Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 22nd March 2019

Screaming Blue MurderAnother packed house for 2-and-a-half hours of fun courtesy of the Screaming Blue Murder team – the best value comedy in town. This season’s dates have been rather spread apart which means that when the next show comes around, you’re really in the mood for it. And that was all too evident this week as the audience were really up for a good time and, if I may so myself, as an audience, we were all pretty terrific.

Dan EvansWe welcomed our usual host Dan Evans, his three amazing guests and, as ever, his two sumptuous intervals. This week Dan ended up talking to Liz and John from Earl’s Barton – the crowd couldn’t decide whether to be sniffy about them or jealous of them; the jovial man who runs the Northampton auction house (I recognised him from my auctioning days), and the front row girls who were all one-upping each other (“I’ve got a house” “well at least I’ve got a baby” etc). He handled it all with his usual remarkable bonhomie.

Paul PirieThis was one of those great nights of comedy when you’ve seen all the acts before so you more or less know what’s coming but they were all on such cracking form that they all surprised you with their excellence. First up was Paul Pirie, whom – I have to say – we didn’t really enjoy much when we saw him here way back in 2012. However, this time he was rip-roaring sensational. He bombasts you with a ton of brilliant silly observations with a very powerful delivery, interspersed with some genuinely wacky and funny voices. He’s not one of those comics who give you thoughtful material for your brain to continue to peruse for the next few days; he’s a wham-bam thank you ma’am sort of chap – blame the Red Bull. His set was jam-packed with material, most of which I can’t remember because it was so “of the moment”; although I do remember he said he failed RE at school; which is about as impossible as failing lunch.

Karen BayleyNext up, and another favourite, was Karen Bayley. It’s been a few years since we’ve seen Ms Bayley, and, although it’s still largely the same I’m a cougar watch out young man routine that she always gives, the passage of time meant that it still felt fresh and really funny. She did build up a fantastic rapport with the audience – and not just the women this time, which makes an enjoyable change. You sense that though her material is bawdy, deep down she’s probably quite sensitive and polite, which creates a curiously interesting stage persona. Very funny indeed.

Roger MonkhouseHeadlining on Friday night was Roger Monkhouse, whom we’ve also seen a few times now and who has cultivated a young fogey personality. He has a terrifically self-deprecating tone and uses it to great advantage with some rather savage observations about life and relationships, whilst dipping into the inevitable horrors of politics. His material is always solid and on the ball, and he too went down tremendously in the hall.

One of those occasions where it all came together, with host, guests and audience all on top form. Seven weeks to wait until the next one. Seven!! That’s mental cruelty.

Review – A weekend at the Leicester Comedy Festival, 23rd – 24th February 2019

leicester-comedy-festival-logoThis was the third time that a bunch of us descended (well, I suppose, ascended, considering the direction of travel) on Leicester for the last weekend of their famous Comedy Festival. Mrs Chrisparkle and I played host to Lord and Lady Prosecco, Professor and Mrs Plum, and Prinz Mark von Köln. Sadly Lord Liverpool was indisposed due to ill health, so he was tucked up in bed whilst the Countess of Cockfosters peeled him grapes. However, the remaining Magnificent Seven were greeted by beautiful sunshine and a light lunch at Pret a Manger, before heading into our first show.

Ban*na C*nts, (Work in Progress), Sian Docksey and Zoe Tomalin, Heroes @ Apres Lounge, 1pm 23rd February

Banana CvntsSian Docksey and Zoe Tomalin are two lively and welcoming young ladies who admit straight off that they made a mistake with the marketing. If you Google the title of their show (rest assured I have not done so, gentle reader) then you might expect you were going to see something completely different. Instead of plantain porn, we got 25 minutes or so in the company of each comic, giving us some work in progress to see how it landed.

On the whole, it landed very well. The best of the material came from Ms Docksey’s inspired consideration about the relationships between the chess pieces; I shan’t spoil it for you, but we were all hooting with laughter. There’s also a nice sequence where, in an attempt to redress the inequalities of the sexes in the workplace, men’s leadership meetings have been replaced with followship sessions. Needs a tiny bit of work, but it’s a great idea. I also loved the idea that being bisexual could be considered gay of centre.

Ms Tomalin created a lot of humour from her diminutive stature, and had a promising sequence about bra sizing, which I hope she develops (please don’t take that the wrong way.) Together they form an enjoyable partnership, although they work apart more than they work together. A very enjoyable way to start the day – in a Swiss Chalet in Leicester High Street. (No, honestly.)

Roisin and Chiara, Back to Back, Heroes @ Apres Lounge, 2.20pm 23rd February.

Roisin and ChiaraNext up – and in the same Swiss Chalet, with building work noise thumping away in the background, were Roisin O’Mahony and Chiara Goldsmith with their Edinburgh show from last year, Back to Back. I had read some reviews and had advised the group that sitting in the front row was probably not a good idea for this show. However, there’s absolutely no point trying to hide from these two ladies as they scour the entire audience for their prey no matter where you sit.

