Review – Manchester By The Sea, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 30th January 2017

manchester_by_the_seaWhen Mrs Chrisparkle and I went to Paris in December, posters for Manchester By The Sea were all over the Metro, and I confess they got me intrigued. I didn’t know Manchester by the Sea was a real place, in Massachusetts (population 5,136 in the 2010 census). I thought maybe it might be about some tough Northerners relocating to a beach environment to escape the stresses and strains of the gritty urban cityscape. In Australia, I expect they think it means a coastal retail outlet where they sell sheets. Both wrong.

mtbs1The late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle, when in an adventurous mood, once did a tour of “New England in the Fall”. This included a visit to Boston, which she enjoyed, but summed it up with a comment that I’ve never forgotten, that it’s so miserable there in winter that they have a huge spike in the number of suicides. I always thought that must be typical maternal exaggeration, but now I’ve seen the film of Manchester by the Sea (30 miles from Boston) I completely get it. Even though it’s won many accolades, gained critical acclaim and been a box office success, it’s simply one of the most miserable films I’ve ever seen.

mtbs6It’s the story of Lee, struggling to cope with the horror of having caused a house fire that killed his three children; Randi, his wife, and/or ex-wife, who blames him and also has to come to terms with how to face the future; and 16-year-old Patrick, his nephew, who has just lost his father, and faces the dubious prospect of having Uncle Lee as his guardian. If you want to see how they interact and how they cope with their various situations, you’ll have to watch the film. But, a word of warning: there is precious little light and shade. It’s all shade. I gave one small chuckle. Once. Misery is piled on top of moroseness, which is on top of suffering, on top of despair.

mtbs2Of course I understand why Lee would be so unhappy. His life is ruined, he cares for nothing any more, he exists, only because a suicide attempt failed. And if this film set out to portray the association of three unhappy lives who are consistently unable to put their unhappiness behind them, then it’s extremely successful. But that’s almost an academic exercise. It doesn’t reward the viewer with anything other than a sense of mission accomplished, or misery for misery’s sake. In fact, when Lee’s dead children come back at the end as a mental reaction to his leaving a frying pan on the hob, I wondered if there was any cliché to which it wouldn’t stoop.

mtbs5Many of the film’s scenes are in flashback, and I wasn’t 100% certain who all the characters were and why they were facing their predicament until a good hour into the film. As a result, I interpreted (wrongly I think) the characterisation of Lee as not so much someone who has had all the emotion battered out of them, but as someone with autism. Casey Affleck superbly conveys that inability to connect, to interpret something figuratively, to see things from another point of view, to solve issues without aggression. But I don’t think he is meant to be autistic, I think it’s a coincidence. That’s just Mr Affleck’s way of portraying someone who’s an empty shell.

mtbs4The acting is all excellent, but none of the characters is particularly likeable – well maybe C J Wilson’s George, but he’s very peripheral. I felt sorry for the characters but I never emotionally engaged with them. I was very nearly bored by the film – but not quite; I think I kept hanging on for something nice to happen to any of these people. It didn’t.

mtbs3It’s at least 30 minutes too long – I have to fight the cynic in me who thinks it’s about two and a quarter hours too long. Mrs C hated it much more than me, I should add – I remember her using the words mawkish, claptrap and self-indulgent. When it was over, the packed house at the Errol Flynn was deathly quiet – I think I heard one man just say “oh.” On the way out I overheard two ladies comparing at which point in the film they fell asleep. A perfect example of Macbeth’s tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing. I’ve read the reviews praising it to the hilt – and I just don’t get it. For me, this is an elegant, well-produced, attractive void.

Review – She Loves Me, Menier Chocolate Factory, 29th January 2017

She Loves MeI’m probably as guilty as anyone else in thinking that Sheldon Harnick and Jerry Bock wrote Fiddler on the Roof and probably not much else. Wrong! Together they wrote nine other shows, including She Loves Me, an adaptation of the 1937 play Illatszertár, by Hungarian dramatist Miklos Laszlo, with whose works I am sure we are all highly familiar. Surprisingly perhaps, the play was also the original basis for three films, including the (relatively) recent You’ve Got Mail. She Loves Me was moderately successful artistically, but didn’t make any money, with a run of 302 performances on Broadway and 189 in the West End. A film, that was to star Julie Andrews, failed to materialise. Nevertheless, a revival in London in 1994 ran for a year and won many awards, and a revival on Broadway in 2016 was very successful – so now we see it back in London at the Menier.

