Review – James Acaster, Zebra Xmas 2017, Playhouse Theatre, Northampton, 21st December 2017

James AcasterOnce again we welcome a big name to a tiny theatre – James Acaster’s pre-Christmas work-in-progress show at the 85-seater Playhouse in Northampton. Why would he deign to visit this humble hive of artistic endeavour when the world is his oyster? Because he’s a local lad done good, that’s why. This was the third and final of the shows – unsurprisingly all the tickets get snapped up the moment the word is out that he’s coming back.

Last year, we had a hoot. Mr Acaster doled out funny sequences and ridiculous insights and was exactly the languid, quirky comic that the nation has taken to its hearts. However, as Mr A told us in this new show, 2017 hasn’t been a kind year. A relationship breakdown, his agent dropping him and visits to a counsellor have all played their part in forming what sounds like his own annus horribilis. And whilst he doesn’t go into any detail in the first two of those events, he does use the counselling sessions as part of his gig. The whole experience sounds appalling. I could only gasp in horror; I couldn’t laugh at that if I tried. If Philip Pullman hadn’t already nabbed His Dark Materials as a title, it would be perfect for Mr A’s current mindset.

James AcasterThe evening started promisingly, with some lovely observations about expecting the end of the year and then being all surprised when it turns into January again. He then reminisced about how much he enjoyed 1999 – a great year for him – and how 2017 was rubbish by comparison. I too remember the eclipse of 1999; it was a fascinating and beautiful moment. However, not being a Manchester United fan, I remembered nothing of their particular success that year. Mr A has a lot of Manchester United material; and, to be honest, it did go on a bit. After the interval, he had more excellent material about the dreaded Brexit; very beautifully crafted, cleverly never saying the B word, or indeed the R word, and for me that was the highlight of the show.

But then Mr A seemed to lose heart with us; we weren’t responding as he’d hoped and that’s when our relationship faltered. There had been an elephant in the room right from the start – and that’s Northampton. Whenever a touring comic comes to a town, they inevitably ask the audience what it’s like living there and inevitably the reply comes back: “it’s sh*t”. This is certainly true of Northampton audiences, and I expect they say the same thing in Chelsea. It’s very trendy – almost a badge of honour – to knock where you live. Because Mr A is a Northamptonshire Native, he knows full well all the town’s downsides; and now that he lives in London he can pile on the caustic humour of looking down on Northampton. That’s fair enough, so long as you accompany it with the verbal or physical equivalent of a winking emoji.

j-acaster-2The trouble was, Mr A’s disappointment with a Northampton audience’s responses came across as too real. I personally felt like I was under some kind of cultural attack. We were ridiculed for our inability to appreciate all his material because we’re not sophisticated enough. We were made to feel guilty for the fact that we were an all-white audience; that’s really not our fault! When he changed his planned ending, because he didn’t think we’d get it, to a Q&A session, someone in the audience groaned at one of his answers; not a nasty, heckling groan, more a teasing, comedic groan. Mr A basically said that was a typical Northampton response and the show finished fairly abruptly thereafter.

Now all this could be really tongue-in-cheek on his part, all part of a double-bluff which we’re not meant to take seriously. But Mr A had been like this all night and hadn’t built up a trust rapport at which he could later chisel away. He started the night with the idea that we shouldn’t get too emotionally attached to him because we’re never going to be friends, he’s just there to do a job and go home. In isolation, that’s a funny observation to make; but throughout the course of the evening I felt more and more that he wasn’t joking and that he would have been happier at home. As a result, there wasn’t much positivity for us to grab hold of and keep us onside for the whole show.

James AWhether this is true or made up, I don’t know, but at one stage Mr A said that he’d received a tweet after the previous show that just read: “James Acaster needs a hug” (big laugh, because I reckon a number of us thought that) to which he responded that he didn’t need a hug, and that reaction is patronising. That’s probably true too. Trouble is, it signified that we really didn’t know how to respond to him without seeming to offend him, which made for a generally uncomfortable evening. He always comes across as a genuinely nice guy – so when he gets aggressive, it just feels wrong.

But that’s what work-in-progress is all about.

