Review – Alan Buribayev Conducts Chopin, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Derngate, Northampton, 8th April 2018

Alan Buribayev Conducts ChopinOnce again we welcome back the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to one of their satellite venues around the UK here at the Royal and Derngate in Northampton, for an exciting programme of Czech, Polish and Finnish music. Our conductor was the ebullient and hard-working Alan Buribayev, whom we saw here two years ago in a fantastic concert that was the winner of the 2016 Annual Chrisparkle Award for Best Classical Concert. So we knew we were going to be in for a treat. This was also our first chance to see Alexandra Wood as First Violinist for the orchestra.

Alan BuribayevWe started with the overture to Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, his 1866 opera that remains one of his best-known works. The overture was written separately, before the rest of the opera, which possibly explains why it’s such an arresting stand-alone piece of music. The strings of the Royal Philharmonic could not resist the opportunity to launch into a full-scale attack on Smetana’s buzzy, vibrant, compelling arrangement, which gripped the audience instantly like a hundred angry bumble bees and did not let go for six brilliant minutes. A great way to start the concert.

Then it was time for the orchestra to disperse whilst the heavy mob brought in the Grand Steinway for our soloist for the afternoon, Alexander Romanovsky, a (fairly) last minute replacement for the original billing of Mark Bebbington, so we’d hoped he’d had long enough to practice Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 2 in F Minor, Op 21. We needn’t have worried. Mr Romanovsky takes to the stage like a snazzy younger version of Will Self, serious and controlled, seated business-like at the piano awaiting his cues. Whilst he’s not playing he simply looks straight ahead, relaxed but unemotional, almost like a non-participatory observer – but looks clearly can be deceptive.

Alexander RomanovskyIf he gives off an unemotional air, that doesn’t translate to his playing. He has the most exquisite lightness of touch, delicately coaxing the fullest and most resounding note from each deliberately pressed piano key. He’s the perfect exponent for Chopin at his most fluttery, his fingers going nineteen-to-the-dozen up and down the keyboard whilst his expression remains one of swan-like calm. It was an incredible performance; and really drew out all Chopin’s superb melodies that are packed into this vivacious concerto, especially the final movement, which I found particularly exciting. When it was all over, Mr Romanovsky allowed himself to crack a smile, so I guess he was pleased at the result. He certainly should have been.

After the interval we returned for a performance of Sibelius’ Symphony No 2 in D Major, Op 43. I’d not heard this symphony before and, I must confess gentle reader, I found it a real challenge. Whilst some of Sibelius’ music has an instant appeal, there’s also quite a lot that sounds to me rather murky and hard to appreciate on first hearing. The excellent programme notes discuss how the first movement of this piece is like a mosaic, with small fragments of music appearing disparately at first but finally coming together to create a whole. Well, I have to confess I found that rather obscure whole hard to recognise! Of course, the RPO were on great form, and individual moments sounded terrific. But I couldn’t grasp it somehow.

RPOgroupThe second movement felt easier: tempo andante, ma rubato – so, at a moderate pace but not rigidly; flexible, to bring out the emotion, and I thought the orchestra (and Mr Buribayev) achieved this brilliantly. The third and fourth movements seemed so crammed with all sorts of musical ideas, that it came across as a difficult and challenging piece to listen to, exhausting even; but also incredibly rewarding. There were some truly superb passages that really sang out, and I think I need to give the symphony another listen before long to try to appreciate what I missed!

Another superb performance by the Royal Philharmonic; when the audience’s sustained applause brought Mr Buribayev back to the podium for a fourth time, no one was in any doubt the extent to which the whole programme had been appreciated. This was another matinee performance by the RPO; it’s great if that encourages a wider age range of concertgoers, although I still, personally, prefer my classical concerts in the evening. I look forward to their evening of Ballet music coming up in June!

Review – Michael Petrov Performs Tchaikovsky, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 18th February 2018

Michael Petrov Performs TchaikovskyI reckon that attending live performances is habit-forming and after a while, if you see enough, you can end up on auto-pilot. That’s the reason that Mrs Chrisparkle and I kept checking our tickets on Sunday to ensure that this visit of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra really was scheduled for 3pm and not the usual 7.30pm. It just didn’t quite feel right to be there in the afternoon! There’s no doubt, however, that the matinee performance enabled several more children to attend the concert which is a great thing, especially as this was by no means a children’s programme – there were four, perfectly meaty, substantial and adult pieces of classical music to enjoy, and I hope any new youthful concertgoers found it as exciting and rewarding as we did.