Prey sounds a bit cruel; it isn’t cruel at all, in fact it’s absolutely brilliant. Hugely confident, and with terrific strange presence, they present an hour of total anarchy and it’s a completely beautiful thing. Welcoming us into their lofty chalet, they assess us like two weirdos over the garden fence; then they discuss their own relationships; Roisin becomes a wolf; they stuff their mouths with marshmallows, and straddled Stephen from the fourth row (I told you there was no hiding place). Even Professor Plum had a young lady perched on his knee for some of the show. They have a range of wacky characters and voices that they adopt throughout the hour; most of it makes absolutely no sense whatsoever but who cares, it’s a sheer delight to wallow in it. We all loved them, and I’d very happily seek them out in future shows.

Then it was time to check-in at the Mercure Grand, our usual city centre abode, to enjoy a short pause and some private regrouping before meeting again for the rest of the day’s programme.

Henry Paker, Man Alive, The Cookie, 5pm 23rd February

Henry PakerI’d never heard of Mr Paker but we took a look at his reviews and thought this sounded a safe bet. Boy, were we right. Man Alive is the show he took to Edinburgh last summer, and is a beautifully structured, cleverly created combination of his skills as a stand-up comic, talking about married life and life in general, and his skills as a designer and illustrator.

Running through his routine as a unifying thread is a cartoon story about David, his clocks and how he’d spend his time with Nobody – it’s charming, funny and revealing. But I particularly enjoyed his material about middle class angst; deciding which is the most middle-class word in the English Language – I won’t spoil it for you, but he’s completely right and I spent the rest of the weekend self-consciously saying it to annoy the rest of our party. Amongst the rest of his material, he has some great sequences about how, although it’s lovely to spend time with his wife, it’s even lovelier to spend time without her.

He has a very relaxed and measured delivery and he’s not at all scared of leaving the occasional pause or silence, which is a mark of someone who is completely in control of their material. The hour flew by and we all agreed he is someone we have to see again!

Just the Tonic’s Saturday Night Comedy Club – Special Guest Compere, Hansom Hall, 8.30pm 23rd February

Saturday SpecialsAfter a delicious dinner at the Kayal Indian Restaurant, we took a step back to two years ago when we saw Johnny Vegas compere a brilliant night of comedy at the Hansom Hall. He was creative, anarchic, unpredictable and a complete comedy genius. We’ll have to have another helping of that, we said. But sometimes, the old saying goes, don’t go back a second time, because you might be disappointed. And that, sadly, was the truth, gentle reader. The idea behind the presentation of this year’s special was that it would be “tag team” compering, between Johnny Vegas and Just the Tonic supremo, Darrell Martin. In practice, that meant that Johnny would do the majority of the compering and Darrell would step in when Johnny was just getting too out of hand. As a concept, it didn’t really work, because Johnny’s faithful followers didn’t want Darrell interrupting, and the bickering between the two presenters – even if it was faux-aggressive – came over as genuinely acrimonious, and not conducive to humour.

However, the big problem was that Johnny and Darrell had spent the afternoon in the pub and Johnny was distinctly worse for wear. Those creative flights of fancy from two years ago were snuffed out and replaced by uninteresting self-indulgence, and it became apparent pretty early on that this was not going to be the highlight of the weekend that we had hoped for. Indeed, someone heckled Johnny Vegas to the effect that they’d wasted their £15 for a ticket (which, to be fair, is toppy for the Festival, although not for a 150 minute show), and I couldn’t help but agree with him.

It was a shame because it put a dampener on the superb guest line-up. First up was Tez Ilyas, one of my favourite comic performers; because JV hadn’t got too out of hand by that stage, he was probably least affected of all the guests. Mr I gave us a lot of material that he has used before, but it’s ok because it’s so funny and he always does it with such a knowing twinkle in his eye. I loved his new definition of scoring 10 on the “I approve of ISIS scale”.

A new name, who was given a ten-minute slot to impress, was Matt Bragg; and I have to agree with everyone else, he is definitely One to Watch. Self-effacing, effortless, quirky and with some original material, he was a breath of fresh air and I would have loved to see more of his stuff and less from Mr Vegas. Another familiar performer was Jonny Awsum; always reliable with his musical comedy, although again with material that we have seen a number of times. Because his comedy can come across as quite silly and childlike, it felt wrong that he littered his set with lots of bad language – I’ve seen him perform before with no swearing and he’s funnier that way.

With a high reputation, and the last guests on, came The Noise Next Door, an improvisation group of four performers who act out sketches and sequences at the whim of whatever the audience chooses to chuck at them. They were excellent and we would happily see more of them another time too. The Lithuanian sketch was particularly brilliant, although that’s partially because of some inspired audience participation.

We left before seeing JV wind up the show so that we could get to our final venue on time.

Late Night Jokes On Us, Manhattan Bar, 11.30pm 23rd February

Jokes on usWe really enjoyed this late night show last year so thought we’d try it this year too. Again, it didn’t quite come up to the standard of 2018, but there was still much to enjoy. Hard-working and upbeat host Alex Hylton introduced us to five acts, none of whom we had seen before.

