Review – Hal Cruttenden, Tough Luvvie, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 30th October 2014

H CruttendenLittle did I know, gentle reader, that as I was battling with the northbound M1 traffic yesterday evening and wondering whether I would get home in time to meet Mrs Chrisparkle, have something to eat and then go out together to see Hal Cruttenden at the Royal, that Mr Cruttenden was having precisely the same thoughts. Well, maybe not the bit about meeting Mrs C and me for a bite to eat, but definitely struggling to get to the theatre in time for his 7.45pm Tough Luvvie show. Mrs C and I made it on the stroke of 7.45. Mr Cruttenden beat us by a few minutes apparently. How do I know this? Because his account of his panicky journey, then discovering there was nowhere to park, was how he introduced his show. Those anxious worries about Not Making An Important Appointment On Time set the tone for the evening; an extremely candid, personal and honest two and a half hours summation of what makes Mr Cruttenden tick. Mind you, if had been late he could have bought us all a pint like John Bishop did.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. We’ve actually seen Hal Cruttenden once before on the stage of the Derngate, when he was – I think – supporting Julian Clary (so to speak). I could be wrong about for whom he was warming up, it was before I started blogging. But I remember we both enjoyed him and the insight into his world – a camp straight man married to a woman from Northern Ireland with a fearsome voice. We’ve not seen any of his interim TV appearances so I was looking forward to seeing how he would carry an entire show by himself.

Hal CruttendenHugely better than I could have expected, as it happens. He has a very chatty and welcoming style that makes you feel like you’re just sitting in his front room after a lovely meal, passing round the port and the cognac whilst he holds court; the perfect dinner party host, all relaxed bonhomie and with a funny story about every possible subject. Whilst it seems as though he is jumping around from topic to topic as things occur to him, I actually think it was all jolly cleverly planned and prepared – but you couldn’t tell the join between the scripted bits and the off-the-cuff dealing with whatever the audience threw at him.

We were indeed an eclectic bunch in the Royal last night, that included a Royal Protection officer, a “Plastic Paddy”, an acutely embarrassed young couple in the front row and a woman recovering from a Bone Marrow transplant who didn’t so much heckle as simply engage too loudly with the proceedings. Mr Cruttenden can bat these unusual oddballs into the long grass with ease, but some of them were quite resilient in their determination to play a part in the show. One response of his I particularly liked when the interrupting woman started up a new conversation was “I’m actually quite busy at the moment…” There was also an actor (with the stress on the final syllable) who had trained at Bristol Old Vic (Mr Cruttenden clearly rather envious of this reputable Alma Mater) and who I recognised as being a friend of a friend of a friend. It gave Mr Cruttenden the opportunity to do a hilariously silly sequence about how stage schools don’t prepare you for the reality of Life In Showbiz.

Hal CDespite the continual dipping in and out of conversation with various members of the audience, there were loads and I mean really loads of great material here. Mr Cruttenden’s main strength is the contrast between his “butter wouldn’t melt” appearance and accent, and the not always so sweet content of the language that he uses and the situation he’s in. He’s unbeatable when doing a routine where a middle class person (i.e. him) is suddenly plonked into an alien working class environment, such as letting loose a tirade of foul mouthed abuse at a football referee, then turning to his friend on the terraces and simpering “so sorry about the language, Giles”. We loved his “gay football chanting” sequence – again it’s the juxtaposition between the roughty-toughty world of football and the unexpected and inappropriate chants of its less aggressive supporters.

There are very many outstanding sequences of comic fantasy that had us in hysterics. We loved the extension of that common phenomenon where parents suddenly become very religious when the local C of E school gets great Ofsted reports, and what could happen if it was an ISIL school; he speculated on a comprehensive school version of Hogwarts; he looked back at the part the English played in the Scottish referendum; he admitted what you really shouldn’t say to a returning Iraq/Afghanistan war veteran who admires your work as a comic; and we heard the refined young Hal’s reaction to seeing his first QPR game. And so very much more besides.

HalCruttendenMost of all, I love the way Mr Cruttenden sends himself up, playing on his sometimes precarious camp/straight balance, ridiculing his own middle class lifestyle and offering us just that touch of vanity that we can all recognise in ourselves – beautifully highlighted in his final story about protecting a lone female traveller on the tube.

The two and a half hours flew by. His tour continues, with many dates still to play before Christmas. We found him both refreshingly self-deprecating and completely hysterical with his class-based routines and asides. Highly recommended!

Review – Paul Chowdhry, PC’s World, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 27th October 2014

PC's worldIt’s always rewarding when a well-known comic performs at the lovely old Royal Theatre and packs it out. At a pinch the Royal can take about 450 people which is the perfect number for a buzzing yet intimate experience. For Paul Chowdhry’s new touring show there were no seats available apart from the couple in the middle of Row B stalls who didn’t turn up, making us in C 8 & 9 look and feel remarkably vulnerable with our unhidden proximity to the stage. Fortunately Mr Chowdhry chose to pick on other, much funnier, people.