Rory MacdonaldOur conductor for this concert was Rory Macdonald, whom we’ve seen just once before, when Natalie Clein performed Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B Minor three years ago. He still doesn’t seem to have aged at all, and I’m more than ever sure that he has a grand selfie mouldering in his attic somewhere. He’s an exuberant conductor, one who likes to reach out on tippytoes to get the maximum out of his musicians. With his sleek black hair and formal attire, I couldn’t get the vision of Mary Poppins’ cartoon penguins out of my head. But he does a great job, so far be it from me to take the mickey.

Our first piece was Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. What a grand way to start a concert, with its compelling tunes and robust orchestration. It’s a superbly muscular and self-confident piece of music – everything an overture should be – and the orchestra rose to the challenge magnificently. I also appreciated the slightly pacier tempo which made its strength and power stand out. A great start.

Next we had two pieces of music that were new to me. Two Elegiac Melodies, Op. 34 by Edvard Grieg. I love Grieg’s music and it was a treat to discover something new by him. All the woodwind and percussion left the stage so that we only had the string players – I say “only”, but the lush sound they produced was sensational for these two pure and sincere reflective pieces. There’s nothing comfortable about the Elegiac Melodies, and I found them strangely disconcerting; but I really loved the performance.

After this, there was some general reorganisation as the rest of the orchestra returned and a platform was provided, centre stage, for our soloist, the cellist Michael Petrov. Amongst all the black evening dresses of the ladies of the orchestra and the formal suits of the men, Mr Petrov strode on to the stage in a white shirt not tucked in at the waist, no collar, no jacket, no tie, but with a calm and creative aura about him. He looked like a benign dentist – the sort who doesn’t complain at you if he suspects you haven’t been cleaning your teeth properly.

Michael PetrovMr Petrov was there to play Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op 33. This was another piece I’d never heard before and I was instantly taken by it. Tchaikovsky takes a relatively simple theme and wraps it around his little finger with seven variations and an astonishing cadenza from Mr Petrov where you could hear a pin drop, so alert were the audience to the passionate tones he produced from his 1846 J B Vuillaume cello – proving that old is often best. The Variations are a great vehicle to show off a bravura performance and Mr Petrov did that with apparently effortless ease. He brought out the humour of some of the cheekier variations and the solemnity of the andante sections. No sheet music, no grand gestures; just a thoughtful and disciplined performance that held the audience spellbound. We absolutely loved it – and now I need to find a decent recording of this piece for my own music library.

This performance was of the Fitzenhagen arrangement of the Variations; Fitzenhagen was the principal cellist with the Orchestra of the Imperial Russian Music Society in Moscow, to whom Tchaikovsky had dedicated the work, but then who chopped and changed the Variations around, much to the annoyance of Tchaikovsky. But maybe Fitzenhagen knew what he was doing, because it’s such an enjoyable mini-concerto, and it’s usually his version that gets performed.

RPO3-300x200After the interval we returned for a performance of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No 4 in A Major, Op 40, better known as the Italian Symphony. As soon as its happy and playful major theme strikes up in the first movement, you’re transported away to sunny climates and a lovely Mediterranean lifestyle. Under Mr Macdonald’s enthusiastic direction, the orchestra brought us all the joy of the first movement, then to change dramatically to the crestfallen sound of the second movement, with its connotations of funereal respect, the stately minuet of the third movement and the raucous scampering of the saltarello dance of the fourth. It was all performed with amazing vigour and energy and had the audience on the edge of its seat with excitement at the end.

A fantastic concert that introduced me to some riveting new pieces and a super soloist. And it was all over by teatime! The next classical offering from the Royal Philharmonic will be in April, with a varied programme of Czech, Polish and Finnish music. Can’t wait!

