Review – James Acaster, Zebra Xmas, Playhouse Theatre, Northampton, 23rd December 2016

James AcasterI know what you’re thinking. Why on earth is TV, Radio and Fringe star James Acaster playing two nights at the 80-seater Playhouse in Northampton? It’s not even listed as a gig on his website. I believe it’s his way of saying thanks to his local fans – he’s famously from Kettering – and I think it’s an amazingly generous way of spending two evenings in the run-up to Christmas, larking around for two hours on stage (a teeny weeny one) for just a fiver a ticket. We’d seen him 14 months ago, when he performed his Represent show at the Royal in Northampton. I remember him as being delightfully laconic, eerily whimsical, and controlled by a brain the size of a small continent. Mrs Chrisparkle, on the other hand, couldn’t remember him at all. I don’t know if that says more about him or her.

James AcasterWe had been encouraged to sit in the front row on entering the auditorium, and after a summer of my being involved in countless comedy acts at the Edinburgh Fringe, the front row of a comedy gig no longer terrifies me – that much. I accept, I was expecting to be picked on, but Mr Acaster only picks on you if you really deserve it. Behave well, and you’ll be fine. His opening gambit was to point out that people only sit in the front row because they want to be picked on, so he refuses to pander to their pre-rehearsed interjections. Very fair point. But he did fix me with his stare every so often, and did choose me to explain what a DM is in Twitter terminology. What did he take me for? Obviously my grey hair suggests an advancement of years that I personally choose to ignore. Also my downbeat chuckle put him off on one occasion. But the star of the show turned out to be the fork lift truck driver recruitment consultant, and the girl he was with who isn’t his girlfriend. His noisy need to go to the gents during the first half was more than Mr A could resist. Be warned for future gigs.

James AHe’s one of those comics that you’ve got no idea how much of the show is scripted, and how much isn’t. He gave us an evening of brilliant material, including the repercussions of Lindsay Lohan’s post-Brexit tweet about Kettering (how dare she), the trials and tribulations of the conga, postcode wars, iffy celebrity gossip, and the true meaning of the Christingle. Admittedly some of this wasn’t new to us having seen him before, but I realise that you could watch him deliver the same material many times over and he would express it with different emphasis each time – so he’s really good value from that point of view!

j-acaster-2We were advised in advance that there was to be “no support act”, but that wasn’t strictly true. He was joined on stage by a Christmas tree – one of those five foot plastic affairs that the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle so valued because they weren’t messy on the carpet. The tree ended up playing a vital role in proceedings, as Mr A decided to “operate” it from behind. It’s funnier than it sounds, believe me. There was some Q&A at the end, where someone from the audience asked for the tree’s opinion on some vital subject – cue Mr A returning to his alter ego of Tree. During the melée that followed, I ended up asking the tree what was its favourite bauble. Honestly, I’d only had two Strongbows.

A great way to start the Christmas season!

P. S. I didn’t know why his last tour was called Represent, and I don’t know why this show was called Zebra Xmas. Few things are that black and white, surely? The man’s clearly an enigma.

Review – Peter and the Starcatcher, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 20th December 2016

Peter and the StarcatcherWhen they announced many months ago, that the Christmas play in the Royal this year would be Peter and the Starcatcher, my little heart was filled with joy because I had heard super things about this from its New York run a few years back. Huge kudos, of course, to the Royal and Derngate for producing its UK premiere. Not the first time they’ve done such a thing and I’m sure it won’t be the last.

evelyn-hoskinsEveryone knows the story of Peter Pan, but do you know how it was that Peter became Peter, and how he ended up with the lost boys? Or how Captain Hook lost his hand? Or how Tinkerbell was created? Or why there is a crocodile and how it swallowed a clock? Wonder no more. In this very cleverly created and imaginative story all is revealed.

michael-sheaYou arrive at the theatre to see the Royal stage exposed in all its backstage rawness – ropes, bricks, painted signs – as well as an intriguing band layout fronted by a beautiful grand xylophone. All of a rush, the cast assemble on stage, Nicholas Nickleby-like, to begin the intricate exposition of the story of two associated ships, The Neverland and the Wasp, on a mission to take the Queen (God bless her)’s treasures to the distant country of Rundoon. The good Lord Aster is on board the Wasp to ensure the safe delivery of the trunk of jewels; he is father to young Molly, who is also sailing with her nana, the very alliterative Mrs Bumbrake. Subterfuge causes the precious cargo and a dummy cargo filled with sand to get mixed up; orphan boys are sold to one of the ship’s captains; Molly escapes her nana’s clutches and discovers one of the boys – named Boy, because he hasn’t a name – and after that, things start to get complicated. If I tried to write more of a synopsis we’d be here for hours.