As I so frequently have to confess with comics who have come to prominence in the past few years, neither Mrs Chrisparkle nor I had seen him before – I think I may have had a ten second glimpse of him once on a TV show but not long enough to tell if he was funny or not. I had gathered, however, that race plays a significant part in his act, his previous show being “What’s Happening, White People”, and now his new show is called “PC’s World” – and there’s nothing PC about it.

Being a reasonably PC person myself – not priggishly I hope, I just don’t see the point of upsetting people if I can help it – I wondered if I might be offended by any of his material. But I wasn’t remotely – he’s far too funny for that. He’s an incredibly skilful and confident performer and his material is absolutely top notch. I’d estimate that half the evening is actually spent on his routines and the other half on getting to know the people in the first few rows. He’s a big tease – the kind of guy who will find your weak spot in unguarded conversation and then go for it mercilessly, just the way your mates do.

Paul CYou might perceive that some of what Mr Chowdhry does and says might be considered racist. Alternatively, you might not. When it’s presented in such a funny and friendly way, it’s very difficult to identify. What’s racist and what’s not?This is the question posed in some way by almost everything that takes place in the show. He’s perfectly happy to pick on himself as much as anyone else; for example, pointing out how his new beard makes him look like someone trying to get to Syria. He dwells on stereotypes for sure, but stereotypes exist because to some extent they are true.

So when Mr Chowdhry starts talking to “Uncle” in the second row, who’s not showing a flicker of laughter, 18 year old “Afghan” in the front row who’s dressed in a camouflage jacket (you couldn’t make it up), gym bunny “Yadesh” (that may be his name, no one could quite understand) confessing he has a red Porsche at the age of 23 (“ah, a Guju!” exclaimed Mr Chowdhry), or the hordes of unseen lurkers in the balcony, collectively known as “Luton”, he takes our stereotype understanding of what these people might be like, embellishes it and creates a fantasy audience of comic characters, whom we all laugh at, just as much as we laugh at him. And that way, all our hands are dipped in the blood, so if you sense the comedy’s heading in a direction that you’re not entirely comfortable with, for whatever reason, well, you’re already guilty as for having joined in the fun earlier.

Much of this stereotype-enhancing comes from his use of accents, which Mr Chowdhry actually says he doesn’t always feel comfortable using. He does a range of Indian accents (or moods) that go from finger-pointing belligerent to kissy-kissy sweetness – and everything in between; plus, he does cockney thug. Most of his comedy can be personalised with at least one of these voices. Talking of which, I really loved his interpretation of the guy pedalling at the front of the new Indian space rocket, a perfect blend of creative wit and old-fashioned stereotype. Perhaps the most interesting aspect about him is that his humour is, generally speaking, really benign; he does tease but it’s never cruel, it’s creative and revelatory. For all its making fun of racial stereotypes, it unifies us rather than divides us and you end up feeling like part of one big international family, leaving with a multiculturally warm glow to bask in as you go home.

Paul ChowdhryOne of the stage lights, suspended from the top over the back of the stage, exploded last night, behind him during a chat with one of the audience, so he couldn’t see what had happened. Naturally, he assumed that “Luton” had sent in the snipers. It’s not often that the stage itself becomes a heckler! Naturally funny and positive, he has an excellent ability to juggle all the information already gleaned from the audience to use it back at them later on in the show, a relaxed style and an unexpected humility – I really enjoyed his act. Racist? No, more like the antidote to racism. There are a few more dates left at the end of this very long tour but most of them are sold out. We’ll certainly look out for him again next time round.

P.S. As Mrs Chrisparkle and I were walking home we were overtaken by this fiercely fast and flashy red Porsche ripping up the tarmac and screeching terrifyingly as traffic lights unexpectedly turned red. Can only have been Yads taking Uncle and the rest of the family home.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 24th October 2014

Screaming Blue MurderWe’ve been having such a good time at the Screaming Blue Murders recently that we have been encouraging more friends to come and join us. Last Friday we were accompanied by the Sheriff of Shenstone, Lady Lichfield and the young Baron Brownhills. We were expecting our usual host Dan Evans to appear but in a change to the advertised programme, the show was hosted by Kate Smurthwaite, whose name suggests to me a little blue Belgian gnome with a big white cap. But she doesn’t look like that at all. She’s a genial, jovial, intelligent sort of comic, who makes a good connection with the audience and picked on the right people with whom to have some decent banter.Kate Smurthwaite The dishwasher girls and the father-in-law/sons-in-law group gave good value, as did the inevitable comedy fans from Travis Perkins (IT department). She strayed a little into politics, but we’re not very interested in that kind of thing here. Sorry about that.