slm5The scene is mainly set in Mr Maraczek’s perfume shop in Budapest, where diligent and respectful sales clerks bend over backwards to satisfy the demanding hoity-toity ladies of the Hungarian capital. Miss Ritter and Mr Kodaly have an on-off relationship which seems to be more off than on as they argue and then spoon despite Maraczek’s disapproval. The second-in-command, Mr Nowack, has been writing love letters to a “dear friend” whom he has never met and he’s getting very agitated about the prospect of finally meeting her. One day a new face appears at the shop – Miss Balash – who impresses Maraczek enough to give her a job. However, she and Nowack start off on the wrong foot and before long they can’t stand the sight of each other. Yes, you’ve guessed it; she’s the recipient of his love letters and neither of them realise it. What happens when the two pen pals finally decide to meet for dinner? Well, you’ll just have to see the show to find out.

slm4It’s a really beautiful, charming, funny and exquisitely musical musical. Paul Farnsworth’s set, which utilises four small revolving stages to transform a Budapest street into an upper class haven of retail delights, is stunning – although I did find the acting space provided for first two scenes of the second act – the hospital and Amalia’s bedroom – a little cramped. Catherine Jayes’ band plays Jerry Bock’s entertaining and beautiful melodies with loads of fun and character, and Sheldon Harnick’s witty and thoughtful lyrics are in very safe hands with a fine cast and sensitive direction by Matthew White. There are a lot of musical numbers in the show, and I appreciated how well each song either progressed the plot or gave us valuable character insights. It’s not a stop-start musical, but rather the book and the songs join seamlessly to create a satisfyingly well-structured piece.

slm3Scarlett Strallen leads the cast in the role of Amalia Balash, with a fine portrayal of both the enthusiastic shop girl head over heels in love and the feisty, obstinate colleague from hell. She sings immaculately – well you knew that already from her appearances in A Chorus Line and Candide. She really nails the humour of the role too – her tear-stained slumping around the bedroom was hilarious, and of course she expresses Harnick’s superb observations with telling accuracy. She’s perfectly matched by Menier favourite Mark Umbers, whom we loved in Sweet Charity and Merrily We Roll Along, with his essential earnestness and hilarious portrayal of Nowack deviously wriggling out of a difficult situation. He sings with great tone and warmth and has a great stage presence.

slm2There are plenty of other show-stealing performances on offer – Katherine Kingsley is officially fabulous as Ilona Ritter, characterising her as a working-class girl whose head is turned – eventually – by the lure of books; the downtrodden voice she gives Miss Ritter is simply brilliant. Dominic Tighe confidently expresses Kodaly’s superiority and smugness, and I’m always impressed by how nifty he is on his feet for a big chap. Alastair Brookshaw’s Sipos is an entertainingly humble everyday guy, with a little more of the wheeler-dealer about him than you might expect; Callum Howells’ delivery boy Arpad is bright as a button and keen as mustard, and Les Dennis plays Maraczek with avuncular generosity until he has cause to doubt the world around him. But for scene-stealing, you only have to look to Norman Pace’s hilarious head waiter at the Café Imperiale, managing his bumbling staff and his unsuspecting customers alike with ruthless authority.

slm1Mrs Chrisparkle and I were in complete agreement that this is a beautiful and classy production that absolutely brings the best out of the cast and the music. But we also agreed that the show itself is extraordinarily lightweight. It’s pure, insignificant light entertainment with absolutely no substance whatsoever. Given the fact that its subjects include adultery, a suicide attempt and broken relationships, there’s not an ounce of gravitas or a provocative moment in the whole two-and-a-half hours. It’s truly a soufflé in an art form where you have the potential to be a Chateaubriand. Depending on your point of view, this may be the perfect escapism from a world of Trump and Brexit. For me, however, it makes the show borderline irrelevant. There’s no doubting the talent that brings all this together, but on the whole I’d prefer to take home memories of something a little more substantial. One year later Harnick and Bock would give the world Fiddler on the Roof, with all its important observations and superb character creativity. Perhaps this show just came one year too early.

Production photos by Alastair Muir

Review – Invincible, Original Theatre Company, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 24th January 2017

InvincibleSometimes it’s good to see a play with absolutely no-preconceptions as to what it’s all about. All I knew about Invincible is that it was Ayckbournian in style without being by Ayckbourn – which worried me slightly as Ayckbourn is a class apart and I hoped this wouldn’t be a pale imitation. All my friend and co-blogger Mr Smallmind knew about it was that it was set in a flat share. WRONG! I had assumed it would have nothing to do with Swedish singer Carola who performed the song Invincible at the Eurovision Song Contest in 2006. In that respect, I was spot on. No, the “invincible” of the title refers to something quite different, and there’s a huge sigh of recognition in the audience when they finally get the reference.