First up, Rob Mulholland is, literally, a giant of comedy and I could see why he has such a great reputation. Full of fun and good-hearted attack, he had some enjoyable material and an excellent stage presence. Next was Lovdev Barpaga, whom we nearly saw in Edinburgh last year – but didn’t quite. He was crowned UK Pun Champion in 2017 and I can see why. His show is called Pun-Jabi, and he gave us ten minutes of puntastic hysteria. Really funny material and a very likeable guy.

Next was a comic whose name I didn’t properly catch, but I believe his first name was Rahul. He started promisingly, but then gave us some material based on the fact that he has a lisp; and once he’d done that, all we could hear was his lisp and not his material. As he realised the laughs weren’t flowing, he allowed himself to lose confidence, and, I’m afraid, it ended up as a pretty painful onstage death. Shame, as I’m sure he has the basis of a good act there. My advice, ignore the lisp!

Last two comics were Adam Beardsmore, who also had a very assertive and strong stage presence, with some good material; and Jack Topher, who rounded the evening off very well, but I have to confess late-night tiredness had set in and I can’t remember that much of what happened. He was good though!

The next morning we were all a bit tired because not only had we had something of a late night, but also a 6.40am fire alarm got us all scuttling out of bed and scrambling on a few clothes so that we stood in the hotel car park for about forty five minutes. No fire, but lots of firemen, which was reassuring.

Anita Elizabeth Holmes Presents, Upstairs at Kayal Restaurant, 2pm 24th February

AEHThat’s a thoroughly useless title for a sequence of comedy shows at the festival because you haven’t got a clue who you’re going to see. In fact, we spent an hour with two excellent Welsh comics.

First up was Lorna Pritchard, an ex-news reporter on Welsh TV, now full-time comedian, who struck up an excellent rapport with the audience with her cheery disposition and likeable presence. Having established that the majority of the audience either came from, or had a significant attachment to, Liverpool, she proceeded to tell one of the best jokes of the weekend about the Scouse bouncer who watched her reverse her bumper into another parked car. Very enjoyable, frothy, pleasantly undemanding humour.

The second act was Drew Taylor, a large, lugubrious presence, who told his anecdotes about life in Wales with a very strong accent to which I couldn’t always quite attune myself. But his material is excellent, and his slow and sure delivery adds to that slight caricature of a dour Welsh comic. Again, very enjoyable, and lots of laughs.

Kevin Precious, Unholier than Thou, Upstairs at Kayal Restaurant, 3.20pm 24th February

Kevin PreciousNext up – and what a find! Subtitled The Non-Believing Religious Studies Teacher, Kevin Precious takes us through life as an agnostic trying to steer his school pupils through the intricacies of comparative religion; and it’s comedy genius. From the disruptions of unwilling students, to the complex expectations of parents, it’s a fascinating insight into being simply the wrong person for the job. Mr Precious has a brilliant style of delivery; very active and energetic, with some hilarious characterisations and a superb, step-by-step dismemberment of organised religion. Now a humanist, he has a much more enlightened understanding of the world around us. I loved his excellent take on the how miracles might be considered to happen; and his general desire for empirical proof over superstition is the source for a lot of great material. Definitely One to Watch.

After a little afternoon coffee and cake it was time for our final show.

Eshaan Akbar, Prophet while it’s Hot, The Cosy Club, 6pm 24th February

Eshaan AkbarWe’d seen Mr Akbar supporting Dane Baptiste in Northampton a couple of years ago, so I knew he had a great comic delivery and lovely ability to take the Mickey out of himself. This is his Edinburgh show of last summer, where he basically deconstructs the content of the Quran and reveals himself to be as much an infidel as the rest of us. Taking us through some of the most important passages of the Holy Text, and the advice of the Five Pillars of Islam, he creates a hilarious blitz of the faith. Nevertheless, he also emphasises all its kindly, loving aspects, which he highlights with the hilarious account of burying his mother – he agrees, it shouldn’t really be a source for comedy, but it really is. In fact, we found a lot of his personal accounts very moving. He was a little unsure of the presence of a couple of distinctly middle-aged Muslims in the front row, whom he nicknamed Uncle and Auntie –– but they were loving it like the rest of us. An excellent, enlightening and informative show, and a terrific way to end our weekend. We’ll be back next year!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 1st February 2019

Screaming Blue MurderThe first Screaming Blue Murder of the year is always an excuse for a celebration and by the time we arrived at the Royal and Derngate, the queue to get in to the Underground was already longer than I’d ever seen it before. Fortunately we still managed to get our favourite seats – back row of front section, on the central aisle – which is close enough to feel part of the action and safe enough (usually) not to catch the comic’s eye and thus become part of the act.

Dan EvansOur host was the ever-genial and effervescent Mr Dan Evans, who whips us up into a frenzy so that we’re ready for our acts. As usual, Dan spent some time getting to know the people in the front rows, which included blingy Jo and her drama-teacher sister; front row Brian, who didn’t quite participate to the extent he should have; Frank from the Netherlands who met his wife in a field; and the fresh-faced family from Brackley, who looked like butter wouldn’t melt but ended up revealing themselves as a partner-swapping outfit. The dynamic’s different from week to week but Dan always comes up trumps.

