Review – Film Music Gala, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Derngate, Northampton, 16th July 2017

Film Music GalaWhen it comes to summer entertainment, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra always treat us to something a little more light-hearted. In the past we’ve enjoyed their Last Night of the Derngate Proms shows, but this year they had a surprise for us – a Film Music Gala, featuring twenty-five short pieces of movie magic music, in a programme full of orchestral highlights.

Our conductor was Gareth Hudson, whom we last saw here a year ago for the Last Night of the Derngate Proms. He has a jolly, sprightly, none-too-serious attitude to taking us through these concerts, whilst still treating each piece of music with absolute respect. Indeed, sometimes he delivers us a mini-lecture, like when he explained how to look out for a typical James Bond theme, spotting its inevitable mixture of major and minor phrases.

Gareth HudsonThe first piece of music – and what a perfect way to start – was the theme to Mission Impossible; loud, arresting, vibrant, and a challenge (as so many of these pieces are) to the percussion; a challenge that they most certainly met. A thrilling opener that everyone loved. Then followed the main theme to Gladiator, which felt a little more introverted, and then The Fellowship of the Ring (from Lord of the Rings), a whimsical and quirky piece that suits the characters that inhabit that story’s landscape. Then we had the simple and beautiful Gabriel’s Oboe from the film The Mission, that lilts you away into a quiet and reflective mood, and which was played with the utmost delicacy.

The next piece of music was I Will Always Love You, from The Bodyguard; not in the Dolly Parton style, which is one of Mrs Chrisparkle’s favourites, but in the Whitney Houston style, which, frankly, both of us find rather tedious. Yes, I know, it’s our problem, we’re the ones out of kilter. Our guest soloist singer was Alison Jiear, whom we had seen as the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella back in 2015. She was an incredibly polite Fairy Godmother and she retains that quiet, self-effacing manner on the concert stage too. She has a powerful but soft, velvety voice that perfectly recreated the Whitney sound.

Alison JiearTwo very different pieces followed: the Jack Sparrow theme from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, another quirky, jokey arrangement that sums up his character in a musical snapshot; and the main theme from Out of Africa, which really stood out for me as being a superb piece of modern classical music, with sweeping strings recreating a luxurious landscape. The violins played it with absolute mastery. Alison Jiear returned with the first two of the night’s James Bond themes – Moonraker and Diamonds are Forever, arranged so that the second merged rather nicely into the first. Then we had the John Dunbar theme from Dances with Wolves, another heavily violin based piece, before finishing the first part of the concert with two stonking great crowd-pleasers; the magisterial Imperial March from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, and the exciting and dramatic main theme from 633 Squadron.

The second half started with another arresting number, the Overture to The Magnificent Seven, making sure we were all fully alert after our interval merlot! Alison Jiear sang another fusion of two pieces, Alfie, and My Heart Will Go On; and then the orchestra took centre stage again with the majestic Lara’s Theme from Doctor Zhivago. Like Out of Africa in the first half, this really stood out to me as being a truly enduring modern classic. When the orchestra started up the vivid strings opening to The Big Country, the audience breathed an audible sigh of delight; then came the charming and unusual theme to Cinema Paradiso, followed by amusingly orchestrated Domestic Pressures theme from The Theory of Everything.

RPOWhen they played the main theme from The Avengers movie, I realised it was the Marvel comic characters rather than Steed and Mrs Peel – I could imagine the RPO really giving that old TV theme a fantastic modern treatment. I believe it was during this piece that there was a superb sequence when it appeared as though the cello was asking questions, and the violin was answering them; and it was beautifully played by Tamas Andras and Richard Harwood. Alison Jiear came back one more time to perform two more Bond themes, You Only Live Twice (my favourite Bond theme) and Goldfinger. The concert was then wrapped up by brilliant performances of two outstanding pieces of music; Vangelis’ Chariots of Fire, and John Williams’ breathtaking main theme to Star Wars. For an encore, the orchestra gave us a rousing rendition of the Rocky theme. That’s the boxer, not the one who’s friends with Bullwinkle.

A very enjoyable concert full of short, easily recognisable themes which pack a greater punch than the time each takes to perform might suggest. Inevitably in a concert like this, you might occasionally wish you could hear something a little longer, and a little more substantial, like a four-part concerto. But that’s not what these gala concerts are all about – they’re designed to stimulate your memories, make you tap your toes, and bring a smile to your face. And this concert certainly achieved that. As Stephen Sondheim once penned, “tragedy tomorrow – comedy tonight.”

A Beginner’s Guide: Attending a Classical concert at Royal & Derngate

Hey there! Have a read of a blog post I’ve written about attending classical concerts at the Royal and Derngate! You can find the original here!

