Review – Kiss Me Kate, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 21st July 2012

Kiss Me KateStill on our annual Chichester visit, we survived dinner and made our way back to the theatre with the amassing throngs of people wanting a good night out. Trevor Nunn directing a new version of Kiss Me Kate? Obviously a prospect just too delicious to resist, so it was with eager anticipation that we took our Saturday night seats at the packed Festival Theatre on what must have been the first beautiful summer’s evening we’ve had this year.

Hannah WaddinghamThe set is satisfyingly designed by Robert Jones and features a nice proscenium arch stuck at a jaunty angle, cleverly suggestive of a traditional show portrayed in a wacky way. The backstage scenes look suitably unglamorous; and the scene changes that take place within the “Taming of the Shrew” show are realised by unfurling flimsy fabric backdrop sheets out of a travelling trunk, which is a clever and appropriate idea, and would indeed be very useful for the Venice, Verona, Cremona, Parma, Mantua, Padua tour; although in reality they do come across a little tawdry to look at.

Alex Bourne Of all the old Hollywood versions of stage musicals Kiss Me Kate is one of my top favourites. In this Chichester production I found it very hard not to compare the performers with others we’ve seen in the roles before. Comparisons are odious, but I’m afraid I wouldn’t be honest if I didn’t come up with a little odiousness in this review. The last time we saw Kiss Me Kate was at the Savoy Theatre in 1988 with Nichola McAuliffe playing Lilli/Katharine. It was a crowning glory of a performance and she has been a particular favourite of Mrs Chrisparkle ever since. Ms McAuliffe’s “I Hate Men” is as strong a reference point as Dame Edith Evans’ “A Handbag?” So any future Lilli/Katharine has a big task ahead of her in Mrs C’s eyes.

Holly Dale Spencer But we had high hopes for Hannah Waddingham, whom we last saw turn in a devastatingly brilliant performance in the Menier’s devastatingly brilliant A Little Night Music a few years ago. And I’m delighted to say Ms Waddingham is every bit as good in this show as you would expect her to be. She breathes charming life into that old plodder “Wunderbar”, is very tender with “So in Love”; and does all the comic business as a furious on-stage Lilli getting revenge on Fred in a genuinely funny way. For Mrs C and me, her “I Hate Men” was a little over-controlled. She really didn’t hate men as much as Nichola McAuliffe. But she makes a good shrew and is a great singer and I think definitely gave the best performance of the night.

Adam Garcia Alex Bourne plays Fred/Petruchio, and he’s very good throughout. He portrayed the arrogance of both characters very well, and also his discomfort and wheedling around Lilli when he realises the flowers have gone to the wrong actress is very funny. However, being briefly odious, he’s no Howard Keel. He has some great numbers to deliver, and I was particularly looking forward to “Where is the life that late I led” with its mixture of humour and pathos; a song that must be a complete thrill for a confident performer to smash it (in the common parlance). He really played it for laughs – which he certainly got – but musically I felt it was a slight let down.

Kevin Brewis For me, the best two set pieces came as a surprise – the two TDH numbers. I was very impressed with the whole performance of Tom Dick or Harry, which got the absolute best out of Holly Dale Spencer as nightclub singer Lois, and supported by Adam Garcia as Bill/Lucentio, Kevin Brewis as Hortensio and Samuel Holmes as Gremio. It had great lightness of touch, entertaining choreography and was thoroughly spirit-lifting. The other officially fabulous number – even more so in fact – was the second act opener Too Darn Hot, fronted by Jason Pennycooke as Fred’s dresser Paul; a terrifically well danced routine, full of life and humour, cheekiness and joie de vivre. This is the second time we’ve seen Mr Pennycooke, and I can tell you he is one talented chap.