Julian DeaneOur first act was Julian Deane, whom we’d seen once before, when he was Paul Chowdhry’s support act. He has a very dry, subtle style, which means he lulls you into a false sense of security, and when you think you know which way his story is going it suddenly goes off in a different direction that you totally weren’t expecting; for instance, when he tells us he and his girlfriend are not ready for children yet – which really upsets them. He’s especially good at taking an innovative approach to a familiar subject. We’d heard some of his material before at the Paul Chowdhry gig but nevertheless spending half an hour in his company is still a fresh and hilarious experience. I love his line about how it’s wrong to have a favourite child, and the brilliant gag which reveals the difference between dyslexia and paedophilia. Very assured, very enjoyable, and a great way to start the night.

Micky OvermanNext up was Micky Overman – new to us, and she’s a bright, confident, young Dutch lady. Funny material, full of attack; but some of the audience didn’t quite seem to know just how to take her. Maybe she was just a little more sexually aggressive than we’re used to with our young ladies. From the older ones, we expect it; but when it comes from the younger ones, it surprises us more. She had a lot of good stuff about the association of Amsterdam with drugs; and also her friendship with the thirteen-year-old girl she’s been nannying. A strong stage presence and nice interaction with the audience.

Steve BestOur last act – and a fairly last-minute change to the advertised programme – was the one and only Steve Best, whom we’ve now seen five times at Screaming Blues, always doing the same madcap act and always a complete delight. The trouble is, if you don’t “get” his act, you won’t like it, as illustrated by the reaction of the front row drama-teacher who had a face like a ripped trainer throughout. Fortunately, Mr Best didn’t let that slow him down, and his usual set involving a balloon, a red nose, a toilet seat and a blow-up doll went down like the proverbial house on fire. Fast, frantic, slapstick and ridiculous, don’t come to him expecting an evening of intellectual rigour; but if you like your humour ultimately silly, he’s your man.

Next Screaming Blue is in two weeks on 15th February. We can’t go, so let us know how it went.

Review – Sandi Toksvig, National Trevor, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 29th January 2019

no73titlecardDo you remember when you first encountered Sandi Toksvig? My friend the Prince of Pontardulais and I used to watch ITV’s No. 73 when we were students, where Sandi’s (or rather Ethel’s) “daring, dazzling, death-defyingly dull, devastatingly dangerous, delectable, delicatestible, divinely decadent” Sandwich Quiz was a vital ingredient of our Saturday morning sobering up routine. I always thought she’d go on to do good things. And, blow me down, she has.

Why National Trevor? Well, I suppose it’s as close to being called a National Treasure as is decent for a self-penned epithet without becoming big-headed about it; although, apparently, it’s what her neighbour misheard one day. I’ve rarely seen the Derngate auditorium so packed, which does indeed confirm her status as a NT. But Sandi’s new touring show is all about how we’re all National Trevors in our own way; and you get a badge if you can prove it.

sandi toksvigYou couldn’t quite classify this as a stand-up comedy show. There’s light-hearted cosy chat; a comfy chair – perhaps one generation more modern than Ronnie Corbett’s, but providing the same purpose – at the back of the stage, emphasises that aspect of the evening. There are also considerable elements of comedy lecture; the lectern at the front of the stage gives us that clue. It is, of course, de rigueur to have a PowerPoint presentation to accompany one’s lecture, but sensibly she’s broken it down into not too many slides. I was almost tempted to ask for a hard copy at the end of the evening.

It was Mrs Chrisparkle who instantly noticed that her vocal tics and delivery are almost identical to those of Michael McIntyre – although she doesn’t skip about the stage like him. Who’s imitating who? With the greatest respect to Ms Toksvig, she’s (quite considerably) the older of the two, so I can only assume he’s paying tribute to her in his own way. It was also when she told an anecdote about her old friend Alan Coren, that I realised her vocal style has also influenced David Mitchell (Alan Coren’s son-in-law). Or at least they are very similar. But I digress.

sandi-toksvig 2She’s a warm and kind person on stage – and you get the feeling that she’d be awfully fun to know in real life. She’s extremely inclusive, welcomes audience participation and her reactions and interaction with the crowd are never other than extremely respectful. Her evening of comedy isn’t remotely challenging; quite the reverse. It’s warm, fluffy and life-enhancing. Her story of how she tried to get her Women’s Equality Party noticed by illegally projecting an image on to the Houses of Parliament – and the subsequent action by the police – sums up her humour in a nutshell: anything remotely dangerous or difficult will quickly yield to tea and biscuits. Talking of biscuits, who knew how dangerous they are? That’s already one reason to see her show!

You sense there’s a rebel in there, trying to get out; occasional references to being an early lesbian (her words) and her desperate challenges to us not to switch our phones on but instead to strike up an acquaintance with someone new during the interval – and indeed founding a political party – reveal someone who is prepared to go against the grain. But the truth is that the rebel is now totally an Establishment figure, a doyenne of the intellectual airwaves and unquestioning lover of books. If Sandi were a judge, and you were found guilty in her court, she’d be the only one who would literally throw the book at you – possibly Byron – whilst still calling you my darling. Wisely, she doesn’t delve into the world of politics in her humour; in fact, she must be the only comic/entertainer/stand-up we’ve seen for ages who didn’t mentioned the B word.

sandi-toksvig 3Instead her material consists of quirky facts, amusing anecdotes, recollections of her father (virtually the only person on Danmarks Radio when it started its TV service) and What do you do with a Signed Rolf Harris album? There’s a hilarious story of an embarrassing lunch at the Savoy with a Well-Known Lady Author of Romantic Fiction (Now Deceased); as well as revealing the ins and outs of the least successful leg amputation ever. Towards the end, there’s a Q&A session – I normally don’t like these, but Sandi made it fun. What language do you dream in? In whichever country’s language she finds herself. Who would you most like to have dinner with? Her children (see what I mean about not really being a rebel?) Which famous person would you like to meet? Famous people are overrated.