RPOWhen Mrs Chrisparkle and I moved to Northampton in 2008, she’d never been to a classical concert at all, and I’d only been once, as a teenager, trying to impress a very arty girl I was trying to go out with at the time; I was definitely boxing above my weight. We went to the elegant Wigmore Hall in London; a very grand location, where the music was appreciated reverentially and the less accessible it was, the better. I remember a programme of tedious heavy strings, sombre percussion and plodding piano. It was dismal, tuneless, pretentious nonsense. It didn’t even impress the girl, who later confessed she would sooner have seen Abba The Movie.

RPO1-300x200It was only when we first read about the full range of delights on offer at the Royal and Derngate, that it occurred to us this was a great opportunity to discover what live classical concerts were all about. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra visit about five times a year, each time with a varied programme, which probably consists of a rousing overture, a concerto that calls for an expert soloist, and a stonking good symphony to round the concert off. The theatre also hosts the annual Malcolm Arnold Festival, celebrating the brilliance of our famous local composer. This culminates with a gala concert, which has been performed in the past by the likes of the Worthing Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Concert Orchestra; in 2017 the Royal Philharmonic are taking up this challenge. You don’t have to get on a train down to London and pay London prices for a classical concert experience when world class orchestras come up to Northampton; you can get tickets for as little as £15 – even less if you subscribe to three or more concerts in the season.

RPOThe Royal Philharmonic Orchestra: what does that say to you? Three random words, which, when you put them together, make beautiful, must-see music? Or do you think “it’s far too posh for the likes of me, I wouldn’t dare go to a classical concert”. Maybe you might think it would attract an audience full of stuffy old people, all twin-sets and war medals, so you wouldn’t fit in. Maybe you’re worried about concert etiquette and think you will make a fool of yourself by applauding at the wrong time? Maybe you already enjoy going to see the terrific plays that are regularly produced at the Royal and Derngate, but don’t know much about classical music – and think you’d find it boring? Well, if you’ve not been to a classical concert at the R&D before, and are wondering if you should try it – fear not, I’m here with some advice for you!

RPO2-260x300First off – is it a posh occasion? Definitely not. Classical music attracts equally the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate. Old, young, families, couples; groups of friends and relatives; singles wanting to concentrate on the music or indeed find another single person also interested in the classics! All are welcome. Wear what you like – you can be as smart or as casual as you wish, you don’t have to dress any differently from how you would normally for the theatre or the cinema. Everyone fits in – to be honest, the audience are concentrating on the orchestra and are not at all concerned about whether the other audience members are musically trained, public school educated or look smart!

Nigel Kennedy plays BrahmsEtiquette – when should I applaud? Traditionally, you applaud at the very end of each complete piece. So, whether you’re listening to a three-minute overture or an hour-long symphony, you would still applaud when it’s finished – i.e. after three minutes or after an hour. Sometimes it’s hard to work out whether a longer piece, like a symphony or concerto, has finished or not. But there are always clues to watch out for. Take your cue from the conductor. If he’s still facing the orchestra, baton poised in his hand, looking serious, it may well not have finished yet. If he’s relaxed, baton down, and he turns to face the audience – it’s over.

RPO3-300x200I like to play a game with myself, trying to identify the individual movements within a larger piece. If you buy the programme – which is a really good idea, because it’s crammed with information not only about the performers and the composers, but also about the individual pieces that are played – you can find out how many movements there are and try to spot where each one ends and the next one begins. If you know your scherzo from your andante, that helps; but even if not, the programme notes will assist you identify the livelier sections from the quieter sections – and that way you can follow the music as it progresses. It’s really rewarding when you say to yourself, “there’s a change of mood coming up” or “it’s just about to finish” – and you’re right!

English Classics with Julian Lloyd WebberThat also goes to show that you don’t need to know the music in advance in order to enjoy it. It is amazing how many familiar tunes though are lifted from classical works, and it’s fun to suddenly realise “I know this! It’s from that carpet advert!” Many of the pieces that the RPO include in their programmes are very well-known, and you can hear an audible sigh of pleasure when the audience suddenly recognises a tune. Recently they played Rossini’s William Tell overture and not a soul wasn’t thinking about the Lone Ranger.

RPOgroupAnd it’s not just about the music – live performance always has a theatricality all of its own. When you’ve got maybe forty or more musicians on stage, there are always mini-dramas to enjoy. See what kind of a relationship the conductor has with the musicians, whether they’re jokey or serious. See how the soloist reacts to the rest of the orchestra – are they aloof or one of the lads? Watch out for sneaky chatting between the violinists, or the percussionist dashing over to the celeste just in time to play a few notes before dashing back to the triangle, or the tuba or double-bass player making themselves giggle by how low a note they can get their instrument to play. I love watching the interaction between everyone – their mutual admiration for each other’s skills, how they turn each other’s sheet music pages, how they might even look at each other with amusement or horror if something doesn’t go quite right. All sorts of things can happen on that stage, and it’s all part of the live entertainment!

