Review – King John, Royal and Derngate and Shakespeare’s Globe at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, Northampton, 25th April 2015

King JohnWasn’t it Tony Hancock who said, and I believe it was, “Does Magna Carta mean nothing to you? Did she die in vain?” Actually, no, she didn’t. Because one of the off-shoots of the 800th anniversary of the signing of the Magna Carta is this co-production between the Royal and Derngate and Shakespeare’s Globe, of King John; one of Will’s lesser-known histories, relatively infrequently performed; an early play, not considered to be one of his greats. Geeky me, when I was 15 I devoted the summer holidays to reading all of Shakespeare’s plays. I didn’t understand King John much; and it hasn’t featured on my radar since, until this splendid opportunity to combine seeing a Shakespeare play with visiting the extraordinary Church of the Holy Sepulchre in Northampton, built in Norman times in imitation of the Holy Sepulchre church in Jerusalem. It’s an amazing place – and if you’ve not visited it before, and your ticket to see King John only leaves your curiosity piqued (as it surely will), come back and visit it on Wednesday or Saturday afternoons during the summer. It’s full of history and surprises.

Jo Stone-FewingsHowever, not only is it a splendidly atmospheric venue, it’s highly appropriate to this particular play too. King John himself is believed to have visited the church several times, and Shakespeare sets Act Four and the first scene of Act Five in Northampton Castle. Given that the castle fell into ruin and what was left of it was swept aside to build the railway station in the 1860s, bringing the play to the Holy Sepulchre gets us as close as we can to sharing a truly theatrical experience in its original surroundings.

Joseph MarcellKing John is an episodic dash through the highlights (or should that be lowlights) of the eponymous monarch’s life. As an early play, Shakespeare hasn’t got much of a narrative style going on here, it’s more like separate snapshots of the savage sovereign’s reign – his coronation, his deciding between the two Faulconbridge brothers as to who should inherit, the assault on Angers, the manipulation of the French King by the Papal legate to cause war with England, the almost-torture of Arthur, Arthur’s death, and finally King John’s death and succession by Prince Henry. It’s a bit like The Archers but with more blood. Look a bit more closely and you can see traces of much greater things to come. Talk of the clashing of swords and shields presages his more eloquent writing in Othello. Three forcefully meaty female roles look forward to King Lear’s daughters. The character of the Bastard – a complete invention of Shakespeare’s, as it turns out – paves the way for Edmund, also in Lear. King John himself is in some ways a forerunner for Shakespeare’s interpretation of Richard III.

King John and entourageWe knew a few people to whom this production would definitely appeal. So a veritable baker’s dozen of us turned up at the Holy Sep on Saturday night. We were joined by Lady Duncansby and her butler Sir William (recently knighted for services to the vehicle bodywork repair industry), the lovely Belle of Great Billing, Lord Liverpool and the Countess of Cockfosters, our nieces Secret Agent Code November and Special Agent Code Sierra together with their Mum and Dad, and Professor and Mrs Plum. The good Professor had previously accompanied us to the magnificent, site specific production of The Bacchae three years ago – indeed he gave a talk at the theatre before one of the performances; maybe one day Prof & Mrs P will actually get to see a play inside one of the Northampton theatres. The production of The Bacchae, directed by Laurie Sansom, and of King John, directed by his successor as Artistic Director, James Dacre, make fascinating comparisons, both extracting an extraordinary atmosphere from an unusual location, encouraging an amazing sense of ensemble from the cast, and creating productions that will stand the tests of time as being definitive for that particular play.

Laurence Belcher in rehearsalPrior to its Northampton run, the production had indulged in some previews at the Temple Church in London; I’ve not been there, but it’s another extraordinary setting, I’ll be bound. We saw its second preview in Northampton so it is possible that some things might have changed before its “proper” opening. Something that might benefit from a change – if I might be so bold – is what happens when the doors to the church unlock and you enter the building. Hooded monks sing a requiem for the late Richard I, walking solemnly around the rotunda. It’s a stunning opening image. An usher invites you to stand and listen to the requiem – just the first of many exquisite compositions by Orlando Gough. However, with unreserved seats, the temptation is to head straight for the pews and nab the best viewpoint. As a result you only get that stunning image fleetingly – and although you can still hear the requiem from your seats, it’s not as impressive as actually remaining in the rotunda to hear it in full. I wonder, therefore, if there could be some way of imposing a delay on the physical progress of the audience, just so that they enjoy the requiem a little longer.

