Review – Jan Mráček Performs Mendelssohn, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 18th June 2017

RPO June 17It’s always a pleasure to welcome back the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to Northampton – this time, on the hottest day of the year so far; as the concert began we were still basking in 29° sunshine outside so very wisely the gentlemen of the orchestra adopted shirt sleeve order – otherwise they would have found it unbearable on stage.

Martyn BrabbinsOur conductor – new to us – was Martyn Brabbins, whose credits include 120 recordings on CD and who is currently the Music Director of the English National Opera. He’s an avuncular looking chap, a little like Great Uncle Bulgaria’s younger brother, who’s not averse to leaning back on his tippy-toes and then stabbing his baton at full force into the general vicinity of the orchestra if that’s what it takes to get the best out of them.

Two harpistsOur opening piece was Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-mid d’un faune, a beautifully gentle way to start the evening. We were presented with the stirring sight and sound of not one but two harps and harpists, Suzy Willison-Kawalec (who taught my Goddaughter to play the harp) and Emma Ramsdale. You can really hear the difference when two harps are playing side by side, the music is so much more powerful, even when it’s delicate. The orchestra really brought out the fragility of this piece and it was a stunning opener. I was also struck by how similar its first few bars are to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Debussy predated it by almost twenty years.

Jan MracekFor our next piece, we welcomed our soloist, Jan Mráček, for a performance of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. You know you are getting older when the soloists are getting younger, and pan Mráček clocks in at 25 years old but with the gravitas of a man much older. He’s already won some kind of award by being the only person in a jacket (poor him) and as soon as he plunged himself into the first movement, we knew we were in for a treat. He played the Mendelssohn with an elegant seriousness but tempered with true enjoyment. He gave it fantastic expression and we were both absolutely wowed by his performance; all from memory, with amazing control and superb finesse. There’s a section where (as it seems to me, in my layman’s terms) the bow has to bounce lightly over all the strings in sequence, and then bounce back, and then back again and back again across the bridge and so on and all that time there wasn’t one moment where the tone suffered – none of those little squeaking or clattering noises you sometimes hear when the playing gets intense, it was absolutely precision perfect. I don’t know how he does it. I read that pan Mráček plays a violin made in Milan in 1758; it may well be that the craftsmanship of the centuries adds to the warmth and passion of his performance.

RPOAfter the interval we welcomed back the orchestra – still with two harps – for Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. Written at a time when Shostakovich was persona non-grata with the Stalin government, he was literally composing to save his life – and the power of the symphony really reflects this. Too complex for someone like me to give it any kind of narrative, the Fifth Symphony is full of superb tunes and dramatic explosions, and the whole orchestra gave it so much life and zest. Outstanding for me was a beautiful pizzicato sequence and again the way the harps blended with the celeste was just plain gorgeous.

It wasn’t the largest audience I’ve seen at the Derngate for one of these RPO concerts, but it was certainly an appreciative one as the orchestra gave us a memorable night of exquisite performances. They’re back on 16th July with something a little lighter – a Film Music Gala. Why not come and join us?!

Review – Raphael Wallfisch Performs Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 12th March 2017

Raphael Wallfisch Performs Elgar’s Cello ConcertoCircumstances have conspired against our attending the two most recent Royal Philharmonic concerts in Northampton, but on Sunday we were back with a vengeance to see a rousing performance of German and British music. Our conductor this time was Jac van Steen, new to us; an enthusiastic Dutchman who has the air of a kindly dentist; he seems extremely affable and wants you to be at your utmost ease, but if it calls for it, he’d be in for the kill like nobody’s business.

jac van steenOur opening piece was the Prelude to Act One of Lohengrin by Wagner. I was expecting that stirring, arresting introductory brassy tune that puts you in mind of Valkyries and big fat sopranos – but no, that’s the Prelude to Act Three. Act One’s starts far more gently, with violin strings all a-quiver, but nevertheless building up to a major frenzy, perfectly representing the search for the Holy Grail which is what the programme notes said it was about. The orchestra were obviously champing at the bit and it was a very exciting and enjoyable start to the concert. Quiz question: what’s the difference between a prelude and an overture? No, I can’t work that one out either.