Natalie Clein plays DvořákThere’s often a pre-concert talk which gives you a further opportunity to understand a little bit more about the pieces and what to listen for – I don’t normally get around to seeing the talk, but I have a friend who wouldn’t miss them for the world. I’m more likely to get to the theatre half an hour before the concert starts, order a couple of glasses of Merlot for the interval, study the programme to see exactly what’s in store, make my way to our favourite seats, and then just let it all wash over me.

Last Night of the Derngate PromsOver the years we’ve seen some extraordinary concerts – including great soloists like Julian Lloyd-Webber, Nigel Kennedy, Natalie Clein, John Williams and Jack Liebeck; we’ve heard Ravel’s Bolero, Holst’s Planets, Elgar’s Enigma Variations, the 1812 Overture, Dvorak’s New World Symphony and all the fun of the Last Night of the Proms, RPO-style.

CinderellaThe next concert, on 16th July, is a Film Music Gala and would be the perfect introduction to the Royal Philharmonic concerts for anyone who feels they might enjoy them and wants to dip their toe in the water. We can expect loads of memorable and recognisable tunes, from Star Wars to Titanic; and the vocalist is Alison Jiear, who not only won the nation’s hearts on Britain’s Got Talent, but she also sang like a dream in the R&D’s Cinderella in 2015. She will be singing some of John Barry’s best loved film tunes and I’m sure she’ll make them her own. And of course, it will be a chance for the Royal Philharmonic to show off their livelier and more informal side. I can’t wait, it’s going to be brilliant. Why don’t you book too?

Review – Jan Mráček Performs Mendelssohn, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 18th June 2017

RPO June 17It’s always a pleasure to welcome back the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to Northampton – this time, on the hottest day of the year so far; as the concert began we were still basking in 29° sunshine outside so very wisely the gentlemen of the orchestra adopted shirt sleeve order – otherwise they would have found it unbearable on stage.

Martyn BrabbinsOur conductor – new to us – was Martyn Brabbins, whose credits include 120 recordings on CD and who is currently the Music Director of the English National Opera. He’s an avuncular looking chap, a little like Great Uncle Bulgaria’s younger brother, who’s not averse to leaning back on his tippy-toes and then stabbing his baton at full force into the general vicinity of the orchestra if that’s what it takes to get the best out of them.

Two harpistsOur opening piece was Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-mid d’un faune, a beautifully gentle way to start the evening. We were presented with the stirring sight and sound of not one but two harps and harpists, Suzy Willison-Kawalec (who taught my Goddaughter to play the harp) and Emma Ramsdale. You can really hear the difference when two harps are playing side by side, the music is so much more powerful, even when it’s delicate. The orchestra really brought out the fragility of this piece and it was a stunning opener. I was also struck by how similar its first few bars are to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Debussy predated it by almost twenty years.

Jan MracekFor our next piece, we welcomed our soloist, Jan Mráček, for a performance of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. You know you are getting older when the soloists are getting younger, and pan Mráček clocks in at 25 years old but with the gravitas of a man much older. He’s already won some kind of award by being the only person in a jacket (poor him) and as soon as he plunged himself into the first movement, we knew we were in for a treat. He played the Mendelssohn with an elegant seriousness but tempered with true enjoyment. He gave it fantastic expression and we were both absolutely wowed by his performance; all from memory, with amazing control and superb finesse. There’s a section where (as it seems to me, in my layman’s terms) the bow has to bounce lightly over all the strings in sequence, and then bounce back, and then back again and back again across the bridge and so on and all that time there wasn’t one moment where the tone suffered – none of those little squeaking or clattering noises you sometimes hear when the playing gets intense, it was absolutely precision perfect. I don’t know how he does it. I read that pan Mráček plays a violin made in Milan in 1758; it may well be that the craftsmanship of the centuries adds to the warmth and passion of his performance.

RPOAfter the interval we welcomed back the orchestra – still with two harps – for Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. Written at a time when Shostakovich was persona non-grata with the Stalin government, he was literally composing to save his life – and the power of the symphony really reflects this. Too complex for someone like me to give it any kind of narrative, the Fifth Symphony is full of superb tunes and dramatic explosions, and the whole orchestra gave it so much life and zest. Outstanding for me was a beautiful pizzicato sequence and again the way the harps blended with the celeste was just plain gorgeous.

