Review – Welcome to my World, The Realistic Theatre Company, Fringe Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year (BA) Acting and Creative Practice Students, The Platform, Northampton, 29th April 2019

Fringe FestivalI thought I had never come across the specific condition of Dissociative Identity Disorder before – and that’s because it’s what used to be called Multiple Personality Disorder. Sometimes it’s hard to keep up with modern developments! It’s one of many mental health conditions that, if you’re not personally affected by it, you can only thank your lucky stars. I can’t imagine what it would be like to have all those voices tumbling around inside my head, speaking the words of other people, who are not me, but using my brain and my mouth to communicate with the world, testing me with their alternative identities, challenging me with their opposing views.

Amy Da Costa’s one-woman play introduces us to Zsofia, hiding in a corner until the voices in her head agree that it’s safe to come out. She likes to Netflix and Chill with Jacob, and it seems that the two of them have a good thing going until one day Jacob confesses that he has depression; and, whichever voice it was in Zsofia’s head that heard that, didn’t like it. So she refuses his calls and doesn’t see him anymore. Other voices in her head include a well-meaning child and an unsophisticated cockney; there may be more. How can she keep all these different characters, with their various desires and demands, under any kind of control?

Welcome to my WorldMs Da Costa does a great job in giving all these individuals their own voices and characterisation. When all Zsofia’s identities rub along ok it’s almost comedic at times, as we hear the mundane conversations between two pals that live inside one head. When the voices clash, however, Zsofia’s crisis is very moving and distressing, and, sadly, there is a kind of inevitability that leads to the play’s final scene.

An excellent performance, and with only a table for support – which inventively turns into a bed, a sofa, and a bath amongst others – and which really helps our imagination run wild to appreciate Zsofia’s full situation. A hard, sometimes complex, watch but dealing with this awful condition with honesty and sincerity. Congratulations!

Review – Red Joan, Northampton Filmhouse, 27th April 2019

Red JoanIs there nothing that Dame Judi Dench can’t do? From starring in Cabaret in those early days to being Bond’s head of MI6, now she’s accused of espionage, selling atomic bomb secrets to the Russians. What on earth would M say?!

Judi Dench as JoanRed Joan is based on the real-life story of Melita Norwood, the so-called “granny spy” who supplied information to the KGB over a period of forty years, but was never prosecuted. The film tells her story in flashbacks. In 2001, it starts with Joan’s unexpected arrest at her suburban home, and then shows her police interviews where she slowly reveals her involvement in espionage, much to the shock of her solicitor – also her son – who is hearing it all for the first time. Shown alongside the police investigations, we see undergraduate Joan starting at Cambridge, how she meets the very charismatic Stalinists Sonya and Leo, and her subsequent employment at a Government Laboratory and romantic involvement with her married boss. Whilst she’s excited to be doing such ground-breaking work, she’s horrified when the atomic bomb that she’s helped develop is used by the Americans in Japan. And that becomes her motivation for ensuring that the Russians know how to make the bomb too – working on the theory that if both sides have it, neither side will use it. And, as she says in her defence, so far, she’s been proved right.

Tom Hughes and Sophie CooksonWe’d seen that this film had generally received poor reviews, so were a little concerned at the prospect of watching it. All I can say is, those reviewers must have been watching a different film. Beautifully shot, with lovely lingering views of Cambridge; charming attention to period detail; strong performances from Tereza Srbova and Tom Hughes as the left-wing activists (and conduits to the KGB) Sony and Leo and from Sophie Cookson as young Joan; and Dame Judi on fine form, with the camera ruthlessly up close capturing those wrinkles of warmth and experience. Mrs Chrisparkle and I were completely caught up in its fascinating tale.

Sophie Cookson as Young JoanTwo additional aspects of note: firstly, the astonishment of the younger generation at the achievements and/or activities of the older generation when they were younger. One of the rules of life is that we cannot know or remember our parents when they were young; and if they don’t tell us what they got up to, it’s impossible for us to second-guess. Joan’s son is outraged when he discovers the truth about his mother; and his only question is, to what extent was his father complicit in keeping it a secret too? (Quite a lot, as it turns out.)

Sophie Cookson and Stephen Campbell MooreThe film also showed the absolute sexism of the age, with the assumption that a mere woman couldn’t possibly be a scientist, wouldn’t she much prefer to be operating the new tumble dryer? It’s only when boss Max stands up for her, and praises her brilliant brain in front of those who otherwise would patronise her, that she’s allowed to take her place at the forefront of the research. Men, eh, what are we like?

Ben Miles, Laurence Spellman and Judi DenchComing it a decent 101 minutes, it doesn’t prolong the story beyond our attention span, and, whilst it’s fair to say that you could always do with a little more Dame Judi, the balance between the concurrent stories of her arrest and the development of her spy career works very well. OK, it’s not the paciest of films, but, imho, this is an engrossing and enjoyable film. If you suspect you might enjoy it, then I think you will!

Review – Clickbait, Flashdrive Theatre, Fringe Festival, University of Northampton 3rd Year (BA) Acting and Creative Practice Students, The Platform, Northampton, 29th April 2019

Fringe FestivalAlthough I’m now an old hand at the Flash Festival, where the 3rd Year Acting Students at Northampton University perform their dissertation pieces, this is my first exposure to the Fringe Festival, seeing the work of the (BA) Acting and Creative Practice Students. And there’s a ton of shows on offer – fourteen in all and I’m (hopefully) going to be seeing all bar one of them – just can’t quite squeeze that last one in, sadly. Many of them I’ll see in the company of my esteemed blogger-in-crime Mr Smallmind, and hopefully we’ll find time to review them all as soon as possible!

ClickbaitThe first show was Clickbait, performed by Flashdrive Theatre, a lively, funny and occasionally gruesome fifty minutes in the company of Luke-ing Good Luke and Emmazing Emma, two YouTubers who decide to promote their channels by a series of co-operation videos. Luke guests on Emma’s films, she on his; their popularity explodes so that they become LukeandEmma, their fans become Lemmans, and there’s no stopping their success. At first they fake their “relationship” in order to get more clicks, but romance does indeed blossom, and there’s more than one way in which they can exploit themselves in order to get an overwhelming number of thumbs-up. Is it a guaranteed path to fame and fortune? And are they strong enough to weather the problems that their self-exploitation inevitably causes?

Cleverly incorporating use of live phone recordings, we the audience can see exactly what the YouTube audience sees on their screens, and the play excels in conveying that sense that you can see everything that happens in these two young people’s lives. There’s neither privacy, nor risk that they won’t take. Punctuating the play are scenes from an amusing video lecture on how to be a good YouTuber, bringing in every visual pun under the sun, and entertaining us during the scene changes.

Shona Bullas and George HenryGeorge Henry and Shona Bullas have a great partnership on stage, with no holds barred on the physical challenges the characters give each other – eggs smashed on heads, eating soap powder, covering each other with milk….and they’re the polite moments! The characters’ shared times of physical intimacy are also done with great conviction and just the right level of decorum (or not). The constant conversations between the two characters flowed seamlessly and it was all very well rehearsed and slick in performance.

There’s also an element of challenging the audience with what levels of degradation we’re prepared to witness people expose themselves to – and the sacrifices incurred as a result. I certainly watched some of the #Lemmacon “big challenge” scene through my fingers. It certainly makes you question whether you should encourage young people to demean themselves just for some short-lived and shallow popularity.

That’s put paid to any aspirations I might have had about being a YouTube performer! A very enjoyable, funny (but also sad) play. Great work!

Review – The Girl on the Train, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 25th April 2019

The Girl on the TrainFirst you get the book. Then you get the film of the book. Then you get the play of the film of the book. Sometimes you get the musical of the play of the film of the book. And somewhere in the middle of all this, new creativity gets suffocated in a cynical desire to rehash the same material just to make money. I ask you, is that right?

Rant over. I’ve not seen the film of The Girl on the Train, but I did buy the book for Mrs Chrisparkle as a Christmas present, in 2017. She hasn’t read it yet. And now that we’ve seen the play, there’s probably no point. However, I got the feeling that the majority of the (nearly full house) audience on Thursday last had indeed either seen it, or read it, or both. Experiencing the same story in a second, third or even fourth format must be like the Arts equivalent of comfort eating. You don’t need it to nourish you, but it can be especially satisfying. So I guess that answers my question in paragraph 1, above.

Rachel has a drink problem. She wakes up one morning on the kitchen floor with an unexplained injury to her forehead and puke in a pizza box. Ex-husband Tom calls to warn her that a witness saw her overnight in the area where a young woman, Megan, was last seen before going missing, so the police might ask her about it. Before long, Rachel has tracked down Megan’s husband Scott, pretending that she and Megan were old friends, and has set up an appointment with Megan’s therapy counsellor. The trouble is, the further that Rachel gets involved with the investigation, the harder it is for her to extricate herself from it…

The first thing that struck me about this story, whilst I was watching it, was its similarities to the Bridge Theatre’s recent production of Alys Always, where the central character finds herself the only witness to a death and then manipulates the truth to her own advantage and financial benefit. Both Mrs C and I thought that the way that Rachel infiltrated Megan’s life, by befriending her husband Scott and challenging the professionalism of her therapist Kamal, was extremely far-fetched. Comparisons are odious, but Alys Always felt the much more realistic of the two plays. However, in the realm of stage thrillers, we both thought Girl on the Train was much more successful than the similarly structured Rebus: Long Shadows that toured a few months back. Most importantly, the final denouement is genuinely exciting and surprising, as your suspicions as to whodunit flip between three people over the final fifteen minutes, until your doubts are finally confirmed.

As can sometimes happen with a touring play, the Derngate stage is much wider than required for this production, and my guess is that if you’re sat on the extreme sides of the auditorium you might spend a lot of the evening looking at blank, black walls. Although, to be fair, the wide stage worked well for the tableau image that starts the second act, with Matt Concannon’s unnamed police officer staring very officiously at us as we made our way back into the auditorium after the interval. Apart from that, James Cotterill’s set is decently flexible, with Tom and Anna’s nice pad stacked neatly behind Scott’s lonely living room, which in turn is stacked behind Rachel’s rather sordid kitchen. Two office chairs dangle in and out to represent Kamal’s therapy suite, and the various train effects, including a bright strip of white light at the end, work dazzle with effectiveness.

Samantha Womack once again omits her Eurovision appearance from her programme bio, but us fans have long memories. She plays Rachel with superb sullenness, a confused, distressed person looking for clues not only to what happened to Megan, but also to pin down her own identity. There’s not a lot of light and shade in her character, but you do make a kind of journey of redemption with her throughout the course of the play. Rachel isn’t a likeable character by any means; but you’ve got to admire her survival instinct.

There’s an ensemble feel to the rest of the cast as their characters drift in and out of Rachel’s life, but I particularly enjoyed John Dougall as D I Gaskill, a meddling little man who delights in leaving his detective work at his front door, and Lowenna Melrose as Anna, Tom’s new wife, who becomes progressively more aggravated at constantly bumping into Rachel everywhere she goes. Oliver Hipwell plays Scott as a cool cucumber, easily manipulated and surprisingly unaffected by his wife’s disappearance; Adam Jackson-Smith is an apparently thoughtful on the surface Tom, but with secrets of his own; Naeem Hayat is convincing as the counsellor Kamal who doesn’t need much to break patient confidentiality; and Kirsty Oswald is an appealing Megan, a free spirit caught up in others’ power games, and whose red dress steadily turns black from the bottom up during the course of the evening. There must be a symbolic reason for this, but I’m blowed if I can work it out.

All in all, a smart little production, that perhaps delivered more than it promised, and I was certainly fully rapt in trying to be one step ahead in solving the crime from my seat in Row F. The company has a gruelling tour that carries on until November, with Newcastle, Dartford, Coventry, Nottingham, Shrewsbury, Dublin, Belfast, Brighton, Sheffield, Norwich, Guildford, Oxford, Canterbury, Birmingham, Aberdeen, Bradford, High Wycombe, Cambridge, Plymouth, Swindon, Bromley, Malvern, Woking, Eastbourne, Cardiff and Blackpool all still to come. If you enjoy a good stage thriller, this is for you!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Ghosts, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 23rd April 2019

GhostsThey say you never forget the teacher who influenced you the most. I was lucky enough to have two. John Steane and Bruce Ritchie, both of whom taught me English literature through O levels, to A levels, to Oxbridge. Sadly, neither of them is with us anymore, but both were inspirational; Bruce was the man for anything 20th century and his passion for Pinter and Stoppard was out of this world. John was the go-to for anything 19th century and earlier; Shakespeare, Marlowe (he edited the Penguin edition), Restoration Comedy, Sheridan – and Ibsen. Yes, it wasn’t all laughs in his lessons (well, actually, it was.) But it was after reading Ghosts in his class that I went out and bought all Ibsen’s plays in various paperbacks. It was also the first time I came across the notion of theatre censorship, which has continued to fascinate me all my life. And that little lad at school was determined that one day he’d see Ghosts on stage.

Manders in chargeWho knew that would take the best part of forty-five years to achieve?! But Lucy Bailey’s new production, adapted by Mike Poulton, in the intimate delights of the Royal Theatre in Northampton is definitely worth waiting for. In brief: the late Captain Alving appeared to be a Pillar of the Community (to use another Ibsen title) but in fact was a philanderer and a scoundrel. His wife Helen briefly left him but was talked into taking him back by their friend Pastor Manders, who convinced her that it was simply The Right Thing to Do. When prodigal son Oswald returns home from his life as an artist in the capitals of Europe, it’s revealed that he is suffering from syphilis that he has inherited from his father, so the truth about Alving’s womanising has to come out. Also awkward – he’s falling in love with Helen’s housekeeper Regina, who, it emerges, is his half-sister. The ghosts of the past come back to haunt the present, and the sins of the fathers are visited upon the sons. It comes as no surprise that this is not a play with a happy ending; although Ibsen keeps its final resolution deliberately obscure.

Regina Engstrand and MandersWhen you enter the auditorium, you’re instantly struck by the sound of rain. Torrential rain. It’s been raining for days in Rosenvald. Characters arrive and moan about the rain (even if, occasionally, the actors seem to be bone dry – slightly odd I thought). But, in the words of Elkie Brooks, there is always Sunshine after the Rain, and that’s what the physically and mentally devastated Oswald yearns for – the sun. As the stage slowly begins to fill with light at the end of the play, the sun represents the morphia that Oswald begs his mother to administer, which will finally put his mind and body at rest. For most of us, a new dawn would be cause for optimism. Perhaps it is for Oswald too. It’s a heavy symbolism, but then you don’t go to Ibsen for a drawing-room comedy.

Helen and MandersMike Britton’s gloomy set is suitably dour for this comfortable, respectable yet austere household, with a relatively small acting space out front, and a partly-hidden dining room behind, where maids sit and sew and a drunken Oswald gets rowdy-rowdy with Regina. I’m guessing this was deliberately done to make the back room feel further away, but I found myself strangely irritated by the circuitous route that the actors had to make from the back, going around the table the long way in order to get to the front room – it just seemed unnecessarily artificial. I did, however, very much enjoy the change to the set between Acts Two and Three, when the orphanage is burning down. The set swivels by, I’d guess, about 20° to the left, so that the suggestion of flames and ash comes pouring onto the stage; all very effective.

Helen with ghostsPenny Downie gives an impressive performance as Mrs Alving; at first, comfortable in her position in the household, in charge of business deals to the best of her ability, authoritative with Regina, motherly with Oswald, and treading the difficult line of assertive and malleable in her dealings with Manders. As the “ghosts” begin to return, you can see her world beginning to fall apart, and Ms Downie portrays Helen’s increasing desperation and sadness to delicious effect. As her unfortunate son Oswald, Pierro Niel-Mee convincingly shows us the character’s decline, from his robust defence of his beliefs, through alcohol dependence and the hopeless dalliance with Regina, into both physical and mental torture.

ReginaDeclan Conlon’s Engstrand is a disreputable rogue, who spins a convincing yarn about his seamen’s mission; his performance is such that you can never quite decide on Engstrand’s level of honesty – which nicely adds to the murkier aspects of the plot. Eleanor McLoughlin’s Regina is a picture of well-maintained respectability and knowing her place until the truth of her parentage is revealed – and then the worm turns with acute pain and fury.

MandersBut it is James Wilby’s performance as Pastor Manders that you remember the most. A perfect portrayal of utter bigotry, a control freak who intimidates all those who come into his orbit into submission to his will, a weasel who’ll allow others to take the blame for his own mistakes, simply to preserve his own reputation. Ibsen created a repulsively believable hypocrite in Manders, and Mr Wilby gets that mix of bullying and wheedling perfectly. Some of his comments are so outrageous, within the context of Victorian decency, that the audience is propelled into unsettled, anxious laughter. A great performance.

Helen and OswaldDisgusting, said the commentators at the time. “An open drain, a loathsome sore unbandaged, a dirty act done publicly, a lazar-house with all its doors and windows open” (Daily Telegraph). With critical notices like that, who needs enemies? As always, through the passage of time, the play’s true value and significance is now understood, and this production does it complete justice. It’s only on until 11th May, so you don’t have long to catch it, but you really should.

Production photos by Sheila Burnett

Review – The Bay at Nice, Menier Chocolate Factory, 21st April 2019

The Bay at NiceI’ve been an admirer of David Hare’s work right from the start of his career (there can’t have been many 12-year-olds who read Slag in the early 70s) and it’s rewarding to fill the gaps in one’s knowledge by seeing the various gems of his back catalogue. I had never heard of The Bay at Nice, his 1986 one-act play set in a grand but comfortless display room at the Hermitage in St Petersburg – or Leningrad, as it was then. But I rarely pass up a chance to see what the Menier next has to offer, so it was with no preconceptions that Mrs Chrisparkle and I chose to spend our Easter Sunday in Southwark.

Ophelia Lovibond, Martin Hutson and Penelope WiltonThe year is 1956. Esteemed art expert Valentina Nrovka has been asked by the curators of the Hermitage to inspect a new acquisition – allegedly a Matisse – that has recently been bequeathed to the museum. There is some uncertainty as to its authenticity; and, as Mme Nrovka knew the artist personally in her youth, it is thought she would see through any deliberate attempts by a faker to pretend to the great man’s work. She is accompanied to the Hermitage by her daughter, Sophia, herself a part-time artist, and full-time disappointment to her mother. Over the course of 75 minutes, mother and daughter dissect their difficult relationship as Sophia’s marriage breakdown and new romantic liaison is revealed, against a backdrop of Communist Party politics, the motivation for creativity, the lure of the homeland, and the valuation of art.

Martin HutsonOne of the genuinely thrilling aspects of seeing a production at the Menier is the discovery of how they have configured its marvellously adaptable acting space. Fotini Dimou’s set has required the 200-or-so seats to be re-arranged, L-shaped, on just two sides of the theatre, to create a comparatively huge space, filled with coloured, borrowed light, to represent one of those enormous Hermitage galleries. Plush red and gilt chairs have been stacked unceremoniously to one side of the stage, beneath a Grand Master’s work; on the back wall of the stage, double doors that lead to the rest of the museum, the only clue that there’s a life outside. As the late afternoon turns into the early evening, Paul Pyant’s lighting design gradually becomes progressively dimmer, which may imply that the longer you talk about life and art – and the less you actually do it – clarity and understanding of these issues reduces. When Mme Nrovka finally looks at the painting, there’s only enough light for a peremptory glimpse – mind you, that’s all she needs.

Penelope WiltonPenelope Wilton is simply magnificent as Valentina, a woman who has reached a time in life when she is so accustomed to suppress any individual desires, who values the altruism of self-denial, if it’s to achieve a greater good. Her daughter, she reckons, is shallow beyond belief, following a path of self-interest which both ill-serves her family and prevents her from artistic expression. And she doesn’t like to be shaken up and questioned by what she perceives to be an inferior intellect; and is perfectly comfortable to say precisely what she thinks, regardless of how it might offend or distress others. Ms Wilton delivers Hare’s tremendous lines with natural authority, cutting sarcasm, forceful majesty, and a reasoned spite, in what is probably my favourite performance in a play so far this year.

Ophelia Lovibond and David RintoulGiving almost as good as she gets, Ophelia Lovibond is excellent as Sophia; patronised, forced to explain herself, intimidated into defiance against her mother and her strictures. It’s a great portrayal of someone who, in everyday life has all the confidence needed to lead an assertive life but who crumbles under parental pressure. David Rintoul is also very good as her new man Peter, awkwardly hovering in the sidelines, choosing silence rather reacting to a taunt, putting his case plainly, honestly and supportively. And Martin Hutson is also great as the Assistant Curator, treading carefully around the Grande Dame’s ego, gently guiding her in the direction he wants, to the benefit of both self and party.

Ophelia Lovibond and Penelope WiltonDespite its length, this dynamic little play packs a real punch and gives you so much to consider, laugh at, and identify with. Richard Eyre’s production is a first-class experience all the way. We loved it! It’s on at the Menier until 4th May, and I’d heartily recommend it.

Production photos by Catherine Ashmore

Review – Andrew Bird, Ha Ha Time, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 20th April 2019

Andrew Bird Ha Ha TimeThis was to be the last date in Andrew Bird’s first ever (I can’t believe it was his first ever) national tour, and appropriately enough, for a Northamptonshire lad, he returned to his spiritual home at the R&D. We’d seen Mr Bird do his stuff at Screaming Blue Murders in the past when he entertained us hugely with his twenty-minute sets. But could he sustain an entire evening on his own? By Jiminy he could!

Andrew Bird is a no-gimmick comedian; what you see is what you get. He doesn’t pick on the front rows, because, as he says, you never know what kind of mess you’re going to get into (so sitting on the front row, like we did, is safe!) He’s an immensely likeable chap; the kind you’d really want to spend time down the pub with. His delivery is sure, authoritative, confident and pacey, but never aggressive. And his material is full of the everyday observations that we all have about how ridiculous life is, but could never put into words ourselves. His turns of phrase are immaculate, as is his timing for the killer lines. And there is a warmth in his delivery that reassures you that all the teasing comes from a kind place – unsurprisingly, perhaps, considering how much of his material stems from his domestic bliss with his Slovakian wife and two incredibly difficult children.

Andrew BirdAmong his gems, we learned how so many of the problems that face women are named after men; how sometimes you can be relieved to be in the company of Millwall supporters; the problems of having a cream coloured settee with infants around; when you should, and shouldn’t, give someone a birthday card; and what you should really be thinking about when you give a sperm sample. I also loved his (100% accurate) portrayal of how posh people treat their friends in comparison with working class people. The beauty of his comedy is its recognisability; the show is two hours of pure truth, bundled together in a fantastically funny package.

When the time came to wrap up, I couldn’t believe the evening had flown by so quickly. Mrs Chrisparkle and I were laughing about it all the way home, and, indeed, a few days later, we’re still quoting our favourite bits. This is a performer for whom surely greatness awaits – if not, there’s no justice in this world. If you get the chance to see him in action, don’t hesitate!

P. S. As this was the end of his tour, he was having the show properly and professionally videod and edited for future audiences to see what they missed. We noted there was a tiny wee camera at the foot of the stage looking directly out at the crowd – and, from what we could gather, aimed firmly in our faces. Apologies in advance if we ruined the video!!!