Review – Hedda Gabler, National Theatre on Tour, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 28th November 2017

Beware – there are spoilers! But then the play has been around for 126 years now, so it’s hardly going to come as a surprise…

Hedda GablerImagine a hypothetical meeting of all the best directors and producers in the country, all getting together to decide which play they next want to work on. One says I know, let’s do Ibsen, and another says, yes, great idea, what about Hedda Gabler? And everyone goes hurrah! And thus another production of Hedda Gabler takes to the stage, ignoring so many other of Ibsen’s great works that – it seems to me – get staged comparatively rarely. I first encountered the terrifying Ms Gabler (or Mrs Tesman, as Ibsen avoided calling her) in 1977 with the thrilling Ms Janet Suzman in the part. In recent years there was the slightly less than extraordinary Theatre Royal Bath production with Rosamund Pike as Hedda, and also the Royal and Derngate’s very own ex-Artistic Director, Laurie Sansom’s production in 2012, with Emma Hamilton as the arch-manipulative, butter-wouldn’t-melt bitch.

HG1Hedda Gabler, by the way, is Laurie Sansom’s favourite play and he describes the character as a female Hamlet. That’s interesting, because the programme notes for this National Theatre production, directed by Ivo van Hove, include Ibsen’s own preliminary notes for the play – which make fascinating reading and definitely worth buying the programme for that one page alone. One of these notes reads: “Life is not tragic – life is ridiculous – and that cannot be borne.” Not tragic? So much for the female equivalent of Hamlet, then.

HG8So, if you’re going to stage yet another production of Hedda Gabler, at least make it different. And, boy, have they done that! This version has been written by Patrick Marber, so you can guess it will be brought bang up to date, maybe with some sacrifices to the original text, of which purists are unlikely to approve. One look at the set alone tells you you’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto. If this is Kristiana in 1891, it’s not as we know it. Blank, colourless MDF panels surround the cavernous room; an electronic security system with camera buzzes visitors in and out; Hedda sits in a trendy 1960s style Scandinavian armchair; she uses an industrial stapler as part of her feng shui kit; Brack drinks from a ring-pull can (invented in 1959, according to Mr Wikipedia). Scenes are interrupted by music – uncredited in the programme but you’d swear some of it was Enya – creating a vivid, unsettling mix of the 19th, 20th and 21st centuries.

HG7The lighting plays a significant role in creating tension. The set and lighting were both designed by Jan Versweyveld, obviously to complement each other and it really works. It’s the lighting that in many ways controls the play. A very sudden lighting change starts the performance; darkness ends it. After the interval, and when Hedda pulls back the blinds to let the daylight in, those blank colourless panels slowly take on colour. Pale at first, they grow richer through yellows and golds into redness as Hedda builds up to executing her catastrophic act at the fireplace. The final scene, where Ibsen directs that the room begins in darkness, opens with Brack and Tesman boarding up the window, drilling the boards into place, so the light is blocked out – and with it, all hope.

HG6Then there’s the casting, which in some cases distances itself as far as possible away from Ibsen’s original stage directions. Christine Kavanagh, for instance, who plays Tesman’s Aunt Juliana, looks at least twenty years younger than Ibsen’s suggestion of a 65-year-old woman. Abhin Galeya, as Tesman, doesn’t look a bit like Ibsen’s description of a stoutish man with a round face and fair hair and beard. This is a Hedda where they’ve cut away all the trappings of 19th century convention and performance style to bring it in to sharp modern focus. As an audience member, the juxtaposition of the modern and the traditional compels you to give it your full attention.

HG14It’s vital for a production of Hedda Gabler to have a strong central performance that really makes you understand the character’s motivation. Lizzy Watts’ Hedda is, without doubt, a smooth operator. Not merely the bored young housewife with nothing much to do and already fallen out of love with her husband; no, this Hedda is pathologically cruel, deliberately contrary, gleefully malicious. You can see her eyes widen and her smile break out when she thinks of a brand new way to cause pain and wreak havoc. It’s no coincidence that Hedda’s existence is contained within these four blank walls – you cannot imagine her existing outside them. How on earth would Tasman, or indeed Lovborg, ever imagined that she was a plum candidate for a relationship? Yes, she’s manipulative and no doubt presented well, but I don’t see how she could have held back from inflicting cruelty on even a first date. Fortunately, everything that’s gone before is in another time and place and we don’t have to consider it.

