Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 16th February 2018

Screaming Blue MurderIt was a welcome return last Friday to the effervescent Dan Evans hosting another Screaming Blue Murder with three wonderful acts and two delightful intervals. Another packed house – aren’t they all nowadays? – but with a really strange crowd. I think there was a large party that arrived quite late so they couldn’t all sit together; therefore the room was scattered with people who knew each other very well – which was perplexing to some of the comics but comedy gold too – as you will see…

Dan EvansAmongst the crowd were three baby-faced youths on the front row who admitted to being 19 years old, but I’m not so sure; but they were very good sports as almost everyone picked on them at some point. There was also a lady who worked at John Lewis’; Dan got very excited about the prospects for wheedling discounts out of her until he discovered she worked at the warehouse. Dan was on great form as always and got us in the perfect mood for an anarchic night.

James DowdeswellOur first act was James Dowdeswell, whom we’ve seen here three times before, but there’s been a goodly gap since the last time, so his act was fresh as a daisy to us. With an IT geeky face and a certain degree of west country poshness, he delivers a range of very funny and frequently self-deprecating humour, and struck up an excellent rapport with the audience. He has some great stag-do material, and gets a lot of mileage out of his recent engagement and arrangements for his forthcoming nuptuals. All very enjoyable stuff.

And at some point during James’ routine, at the back of the room, and more vocal than was good for him, came the voice of Reg. Reg is a lorry driver. What kind of goods does he transport? White Goods. Cocaine! shouted half the people who knew him. It wasn’t long before Reg was “the supplier” to the whole audience. Nice work if you can get it. Little did we know how Reg would feature later on.

Kate LucasOur second act, and a change to the advertised programme, was Kate Lucas, who was new to us. Where has she been hiding all this time? Kate’s speciality is comedy songs with a twist – a twist of a neck, that is, as she gets so angry during her songs. They’re really funny and inventive – and because she has the voice of an angel and the charm of a Swiss Finishing School Product, her venom is all the more surprising and effective. She has songs that express the disappointment of how ugly a baby can be; a typical argument between husband and wife; and where you can choose to go to Heaven or to Hell. They’re all super-savage and absolutely brilliant. We even joined in. Everybody loved her!

Russell HicksOur headline act, and someone you can always trust to react to the room, was Russell Hicks. The first time I saw him I was disappointed that he went off tangent so much to react to what was going on around him that I felt like I missed out on his act “proper”. Now I know going off on one is his raison de comédie. He was wearing a rather flash sheepskin coat, of which he was clearly proud until someone said he looked like John Motson. Mr Hicks’ American upbringing meant he never got to watch the beloved Motty on Match of the Day, so he insisted on someone Googling his photo for him. One look at the picture and he threw the coat on to the floor in disgust and declared war on us.

But we had Reg as part of our ammunition, who, as I intimated earlier, wasn’t backward in coming forward. Mr Hicks unearthed him from the back of the room, made him swap places with Ravi (the most amenable of the 19 year olds) but then Ravi started kicking off. Mr H was clearly beguiled by a lady in an orange dress and spoke of his admiration for her primary colours when we all shouted back that orange isn’t a primary colour (because you can make if from mix red and yellow of course!) Flummoxed that we all knew our primary colours – but having whipped the room into a frenzy of enjoyment – all Mr H had to do was keep jabbing away at our idiosyncrasies and oddities, and his forty minutes just flew by. As he said at the end, this was one of the absolute weirdest sets he’d done but also one of the funniest. An absolute master at running with whatever the crowd chuck at him, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him quite so in control.

A genuinely hilarious night’s comedy. Next Screaming Blue is on 9th March. Don’t miss it!

Review – Daliso Chaponda, What the African Said, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 15th February 2018

Daliso ChapondaThe country knows – and has taken to their heart – Daliso Chaponda from his appearances on last year’s Britain’s Got Talent; but Mrs Chrisparkle and I know him from one of last year’s Screaming Blue Murder shows where he absolutely slayed the audience and I had no hesitation in awarding him the 2017 Chrisparkle Award for Best Screaming Blue Stand-up! Now he’s back at the Royal for one of his first dates in his first ever UK tour, and already he’s selling out (seats, not material) everywhere he goes. And there’s a good reason for this. The man is utterly hysterical.