If there’s one message from her show, it’s simply to have fun. Being alive is the best gift any of us can have – and once it’s over, it’s over, so enjoy it, goddammit. And be nice to people. Why be anything else? The show ends with us all conducting an imaginary orchestra – a lovely idea, and I wish she’d made more of it! There are only a few dates left on her tour – but if you’re in Brighton, Birmingham, Sheffield, Nottingham or Liverpool you know what to do.

Review of the Year 2018 – The Ninth Annual Chrisparkle Awards

Welcome again to the glittering excitement that is the announcement of this year’s annual Chrisparkle Awards. The whole team has diligently assessed each and every eligible performance (i.e. I’ve thought hard about them) to create longlists then shortlists and then finally the ultimate prize for some splendid practitioners of their arts. 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 11th January 2018 to 7th January 2019.

Are you all sitting comfortably?

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

Last year the Committee decided to combine all the dance productions seen in the year, both at the Edinburgh Fringe and in other theatres, and this year we have decided to continue this practice. That gives us seven shows to consider, and it’s been remarkably difficult to come to a conclusion, but we have.

In 3rd place, the two hilarious and skilful programmes that made up the triumphant return of Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo (The Trocks to you and me) at the Peacock Theatre, London, in September.

In 2nd place, the immaculate and riveting performances of the dancers from the Richard Alston Dance Company at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in October.

In 1st place, never failing to hit the mark on technique, emotion and sheer entertainment, Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake at Sadler’s Wells, London, in December.

Classical Music Concert of the Year.

We only managed five classical concerts in 2018 but the quality was, as usual, excellent, so it was extremely difficult to whittle it down to a top three. Nevertheless, the Committee insisted, so here goes:

In 3rd place, Alan Buribayev Conducts Chopin, with an exciting programme of Czech, Polish and Finnish music including Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 2 in F Minor played by Alexander Romanovsky, and the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in April.

In 2nd place, Michael Petrov Performs Tchaikovsky, including a magical performance of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No 4 in A Major, and Michael Petrov giving us a spellbinding performance of Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Rory Macdonald, at the Royal and Derngate, in February.

In 1st place, A Night at the Ballet, a superb programme of ballet music including Delibes’ Sylvia Suite and Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre, with Nathan Fifield conducting the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, at the Royal and Derngate, in June. A clean sweep for the RPO!

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. Very few contenders this year, and it looks remarkably like last year’s awards, but here’s the top three:

In 3rd place, the unstoppable Damian Williams starring in Peter Pan at the Lyceum Theatre in Sheffield in January 2019.

In 2nd place, the humour-enhanced reincarnation of the Burlesque Show at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in January 2018.

In 1st place, the utter filth and pure showbiz hilarity of Snow White at the London Palladium in December.

Best Star Standup of the Year.

Eight big-name stand-up comics qualify for this year, and it’s very difficult to judge because they were all excellent in their own way, so I can only rank them in the order that I enjoyed their show. I only listed a top three last year but this time I need a top five:

In 5th place, the beautifully constructed and thought provoking Choose Your Battles tour from Lucy Porter, Underground at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in April.

In 4th place, the fearless use of a range of awkward subjects brilliantly mixed up by Paul Chowdhry in his Live Innit tour, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in March.

In 3rd place, the quirkily intellectual and extremely clever Total Eclipse of Descartes tour by Rob Newman, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in November.

In 2nd place, and the winner of last year’s best Screaming Blue stand-up, the sheer delight of Daliso Chaponda and his What The African Said tour, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in February.

In 1st place, on unbeatable form, the fantastic Devil May Care tour by Marcus Brigstocke, at the Royal and Derngate in October.

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

It’s been a great year of Screaming Blue Murder nights; a longlist of seventeen comics brought forward a shortlist of seven and here are the top five:

In 5th place, hilarious and outrageous as always, Robert White (28th September)

In 4th place, for his ability to invest a room with such sheer happiness, Jonny Awsum (13th April)

In 3rd place, always expect the unexpected with the extraordinary Russell Hicks (16th February)

In 2nd place, a new name to me and a superb talent with refreshing material, Stefano Paolini (12th October)

In 1st place, again, a first timer at Screaming Blue (I believe) but what a gifted way of weaving comedy magic out of some tough material, Sean Meo (14th September)

Last year, the Committee introduced a new category; as we continue to see 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. Again, a long longlist of nineteen was whittled down to a shortlist of ten, and here’s the top five:

In 5th place, the sheer professionalism and endless inventiveness of Patrick Monahan, in the Edinburgh Try-out of his show, Goals, at the Comedy Crate Festival, Black Prince, Northampton in July.