Jason Pennycooke As Lois/Bianca, Holly Dale Spencer certainly gives a new meaning to the phrase “wide-eyed”, with, for me, her portrayal occasionally teetering on the edge of credibility. There have been some criticisms of her performance of “Always True To You In My Fashion” – a wonderful song – and I have to say I too found it disappointing. Not because she performed it badly – not at all, in many ways it was a remarkably skilful performance; but one that completely misrepresented the essential meaning of the song and its insight into Lois’ character. IMHO, this funny song should make you think that she is indeed, primarily, always true to Bill; but she might be gently naughty with someone else if it will get her a Paris Hat. This sassy Lois cavorts with the raunchiest of moves to a sleazy arrangement so that you feel all she is lacking is the pole to dance around. I’m guessing this is Trevor Nunn and Stephen Mears’ interpretation of the role, and, personally, I thought it was wrong. And yes, with apologies for my odiousness, I did think fondly of Ann Miller.

David Burt and Clive Rowe David Burt and Clive Rowe were an excellent couple of gangsters, ominously muscling in on Katharine on stage to prevent her from making a bolt for the wings, and did a great job of being over the top whilst strangely keeping it real too. The audience loved their Brush Up Your Shakespeare, which was simply staged and brought out Cole Porter’s wordplay with great clarity. I always forget that in the stage show the great “From This Moment On” is not sung by Lois and her suitors, but by Lilli and her General beau. Whilst Ms Waddingham and Mark Heenehan as the General gave a very good performance, I think the number is much better “Hollywooded” up as it is in the film. But then, the stage presentation of Too Darn Hot is probably better than the film. You pay your money, you etc, etc. The minor roles are all played with huge energy and pizzazz by a very likeable company.

Mark Heenehan The audience adored it. Many people were up on their feet at the end, which is something I don’t think I’ve seen before with the rather polite and – let’s be honest – elderly Chichester crowd. It is a very entertaining production and certainly worth seeing, with some brilliant moments and outstanding routines, which do well to make up for the lapses. I think it will enjoy a lot of success at the Old Vic.

Chichester CathedralP.S. After a comfortable night in the central, cheap but a bit Spartan Travelodge, we embarked on our usual quest to find a decent gluten-free breakfast that Mrs C would be able to enjoy. Fortunately for us, the Wetherspoons was so incredibly busy that we would have run out of car park time before we’d get served. Instead we found a little place called Spires on Crane Street. Essentially an old fashioned bakery and tea rooms, with tables outside in the welcoming sunshine. We plonked ourselves down and I went to order. It's gluten-free!A traditional English breakfast for me; then I explained to the nice lady behind the counter that one of the meals had to be gluten-free. She surprised me by suggesting gluten-free toast and gluten-free homemade bubble and squeak, along with the usual baked beans, tomato, bacon and egg. My breakfast was super; and Mrs C was in her element with a decent cooked breakfast that knocked her socks off. Well done Spires!

How to entertain two nieces on the Sunday of a Bank Holiday Weekend

Your mission – should you choose to accept it – is to divert and amuse two little girls on a day out in London.

Very well; we accept the challenge.

Subject One: Secret Agent Code November, aged 10. Strengths: sophisticated, gourmand, snappy dresser. Weakness: aversion to exercise.

Subject Two: Special Agent Code Sierra, aged 9. Strengths: analytical, fearless, optimistic. Weakness: prone to get over-tired.

Mission One – morning at the Science Museum.

Rendezvous 10.45am, single yellow lines by Royal Albert Hall. Met with Agents’ female parent, M. Arrival Science Museum, 10.55am. Reconnoitre toilets. Estimated time at Science Museum: 1hr 30mins; aim: to see it all.

Science Museum - FlightFailed on aim completely, as 2 hrs 5 mins later we had still only visited level 3. But it’s an amazing place. Firstly we saw the “Flight” area, which has examples of old aircraft, a cut-through segment of a jumbo jet, a cockpit of an old plane, simulation of Air Traffic Control and much more. Even if you’re not overly interested in aeroplanes it’s still very interesting and kept us all amused and astounded.

Then we went on to “In Future” and had to grapple with difficult subjects like should men be allowed to have babies, and should cars be able to drive themselves. Your answers get fed into a big database and you can see how many people have answered yes or no to a number of modern dilemmas. Fun and interactive, but it didn’t take up too much of our time.

Next was Health Matters, a subject of considerable interest to Special Agent Code Sierra who recently announced she was going to become a “Baby Doctor”. This display area was full of interesting facts about the growth and development of antibiotics, vaccinations and even the contraceptive pill. Didn’t take too long, but very absorbing.