Tony VinoBut first – a support act. We spent the first half hour in the company of Tony Vino – whom we’ve not seen before – and he’s a very funny guy! He has a lot of nice observational comedy about family life including kids on roller shoes, and dealing with American customs officers’ sense of humour (they don’t have one.) I particularly enjoyed his material about having a vasectomy and sharing surgical memories with other snipped guys in the audience. But best of all was his Lion King finale, ostensibly to create an African atmosphere to welcome Mr Chaponda back for the second half, but really an excuse to get about ten people up from the audience in a hilarious re-enactment of Simba’s Greatest Hour. If you get called up, just go for it, like the Northampton guys last night. It was brilliant.

Daliso-ChapondaBut it’s all about Mr Chaponda. There are few comics who strike up such an instant rapport because they are so genuinely likeable. He is the epitome of cheekiness, with a permanently sunny personality that he uses to enormous effect to deliver sometimes quite serious material. He doesn’t shy away from race; in fact there’s a considerable segment of the show where we’re asked to judge the relative seriousness of examples of celebrity use of the N word. But he frames it all with both irreverence and kindliness, which is a unique mix. He has some killer jokes regarding slavery. He even has a little material that’s based on his being abused as a child, whereat the audience falls silent with shock and empathy; and then he rounds it off with a perfect punchline that had me snorting into my hand.

DalisoThe show is very cleverly structured, much of it spent with his telling us all the times when he thought a joke wasn’t in any way “unacceptable” but then discovering it was – with us hearing the material in order to judge it, of course. And, naturally, it’s inevitably incredibly near the knuckle and absolutely hilarious, whilst he feigns surprise at how this “innocuous” joke could possibly cause offence. He’s very quick-witted and you sense that you could see his show a number of times and you’d get a different slant each time. That said, there was some repetition of his Screaming Blue material from last year, but it’s all brilliant, so it was great to hear it again. I’d forgotten how much I love his visual representation of the problems a shorter man faces when attempting a 69.

DChapondaAs an encore we re-enacted his Britain’s Got Talent audition, with members of the audience as the panel, including a very butch Amanda Holden and a very white Alisha Dixon. It was an appropriate way to end the night, linking it to his best-known TV appearance and delivering a few sure-fire one-liners. Mr Chaponda is pure comedy gold. Thank heavens his history lessons concentrated on Henry VIII so that he just had to move to the UK. His tour continues right through till June so do yourself a favour and book!!

Review – Upfront Comedy Slam, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 3rd February 2018

John SimmitThis was our second visit to one of these Upfront Comedy nights at the Royal and Derngate; last time we enjoyed it so much that we bitterly regretted not having discovered it before! Our MC again was ex-Teletubby John Simmit, the bad boy turned Dipsy because, let’s face it, who wouldn’t for the money. He’s great at striking up an instant rapport with the audience and setting us all at our ease; although he reckoned we were already well set up before he came on. He got us all (literally) into a rhythm with a bit of in-seat dancing, which I’ve not tried before but was thoroughly refreshing.

andy-whiteOur first act was someone we’d seen twice before, both in Screaming Blue Murder and at The Ark, Andy White. He’s a naturally funny man, with a larger than life persona, a slightly dandyish fashion sense and the ability to make an erotic movie out of the soundtrack of the Flintstones in French. He’s one of those guys where, after you’ve spent a few minutes in their company, you genuinely feel happy inside. His material is full of short stories and observations about his marriage and home life, but often with a quirky twist. It was during Mr White’s set that a recurring problem of the evening started – one or two over-enthusiastic and overlubricated ladies in the second row, who felt that by constantly talking back to the comics on stage they were somehow enhancing their act. Wrong. They were a permanent pain in the arse the whole night long.

Barbara NiceMr W responded pretty well to their chat-up lines and they backed down completely for our second act Stockport’s own Barbara Nice, because she really wasn’t what they were there for. We’d never seen Barbara Nice before, but I’d heard good things about her and I tell you, they were an underestimation. Nice by name and by nature, she is a wonderful comic creation, the kind of northern lady you’d chat to over the garden gate or down the Co-op. She surveyed how many of us read Take A Break (not that many), and how many of us hide from friends and relatives in supermarkets (quite a few). Her set was absolutely jam-packed with brilliant material that just pinpointed our funnybone and stuck there, refusing to budge. She ended up teaching us the moves to a horrendous but hilarious dance routine and we were, quite frankly, wetting ourselves. We’d love to see her again.