raphael wallfischNext it was time to meet our soloist, Raphael Wallfisch, to perform Elgar’s Cello Concerto. We’d seen Julian Lloyd Webber perform the same piece nearly six years ago, but it’s hard to recall one performer’s interpretation of a piece after such a long time. Mr Wallfisch is another avuncular looking fellow, but with a rather serious, workmanlike attitude to his playing that belies the immense passion of the music he produces. Without any reference to any sheet music, he plunges his instrument into the deep gravitas of the opening movement, making his instrument take centre stage so that you watch the bow attacking the bridge of the cello rather than looking at the intent concentration on Mr Wallfisch’s face. In juxtaposition, Mr van Steen is sometimes up on his tippytoes coaxing all the emotion out of the strings, at other times thrusting himself downwards in the conclusion of a bar. There’s an electrically exciting sequence in the second movement (I think – I’m fairly unfamiliar with this piece and the boundaries between the movements were hard to identify) where Mr Wallfisch plays the cello with such vim and vigour that from our seat it looked as though he was whittling down some wood to fashion a set of cricket stumps. I’m not sure it was spiccato, more like old fashioned twiddling. Suffice to say it was an extraordinary performance and it was clear that everyone loved it.

beethovenAfter the interval, we returned for Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. We’d seen the RPO perform this before as well, a full seven years ago, conducted by Garry Walker. Then, as now, I can never remember what that special tune is that dominates the second movement. But as soon as it kicks in I remember why I love it so much. It has a sparse melancholy about it; a sense that happiness may be just around the corner but you’re never quite going to achieve it. And I love how Beethoven gives it just the one proper airing, building from a quiet start to an emotional fulfilment, but never ever going back to it, no matter how much you yearn to hear it again. Mr van Steen had to apply a reverse coaxing mechanism, where, rather than draw the passion out of the orchestra, he actively suppressed it, making those sad echo moments in the movement even softer than usual, creating a despairing exquisiteness to the whole thing. It was just sensational.

Royal Philharmonic OrchestraIn many respects, the symphony is Beethoven’s Greatest Hits, with the brightness of the first movement, the playfulness of the third and the overwhelming victory of the final movement. The orchestra gave it a superb performance, and yes, excitable man in the Upper Circle Box, we all saw you on your feet conducting away to your heart’s content. We were blown away by the sheer vitality and force of the Royal Philharmonic’s performance. A great concert!

Review of the Year 2016 – The Seventh Annual Chrisparkle Awards

It’s time again for the whole Chrisparkle team to meet in secret (well, in the living room) to determine who should win the gongs in this year’s annual Chrisparkle Awards. The world of the arts is once again on tenterhooks to discover who will be the chosen few. Eligibility for the awards means a) they were performed in the UK and b) I have to have seen the shows and blogged about them in the period 15th January 2016 to 13th January 2017.

Let’s do this thing!

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

We saw five dance productions this year and this is the top three:

In 3rd place, the exciting return of Nederlands Dans Theater 2 with their unpredictable mixed programme at the Birmingham Hippodrome in May.
In 2nd place, the amazing story-telling and fantastic performances in Drew McOnie’s Jekyll and Hyde at the Old Vic in May.
In 1st place, for the fourth time in five years, the breathtaking programme by the literally unbeatable Richard Alston Dance Company that we saw at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton in October.

Classical Music Concert of the Year.

Of the five concerts we saw in 2016, these are the top three:

In 3rd place, the stirring eleventh Malcolm Arnold Festival, The Voice of the People Gala Concert with the BBC Concert Orchestra conducted by John Gibbons, with soloist Craig Ogden, at the Royal and Derngate, in October.
In 2nd place, Alexandra Dariescu Performs Rachmaninov, a programme of German and Russian music with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Fabien Gabel, at the Royal and Derngate, in May.
In 1st place, the storming Alan Buribayev conducts Sheherazade, with soloist Anna-Liisa Bezrodny, with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra at the Royal and Derngate, in February.

Best Entertainment Show of the Year.

By which I mean anything else that doesn’t fall into any other categories – for example pantos, circuses, revues and anything else hard to classify. Very hotly contended this year so we’re going to have to have a top five – and last year’s winner, the annual Burlesque Show, which, whilst excellent as always, doesn’t feature in the charts this year!

In 5th place, the wacky surrealism of Spymonkey’s The Complete Deaths at the Royal in May.
In 4th place, the supremely inventive and unfailingly polite Jamie Raven at the Royal and Derngate in June.
In 3rd place, another magic act, the brilliant and funny Pete Firman in TriX, at the Royal in November.
In 2nd place, the filthy and hilarious Cinderella, at the London Palladium, in December.
In 1st place, the masterclass of hilarious mime that is The Boy with Tape on His Face at the Royal, in November.