Simon Coates in rehearsalGuided by the ushers you locate your seat. The church is dark and mysterious, lit by candles, and whatever fading light remains is dramatically converging through the stained glass windows. The stage area takes the form of an enormous crucifix, with the audience in pews either side of the central vertical strut. King John’s throne is at the top of the crucifix – and there are five entrance and exit points on to the stage which enable a constant flow of characters in all directions. As a theatregoing experience this is all enormously vivid. Sitting in the front row, knights, courtiers, royalty, soldiers all sweep past you, their brightly coloured capes swirling and rustling in front of your eyes. The thump of their footsteps reverberates against your feet. They stop and converse just inches away from your face. Their gloriously performed plainsong is delivered directly to your ears. Their intense stares, the glints from their eyes, their mischievous smiles, invade your personal space. Battle rages terrifyingly all around you. It’s a communal experience. You can’t be this close to the action without actually being part of it. And, whether or not you have any faith, there’s definitely a frisson to be derived from experiencing the juxtaposition of all this medieval death and villainy whilst sitting in a House of God.

Tanya MoodieIt’s a rare theatrical event when absolutely everything comes together with stunning perfection. The gloriously atmospheric building. The haunting music and ominous drum beats. The costumes, both lavish and poverty-stricken. A group of actors who have been so well cast in their roles that you absolutely believe they are their thirteenth century originals. And whilst the play itself is rather turgid at times, with some chewy and hard to understand dialogue, there is such clarity in this production that you’re never at a loss as to what’s going on. Every word is spoken with precision and value, every sentence with insight and every reaction with honest expressiveness, creating two and a half hours of sheer viewing privilege. As I was watching it, I could not stop thinking that the experience was so riveting, so stimulating, and so downright exciting that I was incredibly lucky to be there to witness it.

Alex Waldmann in rehearsalAt its heart is a sensational performance by Jo Stone-Fewings as King John. Whilst we were talking about the play before it started, Lord Liverpool declared that when most people think of King John, the Disney version voiced by Peter Ustinov in Robin Hood comes to mind. It does for him anyway. For me, I think of him more like the character in A A Milne’s Now We Are Six masterpiece King John’s Christmas. But my Lord Liverpool was right. Mr Stone-Fewings looks remarkably like the Disney John, but his performance is no cartoon. Calculating, panicking, conniving; this is a true wretch of a man hiding behind a regal exterior. You instantly got the measure of him during his opening coronation ceremony when he hurriedly assumes the crown whilst no one’s looking. We’d previously seen Mr S-F in the RSC’s Twelfth Night and the Trafalgar’s Richard III, but his performance in this production outshines those completely. A terrific blend of charismatic leader and utter degenerate.

Daniel Rabin in rehearsalBarbara Marten, as his mother Eleanor of Aquitaine, has that classic look of Middle Ages wealthy respectability – she could have stepped straight out from a contemporary portrait. Powerful and dominating, more statesmanlike than her son and heir, it’s a superb performance of control and manipulation. Tanya Moodie is extraordinary as Constance, mother of Arthur, who is King John’s nephew and claimant to the throne. I’ve rarely seen such an intense, moving and overwhelmingly strong performance. Her clipped enunciation is a delight; her stage presence extraordinary.

Jo Stone-Fewing in rehearsalOne of the strongest aspects of this production is not only that the actors are so good but that they are so appropriately cast in their roles. There are some spectacularly dynamic scenes with Arthur and Hubert and I cannot imagine anyone more perfect for these characters than Laurence Belcher and Mark Meadows. Mr Belcher’s quiet demeanour, youthful pallor and innocent expression and voice all create an unforgettable image of the vulnerable young pretender, who died aged 16 – although his jumping off the prison wall is another of Shakespeare’s inventions. His final scene, where he falls dramatically to his death, is staged simply but inventively and I know the Belle of Great Billing was devastated to find the poor lad lifeless at her feet. Mr Meadows’ Hubert looks for all the world as though he would carry out his liege’s wishes no matter how dastardly, and you can see the internal angst as he tries his hardest to comply with the king’s villainous instructions but cannot overcome his innate decency. It was one of the best acted scenes I can ever remember.

Giles Terera in rehearsalAnother role that’s perfectly cast is Alex Waldmann as the Bastard. He instantly engages the audience in his soliloquies, talking to us openly and frankly, as though we had been mates for ages. He’s one of us, we’re one of him. We’re on his side as soon as he invites a member of the audience to participate in his speech – in our performance, it was “if his name be…. Justin…. I’ll call him Peter…” He’s one of the few characters who remain faithful to King John throughout the play and although we think of the King as a pretty bad man and therefore the Bastard is carrying out some pretty bad things, we have a sneaking regard for his loyalty and common-touch decency. It’s a fantastic performance, immaculately judged; a fine balance between humour, vengeance and ambition. His down-to-earth manner and slightly wide-boy approach sets him apart from the essential nobility of Ciaran Owens’ performance as Faulconbridge; they may both be of royal blood but only one of them is ever going to get their hands dirty.

Barbara MartenThe whole cast work together like a dream – Aruhan Galieva makes an extraordinary stage debut as the compliant yet self-reliant Blanche, and the eerie Peter of Pomfret; Joseph Marcell, a hard-as-nails papal legate Pandulph whom you wouldn’t trust further than you could swing your incense burner; Simon Coates, a delightfully manipulable King Philip of France, and with great support from Daniel Rabin as the faithful Salisbury and Giles Terera as the bloodthirsty Austria.