Paul F TaylorOur first act was Paul F Taylor, an innately funny guy with a great sense of the surreal and a fast attacking style. He stayed just on the right side of manic all the way through his material, which includes some pungent puns and shaggy dog stories. I liked his analogy that much of his set was like the middle aisle in Aldi, and really enjoyed his final sequence, where vending machines take on human identities. He went down well with the crowd, and I hope he comes back for more some time.

Karen BayleySecond, and continuing the change to the advertised programme, we had the return of Karen Bayley, whom we have already seen three times, once as host and twice as the opening act. If you’ve not seen her before she is extremely funny with her self-deprecating, “desperate for sex” material, channelling all her desires to the youngest man in the front row, this time Chris, 26, who several times looked as though he wanted the earth to swallow him up. It’s all brilliantly funny, and the Sheriff thought she was sensational – but if I have a criticism, it is that Karen has more or less performed precisely the same routine four times now, and I reckon it’s time to shake the act up a little.

Robert WhiteFinal act was also someone we’ve seen twice before, and always enjoyed, Robert White. Looking extremely innocent, and gently knocking out some bontempi tunes on his keyboard, he uses his unique selling point combination of being gay and having Asperger’s syndrome to make up extremely funny, frequently saucy songs about all the members of the audience whose identities had been revealed by earlier comics. He usually discovers some rather straight-laced chap in the front to whom he starts singing explicit sex songs, and then in whom we all delight watching him squirm. But this time his first choice of target was gay and so that wasn’t going to work, then his second choice turned out to be someone who was equally happy to “take him on”, so to speak, so Mr White’s usually hilarious finale got scuppered. Nevertheless, it was great fun to witness it all fall apart in the most light-hearted of manners.

A reasonably sized house this week, but come on Northampton, you can do better – everyone book for the next show on 7th November!

Review – Othello, Frantic Assembly, Oxford Playhouse, 21st October 2014

OthelloOne of the great things about Shakespeare is that you can play him dead straight, at the time in which the play was written, all Elizabethan costume, jesters and madrigals, and it works just fine. Or you can jazz him up and modernise him, setting the play in any era, under any governmental regime, anywhere in the world, and as like as not it will adapt to its new surroundings – to some extent. I wasn’t overly keen on the 1970s setting of the recent Richard III – a bit cynical, I thought; but I loved the anarchic rock concert of Filter Theatre’s Twelfth Night, the East London Comedy of Errors at the National a couple of years ago, and all those anachronistic garden capers at the Oxford Shakespeare Company are a joy.

Frantic Assembly’s Othello takes place in a pub; a world where power struggles and sex take place on the pool table, where private arguments are carried out in the Ladies’ toilet, where chalking the end of your man’s cue is foreplay, where Venetian sea skirmishes happen in the car park, where broken bottles of Stella and baseball bats replace Shakespeare’s knives and “bright swords”. It’s an environment where hail fellow well met can turn in an instant to You’re going home in a St John’s Ambulance. It’s a place where courtship rituals can be at their most provocative, with the inevitable rivalries, jealousies, passions and secrets that follow; everything from love to hate and all that’s in between. In other words, a perfect place to set Othello.

Iago and RoderigoNine performers play ten roles in this neatly compressed and creatively scissored adaptation by Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett. There’s no Duke, no Gratiano, no Clown; no sundry gentlemen, messengers, sailors, senators or other attendants; cutting away some extraneous characters creates an additional sense of urgency and focus as Iago sets about manipulating all the pub regulars in rapid crescendo, like some godlike puppeteer. It’s really not for purists; speeches are swapped around and given to other characters, completely out of context – I can’t help but think that if you were seeing this production to help you with English Literature A level, it could confuse you more than assist. But that’s really not the point of it. The point is to make a dynamic, punchy, vivid drama in a recognisable setting, whilst retaining the original’s linguistic style and main themes – which, as always with Shakespeare, never go out of fashion and always remain relevant.

The Moor of VeniceYou enter the auditorium to the loud jangling sound of technothrob (although there’s no jukebox, there’s maybe a rave going on somewhere) which really sets the mood of sweaty youth going for it hammer and tongs; in fact, throughout the whole play the invasive music by Hybrid becomes a useful tool in speeding the story along to its inexorable conclusion. The set and design are excellent, portraying a seedy pub that hasn’t had money spent on it for years. Old, cheap furnishing, grimy wallpaper – we’ve all been in that kind of watering hole. The pool table is the centre of the action, the place where the pecking order is settled, the natural magnet for all the testosterone bubbling under the surface. The fruit machine becomes a hideaway for onlookers and eavesdroppers, its flashing lights creating a hollow sense of excitement in this drab venue. If this is where you go for a good time – then you need to up your game a little.