Theatre Censorship – Rita Sue and Bob Too at the Royal Court, or not

Lord Cobbold

Lord Cobbold, Lord Chamberlain 1963 – 1971

Theatre Censorship is one of my favourite topics. Get me drunk and I’ll either tell you about fourteen ways of making a new word in the English language without borrowing from foreign languages (no, honestly), or I’ll blather on about why Frank Marcus’ The Killing of Sister George wasn’t banned but Edward Bond’s Saved was. Official censorship by the Lord Chamberlain’s Office ceased in 1968 – fifty years ago next year, more of which later – but there’s no more effective form of censorship than commercial censorship. You might have written The Best Play Ever but if no producer or theatre will touch it, it will never see the light of day.

Rita Sue and Bob TooSomething of a mini-censorship furore has raised its ugly head recently over the production of Rita Sue and Bob Too which was due to play at the Royal Court in January. A few days ago it was announced that they were dropping the production, as it was co-directed by the once lauded, now disgraced Max Stafford-Clark. Mr Stafford-Clark has been accused of many instances of improper behaviour with cast members over the years; and as Artistic Director of the Royal Court Theatre from 1979 to 1993, it’s not hard to forge a link between him and his behaviour and the theatre itself.

Vicky Featherstone

Vicky Featherstone, Artistic Director, Royal Court Theatre

No wonder emotions ran a little high; particularly as Rita Sue and Bob Too is a challenging play that depicts – there’s no two ways of saying this – a man regularly having sex with two fifteen-year-old girls. In 1982 when the play first appeared, that was illegal but many a blind eye was turned. Today, in our post-Operation Yewtree world, this is completely unacceptable; and in the Royal Court’s post-Stafford-Clark climate, where Artistic Director Vicky Featherstone has also been part of a major campaign against sexual harassment in the industry in the wake of the Harvey Weinstein shenanigans, she obviously felt that the play and the theatre did not sit well side by side. But only a few days later, this decision was reversed.

Royal CourtIMHO, society still hasn’t quite worked out what to do about paedophiles, so I think a good production of this play is a valuable tool in the discussion databank. There are many reasons why I applaud Vicky Featherstone’s decision to backtrack on dropping the play and reinstating it in the schedule. Censorship is never the answer. Just because you burn the books it doesn’t make the content go away. This is, indeed, a very good production, which I saw in Northampton in November. Why is it perfectly acceptable for the play to tour many provincial theatres around the UK, but for it suddenly to be too distasteful for the capital? Indeed, the Royal Court’s history of presenting avant garde theatre over the decades – its raison d’etre in many aspects – by rights ought to mean that there is nowhere more appropriate for the play to be staged. I bumped into the Chief Executive of the Royal and Derngate in Northampton shortly after we’d seen Rita Sue and Bob Too at his theatre and remarked on what a challenging play it is, in that we’re being asked to sympathise with a paedophile. His simple response was one of yes, it really makes you think and doesn’t theatre throw up some surprises sometimes. Which I think is absolutely the most rational reaction.

Andrea Dunbar

Andrea Dunbar

Added to which, the play’s writer, Andrea Dunbar, is no longer alive to defend her own work or to write more plays. Censorship of Rita Sue and Bob Too is effectively stifling what remains of her voice; a voice that came from the heart and described day-to-day life in her home town of Bradford in those depressing but unforgettable early Thatcher days. It would be a strange mixture of cowardly and cruel to extinguish her voice even further.

If Andrea Dunbar had written this play in the mid-1960s I am sure the Lord Chamberlain would have banned it outright, because of its display of promiscuous and underage sex. I could even imagine a case of obscenity being brought against it. The Theatres Act defines an obscene play as one likely to deprave and corrupt those likely to see it. Well, when I saw Rita Sue and Bob Too, the man in front of me was definitely getting carried away with the sexual frissons emanating from the stage, with shouts like “Go on, my son” and “I wish I had his job”. Had the play depraved and corrupted that man? That would be for a court to decide, but, personally, I think he was already three-quarters of the way there. Those days of stage censorship are long gone, let’s not resurrect them now.

Whilst I have your attention, gentle reader, next year I shall be launching a brand new, additional, site where I hope to take you through the fiftieth anniversary of the withdrawal of stage censorship, looking at many examples of banned or heavily edited plays, the writers’ reactions, the effects on the plays themselves, the opinions of the public and the reviewers, the history of stage censorship and the progress towards its abolition. Please feel free to bookmark stagecensorship.com now – the About page is already written – and we will get going properly in January!