peter-upside-downThough linguistically brilliant, it’s a very densely written script and you really have to concentrate hard to understand everything that’s going on. In all honesty, I don’t think either Mrs Chrisparkle or I followed every twist or appreciated every nuance. For the most part, that’s not a problem, because you have a hugely committed cast who can carry you through any gaps in your understanding simply by their bright characterisation and lively ensemble work. It’s quirky, creative, and at times very surreal – as in the opening scene of the second act, where “starstuff” has done its magic and created a music hall act of mermaids; or on Fighting Prawn’s tropical island where every command or insult is an item of Italian food or drink. And I’d love to say that the show is a total success. Really I would, because the effort and commitment that’s put into this production is tangible. But, sadly, I can’t.

peter-umbrellasIt’s one of those occasions where you find yourself really enjoying a play, engaged by the characters and their activities, tuned into their sense of humour, and laughing at all the jokes – but then you realise that no one else is laughing. Because, for whatever reason, the spirit and humour of this play just doesn’t transmit itself into the auditorium. It’s like someone has erected an invisible Brechtian barrier and it won’t get any farther. The cast are working their socks off for comic – and indeed emotional – effect, but for 90% of the audience (as it seemed to me) they may as well have been in another room. This must be so hard for the cast to keep going with all their enthusiastic on-stage shenanigans to get so little response back. There are a few adult-only lines (to be fair, probably fewer than in most pantos nowadays) for example where Mrs Bumbrake asks Alf, who has just admired her beauty, to accompany her to the ship’s lower decks with the words “take me below”. Mrs C and I sniggered with our best schoolboy smut-appreciation, but no one else did. And I think that’s the problem – most pantos/Christmas plays try to cater for both children and adults so that it is accessible to both, with enough fun and games to keep the youngsters entertained and enough wink-wink to keep the adults on song. But I think that of all the Christmas plays we’ve seen at the Royal this is the one that treads the most uneasy balance between its two target demographics. The publicity states it is suitable for 7+ but I think you would have to be considerably older to appreciate (and assimiliate) the adventures of the story. It simply falls between two stools.

peter-stache-and-smeeWe last saw Greg Haiste as a wonderfully warm Bob Cratchit in A Christmas Carol four years ago. This time he gives us a marvellous central comedy performance as Black Stache, channelling his inner Lord Flash-Heart. How tempting it must have been for him to come up with some Rik Mayallisms – there are a few opportunities for off-the-wall script adjustments so I really was expecting one. His comic gems flow so freely at times that it’s almost impossible to keep up with him. But we thought he was brilliant.

miles-yekenniMolly is played by the spirited Evelyn Hoskins, once again portraying a thirteen-year-old, like she did in This Is My Family three years ago in Sheffield. She absolutely gets that girlish quality of boastful bossiness without ever becoming a stereotype or a Violet Bott-type pain in the rectum, and it’s a great performance. She is excellently matched by Michael Shea’s Boy – later to become Peter – with his brilliantly observed naïve other-worldliness, that conveyed possibilities of both heroism and “just wanting to be a boy”. Given this is his first professional stage engagement since leaving LAMDA I reckon he could be One To Watch. Together he and Ms Hoskins give us a touching insight into first love that is genuinely moving; I very nearly had something in my eye at one point.

molly-and-the-lost-boysIt’s a brilliant piece of ensemble acting, although other stand-out performers (for me) were Marc Akinfolarin as the sometimes kindly, sometimes villainous Alf; Tendayi Jembere (whose strong performance we remembered in the riveting Mogadishu) playing a very as the pork-dreaming Ted; and Miles Yekinni as the whip-cracking Bill Slank; never has an actor looked as though he will corpse at any moment as Mr Yekinni does when he is cavorting in a mermaid’s outfit.

peter-and-the-stageDespite the hard work that the audience has to put in to get the best out of the play, we both really enjoyed it; but were also fully aware that large numbers of our colleagues in the stalls didn’t seem too impressed. It wasn’t the warmest of receptions at curtain call, but I’d definitely recommend it, because you might, like us, find its quirkiness and surrealism irresistible. Even better, leave the kids at home and learn about young Peter without worrying whether they’re understanding any of it. It’s on at the Royal until 31st December.

P. S. We witnessed an unfortunate example of theatre rage being played out in the bar during the interval. A man was taking a couple to task because their children were flashing their light sabres during the performance and ruining his enjoyment of the play. I can understand his point. I can also understand theirs – in that the toys were bought at the theatre with the implicit understanding that they will be played with during the show. It’s an interesting question of theatre etiquette; the flashing toys wouldn’t have been half so noticeable in a proper pantomime. That said, the kids probably needed them to divert their attention from what they couldn’t understand was happening on the stage. I’d like to say that their discussion was polite and reasoned; I’d like to…; sorry about that.