Othello and DesdemonaThis modern setting is obviously going to attract more younger people to the theatre – and I’m all for that. However, I did have a slight panic when I saw quite how many under 18s there were at the performance we attended last Tuesday night. In a play that poses many questions about prejudice, I guess it highlighted one of mine – a fear that too many youngsters in a theatre leads to giggling, chatting, fidgeting, texting and over-whooping. Well, in the modern vernacular, My Bad. Yes there was a whoop when it started. After that – silence, attention, mesmerisation; that unmistakable body language of people sitting as far forward in their seats as possible in an attempt to get closer to the action; proportionate reactions of laughter and horror to what’s happening on stage. Whatever it is they’re doing in this production, they’re doing it right. The sold-out audience was totally rapt.

Pool players balletI was expecting a modern telling of the story; what I wasn’t expecting was such excellent physical theatre. The incorporation of balletic movement and mime into some set pieces worked astoundingly well. It begins with a lengthy but compelling scene where the characters confront their passions, hopes and fears around the pool table, jostling for prominence, ridiculing the weak, exercising laddish behaviour to the full – all done to riveting dance and movement direction by Eddie Kay. Naturally it distances the performance from reality to a certain extent – you don’t normally get pool players doing a pas de deux – but it’s no more unreal than spending the next 100 minutes talking in iambic pentameters. There’s another scene that depicts Cassio getting drunk, acted out in a similar way. It’s a few minutes of utterly stunning physical theatre, performed by the cast with strength, precision and humour. A fantastic mix of styles that really stands out.

Cassio's having a fewAny decent production of Othello has got to have a strong powerful Iago. Steven Miller is perfect. He’s superbly manipulative, wheedling, conniving, and ruthless and you believe in him 100%. When he’s dropping all the hints to Othello about Desdemona’s alleged infidelity, that are purely designed for Othello to latch his suspicions on to, even I started believing him, and I’ve seen the play before. Considering that, depending on your interpretation, this play has at least some element of racism in it, Mr Miller even has the palest of complexions to make the greatest contrast with Othello. Iago has to adopt different tones with so many of the different characters, and Mr Miller gets that variation of tone brilliantly. Mark Ebulue’s Othello stands slightly apart from the rest of the group – as he should – more statesmanlike in the gang, more thoughtful in his responses, and, naturally, with more of his attention on Desdemona than on the lads. His decline into jealousy and barbaric revenge is very neatly done, reacting automatically to almost every titbit thrown out by Iago. Not sure it ever quite reaches tragic hero status, but you probably don’t often get one of those in a public bar anyway.

Kirsty Oswald plays Desdemona with a superb balance between what my mother would have called a “good-time girl” who hangs around blokes in bars but also speaks with gentle and innocent eloquence with her beloved Othello. The balance is very well depicted when she is driven to anger by Othello’s blundering stupidity – no demure sweet girl this, but one who is well able to stand up for herself against the leader of the pack – despite her distress at his falling out of love with her. It’s a very well judged performance. I also very much liked Ryan Fletcher as Cassio, quick to ire, even quicker to overdo the shots, full of bluster and easily fooled; and a chavtastic portrayal of Roderigo by Richard James-Neale, with quirky vocal mannerisms and ineffectual bombast – extremely effective.

IagoI’m not a fan of violence and there’s quite a lot of it in this production. Even when masked by strong dance and movement, there’s no hiding from the gruesomeness of the bloodletting and the old-fashioned kickings meted out. The car park three-way assault by and on Roderigo, Cassio and Iago looks horribly realistic and brutal. Whilst I appreciate that this is the way of life in some places, and that it wasn’t out of place in this production, I still felt that it glorified violence, and I’m uncomfortable with that. I must say though that the final scene, laden with violence as it is, created a stunning visual tableau at the end. The fact that Iago and Emilia are married was only obscurely referenced – I’d actually forgotten about that relationship and it wasn’t until the very end that it was made clear – I had thought she was rather gung-ho in her not caring much about Iago’s taking the handkerchief – that explained it. And another pet hate – no interval! With 110 minutes or so of intense drama, I was shifting buttocks about three quarters of the way in, and I really could have done with a fifteen minute break. There were plenty of points around the Act Three mark where a pause would have created a dramatic cliffhanger, ready for the action to continue once we’d had a short rest. The drive to have no interval is like a false machismo: “My production is so hard that you can’t let the intensity drop”. To all those directors and producers who think this – you’re wrong.

Oth and DesSo with a few minor cavils I’d say this is a really exciting and punchy evening at the theatre that brings an old classic right up to date and exposes its bitter and harsh truths in an unexpectedly suitable new way. The tour continues to Leicester, Doncaster, Birmingham, Salford and the Lyric Hammersmith. If you like your Shakespeare in your face – and you’re not a purist – this is definitely for you!