inv9Two rather unhappy couples are forced to be neighbours when the ineffectual Oliver, his patronisingly Marxist partner Emily and their cosseted children are forced to upsticks from London and move up north as a result of their inappropriately low income. They live next door to footie mad Alan, his bored but alluring wife Dawn, their (unexpectedly charming) children and their cat, who has greater significance than cats normally do. A “break the ice” get-together round at Oliver and Em’s for olives and cashews slowly deteriorates into the evening from hell as social and class differences divide the two couples, even though Oliver’s willing to give it a try and Alan is more of a Renaissance Man than you might have imagined. As the Act One curtain falls on Oliver and Emily resolute in the face of adversity to the stoic strains of Jerusalem, you wonder where this can go for the second act. However, carry on it does, as lives are further changed, relationships damaged, and health suffers; but there’s much more to it than that, and a lot of the power of this play comes from its unexpected twists in the plot so I’m not saying any more. No sirree.

inv8Suffice to say that at the end, one couple are able to escape to safer ground, leaving the others to cope with the mess that surrounds them. You couldn’t really call it a happy ending in all fairness – which leads me on to the comparison with Ayckbourn. Not hard to see why people have compared the two, as events of personal tragedy run alongside outwardly comic situations and you laugh (but not through cruelty) as everything a character holds dear crumbles all about them. There’s an extended scene where the four characters are all talking at cross purposes which creates some magnificent laugh out loud moments; but all the way through I found myself guffawing at regular intervals. There’s a lot of sadness in this play, but the humour is absolutely terrific, and many’s the time when the actor has to wait for the laughs to die down before they can carry on with the text.

inv7Maybe the gaps between the comic and the tragic are not quite so seamless as in Ayckbourn at his best, as Torben Betts, the writer, sometimes confronts you with moments of real tragedy without anything comic going on to alleviate the pain. Enough about comparisons; they are odious, and Mr Betts has written a fine play that gives you deep insight into these peoples’ lives. The characterisations are as strong as you could wish. I really felt as though I am personally acquainted with at least two of the characters in the show: the know-it-all joy vampire, who denies happiness because the socialist way forward isn’t funny; and the slobby, soccer-obsessed lager lout who invades your personal space and bores you with endless pointless observations but deep down has a heart of gold.

inv6Where this play excels is when it shows you these characters’ vulnerable private sides as well as their public personas; the Marxist’s longing to love and be loved, the slob’s aspirations to artistic excellence. The play constantly challenges our stereotypical preconceptions of what these people and their wider families are like – indeed Tuesday night’s spellbound audience could barely hold back on a running commentary about the plot and the characters; that sounds tedious, but actually it was quite charming. If one thing really comes through from watching this play – especially in the first act – is how everyone is talking to each other but nobody is listening. The characters are fully prepared to talk everyone else down with their own agenda but never prepared to consider anyone else’s. Apart, perhaps, from Dawn, who has less to say for herself anyway, and is more curious about attracting the love-deprived Oliver. Keeping open the proper channels of communication is vital for a successful relationship, and that includes discussing those difficult topics most people shy away from. Plenty to talk about on the way home, then.

inv5It’s a smart little production with a no-nonsense but perfectly suitable set by Victoria Spearing and snappy, unsentimental direction from Stephen Darcy. It’s produced by the Original Theatre Company who gave us their Flare Path at Oxford last February, but this strikes me as a much more confident production. What really gives it its strength and charisma is the cast of four who knock spots off the script as they engage with the characters and the audience with a really likeable and honest delivery. Alastair Whatley plays Oliver with superb self-control, neglecting his own desires for the good of the household and because he genuinely loves Emily, although she doesn’t reciprocate much. Totally alien in his new environment, he seeks to assert himself as best he can – which in some ways doesn’t go as far as it should – and in others goes way too far. Emily Bowker’s Emily is a teeth-jarringly accurate representation of a neurotic, condescending mess, who conceals any sense of reality beneath a mask of communist dogma. Her refusal to politely lie, when it would have been far more socially acceptable and far less hurtful than telling the truth, is agonisingly realistic. When she finally lets her hair down, you see the real character lurking beneath, and Ms Bowker’s portrayal of a woman more damaged by the past than she can express is very moving.