Review – An Evening of Music and Dance with the Birmingham Royal Ballet and the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, Derngate, Northampton, 20th January 2018

An Evening of Music and DanceHaving an affinity for a particular theatre company, or dance company, or orchestra, is a matter of habit. For four years from 2003 to 2007 Mrs Chrisparkle and I were regulars at the Birmingham Royal Ballet. We would take our little nieces, or our Godchildren, plonk them down in the middle of the Birmingham Hippodrome stalls and they would be overwhelmed with the excitement, the colour, the beauty and the artistry of the dancers. We used to love it too. Then for some reason, we stopped. Mentally I still admired them from afar, but it’s taken ten full years since then to re-establish our proper and much missed acquaintance.

David Bintley

David Bintley

David Bintley, who compered this evening of Music and Dance, told us these shows were a regular phenomenon in Birmingham and have gone down a storm at the Symphony Hall for many years. For the first time they were stretching their wings and taking the show out of town – first stop (and indeed, only stop) Northampton. Thank you so much for thinking of us, BRB, because this was an evening of unmitigated delight that transported the audience from a wet January Saturday to a land of magic and escapism. Everything was beautiful at the ballet, sang the girls from A Chorus Line and if you ever needed proof of that, look no further.

Paul Murphy

Paul Murphy

When you enter the auditorium, the Royal Ballet Sinfonia are all in place on the stage and there’s a large empty area in front of them where the dancers can perform. Will the orchestra distract from the dancers? Will the dancers distract from the orchestra? Neither, somehow the staging seems to complement each other perfectly. Our conductor was Paul Murphy, an enthusiastic chap who’s not above encouraging the orchestra with a bit of jazz hands when a mere baton isn’t enough. He reminded me of a clean-shaven, smartened up and sober version of Father Jack. His utter delight in his work clearly transmits itself to the orchestra who in turn convey it to us. When you see an orchestral performance with a soloist on the violin or the piano, you know that the conductor has to split his attention 50:50 between orchestra and soloist. Similarly, it was fascinating to see how Mr Murphy had to keep one eye on the dancers as well as his musicians in order to keep perfect time with their moves. I’m sure that’s a particular skill that takes many years to achieve and he did it brilliantly.

SinfoniaThe structure of the show is that the Sinfonia performs one orchestral piece, then dancers come on stage and the Sinfonia play the accompaniment; then another piece, then another dance, alternating throughout the evening so that we enjoy twelve items in all – six orchestral pieces and six dances. To be honest, the balletomane in me would have been happy for each of the twelve pieces to have featured dance – I guess that’s what I was expecting – but I appreciate that the alternating pattern sustained the variety of the entertainment, which was probably wise. You can have too much of a good thing, after all.

Celine Gittens and Tyrone Singleton

Celine Gittens and Tyrone Singleton

We started with the cute confection that is the prelude to Engelbert Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel – Mrs C was a little disappointed that this wasn’t an orchestral version of The Last Waltz – and then our first dance was the Act III pas de deux from Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty. Can’t beat a spot of Petipa, and Principal Dancers Céline Gittens and Tyrone Singleton danced it magnificently, decked out in stunning white brocaded costumes. It wasn’t until this first dance that I realised our third row seat gave us an unusually close view of classical ballet – normally with an orchestra in the pit in a large theatre even front stalls seats can feel quite distant from the dancers. Not so this time; and our proximity to the stage gave me an opportunity to concentrate on the technical achievements of the dancers – the balance, the strength, the accuracy, which I find irresistibly rewarding to observe.

Jenna Roberts as Juliet

Jenna Roberts as Juliet

Elgar’s Wand of Youth Suite no 2, The Wild Bears, followed; I’d never heard it before and I was impressed by the way the orchestra threw themselves into its frenzied excitement – one of those pieces that is just great fun. Then our next dance was the pas de deux from After the Rain, by Arvo Pärt, choreographed by Christopher Wheeldon. The poignant, elegant music is played by just the solo violin – Sinfonia leader Robert Gibbs – and solo piano, played by Jonathan Higgins, which made a solemn contrast with the liveliness of what had gone before. It was danced by Principals Jenna Roberts and Iain Mackay on his very final show with the company; he’s been 19 years with the Birmingham Royal Ballet (I’m sure we saw him in Carmina Burana many years ago) and it turned out to be quite an emotional night. The dancers simply immersed themselves in the elegant choreography which managed to be both acrobatic and stately, and the power of the performance was literally breathtaking.