P.S. If you want to know more about the production and how it grew into what it is today there is an excellent resource at Frantic Assembly’s website.

Review – The Ninth Annual Malcolm Arnold Festival, A Night With The Stars Gala Concert, Worthing Symphony Orchestra, Julian Bliss, Martin James Bartlett, Derngate, Northampton, 19th October 2014

9th Malcolm Arnold FestivalOnce again the Royal and Derngate Northampton played host to the annual Malcolm Arnold Festival with a weekend of concerts, talks, films and readings; and once again, Mrs Chrisparkle and I just attended the Gala Concert on the Sunday night. Maybe one year we will immerse ourselves more deeply in the whole Malcolm Arnold Thing; I’m sure it’s all highly entertaining. But for this year, we were happy to limit ourselves to the Main Show.

All hail the return of the Worthing Symphony Orchestra under its nom de baton of the Malcolm Arnold Festival Orchestra, ably conducted as always by John Gibbons. It’s the fourth year in a row that Mr Gibbons has fronted the WSO for this concert, and they always do a sterling job. The programme for the evening is always varied and exciting; this year was no different, with an overture, a premiere, two soloists, two concertos, some old favourites, a speed challenge and Finlandia. That’s a lot to pack in to around two hours.

John GibbonsWe started off with the first of three Malcolm Arnold pieces of the evening, A Sussex Overture, Op 31 – not inappropriate for a Sussex based orchestra. It’s a very cheeky and brash nine minutes or so, giving plenty of opportunities for the percussion to shine. John Gibbons said that, having discovered this overture, it’s going to become a mainstay of many WSO concerts to come – amen to that.

Next came Malcolm Arnold’s Clarinet Concerto no 1, Op 20, and the first of the evening’s three encounters with the excellent Julian Bliss. Like the Sussex Overture, I hadn’t heard this before but it’s a very imaginative and lively piece of music. John Gibbons described it as “dark jazz” and “not an easy listen” at times. To be honest, I felt he over-emphasised its difficulties as we both found it rewarding and entertaining. I loved the chirrupy tune in the first movement, and the “dark” second movement was like being massaged by woodwind. Mr Bliss has a wonderfully infectious personality in front of an orchestra and you can only marvel at his musicality and skill.

Julian BlissAs an antidote to the challenges of the Arnold Clarinet Concerto, we next had “Morning” and “In the hall of the Mountain King” from Grieg’s Peer Gynt. A couple of much loved old favourites that everyone knows. Of course, every time someone plays an old favourite that everyone knows, it’s always someone’s first time of hearing it – as Mr Gibbons said, “Mountain King” is one of the BBC’s Ten Pieces to Inspire Children, and it really is a rumbustious torrent of excitement once it gets going. To be honest, whilst we both really loved the rendition of “Morning” – great flute and oboe work by Monica McCarron and Chris O’Neal – we both felt that the “Mountain King” sounded a bit ragged when in full pelt. Still, what do we know?

From the familiar to the unknown, and our world premiere, Fantasy on a Theme by Malcolm Arnold for Clarinet and Strings, by Toby Young. Composed especially for this concert and for Julian Bliss (who told us how it developed from some Facebook messaging and several pints in pubs), this short, dynamic piece is full of entertainment. It obviously allows the soloist to extemporise, enhance, embellish, and basically fool around with the original notes and Mr Bliss does this with supreme elegance and panache. Bright, lively and fun – an excellent addition to the programme, and it was a pleasure to see Mr Young there to share in the applause.

Toby YoungLast piece of the first half was Finlandia, Sibelius’ nationalistic symphonic poem; a very stirring experience with great warmth and power coming from the brass instruments, but given great support by the entire orchestra. It gives you a Ready Brek glow to take you into the interval and your fifteen minute Merlot.

When we returned after the interval the two TV screens either side of the stage that had previously just shown an image of Malcolm Arnold had changed to showing a stopwatch face. The first item of the second half was entitled the Malcolm Arnold Minute Waltz challenge – and I correctly put two and two together. Apparently Sir Malcolm had always quibbled that Chopin’s Minute Waltz bore that name, because it’s actually impossible to play it in a minute. Step up to the podium Julian Bliss, to see if his fluttery fingers could whack through the waltz in under sixty seconds. Not only was it a feat of musical dexterity, it was also a success! The stopwatch stopped at 55 seconds; we reckoned it might have been about 1.5 seconds late getting started, but even so Mr Bliss passed the finishing post within 57 seconds. A box of Guylian choccies was his rightful reward.

Martin James BartlettOur penultimate piece was another not-so-well-known tone poem, Malcolm Arnold’s Larch Trees, Op 3, dating from 1943. Very tuneful and relaxed, perhaps with a hint of mystery and bleakness, it gave the orchestra an opportunity to play with delicate expression and gentle contemplation.