Heat Seeking CameraFinally we ended up in Launchpad, a highly interactive area full of experiments and displays, with which everyone is positively encouraged to play. Mrs Chrisparkle and I peered at each other through two telescopes separated by a brick wall. How did that work? “Have you realised how it works yet?” asked a charming young lady dressed in a red t-shirt with the word “Explainer” on it. “Is it a question of hidden lenses?” asked Mrs C tentatively. “Yes, that’s right” beamed the explainer. “I thought it was Paul Daniels’ magic” I offered lamely. She smiled politely as she is paid to.

Actually the explainers are great. There are loads of them and they are tireless in taking the kids through the experiments and encouraging them to understand the basics of science that the displays reveal. Plastic bottles full of water zooming around the room; electrical circuits being connected and dismantled; positioning building blocks so you could construct a bridge solid enough to walk over; we did all these and more and it was a real wrench to cut short our visit as we had run out of time. Highly recommended, and the Agents made M promise that they would return to the Science Museum another day.

Mission Two – afternoon Thames Rib Experience river speed ride.

London EyeRendezvous: meant to be on easy parking near Embankment Pier in good time for 1.45 pm check in and decking out in fleeces and sou’westers; in effect we couldn’t find any parking until 1.35pm almost a mile away, so we had to walk ultra-fast and indeed run to get there on time. I ran ahead to make sure they didn’t go without us. Got there about five minutes behind schedule and panted “Thames Rib experience, five people, late, gasp, pant” and I was shown where to check in. The lady there didn’t seem too concerned. Anyway I was panting like a dog in a hot car for at least the next 40 minutes. Thought I was fitter than that, dammit.

Thames Rib ExperienceThe good news is we all got on board. The boats take a maximum of twelve passengers and there were eleven of us on ours. The guide tells you about the notable things you see between the Houses of Parliament and The Thames Flood Barrier, which is where you turn around and come back. The difference from your ordinary boat trip is that once you get past Tower Bridge, they open up the speed and it becomes a really exciting fast dash across the waves with some exhilarating tossing and turning, like a scene out of The Persuaders or The Saint, showing my age. I know for a fact I had a fixed smile on my lips the entire 80 minutes, as did Mrs C, M and Secret Agent Code N. Special Agent Code S spent most of the time with her eyes shut. Additional amusement is provided by the guide’s patter which is chock full of jokes, some really funny; and sometimes you pierce the waves to appropriate musical accompaniment, I’ll say no more.

Thames BarrierUnfortunately one of the other passengers wasn’t up for the speed and complained he couldn’t breathe properly so our return journey was a little more stately than we had hoped. Not a lot you can do about that – and it’s of course right that they put their clients’ health and safety first. Wuss -ruining it for the rest of us! The Thames Rib Experience is something I would definitely recommend, and we will certainly go again, maybe even quite soon. It hadn’t occurred to me how little of the river-scape east of Tower Bridge I knew. Greenwich, O2, Thames Barrier, Canary Wharf – all new to me, and the views are astonishing.

Mission Three – picnic in Trafalgar Square.

Couldn’t park anywhere near Trafalgar Square, so we went on to Westminster and found some quite easy parking and picnicked instead in the park adjacent to the Houses of Parliament watched over by the good Burghers of Calais. Another superb river view; late afternoon sunshine; cheese and ham rolls; crisps and cakes. Code November and Code Sierra both voted it a successful day out. Transferred responsibility of young charges over to M, got in the car, drove home, and slept. Woke up just in time to go out for some pub grub. Great day out!

The trials and tribulations of a Coeliac, or how we spent Sunday afternoon in some anxiety and discomfort

Largely tasteless, yet strangely more-ish. If you know us personally, you will probably be aware that Mrs Chrisparkle is a Coeliac. To the uninitiated, it means she must not eat anything containing gluten. Gluten is found in wheat products, so it’s a no-no to wheat flour, ordinary bread and pasta, many thickening agents, much in the way of convenience food, and loads of common or garden meals that you wouldn’t even think of. No worries, she can eat meat, fish, vegetables, rice, cheese, pulses and lots more. It’s been about ten years since she was diagnosed, and about five years since she last accidentally ate something containing gluten. Gluten free Granola. Scrummy.That normally happens abroad, when language confusion can cause misunderstandings and a glutenous ingredient gets unfortunately scoffed. The result? Anything from mild stomach cramps to fainting and violent nausea, usually around 24 hours later.