HG13It’s at the moments when Hedda is at her most destructive that Ms Watts shows us how much the character is pleasured by the sensation. Forcing Lovborg into drinking again is her first victory; getting him to take one of her father’s pistols so that he does the right thing is another. Burning his work gives her an inner contentment and satisfaction; hearing of his death damn nearly causes an orgasm. This is a study of someone sexually turned on by evil. When Brack confronts her with his knowledge of her involvement, and she realises that Lovborg’s death was not as poetic as she had hoped, he in turn drips, pours and spews his can of drink on to her (in her sensual, satin nightdress) which reveals itself as spatters of blood, the evidence of her guilt in an homage to Grand Guignol. It’s a gruesome, visceral sight that no one else seems to be aware of; is this Hedda’s brain telling her that she has, finally, gone too far? Or is Brack equally predisposed to making a grotesque gesture? However you interpret it, it’s a truly stunning image.

HG5Abhin Galeya’s Tesman comes across as far from being a dusty academic. He’s much more of a lad, skipping and jumping about in childish delight when he hears a bit of good news; an immature sop who’s no challenge to Hedda’s cunning. When he and Mrs Elvsted are seated, trying to piece together the original notes of Lovborg’s masterwork, it’s no surprise that they’re on the floor in the corner, like two kids playing a game. Adam Best’s Brack is a suitably nasty piece of work, affecting an air of respectability whilst concealing his own agenda; trapping Hedda against the wall, desperate to control the uncontrollable. Richard Pyros, Christine Kavanagh and Annabel Bates all give excellent support as a deeply pathetic Lovborg, a bright and kindly Juliana and a surprisingly feisty Mrs Elvsted. And Madlena Nedeva provides a slavishly dour presence as the maid, Berte; hanging on to her job for grim death by sitting permanently by the door like a grouchy Babooshka.

HG10This is a production that occasionally provokes nervous laughter from the audience at what you might feel are inappropriate times. No more so than the final scene, when Patrick Marber has Tesman slowly approach the lifeless Hedda with the flat response “oh, she’s dead”. Such a ridiculous thing for this great tragedy to end with – but wait, what was that Ibsen note? “Life is not tragic – life is ridiculous”. So, that’s spot on for this approach to the play. It’s a very different interpretation from what the average Ibsen-goer will be used to. The sterile, stylised setting won’t work for everyone, and, if I’m honest, some of the intrusive music really got on my nerves. But, then again, I think it was meant to. Not for the purist, not for the complacent; but definitely for the theatre buff who likes to have their ideas shaken up and turned on their head. After Northampton, the tour continues again from January to March, visiting Glasgow, Wolverhampton, Woking, Nottingham, Newcastle, York, Milton Keynes and Dublin.

Review – Francesca Dego Performs Bruch, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 26th November 2017

Francesca Dego Performs BruchAnother opportunity to welcome back the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to their spiritual East Midlands home, for a stirring concert of Beethoven, Brahms and Bruch. Our conductor was Mathieu Herzog, whom we haven’t seen before, but he’s a lively and charismatic presence on the podium. All decked out in a trendy, shiny frock coat with yellow beading, he’s one of those conductors who likes to throw himself into the music, arms reaching out in all directions to encourage every individual member of the orchestra to give their best. I think you can divide conductors into two kinds: those who never stand on tiptoe, and those who rarely don’t. M. Herzog definitely belongs in the latter category!

Mathieu HerzogFirst on the agenda was Beethoven’s Coriolan Overture. This has nothing to do with Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, but was written in 1807 for Heinrich Joseph von Collin’s 1804 tragedy Coriolan; not that it matters to today’s concertgoer. It’s a great start to a recital as it instantly arrests you with its bold and attacking style. You can really imagine old Ludwig van stabbing his baton at a petrified orchestra coaxing all those staccato beats out of the violins. Full of stops and starts, it’s impossible to listen to it without your head nodding up and down, furiously, in time to the rhythm. It showed off the orchestra’s fantastic strings to their best.