Our final item of the evening was a change to the advertised programme. It was to be Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No 2 in C minor played by soloist Martin James Bartlett. Instead, due to a tendon injury, it became Rachmaninoff’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, still performed by the aforementioned Mr Bartlett. Well, if this is how he plays with an injury, heaven knows what he’s like when he’s match fit. I was astounded at how movingly he played – a really beautiful performance. From where we sit, you can clearly see the reflection of the pianist’s hands in the black panel above the keyboard, and it’s always fascinating to see how deftly they move up and down the instrument. Mr Bartlett threw his entire body into the expression, lunging backwards and forwards, almost standing at one point, twisting and contorting himself to get just the right oomph behind each note. No wonder he gets injured.WSO It was a highly entertaining, skilful and moving performance. At the grand old age of 18, Mr Bartlett is the current BBC Young Musician of the Year. We sat two rows behind his parents – not difficult to see how proud they are of him; and indeed if he continues to develop his skills he has a most amazing future ahead of him.

As always, a highly enjoyable evening of music from the Worthing Symphony Orchestra, with a Malcolm Arnoldesque slant. Pretty good turnout in the Derngate auditorium too. Looking forward to next year!

Review – To Kill A Mockingbird, Curve Theatre, Leicester, 18th October 2014

To Kill A MockingbirdI was not one of those children who, willingly or otherwise, read To Kill A Mockingbird whilst at school. I’d heard of it, of course, and knew friends who had read it; but it was never part of my literature syllabus and, at that age, for my reading leisure, if it wasn’t a whodunit or a play I wasn’t interested. Unlike Mrs Chrisparkle, who read the book willingly at a tender age and impressed her schoolteachers with her as yet never before seen keenness. Arthur Franks & Ava PotterI’m not sure those teachers ever got a second chance to be impressed, so I hope they appreciated the experience. For years Mrs C had been on at me to read it, and for years I said yes I must, placing it in the “pending without intention” desk tray in my brain. But then one day, not that long ago, I relented, and discovered for myself what a gripping and emotional read it is.

Connor BrundishThe last time we saw cast members reading from an eponymous book on stage was in Gatz, the experimental reading/acting production of the Great Gatsby that takes an entire day to achieve. I loved its riskiness, its innovative approach, its willingness to turn established art forms on their heads; as you know, gentle reader, I much prefer a creative, experimental failure to a lazy success. But, in the final analysis, Gatz was quite boring really, and proved that a book is a book and a play is a play. So when the ensemble for To Kill A Mockingbird emerged from the Leicester Curve stalls, clambered up onto the stage and portentously raised and lowered their paperback copies of the book (each one a different edition, David Carlylewhich is a nice touch), I had a slight feeling of foreboding. However, there was no need for alarm. They don’t read the entire book, they take it in turns to read individual passages, so that you get a dozen different voices (male and female) each speaking as though they were Scout, the six year old narrator of this story of growing up set against the injustice of racial discrimination in 1960s Alabama. Each passage will introduce an acted scene, so it becomes an alternating sequence of acting and reading, which keeps it feeling very fresh.

Jamie KennaIt wasn’t long into the play when the relatively well-to-do matinee audience at the Curve gasped audibly as Scout used the “n” word in her conversation. The “n” word appears quite a few times actually, in this 1970 adaptation of the book by Christopher Sergel. I’m not sure how you could express the discrimination of the time without using it, but it is interesting to reflect that there hasn’t been a drive to modernise some of the language for the 2014 audience. But there you are, you have been warned.

Natalie GradyI’m sure you know the story – and if you don’t, and intend to see the play, then why should I spoil it for you? Suffice to know that Scout and Jem are the children of Atticus Finch, lawyer, and they and their friend Dill play, run errands, make discoveries and do all the things that kids do in their neighbourhood, as they learn from first-hand experience what separates right from wrong. Atticus’ watchword is equality, and he encourages the children to think the same way.Zackary Momoh He proves his sense of equality by becoming the Defence Lawyer for black farmworker Tom Robinson in his trial for raping the white woman Mayella Ewell, a decision that doesn’t go down too well in some sectors of Maycomb County. The trial is a cathartic moment for the community as a whole, for the protagonists in the case, and for Atticus’ family and friends. Scout, Jem and Dill get to see their community through different eyes as they start to leave their childhood behind. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy . . . but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.”

Susan Lawson-ReynoldsThis lucid, eloquent production was originally produced by the Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre. By using a set that resembles a garden, with chalk lines drawn on the floor to demarcate the various areas of the town, this transfer brings the outside indoors with remarkable ease and effectiveness. Those members of the ensemble who are not in any particular scene sit at the sides of the stage following the action in their paperbacks. The whole impression is one of breathing dramatic life into the written word, whilst still having absolute respect for its original format.

