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!

The Edinburgh Fringe One-Weeker 2018 – Spank! 25th August 2018

SpankNow it’s time for our third and final visit to the show that’s one of our annual, must-see events. It’s the irrepressibly brilliant James Loveridge and an equally amazingly wonderful female host – not sure who she’ll be quite yet – presenting Spank! at Belly Dancer @ Underbelly, Cowgate, at midnight on the night of Saturday 25th. Here’s the blurb: “Spank! returns for an incredible 15th year with hilarious hosts, awesome comedians and gratuitous nudity. Showcasing the most exciting comedy and cabaret on the Fringe, don’t miss the ‘best wild night out’ (Scotland on Sunday) at the festival! ‘Comedy and legendary party night… if you haven’t experienced this night, get down there right away!’ (Time Out). ‘It’s raunchy, raucous and ridiculous. Utterly and absolutely hilarious’ ***** (BroadwayBaby.com). ‘Everything you could hope for in a late-night comedy showcase… absolutely must-see show’ ***** (ThreeWeeks). ‘Atmosphere is electric… you just don’t quite know what is going to happen next… superb’ ***** (One4Review.co.uk).”

This is also going to be our final show of the Fringe for this year. Let’s hope they give us a great send off! I’m hoping that, even though this is the Saturday show, it will still be hosted by James; they don’t seem to be doing a Spanktacular show this year. Check back around 3am (or maybe early on Sunday morning) to see who were the guests, who got naked and how much fun we had. And thanks so much to everyone for reading, and I hope I gave you a feel for the spirit and excitement of the Fringe – and if you didn’t come this year, you must come in 2019!!

Final night in Edinburgh, final Spank. As enduring as Arthur’s seat, as constant as the morning star. Hosting was the new dream team of James Loveridge and Evan Desmarais, and our guests were Hot Mess, a musical misanthrope called Richard, Clara Cupcakes, the brilliant Tim Renkow, Tamsyn Kelly, Ro Campbell and the superb Lauren Pattison who threw a glass of beer over a punter who wouldn’t stop talking…. well she did warn him. The naked promo was a guy called James who simply did it so he could sing Happy birthday to Megan. Always an amazing night, still unbeatable entertainment!

The Edinburgh Fringe One-Weeker 2018 – Foil, Arms and Hog: Craicling, 25th August 2018

Foil Arms Hog 18We’ve left one of the top Edinburgh attractions till almost the end. We saw these guys in Edinburgh in both 2016 and 2017 with their shows DoomDah and Oink, and they never fail to bring joy. They’re Foil, Arms and Hog: Craicling, at McEwan Hall @ Underbelly, Bristo Square, at 21:00 on Saturday 25th. Here’s the blurb (which stays the same, year in, year out): “Irish comedy, potato, potato, potato, potato, potato, potato, potato, potato, potato, potato, potato… you racist. Sold-out Fringe 2009-2017. Over 100 million hits on YouTube. Foil, Arms and Hog celebrate a decade at the festival with their best show yet, Craicling. ***** (Irish Times). **** (Times). ***** (Irish Examiner). ‘Very funny’ (Rowan Atkinson). ‘An effervescent hour of fast-paced gags, fizzing with energy, invention and great lines’ (Chortle.co.uk). ‘Quite simply, a sensation’ (Edinburgh Festivals Magazine).”

In 2016 I got roped into so many sketches with them, because we sat in the front row. I have to say, I loved every minute of it! Last year I managed to avoid such audience participation. Check back around 10.15pm to see if I got into trouble again. By then the final preview blog should be available to read too.

As always, the three guys give us some brilliant, wacky sketches, with a reasonable amount of audience participation! You never quite know where anything is heading! It’s an extremely large hall, but surprisingly you don’t really miss the intimacy of the old smaller venues. Next year the Albert Hall?

The Edinburgh Fringe One-Weeker 2018 – Entropy, 25th August 2018

EntropyAfter some political intrigue, the next play looks like it’s going to be about playing personal mindgames. It’s Entropy at the The Dairy Room @ Underbelly Bristo Square at 19:15 on Saturday 25th. Here’s the blurb: “’It was enormous, what I did. What else could I have achieved that would have received so much attention?’ Sam has turned up on Barbara’s doorstep unannounced after years of absence, not for nostalgic reasons, but for reasons of his own that become apparent as he plays games with her – and on her. An intriguing and disturbing play full of dark humour.”