Next, we had the first of our two Brahms’ pieces, the Hungarian Dance No 6 in D Major. From stabbing, dramatic strings to gypsy swing strings in one fell swoop, you could almost smell the goulash. It was played with a great sense of fun and briefly transported you to some Czardas club in Budapest where your mind’s eye lingered on imaginary ladies in swirling skirts and gentlemen in knee-high boots. Pure escapism in three minutes, fifty seconds.

Francesca DegoTaking us into the interval was the performance of Bruch’s Violin Concerto No 1 in G Minor. This is quite a favourite of the Royal Philharmonic, as we have seen them perform it in both 2009 and 2014, when Chloe Hanslip turned in an amazing performance. Our soloist this time was Francesca Dego, a statuesque vision in lemon, brandishing an antique violin; according to the programme, she uses two violins, a Francesco Ruggeri, dated 1697, and a Guarneri del Gesu from 1734 – which she presumably refers to as “the new one”. Her dramatic appearance reflects her dramatic performance, as she produced the most glorious tone from the instrument, both blending perfectly with the rest of the orchestra and also standing out with its own enhanced clarity. I’m always impressed when someone plays as complex a piece as this without any sheet music to hand. I loved how the three movements all blended seamlessly together, and it was an exciting, moving, and authoritative performance which the appreciative audience in the Derngate auditorium absolutely loved.

Sir Peter EllwoodWhen we came back from the interval, there was a little surprise before the final piece. Managing Director of the RPO, James Williams, introduced us to Sir Peter Ellwood, who was given the orchestra’s highest accolade, that of Honorary Membership, in recognition of his support and work with the orchestra over the past twenty years. James presented the membership together with trumpeter Adam Wright. Sir Peter also happens to be Vice Lord-Lieutenant of Northamptonshire, so we wondered if he played a role in establishing the great connection between the orchestra and the Royal and Derngate. If so, well played sir!

The second part of the concert consisted of a performance of Brahms’ Symphony No 4. I love a Brahms Symphony. In fact, I remember, as a student, treating myself to a recording of each of the four symphonies, one a week, over the first part of a very difficult term – I’d buy one as a treat and a self-congratulation for getting through yet another tutorial. Being a (relatively) penniless student, I could only afford the Music For Pleasure recordings (remember them?) and they were by the Hallé Orchestra, under the baton of James Loughran. I thought they were fantastic. I confess that the first symphony is my ultimate favourite, but who’s going to turn up an opportunity to hear the fourth symphony performed live?

It was superb. I loved how the first movement shows off like a musical version of a question and answer session. Then when the second movement got going the pizzicato sequence was so impressive. It felt almost mournful but with a great resilience. And then the final two movements, which are a) lively and b) even livelier, were played with such gusto that it was hard for your brain to keep up with the music. The violinists were playing so vigorously that their arms were literally a blur. A wonderful performance, and a fitting end to a very exciting concert. The composers may have been Beethoven, Brahms and Bruch – three B’s – but it was an A+ evening. The RPO are next back in town on February 18th 2018 for an afternoon of Beethoven, Grieg, Tchaikovsky and Mendelssohn. Already looking forward to it!

Review – Paddington 2, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 24th November 2017

Paddington 2It’s 9pm on a Friday. You’ve had a pre-prandial G&T, you’ve enjoyed your dinner; you want a little pre-weekend escapism and a good laugh. Bottle of Malbec and two glasses in hand, we took our seats at the plush Errol Flynn Filmhouse, along with 89 other adults and one child, bless her. You can keep your Blade Runners and your Star Wars…. Paddington 2 is just sheer joy from start to finish.

Paddington the bear himselfI should point out that we didn’t see the original Paddington film three years ago, but my guess is that you don’t have to have seen the first to be able to appreciate any subtle nuances of the second. The story is relatively slight, but bear with me (geddit?) Paddington is searching for a birthday present for his Aunt Lucy because she brought him up well and he’s a decent, kind-hearted animal. He finds the perfect item in an antiques shop – an old pop-up book of London scenes. Paddington falls in love with it. But the price! Where’s he going to get £500 from? So he vows to work for the money and save it.