Daniel BettsThere are three young actors each playing the roles of Scout, Jem and Dill at different performances. Obviously I can only speak for the ones we saw, but they were amazing. Arthur Franks’ Jem has all the confidence of the older sibling, and therefore further to fall when Atticus corrects his behaviour; and his idealistic expectation of what the jury will decide, as well as his overall view on life is heart-warming to see. Connor Brundish gives a terrifically impish performance as the socially advanced yet often unsure Dill, bringing out the comic elements of the role very effectively. But Ava Potter’s Scout is a performance of true delight; remarkably assured, full of attitude, very funny, very moving – quite brilliant. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a child actor receive a standing ovation before.

Ryan PopeDaniel Betts as Atticus is the only adult performer to retain his own role throughout and not be part of the ensemble, and it works very well as a device to set him apart from the rest of the community, and make him more of a loner. He looks and behaves just like how you would imagine Atticus to be; kindly, wise, learned, and authoritative but with humility. It’s a great performance. The rest of the ensemble work really well together but each actor also brings terrific insight and identity to their own minor characters. David Carlyle was superb as the Prosecuting Lawyer, Mr Gilmer; slightly foppish, posing with his Geoff Aymercigarette, bringing an effeteness to the otherwise unsophisticated Maycomb County. There was no doubting his belligerence towards the helpless Tom Robinson, played with simplicity and great emotion by Zackary Momoh. There’s no way he would have had the physical dexterity to carry out that attack. Susan Lawson-Reynolds brought huge heart to the character of Calpurnia, helping Atticus instil decency and discipline in the children, whilst still retaining her sense of fun. Natalie Grady was a wonderfully straight-talking no-nonsense Victoria BewickMiss Maudie, Geoff Aymer a very kindly but splendidly ineffectual Reverend Sykes, Ryan Pope a despicably low-life Bob Ewell, and Victoria Bewick a memorably tormented Mayella, lashing out using attack as her best form of defence. But each member of the ensemble made a great contribution to the overall atmosphere of community life and clarity of narration; and Phil King punctuated the proceedings with some very enjoyable and wistful incidental music.

Phil KingThis is an excellent production that brought a tear to Mrs C’s eye (not mine, I must be more hard-hearted) and really tells the story well. It works as a play in its own right, but I have to admit, primarily it made me want to go back and read the book again. This production is in the early stages of a very lengthy tour that goes right round to next summer, visiting Cardiff, High Wycombe, Cambridge, Birmingham, Bath, Sheffield, Chichester, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Nottingham, Dartford, Milton Keynes, Southampton, Leeds, Plymouth, Newcastle, Cheltenham, Richmond and Salford before ending up at the Barbican next July. I told you it was an intensive tour! An accomplished production suitable for all the family but that pulls no punches and tells it how it is. I predict very good business for these theatres, so get booking now!

Review – Gypsy, Chichester Festival Theatre, 11th October 2014

GypsySo, here I am, a regular theatregoer for the last 45 years or so, but I’d never seen a production of Gypsy (A Musical Fable) before. My only links to the show are having twice seen the wonderful Side By Side By Sondheim – once with the original cast in 1977 and once at the (relatively) recent revival at the Donmar – as two of Side by Side’s highlights are If Momma Was Married and You Gotta Get a Gimmick. My other link is just hearsay, as the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle saw the show with Bernadette Peters as Rose on Broadway in 2003 on what was to be the Dowager’s final swansong abroad – and I remember she came back bubbling over with enthusiasm for it.

Imelda StauntonGypsy is based on the memoirs of Gypsy Rose Lee, but if you don’t know the story – and let’s face it, it’s a bit historical now – you may well be surprised by the way the plot turns and develops. What seem to be minor roles assume unexpected significance later on and similarly major roles just fizzle out during the course of Rose’s lifetime. But it’s easy to fall foul of what one might term Rose Confusion. The Rose in question is in fact the mother of Gypsy Rose Lee, a determined, fearless, but tactless control freak who gains vicarious delight in pushing her two daughters into stardom, milking every cliché en route (maybe that explains the pantomime cow) and to hell with the artistry. Rose is at the centre of the show; she is like an unstoppable ten-ton truck hurtling down the freeway of life with the other characters representing any other traffic that inevitably have to give way in order to survive without ending up in A&E.

Kevin WhatelyOriginally produced in 1959, Gypsy reunited the successful West Side Story combo of Arthur Laurents (book), Stephen Sondheim (then aged 29 – lyrics) and Jerome Robbins (choreography). Unlike West Side Story, the composer was Jule Styne, (more showbizzy and less classical than Leonard Bernstein). Many commentators have described Gypsy as The Greatest American Musical Of All Time, but I don’t think I can hold with that opinion. Yes it’s got some wonderful songs, but you need more than that. There are some elements of repetition that drag it out just a little longer than it needs (primarily those cringily awful routines inflicted on Louise, June and the Newsboys) and one or two songs that dip into sentimentality – Little Lamb, for example, is really quite nauseating.