James Barton

James Barton

The next musical item was Korngold’s Adventures of Robin Hood Suite, another piece new to me that had something of a military march to it – I have to say it’s nothing like as evocative of Robin Hood as Carl Sigman’s TV theme, but then what do I know? I was more looking forward to the last dance before the interval, the famous and funny clog dance from La Fille mal gardée choreographed by Frederick Ashton. James Barton, fresh from his year dancing in An American in Paris, danced the role of the Widow, with a cheekily sprightly step and a scarcely suppressed titter. Four soloists, Yvette Knight, Laura Purkiss, Yaoqian Shang and Yijing Zhang completed the coquettishly clogging quintet. Enormous fun, and of course such a catchy piece of music played by the Sinfonia.

Cesar Morales

Cesar Morales

After the interval, we returned to hear Dvorak’s Slavonic Dance Op 46, No 8; the Slavonic Dances are among my favourite pieces of classical music and they gave it a blistering performance. Next up was Weber’s Spectre de la Rose, choreographed by Fokine and danced by Arancha Baselga and Cesar Morales. A very stylised piece, it features Ms Baselga languishing in a posh chair whilst Mr Morales leaps in through the (imaginary) window and cavorts around her. Despite occupying all the available dance space it still comes over as a remarkably intimate piece; and Mr Morales’ Nijinskyesque leaps were pretty phenomenal. A perfect balletic blend of the pure and fragile with the powerful and muscular – a superb performance.

 Iain Mackay in Taming of the Shrew

Iain Mackay in Taming of the Shrew

The Sinfonia then played Sibelius’ Valse Triste, a delicate and moving little piece that sways along; perhaps a little faster than it is normally played, and I think all the better for it. Compere David Bintley returned to introduce Jenna Roberts and Iain Mackay in what was to be his very final dance on stage in his career, Bintley’s own choreography to the much-loved Adagio from Spartacus by Khachaturian, a personal parting gift to the dancer from the director. Mr Mackay danced Spartacus and Ms Roberts his wife Phrygia, in a piece where she informs him she would be giving birth to his son. It was a truly wonderful piece of choreography; very moving, very joyous, and absolutely jam-packed with all different sorts of emotions. Fokine marvellous, in fact.

Momoko Hirata

Momoko Hirata

Before the final dance fireworks (Mr Bintley’s words – and so right he was), the Sinfonia performed two dances from Manuel de Falla’s The Three-Cornered Hat, the instruments positively buzzing with Falla’s fiery orchestrations. Our last item was the pas de deux and solos from Don Quixote; Petipa at his extravagant best. The dancers were Principals Momoko Hirata, performing those crowd-pleasing pirouettes with total joy, and Mathias Dingman who attacked those solo show-off sequences like there’s no tomorrow – his brisés in particular were immaculately executed.

Matthias Dingman

Matthias Dingman

The final standing ovation went for a very long time, with of course special hugs and appreciation for Iain Mackay’s two decades of duty with the company. What a hugely entertaining show; every orchestral piece brimmed with excitement, and every dance was in-your-face fantastic. It was a real privilege to be there. Birmingham Royal Ballet, I apologise for ignoring you over the last ten years. It’s been too long. Hope you’ll make this a regular date and even bring one of your full-length ballets our way some time soon.

The production photos are from a variety of online sources, and from different ballets from those performed in the concert; if they are yours, please let me know if you would like me to remove them.

Review of the Year 2017 – The Eighth Annual Chrisparkle Awards

Once again the world of the arts is holding its bated breath to hear the results of who has won this year’s annual Chrisparkle Awards. The whole team has scurried away to a dark place (my study) to determine the identities of 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 14th January 2017 to 11th January 2018.

Are you all sitting comfortably?

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

So we start off with a slight problem. Apart from at the Edinburgh Fringe, we only saw one dance production all year. One measly production! Not that it was a measly production but only seeing one is definitely measly. For a time the Committee wondered if, for this year, the award should be temporarily withdrawn, but that didn’t seem fair. So we have compromised, and included the two dance shows we saw in Edinburgh as well as the one, non-Fringe show we saw elsewhere. At least that gives us three shows to consider, and this is how they place:

In 3rd place, the honest and daring piece for two, Together Alone, from the Taiwan Season at Dance Base at the Edinburgh Fringe in August.

In 2nd place, Really Nice Theatre Company’s funny and acrobatic production of Two Little Boxes at Greenside at Nicolson Square, at the Edinburgh Fringe in August.