Review – An Anti-Panto Double Bill – The Night Before Christmas and The Flint Street Nativity, Third Year Acting Students at University of Northampton, Maidwell Theatre, Northampton, 15th December 2017

Anti-Panto Double BillIn a sharp contrast to the traditional panto of Cinderella that their colleagues performed yesterday, other members of the Third Year Acting Students at Northampton University performed two one-act plays, described as an Anti-Panto double bill. I thought that was what you had before a lasagne, but what do I know?

Jac BurbridgeWe started with The Night Before Christmas, by Anthony Neilson, a short, spikey little comedy set in a cheap gifts warehouse on the night before Christmas. Wide-boy owner Gary has caught someone lurking in the warehouse, with a bag of tools and a seemingly mischievous intent – but it turns out to be one of Santa’s elves, who’s fallen from the sledge and is now worried that the Big Man will have to cancel Christmas trying to find him. No way José is this a feeble attempt by a petty thief/junkie to explain why he was caught breaking and entering a warehouse, no sirree. Gary calls his disgruntled mate Simon to show him the elf, because, otherwise, well, you just wouldn’t believe it, would you? An unhappy customer and maybe semi-significant other of Gary’s, Cherry, also turns up and gets involved in the surreal comedy.

Radostin RadevI thought this was a whole lot of fun and all four performers were great. If you were ever going to work out an elf’s character and motivation, Radostin Radev’s hilarious take on it is about as good as you can get. With his naively simple smile, don’t hurt me body language and part childlike-part junkie accent, he made me laugh all the way through. I loved the pose he adopted in order to give his three wishes – and then his subsequent exhaustion. His performance is a perfectly pitched combination of silliness with just a hint of the sinister. Great job.

Kate Morgan-JonesJac Burbridge was also very good as Simon, dishing out the expletives like they were After Eights, striking just the right note of belligerence and disbelief; he’s technically very strong with a great confident delivery and excellent enunciation, which is always a huge bonus. I loved Kate Morgan-Jones as the upfront and extremely direct Cherry – a right nasty piece of work who gets unpleasantly excited at the prospect of torturing the elf. Her character was the soul of aggression, and she delivered it superbly.Alexander Forrester-Coles Alexander Forrester-Coles had some nice throwaway lines and asides as Gary, never missing an opportunity to do a deal with the police, and very amusingly reflecting all those awkward thoughts you’d experience if you were suddenly required to do mouth to mouth resuscitation. All in all, a really smart quartet of actors delivering a punchy piece with a great feeling for the comedy.

Farrah DarkAfter an interval, the second play was The Flint Street Nativity, a nativity performance from hell, performed by adults but as young children, with all their insecurities, hatreds, showings-off and other terrible traits. We see the preparations, and last-minute rehearsals; the vomit-inducing nerves, the off- and on-stage tantrums; the bossy gang leader who decides who from the group is and who isn’t in favour; the lisping new boy who doesn’t know the ropes; the good little girl who can be relied on to narrate the story properly; the boy who’s obsessed with spacemen; and so on. At times it’s extremely funny, and the cast worked well together as an ensemble; at times I felt the humour dragged a little and to be honest, even though it only takes about fifty minutes to perform, it felt a little overlong to me. After all, once you get the basic joke, there’s not a lot of places you can take it. But that’s my argument with the writer, not the performers.

Gemma FenshamThere were some very beautifully played performances; Farrah Dark was superb as Mary, trying so hard to be good, giving us a very effective puke-up, and fighting to hold on to her starring role despite the vengeful machinations of the horrid Angel Gabriel played very convincingly like a vicious spoilt brat by Gemma Fensham. Megan Leask-Walters gave a very good performance as the well-behaved narrator, capturing the essence of a child under pressure by means of worried expressions and awkward body language – she did a really good job.