inv3Next door, Graeme Brookes’ Alan is the complete opposite of his uptight neighbours, with his perfect Man At Sports Direct look, the belly that insists on protruding no matter how many times he pulls his shirt down, the loud and potentially menacing voice that usually (but not always) hides his inner self-esteem issues, and his unexpected ability to reveal his private emotions in a way men like that are Simply Not Meant To. It’s a fantastic performance, and Mr Brookes revels in all his opportunities to play the noisy oaf, to the delight of the audience, whilst still remaining absolutely faithful to the character. Elizabeth Boag, whom we really loved in Ayckbourn’s Arrivals and Departures three years ago, makes a stunning first appearance as the overlooked Dawn, a true Jessica Rabbit to Mr Brookes’ Homer Simpson, and you really do wonder (as does he) how it was that she ever fell for him in the first place. Ms Boag creates an excellent sense of aloofness from where she can observe the other characters and quickly size them up – especially Oliver, whose size she gauges quite quickly, if you get my drift. Dawn also does not escape from the harsh reality of life, and her final scene actually brought tears to Mrs Chrisparkle’s eyes (though not mine, obvs.)

inv2I thought it was a terrific play, full of insight and understanding, showing the various ways people deal with sadness and grief; are they all invincible at the final curtain? You’ll have to see it to find out. These four stonking good performances will keep this touring production delighting its customers for weeks to come. After Northampton, you can catch it at Derby, Doncaster, Huddersfield, Scarborough, Cambridge, Southend, Harrogate, Lichfield, Brighton and Newcastle-under-Lyme. And you definitely should catch it!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 20th January 2017

Screaming Blue MurderHurrah for the return of the Screaming Blue Murder comedy nights in the Underground room where, even in the dead of winter, when outside is below zero, you still have to wear your skimpiest clothes in order to survive the heat! Good to see 2017 starting well with a full house, a cracking compere and three top quality acts to get the year rolling. I liked the new layout of the front rows too – curling round the side of the podium so as to fit more punters in and closer to the stage. An excellent development.

Dan EvansSo, yes, Dan Evans was at the helm again, trying to bring some order to the mayhem caused by an all-girl birthday party night on one side and an all-guy Old Bill group on the other. He was on great form – even giving us some new material! He was at his best sparring with those front row girls – it’s a gift for him to tease when they can’t put down their phones and you can barely see their skin for the tattoos. He got us perfectly warmed up and ready for our acts.

mark-smithFirst up, and new to us, was Mark Smith. Not sure if it’s his voice, or his looks, but he put me in mind of an alternative Josh Widdicombe, which can’t be bad. He struck up a very good connection with the audience and had the confidence to leave nice pauses in his delivery which I admired. He had some excellent – and varied – topics, including girls on escalators, fooling his sister with bizarre facts and a great routine about shopping late night at the petrol station. A really good opening act.

Sally Anne HaywardSecond, and an old favourite (hoping she’ll forgive the use of the word “old”), was Sally-Anne Hayward, whom we’ve seen I think four times before. The two boisterous groups of girls and guys were ideal for her to bounce off her brilliant material about sex, boyfriends, and more sex, and everyone absolutely loved her act. As I’ve mentioned on previous occasions, her material is now well-recycled, but if you’ve not heard it before it’s a corker, and if you’re familiar with it, it offers that same reassuring warmth of putting on a favourite album. Timeless battle of the sexes humour – and the laughter was continuing in the bar during the interval.

Stu GoldsmithFor our headline act, we welcomed Stuart Goldsmith, one of the country’s best comics, whom we last saw showing us his competitive streak in Rob Deering’s Beat This in Edinburgh. We’d also seen him in a Screaming Blue four years ago and in his own show at the Underground last year. The man works hard. His material is thoughtful, flexible and first rate, his delivery is chummy whilst always maintaining a subtle authority, and I really enjoyed seeing him again – and it’s clear that everyone else did too. When we saw him last year he was wondering how much “new father” material he should use in future gigs – and there wasn’t too much this time round, which I reckon is probably A Good Thing. Anyway, he’s coming back with his new show later in the Spring and we already have our tickets booked.

A fantastic start to the new season! Why don’t you come next time too?

Review – La La Land, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 16th January 2017

la_la_land_filmI was trying hard to think – when was the last time I saw a film that was a) a musical, b) wasn’t based on an already existing stage musical and c) wasn’t animation. I think it must be decades – if ever. La La Land hits our cinema screens with an already massive reputation, winning seven Golden Globes and currently nominated for eleven BAFTAs. People are flocking to it – after all, it offers very different fare from your usual superhero/Star Wars/blockbuster fodder. As at 17th January, it had grossed a worldwide box office of $133.9 million. Its impact is pretty immense.