Gerry KAfter the interval, John Simmit introduced us to the fearlessly funny Gerry K. An instantly likeable East London lad, he has the true gift of the gab and he really shook us up with his vitality and attack. He’s got loads of excellent material about family life; he’s great at expressing inventive and very funny angles on familiar situations. Again that lady in the second row decided she was in with a chance so started the chatback but Mr K was firm but fair and did his best to close her down. We both thought he was terrific and would also like to see him again.

Kane BrownLast act of the evening, and third in a row of comics that we hadn’t seen before, was Kane Brown. Oh my giddy aunt, if anyone can handle himself on stage Mr Brown can. Fantastic stage presence, riptastic material and a supremely confident delivery means you just sit there and don’t stop laughing until everyone’s gone home. Of course, the lady in front had another go and he just shut her up with savage politeness – and this time she really did finally shut up. Just superb. Mr Brown had some friends in the audience he chatted to when we were leaving the auditorium but I felt compelled to interrupt and shake his hand because he was just too good not to. UpfrontWe’re definitely on the hunt for more of his shows.

It may only be early February but that show really raised the bar for live comedy for this year. Absolutely loved it. There’s another Upfront Comedy show coming in April – better get booking now!

Review – Sofie Hagen, Dead Baby Frog, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 2nd February 2018

Sofie HagenWe’d seen Sofie Hagen once before, at a Screaming Blue Murder back in 2015 and we were most impressed. I’d heard that her Dead Baby Frog show had done well at Edinburgh, and that it was comedy with a challenge (which is always intriguing). I’m guessing that a number of people had heard the same, as the Underground was fully sold out in advance of the show, which is great news for everyone.

Bisha K AliAfter an informative and kindly welcome, where she explained the main part of her show would contain material regarding emotional abuse – a few sharp intakes of breath – Sofie introduced us to her support act for the night. Bisha K Ali has featured on Sofie’s podcasts, and those more knowledgeable people in the audience, who were obviously fans of the podcasts, whooped with delight. She had some excellent material about mother-management (a true skill if you can master it) but the main substance of her part of the show was talking about arranged marriage. Bisha has no problem with arranged marriage – but there are limits, as she discusses how her future husband was almost decided whilst she was still a foetus. Serious issues brought to light with a comedy touch, and we both really enjoyed her set.

After the interval Sofie returned, with another tale of family exploitation and abuse. Born and brought up in Denmark, she spent her childhood in the no-hope-ville of Skamstrup (I think that’s right, apologies if not) which translates, literally as Shame Town. She had three grandfathers (long story) two of which, by the sound of it, were utter bastards. One, the Nazi, died seven years ago – and we hear, amongst other gems, the brilliant story of his funeral. The other, probably also a Nazi, but more importantly a serial emotional abuser, is still going strong; and we hear Sofie’s account of how he inflicted emotional scars on her (never physical) from the age of four.

Sofie Hagen 2This may not sound like a fruitful source of comedy, but you’d be wrong. Ms H has such a winning way about her, with beautifully constructed sentences and mental imagery, and a superb use of English words that belie her Danish heritage, that the hour flies by. She says she is accused of setting up too many callbacks, but I don’t think that’s possible – it all goes to show how the whole show is so very cleverly assembled. She also has a great, natural, story-telling ability, which really helps with a show like this, which is not so much based on sure-fire gags (not at all, in fact) but instead gradually paints a picture for us all to look and wonder at.

Her aim – as stated at the outset – is for us to detest her grandfather as much as we do. I’m not sure she quite succeeds, because I don’t think anyone could detest him quite so much as she does. We do, however, heartily approve of all the progress that has been made into making his life as miserable as possible. This is definitely one of those comedy nights that you file under therapy for the performer, but what I liked about it more than any other of that style of performance that I have seen is, and this may seem a fairly basic requirement, it is actually very funny! Sofie has been touring this show extensively and I think the tour is now coming to an end. But I’d definitely recommend catching her work in the future – to be both challenging and funny is about as good as it gets.