In 4th place, the fantastic delivery and fresh material of Drew Fraser (Upfront Comedy) at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in November.

In 3rd place, the musical madness and effervescence of Friz Frizzle, Song Ruiner (Leicester Comedy Festival, Late Night Jokes On Us, Manhattan 34 Bar, Leicester) in February.

In 2nd place, the fantastic comedy character creation that is Barbara Nice (Upfront Comedy Slam) at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in February.

In 1st place, a solid gold discovery of great confident delivery and material, Kane Brown (Upfront Comedy Slam) at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in February.

Best Musical.

I saw seventeen musicals this year, and only – perhaps – three weren’t really up to scratch. So that meant it was a tough choice to come up with a top five. But I did it!

In 5th place, and still very fresh in the memory, the superb production of Kiss Me Kate at the Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, in January 2019.

In 4th place, the invigorating and hugely emotional revival of Barnum, at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London, in February.

In 3rd place, the stunningly technological revival of Chess at the London Coliseum that we saw in May.

In 2nd place, the visually and musically overpowering experience that is the new look Les Miserables, at the Curve Theatre Leicester, in November.

In 1st place, believe the hype, it simply blew us both away; Hamilton at the Victoria Palace Theatre, London in December.

Best New Play.

Just to clarify, this is my definition of a new play, which is something that’s new to me and to most of its audience – so it might have been around before but on its first UK tour, or a new adaptation of a work originally in another format. I’ve seen 14 such plays this year; one of which we left at the interval, but most of the rest were very good indeed. Here’s my top five:

In 5th place, Alan Bennett’s quirky, funny and sad examination of the current state of the NHS in Allelujah, at the Bridge Theatre, London in July.

In 4th place, the very challenging and in many ways absolutely bonkers A Very Very Very Dark Matter, at the Bridge Theatre, London, in October.

In 3rd place, a production which most other people didn’t seem to appreciate but I thought was masterful in so many ways, Kiss of the Spider Woman at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London, in March.

In 2nd place, the abstract, fanciful, and totally adorable, Flying Lovers of Vitebsk, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in April.

In 1st place, the heart-stopping, tragic, hilarious and exciting The Lovely Bones, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in October.

Best Revival of a Play.

I saw twenty revivals, the majority of which were absolute smashers. Eight made the shortlist; here’s the top five:

In 5th place, the immaculate characterisation and brilliantly realised humour of The Merry Wives of Windsor by the RSC in Stratford in August.

In 4th place, the powerful performances and clarity of story-telling of Timon of Athens, by the RSC in Stratford in December.

In 3rd place, the brilliantly clever updating of Tartuffe by the RSC in Stratford in September.

In 2nd place, the eye-opening and redefining version of Hamlet by the RSC touring to the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in February.

In 1st place, the fabulously funny and joyful revival of The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, by the RSC in Stratford in April.

A clean sweep for the RSC is pretty amazing! However, as always, in the post-Christmas season, time to consider the turkey of the year – and my biggest disappointment was the tedious and generally pointless production of Macbeth, also by the RSC in Stratford in April.

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

Best play – Edinburgh

We saw 20 plays in Edinburgh, and here are the top 5:

In 5th place, the individual tour-de-force of and by Alison Skilbeck in Are There More of You? (Assembly Hall)

In 4th place, another gripping solo performance in Fear No Colours’ Tonight with Donny Stixx (The Space @ Jury’s Inn)

In 3rd place, the very funny and beautifully written Gayface, written by Chet Wilson (The Space on North Bridge)

In 2nd place, the anarchic and hilarious Holy Sh*t by Jack Fairhurst (Paradise in the Vault)

In 1st place, the play that had us in stitches for the first 75% and then tears for the rest of it, Sheffield University Theatre Company’s incredible My Mate Dave Died by Mike Alexander (Greenside @ Infirmary Street)

Best Individual Performance in a Play – Edinburgh

As always, a really hard one to decide as so many Edinburgh plays are true ensemble efforts. Nevertheless, here are the top three:

In 3rd place, Wilf Walsworth for My Mate Dave Died (Greenside @ Infirmary Street)

In 2nd place, Alison Skilbeck for Are There More of You? (Assembly Hall)

In 1st place, Chris Duffy for Tonight with Donny Stixx (The Space @ Jury’s Inn)

Best stand-up comedy show – Edinburgh

Only eight shows this year gives this top three:

In 3rd place, still as funny as ever but this year eclipsed by a couple of truly brilliant shows, Spank! (Underbelly Cowgate)

In 2nd place, a comic we have seen many times before but never on fire like this, the fantastic Abigoliah Schamaun in Do You Know Who I Think I Am?! (Underbelly Cowgate)

In 1st place, someone who tickled our funnybone in a way it hadn’t been tickled before, Olaf FalafelThere’s no I in idiot (Laughing Horse @ The Pear Tree)

Best of the rest – Edinburgh

A short list of ten provides this top five, which was agony to choose, so I decided to favour new talent over more established artists:

In 5th place, the always hilarious and increasingly popular Foil Arms and Hog, Craicling (Underbelly Bristo Square)

In 4th place, the emotion-packed and fantastically musical, John Partridge – Stripped (Assembly Checkpoint)

In 3rd place, always worth getting up early for a bizarre version of Taming of the Shrew with Shakespeare for Breakfast (C Venues, Chambers Street)

In 2nd place, a brilliant comedy find from the likeable Patrick McPherson and Zac Peel – Camels (Underbelly Bristo Square)

In 1st place, throwing away all the rule books, the brilliant Garry Starr Performs Everything (Underbelly Cowgate)

This year’s Edinburgh turkey, which was so awful we had to walk out at a convenient break (along with the majority of the audience), was Hillary’s Kitchen (The Space @ Surgeon’s Hall)

Best Local Production

This would normally include 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. However, of these groups, I only saw productions by the University students, so they sweep the board!

In 5th place, the 2018-19 3rd Year Students’ production of A Christmas Carol at the Isham Dark Studio in December.

In 4th place, Ytho’s production of O,FFS that they took to Edinburgh, but which I saw at the University in October.

In 3rd place, from the Flash Festival, Blue Shift Theatre’s production of Deciding What to do with Dad.

In 2nd place, again from the Flash Festival, Open Eye Theatre’s production of Drained.

In 1st place, the 2017-18 3rd Year Students’ production of Accused at St Peter’s Church in February.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical.

Time to get personal. Here are the top five, they were all fantastic in their own way:

In 5th place, Sharon Rose as Eliza Hamilton in Hamilton at the Victoria palace, London, in December.

In 4th place, Alexandra Burke as Svetlana in Chess at the London Coliseum in May.

In 3rd place, Rebecca Lock as Lilli/Katherine in Kiss Me Kate at the Crucible Theatre Sheffield in January 2019.

In 2nd place, Laura Pitt-Pulford as Charity in Barnum at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London in February.

In 1st place, Caroline Quentin as the Duchess of Hareford in Me and My Girl at the Festival Theatre, Chichester in August.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical.

Nine performances in the shortlist, producing this top five:

In 5th place, Ash Hunter as Alexander Hamilton in Hamilton at the Victoria Palace, London, in December.

In 4th place, Killian Donnelly as Jean Valjean in Les Miserables at the Curve Theatre Leicester, in November.

In 3rd place, Tim Howar as Freddie in Chess at the London Coliseum in May.

In 2nd place, Dom Hartley-Harris as George Washington in Hamilton at the Victoria Palace, London, in December.

In 1st place, Callum Francis as Lola in Kinky Boots at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in September.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Play.

Fourteen in the rather long shortlist, but here’s the top five:

In 5th place, Penelope Keith as Mrs St Maugham in The Chalk Garden, at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in June.

In 4th place, Sophie Stanton as Mrs Rich in The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, in April.

In 3rd place, Zoe Wanamaker as Meg in The Birthday Party at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, in February.

In 2nd place, Kathryn Turner as Timon in Timon of Athens, at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon in December.

In 1st place, Christine Beaumont as Susie in The Lovely Bones at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, in September.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Play.

Another long shortlist, with eighteen contenders in my shortlist, but here is the top five:

In 5th place, a short appearance, but what a masterclass, Sir Antony Sher as Nicolas in One for the Road, part of Pinter One, at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, in October.

In 4th place, Ben Whishaw as Brutus in Julius Caesar, at the Bridge Theatre, London, in March.

In 3rd place, Jude Owusu as Tamburlaine in Tamburlaine the Great, at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, in September.

In 2nd place, Toby Jones as Stanley in The Birthday Party at the Harold Pinter Theatre, London, in February.

In 1st place, Paapa Essiedu as Hamlet in the RSC’s Hamlet, at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in March.

Theatre of the Year.

For the fourth year running there’s no change in the Number one theatre but we have a new Number two! Continuing to present an extraordinary range of drama and entertainment, this year’s Theatre of the Year is the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, with RSC’s Royal Shakespeare Theatre/Swan Theatre as runner-up.

Didn’t quite exceed last year’s record number of shows seen but still managed to do quite well with 178 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 2019!

Review – Upfront Comedy, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 4th November 2018

UpfrontHaving basked in the glow of so many happy Screaming Blue Murder nights at the Royal and Derngate, it took us a surprisingly long time to dip our toes into the fun that is the Upfront Comedy shows, set in the perfect intimate atmosphere of the Victorian Royal theatre. Sadly we missed the last one, but we made up for it last Sunday night. The great thing about the Upfront Comedy nights is that you get such a range of audience members, all ages and all ethnicities, and it’s a wonderful melting pot that breaks down barriers by means of comedy.

John SimmitOur host, as usual, was the warm and welcoming John Simmit, who put us at ease with tales of love and affection, Handsworth style. He had a brilliant story about the time when, dressed as Dipsy – for yes, indeed, he did play that particular Teletubby – in Paris, some Smart Alec thought it would be a good idea to give Dipsy a piece of his mind; a typical Rue de Remarques joke really. It sounds as though this gentilhomme was more than a bit surprised when he discovered quite how well Dipsy can take care of himself!