It wasn’t the largest audience I’ve seen at the Derngate for one of these RPO concerts, but it was certainly an appreciative one as the orchestra gave us a memorable night of exquisite performances. They’re back on 16th July with something a little lighter – a Film Music Gala. Why not come and join us?!

Review – Christian Kluxen Conducts Tchaikovsky, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 14th May 2017

Christian Kluxen Conducts TchaikovskyTime for us to welcome back the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra once again for an evening of Italian, German and Russian music. Our conductor for this concert was the exuberant Christian Kluxen, one of those guys who really gets behind the music and cajoles every nuance out of the orchestra with every flex of his body. We’d not had the pleasure of Mr Kluxen’s company before, so I can only assume the photo on the programme is a little out of date; since then he has grown a full hipster beard so that he now resembles the Fred Sirieix of the Classical Scene.

Christian Kluxen They weren’t accepting interval orders at the bar (sigh) which can only mean one thing – a short first half. Our first piece of music was the famous William Tell overture by Rossini, with its irredeemably nostalgic final movement that reminds patrons of a certain age of the Lone Ranger. It’s easy though to forget the three other sequences that lead up to the finale, with its beautiful dawn opening – fantastic work by the cellos, the dazzling thunderstorm that follows, and the pastoral calm of the third part. But the final section must break through and does so almost before the pastoral has finished, and from there on it’s guns-ablazin’ and horses at the gallop. A delightful way to open the concert and the orchestra absolutely had it nailed.

Martin RoscoeNext was Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No 1 in G Minor, Op. 25. A piano soloist on the programme always causes a hiatus as the violins have to scatter to make way for the Steinway to be wheeled on. Meanwhile, the displaced musicians huddle round the back of the stage like they’re sneaking a fag break. It’s a very bizarre sight, but I guess there is no alternative. Enter Martin Roscoe on stage, an unshowy, quiet looking man with a sensible attitude to sheet music (i.e. he has it on display and continually looks at it) but who nevertheless unleashes passion at the keyboard when it’s required. The concerto is full of stunning tunes that Mr Roscoe hones and cares for as he coaxes them off the keys, and he is a true master of his instrument.

Because it is a short piece (and that is why we couldn’t pre-order interval drinks) Mr Roscoe took pity on the assembled crowd and gave us an encore: June, from Tchaikovsky’s Seasons, to whet our appetite for the second half symphony. I’d never heard this before and thought it was absolutely sublime. A simple, haunting barcarolle, I’m going to have to add it to my collection of classical CDs.

RPOAfter the interval (yes we did get our drinks) we returned for Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 6 (Pathétique). It’s a bold, exciting work with a number of themes that everyone recognises, that build to a dramatic climax. Most people thought the end of the third movement heralded the end of the symphony and started some rapturous applause; but no, the twist in the tale is that there’s a fourth and final movement that disconcertingly trades down from the triumph of the previous movement and ends not with a bang but a whimper. Such a mournful end will always be associated with the fact that Tchaikovsky himself died only nine days after conducting its debut performance. Those last few notes of the symphony were played so movingly by the RPO that the audience was stunned into silence, not wishing to break the moment by applauding. I think we were in a shared state of shock. A fantastic performance by the Royal Philharmonic that has made me go back to my recordings to listen again to some of these pieces and to want to explore anew – and I don’t think there can be any finer recommendation to a concert than that!

The RPO will be back in June with some more Mendelssohn and Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony – should be a blinder!

Review – Raphael Wallfisch Performs Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 12th March 2017

Raphael Wallfisch Performs Elgar’s Cello ConcertoCircumstances have conspired against our attending the two most recent Royal Philharmonic concerts in Northampton, but on Sunday we were back with a vengeance to see a rousing performance of German and British music. Our conductor this time was Jac van Steen, new to us; an enthusiastic Dutchman who has the air of a kindly dentist; he seems extremely affable and wants you to be at your utmost ease, but if it calls for it, he’d be in for the kill like nobody’s business.

jac van steenOur opening piece was the Prelude to Act One of Lohengrin by Wagner. I was expecting that stirring, arresting introductory brassy tune that puts you in mind of Valkyries and big fat sopranos – but no, that’s the Prelude to Act Three. Act One’s starts far more gently, with violin strings all a-quiver, but nevertheless building up to a major frenzy, perfectly representing the search for the Holy Grail which is what the programme notes said it was about. The orchestra were obviously champing at the bit and it was a very exciting and enjoyable start to the concert. Quiz question: what’s the difference between a prelude and an overture? No, I can’t work that one out either.