Robert CharlesJason Pile was convincing as the obsessed spaceboy, bringing every conversation round to some form of NASA-based content – and ending up with a very funny and authentic walking on the moon sequence. Robert Charles made us all feel sympathetic for the plight of the new boy and it was a genuinely moving moment when he finally made a friend; and I did enjoy Naomi Eli’s discomfort at having to swap sides of affection depending on what she was told to do by the horrid Angel Gabriel. Robert BarnesBut for me the stand-out performance was by Robert Barnes as the Question of Sport-mad boy who relived old episodes to all and sundry ad nauseam (including his excitable interpretation of a round of applause) and who couldn’t resist looking for his parents in the audience when on-stage. Very likeable and very funny.

An enjoyable double-bill that tested the actors’ comedic skills to very good effect. Congratulations to all on two jobs well done!

Review – Cinderella, University of Northampton Final Year Acting Students, Maidwell Theatre, Northampton, 14th December 2017

CinderellaFor the first time, my friend and co-blogger Mr Smallmind and I found ourselves in the curious position of seeing a traditional panto staged by the Final Year Acting Students of the University of Northampton. With panto seemingly as strong as ever in the affections of the British public, it makes perfect sense for the Acting Students to be put through their panto paces and learn the necessary skills for this most fun-based, and regular-incomed, of all stage entertainments. Oh no it doesn’t? Oh yes it does.

Ceara Coveney9.45 am is probably the earliest I’ve ever seen a stage production kick off, and that’s even after four years of rigorous attendance at the Edinburgh Fringe. At that time of day a gentleman of my years might not be quite so open to outrageous ugly sisters and hard-up barons; but not so for the 60-odd attendees from a local primary school, who were young enough to be totally entranced by the magic of panto, but also old enough to reject sub-standard performance and material. So, quite a tricky demand on the actors.

Chloe HoffmeisterThings were perhaps a little slow to start whilst the young audience were working out in their heads at what point they should respond to what was happening on stage and how loudly they should be doing it. Let’s face it, that’s a skill that many adults don’t possess. Bryony Ditchburn’s enchanting Fairy Godmother opens the show to set the scene of fairyland, and to introduce us to our sad slave of a scullery maid, Cinderella, played by Ceara Coveney. Ms Coveney gives a kindly, winning performance; her caring for the hungry mouse shows just how kind and thoughtful she is. She also blossoms stunningly into the Princess Crystal (not that she was given that name in this version).

Zoe MayallOn their first appearance, Chloe Hoffmeister’s sprightly and spirited Dandini faces the task of cheering up Zoe Mayall’s Prince Charming, which she does by means of an earwormingly irritating song about Charming Cheese that remains stuck in my head several hours later. I think Ms Mayall is at a disadvantage by playing a character down in the dumps at this early stage, because we were wanting a really lively kick-start to the show to capture our attention, but instead we got a gloomy prince. However, her interaction with the audience does improve and we do share in her delight at finding someone who will love her for who she (he) is, and not just because of her title – a nice moral message there.

Mo SamuelsThe arrival of the Ugly Sisters really perks up the show. Elouise (Mo Samuels) and Ermintrude (Chris Tyler), argue petulantly much to the delight of the kids, who were more than prepared to boo them at the drop of a hat. Mr Samuels performs Elouise as a graceless lout but who just might turn winsome if the right prince were to come along at the right time. Mr Tyler’s Chris TylerErmintrude is a rough-as-guts, dumb-bell wielding, date from hell who gives us lots of well-executed and funny pratfalls. Their wallpaper pasting scene is definitely the highlight of the show, both of them throwing themselves (literally) into getting stuck in the paste and terrifying the kids with the prospect of getting a bucket of water thrown over them – (relax, it doesn’t happen.)

Alexandra PienaruAlexandra Pienaru really accentuates the wicked with her portrayal of Cinderella’s stepmother, all ghastly wig and screechy bossiness. It’s a good, fun performance and she handled her two (yes two, that’s unfortunate) wardrobe malfunctions with effortless ease, striking up an off-the-cuff conversation with the audience whilst backstage sought a pair of scissors to cut her out of her first costume.Oliver Franks I enjoyed Oliver Franks’ performance as Buttons, coming over as an extremely likeable bloke (I feel I should let Buttons know that the good guys never get the girl). He did have a slight tendency to rush a few of his lines; whether that was sheer nerves at the sight of all those kids (can’t blame him) or eagerness to get through the exposition so that we could get to the physical comedy quicker, I don’t know.