Dead Baby FrogP. S. A few days before the show I received an email from the theatre with a link to a note from Sofie. In that note she made it clear that she wanted it to be an anxiety-free experience for everyone, so that if there was anything she could do in advance, like reserve a seat, or individually tell people more about what the show was about, she would. She also arranged for gender neutral signs on all the toilets, and linked to specific accessibility advice for people with disabilities. I thought that was astounding. Even though none of the issues she raised affected me personally, I nevertheless felt more comfortable, positive and secure about attending the show. For anyone who does have any of those concerns, I could imagine it would be an enormous relief. That’s a really thoughtful thing to do.

Three London Comedy Clubs – a Review Round-Up

rose-and-crown-frontOver the past couple of months my pal the Squire of Sidcup and I have attended three comedy nights in various locations round London. I probably should have reviewed them individually earlier, but for some weird reason I haven’t found them that easy to write about. Was it the perplexity of the venues? The quality of the comedy? The level of alcohol consumed? I couldn’t possibly comment.

James LoveridgeOur first event was on 4th December last year when we went to the Rose and Crown in Kentish Town, home of the Pegasus Comedy Club. The Rose and Crown is a rather nice pub and the comedy club is held in its basement. It doesn’t seat many people, and we were quite surprised to be two of about fifteen people in attendance – I thought that was quite good for a little place and for a Monday night of comics giving us some Work In Progress sessions. What we were most surprised to discover was that of those fifteen people we were the only ones not appearing on stage! So in fact it was a cast of thirteen each doing about five minutes’ material to an audience of two. Still, it was free to get in, so I’m certainly not complaining.

Darren WalshOne consequence of that is that the host, Richard, didn’t always make the names of all the performers clear, as they were basically all friends together. As a result, I don’t have many of the names to hand. Two of the performers – and probably the two with the best delivery and material – were comics I had seen before (the Squire didn’t know any of them at all.) James Loveridge, of Edinburgh Spank (you love it!) fame, had some excellent new stuff about spending time with his fiancée; and Darren Walsh (whom Mrs Chrisparkle and I had also seen in Edinburgh) had another punful bundle of one-liners that made his five minutes fly by. We’re seeing him at the Leicester Comedy Festival next month and the omens are looking good.

Alex MartiniThere was one other comic who was new to me but who impressed – Alex Martini; a naturally very funny man with a very engaging personality. Of the rest, there were plenty who raised a number of smiles and only one who was absolutely dire.

Top SecretFast forward through the Christmas period and the Squire and I had another foray in the world of London Comedy, this time at the Top Secret Club in Drury Lane on 16th January. I could give you more information as to where it is, but then I’d have to kill you and I don’t want to risk losing my readership. Another basement affair, but this time in a room that grows and grows the more people arrive. The Squire and I sat in the front row and paid the penalty with some joshing from the excellent compere, Nico Yearwood, and also one of the comics, Leo Kearse, who challenged me to think of my chat-up tactics; Nico Yearwoodas I said on the night, but it’s been so long… We also enjoyed Stephen Carlin, who had good material but lacked a little warmth, I felt; the amazing Russell Hicks, who just went off on a tangent as he always does, with fantastic consequences; and headliner Tim Renkow, who brilliantly converts his cerebral palsy into comedy gold, and if you think that sounds inappropriate, well, you obviously haven’t seen his act. A very comfortable and enjoyable venue, and a really great show. Entry was only £1, but getting out was more expensive.

Russell HicksThen last night the Squire and I met up with his beloved, the Wise Woman of Wembley, and, after a dreadful meal at Café Rouge (they should be ashamed of themselves) we hit the 99 Club at the Ruby Blue, just off Leicester Square. Instead of descending into a bunker we ascended up the stairs into a bright and pizzazzy bar area, with a comedy room off to the left. A rather strange set up, because it was very wide and very shallow, probably only about five rows deep but extending way out to the side, where I’m sure you would feel thoroughly distanced from the comedy vibe.