LLL1There used to be an active Facebook group (I think it’s dormant now) based on the premise that “wouldn’t life be great if it was like a musical”. You’d wake up every day and think Oh What a Beautiful Mornin’, if you were looking for the perfect girl or boy in your life you’d ask Matchmaker, Matchmaker, make me a match, when you met for the first time they’d be a Stranger in Paradise, when everything went perfectly you could have danced all night, when you looked for inner strength, you’d Climb Every Mountain, when you gambled you’d hope luck be a lady, in the evening you’d look at that Old Devil Moon… well you get my drift.

lll2In its opening sequence, La La Land converts that fantasy into reality. Hundreds of cars stuck on the freeway, going nowhere. We’ve all been there. We turn off our engines, fiddle with the radios, argue with our families, try to get a few minutes shut-eye. We text our mates, saying “we’re going to be late”. We regret not coming off at the previous exit. We check our watch every 45 seconds. That’s not the way to do it! How fantastic it would be to live in La La Land instead. Leap out of your car, salsa over your bonnet and knock out a show tune in tandem with a hundred other drivers, dancing together as though you’ve rehearsed it for months. That opening number, Another Day of Sun, with its hopes, dreams and aspirations, some genuine, some ironic, is pure American Dream in all its glory. I could feel the smile breaking out over my face as I drank it all in. It just takes seconds of watching something like that to brighten your mood and it really worked for me.

lll3From the broad brush of that opening scene to the minutiae of the rest of the story, the film never quite recaptures that magic, although it tries very hard and still delivers an enjoyable yarn. It’s totally music driven, as opposed to plot driven, and from this perspective is very successful. When Emma Stone’s Mia confesses to Ryan Gosling’s Sebastian that she doesn’t like jazz, I was with her 100%. For the most part, I find jazz immensely tedious. I’ve always hated the way “gifted” jazz musicians tamper with the tune and play around it rather than play it. It’s self-indulgent, show-offish and, at worst, pure w*nk. (Apologies for the language.) Sebastian explains the creativity of the genre and insists she simply hasn’t properly heard it. And by the end of the film – or indeed a few minutes later to be honest – she’s a convert. And, I kid you not, gentle reader – I think I am too. This film has done the impossible. I absolutely adored the music all the way through. Even though there wasn’t a stand out tune (to my ears at any rate) it all washed over me and… OMG… I like jazz…

lll4Mandy Moore’s choreography, however, is a slightly different matter. Although it fitted well against the rhythms and the style of the music, I found it quite dated. So much so, in fact, that I wondered if we had somehow regressed to an earlier era. No – they’re using smartphones. Was the choreography meant to tip an appreciative nod to the days when musical films were all the rage as a kind of in-joke? Or maybe it was meant to reflect the rather non-contemporary interests of the protagonists – going to see a showing of Rebel Without a Cause isn’t particularly 2017 after all. Still – after that really modern dance content in the opening scene, the rest of the choreography felt kind of irrelevant to me – it was just an accompaniment to the words and music rather than a driving force telling its own story.

lll5The next two paragraphs really contain spoilers so skip if you want! In brief: after a few unpleasant first encounters – Sebastian is an arrogant knob after all – he and Mia start to understand each other – her passion for acting and dream of fulfilling that great role, his passion for jazz and dream of opening that sensational club. They fall in love, but their work takes them in different directions – Seb with a group that isn’t his thing but pays the bills, Mia writing and performing a one-woman play that flops. Petty jealousies, misunderstandings and bad priorities cause them to separate, although they still support each other – in their own way. By the end, they’ve both taken their chosen path to reach a success of sorts.

lll6Now here’s a thing. There’s a sequence shortly before the end where a completely different scenario plays itself out. Instead of huffily ignoring Mia in the club where he’s just been fired, he puts his arms around her and gives her a truly heartfelt snog. Her career blossoms, they have a child, and so on. I’ve seen it described as a dream sequence – where Mia, lost in a reverie, imagines what might have happened if only… etc. There may even be a suggestion that the dream would have been more fulfilling than what turned out to be reality. Life is great in the fantasy La La Land, after all. However, it didn’t feel like a dream sequence to me. I interpreted it as an equally real alternative plot sequence, kicking off at that club snog – what J B Priestley would have called a Dangerous Corner, with the rest being what actually happened if only that snog had taken place. Interestingly, in both scenarios, Mia’s career developed into a success. Sebastian, on the other hand, would have taken a more supportive, house-husbandly role. For me that was not so much a dream, more a playing-with-time surprise ending, and I think that gave the film a good kick up the backside in the final reel.