But fortunately, people are aware of the horrors of food allergies, and chefs and waiting staff know to take it seriously. We tend to eat out a lot at pubs and restaurants, and asking the right questions and choosing sensibly off the menu means a worry-free dining experience.

Cheese Kettle Chips - fabAlas, that was until last weekend. You may have read, dear reader, about our trip to the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday evening. Always an entertaining excursion, and it’s a thrill to be at the Royal Albert Hall, so we go the whole hog and enjoy a delicious meal in elegant surroundings at one of the Hall’s restaurants, pre-Prom. So it was that we went to the Elgar Room, and ordered our three course meals and wine.

Jimi HendrixIf I’m honest, although the surroundings were great, look – we even shared the table with Jimi Hendrix – the food wasn’t that special. It looked delightful and its textures were beguiling; but as far as taste was concerned, it didn’t register much. No matter; it was an enjoyable experience. For dessert I had the cheeseboard which was genuinely tasty. Mrs C had confirmed with the waiter what she could have, and it was some chocolate and orange moussey thing with honeycomb on top. Mid-dessert, she was explaining to me that it was in fact the tastiest of her three courses when she suddenly stopped and asked me if I would try a mouthful. “Is that not sponge?” was her worrying question. I tasted. “Definitely”, I said. “How on earth do they make gluten-free sponge?” she asked. Erring on the side of caution we called our waiter over again and asked him to confirm with the kitchen.

Gluten free organic pasta. It does taste different from ordinary pasta but it's still perfectly nice. A few minutes later and he returned, flustered and apologetic. Some of the dishes had changed a little recently, he explained. The chocolate and orange moussey thing never used to contain sponge, but now they’ve changed it, and now it does, and no one thought to update the record of ingredients and allergens. Massive apologies ensued, and a free dessert (the somewhat safer strawberries and cream); but it’s shocking that they took such little care with her food. It made Mrs C worry about everything else she had eaten. The cucumber soup, for example, certainly had some kind of thickening agent. Her heart sank. Would there be a reaction 24 hours later?

We were in London, let's do it, let's break the law...So the next day, we were really on guard when it came to ordering food in London. We’d stayed overnight as we were seeing another show on Sunday afternoon. It was 1pm and time for a Covent Garden lunch. We spied the welcoming looking Sussex Pub, occupying a commanding position on the corner of Long Acre and St Martin’s Lane. The tables outside looked inviting in the sunshine, and the menu looked full of nice grub. No indication on the menu as to what was gluten-free but one wouldn’t expect it, so armed with a couple of ideas for a starter and main course, I braved the food counter.

“I’d like to order some food please.”
“Certainly. What would you like?”
“Could you tell me first, are either the Nachos, or the Garlic and Lemon Chicken skewers gluten-free?”
“Ah, that’s a very hard question to answer. It is our policy not to guarantee the content of any of our meals.”
“Oh. Well can we not simply ask the chef, it’ll say on the box of nachos if it contains gluten or not?”
“We don’t guarantee what’s in our meals.”
“But can we not ask the chef though?”
“No.”
“Well if you can’t say what’s in your meals, we can’t order them, can we?”
“OK” came the caring response (with a “wotever” type shrug).

At which point I upped and left, loudly saying how totally ridiculous such an attitude was, (to no one in particular.) I continued my angry remonstrations on the street, with the result that Mrs C had to quieten me down with a “shush dear it doesn’t matter”. But it does matter. Their menu specifically says to discuss any food allergens with the bar staff. Well if they won’t engage in ascertaining what allergens there might be in the food, what’s the ****ing point in that?? To be honest, I wasn’t looking for a “guarantee”, I’m not going to sue them, I just wanted an indication of the likely level of safety.

Fortunately we were able to repair to the sanity and coeliac heaven that is PJ’s Restaurant. We discovered this little gem quite a while ago. Not only do they have an excellent menu, they asterisk the items that are gluten-free.