raphael wallfischNext it was time to meet our soloist, Raphael Wallfisch, to perform Elgar’s Cello Concerto. We’d seen Julian Lloyd Webber perform the same piece nearly six years ago, but it’s hard to recall one performer’s interpretation of a piece after such a long time. Mr Wallfisch is another avuncular looking fellow, but with a rather serious, workmanlike attitude to his playing that belies the immense passion of the music he produces. Without any reference to any sheet music, he plunges his instrument into the deep gravitas of the opening movement, making his instrument take centre stage so that you watch the bow attacking the bridge of the cello rather than looking at the intent concentration on Mr Wallfisch’s face. In juxtaposition, Mr van Steen is sometimes up on his tippytoes coaxing all the emotion out of the strings, at other times thrusting himself downwards in the conclusion of a bar. There’s an electrically exciting sequence in the second movement (I think – I’m fairly unfamiliar with this piece and the boundaries between the movements were hard to identify) where Mr Wallfisch plays the cello with such vim and vigour that from our seat it looked as though he was whittling down some wood to fashion a set of cricket stumps. I’m not sure it was spiccato, more like old fashioned twiddling. Suffice to say it was an extraordinary performance and it was clear that everyone loved it.

beethovenAfter the interval, we returned for Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. We’d seen the RPO perform this before as well, a full seven years ago, conducted by Garry Walker. Then, as now, I can never remember what that special tune is that dominates the second movement. But as soon as it kicks in I remember why I love it so much. It has a sparse melancholy about it; a sense that happiness may be just around the corner but you’re never quite going to achieve it. And I love how Beethoven gives it just the one proper airing, building from a quiet start to an emotional fulfilment, but never ever going back to it, no matter how much you yearn to hear it again. Mr van Steen had to apply a reverse coaxing mechanism, where, rather than draw the passion out of the orchestra, he actively suppressed it, making those sad echo moments in the movement even softer than usual, creating a despairing exquisiteness to the whole thing. It was just sensational.

Royal Philharmonic OrchestraIn many respects, the symphony is Beethoven’s Greatest Hits, with the brightness of the first movement, the playfulness of the third and the overwhelming victory of the final movement. The orchestra gave it a superb performance, and yes, excitable man in the Upper Circle Box, we all saw you on your feet conducting away to your heart’s content. We were blown away by the sheer vitality and force of the Royal Philharmonic’s performance. A great concert!

Review of the Year 2016 – The Seventh Annual Chrisparkle Awards

It’s time again for the whole Chrisparkle team to meet in secret (well, in the living room) to determine who should win the gongs in this year’s annual Chrisparkle Awards. The world of the arts is once again on tenterhooks to discover who will be the chosen few. Eligibility for the awards means a) they were performed in the UK and b) I have to have seen the shows and blogged about them in the period 15th January 2016 to 13th January 2017.

Let’s do this thing!

The first award is for Best Dance Production (Contemporary and Classical)

We saw five dance productions this year and this is the top three:

In 3rd place, the exciting return of Nederlands Dans Theater 2 with their unpredictable mixed programme at the Birmingham Hippodrome in May.
In 2nd place, the amazing story-telling and fantastic performances in Drew McOnie’s Jekyll and Hyde at the Old Vic in May.
In 1st place, for the fourth time in five years, the breathtaking programme by the literally unbeatable Richard Alston Dance Company that we saw at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in October.

Classical Music Concert of the Year.

Of the five concerts we saw in 2016, these are the top three:

In 3rd place, the stirring eleventh Malcolm Arnold Festival, The Voice of the People Gala Concert with the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by John Gibbons, with soloist Craig Ogden, at the Royal and Derngate, in October.
In 2nd place, Alexandra Dariescu Performs Rachmaninov, a programme of German and Russian music with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Fabien Gabel, at the Royal and Derngate, in May.
In 1st place, the storming Alan Buribayev conducts Sheherazade, with soloist Anna-Liisa Bezrodny, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal and Derngate, in February.

Best Entertainment Show of the Year.

By which I mean anything else that doesn’t fall into any other categories – for example pantos, circuses, revues and anything else hard to classify. Very hotly contended this year so we’re going to have to have a top five – and last year’s winner, the annual Burlesque Show, which, whilst excellent as always, doesn’t feature in the charts this year!

In 5th place, the wacky surrealism of Spymonkey’s The Complete Deaths at the Royal in May.
In 4th place, the supremely inventive and unfailingly polite Jamie Raven at the Royal and Derngate in June.
In 3rd place, another magic act, the brilliant and funny Pete Firman in TriX, at the Royal in November.
In 2nd place, the filthy and hilarious Cinderella, at the London Palladium, in December.
In 1st place, the masterclass of hilarious mime that is The Boy with Tape on His Face at the Royal, in November.

Best Star Standup of the Year.