lll7If Mrs Chrisparkle hadn’t been with me, I think I may have fallen a little bit in love with Emma Stone. She has that slightly vulnerable, slightly awkward, definitely cute appearance at times when she really needs a knight in shining armour to whisk her away. Ryan Gosling? Pshaw! I’d have done it for half the money. But seriously… she gives a great performance as Mia, taking us with her as she runs the gamut from A to Z. She has a terrific connection with the camera, which lets us into her heart. I know you won’t believe me, but I hadn’t seen her before. Much has been made of Ryan Gosling’s extraordinary commitment to learning the piano and how to tap dance specifically for the film and that genuinely is an amazing achievement. Presumably he can only play those few tracks that he had to for the film – outside that he probably can’t get past “I am C, Middle C…” I jest, because I’m jealous. They look damn perfect together – which, I guess, is the whole point – and he gives a great performance with a nice undercurrent of arrogance and irritability which gets to the heart of his character. There are other actors in the film, but these main two predominate so much that the others are quite hard to recall. I enjoyed the sequence where Mia’s roomies (played by Callie Hernandez, Sonoya Mizuno and Jessica Rothe) boost her confidence and take her to a swell party – I wonder if it reminds anyone else of the Bye Yum Pum Pum scene in The Happiest Millionaire? No? Just me, then.

lll8I’ve read the most glowing reports of this film and I’ve read the most damning. In the words of Dickens’ original draft: “it was the best of movies, it was the worst of movies.” I can’t really agree with either. Apart from that first scene, it never clutched me by the throat and screamed love me, damn you, love me. It didn’t really motivate me enough to love it. It looks beautiful, it sounds great, and the stars turn in excellent performances, but it just lacked that extra oomph that makes a great movie. But I certainly didn’t hate it – neither Mrs C nor I nodded off, which is high praise indeed when it comes to a film, and I was certainly keen to discover how it resolved itself, and indeed enjoy my new-found love for jazz.

lll9“So did you buy into it?” asked Mrs C, somewhat portentously, as we walked home. And I wasn’t sure of my answer. I wondered if I am now too old and cynical to be taken in by the American Dream – which is written all the way through this film like a stick of rock. But I don’t think that’s the case, as I still think A Chorus Line is as good as it gets, and you can’t get much more American Dreamy than that. It’s true that the packed house at the Errol Flynn gave it a muted, polite reception. There were a few occasions when we laughed at something funny, to discover we were the only ones doing so. I think there is a danger with this film that its smoothly seductive sheen might simply and slowly bludgeon your brain to death with its sheer gorgeousness; satiated with its overwhelming sweetness, like eating three sticky toffee puddings at once. I did enjoy it; I wouldn’t necessarily want to see it again for some time; but I’m sure as hell going to listen to that soundtrack again. Take it away, Various Artists!

Review – The Burlesque Show, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 14th January 2017

Burlesque ShowOnce again, the Ministry of Burlesque have trundled into town bringing their collection of stunning costumes, jugglers balls, magic tricks and nipple tassels. We’ve been coming every year since 2011 and it’s always a sheer delight. Last year’s show was just a tad of a disappointment as there were so many acts giving us the same sheer delight that they had given us in previous years. That equates to sheer delight for newbies, and pleasurable reminders for us old hands.

Lili La SHowever, this year they rang the changes in true style. The biggest and brightest change was in the beguiling personage of our new host, Miss Lili la Scala. Mrs Chrisparkle and I have seen Lili once before, in Edinburgh last summer, where we decided to partake of one of her Another F*cking Variety Shows, a late night cabaret entertainment where Lili introduces us to a range of artistes plying their trade at the Fringe; and it really was a splendid show. For the Burlesque Show, she looked perfect in the elegant setting of the Royal Theatre, entertaining us with songs old and new. Mashing up two different Let Me Entertain Yous is an inspired way to start a show; I really love how Lili retros a modern song into a cabaret setting. In Edinburgh she gave us a moving but refreshing Space Oddity; in this show we enjoyed her semi-operatic version of Female of the Species. She has a winning combination of demure and daft which makes her quite irresistible in many ways; what the late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle would have called Strictly a Female Female.

lena-maeStarting the show, and finishing us off, so to speak, was the delectable Miss Lena Mae with two classic Burlesque strip routines, full of allure, humour, teasing, and costumes with surprises of their own. We hadn’t had the pleasure of her company before and clearly it’s been long overdue. She conveys all the joy of what she’s doing out into the auditorium and we love her back for it in return. Classy, sophisticated and with more than a twinkle in her eye. We also had two (well two and a half really) delicious helpings of Miss Abigail Collins; Peggy Suedfirst in her guise as Miss Garden Verandah, where, in a floral-inspired outfit, she performs her amazing hoop act, and secondly as Miss Peggy Sued, who spent the interval in the bar introducing herself to unsuspecting punters (well, draping herself across them) and then came out and did her extraordinary balancing act. It’s unlike any other you’ve seen – basically she picks on two blokes and then does the splits whilst balancing on their shoulders. Well done Gary and Steve for your sterling effort. It was lovely to see Miss Sued back cavorting on stage, pulling her leotard here and there to prevent it from chafing her personal areas, singing and dancing like there’s no tomorrow.