Tiffany Mae RiversHal Gallagher’s very laid-back Baron Hardup is almost too subtle and underplayed for us to appreciate the characterisation, and sadly the custard pie sequence didn’t really work, because there wasn’t really any purpose to it. However, Tiffany Mae Rivers and Liza Swart strike just the right note as the Brokers’ Men Mutt and Jeff,Liza Swart making the most of their scene-changing duties, and gaining an excellent rapport with the kids who were on their side right from the start. Perhaps the most memorable pairing of the show is the hilarious dancing between the enormous Mr Samuels and the diminutive Ms Swart. The spirit of Little and Large lives on.

The kids clearly loved it, and a very funny and festive atmosphere abounded. Good work, Third Year Actors, this was a tough ask and you rose to the challenge!

Review – Bananarama, Eventim Apollo, 9th December 2017

BananaramaMrs Chrisparkle and I have never really been into the pop/rock gig culture. My first proper concert wasn’t until I was 22 when a friend took me to see Simon and Garfunkel at Wembley; might as well start with a biggie. Then, one very wet day in 1984, I went with friends to see Genesis in the muddy squalor of the Milton Keynes Bowl – the last time that Peter Gabriel performed with them. Talk Talk were the support act – before their classic hit, It’s My Life. Before we met, Mrs C had seen both Howard Jones (yes) and Cliff Richard (oh yes) in Sydney. Some years later we would both see Howard Jones again – still a fan; and we were unfortunate enough to see Cliff Richard in the musical Time. Let’s draw a veil over that one.

BananasSince then we’ve seen a few, largely retro, performances of some big names of the past, such as Adam Ant, UB40, Lulu, and that doyenne of heavy metal, Petula Clark. Seeing these big names has always a most enjoyable experience. When it was announced that Bananarama were coming back with a mini-tour, my social media timeline went berserk. Unfortunately, so did the booking queues and at first I thought we’d missed out. But then they announced one extra date right at the end of the tour and somehow, with hardly any notice, I snuck in and secured us a couple of tickets.

Rough JusticeIt’s only looking back that you realise quite what a legacy of brilliant pop the girls left behind, although it’s fascinating to see from their discography that they never scored a UK Number One – unless you count their contribution to Live Aid. Starting off with those incredibly languid first few songs, they pepped up with some poppy cover versions, then ended up with the full Stock Aitken Waterman sound. Get one of their songs in your head and there’s no way out. I have a confession to make though, regarding two of their biggest hits; I prefer the originals. Don’t judge me.

Nathan JonesOf course, the Hammersmith Apollo was packed; our seats in Row S were surprisingly good, because the rake there is perfect and you’re still close enough to the stage to get the waft of a banana. They opened with Nathan Jones – one of the cover versions that I really like – and within a few minutes the crowd was ecstatic with nostalgia and appreciation for their really, very silly dance routine. I have to say the Bananas still look absolutely terrific; Siobhan’s older than I am, and that’s Really Saying Something. I’m no vocal expert but my guess is that you don’t have to be the best singer in the world to nail these numbers; their secret was all in their style.

Cheers ThenRather than have me tell you all the songs they sang, I’ll just say that, basically, they sang everything you’d expect. The only number missing that I would have liked to hear was their Comic Relief cover version of Help. An early treat was Robert de Niro’s Waiting, because everyone instantly sang along to create a great feeling of camaraderie within the Apollo. I was pleased that they performed Cheers Then, because I’ve always looked on it as the underdog of their repertoire, only getting to No 45 in the UK charts, and it took me years to track down a copy of the single at some obscure record fair. I hooted at delight when they sang Cruel Summer – that’s my favourite; their downbeat style suited perfectly the thorough sadness of that song.Venus As it did with Rough Justice, which I found surprisingly moving. Many of their songs were accompanied by video clips of them all, innocently larking around back in the day, meshed together in some very lively and exciting visual backgrounds which complemented the performances nicely. Siobhan left the stage when they sang Shakespeare’s Sister’s Stay – a certain irony there – and of course everyone went hysterical for Venus, I Heard a Rumour (which came over incredibly well), Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye and I Want You Back. For the final two songs we had a truly funky rendition of It Ain’t What You Do… and Love in the First Degree closed the show.