Aruhan Galieva in rehearsalIn 48 years of theatregoing I can only think of a handful of Shakespeare productions on a par with this. Judi Dench in the RSC’s 1976 Comedy of Errors. The Oxford Shakespeare Company’s chilling Macbeth. Albert Finney as Hamlet. For clarity of vision, for intense atmosphere, for immaculate performances and for all-round satisfaction, this is about as good as it gets. After it finishes its Northampton run, it plays Salisbury Cathedral for the last week of May then is at the Globe in June. I can’t recommend this highly enough. Simply a triumph.

P.S. I was travelling on the train back from Euston on Monday afternoon, and, as I was preparing to get off at Northampton, I recognised someone also getting their bags together before getting off the train. It was Arthur. Who would have guessed that the young Duke of Brittany would have been on the same commute? I resolved that if we stopped at the same pelican crossing walking into town I would have complimented him on his performance. However, he made a beeline for the chocolate counter of W H Smiths, so an embarrassing moment was avoided.

Review – Oh What A Lovely War! Curve Theatre, Leicester, 18th April 2015

Oh What a Lovely WarThe words “Oh What a Lovely War”, “Theatre Royal Stratford East” and “Joan Littlewood” are inextricably linked, and have had almost legendary status within British 20th century drama ever since the show first appeared in 1963. It was originally a radio play by Charles Chilton, which was then developed by Joan Littlewood in conjunction with the whole of the original Theatre Workshop cast, to create this iconic, epic musical, telling the story of World War One through song and dance. The show was another on my bucket list of Still haven’t seen it after all these years and it’s about time I did. There is a film, that I also haven’t seen, directed by Richard Attenborough, that Joan Littlewood, apparently, hated. I’m not surprised – he ruined A Chorus Line too.

Britain 1914The highly stylised production gets as far away from the typical depiction of war as possible – Joan Littlewood didn’t want it to be horrific in any way. Instead the notion of war and the hard facts of fatalities are juxtaposed with a music hall and commedia dell’arte presentation to create its own, telling, anti-war story. Every barrier is broken down in this production. It starts off with the actors mingling with the audience, chatting about the performance they are about to see. Sadly no one mingled with us, but I overheard one performer explaining that he was wearing a pierrot costume as was traditionally worn in early 20th century revue shows, and as was used in the original Stratford East production. I saw another talking to an audience member and pointing out which one he was in the programme. So you’re starting with a great sense of equality between the cast and the audience, a level playing field where we’re all sharing the same experience, no matter whether we be audience member or performer.

Ian ReddingtonThere is a main MC who addresses the audience throughout the entire show apart from when he takes on a few different characters. He introduces us to the different songs and sketches as though this were some Edwardian end of the pier show – hence the suitability of the pierrot costumes. He encourages us to sing along with the songs if we know them. The majority of the under-lubricated matinee audience weren’t up for that, apart from the man two to my right who bellowed his way solo throughout much of the afternoon. You would have thought self-consciousness would kick in at some point, wouldn’t you? Cast members rush on and off the stage at odd moments and 90% of the material is extremely light-hearted. Act One takes us to the beginning of the war, with actors assuming the roles of nations having agreements and arguments in the lead-up to the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand. It reminded me of a rather trendy history teacher getting the kids up in front of the class to act out war campaigns. I almost expected to see a blackboard rubber representing the Treaty of Versailles. We then see the early stages of the war, and the expectation it would all be over by Christmas. The act culminates in the famous 1914 Christmas trench scene, with the Germans singing Stille Nacht and Tommy and Fritz playing football in No Man’s Land – simply but very effectively staged.

OWALW ensembleAct Two takes us further into the war, where the innocent pleasure of enjoying light-hearted entertainment is constantly shattered by an electronic newsreel across the back of the stage, recounting the numbers dead or injured on individual days or at particular battlefields. Every so often you take your eyes of the performers just to read the horrendous casualty statistics. They bring the simple lightness of the stagey songs and dances into perspective. The audience questions itself as to how it reacts. How can we fritter away our time whilst they’re dying on the Somme? But there’s nothing we can do to stop it. And, actually, isn’t having fun what life really should be all about? Guilt, resignation, and powerlessness are just some of the emotions that overcome the audience. And, as the MC points out at the end, that this doesn’t only apply to World War One. When will the massacre of innocent people in war end? Will it ever end? Sadly the evidence suggests otherwise. The show is still a really forceful weapon in the argument against war, and Littlewood’s and Theatre Workshop’s left-wing bias stands out (refreshingly, in my opinion).