BuchananSo far so good. Being a trusting and honest bear, he lets slip to Phoenix Buchanan, a narcissistic actor who opens the local carnival, that he’s saving for this book. Unbeknownst to Paddington, Buchanan is also after this book and he decides to steal it from the shop. Paddington is on the scene in no time and runs after the thief – Buchanan in disguise – to catch him. Unfortunately, Buchanan gives him the slip and it is Paddington whom the police arrest and who is sent to prison in one of the greatest legal travesties in the annals of justice. But, as it’s Paddington, everything turns out alright in the end!

Paddington the window cleanerThis is simply one of the funniest films I’ve seen in years. The blend of animation and reality is just perfect. Take the whole hairdresser shop scene as a typical example of its brilliance. When the inexperienced Paddington clings hold of the barber’s erratically over-powered electric razor for dear life, the sight of the rippling, fluttering fur caused by the vibrations brings the house down. The computer that creates Paddington definitely has a grand sense of humour.

paddington 2 palsThere’s a star-studded cast that most other film makers would die for, and a few absolutely brilliant performances. Hugh Grant camps it up out of all proportion as the despicable Buchanan, in a hilarious assortment of disguises, no greater moment than in the finale (don’t leave at the beginning of the credits, whatever you do) when he gets his chance to present a showstopper (choreographed by Craig Revel Horwood, I noticed). You’ll never think of FolliesRain on the Roof in the same way again. Hugh Bonneville, as Mr Brown, is also fantastic as he blunders from situation to situation, such as when he badmouths the other prisoners whilst they can still hear him, or when he’s caught red-handed breaking and entering Buchanan’s house. Brendan Gleeson is superb as the intimidating inmate Knuckles, who, it turns out, has a heart of gold after all.

The BrownsDelightful vignettes are scattered through the film, with Jessica Hynes, Ben Miller, Sanjeev Bhaskar, Jim Broadbent, Julie Walters, Peter Capaldi, Tom Conti, Meera Syal, Richard Ayoade, Tom Davis, Eileen Atkins, Joanna Lumley and many more taking tiny roles that just keep the whole thing constantly topped-up with surprise and enjoyment. Giving the bears a voice, there are vocal contributions by Michael Gambon and Imelda Staunton as Uncle Pastuzo and Aunt Lucy, and a star performance from Ben Whishaw as the voice of Paddington; the epitome of decorum and politeness, honesty and decency – but not without a dash of daftness and a measure of mischief. Paul King and Simon Furnaby’s screenplay is marmalade-packed with visual humour and funny lines, including some great set pieces like the barber’s scene, Paddington’s laundry mishap and the steam train chase.

Paddington in the pinkDon’t think you have to have kids to go and see and enjoy this film. It appeals to the child in all of us – and also, in part, to the naughty grown-up as well. We were still laughing about this film 48 hours later. No wonder it’s proving to be a box-office hit. This’ll come back again and again to entertain us during Christmases Future for decades to come. A pure delight!

Review – The Snowman, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 21st November 2017

The SnowmanNothing to do with Raymond Briggs or choirboys singing Walking in the Air, this Snowman is a lot more lethal. Based on Jo Nesbø’s book of the same name, it features his detective Harry Hole as he investigates a series of murders where the killer always leaves a calling card in the form of a snowman. A real one, built from snow, with two sticky twigs as arms. Unsurprisingly, he tends to rest during the summer months.

Michael FassbenderConfession time – but I sense I might not be alone here – I’ve neither heard of Harry Hole nor of Jo Nesbø, and had no idea that he was like the Norwegian version of Inspector Morse. I only decided to book for this film because I saw the trailer at an earlier visit to the cinema and it looked gripping. I also had no idea that it had been universally panned by the critics, with reviews that include “a mystery that feels as mashed together and perishable as its title” and “a leaden, clotted, exasperating mess”. High praise indeed.