In 1st place, for the fifth time in six years, the skilful creativity of the impeccable Richard Alston Dance Company that we saw at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in October.

Classical Music Concert of the Year.

We saw six classical concerts in 2017 and they were all excellent, so it was extremely difficult to whittle it down to a top three. Nevertheless, the impossible has been achieved, so they are:

In 3rd place, Christian Kluxen Conducts Tchaikovsky, with a brilliant programme of Italian, German and Russian music including Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 6 and Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No 1 played by Martin Roscoe, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in May.

In 2nd place, Francesca Dego Performs Bruch, including wonderful performances of Brahms’ Symphony No 4 and Bruch’s Violin Concerto No 1 with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Mathieu Herzog, at the Royal and Derngate, in November.

In 1st place, Jan Mráček Performs Mendelssohn, a stunning performance of the Violin Concerto together with a great rendition of Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony with Martyn Brabbins conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, at the Royal and Derngate, in June.

Best Entertainment Show of the Year.

This means anything that doesn’t fall into any other categories – for example pantos, circuses, revues and anything else hard to classify. Not so many contenders this year so we’ll stick with a top three:

In 3rd place, the inimitable Damian Williams starring as Mother Goose in the panto of the same name at the Lyceum Theatre in Sheffield in January 2018.

In 2nd place, the beautiful and hilarious combination of acts that make up the Burlesque Show at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in January 2017.

In 1st place, the start to finish riot of near-knuckle hilarity that was Dick Whittington the panto at the London Palladium in December.

Best Star Standup of the Year.

We saw ten big-name stand-up comics this year, and I think it’s fair to say they were a varied bunch with a few disappointments. I listed a top five last year but this time a top three will suffice:

In 3rd place, the extraordinary experience of spending a late night 90 minutes in the company of the one and only Miss Whoopi Goldberg, at the London Palladium in February.

In 2nd place, the irrepressible silliness of Jimeoin in his Renonsense Man Tour, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in February.

In 1st place, by a whisker – or maybe two, a shared award; Tez Ilyas’ Made in Britain Tour, together with his fantastic support act Guz Khan, Underground at the Royal and Derngate in May.

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

Lots of great acts with a fighting chance of winning this award, but the winner was never in doubt. From a very, very long shortlist, here are the top five:

In 5th place, the parody musical magic of Christian Reilly (12th May)

In 4th place, for his amazing ability to make so much off the cuff humour from an audience member throwing up, Paul Thorne (3rd November)

In 3rd place, the mischievous intelligence of Markus Birdman (3rd February)

In 2nd place, seen many times but on this occasion absolutely on fire, Robert White (3rd March)

In 1st place, a new star is born, and receiving possibly the best reception in eight years of watching Screaming Blue Murders, Daliso Chaponda (28th April)

And now, a new category; as we have seen so many stand-up comedy acts in other clubs, such as the Leicester Comedy Festival, Bluelight Comedy, Upfront Comedy Shows and Edinburgh Try-outs in various locations, here’s the Best of the Rest Stand-up Award.

In 5th place, the larger than life unpredictability of Aurie Styla (Upfront Comedy – Comedy Summerslam), at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in June.

In 4th place, the thought-provoking, hard-hitting material in the Edinburgh Try-out of his show Your Wrong, Phil Nichol (Comedy Crate Festival) at the Black Prince, Northampton, in July.

In 3rd place, the challenging, calculating material and presence of Mickey Sharma (Upfront Comedy – Comedy Summerslam), at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in June.

In 2nd place, a hit from the previous year’s Edinburgh Fringe, the extraordinarily personal and moving show by Richard Gadd – Monkey See, Monkey Do (Leicester Comedy Festival at The Cookie, Leicester) in February.

In 1st place, for getting on for four hours of solid hilarity, Just The Tonic Comedy Club with Johnny Vegas, and guests Kevin Dewsbury, Guz Khan and Paul McCaffrey (Leicester Comedy Festival, Hansom Hall, Leicester) in February.

Best Musical.

Here’s where it gets really difficult. I saw fourteen musicals this year, mainly revivals but a few new shows as well. Competition is very fierce and some superb shows don’t get a mention. Here are the top five:

In 5th place, so good I saw it twice on consecutive days, the touring revival of the Kinks Musical Sunny Afternoon at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in January.