We saw eleven big-name stand-up comics this year, and they were all various shades of brilliant! So it’s going to be hard to whittle them down to a top five:

In 5th place, the long lasting warm glow of an evening spent in the company of Tommy Tiernan (Out of the Whirlwind Tour), at the Royal in March.
In 4th place, the ever-waspish and never unfunny Julian Clary (The Joy of Mincing Tour) at the Royal and Derngate in April.
In 3rd place, the supremely intelligent and devastatingly funny Dane Baptiste (Reasonable Doubts Tour), Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, in March.
In 2nd place, simply because he finally allowed me to laugh at the Brexit result with all my pain proudly on display, Marcus Brigstocke (Why the Long Face Tour) at the Royal in October.
In 1st place, the woman of the moment, and that’s because she just makes you laugh so much, Sarah Millican (Outsider Tour), at the Royal and Derngate in July.

Best Stand-up at the Screaming Blue Murder nights in Northampton.

As ever, a hotly contested award; now that the JAM Comedy club shows have started at the Ark, comics appearing there are also eligible for this award. From a very very long shortlist, here are the top five:

In 5th place, the infectiously manic stupidity of Steve Best (16th September)
In 4th place, larking around where angels fear to tread, Tez Ilyas (21st October)
In 3rd place, the new prince of high camp, Stephen Bailey (4th November)
In 2nd place, turning a gig into a party, the awesome Jonny Awsum (18th March)
In 1st place, last year’s winner and still unbeatable, Ian Cognito (21st October)

Best Musical.

Like last year, this is a combination of new musicals and revivals; I only saw eight this year but they were (almost) all excellent! Here are the top five:

In 5th place, the wonderful depiction of Latino life in Washington Heights lived to the full, In The Heights, that we saw at the Kings Cross Theatre in December.
In 4th place, the captivating and satisfying revival of Sondheim’s Into The Woods, at the Menier Chocolate Factory, that we saw in September.
In 3rd place, the stunning revival of Funny Girl, at the Menier Chocolate Factory, that we saw in February.
In 2nd place, the show I hadn’t wanted to see, just caught it before it closed, and I’m so glad I did, Bend It Like Beckham, that we saw at the Phoenix Theatre, in February.
In 1st place, because it’s text book in how to stage a show and gives you such a feelgood factor, Half A Sixpence, that we saw at the Noel Coward Theatre in December.

Best New Play.

Just to clarify, this is my definition of a new play, which is something that’s new to me and to most of its audience – so it might have been around before but on its first UK tour, or a new adaptation of a work originally in another format. An extremely difficult decision, as you have to compare such different genres; but somehow I chose a top three from the eight contenders:

In 3rd place, actually three plays, the extraordinary National Theatre of Scotland production of The James Plays, at the Royal and Derngate Theatre, Northampton in April.
In 2nd place, the brilliantly written and performed The Herbal Bed, at the Royal Theatre, in February.
In 1st place, the hauntingly unforgettable Soul, at the Royal Theatre, in May.

Best Revival of a Play.

Saw ten revivals, all of which were worthy of consideration. Here’s the top five:

In 5th place, the highly innovative and enjoyable reworking of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, co-produced by the R&D and the National Youth Theatre, at the Royal Theatre, in June.
In 4th place, breathing new life into a play that could easily be a little sterile, Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land, at Wyndham’s Theatre in October.
In 3rd place, the hilarious and brutally honest revival of Terry Johnson’s Dead Funny, at the Vaudeville Theatre, in December.
In 2nd place, Christopher Luscombe’s electric production of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in October.
In 1st place, the production that had me sweating with excitement and exhilaration, the late Howard Davies’ production of Christopher Hampton’s new translation of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in May.

As always, in the post-Christmas season, time to consider the turkey of the year – the one that stuffed us all as the biggest disappointment was the drabfest that was Breakfast at Tiffany’s at the Curve Theatre, Leicester, in March.

Now we come on to our four categories specifically for the Edinburgh Fringe. The first is:

Best play – Edinburgh

We saw 16 plays in Edinburgh, and here are the top 5:

In 5th place, the elegant and moving story of post World War One England with Aulos Productions’ Lest We Forget (Bedlam Theatre)
In 4th place, the funny and unsettling Partial Nudity produced by Fandango Productions (Monkey House @ Zoo)
In 3rd place, the stunning one-man play set against Cardiff’s nightlife, Saturday Night Forever, produced by Aberystwyth Arts Centre and Joio (Underbelly Med Quad)
In 2nd place, the brilliantly stereotype-challenging Jumping The Barriers by The Courtyard Players (Space on The Mile)
In 1st place, the emotionally charged and truly creative Us/Them by Bronks/Made in Belgium (Summerhall)