GoodbyeIt was an enormously fun night – the whole theatre was in a great mood – and there was a lot of love going on for all our yesterdays. Very glad we were able to make it!

StayP. S. OK! I’ll tell you which of those cover versions are not as good as the originals, IMHO. I prefer the hippiness of Steam’s Na Na Hey Hey Kiss Him Goodbye; and nothing can compare with the guitars on Shocking Blue’s original version of Venus.

FinaleP. P. S. There were a group of extremely well-dressed people in the row directly in front of us, including two older guys in very sharp suits. They all seemed to be having a great time, constantly saying hello to people, posing for selfies, and so on. It was only as we were on the way out at the end that we realised one of them was Andrew Ridgley.

Review – Imperium, RSC at the Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, 7th December 2017

ImperiumWhat’s an imperium, I hear you ask? Good question. Tiro, Cicero’s slave, whom he frees to become his personal secretary, explains all in the first play of Mike Poulton’s adaptation of Robert Harris’ Cicero Trilogy. Imperium is the word the Romans used to mean the power of life and death given by the State into the hands of a single individual. In other words, if you get an imperium, you’re an awfully powerful guy.

Cicero the ConsulI had no expectations of this theatrical treat in advance of the full day’s commitment required to see the plays in one fell swoop. Gentle reader, I am no classics scholar, unless you count my Latin O level, Grade B, of which I am (I believe) justly proud. Before seeing this production, I knew very little of Cicero; apparently, he came from a family of chick-pea magnates, who knew? I haven’t read Robert Harris’ books, although I did spot him in the audience – along with, inter alia, Richard Wilson and Jeremy Irons. I know, shamelessly star-spotting. If anything, I was fearful of a rather dry and dusty Latinate trawl through speeches and murders and Ides of March. And whilst those elements do exist in this seven hours plus marathon (yes, really), there’s absolutely nothing dry or dusty about it. In fact, I had no idea at all that within the first ten minutes I’d be laughing my head off at the interplay between Tiro, nattering intimately with the audience, and Cicero, moaning in the background, complaining of Tiro’s excessive exposition.

Tiro the SecretaryThis is a hugely entertaining, beautifully written, superbly performed examination of Cicero at the heart of Roman Republic conspiracies, and one of the most enjoyable trips to the theatre I’ve had in ages. There are two plays – Part One, Conspirator, and Part Two, Dictator, and if you don’t see them all on the same day I would most definitely recommend you see them in the right order. Each is split into three parts, so you get the rather old-fashioned delight of having two intervals. I always think that makes more of an event of an evening at the theatre; Coward, Rattigan and their ilk would have been thrilled. Part One follows Cicero’s successful election as Consul, much to the annoyance of his rival Catiline; and the machinations of those other power-players, the super-rich Crassus and the ambitious Julius Caesar. We also see Cicero’s family life, with his loyal but frequently dismayed wife Terentia, and his adored daughter Tullia; and there are his protégés, Clodius and Rufus, neither of whom are entirely reliable. By the end of the first play, Cicero seems to be on his way down, and Clodius is on the ascendant. The second play moves on to Caesar’s success and his murder – which has consequences that permeate the remainder of the evening, plus the subsequent misrule of Mark Antony, and the rise of young Octavian, Caesar’s adopted son.

Antony the UnreliableAnthony Ward’s superb design literally sets the scene, with a close-up of two mosaic eyes on the back wall suggesting that, when in Rome, Frater Magnus is always watching you. Stairs descend on to the stage, creating the perfect illusion of the Senate; behind them are hidden further stairs where the mob might approach from below. Beneath the surface of the main stage, the floor opens up inventively to reveal further stairs down; or Lucullus’ fish pool; or any one of a number of clever entrance/exit opportunities. Gareth Ellis’ merry band of six musicians play Paul Englishby’s stirring incidental music to great effect, at times both spookily conspiratorial and triumphantly magisterial.

