in the first act, he simply decided to go to sleep as it wasn’t worth the candle. Mrs C did the same thing too – when she realised what a struggle it was going to be to follow what was going on – she just gave up. Wheelchair seating can be a sensitive issue – they’ve definitely got it wrong here.

As for the production itself, we both felt it was very chewy and hard to follow in the first act. I admit it’s not a play with which I am particularly familiar, but even so, all the gimmicks and all the furniture simply got in the way of understanding. In an attempt to recreate the 70s setting, they had nearly all the men looking like each other. They each had the same Tom Selleck moustaches, the same severe black rimmed spectacles, the same swarthy complexions. I couldn’t tell Catesby from Buckingham from Richmond. Queen Margaret kept on drifting in and out in such an ethereal way I presumed she was meant to be a ghost. The second act was easier to follow, simply because less happened, but as Mrs C pointed out, even more of what did happen happened at the front of the stage and was spoken out to the main audience so that we heard very few of the speeches. Acoustically the setup is a shocker, and when an actor is out front declaiming to the stalls, we couldn’t hear a darn thing. Technically, it wasn’t a great performance; one of the few things we could see was a fax coming through on a printer that an actor tore off and read, but with that old fashioned sound of a dot matrix printer printing away long after the fax had been torn off and whilst the printer was at a complete standstill. It could have been straight out of Noises Off; bit pathetic, really.

Gabrielle LloydWe thought Martin Freeman, as far as we could judge, was really good in the role. He has a very intense stare and would be a really scary boss. His timing is great, and we assume he does a great line in quirky looks and comic asides, from the sound of the audience out front enjoying them, although we couldn’t see them. There’s a very strong scene between him and the excellent Gina McKee as Queen Elizabeth, when she is condemning him for murdering her sons and trying to protect her daughter from being next on the list. Miss McKee gave a great performance as the grieving and bitterly furious mother. Fortunately that was one scene we could see properly. Jo Stone-Fewings was very good as Buckingham, professionally malign to further his cause with the king-to-be, then wounded and furious when he finds he has been duped; and I thought Gabrielle Lloyd as the Duchess of York lent the production some much needed gravitas – no gimmicks, nothing sensational, just clear enunciation and proper understanding of the text.

I think the rest of the run is now pretty much sold out. If you’ve got tickets for the ordinary seats, you’ll definitely derive some enjoyment out of it. If you’ve got stage seating, I wouldn’t throw good money after bad by buying a train ticket.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 12th September 2014

Screaming Blue MurderHurrah! Welcome back Screaming Blue Murder season! We’ve missed you. Where else can you get three incredible acts, two wonderful intervals, and a jolly jackanapes of a host all for £11.50 (provided you’re a friend of the Royal & Derngate, which of course you should be anyway). Our host was the inimitable Mr Dan Evans, who has an unbeatable ability to warm us up with anything between some gentle teasing and outrageous insults. He still seems a little sore at my comments (somewhat historical now) about reusing old jokes, but he does come back each week with fresh material, which I for one definitely appreciate and he’s always a joy to watch.

Dan EvansWe normally like to sit close-ish to the stage, but not so close that you’re in danger of being picked on by one of the comics. Four rows back, on the central aisle, is just perfect. However, since Mrs Chrisparkle and I went to Edinburgh this summer and ended up at the front in many comic shows and revues, being an unwitting part of the act now holds little fear for us. Paul Ricketts called me a “silver fox” (ready for a care home); Paul Savage had me standing in front of the crowd reciting love poems from the Song of Solomon to Mrs C in the audience; James Loveridge and the Spank! team probed into our relationship and pet names for each other; we danced with Russell Grant; and we were teased by New Zealand’s Mika. Our former role of being a shy, retiring audience member is now a thing of the past, and sitting at the front has become more attractive a prospect. However, for Screaming Blue Murder we were accompanied by My Lady Duncansby who would sooner sit out on the street in the rain than risk being talked to in the front row; so we took our usual four-rows-back place, in (apparently) safe contentment. However, no one else took the seats in the second and third rows in front of us – so you can guess what happened.

Craig MurrayCue the first act, Craig Murray, new to us, and whose act is very much based on getting into conversations with the crowd. It wasn’t long before he had eyeballed me and I knew the game was up. Not just idle conversation; he wanted my name, how long we’d been married, how and where we met, whether it was love at first sight, etc, etc and etc. Only one thing you can do under those circumstances – jump in feet first and go with it. His responses to what I’ve always thought were our perfectly mundane circumstances of meeting made me sound like a creepy stalker, had Mrs C in the role of Scouse car-parker and Lady D as a bitter and twisted control freak. (Well, she shouldn’t have interrupted). It’s like he knew us intimately. But seriously, his is a really good act, with terrific observations about relationships, confident delivery, great timing and very funny material.

Juliet MeyersNext up was Juliet Meyers, who we’ve seen twice before. The first time we saw her she really nailed her material and she was fantastic. The second time, she seemed to be off the boil somewhat and it never quite hit home. This time, she was again slightly under par but still good; she still likes to assess her audience with an early use of the “c” word – and it seems to me that the more we laugh at that, the more relaxed she becomes, and the more successfully the act as a whole develops. She’s a bright, in your face, likeable, attacking comic and, for the most part, her material went down well.

Mitch BennLast act was Mitch Benn, who we’ve never seen but of whom I’d definitely heard. He’s a man with a guitar and a lot of pluck, which is a useful combination. He did a song about Eurovision to which I bridled instinctively because no comedian is ever going to say anything complimentary about our blessed contest; but in fact it turned into a very clever and funny song about xenophobia, which not only insulted every country throughout Europe but also turned the prejudice on the singer – so that worked well. He had a tender little song that explains how men’s grunts and bodily function noises may be translated into terms of affection; and another that was an homage to the Very Hungry Caterpillar. With very good material, he kept the atmosphere very lively and the audience were loud and enthusiastic in their appreciation.

Quite a good turn-out but we could definitely do better. You must come to the next one!