Richard Glaves and the girlsEver since the BBC dropped The Good Old Days, you don’t get to hear these old songs as often as we used to – in the good old days, in fact. Songs like It’s A Long Way to Tipperary, Pack Up Your Troubles and Keep the Home Fires Burning remain wartime standards; whilst Hold Your Hand Out Naughty Boy, Sister Susie’s Sewing Shirts and I’ll Make a Man of You recollect the best music-hall traditions. A couple – Here Comes a Whizzbang, and Bells of Hell stop you dead in your tracks with the sheer horror of what they convey, and one, I Don’t Want to Be a Soldier, brings a lump to your throat with the soldier’s simple plea for the return of his old life. On a personal note, it was lovely to hear Roses in Picardy again, as it was a favourite of the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle, and I used to enjoy playing it on the piano when I were a lad.

This is warIt’s an excellent cast who work together really well as an ensemble, both as pierrot entertainers and in their individual character sketches. Ian Reddington takes on the role of the MC with a likeable blend of cheek and cheese, plenty of knowing looks to the audience, but also full of portent when it comes to the gloomy prospects for the future. I really enjoyed him in the stupid but very funny sketch about the unintelligible sergeant barking garbled waffle at his troops. Taking the lead female role is Wendi Peters, larger than life and with a belter of a voice. In fact, if anything, her voice was a little too loud in comparison with everyone else. She’s one of these performers who simply doesn’t need amplifying. She brought out all the naughty music hall double entendres in her songs and has a wonderful stage presence. But all the cast are excellent; if you come to see the show, watch out for William Oxborrow struggling with an umbrella as a rifle and Alex Giannini’s hilarious “stage fright” moment.

Wendi Peters and the girlsThe show is still to visit Aylesbury, Birmingham, Truro, Hull and Wimbledon on its tour, and I’d recommend it for its emotionally strong anti-war vibe as well as its unusual and entertaining no fourth wall qualities. You come away with a sense of true gratitude and humility for the lives lost in war. Despite the preponderance of WW1 songs and clichés, its message is as relevant today as ever.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 17th April 2015

Screaming Blue MurderOnce more into the breach at the Underground for another Screaming Blue Murder. Another full, hot house (keep those doors open, and don’t bring a jacket), with Dan Evans compering once again. This week he had the usual front row teachers – their comedy value is on the wane now, I feel; two rows containing a very demure hen party (well, his mother was one of them so I don’t suppose they had much choice),Dan Evans a lady from Duston who thought she was from Dunstable and a chap who worked for a secret department at Weetabix. We had a nice chat with him and his girlfriend during one of the intervals, where we delved deeper into the mysterious activities at the cereal manufacturer and as a result there’s no way I’m revealing what’s going on there. Who would have thought it? Dan of course was on excellent form as usual, and got us all in a relaxed and thoroughly chucklesome mood.

Joey PageOur first act was new to us, Joey Page, a very funny young chap with rather esoteric material, and a voice like Spitting Image’s Mick Jagger (if you can remember that far back). He has a lot of terrific material about still living at home with Mum and Dad – and the difficulties that creates when bringing a girl back. I also liked his nicely made-up facts, especially the one about Prince Philip and his cleaners. As a climax, if that’s the right word, we were treated to a performance of his one act play, “Hands”. Delightful sense of the ridiculous, and a very engaging comic. Most impressive!

Sally Anne HaywardThe second act, whom we have seen three times here before, was Sally-Anne Hayward. She’s very funny in a self-deprecating way and has a great conversational style that really puts you at ease, even though she’ll probably do some toe-curlingly embarrassing stories about sex. She was easily able to bounce off the hens (so to speak) and had some enjoyable observations about all-male and all-female groups going out together. She went down a storm and was absolutely at her best. To be fair, she doesn’t stray much from her previous routines, but what’s not to like?

Anthony KingOur final act, whom we have also seen twice before, was Anthony King, whose act is based on comedy songs on the guitar that reveal (sometimes subtly, sometimes not so) his darker side. He’s the kind of person you’d expect to have buried his neighbours under the patio, and then have a perfectly logical and well-argued reason as to why it was appropriate. His pet centipede never stood a chance. A very assured, confident and clever act, and everyone loved it.

Only one more Screaming Blue this season before the comedians go into the Summer Recess. Sadly we’re unable to go – but you still can!

Review – The Shakespeare Revue, White Cobra Productions, The Playhouse, Northampton, 16th April 2015

Shakespeare RevueA Double First for us last night, which is something neither of us can say of our academic careers. Not only was it our first encounter with local drama company White Cobra Productions, it was also our first visit to the charming little Playhouse theatre in Northampton. Tucked away in a quiet corner of The Mounts (or should that be the recently rebranded Boot and Shoe Quarter), this little gem is full of character and atmosphere. Just like nearly every other building in Northampton that has something of a history, it was originally built as a shoe factory in the late 19th century. Since then it’s undergone a number of changes including – allegedly – at one time being a coffin warehouse. Frankly, it’s not the kind of place I’d like to be locked in alone at night.