Michael Fassbender and Charlotte GainsbourgI have to say, I think they’re rather harsh comments, because, on the whole, we enjoyed the film. In its favour: first, the excellent cinematography, with those enigmatic, snowy, mountainous wastes of Norway looming gloomily in the distance. I’ve never been to Oslo, but I have had the experience of visiting Tromso and the generally depressing Norwegian urban scenes in the film largely reflected my memory of that miserable city. Second, the suspense: about fifteen minutes into the film, a lady is sitting reading in bed and you suddenly hear a snowball being thrown at her bedroom window. Mrs Chrisparkle jolted with shock so much she almost knocked the Pinot Grigio out of the man’s hand sitting next to her. That’s how suspenseful it is. Third, the opening ten minutes or so plunge you instantly into the story, ending with a very strong visual image that I think I will remember for a long time!

Rebecca FergusonIn its disfavour, and it very nearly ruined it completely for me: in the final reel, as it were, there’s Harry Hole, injured and unable to move, prostrate on the floor, with the killer lumbering up to him ready to deal the final blow that will send him to the land of Old Norse. Well, it’s no spoiler to tell you that Harry survives the ordeal – after all he features in another four books after this one so that’s in the public domain – but the reason the killer fails to silence him forever? Risible. And pathetic. And nonsensical. I’ll say no more.

Chloe SevignyOverall it’s a decent whodunit, but as the film progresses, the identity of the killer becomes more and more apparent (well it did to me, at least.) The killer is fairly obviously the boy in the first scenes, now grown up to be a man. There are three characters who might most likely be that person. One gets murdered halfway through, and another is seen to be somewhere else when the next murder takes place – and, lo and behold, that third person does indeed turn out to be the killer. Ah well, sometimes it’s satisfying to guess right.

J K SimmonsI enjoyed Michael Fassbender as Harry Hole; he’s low key and somewhat dour, but then, he is playing a Norwegian. Reading up on Harry’s characteristics in the books and on a synopsis of the novel, I’d say it was a pretty good interpretation of the role; the chain-smoking and alcoholism are certainly clear. Having said that, there are huge, interesting-sounding aspects of the original book that are nowhere near touched on in the screenplay – an opportunity missed, methinks. Rebecca Ferguson is convincing as Katrine, the detective who’s been brought in alongside Hole to keep him in check; Charlotte Gainsbourg is authoritative and serious as Harry’s ex, Rakel; and there are a few surprising cameos in the supporting cast, including Toby Jones as a police investigator and Anne Reid, would you believe, as a nosey neighbour. Plus there’s a very rough looking Val Kilmer as a now dead detective, frequently returning to interrupt the flow of the investigation. He also just so happens to be Katrine’s dad. Curious.

Val KilmerHow come no one ever saw the killer building the snowmen outside his victims’ houses? I think it must be asked. And how on earth did he manage to shape a snowman on the roof of a car? The cops need to focus their investigation on a man with his own stepladder and mittens. Despite all its shortcomings, I still found it entertaining enough to stay awake (that, gentle reader, is something one should never take for granted) and I generally enjoyed it in the way, I think, that the creative team wanted me to – in other words, taking it seriously and not taking the mick. I do sense though that this is a film that is going to sink without trace in the annals of movie history.

P. S. If you’ve always wanted to hear the Norwegian version of Cliff Richard’s Congratulations, your prayers are answered.

Review – Young Marx, Bridge Theatre, 19th November 2017

Young MarxFirst of all, a great big stagey welcome to the Bridge Theatre, a new venture on the south side of the Thames, a few minutes from Tower Bridge, opposite the Tower of London, along from HMS Belfast. I don’t think there’s any other theatre with such a selection of iconic views from its front door. Inside, there’s a wide bar/reception area that leads to the circle and galleries, and stairs down to the stalls. Inside it’s very comfortable, with a great rake and terrific sightlines, as the rows are slightly staggered so that you don’t have someone else’s big head right in your line of vision. Our interval glass of Minervois was exceptionally tasty; my only criticism is that the box office was closed at the end of the show, even though it’s an extension of the bar area, where people were still working. There were at least four people, maybe more (including myself) who hung around waiting for someone to come so that we could buy a copy of the playscript (and after all, it’s not until after the show that you really know whether you want to buy a copy or not) – but alas no one appeared. That was at least £40 worth of sales they missed out on. Still, what a great theatre!