Lara PulverWhat it does do – brilliantly – is progress its storyline relentlessly as we follow Rose through her life. Every scene drives the story forward – you’ve even got Brechtian scrolling scene titles at the side of the stage defining what happens each step of the way. Just as in real life, people appear unexpectedly and make an impact on you at certain stages and then later on they move out of your life; so it is with Gypsy, with at least two significant roles only appearing for a limited time before they are heard of no more. This makes for a slightly unbalanced presentation – if you were hoping for some nice easy tie-ups of the loose threads to create a happy ending, think again. Real life isn’t always like that, and it’s the show’s grip on reality that gives it its really hard edge. When Louise finally, accidentally, falls into stardom of a completely unpredictable kind, the show switches axis, making a big stopover to examine Louise’s success story, whilst losing sight of Rose, its original driver. At that point you feel that the show is going to end on an anti-climax; the younger rises when the old doth fall, as King Lear’s Edmund would say. But Rose comes back with the electric finale number Rose’s Turn, firmly re-routing the show’s sat-nav back on to its original course and ultimate destination.

Gemma SuttonThis is a hugely powerful show, given a stunning production by Jonathan Kent’s direction and Stephen Mear’s choreography. Everything about its appearance is perfect, from the sets (backstage theatre rooms, cramped apartments, ludicrously colourful scenes for the excesses of Baby June’s performances), to the costumes and lighting. Nicholas Skilbeck’s amazing orchestra is sensational. It’s hard to imagine how any of it could be staged better. But if ever a show relied on performances this is the one.

Natalie Woods and Anita Louise CombeI don’t think I’ve ever seen a show dominated so completely by one performer as this. Not in a selfish, hogging-the-limelight sort of way, but in a genuinely extraordinary performance that lights up not only all of Chichester but all of Sussex too, I should imagine. Imelda Staunton’s Rose is simply breath-taking. She’s a little lady, but boy can she sing and her understanding of the role is immense. Not only is her Rose a showbiz mother from hell, she is near-demented in her pressing ambition for her children. Her tunnel vision only has room for stage success, and to hell with the personal consequences. When she sings Everything’s Coming up Roses, with its mind-bending metaphors of sunshine and Santa Claus, bright lights and lollipops, you can almost hear the synapses snap crackle and pop in her head, whilst Louise looks on aghast at what’s headed her way. For me it was one of those classic moments when a show-tune you know really well suddenly takes on its original context from its musical framework that you didn’t know, and thereby acquires a completely different meaning. I always thought of the song as being the ultimate in optimism and good fortune; I now realise it’s almost the total opposite.

Imelda Staunton as RoseStanding ovations are given far too frequently in my opinion, but this was one time when it was a no-brainer. As soon as Ms Staunton came on for her curtain call the packed Festival Theatre stood in one clean sweep as if we had been rehearsing it all afternoon. No looking around to see if anyone else was standing, no hesitation as to when you should stand – it was as though all the world’s Mexican waves had simultaneously arrived at the Festival Theatre.

Lara Pulver as LouiseWe really enjoyed the performance by Kevin Whately as Herbie, although I confess I did not understand one word of his first two lines, as he audibly settled himself down somewhere halfway between Yonkers and Tyneside. Once he got into the swing of it, he was great, and there’s definitely something of the Jimmy Durante in his portrayal of the long-suffering Herbie. His not being a natural song-and-dance man actually stood him in good stead for his part in Together Wherever We Go, giving him some nice comic touches as an antidote to his vocal input. It’s a wonderful song about teamwork, with Ms Staunton and Mr Whately being joined by Lara Pulver as Louise, who grows her character in confidence throughout the second act into her amazing transformation as the striptease sensation Gypsy Rose Lee.

Kevin Whately as HerbieThe whole cast are superb. Gemma Sutton is great as June, the daughter with (apparently) all the talent, pushed into prominence by her mother, irradiating glamour and showbiz panache. There are some very smart performances by Dan Burton as Tulsa, practising out his dance routine (sensationally well) whilst Louise watches on in besotted admiration, Natalie Woods as the sweetly enthusiastic Agnes, and Anita Louise Combe as the gutsy Tessie Tura who together with Louise Gold and Julie Legrand turn in a hilarious rendition of You Gotta Get a Gimmick which brings the house down. And you cannot forget the astonishing talent of the young performers who play Baby June and Baby Louise, plus all the very young newsboys – I believe we saw Georgia Pemberton play Baby June in our preview performance and she was simply extraordinary.

But there’s no question that the night belongs to Imelda Staunton. If you had the remotest doubt whether or not she was a star before, that question is most certainly answered now. Surely this must transfer to the West End?