Rod ArkleWhite Cobra Productions have been going for three years now and The Shakespeare Revue is (I believe) their fourth production. The show is a vivacious assembly of over thirty sketches and songs, originally put together by the RSC for the annual celebrations to mark Shakespeare’s birthday in 1993. Just think, he would have been 429 years old. Not many people get to mark that particular birthday, but being the good egg he was, we just love him, don’t we, us theatregoers, can’t get enough of him. “What a wonderful old chap Shakespeare was, bald but sexy” as Peter Cook once intoned. The sketches and songs themselves date as far back as 1905, and flowed from such gifted pens as those that belonged to Cole Porter, Stephen Sondheim, Victoria Wood, J B Priestley, and many many others.

Fraser HainesAs you might expect from such a varied collection of writers, some sketches and songs hit the funnybone with a bit more pinpoint accuracy than others, but even if a few of them don’t quite do it for you, another will be along in a minute. I had a number of favourites: there’s a quirky version of the Teddy Bear’s Picnic sung by the Capulets; another song, In Shakespeare’s Day, refers to the challenges in staging some of these shows with modern day performers wondering how on earth they managed it in the 1500s. There’s a pomposity-pricking sketch about the ways you might interpret the word “Time”; and a wonderful sequence when a noble wanderer returns to ask “And How is Hamlet” only to find the play’s entire cast have snuffed it.

Richard JordanThere were two sketches that I appreciated the most. Richard Jordan took the Julie Walters’ role in Victoria Wood’s sketch Giving Notes, where he is the director taking his cast to task for not giving us their funniest of Hamlets. I remember that sketch so clearly, having re-watched the series Victoria Wood As Seen on TV dozens of times in the 1980s. A masterstroke to have it performed by a man – Mr Jordan treading a fine line between luvvie and tyrant – which gave it its own unique identity. The other really inventive sketch was the superbly written Othello in Earnest, where Othello is grilled by Lady Brabantio as to his suitability for marrying Desdemona – just as Wilde’s Lady Bracknell grills Jack overKate Billingham her dear Gwendolen. This gives rise to some fabulous cross-over puns, for example “to lose both sounds like hairlessness” and “the lion is immaterial”. Kate Billingham was a marvellously haughty Lady B and Fraser Haines a quite modest and genteel Moor of Venice – as superbly unlike your average Othello as is possible to imagine.

Just as each sketch or song has its own charm, each of the six performers brings their own style and character to the show too. They all worked together very well as an ensemble – not getting in each other’s way on such a small stage is no mean feat, particularly with the incorporation of choreography! The cast have a nice sense of the ridiculous, Kimberley Vaughanperhaps nowhere seen better than in The English Lesson where Kate Billingham and Kimberley Vaughan take on the roles of Henry V’s intended bride Katharine and her partner in Franglais, Alice. Like all the best pantos, we had a song sheet (which was, literally, a sheet) and a competition to see which section of the auditorium could sing the loudest – an interesting concept in a theatre that seats 84 max. No finer sound than a happy audience knowingly (or unknowingly) singing along to a list of double entendres.

Bernie WoodBut these are just a few highlights of a very entertaining and upbeat show performed by a talented and likeable cast. It’s only on for a brief run at the Playhouse, but there is an additional performance scheduled for July 4th in Pitsford. Catch it if you can!

Review – Arcadia, Oxford Playhouse, 14th April 2015

ArcadiaTom Stoppard. A dramatist for whom I have immense respect. As a teenager who used to devour play texts like nobody’s business I did my best to keep up to date with all his works. I read Albert’s Bridge, and If You’re Glad I’ll Be Frank; After Magritte and Artist Descending a Staircase. I hooted with laughter at the production in my brain of The Real Inspector Hound. At school, we read (for fun, because our teacher loved him) Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead with its amazing off-stage existence – we were also taken to see the National’s production at the Duke of York’s. We also went on school trips to see Jumpers at the National (a philosophical fantasy) and Dirty Linen at the Arts (where I sat next to our other English teacher whom we all called Andy, later to become more famous as the writer and broadcaster A. N. Wilson). I read Travesties, even though I hadn’t a clue who Tristan Tzara was. I took a prospective girlfriend to see Every Good Boy Deserves Favour (no chance). I saw the original productions of Night and Day, The Real Thing and On The Razzle and found them riveting. I took the newlywed Mrs Chrisparkle to see Hapgood and we loved it. Then, for some reason, I don’t think we saw any new Stoppards again – only revivals.

It didn’t take long for Stoppard’s reputation as a master dramatist to take hold. Certainly when I was reading English at Oxford (not known for its fondness for the avantgarde) Stoppard was a featured author if you took drama as a specialised subject – and that was way back in 1980. Today there are student crib notes and study guides for many of his works. It seems to me that he is as studied as he is performed or watched on stage.