Terentia the HumiliatedThere are a couple of things that slightly irritated me about the production; and they are slight. The first, I guess, is Robert Harris’ fault. I was a little disappointed to discover at the beginning of the second play that we don’t get to see what happened under Clodius’ rule; he ends the first play so menacingly that there’s got to be a fine tale to tell there. Sadly, we don’t see it for ourselves, although good old Tiro fills us in with all the missing information that happened between the two plays. Secondly, why does Cicero age throughout the second play, so that by the end he is an old man, whereas neither Tiro nor Cicero’s brother, Quintus, befall the same fate? Maybe they dosed up on the Caligae Numerus Septem; they should let us know their secret. And they didn’t need the unsubtlety of presenting Pompey as a Roman Donald Trump, which was basically a cheap laugh at the expense of a more appropriate characterisation. He should have taken a leaf out of Tiro’s book, who makes some very funny allusions to 2017 Britain and its crises whilst still remaining definitely Anno B.C. However, having a couple of aberrations in seven-and-a-half hours’ worth of theatre is, I think, perfectly forgivable.

Catiline the BrutalI’ve seen Richard McCabe on stage a few times in the past, but nothing could have prepared me for how stupendously good he is as Cicero. I know it’s a cliché, but this genuinely is the role he was born to play. He captures every aspect of his personality perfectly, from his oratory, his thinly veiled faux-humility when he’s told how great he is, his calculating ability to take a risk when dealing with powerful people, to his doting on his daughter and his severe disappointment to his wife. Noble of spirit, but also delightfully human too, he’s a sheer joy to watch. For much of the time he performs an incredibly effective double act with Joseph Kloska as Tiro. A faithful servant, but always on hand to speak his mind and give valuable advice, Mr Kloska gives a tremendous performance. He takes us the audience into his confidence and we look on him as a likeable old pal and a direct conduit for us to get involved in all these political machinations. We trust and admire Tiro, and believe every word he says. For this to work, it’s vital for Mr Kloska to build a great relationship with the audience and he truly does.

Caesar the RuthlessNo one in this wonderful cast puts a foot wrong, with some stunning individual performances and extended scenes of really exciting and memorable drama. Joe Dixon is superb, first as the aggressive and bullying Cataline, scarred and scary, and then in the second play as the mercurial Mark Antony, with his alternating soft and violent approaches to dealing with the SPQR. Peter de Jersey is also riveting to watch as the cutthroat Julius Caesar, from his early days “discussing land reform with the wife of a client” (yeah right) to his maniacally imperious ascendance to becoming a god. Pierro Neel-Mie is outstanding as the louche Clodius, following his progress from caring Ciceronian acolyte to power-mad Tribune; a man who says it’s time to seek a wife, and this time not someone else’s, a man prepared to commit sacrilege at the temple of the Vestal Virgins by waving his willy at them. Mr Neel-Mie returns in the second play as the quietly vicious Agrippa, Octavian’s right-hand man; and you wouldn’t want to cross him.

Cato the InspirationalThere are also excellent performances from Oliver Johnstone as Cicero’s follower-cum-opponent Rufus, and as the totally unnerving Octavian – if ever butter-wouldn’t-melt turned into the sourest desire for retribution, he’s your man. Siobhan Redmond is excellent as Terentia in a performance that progresses directly from comedy to tragedy; as is John Dougall as a delightfully hesitant Brutus, Michael Grady-Hall as a scruffy but charismatic Cato and David Nicolle as a slimy Crassus. But the whole ensemble is magnificent, and everyone works together to create a superb piece of tight, gripping theatre. You’d never know you’d spent virtually all day in the theatre, it’s so enjoyable that the time just flies by.

Octavian the VengefulIf you don’t know how Cicero’s story ends – well I’m not going to tell you, but if a cat has nine lives, I guess he reached his tenth. Find out for yourself by going to see these brilliant plays between now and 10th February 2018.

Production Photos by Ikin Yum

Review – A Christmas Carol, RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, 6th December 2017

A Christmas CarolIn the absence of Mrs Chrisparkle, who was called away on urgent business in the States, I was graciously accompanied by Lady Lichfield to see the RSC’s new production of A Christmas Carol, adapted by that fantastic writer David Edgar (Yes! Nicholas Nickleby! Destiny! Albie Sachs! Author of so many superb contributions to our stages over the past forty years or more). There are few books that have lent themselves so effectively to adaptations over the years as A Christmas Carol – from Alastair Sim to the Muppets, and not forgetting Tommy Steele’s regular reappearances in Scrooge The Musical.