Best Individual Performance in a Play – Edinburgh

This was a very difficult choice this year as most of the plays we saw were superb ensemble efforts where you couldn’t (well I couldn’t) identify one particular individual over the rest of the cast. However, I have no hesitation in recommending to you this top three:

In 3rd place, Adam J S Smith for Jumping The Barriers (Space on the Mile)
In 2nd place, Chris Daley for Jumping The Barriers (Space on the Mile)
In 1st place, Delme Thomas for Saturday Night Forever (Underbelly Med Quad)

Best stand-up comedy show – Edinburgh

Thirteen shows but a shortlist of just four gives this top three:

In 3rd place, for the honesty of his material the likeable and hilarious Dave Chawner (Cabaret Voltaire)
In 2nd place, for nailing the Zeitgeist with 10 Things I Hate About UKIP, Joe Wells (T-Bar)
In 1st place, again, the unmissable late night laughter line-up that is Spank! (Underbelly Cowgate)

Best of the rest – Edinburgh
This has been a ridiculously hard choice to make and I have to leave out at least seven brilliant shows that I would happily see again. Still, no one said life is easy. Here’s the top five: (As an aside, I was called out of the audience to participate in three of them!)

In 5th place, for brilliant impressions in a cleverly constructed show, Luke Kempner’s Judi Dench Broke My Heart (Pleasance Dome)
In 4th place, one of the best (arguably THE best) variety line-ups ever assembled and hosted brilliantly, Lili la Scala’s Another F*cking Variety Show (Pleasance Dome)
In 3rd place, the quick-fire inventive sketches that featured me but also Foil Arms and Hog – Doomdah! (Underbelly Cowgate)
In 2nd place, early morning hilarity with a beautifully written and performed subversion of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare for Breakfast (C Venues, Chambers Street)
In 1st place, a truly winning combination of parody, pressure and hot pan, Kev’s Komedy Kitchen (Just the Tonic at the Mash House)

This year’s Edinburgh turkey, which wasn’t as bad as all that, (although it wasn’t that great either) was the two-hander play involving night-club Mafia, The Club.

And now for a new award. This year I have seen many more local productions. They are mainly (but not exclusively) by students at the University of Northampton; but there are also the Royal and Derngate Actors’ Company, the Youth Companies, other local theatre groups and the National Theatre Connections to consider. So this is the First ever Chrisparkle award for Best Local Production – taking all aspects of the production into account.

In 5th place, from the Flash Festival, Infuse Theatre Company’s X or Y
In 4th place, by the current 3rd year students at the University, She Echoes
In 3rd place, again from the Flash Festival, La Zenna Theatre Company’s The Final Cut
In 2nd place, the Royal and Derngate’s Actors’ Company’s production of Market Boy at the Royal Theatre.
In 1st place, the University’s production of Blue Stockings at the Royal Theatre.

Best film

I only saw four last year, and, while I have to recognise the brilliance of I Daniel Blake, personal involvement (including being an extra in it) means I must award it to The Girl With All The Gifts. If you haven’t seen it – See it!!

Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical.

This is where it gets personal. Nine contenders in the shortlist, and here are the top three:

In 3rd place, Emma Williams as Helen in Half a Sixpence at the Noel Coward Theatre in December.
In 2nd place, Devon-Elise Johnson as Ann in Half a Sixpence at the Noel Coward Theatre in December.
In 1st place, Sheridan Smith as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl at the Menier Chocolate Factory, in February.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical.

Eight fine performances in the shortlist, producing this top three:

In 3rd place, Tony Jayawardena as Mr Bhamra in Bend it Like Beckham at the Phoenix Theatre, in February.
In 2nd place, Sam Mackay as Usnavi in In The Heights, at the Kings Cross Theatre in December.
In 1st place, Charlie Stemp as Kipps in Half a Sixpence at the Noel Coward Theatre in December.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Play.

Very tough one, this one. Thirteen in the shortlist, but here’s the top five:

In 5th place, Sophie Walter as Prosper in The Tempest at the Royal in June.
In 4th place, Adjoa Andoh as Alberta in Soul at the Royal in May.
In 3rd place, Clare Foster as Cecily in Travesties at the Menier Chocolate Factory, in October.
In 2nd place, Lisa Dillon as Rosaline in Love’s Labour’s Lost and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing at the Festival Theatre, Chichester in October.
In 1st place, Katherine Parkinson as Eleanor in Dead Funny at the Vaudeville Theatre in December.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Play.