Flora MontgomeryNormally, at about this point in a review, I would give you a quick run-down of the plot. However, this time I don’t think I can give the plot justice. There’s so much in there, so much to understand, so much that you need to be able to recognise from your own knowledge; and I confess, especially as a non-scientist, there were considerable areas of it that I just didn’t understand at all. Stoppard assumes a level of intelligence and education in his audience, and, frankly, although I am no dimwit (honestly), I don’t think I came up to the mark. What I can tell you is that events in the early 1800s and events today are mirrored and juxtaposed in a clever and telling way. I can tell you that the 19th century plot contains a tutor who enjoys sexual congress with married women, a wronged husband/poet, a precocious student, and an ambitious plan to create a landscaped garden. The 20th century plot contains rival academics with their own theories to prove about the same wronged poet and same garden. And those academics get it wrong.

There are some particularly enjoyable aspects. We both really appreciated the central notion that modern day academics will misinterpret events in the past to suit their own ideas. Much sweat is shed over the identity of the secret hermit (an invention in a schoolgirl prank) or whether Byron shot the missing poet (no he didn’t). The facts as they are actually known get reassembled, and the gaps filled with hope and guesswork, by the academics to create a lie. As you can imagine that idea went down very well with an Oxford audience. As Christopher Hampton wrote in his excellent 1970 play “The Philanthropist”: it’s much more important for a theory to be shapely than for it to be true.

Arcadia comes top of many people’s lists as one of the best plays of the 20th century and as Stoppard’s finest hour. I can see why. As I’ve indicated earlier, it encompasses a vast array of thought. It’s extraordinarily inventive, has plenty of witty Stoppardisms, and even features a tortoise (just like Jumpers). It pits chaos theory against determinism, 19th century against 20th century, academic motivation against sexual motivation. It ties up all its loose ends into a very satisfactory whole. I bet it’s magnificent to read.

Wilf ScoldingAnd that’s really at the heart of the problem, as I see it. I think this could have been the most gripping and rewarding comic novel, giving you the time to come to understand concepts you don’t come across on a day by day basis, and to get to grips with characters and their peccadilloes. However, as a reasonably fast-paced play, it lost me. It sacrificed emotion and action on the altar of theory and cleverness. We both found it very heavy going, very wordy, very static, lacking any real sense of drama and really quite dull to watch. I liked the general setup that we were watching the same room two hundred years apart, and that it constantly went backward and forward telling separate stories – but when the two eras merged in the final scene I found the clever-cleverness of Stoppard’s device rather smug. It doesn’t help that it’s almost entirely populated with difficult, spiky or rude characters. I found that I didn’t have any personal empathy with any of them – except perhaps for Septimus, the 19th century tutor, because he’s a roué, a cad and a bounder which sets him apart from the rest of the characters, having something of a personality.

It was a weirdly strength-sapping experience. As people around us regained their seats for the second act, we heard comments such as “he’s not coming back” and “they hated it”. One man said “why is it always dark outside when the action is taking place during the day?” (good question) ; another said “the table on the stage is just too big. It takes up all the space and you can’t see what’s happening behind it”. I agree. The table is a constant presence in both the 19th century and 20th century elements of the play and gives it continuity. But percentage-wise it really does take up a lot of the acting space, and when characters sit in front of it, they block the characters or events that take place behind it. Another comment I heard was that people just couldn’t hear what was being said. To be honest, I don’t think there was much wrong with the actors’ enunciations or projections; I just think that some of the words and concepts are so alien to get your head around quickly that your concentration lapses in occasional troughs of despair and as a result you find yourself not paying attention to what’s being said.

Dakota Blue RichardsAs I didn’t warm to the characters, I can’t say that I particularly warmed to any of the performances. That’s not to say they weren’t good. Flora Montgomery as Hannah was very good as the modern, hard-nosed, essentially selfish and rude academic who always has to have her own way. I liked Wilf Scolding as the untrustworthy Septimus, considering his next move as though he were deep in chess. Dakota Blue Richards kept her Thomasina, the 19th century student, on the right side of being an irritating know-all. But really, on the whole, I didn’t care.

To get the best out of this play you really have to be match-fit. Don’t go after a hard day at work, or after a meal or a drink; take vitamin supplements and whatever substances you require to make you as alert as possible. Wear light clothing because your brain will overheat. Alternatively, make sure you read it in advance, then you’ll have a heads-up on what the actors are going to say and you can look a lot of the terms up in a dictionary first. And if that makes it more of a scholastic exercise than a play, ay there’s the rub. This is the final week of the English Touring Theatre/ Theatre Royal Brighton co-production. I’d love to see them perform something a little more accessible.

Review – Christoph Koenig conducts Beethoven and Elgar, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 12th April 2015

RPOA welcome return to the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra visiting the hallowed halls of the Royal and Derngate, for this intense concert featuring Beethoven’s Third Symphony – the Eroica – and Elgar’s Violin Concerto with soloist Pinchas Zukerman. I say “intense” because they’re two meaty pieces, and without any side dishes like a light overture for starters or a quick entr’acte as a palate-cleanser, they took a lot of concentration and attention on the part of the audience in order to appreciate them at their fullest. They were also completely new to Mrs Chrisparkle and me vis-à-vis a concert experience. I have recordings of both somewhere in the old CD collection, but I have to say neither has ever really surfaced as a particular favourite.