Best Star Standup of the Year.

We saw eleven big-name stand-up comics this year, and they were all various shades of brilliant! So it’s going to be hard to whittle them down to a top five:

In 5th place, the long lasting warm glow of an evening spent in the company of Tommy Tiernan (Out of the Whirlwind Tour), at the Royal in March.
In 4th place, the ever-waspish and never unfunny Julian Clary (The Joy of Mincing Tour) at the Royal and Derngate in April.
In 3rd place, the supremely intelligent and devastatingly funny Dane Baptiste (Reasonable Doubts Tour), Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, in March.
In 2nd place, simply because he finally allowed me to laugh at the Brexit result with all my pain proudly on display, Marcus Brigstocke (Why the Long Face Tour) at the Royal in October.
In 1st place, the woman of the moment, and that’s because she just makes you laugh so much, Sarah Millican (Outsider Tour), at the Royal and Derngate in July.

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

As ever, a hotly contested award; now that the JAM Comedy club shows have started at the Ark, comics appearing there are also eligible for this award. From a very very long shortlist, here are the top five:

In 5th place, the infectiously manic stupidity of Steve Best (16th September)
In 4th place, larking around where angels fear to tread, Tez Ilyas (21st October)
In 3rd place, the new prince of high camp, Stephen Bailey (4th November)
In 2nd place, turning a gig into a party, the awesome Jonny Awsum (18th March)
In 1st place, last year’s winner and still unbeatable, Ian Cognito (21st October)

Best Musical.

Like last year, this is a combination of new musicals and revivals; I only saw eight this year but they were (almost) all excellent! Here are the top five:

In 5th place, the wonderful depiction of Latino life in Washington Heights lived to the full, In The Heights, that we saw at the Kings Cross Theatre in December.
In 4th place, the captivating and satisfying revival of Sondheim’s Into The Woods, at the Menier Chocolate Factory, that we saw in September.
In 3rd place, the stunning revival of Funny Girl, at the Menier Chocolate Factory, that we saw in February.
In 2nd place, the show I hadn’t wanted to see, just caught it before it closed, and I’m so glad I did, Bend It Like Beckham, that we saw at the Phoenix Theatre, in February.
In 1st place, because it’s text book in how to stage a show and gives you such a feelgood factor, Half A Sixpence, that we saw at the Noel Coward Theatre 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. An extremely difficult decision, as you have to compare such different genres; but somehow I chose a top three from the eight contenders:

In 3rd place, actually three plays, the extraordinary National Theatre of Scotland production of The James Plays, at the Royal and Derngate Theatre, Northampton in April.
In 2nd place, the brilliantly written and performed The Herbal Bed, at the Royal Theatre, in February.
In 1st place, the hauntingly unforgettable Soul, at the Royal Theatre, in May.

Best Revival of a Play.

Saw ten revivals, all of which were worthy of consideration. Here’s the top five:

In 5th place, the highly innovative and enjoyable reworking of Shakespeare’s The Tempest, co-produced by the R&D and the National Youth Theatre, at the Royal Theatre, in June.
In 4th place, breathing new life into a play that could easily be a little sterile, Harold Pinter’s No Man’s Land, at Wyndham’s Theatre in October.
In 3rd place, the hilarious and brutally honest revival of Terry Johnson’s Dead Funny, at the Vaudeville Theatre, in December.
In 2nd place, Christopher Luscombe’s electric production of Shakespeare’s Love’s Labour’s Lost and Much Ado About Nothing at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in October.
In 1st place, the production that had me sweating with excitement and exhilaration, the late Howard Davies’ production of Christopher Hampton’s new translation of Henrik Ibsen’s An Enemy of the People, at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in May.

As always, in the post-Christmas season, time to consider the turkey of the year – the one that stuffed us all as the biggest disappointment was the drabfest that was Breakfast at Tiffany’s at the Curve Theatre, Leicester, in March.