Sounds very dark – but hopefully also very enjoyable. This will be our last play of the Fringe, so let’s hope it gives us a good send off! Check back around 8.30pm to see what happened. By then the next preview blog should be available to read too.

Intricate and threatening two-hander, very suspenseful as it conveys the enduring after-effects of child abuse. But how much is in his imagination, and how much did she know about it? That would be your interpretation. Gripping and very enjoyable!

The Edinburgh Fringe One-Weeker 2018 – Westminster Hour, 25th August 2018

Westminster HourInto the home stretch now as we embark upon our last four shows on our last evening in Edinburgh. First up, it’s Westminster Hour at Novotel 1 @ Sweet Novotel at 17:55 on Saturday 25th. Let’s read the blurb: “Fatal consequences in this fast-paced and darkly comedic drama with unexpected twists. On the evening Home Secretary Archie Cornwall celebrates the passing of new, tougher sentencing for convicted paedophiles, a seemingly random shooting in South London leads a former lover to implicate Cornwall in a historic abuse case. But is he too powerful to fall – and who will be silenced to save him? From the writer of the cult play 3000 Trees: The Death of Mr William MacRae.”

Westminster Hour stars Rachel Ogilvy & Andy Paterson. We’ve seen a number of plays based on political intrigue over the last few Edinburgh Fringe seasons and they’ve all been highly entertaining. Check back around 7.15 pm to see if this one was too. By then the next preview blog should be available to read too.

Smart little production, featuring two thoroughly corrupt characters, but you can’t work out how they’re going to resolve the problem till the last minute. Two excellent performances too. Nicely horrible!

The Edinburgh Fringe One-Weeker 2018 – Ben Clover: Crème Brûlée, 25th August 2018

Ben CloverOur next show stars a comedian whom I saw for the first time last year in one of these various variety-type shows and he really impressed me with his likeable and thoroughly recognisable brand of humour. It’s Ben Clover: Crème Brûlée at The Loft @ Laughing Horse @ The Counting House at 14:45 on Saturday 25th. Here’s the blurb: “A single creme brûlée can change the course of your whole life. Find out how in the latest show from award-winning stand-up Ben Clover. ‘A delight’ (Chortle.co.uk). ‘Comedy gold’ (Bruce Dessau, Evening Standard). ‘Impressive’ (LondonisFunny.com).”

I have no idea how a dessert can change your life but I’m willing to find out! Check back around 4pm to see what it was all about. By then the next preview blog should be available to read too.

Ben’s tale of dessert-based revenge is crammed with jokey observations and has loads of opportunities for very entertaining banter with the audience. He really creates a warm and comfy environment for us all to relax; a small venue which Ben uses to its best advantage. Lots of laughs in this very funny gig!

The Edinburgh Fringe One-Weeker 2018 – Born on a Monday, 25th August 2018

Born on a MondayAfter what I think will be quite a serious start to the day, I’m hoping for something just a little lighter with our next show. It’s Outside Chance’s production of Born on a Monday at Olive Studio @ Greenside @ Infirmary Street at 12:50 on Saturday 25th. Here’s the blurb: “Button your shirt. Go get a haircut. Saturday’s a great day to die. How do we prepare for life knowing full well that nothing will go according to plan? Based on the classic Solomon Grundy nursery rhyme, born on a Monday is a grimly humorous look at life, death, and all the days in-between. This company-devised piece features new writing, original music and a team of multidisciplinary young artists exploring the moments that make us feel like we’re dead and the moments that make us feel like we’re really alive.”

I wonder how differently we would lead our lives if we knew for definite on which date we’d die. There’d be no hiding place! It’s a scary prospect. Mind you, I’ve no idea if that concept is part of this play! Check back around 2 pm to see what we thought. By then the next preview blog should be available to read too.

Everyone’s dying in this town, so Chris the podcaster tries to investigate, but gets caught up in the weird goings on himself. A delightfully quirky, unpredictable, funny little play, with an engaging and likeable cast.  It really benefited from its uncomplicated staging. I’d be lying if I said I fully understood the plot, but somehow that doesn’t matter!