Our conductor was Christoph Koenig, whom we have also never seen before, but he has a CV as a long as a baton, and he obviously inspires both confidence and respect from the orchestra. He’s quite a debonair chap, bounding on to the stage in a swish black Chairman Mao suit; and once he’s on the podium – for the opening Beethoven at least – he never stands still again. He’s the kind of conductor who throws his body heart and soul into the whole performance to encourage the very last iota of energy out of the orchestra. Cajoling here with the palm of his hand, triumphantly punching there with an upraised fist, nodding furiously as if to say “yes! yes!” to any section he might feel is being a little backward with coming forward. When he wants the orchestra to deliver the next part quietly he almost crouches down on his knees with a “shush!” before raising himself up again when it he wants it louder. He’s very entertaining to watch!

Christoph KoenigTalking of shush, there were a couple of guys a few rows in front of us who were really quite annoying. They whispered and fidgeted occasionally, which is ok in the noisy sequences but it’s nice to observe restraint during the quieter parts wherever possible. During one quiet moment in the Beethoven, one of them decided it was time to fumble with a rustly crinkly bag in order to extricate some difficult-to-find, bottom-of-the-bag sucky sweets. It completely drowned out one of Beethoven’s more delicate moments (and, let’s face it, there aren’t that many of them). They seemed totally ignorant of the fact they were in spitting distance of the back row of the first violins. You should have seen the daggers look the nearest violinist gave him. Mrs C expected him to pluck the catgut off his bow and strangle him with it. To no avail, he obviously didn’t notice, as later on, during the Elgar, he decided to start some kind of running commentary to his mate (or so it seemed to me) and once again the violinist gave him the death glare. So, please, dear classical music fans of Northampton, next time you go to see one of these concerts, would you mind shutting the ***k up? Thanks awfully.

So what of the Beethoven? According to the programme, the Eroica was inspired by his hero-worship of Napoleon; indeed it was originally to have been called the Bonaparte. But, as is often the case, your heroes have a tendency to let you down, and when Napoleon proclaimed himself Emperor, Beethoven declared he would now be no more than a simple tyrant and ripped up the dedication page of his original manuscript in a hissy fit. It is a vast, stirring, strong and moving symphony, with extensive sequences given over to buzzing violins, but also room for a funeral march, a scherzo, and an electric final movement that started within a split second of the scherzo ending; no hanging around here, as if Mr Koenig had a bus to catch. I’d noticed that the usual layout of the orchestra had been changed slightly, with the violas and the cellos having swapped places. Mrs C wondered if that was because the first violin and the violas seem to have almost a duel between themselves at times, and by facing each other they could really act out their battle of the strings. If so, it worked well, because it was a highly dramatic performance. We also appreciated the warm and rousing contribution made by the French Horns – Congratulations to Laurence Davies, Samuel Jacobs and the rest of your squad.

Pinchas ZukermanAfter spending the interval observing how long the queue for the healthy frozen yogurts are, and appreciating how much more efficient it is to pre-order one’s Shiraz, we headed back inside for the performance of Elgar’s Violin Concerto. I was particularly looking forward to hearing Pinchas Zukerman because I had read a lot about him and wanted to hear him live for myself. Mr Zukerman is definitely somebody who lets the music do the talking. He only briefly acknowledges the audience before the performance; not, one feels, out of any sense of self-importance – far from it – more out of embarrassment at being on show – don’t look at me, please could you look at my antique violin instead. When he performs he is deadly serious, concentrating hard on what he is doing, observing his fellow musicians and Mr Koenig, who incidentally stepped back into a much less flamboyant role, conducting simply and effectively from the side but with no bravura antics to distract you from Mr Zukerman’s quiet determination.

Of course, it goes without saying that technically he’s extraordinary; it was a very strong and vibrant performance. He seems to have a way of jabbing deep into the violin to scour the instrument for maximum sound and effect. Watching and listening to him was a very satisfying experience, but a challenging one. Neither of us found it an “easy” piece of music; it was demanding, serious, and without any “laughs”, if you get my drift. Despite Elgar’s own opinion that it was a highly emotional piece, for me it appealed more to the cerebral than the emotional. Maybe that is due to Mr Zukerman’s intense interpretation. But there was no doubting the audience’s appreciation, and when it was over Mr Zukerman received three “curtain calls”, much to his unassuming discomfort.

So, overall an intense and challenging evening of appreciating musical excellence. As always, you come away with a sense of privilege to be able to witness such mastery. It’s good to be confronted by something different every so often, simply to see how you react to new experiences. Rest assured, the Royal Philharmonic never let you down. Looking forward to our next concert in May!