Alexandra HofgartnerMore acrobatics – of the slightly more traditional kind – were provided by frequent visitor Miss Alexandra Hofgartner, effortlessly weaving herself in and out of a hoop in the sky with only a long chiffon for extra support. Miss Hofgartner exudes dignity with everything she does and is always a wonderful addition to any Burlesque show. Another new face to us, Robin Dale, gave us an intriguing juggling act with wine glasses (sometimes filled with “real” wine),boon-and-bailie then came back in the second half with his friend Jack Bailie to perform further feats of juggling whilst they both took their clothes off. Fortunately, protective top hats were at the ready to prevent anyone in the audience from having a stroke. A very funny act, but be careful where you sit, or else you might get Robin’s thong flung in your face.

Pete FirmanAnd you can never get too much Pete Firman. We’ve seen him perform his magic many times and on each occasion he perplexes me. Just a few tricks for this show – the cards that magically keep increasing in number, the rope that gets cut in two and somehow self-heals, and the £20 note taken from a member of the audience that disappears and is found, not in a monkey-nut but sealed inside his zipped wallet. I specifically watched him like a hawk during that last trick because I was determined not to take my eye off where I think the note was kept during most of the act. Fat lot of use that was; although I think I may be one stage closer to working it out. Just maybe. The audience proved something of a handful for Mr Firman, though. His choice of assistant for the rope trick was Pat in the front row. Would she get up and help him? Would she buffalo. But Mr F was not in the mood for picking on someone else. Resistance was futile. When she finally got up, after much persuasion, she had no need for alarm, it all went swimmingly well. Would the same thing happen with the £20 note trick? Mr F’s victim was the shy and retiring Phil – not! If ever a magician’s assistant gave as good as he got, it was our Phil. I think I actually saw Mr F – temporarily – stumped for a response. I guess that’s always going to be a risk when you call on bright sparks from the audience.

And, as an audience, we really were fired up by the whole show, from start to finish. Our willingness to get stuck in and react noisily to whatever shenanigans was happening on stage, helped this particular instalment of the Burlesque Show to be (probably) the most enjoyable I’ve ever seen. We even miaowed incessantly at Stage Manager/Producer Miss Kittie Klaw as she cleared the stage ready for each new act. She responded with some miaows back and the occasional bum-wiggle. Every act really performed their socks off (literally in a few cases) and it was a very funny and sexy night’s entertainment. Fantastically well done to one and all!

Review – Sunny Afternoon, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 10th & 11th January 2017

Sunny AfternoonYes, gentle reader, you did read that title correctly. I loved the new touring production of Sunny Afternoon so much that I had to go back to see it again on the matinee the next day. The only other time that we were so overwhelmed by a show that we had to see it the next day was for the brilliant Mr Whatnot – if you were lucky enough to catch it, give yourself a huge pat on the back in self-congratulation.

sa9Mrs Chrisparkle and I went to see Sunny Afternoon in London two years ago, and, for my reflections on what the show’s about, its structure and so on, I can’t do better than to refer you to my original review. I could finish there, really, but seeing as you asked so nicely, I’ll continue. The show tells the story of The Kinks; how they formed, their early days, how they put together those iconic guitar riffs, how their success exploded under their posh management duo, Wace and Collins; how they got into trouble in America, how they interacted with one another, and how their relationship with their managers ended. All this to the accompaniment of Ray Davies’ beautiful, melancholic, introverted, enthusiastic, heart-warming lyrics and melodies.

sa16They didn’t rip out the first few rows of seats at the Derngate to create cabaret tables like they did at the Comedy, I mean Harold Pinter theatre. They did, however, have that very useful apron that allows the cast to catwalk into the auditorium, and if you’re seated close to it you get an exciting sense of extra stage dimension. It really enhances the relationship between the performers and the audience, and is also a great view for appreciating the 1960s Pan’s People-type choreography. I’d say the ideal place to sit would be centre stalls, one row further back from where the apron ends. You’re welcome.