TojuWe hadn’t seen any of the evening’s featured acts before, which is always exciting on a comedy night. First up was Toju, who (apparently) was on Britain’s Got Talent a few years ago. He came out, all guns blazing, with a brilliantly arresting set that challenged everyone and everything! There seemed to be a few almost deliberately miserable people in the front few rows and he did everything he could to make them crack – some he managed, some he didn’t, but the fact that they sat there stony faced against his comedy barrage was hilarious in itself. Toju then turned his attention to the Swiss lady in the front row and to her son, who were very good sports. The row in front of us was completely filled with white people, but with one black guy right in the middle of them. “Blink if they’ve kidnapped you, brother” he exclaimed. Toju is enormous fun, with absolutely no inhibitions, and a perfect way to start an evening of comedy.

Desiree BurchNext up was the only name in the line-up that I recognised, the effervescent Desiree Burch, all the way from LA via South London. She also has hilarity coursing through her veins. I loved her take on labels that might apply to her: she’s proud to be strong, she’s proud to be black, she’s proud to be a woman. But a strong black woman? That means one of two things: “You think you’re gonna get away with that?” or “You think you’re gonna get away with that?” (with menaces). She had lots of brilliant material about sex and fantasies, and a nice observation about how a tattoo can be a turn on – or not. Again, she could have gone on all night, and that would have been fine by us. Great stuff.

John RyanAfter the interval, our next act was John Ryan, of Irish extraction via Hackney. He created a great rapport with the audience, coming across like an Eastenders Mitchell brother but with a degree. A lot of his material came from a warm feeling of inclusivity, showing how we’ve all got much more that unites us than divides us. I really liked his style and he went down very well with the audience.

Drew FraserOur final act came from New York, Drew Fraser. He’s a true wisecracking dude, with plenty of ultra-fast patter and terrific confident delivery. I loved his observations about the trials and tribulations of wearing a Supersized condom, the best way of losing weight (which doesn’t involve the gym) and the considerable difference between vagina and pussy (penis and dick also applies). I’ve seen a few of Mr Fraser’s clips from American TV and I think he’s getting a pretty big reputation out there so it was great to have the chance to see him here in the UK. Oh – and a really charming touch for him to wait outside the theatre as we were all leaving, thanking us for coming – he’s clearly very well brought up.

A terrific night of comedy – and great value too – two and three quarter hours of it for 13 quid, can’t be bad! Looking forward to their next visit. You should come too!

Review – Rob Newman, Total Eclipse of Descartes, Royal and Derngate, 3rd November 2018

Total Eclipse of DescartesWe often think that “love” is a small word for something that encompasses such a range of emotions. “Humour” and “funny” are the same; they contain everything from slapstick to farce, to jokes, to clowning, to erudite after-dinner speeches and lots of other stuff in between. Good comedy should be challenging in the same way that good theatre is; and I love a bit of intelligent comedy that makes you think out of the box.

We’ve never seen Rob Newman before. I remember him, of course, from the days of Newman and Baddiel, when they packed a 12,000 seater arena; but Mr Newman is a different beast today. Wikipedia describes him as an author and political activist, and who am I to disagree? Over the past few years he has returned to performing at the Edinburgh Fringe, with shows like The Brain Show and New Theory of Evolution, which gives you a good indication of where his interests currently lie. And now he’s back with the brilliantly named Total Eclipse of Descartes, where he condenses 2,500 years of philosophy into a couple of hours and ponders on where we are today.

R NewmanDressed in two-parts grey three-piece suit and one-part brown-checked tweedy jacket, he looks like a classic young fogey; half boffin, half landowner. Your immediate thought might be (and I confess, it was mine) – oh no, this is actually going to be as boring as hell. But you’d be completely wrong. Yes, the whole thing does come across as a rather quirky university lecture; but, like the best university lectures, it informs you whilst making you laugh hysterically. Anyone who can quote a line like “I’m going to consider this problem philosophically – I’m not going to think about it” must know he’s on to a winner.

Rob NewmanFirst, we’re asked to consider the whole theory of selective education, and he tells us all about Sir Cyril Burt, educational psychologist and big fan of hereditary IQ. The man was an utter scoundrel, yet we’ve based our entire school system on his faked statistics for decades. Amongst other notables from the realms of philosophy we learn how Mr Newman could never get to grips with the essence of Jean-Paul Sartre, until he discovered one fascinating fact about him. I shan’t tell you what it is, but once you know, everything else makes sense.

We hear about how Pythagoras helped the world of early wheel technology with a story that’s as nice as pi (geddit?) and, of course, René Descartes, who thought, and therefore was. All the while, Mr N brings in modern references to illuminate history, and vice versa; and he absolutely crams the material with callbacks, which work beautifully. And there’s a little nugget of an encore, where he revives a much-missed old comedian to deliver a final, relevant message.

Rob NI wasn’t aware that Mr N had a Radio 2 series of the same name, where, presumably, he investigates philosophy in more bite-size chunks. If you’re a fan of that show, then no doubt his live tour would be right up your Karl-Marx-Allee. Given that this is much more of a comedy lecture than a stand-up, the time absolutely flew by. A very different format from what we’re used to; but it’s erudite, educational, and above all, very funny. His UK tour continues until 8th December.