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

Best play – Edinburgh

We saw 16 plays in Edinburgh, and here are the top 5:

In 5th place, the elegant and moving story of post World War One England with Aulos Productions’ Lest We Forget (Bedlam Theatre)
In 4th place, the funny and unsettling Partial Nudity produced by Fandango Productions (Monkey House @ Zoo)
In 3rd place, the stunning one-man play set against Cardiff’s nightlife, Saturday Night Forever, produced by Aberystwyth Arts Centre and Joio (Underbelly Med Quad)
In 2nd place, the brilliantly stereotype-challenging Jumping The Barriers by The Courtyard Players (Space on The Mile)
In 1st place, the emotionally charged and truly creative Us/Them by Bronks/Made in Belgium (Summerhall)

Best Individual Performance in a Play – Edinburgh

This was a very difficult choice this year as most of the plays we saw were superb ensemble efforts where you couldn’t (well I couldn’t) identify one particular individual over the rest of the cast. However, I have no hesitation in recommending to you this top three:

In 3rd place, Adam J S Smith for Jumping The Barriers (Space on the Mile)
In 2nd place, Chris Daley for Jumping The Barriers (Space on the Mile)
In 1st place, Delme Thomas for Saturday Night Forever (Underbelly Med Quad)

Best stand-up comedy show – Edinburgh

Thirteen shows but a shortlist of just four gives this top three:

In 3rd place, for the honesty of his material the likeable and hilarious Dave Chawner (Cabaret Voltaire)
In 2nd place, for nailing the Zeitgeist with 10 Things I Hate About UKIP, Joe Wells (T-Bar)
In 1st place, again, the unmissable late night laughter line-up that is Spank! (Underbelly Cowgate)

Best of the rest – Edinburgh
This has been a ridiculously hard choice to make and I have to leave out at least seven brilliant shows that I would happily see again. Still, no one said life is easy. Here’s the top five: (As an aside, I was called out of the audience to participate in three of them!)

In 5th place, for brilliant impressions in a cleverly constructed show, Luke Kempner’s Judi Dench Broke My Heart (Pleasance Dome)
In 4th place, one of the best (arguably THE best) variety line-ups ever assembled and hosted brilliantly, Lili la Scala’s Another F*cking Variety Show (Pleasance Dome)
In 3rd place, the quick-fire inventive sketches that featured me but also Foil Arms and Hog – Doomdah! (Underbelly Cowgate)
In 2nd place, early morning hilarity with a beautifully written and performed subversion of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, Shakespeare for Breakfast (C Venues, Chambers Street)
In 1st place, a truly winning combination of parody, pressure and hot pan, Kev’s Komedy Kitchen (Just the Tonic at the Mash House)

This year’s Edinburgh turkey, which wasn’t as bad as all that, (although it wasn’t that great either) was the two-hander play involving night-club Mafia, The Club.

And now for a new award. This year I have seen many more local productions. They are mainly (but not exclusively) by students at the University of Northampton; but there are also the Royal and Derngate Actors’ Company, the Youth Companies, other local theatre groups and the National Theatre Connections to consider. So this is the First ever Chrisparkle award for Best Local Production – taking all aspects of the production into account.

In 5th place, from the Flash Festival, Infuse Theatre Company’s X or Y
In 4th place, by the current 3rd year students at the University, She Echoes
In 3rd place, again from the Flash Festival, La Zenna Theatre Company’s The Final Cut
In 2nd place, the Royal and Derngate’s Actors’ Company’s production of Market Boy at the Royal Theatre.
In 1st place, the University’s production of Blue Stockings at the Royal Theatre.

Best film

I only saw four last year, and, while I have to recognise the brilliance of I Daniel Blake, personal involvement (including being an extra in it) means I must award it to The Girl With All The Gifts. If you haven’t seen it – See it!!

Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical.

This is where it gets personal. Nine contenders in the shortlist, and here are the top three:

In 3rd place, Emma Williams as Helen in Half a Sixpence at the Noel Coward Theatre in December.
In 2nd place, Devon-Elise Johnson as Ann in Half a Sixpence at the Noel Coward Theatre in December.
In 1st place, Sheridan Smith as Fanny Brice in Funny Girl at the Menier Chocolate Factory, in February.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical.

Eight fine performances in the shortlist, producing this top three:

In 3rd place, Tony Jayawardena as Mr Bhamra in Bend it Like Beckham at the Phoenix Theatre, in February.
In 2nd place, Sam Mackay as Usnavi in In The Heights, at the Kings Cross Theatre in December.
In 1st place, Charlie Stemp as Kipps in Half a Sixpence at the Noel Coward Theatre in December.

Best Performance by an Actress in a Play.