YM6Its inaugural production is Young Marx, from the pen of Richard Bean (who seems to be unstoppable with his writing at the moment) in collaboration with Clive Coleman. Yes, even that towering, intimidating, bewhiskered old commie Karl Marx was once a young roister-doister. Penniless and thoroughly amoral, he steals from his wife to get money from the pawnbrokers, sleeps with the maid and then passes her child off as someone else’s, hides from his creditors, and from the law; even causes a fight in the library. He’s an appalling procrastinator; his pal Engels begs him to knuckle down and write his Magnum Opus that will change the lives of working people for ever more; but he’d sooner go out and get drunk. The play lets us into his chaotic life; his relationship with his wife (not good); with Engels (very good); and with his children (extremely good). It emerges that there is a spy in the midst of their political gatherings, but who is it?

YM3To be honest, we don’t particularly care, as the play is much more character-driven than plot-driven, and all the better for it, I feel. Mark Thompson’s gloomy revolving set provides a strong evocation of the poverty-stricken streets of London, and the Marx’s spartan apartment; and contrasts with Grant Olding’s rock-style incidental music, which deliberately clashes anachronistically with the 19th century story, startling and unsettling the audience with its constant interruptions. Messrs Bean and Coleman provide Marx with a couple of farcical fight and flight scenes, just to create a larger than life sense and to distance the story from reality a little bit more – even though almost everything that takes place in the play did actually happen for real. It must be said, that first fight scene was clumsy and ineffective; Mrs Chrisparkle feared she was going to be in for a very tedious afternoon. But she needn’t have worried. Everything else afterwards worked well; and the second fight scene, in the library, is simply hilarious and superbly executed.

YM2Rory Kinnear is perfect casting as Marx. He has that knowing air; that look that weighs up the difference between the sensible and the mischievous but will always go for the mischievous, just because he can. Switching effortlessly between faux-sincerity and childish naughtiness, he manages to keep one step ahead of the law but not necessarily ahead of his wife. He has brilliant comic timing; his scenes with the excellent Laura Elphinstone as Nym, where he’s having to cover up his infidelities, are a joy. Oliver Chris’ Engels is another superb performance, bright, polite and cheery, full of decency to compare with his pal’s lack of it. Nancy Carroll, whom we last saw as the delightfully naughty Maggie in Woyzeck, gives a great portrayal of his long-suffering wife Jenny, dispensing kindness to all and sundry apart from her wretched husband. Tony Jayawardena, hilarious as Mr Bhamra in Bend it Like Beckham, again shows his fantastic ability to get the best humour from throwaway lines as Doc Schmidt. If you think the receptionists at your GP can be occasionally indiscreet when blurting out your symptoms to a full waiting room, just be grateful you don’t have Schmidt treating your venereal disease.

YM4I also really enjoyed the performance of Eben Figueiredo as the servile and over-enthusiastic Konrad Schramm. Mr Figueiredo was one of the few good things about Chichester’s Pitcairn a few years ago, so it’s good to see him in a show worth his talent! And the always entertaining Miltos Yerolemou is on top form as the grumpy French revolutionary, Emmanuel Barthelemy, with his constant translation issues. In the performance we saw, Marx’s children, Qui Qui and Fawksey, were played by Matilda Shapland and Logan Clark and a jolly fine job they did of it too. But the entire cast works extremely well together as a very fluid and entertaining ensemble.

YM1The whole thing is played for laughs from the start to the finish. Serious students of political ideology need not apply. But if you like to see Marx hiding from his enemies in a cupboard or on the roof, or witness Marx and Engels nick a gate from a park and then pee up a wall together like naughty schoolboys, you’re on to a winner. It runs at the Bridge Theatre until 31st December. Good fun, highly entertaining – and a lovely new theatre to explore!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Simon Amstell, What is This, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th November 2017

what+is+thisI’d only previously come across Simon Amstell in the fantastic TV programme Grandma’s House, which Mrs Chrisparkle and I used to watch with regular and loyal expectation. Not only for Mr Amstell’s contribution, but also Rebecca Front, Samantha Spiro, Linda Bassett and the late Geoffrey Hutchings were all on brilliant form. Mr Amstell also co-wrote it, so that’s got to indicate that he’s a bright spark. I realised he also regularly indulged in a spot of stand-up but for reasons that are too dull to mention here, we never got around to seeing him – until now.