Phil DavisAnd here’s another one to add to the canon. David Edgar has taken the familiar redemption story of Scrooge, the Cratchits, Marley and the Ghosts and framed it inside the creative mind of Charles Dickens. Many of the more exhilarating works of art are about the creative process that brings about that very same work of art. Consider the film of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which is about the film crew making The French Lieutenant’s Woman. Or Elton John’s Your Song, which is about how he came to write Your Song. Now we get the chance to observe how Charles Dickens wrote A Christmas Carol.

The CompanyHis original notion, according to Edgar, was to create a hard-hitting tract on the poor and the workhouses. But as his editor and friend John Forster, who accompanies Dickens on this creation-fest, points out, it’s Christmas and no one wants to read a gloomy but worthy pamphlet. Forster makes Dickens think again. Brainstorming names, Scratch becomes Scrooge and a legend is born. Dickens then himself appears in many of the scenes as he tries to imagine himself in his own story, encouraging his characters to reveal themselves as truthfully as possible. It’s a fresh and enjoyable approach to the story and helps to place it in the context of early Victorian poverty.

Phil Davis and Gerard CareyNevertheless, I was still surprised by how very sentimental I found it. Of course, it’s up to the individual whether that’s a good thing, or not. Some people like to wallow in it; personally, I find the story rather mawkish. It’s not often that one looks to Agatha Christie for a critical assessment of someone else’s work, but I can’t help but agree with her character Christopher Wren in The Mousetrap, when talking of the snowdrift, says “takes one back to Dickens and Scrooge and that irritating Tiny Tim. So bogus.” When the adult (not so Tiny) Tim emerges at the end, alive and well due to the generosity of Scrooge, Lady Lichfield confessed to releasing a few sobs. Sentimental? I rest my case.

Nicholas BishopIt looks as authentic and ravishing as you would expect from an RSC production, but with your imagination having to do a lot of the work to fill in the blanks – which I always think is more rewarding anyway. A couple of movable doorframes suggest a maze of corridors at Scrooge’s offices or at the Cratchits’ grim digs. A few lush furnishings create a comfortable environment at Scrooge’s nephew Fred’s place. Palely lit windows in the sky are all that’s needed to conjure up a densely populated living city; and with a mere gesture Dickens can cause the snow to fall – because, after all, everything we see is in his imagination.

John HodgkinsonPhil Davis is every bit as good as you would imagine as Scrooge; viciously arrogant and miserable when at work on Christmas Eve, his mouth curling with disgust at what he interprets as the weak laziness of others, who expect to be given a day off work and for him to bear the financial loss. His unease turns to genuine fear as he encounters the three (female) Christmas ghosts; and there’s a lovely, funny scene where, invisible, he observes the games they play at nephew Fred’s and how he is hurt by the things they say about him – all this, while the Ghost of Christmas Present (a surprisingly hilarious performance by Brigid Zengeni) is tucking into their candied fruits. And I did like the not-so subtle dig at Boris Johnson.

Vivien ParryScrooge’s transformation to a paragon of charity is very nicely done and contributes to another excellent scene with Gerard Carey as Bob Cratchit, where, at the end of his tether, Cratchit finally plucks up the courage to tell Scrooge exactly what he thinks of him….and then realises how the miser has changed his tune – very funny. Among the rest of the cast, Nicholas Bishop is an amusing Dickens, John Hodgkinson a hearty Fezziwig, Vivien Parry a scary ghost and a comic aunt (Is it a Bison?) and Emma Pallant a singularly unamused Mrs Cratchit. But the whole cast work together splendidly as an ensemble.

Brigid ZengeniThere are a few musical and dance interludes that I found a little self-indulgent; one early in the show seems to go on for ages, long beyond what I felt the story required or could sustain at the time. And there was something about the show overall that for me didn’t quite soar. It’s sentimental, but in a very shallow way; I didn’t get a pounding of emotion at anyone’s plight. But there’s no doubt that it’s a classy show with an excellent central performance and an unusual approach which gives it an extra kick. If you’re a fan of the story, you’ll definitely want to see this blend of the traditional with a quirky modern take. It’s in repertoire at the RSC until February 4th.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan