Review – The Pope, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 13th June 2019

The PopeWhen is a precedent not a precedent? When it happened in 1295. No, it’s not a riddle, it’s the crux of Pope Benedict XVI’s predicament when he wanted to abdicate – to resign from the papacy – in 2013 and leave the way for his successor Pope Francis, who had come second in the decision making process to create the new Pope back in 2005.

Anton LesserWe all know that person at work who has been promoted way beyond their ability to do the job, but because they were in the right place at the right time, said the right things and had the right smile, they got the gig. That was Josef Ratzinger, when he was elected Pope at the age of 78, when all he really wanted to do was to retire softly into the background, read his books and maybe do a little writing. Lucky too, for Cardinal Bergoglio, runner-up in the process, who also was content with his work with the poor of Buenos Aires. Nicholas WoodesonNow he, at the age of 77, has written to the Pope to tender his resignation as Bishop, so that he can spend his twilight days watching football and singing to Abba. But the Pope has not responded to his letters, but has asked him to visit him in the Vatican. The Cardinal assumes it’s to accept his resignation in person, but the Pope has other ideas…

in the Sistine ChapelThis is a beautifully written play, full of wit and insight, superbly character-driven; a window into the lives of two religious leaders whom we would assume would spend their time in contemplation and duty, rather than catching up on TV soaps and looking forward to the World Cup. The Pope’s agonising self-doubt about his own worth, and his successor’s own murky involvement with his country’s corrupt government are brought starkly into the light by Anthony McCarten’s moving, crisp, heartfelt text; and Jonathan Fensom’s design is formal and uncluttered, reflecting the rich grandeur of the Office but also the self-denial of its Officers.

Two PopesAnton Lesser is simply magnificent as the old, unhappy Pope; filled with uncertainty, deprived of the lifestyle he would have chosen, his occasionally faltering speech revealing the depth of his problems and his humanity. Germanic to the core, reserved in outlook, the height of his self-indulgence is delighting in a Suppe mit Knödel. Pope FrancisHe is matched by Nicholas Woodeson as Bergoglio, with his fiery Latin temperament, a tendency towards impatience and impetuosity, a man who would get his hands dirty in practical work as opposed to the Pope’s more cerebral approach. Together they give us an acting masterclass of immaculate timing and expression, the like of which you very rarely see.

Lynsey BeauchampExcellent support is given by Lynsey Beauchamp as Sister Brigitta, Benedict’s lone confidante and friend, and Faith Alabi as Sister Sophia, Bergoglio’s assistant at the Convent in Buenos Aires. But it’s the gripping tension between the two Popes that takes your breath away; the power struggle, the influencing, the confessions, the opposing positions and finally the meeting of minds.Faith Alabi Probably the best modern play that I’ve ever seen at the Royal Theatre, definitely with two of the best performances of the decade. It would be a Cardinal Sin if this doesn’t have a life hereafter.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Rocketman, Northampton Filmhouse, 9th June 2019

Rocketman posterMrs Chrisparkle wasn’t keen on seeing this, but I heard great things, so I took the opportunity to nip into the Northampton Filmhouse by myself whilst she was slaying business dragons in America. I wouldn’t describe myself as an Elton John fan, exactly, but I have a very soft spot for a number of his songs, and I was intrigued to see what they do with all this potent raw material – a life of excess and a musical back catalogue that’s probably sold billions rather than millions.

Taron Egerton and Jamie BellRocketman is, on one hand, a stereotypical biopic taking us through the life of Elton John from his early boyhood up to the time when he crashed into an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting bursting with crises. We see his suburban-comfortable but emotionally starved early days, with a distant military father who cannot cope with emotion and a vacuous mother whose only love is for herself – thank heavens for his kindly nan, Ivy, who was the only one to take any interest in young Reggie. We see him taking his first steps at the Royal Academy of Music, then breaking into the music business, getting signed to Dick James Music, starting a writing partnership with Bernie Taupin, making and selling records and – pretty much instantly – hitting America on tour. And whilst his commercial success escalates, his personal life deteriorates; the only constant in his life being Taupin, with whom he famously has never had an argument through fifty years of collaboration – that’s some achievement.

Taron Egerton rockingOn the other hand, the film is a fantasy musical, with much in common with other jukebox musicals, using songs from an artist’s repertoire to complement the various stages of their life. But the first musical number reminded me more of how La-La-Land starts (in other words, brilliantly, then never regaining that opening buzz) with a big song-and-dance extravaganza in the street. Then the rest of the songs are woven into Elton John’s story, some as concert material, but many in a more stylised, almost ethereal manner; and not only sung by John. In fact, one of the most emotionally powerful moments is Goodbye Yellow Brick Road, performed by Jamie Bell as Bernie Taupin; one of those brilliant cover versions that completely rewrites the original.

Taron Egerton about to fallThe fact that the songs don’t appear chronologically disturbed me a little at first. Your Song (1970), for example, his first hit, is the seventh number to be performed during the film, whilst the first song in the film, The Bitch is Back, wasn’t released until 1974. Of course, that doesn’t matter with a show like Mamma Mia, where there is an invented story around which the Abba songs snugly fit; but that’s not the case for Rocketman, ostensibly a chronological biopic. However, it’s all performed so beautifully well, and the songs fit the various moods of the film so perfectly, that I had to tell myself to stop being so anal about it.

Taron EgertonWhat impressed me most of all about this film was the sheer quality of the attention to detail and its absolute verisimilitude throughout. The three actors who play Elton John at various stages of his life look and sing so very similarly to the real person; they even capture his smile – teeth slightly exposed, top lip lifted up – you don’t realise that’s how EJ smiles until you see the actors do it. The costumes throughout are a perfect mimic of his concert gear; the film’s finale is an (I believe) 100% correct recreation of the promotional video for his 1983 hit I’m Still Standing. That’s all incredibly impressive.

Richard Madden and Taron EgertonAs we know, Sir Elton has led a life of excess; we see the alcohol, we see the drugs. But what of the sex? In interview, Elton John said he had a lot of sex, but the film – despite its regrettable censorship in Russia to remove all traces of gayness – implies otherwise. It would appear that it’s not until he’s the recipient of a surprise kiss by one of the musicians on his first American tour that there’s any uncertainty over his sexuality; and any such doubts are put to bed (if you’ll pardon the expression) when he meets John Reid and, as a result, leaves DJM and takes Reid as his new manager/lover. But that’s all we know of his sex life; you might have thought he was completely celibate outside that relationship, and I have a sense that the film misrepresents his life in this department somewhat. In fact, the only other relationships we see him involved in are with Bernie Taupin’s landlady – that didn’t work, obvs – and the loveless, sterile few weeks of his good publicity marriage to Renate. His long-term relationship with David Furnish takes place long after the timespan of the film has ended. At the end of the day, the film shows that all Elton John ever really wanted was someone to love him, which was something everyone in his life was unable to provide except for Taupin and his nan.

Taron Egerton and Richard MaddenThe performances are delightfully strong throughout. It’s now too late to say of Taron Egerton that a star is born because of his Kingsman roles, but it’s definitely a star performance, with his huge on-screen presence, tremendous voice and just that magic je ne sais quoi. Please read my P. S. below to see how he wouldn’t have got where he is today if it wasn’t for me (I know, I’m so influential). He just exudes quality and authority; he “gets” Elton’s charisma even when he’s portraying him at his most down-and-out. Absolutely first class.

 Jamie Bell and Taron EgertonJamie Bell is superb as Taupin, that ever-reliable presence, a very open and honest guy who’s always the most supportive figure in EJ’s life. You really get the sense of the two of them together as being great mates, getting into a few scrapes but always there for each other – it’s a very heart-warming portrayal. Richard Madden plays Reid as though he’s auditioning for the next Bond movie; terse, arrogant, dynamic and highly convincing. You could really see how he could use sex as a weapon in the war of manipulation.

Steven MackintoshBryce Dallas Howard is also excellent as EJ’s deeply unpleasant mother Sheila, and there’s another mini star turn from Steven Mackintosh as his father; regimented, stiff-upper-lip, finding it impossible to conceal his total distaste for his son’s artistic interests. There’s a truly emotional scene when the successful Elton pays a visit to his estranged father and meets his two sons from his subsequent re-marriage – so, his own new half-brothers – and there’s no attempt to bridge any emotional gap between them, even though we can see how close his father is to his new progeny. You’d be devastated if it happened to you.

Matthew IlsleyBig mentions for Kit Connor and especially Matthew Ilsley as the young Reggies (older and younger) who make those opening scenes of the film such a joy. There are also some fantastic cameos from actors you’d queue to see at the theatre, like Sharon D Clarke as the counsellor, Harriet Walter as the Royal Academy of Music tutor, Ophelia Lovibond as Arabella, Celine Schoenmaker as Renate and Jason Pennycooke as Wilson. Blink and you’ll miss Everybody’s Talking About Jamie’s Layton Williams as an American band member. And it’s lovely to see The Duchess of Duke Street herself, Gemma Jones, bringing warmth and character to the role of Ivy.

Bryce Dallas HowardThere’s a point in the film where the pace of the storytelling slows down, roughly coinciding with EJ’s descent into addiction and his increased antisocial behaviour; and I’d be lying if I didn’t say that I felt the film sagged a little during those scenes. Otherwise, it’s an eloquent account of the first two-thirds of Sir Elton’s amazing life (what’s that you say? Leaving room for a sequel bringing us up to date if the film were a success?) and musically and visually it’s astounding entertainment. Plenty of Oscars and BAFTAs up for grabs here I expect. And why not?

the familyP. S. So, Taron Egerton’s first stage role was in The Last of the Haussmans at the National Theatre in 2012, the year he graduated from RADA. If I may quote myself, “in the smaller roles I thought Taron Egerton, in his first professional stage engagement, shows good promise”. High praise indeed; you heard it here first. None of the newspaper critics commented on his performance. #justsaying

Review – Chris McCausland, Speaky Blinder, Underground at the Derngate, 8th June 2019

Chris McCauslandWe saw Chris McCausland at one of our earliest Screaming Blue Murder shows, back in 2010, and really enjoyed his material and style. It’s been a long time in the waiting, but when I saw he was returning to Northampton with his Speaky Blinder show, that had been a great success last summer in Edinburgh, buying a ticket was a bit of a no-brainer.

Jon LongBut first we had a (too brief) warm-up session with support act Jon Long, who was completely new to us but what a find! A very engaging chap with a warm, inclusive (but never threatening) style, a gentle but deadly delivery, and armed with his guitar to strum a few comedy songs that compliment his spoken material. It wasn’t long before we were all singing about dildos together, that’s how relaxed he got us! Very entertaining material, and a very comfortable and friendly vibe to his act. Will happily see him again.

After the interval, Chris McCausland took to the stage. If you don’t know, he’s been totally blind for many years, and when we saw him several years ago I thought it was fascinating how his disability played a relatively small part in his material. Today that has changed somewhat, and although the gig included plenty of jolly, flippant remarks and jokes about his domestic arrangements with his wife and his daughter, you get a much greater sense that he wants to give us some serious and thought-provoking observations about how his disability affects his daily life.

But that doesn’t mean it’s a sad or downbeat show. Quite the reverse; although he never overlooks an opportunity to increase awareness of the issues relating to blindness, he presents it all through the medium of comedy, and it’s one of those shows where you rarely stop laughing. He’s very open about all aspects of his life, including how he loves his wife almost as much as he loves Mohammed Salah, and his warm and engaging personality totally wraps us up into his world so we’re completely on his side all the way through.

An intelligent, reflective but also very funny hour of comedy. Messrs McCausland and Long are currently touring the country and I’d really recommend you see them!

Review – The Planets: An HD Odyssey, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 7th June 2019

The Planets: An HD OdysseyThis is the first time that I’ve seen precisely the same concert twice. Three years ago, the Royal Philharmonic brought their Planets/Odyssey show to the Royal and Derngate and I didn’t realise at the time that it’s obviously constructed as an off-the-peg package. Watching it a second time, not only was the film accompaniment to the performance of the Planets identical, but also the other short classical works in the first half of the concert were exactly the same, played in exactly the same order, and, I think, with exactly the same expression. Even the audience’s reaction was the same, including the embarrassed chuckles at the words “Saturn – the bringer of old age”.

RPOgroupTherefore, gentle reader, there’s not a lot of point my re-writing my comments of three years ago because they still apply, so can I point you towards my review of their performance on 26th June 2016, and please just ignore my bitter post-referendum ramblings at the time (unless you still feel the same way that I do about that subject – that’s up to you).

Nick DaviesWe did, however, have a different conductor for this performance: Nick Davies, a dapper little chap, resplendent in his shiny black suit, revelling in his work, and generously giving the members of the orchestra all the attention and respect that they deserve. Funny how Mr Davies and John Torode of Masterchef fame are never seen in the same room together…. I think we should be told. We’d enjoyed watching Mr Davies conduct the orchestra here twice before, for two of the regular Last Night of the Derngate Proms concerts. He must be more at ease with the jolly/gala kind of nights than the seriously cerebral classical concerts.

Two extra observations in addition to my three-year-old review; this time round, I enjoyed all the film sequences much more. Yes, they can get a little repetitive, but you have to admire the artistry and the technological knowhow that got those images to that screen; pretty mind-blowing if you think about it. However, the screen itself is, frankly, a nuisance in the first half. Its constantly scrolling through messages with details of the RPO’s social media pages and an advert that you can buy the CD in the interval is unnecessarily distracting from the performance. Mrs Chrisparkle thought they should have somehow lessened its impact. A conversation in the Gents toilet I overheard in the interval was more blunt: “I wish they’d get rid of that ****ing screen!”

I’m sure this concert will continue to tour and turn up every few years in all the usual places. And there’s no reason not to go again, as it’s a very enjoyable treat for both ears and eyes.

Review – Orpheus Descending, Menier Chocolate Factory, 2nd June 2019

Orpheus DescendingIf Tennessee Williams knew one thing, it was how to write for, and about, women. His plays always (as far as I can make out) feature a few vulnerable, essentially noble, world-weary, mentally tortured women affected by one lone humdinger of a rough-and-ready sexual male. Think the triangle of Blanche, Stella and Stanley in A Streetcar Named Desire. Brick and Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Chance and Alexandra in Sweet Bird of Youth. There will be others, I’m sure.

Hattie MorahanOrpheus Descending, which was first produced in 1957, after Cat and before Bird, also follows this structure. Lady runs a dry-goods store whilst her ailing husband complains upstairs, when into her life drifts the itinerant musician and ne’er-do-well Valentine Xavier (you couldn’t create a more exotic stage name if you tried). Val has already had knowledge of local harlot Carol, and is also caught playing up to Vee Talbott, the Sheriff’s wife – never a wise move. Nevertheless, (or, maybe, as a result,) Lady invites Xavier to move into a storeroom downstairs in the shop, ostensibly as a clerk and to save on hotel bills, but, in reality, to be engaged on additional duties.

Seth Numrich and castBriefly Lady enjoys a new lease of life. But guys like Valentine never stay in one place too long, and, encouraged to leave town by the sheriff, he makes plans to save his bacon. However, someone else takes matters into their own hands in a surprisingly catastrophic ending, that represents an irrepressible surge of the emotions that have been bubbling under the surface. Whilst it might not be clean and classic, it’s certainly effective; and if you don’t know what happens, I’m not going to spoil it for you!

Seth Numrich and Ian PorterAs the title suggests, the play is a modern retelling of the Orpheus myth, although I don’t know enough of the Classical story to identify quite where the crossovers lie. I know that Orpheus visited the underworld, so I guess that’s the descent that’s alluded to in the title. Trouble is, if Val represents Orpheus, he never quite gets around to leading Eurydice (Lady, I presume) out of the underworld. Or maybe that’s the point? I’m not going to dwell on it, I’ll leave that to others more intelligent than me.

CastDesigner Jonathan Fensom has very sensibly created a Spartan set, with only a few tables and chairs, a magnificent old till (either beautifully recreated by a workshop somewhere or well sourced by the props department), with the back of the stage enclosed by a decrepit wooden-slatted back screen. This design approach, which allows our imaginations to run riot, is perfect for this kind of play; one that has a large cast of characters and could otherwise get bogged down in trying to present a realistic setting.

Hattie Morahan, Seth Numrich, Jemima RooperHattie Morahan gives a great performance as Lady; she’s that rare combination of strong and fragile, assertive and vulnerable. Although Lady may be in charge of her business, she’s not really in charge of her life, and Ms Morahan’s portrayal deftly reveals that conflict. She is matched by a very good performance by Seth Numrich as Valentine; a tad clean-cut to be loafing on the road perhaps, but then, appearances can be deceptive. Because he comes across as an essentially decent type, when his transgressions are variously revealed it makes them all the more shocking.

Ian Porter and Carol RoyleJemima Rooper is brilliant as the louche and couldn’t-give-a-damn-about-it Carol, face painted with artless excess, someone who’s used whatever it took in order to survive. Carol Royle is also excellent as the slightly deranged Vee, desperate to peek out from under the thumb of her controlling husband, and a lone figure of creativity in an otherwise repressed environment. And there’s a great partnering of Catrin Aaron as Beulah and Laura Jane Matthewson as Dolly, the gossipy locals who love to sniff out any scandal.

Valentine Hanson and Jemima RooperIn a nicely Brechtian touch, the role of Uncle Pleasant, played by Valentine Hanson, is enhanced so that he recites Williams’ stage directions as an introduction and towards the climax of the piece. Mr Hanson hangs around portentously, on and off during the performance, creating an ominous reminder that there is a world outside. Williams often has a minor, but authoritarian male figure who calls the shots – or at least tries to; here given a strong performance by Ian Porter as Sheriff Talbott. But the whole cast do a great job in bringing this slice of southern melodrama to life.

Jemima Rooper and CastThis is definitely one of Tennessee Williams’ Championship-level plays rather than one of his Premiership big-hitters, but nevertheless this excellent production gives us a good chance to see one of his works that isn’t performed that frequently. Powerful and riveting performances win the day! It’s on at the Menier Chocolate Factory until 6th July.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 31st May 2019

Screaming Blue MurderTime for yet another Screaming Blue Murder – and the screaming comes from the intense heat of the Underground studio, bad enough in winter but positively radioactive in summer! Nevertheless, that didn’t stun our senses as once again we enjoyed three fabulous acts, two magnificent intervals under the genial guidance of our loving MC, Dan Evans.

Dan EvansThis week Dan had to endure (I mean enjoy) the company of some marketing ladies from Avon – I don’t think his idea of anus lipstick is going to catch on – a few young likely lads in the front row with their deadpan father, and the Melton Mowbray branch of the Leicestershire Wives Society. From little acorns great oaks of mirth grew. I don’t envy his job but Dan was on top form as always.

Mark SimmonsTwo new acts (and one old favourite) for us this week, the first of which was our opener, Mark Simmons. And what a find he is! A quiet, subtle-laddish style but brimming with confidence and with 100% winning material, none of which I’d heard before. The majority of his humour comes from a mixture of pun and wordplay, and he delivered it with such dry originality that Mrs Chrisparkle and I were in hysterics the whole way through. I loved his mini-stories about premature ejaculation at an orgy, and what happened when he brought two girls home; there’s also his one joke that involves the C word, which works brilliantly because the punchline is so mild in comparison with its lead-up; and his discovery that cats in France have their own social media site. A little surreal, but with great connection to the audience, we thought he was terrific and would love to see him again.

Alasdair Beckett-KingNext up, and also new to us, was Alasdair Beckett-King; if you ever wondered what Simba looked like once he’d grown up, look no more. Resplendent with his flowing locks and curls, Mr B-K gives us an insight into the life of a full-on Ginger, with some very funny – and refreshingly clean – material. Switching up the erudite level a notch or two, he has a sequence where he discusses Blake’s Proverbs of Hell, but don’t be put off, his own selection of Proverbs are fresher than anything 18th century. Smart, witty, intelligent humour and he went down really well with the audience.

Mary BourkeOur headline act, and one we have seen many times before, was the endlessly surprising Mary Bourke, whose ability to create new material every time you see her is astounding. She has a wonderfully faux-strict style, like a headmistress who won’t accept any nonsense from you lot but inside has a heart of gold. I loved her take on how you scare people in Crouch End at Hallowe’en, and was delighted to realise she has the same attitude to Peppa Pig as us; indeed, she gives that hideous little hog the same middle name that we do. Unbeatable as always.

And that, sadly, is the end of the Screaming Blue Murders for this season; I think each and every one has been a sell-out which is fantastic news and a testament to just what cracking value and quality it is. Reconvene in September? Really annoyed that I have to miss the first autumn show on 13th September because it’s going to be immense. Book it now whilst tickets are still available!

P. S. I did get a name-check from the stage during the course of the evening, but I’m sure it was meant out of pure affection…. That’s what I’m going to tell myself anyway!