Tim RenkowComedically, this was a game of two halves, as we were lulled into a false sense of security by our excellent compere Tom Webb, whose welcome is genial and who plays off the audience really well. He established, for example, that Trev, who was celebrating his 55th birthday, who was provocatively seated in the front row, was an Elvis Impersonator by trade. That was bold. Tom WebbHaving set us up nicely, Mr Webb introduced first act, Mike Gunn, and I’m afraid we all agreed that he didn’t tickle our funnybones at all. A few uncomfortable silences and half-hearted responses suggested we weren’t the only ones; although I sensed there was a language problem in the audience – one of the downsides of a comedy club in a very touristy area is that you will have a number of punters for whom English is not their first language and who don’t always get the nuances. athena-kugblenuNever mind, we knew that the excellent Athena Kugblenu, who was brilliant when we saw her at the Ark, would lift the mood. But no, she too struggled to get us difficult crowd to raise a smile.

Dane BaptisteI was beginning to feel guilty at having asked my friends out to see this disappointing show. Fortunately our headline act was the National Treasure-In-Waiting, Dane Baptiste. I’ve seen Monsieur Baptiste a few times, including his Gold Oil Drugs show in Edinburgh last summer, which he is still touring – and I was delighted to see that it was all new material last night. He smashed it out of court, to use the vernacular, and went down a storm. As an encore, Tom Webb got Trev to get up and do an Elvis playout and the good chap obliged, so more power to his elbow. But I didn’t feel that the layout worked at all for this little stage area and at £9 a ticket plus booking fee, for what was only a little over an hour-and-a-half’s show, (and distinctly London prices for the drinks) this was the most expensive of the three comedy nights.

99 clubI’m sure the Squire and I will do this again, and it’s fascinating to see the variety of comedy venues available in the capital. Even if some acts flop and others just aren’t your cup of tea, live comedy is a thing of beauty to be nurtured and cherished. If you haven’t tried it before, you really should!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 19th January 2018

Screaming Blue MurderNow that 2018 is in full swing, it’s great to see that the Screaming Blue Murder comedy nights are back with several superb line-ups between now and May. Our genial host Dan Evans is also back in situ, this week trying to keep control of a very motley crew. Even before the show started the front couple of rows had turned into party central with endless selfie competitions, and a challenge to see which girl could manage the loudest cackle.

Dan EvansIt wasn’t long before Dan identified her, and indeed she jumped up on stage with him at one point; poor lamb got a terrible fright (him, not her.) Our audience also boasted the man with the coolest job in the world, training the seals at Woburn Wildlife Park, and a firefighter who was having difficulty with Dry January. He felt embarrassed to mention it but we gave him a good cheer anyway.

Matthew OsbornSo on with the acts, and some new ones for us; first up was Matthew Osborn, whom we’d not seen before. He’s quite a dapper little chap, with some brilliant material, and that’s not just the cut of his suit. Imagine the Daily Mail’s Quentin Letts doing stand-up. He has a wonderful confident delivery, happy to take it all at his own pace; and he trades on the fact that he looks and sounds totally respectable and then delivers some powerful and rather rude punchlines. I loved all his sex jokes – so much more inventive than the average comedian’s. His reaction to the girl who told him to treat her like a whore, what happened when he went down on one knee, and also when the Jehovah’s Witness tried to open the boot of his car – all really clever stuff. Very impressed, and he went down a storm!

Iszi LawrenceOur second act, and the only one we’d seen before, back in September 2014 was Iszi Lawrence. She creates a lot of humour based on her lesbian chic looks and her posh heritage, and has some great material about being bisexual, the unglamorous sexuality. To be fair, it was pretty much the same routine that we saw last time, but it works well, so I guess why change it? She sets up a slightly intriguing and challenging rapport with the audience but her quirky approach appealed to us and we very much enjoyed her set.

Brendon BurnsOur headline act, who apparently has been on the scene for decades, but I’ve never come across him, was Brendon Burns. He has attack by the bucketload, and quite an aggressive delivery but his material is superb. He’s a full-on agenda comic; pro-equality, he sees men who describe themselves as feminists as deliberately invading one of the few areas in life where women can take control. Much of his comedy is about sex but approaching it from angles that you wouldn’t normally consider funny (that’s the material, not the sex). He has great material about how teenagers today, in this Internet porn age, are being told in sex education to have realistic expectations from sex – definitely food for thought. At the end of his act, on the one hand you feel like you’ve been aggressively diatribed against; on the other you have the beauty of insightful, revelatory comedy. Most impressive, and he got a great reaction from the audience.

Next one is on 16th February. See you there!

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!