But I’m running before I walk. As a support act, Mr Amstell has engaged the services of another bright spark, Mawaan Rizwan. As soon as I read that he would be starting the show, I instantly remembered where I had seen him before; he made a very illuminating documentary for BBC3 entitled How Gay is Pakistan? Answer: not particularly. Apparently, he’s most famous for being a Youtube sensation, but of course I wouldn’t know anything about that.

Mawaan Rizwan 2There’s a similarity between Mr Amstell and Mr Rizwan – they’re both gay. However, there the similarity ends; Mr Amstell is lugubriously gay, whereas Mr Rizwan is effervescently gay. If Alka-Seltzer could turn you gay, they would market Mr Rizwan in soluble form. But whereas a large amount of Mr A’s material centres on his life as a gay man, Mr R plucks hilarious, surreal routines out of absolutely nothing, with his sexuality being largely irrelevant to the material. He rendered a full house helpless with laughter by pelting us with baby wipes, each time giving us a perfectly good reason why we deserved the pelting. He has another routine where he tries out new (silly) walks – a John Cleese for the 21st century, perhaps? Mr R’s physical comedy is absolutely first rate. He was joined by the very helpful Matt from the end of Row C who then had to spend the rest of the show nursing a bundle of disparate hardware items – don’t ask. He had some great material about using his boyfriend as a therapist, and he created a lovely callback regarding his previous job; get me being all comedy-technical. He had the entire theatre in hysterics, and I expect the cleaners will be hoovering up glitter for months. I thought he was brilliant.

After the interval we’re back for the main event, Simon Amstell asking What is This; this being life, the world around us, the daily treadmill that governs our waking hours. Can’t remember if he came up with an answer; don’t think he did. Mr A has a very diffident manner of delivering his stand up; he’s quiet and unassuming. Mr R bounded on stage and his body shrieked Hey Look at Me, whereas Mr A sidled on, and his body muttered Hey Please Don’t Look at Me; a very interesting pairing. Mr A’s material centred solely on his life experience, how he realised he was gay, and how his general awkwardness in life doesn’t naturally go hand in hand with his sexuality. He had a lovely story about going to Magaluf with a bunch of mates, and how they got on; a slightly less lovely story about going to Paris to find himself as a teenager, but still with a classic punchline.

Simon AmstellHis recollections and accounts are indeed very funny, but the whole hour in his company felt like one massive group therapy session. It’s as though the NHS has granted him one precious appointment to come on stage and talk about himself, to get things off his chest. Of course, most comedians spend their entire act talking about themselves – because, after all, they’re the people they know best – but with Mr Amstell it does tend to feel somewhat egoistical. Not, in any way, big-headed or arrogant, in fact far from it; more in that it’s totally his experiences, his thoughts, and the way life affects him. If you drew a Venn Diagram on how Mr A and the outside world interact, you’d just have a picture of him in a circle.

I did also feel that he lacks a sense of light and shade in his delivery; it’s all recounted at one pace, and in one tone of voice; very much in the style of the therapeutic confessional. Much of his material turned into an analysis of his relationship with his father, which was fascinating, and wry; but you didn’t feel like he’d welcome you laughing at what he was saying, because it would be quite insensitive. Having said that, there were clearly some stony-faced people in the front row who were unsettling Mr Amstell with their arm-folded frostiness. One of them made the tactical error of getting her phone out. Mr A wasn’t having any of that (and quite right too!)

Maawan RizwanI don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t enjoy his set, because I did. It’s just that after about half an hour I found that the initial smile and happy countenance that had greeted his earlier material had started to freeze on my face and I discovered that I just wasn’t giving any laughter back. The smile remained, because I enjoyed hearing what he had to say, but despite my pressing F5 in my head, it wasn’t getting refreshed into laughter. There are just a handful of tour dates remaining up to the end of the month, but Mr Rizwan is doing a full work-in-progress show at Contact, Manchester, on 2nd December. If you’re around, that’s a no-brainer.