The most hotly fought for award, with twenty contenders in my shortlist, and I whittled it down to this:

In 5th place, Hugh Bonneville as Dr Stockmann in An Enemy of the People, at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in May.
In 4th place, Tom Hollander as Henry Carr in Travesties, at the Menier Chocolate Factory, in October.
In 3rd place, Nathan Ives-Moiba as Marvin Gaye Jnr in Soul at the Royal Theatre in May.
In 2nd place, Sir Ian McKellen as Spooner in No Man’s Land at Wyndham’s Theatre in October.
In 1st place, Edward Bennett as Berowne in Love’s Labour’s Lost and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing at the Festival Theatre, Chichester in October.

Theatre of the Year.

For the second year running there’s no change in the Number one and Number two theatres! Presenting an extraordinary range of drama and entertainment, this year’s Theatre of the Year is the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, with the Festival Theatre/Minerva Theatre in Chichester as runner-up.

It’s been another fantastic year – 140 productions seen in all – and thanks to you gentle reader for continuing to read my theatre reviews. Let’s look forward to another wonderful year of theatre in 2017!

Review – The Eleventh Annual Malcolm Arnold Festival, The Voice of the People, Gala Concert, BBC Concert Orchestra, Craig Ogden, Derngate, Northampton, 16th October 2016

11th Arnold FestivalAn interesting change of personnel for this year’s Malcolm Arnold Festival Gala Concert; in previous years we have enjoyed the performances of the Worthing Symphony Orchestra, operating as its alter ego, the Malcolm Arnold Festival Orchestra. But whilst we still had John Gibbons as our conductor, this year he was wielding his baton over the BBC Concert Orchestra. The concert was being recorded for Radio 3 so I don’t know whether that was a reason for the change – after all, other orchestras are available, as the phrase goes. They were on great form though. I’m not sure we’ve seen this excellent body of musicians before but they filled the Derngate auditorium with their stunning virtuosity and created brilliant musical pictures from the works they played.

malcolm-arnoldWe could tell this was going to be a fantastic concert from the first item – Arnold’s Tam O’Shanter Overture, Op 61. Mr Gibbons gave us a brief introduction as to what to expect, but nothing could really prepare you to appreciate what an exciting and uplifting piece of music it is. It boasted a fantastic use of percussion (actually the drums and percussion were a big hit for me throughout the entire evening) but the whole orchestra gave it their all and it was a superb way to start the concert.

John GibbonsAs a contrast, the next piece was William Walton’s Funeral Music from Hamlet. I hadn’t heard it before and as it started, it seemed to be taking on an interesting and complex shape. And then, once I had settled down to appreciate it in full, it finished. And not with a bang, but a whimper. I felt slightly short-changed by Mr Walton!

craigogdenHowever, my reward was to follow next in what would be my favourite item of the evening – Malcolm Arnold’s Guitar Concerto Op 67. Our soloist was Craig Ogden, a relaxed kind of guy, the essence of smart casual in comparison to the BBCCO’s formal attire; I liked his straightforward approach to the whole event, not too showy, there simply to make music. He really made his guitar sing – each pluck creates a full, earthy, reverberant sound; the kind of playing where you appreciate each note. Again, I hadn’t heard the piece before, but the Guitar Concerto is a terrific piece of music. Forgive me if I show my (lack of) class, but I felt the Allegro first movement could have been written by Mike Oldfield – it would have fitted perfectly into something like Hergest Ridge. This was followed by the Lento, which brought to mind the melody of Jupiter from Holst’s Planets suite. I thought both movements were absolutely stunning. The concerto finishes with a Con Brio – which for me was a slight disappointment in terms of the creativity of the composing, but Mr Ogden gave it all the brio it required and rounded off a superb and musically eloquent performance.

william-waltonAfter the interval we returned for Walton’s Spitfire Prelude and Fugue from The First of the Few. An excellent piece to get us back into the mood – the prelude was full of stately dignity and the fugue really took off, like its eponymous aircraft, with a mixture of cheeky pride and lamentation. A fantastic performance. Next, we welcomed back Craig Ogden for Arnold’s short but sweet Serenade for Guitar and Strings, Op 13; another simply beautiful work where the juxtaposition of the lush orchestra strings against the resonant guitar chords really stands out.

bbccoOur final piece was Arnold’s Sixth Symphony. Mr Gibbons introduced it by way of comparison with other notable composers’ sixth symphonies – they often get overlooked. Arnold’s sixth gives you an almost complete impression of everything that he could achieve in an orchestral piece. Pageantry, jokiness, suspense, terror, peace and anger. The second movement in particular – Lento allegretto lento – was especially unnerving and spooky. But the whole piece was really invigorating and rewarding – and, as I said earlier, I really loved the drums!

A very enjoyable yet also challenging concert, bringing out the best of both Malcolm Arnold and the BBC Concert Orchestra. Be there for next year’s festival!