Review – Jiri Kylian, Three Dances, Ballet de l’Opera de Paris, Palais Garnier, Paris, 10th December 2016

Jiri KylianA special occasion calls for a special occasion. As Mrs Chrisparkle was celebrating her **th birthday (and they don’t come much bigger than the **th), we decided to jetset it to Paris for a long weekend of culture. And Disneyland, of course. We’ve been to the Phantom’s Own Palais Garnier a few times over the years and even though I’ve attached a few photos, they really do not do it justice. It is just the most stunning theatre in the world. You could be in Versailles. Palais GarnierIt’s so chic that it doesn’t have a bar per se, just irregularly positioned tables with someone dispensing glasses of Taittinger for 12 euros a neck. One of the splendid things about a programme of three individual ballets is that there will be two intervals, each perfectly champagne-sized. Including our pre-show drink, we got through three glasses each; that’s 72 euros spent on divinely spoiling ourselves. Well, we’re worth it.

One of the ceilingsJiri Kylian has long been a choreographer to admire. I first encountered his work when seeing Rambert and NDT2 at High Wycombe in the mid-90s; and, in fact, we saw one of the three dances in this programme, Tar and Feathers, in 2007 when NDT1 were performing it at Sadlers’ Wells. He’s always been daring, stylish, funny and unpredictable; never one to create a piece that you can predict how it will develop, One of the halls you’re always guessing where he’s going to take you next. The programme is satisfyingly structured to the tried and tested formula of Dance 1: accessible, straightforward, enjoyable; Dance 2: difficult, challenging, unpredictable; Dance 3: crowd pleasing, funny, lively. Each dance was originally created for Nederlands Dans Theater.

bella-figura-2The first dance on offer was Bella Figura, created by Kylian in 1995, and which first entered the repertoire of the Paris Opera in 2001. This is a stunning piece of work on many levels. Primarily, you get an overwhelming feeling of balance and beauty. The dancers move exquisitely, with steady control, to a tender baroque soundtrack, radiating elegance and refinement. Kylian takes you by surprise with the sequences where the dancers appear topless, both men and women, all dressed similarly in billowing red skirts, creating a surprisingly asexual and uniform tableau. The semi-nudity is a great leveller,bella-figura making all the dancers appear remarkably similar. The other surprise element in the staging is how the curtains take on a life of their own and create smaller box-like dance spaces on the stage. This gives you a feeling not only that your gaze is being drawn specifically to what Kylian wants you to see, but also that sensation that you are being deprived of seeing other activity elsewhere on the stage. Both unnerving and reassuring at the same time. Suffice to say, it was performed with immaculate class and sheer delight throughout, and Dorothée Gilbert and Alessio Carbone were simply superb.

tar-and-feathersThe second dance – Tar and Feathers – was choreographed by Kylian in 2006 to Mozart’s ninth piano concerto and is both spellbinding and unutterable nonsense at the same time. Skirts made of bubble wrap; a piano standing on stilts loftily in the air; dancers who occasionally break their silence by barking like a dog. Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo would love it. Plenty of slow, deliberate walking across the stage; and there is some significance in the fact that one side of the stage is coloured black, the other white. On the black side, dancers peer curiously under the floor covering to find – who knows what? They don’t seem to find anything, but sometimes they just like to stay there, protecting themselves from the outside world with lino. The dance ends with one of the dancers walking, tentatively, over a mountain of bubble wrap, cringing each time she steps and makes a cracking noise. All thoroughly weird and beyond comprehension. And also, there wasn’t a lot of what you’d call dance in it – a lot of posturing, a lot of silence, a lot of awkwardness, but not much actual dance. Yet again, it was performed with such style and grace that you can’t help forgive it its nonsense. Well, I forgave it. The rather grumpy man to my right refused to applaud.

Symphonie de PsaumesThe final dance was Symphonie de Psaumes, with Stravinsky’s music of the same name, composed to celebrate the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s 50th anniversary in 1930. Jiri Kylian created the dance in 1978 and it’s an absolute crowd-pleaser. Rich looking oriental and Indian carpets hug the back wall of the stage to present a warm sea of reds and oranges, whilst on the ground dancers dressed in black and grey walk and dance in formation across a square surrounded by chairs. Waves of dancers criss-cross the stage, picking others up and dropping others off in their wake, like some human knitting pattern on a huge machine as they work towards a distant inexorable goal. It’s mesmeric to watch and full of beautiful and invigorating dance moves. The audience absolutely loved it.

The production continues in repertory at the Palais Garnier until 31st December – a rewarding and most refined evening.

Production photos by Ann Ray. Theatre photos by me.