sa10Having a different cast performing in different theatres inevitably sometimes changes the emphasis of the show. This time round, I was much more struck by the irony of the group’s prohibition from working in America; working class lads being caught out by the intricacies of union dues. When Mr Sinatra’s representative tells them to look after their teamsters, they (unsurprisingly) haven’t got a clue what he’s on about. There’s a nice nod to McCarthyism with the suggestion that both Ray Davies’ wife Rasa (Lithuanian) and their baby (a baby) must be communists. Ray’s retort that the UK gave her refuge when she and her family were in need sounds (sadly) like historical rhetoric in these post-Brexit days. When they’re in America, they’re very uncomfortable fish out of waters.

sa7The other aspect of the show that was more pointedly highlighted in this production is the extreme youth (but not naïveté) of Dave Davies. He can’t sign the agreement with the managers because he is only 16, so his father is required to do to it for him. And when the band starts to do well, and the fans start throwing themselves at them – well, Dave instantly has girls on tap, and there’s no doubting that he enjoyed more than his fair share. Easy access to drugs and drink clearly isn’t beneficial to Dave’s health. But the show is very forgiving of him – he’s “just Dave” – and with all that self-indulgence, the show would have you believe he simply had a pretty darn good time. His big on-stage fight with drummer Mick really did happen; it’s presented in the show almost as a pantomime, with the copper running after him, wagging his truncheon almost Benny Hill-style, but in reality, he needed sixteen stitches to the head.

sa3So why did I enjoy this revisiting this production two years on so much that I had to go again the next day? Primarily, I think, it was because of the music. That early scene, where Ray and Dave are perfecting the guitar intro to You Really Got Me, got my goosebumps jumping like Mexican beans; and it gets louder, and it gets rawer, and it gets unruly – and I really loved it. I think I already knew at that stage I had to come back. In the second act, Andrew Gallo, as Mick, gives us a truly exciting and delightfully reckless drum solo, that really stands out. At the other end of the scale, Lisa Wright performs I Go To Sleep with the most painfully poignant expression; you can almost feel the emotional gulps in each word – and it’s a stunning arrangement by Elliott Ware. Her performance as Rasa is outstanding throughout the whole show. That’s definitely one of Sunny Afternoon’s strengths – how it takes an original Kinks song and then covers it in a truly creative way. The acapella performance of that lovely old song, Days, for example, puts a strongly emotional slant on it, the five guys singing barbershop style, led with beautiful clarity by Joseph Richardson as Robert Wace.

sa13Of course, any production is going to rely heavily on the actor playing Ray, and in Ryan O’Donnell, they’ve come up with an absolute cracker. Not only is he the spitting image of the young Ray, he sings like him, recreating his phrasing perfectly; he portrays the character’s quiet determination, his artistic imperative to create the best recording possible, and his emotional vulnerability. Ray isn’t all about sparkly charisma and showbiz pizazz, he’s the guy who observes the crack up in the ceiling, who quietly gazes on Waterloo sunset, who’s not like everybody else. Mr O’Donnell carries it off brilliantly. As his madcap and uncontrollable brother, Mark Newnham plays Dave like the school misfit, mischievously contrary whenever he can be, playing the idiot because it gets him the best attention. He handles the guitar like a dream, and is out to screw the last remaining jot of pleasure out of anything and everything (and everyone) he does – which probably is a very good representation of the real Dave.

sa15Garmon Rhys’ Pete is the perfect downtrodden sidekick; completely unsuitable for a world where he is on show, a simple man thrust into a complex limelight, and he doesn’t like it. When he tells Ray why he wants to leave the band, it’s very hard for the audience not to respond with a big pantomime “aaaaah”. Andrew Gallo’s Mick is an unsophisticated bruiser but his heart’s in the right place; but, primarily, provider of great drum accompaniment. Joseph Richardson and Tomm Coles as Wace and Collins are a great posh boy double act, and Michael Warburton brings a steely edge to his role as music publisher Kassner. I also really liked Robert Took and Deryn Edwards as (amongst others) Mr and Mrs Davies Senior, the decent, respectable but poor people living on Dead End Street.

sa1When they all come out for the final rock concert scene, with a mix of All Day, Lola, and You Really Got Me, it’s such an exhilarating and feelgood sensation to be upfront close to that performance. I absolutely loved it. So did Mrs C, who was, frankly, jealous of my return trip the next day. No need for you to be jealous – go and see it! The tour continues into May, visiting Cardiff, Nottingham, Oxford, Liverpool, Llandudno, York, Bradford, Bristol, Dublin, Canterbury, Norwich, Wolverhampton, Belfast and Plymouth. If you remember the Kinks with affection, or want to appreciate a chance to revisit their songs in a new setting, this show is definitely for you. And if, like me, you saw the original London show and think there’s no need to see it again, think again – this new cast is an absolute knockout!

Production photos by Kevin Cummins