In 4th place, the breath of fresh air with its heart absolutely in the right place, the feelgood Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, at the Apollo Theatre, London, in December.

In 3rd place, the beautiful and emotional revival of Fiddler on the Roof, at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, that we saw in July.

In 2nd place, one of my favourite shows of all time, in a dynamic and exciting revival, Stephen Sondheim’s Follies at the National Theatre Olivier, in September.

In 1st place, with incredible impact and maybe because I’ve never seen it before, and it really took my breath away, the revival of Miss Saigon at the Curve Theatre Leicester in July.

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. I’ve seen 21 new plays this year, and only a handful of them disappointed. So this is an extremely difficult decision, as you have to compare such different genres; but somehow I chose a top five from a shortlist of ten:

In 5th place, the funny and sad life laundry drama, The House They Grew Up In, at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester, in July.

In 4th place, how to make a riveting play out of dry subject matter, Oslo at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, in December.

In 3rd place, the gripping and exciting thriller based in 1980s Northern Ireland, The Ferryman at the Gielgud Theatre, London, in December.

In 2nd place, the emotional turmoil of The Kite Runner, at Wyndham’s Theatre, London, in February.

In 1st place, the extraordinary combination of political intrigue and carefree humour that forms both parts of the RSC’s Imperium, at the Swan Theatre, Stratford, in December.

Best Revival of a Play.

Saw twenty revivals, almost all of which were worthy of consideration. Nine made the shortlist; here’s the top five:

In 5th place, the high energy testosterone-fest that is Glengarry Glen Ross at the Playhouse Theatre, in November.

In 4th place, a feat of great stamina and a beautiful revival, The Norman Conquests at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in October.

In 3rd place, the vividly re-imagined and exciting new production of Julius Caesar at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, in May.

In 2nd place, the spellbinding new production of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London in April.

In 1st place, the production I’d been looking forward to all year and it was every bit as remarkable as one would have hoped, King Lear at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester, in October.

As always, in the post-Christmas season, time to consider the turkey of the year – the one that missed the mark the most was the Royal and Derngate’s confused production of The Grapes of Wrath in May.

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

Best play – Edinburgh

We saw 17 plays in Edinburgh, and here are the top 5:

In 5th place, the eerie and suspenseful psychological thriller Black Mountain produced by Paines Plough (Roundabout @ Summerhall)

In 4th place, the totally convincing portrayal of a relationship irreconcilably broken down with the snappy title The Delights of Dogs and the Problems of People, written by Rosalind Blessed (Studio @ Space Triplex)

In 3rd place, the thought-provoking and opinion changing Bin Laden: The One Man Show produced by Knaive Theatre (C venues – C, Chambers Street)

In 2nd place, the riveting Gypsy Queen, written by Rob Ward (Front Room @ Assembly Rooms)

In 1st place, the play that taps into the Zeitgeist and doesn’t feel like a play, the horrifying, hilarious and brain-teasing Losers, produced by Tit4Twat Theatre (Underbelly, Cowgate)

Best Individual Performance in a Play – Edinburgh

One of the hardest categories to decide as so many Edinburgh plays are true ensemble efforts. Nevertheless, here are the top three:

In 3rd place, Rosalind Blessed for The Delights of Dogs and the Problems of People (Studio @ Space Triplex)
In 2nd place, Rob Ward for Gypsy Queen (Front Room @ Assembly Rooms)
In 1st place, Sam Redway for Bin Laden: The One Man Show (C venues – C, Chambers Street)

Best stand-up comedy show – Edinburgh

Eleven shows and a shortlist of five gives this top three (which is very similar to last year’s!):

In 3rd place, for his intelligent observations and creative thinking, Dane Baptiste’s G. O. D. show (Pleasance Courtyard)
In 2nd place, for getting the political climate fully understood, with I Hope I Die Before I Start Voting Conservative, Joe Wells (Sneaky Pete’s)
In 1st place, yet again, the unmissable late night laughter line-up that is Spank! (Underbelly Cowgate)

Best of the rest – Edinburgh

Yet another really hard choice but I’ve managed to come up with a top five:

In 5th place, the superbly constructed and brilliantly characterised Bitchelors with Anna Morris (Voodoo Rooms)
In 4th place, dropping down a place from last year but still incredibly funny and audience members really have to be alert to stay safe! Foil Arms and Hog – Oink! (Underbelly George Square)
In 3rd place, the very racey acts – including the unforgettable Betty Grumble – that made up the burlesque extravaganza, Sweatshop (Assembly George Square Gardens)
In 2nd place, as last year, worth getting up early for a bizarre version of Macbeth with Shakespeare for Breakfast (C Venues, Chambers Street)
In 1st place, the brilliant material and voices of Jan Ravens in her Difficult Woman show (Gilded Balloon Teviot)

This year’s Edinburgh turkey, which was so clever-clever and up itself that you could hardly see it, was the pretentious immersive show about throwing a surprise party, Party Game.

Best Local Production

This includes the productions by the University of Northampton students, the Royal and Derngate Actors’ Company, the Youth Companies, local theatre groups and the National Theatre Connections.

In 5th place, from the Flash Festival, Can’t Stop Theatre’s untitled one-man play with Ben Sullivan
In 4th place, the Royal and Derngate’s Actors’ Company’s production of Great Expectations at the Royal Theatre
In 3rd place, Milton Keynes College’s National Theatre Connections production of Extremism
In 2nd place, the University’s production of Vinegar Tom at the Royal Theatre.
In 1st place, again from the Flash Festival, Out of Mind Theatre Company’s production of Broken

Best film

I saw seven films last year, which must be some kind of record! Two films that have received great general acclaim I really didn’t like at all – Manchester By The Sea and Blade Runner 2049. The Snowman just about limped home, both La La Land and Victoria and Abdul were entertaining and beautifully made, and Call Me By Your Name really ought to get the award for being outstanding in so many ways. However, the film I enjoyed the most and have no hesitation in naming as the recipient of this year’s award is – Paddington 2!

Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical.

Time to get personal. Fifteen contenders in the shortlist, so here are the top five:

In 5th place, Lyn Paul as Mrs Johnstone in Blood Brothers at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in November.
In 4th place, Lucie Jones as Elle in Legally Blonde at the Royal and Derngate in October.
In 3rd place, Sooha Kim as Kim in Miss Saigon at the Curve Theatre Leicester in July.
In 2nd place, Janie Dee as Phyllis in Follies at the National Theatre Olivier in September.
In 1st place, Imelda Staunton as Sally in Follies at the National Theatre Olivier in September.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical.

Seven performances in the shortlist, producing this top three:

In 3rd place, Red Concepcion as The Engineer in Miss Saigon at the Curve Theatre Leicester in July.
In 2nd place, John McCrea as Jamie in Everybody’s Talking About Jamie, at the Apollo Theatre, London, in December.
In 1st place, John Partridge as Albin/Zaza in La Cage Aux Folles at the Milton Keynes Theatre in August.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Play.

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

In 5th place, Samantha Spiro as Peppy in The House They Grew Up In, at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester, in July.
In 4th place, Eve Best as Olivia in Love in Idleness, at the Menier Chocolate Factory, in April.
In 3rd place, Zoe Waites as Cassius in Julius Caesar at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, in May.
In 2nd place, Imelda Staunton as Martha in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London in April.
In 1st place, Olivia Colman as Jenny in Mosquitoes at the National Theatre Dorfman, in September.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Play.

A very hotly fought for award, with eighteen contenders in my shortlist, and I whittled it down to this:

In 5th place, Ben Turner as Amir in The Kite Runner, at Wyndham’s Theatre, London, in February.
In 4th place, Peter Polycarpou as Ahmed Qurie in Oslo, at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, in December.
In 3rd place, Adrian Scarborough as Stan in Don Juan in Soho, at Wyndham’s Theatre, London, in May.
In 2nd place, Sir Ian McKellen as King Lear in King Lear at the Minerva Theatre, Chichester, in October.
In 1st place, Richard McCabe as Cicero in the RSC’s Imperium, at the Swan Theatre, Stratford in December.

Theatre of the Year.

For the third 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, and I’ve seen more productions this year than I’ve ever seen in one year before – 190 productions in all. Thanks to you gentle reader for continuing to read my theatre reviews. Let’s look forward to another wonderful year of theatre in 2018!

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?!