Review – She Echoes, University of Northampton 3rd Year BA (Hons) Acting Students, 7th December 2016

she-echoesLast month I accompanied Mr Smallmind to see Shrapnel, the first of two improvised pieces by the University of Northampton 3rd Year BA (Hons) Acting Students at their little den of iniquity, Dark Isham, on the university campus. Now it’s time for the second show, She Echoes, again created by the students and directed by Lily McLeish. Just to set the scene, let me verbatim the director’s note for you: “Imagine for every choice you make an alternate possibility that didn’t happen splits off. Imagine being able to see all the possible outcomes of your life. Imagine the tiniest change of one day could have the most unforeseen outcome.” We’re clearly in that rather exciting world of Sliding Doors and J B Priestley memory plays, where you reach a Dangerous Corner and turn one way rather than the other; and who knows what would have happened if you’d taken the other turning. Well, in She Echoes, there’s no doubt. All the possibilities are played out very clearly, and with substantially different results.

Karr KennedyThe bare bones are these – Emily wakes up (she might oversleep, she might not); she sees her sister Claire on her way to work (Claire might be drunk, she might not); she might take the car to work (or she might walk); she gets to work (she might be late, she might not); she has either a terrible or a great day; she meets a guy who asks her out (he might be shy, he might not); she gets her hair done and arranges to go to the Red Ruby for dancing at 9 (she might be alone, she might not); she has a great night (or she has an appalling night). All the possibilities are woven very cleverly into the narrative and, with many cast members constantly changing roles you might sometimes be a little unsure of who is doing what with whom, but that just adds to the general mystery and depth of the whole piece. It’s always entertaining and always taking surprising turns, and at 70 minutes non-stop it’s a burst of energy on the stage.

Benjamin HamptonThey use two methods of showing the alternative paths that a sequence of events could take. Usually they employ the straightforward method of acting out a scene from start to finish, and then acting it out again but this time with some changes. However, the most thrilling scene in the play is in the nightclub where instead of having one sequence of events follow the other, you have one story being acted out on one side of the stage and another story being acted on the other at the same time. This visual side-by-side-ness provides a stark contrast between the two experiences and has a really high impact. The music, the costumes and some of the props suggest that the play is set in the 1920s; for example, the market crates have London 1924 stamped on them, and in one scene they discuss Prohibition in the States, and there is one excellent dance number with the whole cast which certainly has elements of Charleston (although primarily was just good fun). Apart from that, nothing else seems to relate to that era, and the conversation styles are certainly those of the modern day, so I’m not entirely sure why they chose to set it at that time. I note that Emily spends 2/- on her daily paper… how much?!! I don’t think any newspaper would have been more than a penny in those days – Moneysorter suggests an equivalent cost today would be £4.25.

Rachel Graham-BrownI don’t want to be nit-picky though. The play is structured so that each member of the cast gets their opportunity to shine and for the most part they darn well seize those chances and give us some excellent moments of theatre. Perhaps the most notable aspect to the entire performance, though, is how seamlessly each cast member integrates with everyone else; this is one of the most effective ensemble performances I’ve seen in a long time. Without a detailed programme (which, admittedly, with this play could be quite some feat to engineer) I might get a few names wrong for which I apologise in advance. I really loved the partnership between Benjamin Hampton as Pete and Karr Kennedy as Emily, when he’s so tentatively trying to touch her hand but can’t quite make it happen and she’s so desperate for him to touch her hand but can’t possibly be seen to encourage him. Anyone who’s been on an early date when you really think there might be something great in the offing but you don’t want to do the wrong thing in case you ruin it will really recognise that moment. Mr Hampton absolutely exuded that sense of reserved refinement in his characterisation throughout the show and it was a joy to watch. I also really enjoyed Ms Kennedy’s demure Emily, and her other character, that of the bubbly friend she meets in the street, who gives her the “360” look at her new hairdo – a really convincing portrayal, although not remotely 1924!

Liam FaikI also admired the style and elegance of Rachel Graham-Brown; she performs with great dignity and presence throughout and I also really liked her in the big dance number! But if there was (for me) one stand-out performance it is Liam Faik, because he most effectively conveys the wide range of all his different characterisations; as a vain wide-boy, an effeminate manicurist, but best of all as the violent drunk Pete who demands more from Emily than she wants to give and ends up fighting in the Red Ruby. His was the most believable stage fight I’ve seen in ages; some of those punches seemed to land so realistically! I guess they didn’t in reality, or else his poor adversary wouldn’t have been able to carry on (and I’m sorry but I’m not sure who played the part of his fight-enemy, but they also gave a great performance.) Mr Faik is definitely One To Watch.

A most enjoyable production, and one that (and I mean this nicely) values brevity as a source of wit as those 70 minutes are filled with excellence, but maybe if it had gone on much longer its impact would have started to weaken – so, structurally, it was superbly well judged. Great performances, many inspired examples of characterisation, and an excellent use of the stage with the big musical number. A moving play too; Mr Smallmind confessed that a speck of dust must have got into his eye at one point. Congratulations to everyone involved!