Review – The Simon and Garfunkel Story, Derngate, Northampton, 9th April 2015

S&G Greatest HitsAh, Simon and Garfunkel. How the very words take me back. Back to my teenage years, where part of my nightly ritual was to play at least one of three particular albums as a reward for having got through the homework and to prepare myself mentally for the humiliations and torture that would doubtless befall me the next day. One of those three albums was Simon and Garfunkel’s Greatest Hits. After that nightly soothing of fourteen amazing tracks I felt strengthened and more confident. Funny how music can do that to you.

S&G Greatest Hits Other SideAs my young teens progressed into my older teens, I felt the need to discover more of their work, so saved up and bought all their albums. The Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle bought me Paul Simon’s Greatest Hits Etc for Christmas in 1976 (I think), and I also started exploring Art Garfunkel’s solo work. At university my friend the Lord Liverpool showed me how much more satisfying was the acoustic version of I Am A Rock rather than the fully orchestrated version with which I was familiar. Then when I went to London University as a postgrad S&G Wembley programmeI became great mates with a first year undergrad, the Prefect of Pontardulais, who was a massive fan of Paul Simon. He never rated Garfunkel though; memorably describing him as simply a w***er. In the summer of 1982 he and I went to see Simon and Garfunkel perform at Wembley Stadium, getting there as early as we could so that we could get as near the stage as possible. It was a fantastic concert. I never dreamed I would see S&G live; a memory to cherish.

BookendsAs the years progress, new musical favourites take the place of old favourites, but even if you only play those old songs occasionally, when you hear them again it’s like they never went away. So a show like The Simon and Garfunkel Story is a wonderful way of reliving old memories and wallowing in nostalgia. It’s a very simple show, but none the worst for that. Dean Elliott plays Paul Simon and David Tudor is Art Garfunkel, in front of a three piece band and a simple projection screen that constantly reminds us of S&G’s old albums, tracks and photos. They start off with the classic The Sound of Silence and the moving He Was My Brother and then go back to the very early Tom and Jerry days and work their way through their opus album by album. On the way they fill in little nuggets about how Simon and Garfunkel met, how their friendship developed and how it eventually fell apart. It’s enough background information to contextualise each song or album, without ever becoming too factual or biographic. What you’ve really come to the theatre for is to listen to those incredible songs again, and the five of them really put on an excellent act.

Sounds of SilenceWhen we saw the Beatles’ show Let It Be, I was particularly impressed with how the four musical actors accurately recreated the recorded sound of all those Beatles tracks. In the S&G Story, Messrs Elliott and Tudor don’t aim to give you the same sound as the old records. They perform as S&G would have done in live concert, so it’s got an appropriate amount of rough edges and musical variation. That said, David Tudor absolutely nails Garfunkel’s exceptionally pure and clean voice, especially in those earlier tracks. When he sang For Emily, Whenever I May Find Her it literally brought a tear to my eye through its complete perfection. I also liked the way he sat impassively, almost hiding from attention, whenever he wasn’t singing – that’s just how I imagine Art Garfunkel to have been, eclipsed by his partner’s more showmanlike behaviour. As Paul Simon, I thought Dean Elliott gave a great performance, really bringing back all of Simon’s sincerity and stage presence, even if he slightly over-stressed (IMHO) the nasal tone of those earlier recordings. It took this show to make me realise that S&G really do have very distinctive voices and it’s a big ask to impersonate them.

Parsley, etcOver the course of the evening, they perform about thirty of the duo’s finest songs – all the standards of course – Homeward Bound, I Am A Rock (the non-acoustic version), Scarborough Fair (“remember me to all and sundry”, as Mrs Chrisparkle regularly re-interprets the lyrics), Mrs Robinson, Cecilia, Bridge Over Troubled Water, and ending up with The Boxer as the final encore. There are a few of my personal favourite “B” sides in there as well, the immaculate Leaves That Are Green, the harsh Hazy Shade of Winter and the joyous Baby Driver, which I was still singing, fairly badly, by the time we got home. They recreate the excitement of the Concert in Central Park (which was the same as the concert the Prefect and I saw in Wembley) with really stunning performances of Late In The Evening and Slip Sliding Away. And it was with much relief that they included my all-time favourite S&G song, America, that ultimate chasm between hope and reality; such a beautiful song that never fails to move me.

Bridge over Troubled WaterThe Simon and Garfunkel story ends with the split – there are a few musical and visual pointers to the guys’ solo careers, but none of those latter songs are actually performed fully on stage. Probably wise – at 2 hours 20 minutes it’s just the perfect length for a really enjoyable look back at their careers and to relive those incredible songs, the majority of which remain timeless classics. If you like a bit of S&G you’ll really enjoy this show. They’re touring all over the place all year as you can see here, and they’re definitely worth catching. The mainly slightly more senior audience really enjoyed it and it received a very warm ovation. Recommended!