Covent Garden“Would you like some bread?” asked the friendly Polish waitress. “Yes please” said I, tucking in. “No thank you” declined Mrs C. The waitress was straight in there. “Are you gluten-free?” “Yes!” said Mrs C. “I will get you some crackers” said the waitress. And sure enough, along came a gluten-free rice cracker. I really enjoyed my meal of salad, chicken and ice-cream, but much more pertinent was Mrs C’s experience. To start – Thai Fish Cakes, served with a lovely spicy dressing. I could tell from Mrs C’s rapturous expression that we were on to a winner. Then, Sea Bass in a Spring Roll. Spring Roll? Surely not? But yes, a gluten-free spring roll of epic proportions and of which I had a nibble and it was delicious. Finally, a Toblerone and meringue soufflé. Yes, it was as divine as it sounds. So you see, Royal Albert Hall and Sussex pub, with a little dedication and imagination, you too can provide a proper gluten-free meal.

So what of the gluten that was accidentally consumed on Saturday evening? Well, indeed, it worked its way through Mrs C’s system and by the interval of our afternoon show on Sunday, she felt nausea, giddiness, and an extremely uptight tummy. As a result she had to miss the second half of the show. Thanks, Royal Albert Hall Catering Department, for ruining our weekend. I’ve sent them an email detailing our misadventures with them. I’m yet to receive a response.

It’s a tricky one

How do you decide whether or not it’s sensible to venture on to the snowy roads to get to work? Local radio shocks you with news of several hundred local schools closing, but you look out of the window and see cars and buses merrily zooming away on the main road. The side roads are more entertaining. We’re on a short slope here, and half the cars attempting it are visiting both kerbs on their way down. So you can travel 50 miles on major roads no problem but end up in A&E trying to negotiate the first 50 yards.

View from my (closed) study window. Too cold to open it.

Mrs Chrisparkle decided not to hazard out today. She had plenty of work she could do at home and I can hear her now tapping away at the laptop, making work calls and being highly productive. She’ll probably get more done today than she would ever have achieved in the office. Apparently only three people have made it in. But at the same time she feels like a scaredycat, and has somehow let herself down. It’s a tricky balance between “Doing The Right Thing” and “Being Sensible”, and I certainly don’t know the answer.

I’m lucky enough to work from home anyway. I have to go out in two days time, taking my somewhat unreliable motor on a 30 mile journey. Will I do it? Will I bottle out? Dunno.

That difficult first post

Good morning, good afternoon, good evening; delete whichever does not apply. Allow me to introduce myself – I am Chris – “The Real Chrisparkle” – as opposed to any other Chrisparkles you might encounter.

The Real Chrisparkle, aged 3

Every year I always allot myself the same New Year’s Resolution – to have more fun. I work on the theory that no one ever died wishing they’d had less fun. And for the past few years I have largely achieved this resolution. But this January I felt like I should strive for something further – and I resolved to be more creative. So I thought I would try my hand at writing a blog.

I have read many other blogs with pleasure over the years and I know I have to work hard to make it a good one. Hopefully you’ll get a bit of sparkle out of it anyway.

A few things about me – and these are what I expect to be the recurrent themes of my blog – I like theatregoing and have done since I was a wee lad. Plays, musicals, Shakespeare are all grist to my mill. Dance productions too – dance done magnificently just about beats anything you can see on a stage. Dance that isn’t can be extremely tedious.

Music was my first love, and it will be my last – but I have this weird thing about Eurovision I’m afraid, so that will also play a prominent role in the blog (to mirror the role it plays in my life). Literature – yes I’m into that, but I don’t read anywhere near enough. Travel – yes, I can tell you all about my holidays, I know you’ll find that riveting. Sport – yes, to an extent; I’ll share my woes when my favourite football team loses and will be enthralled at Olympics and World Cup time. I want to improve my photography skills, so maybe you can help with that – I’ll let you know. Oh and just generally going out and having a good time. There’ll probably be quite a lot of that.

God this looks really dull. If you can stick with me through this introduction, I promise I will stick with you too. Let’s be supportive!!