Review – Glengarry Glen Ross, Playhouse Theatre, 16th November 2017

Glengarry Glen RossDavid Mamet’s written some cracking plays in the past. Do you remember Sexual Perversity in Chicago? American Buffalo? Duck Variations? (Just how many ways can you do it with a duck?) And then there’s Glengarry Glen Ross. It was only the second play I saw with the then Miss Duncansby (now Mrs Chrisparkle), back in April 1986. The first, the previous December, had been Wife Begins at Forty, a hilarious romp which we both loved. Was I onto a winning streak with the Mamet? With Tony Haygarth, Kevin McNally, and Derek Newark all in the cast, what could possibly go wrong? She hated it.

GGR Christian SlaterFast forward 31 years (yikes!) and this new production of GGR, the prospect of which didn’t titillate her at all. But my friend, the Squire of Sidcup, suggested that it might be fun to go to see it, and I agreed. And I’m very glad I did, because this production wiped the floor with the original one, and is full of meticulous detail, superb performances and a tangible feel for the cut-throat world of Real Estate.

GGR Don WarringtonStructurally, it’s a lopsided play. The first act contains just three short scenes, set in a Chinese Restaurant (absolutely beautifully designed by Chiara Stephenson – you can almost smell the chop suey), where the salesmen go to discuss their nefarious wheeler-dealer activities, concocting plans to outdo the others, agreeing percentage cuts of percentage cuts in return for blind-eyes or insider knowledge; or maybe even a plot to break into the office overnight and steal all the preciously hidden “leads” – which could make a top salesman hundreds of thousands of dollars. The third scene is between the most successful salesman, Ricky Roma, and a poor sap of a geezer who just happened to be sitting in the restaurant. Before he knows it, he is being tempted with property beyond the dreams of avarice.

GGR Kris MarshallThat all takes place in a space of half an hour, and then it’s time for the interval. Originally (I understand) the interval was half an hour long and there were criticisms that it obstructed the natural flow of the story. For Thursday’s matinee, the interval was just twenty minutes, which felt fine. The second act takes place back at the office; there’s been a break-in, the leads are gone, but who stole them? And how will that team of competitive salesmen ever work together again?

GGR Stanley TownsendThe transformation from restaurant to tatty office during the interval is a remarkable feat, as the floor is strewn with papers, loose files, cabinets are overflowing with disturbed documentation; a clock on the back wall keeps time, and twenty minutes in to the act someone says it’s 12:15 and you look at the clock and it precisely is! That’s what I call attention to detail.

GGR Christian Slater and Daniel RyanThe big attraction in this production is the presence of Christian Slater as Ricky Roma. I’m not overly familiar with his work but, boy, is he a classy actor. The confidence, the ease, the charisma that he exudes is so impressive that he’s just a delight to watch and to hear. Roma is a total sleazeball but Mr Slater still makes him incredibly likeable, and even when you know he’s weaving a web of deceit around his victim, strangely, you’re still on his side. That’s a great achievement. His victim is the excellent Daniel Ryan, as Lingk, whom Mrs C and I last saw in Chichester’s The House They Grew Up In; he really is the master in portraying a put-upon underdog. There are also strong performances by Kris Marshall as the angularly unpleasant boss John Williamson, arrogantly patronising all his staff; Oliver Ryan as the impatient, gun-wielding local cop brought in to sort out the mess; and super-sub Mark Carlisle, effortlessly stepping into the role of the snide, cantankerous Dave Moss whilst Robert Glenister is indisposed.

GGR Christian Slater and Kris MarshallI really loved the indomitable Don Warrington as the hapless George Aaronow, perpetually confused and startled by life, almost frozen into stasis by the perplexity of everything around him, seeing the last dregs of what was once a decent career slip through his fingers. The brief Act One scene between Mr Warrington and Mr Carlisle was sheer joy, as they volleyed lines and responses back and forth to each other like a verbal tennis match. But perhaps the big surprise of the show is the brilliant performance by Stanley Townsend as Shelly Levene, glorying in the minutiae of his fabulous sale, getting a truly mellifluous resonance around his words as he proudly revelled in his moment. It’ll be a long time before I forget his recollections of that crumbcake.

Playhouse TheatreIt takes a great production to bring this play to life; and this production is teeming with it. Shocking, surprising, gasp-inducing and littered with laugh out loud moments – a really impressive work. It’s running till 3rd February 2018 and I’d recommend it wholeheartedly!