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

In 5th place, Sophie Walter as Prosper in The Tempest at the Royal in June.
In 4th place, Adjoa Andoh as Alberta in Soul at the Royal in May.
In 3rd place, Clare Foster as Cecily in Travesties at the Menier Chocolate Factory, in October.
In 2nd place, Lisa Dillon as Rosaline in Love’s Labour’s Lost and Beatrice in Much Ado About Nothing at the Festival Theatre, Chichester in October.
In 1st place, Katherine Parkinson as Eleanor in Dead Funny at the Vaudeville Theatre in December.

Best Performance by an Actor in a Play.

The most hotly fought for award, with twenty contenders in my shortlist, and I whittled it down to this:

In 5th place, Hugh Bonneville as Dr Stockmann in An Enemy of the People, at the Festival Theatre, Chichester, in May.
In 4th place, Tom Hollander as Henry Carr in Travesties, at the Menier Chocolate Factory, in October.
In 3rd place, Nathan Ives-Moiba as Marvin Gaye Jnr in Soul at the Royal Theatre in May.
In 2nd place, Sir Ian McKellen as Spooner in No Man’s Land at Wyndham’s Theatre in October.
In 1st place, Edward Bennett as Berowne in Love’s Labour’s Lost and Benedick in Much Ado About Nothing at the Festival Theatre, Chichester in October.

Theatre of the Year.

For the second year running there’s no change in the Number one and Number two theatres! Presenting an extraordinary range of drama and entertainment, this year’s Theatre of the Year is the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, with the Festival Theatre/Minerva Theatre in Chichester as runner-up.

It’s been another fantastic year – 140 productions seen in all – and thanks to you gentle reader for continuing to read my theatre reviews. Let’s look forward to another wonderful year of theatre in 2017!

Review – Jimmy Osmond, Moon River and Me, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 10th October 2016

moon-river-and-meI’m not sure what expectations I had of Jimmy Osmond’s tribute show to Andy Williams, Moon River and Me. I wouldn’t call myself a fan of Andy Williams, although many of his recordings are absolute classics, and really stand the test of time. I guess you’d say that it just hasn’t ever been very trendy to like him. Similarly, I wouldn’t have called myself an Osmonds fan, but I liked most of their records (OK when they got very slushy I’d have to reach for the Junior Seltzer) and when we came to see them at the Derngate a few years ago, I was very impressed.

jimmy-osmondAnd none is more impressive than Jimmy Osmond – he’s 53 now, so I think it’s fair to have dropped the “Little” from his name. He embodies showmanship in a very unflashy, respectful, kindly, welcoming way. He is the perfect front man, still with a great voice and a warm personality, not remotely afraid to take the mickey out of himself, and very generous with allowing other performers to shine on the stage. When we saw him in Cinderella at the Royal and Derngate in 2008, not only was it his first appearance in panto, it was also our first attendance at a Royal and Derngate show. So I reckon Jimmy and me go back a long way.

andy-williamsMoon River and Me takes as its starting point, and its backbone throughout the evening, the career of Andy Williams, and how it was firmly linked with the early days of the Osmonds – they guested on his TV shows back in the 60s and it was where they got their first big break. Clearly there was a great chemistry between Mr Williams and the Osmonds – an affection that has carried on to this day, despite Mr Williams’ death in 2012. But the show is not (to my surprise) exclusively Williams. There’s a whole range of ballads and pop, mainly from the 1960s, as well as an Osmonds section. And it’s not just Jimmy Osmond singing – he has two guests: the charming Emily Penny who gives us a fun Downtown and a brilliant Anyone Who Had a Heart; and the amazing young Charlie Green who astonished me with his vocal maturity with songs like Born Free, Alfie and (my favourite performance of the night) Maria; all backed by a great four-piece band.

emily-pennyTechnology also allows Andy Williams to join us in some of the numbers; I’m never entirely sure about how I feel about seeing entertainers, who have died, still virtually performing alongside live performers, but Jimmy’s duet with Andy on Moon River worked extremely well. A word of appreciation to the technical crew – the show looks great, with lots of video footage and photos montaged on screens, as well as the apparently live Mr Williams at the top of his game. But also the light show was just perfect to enhance but not overwhelm the performers and the sound quality was absolutely superb; not over-amplified, never distorted, always crisp, clear and in total balance so you could hear every word.

charlie-greenAs always, when you go to see someone live, they don’t perform your favourite songs. It’s an unwritten law of live music. My favourite two Andy Williams songs are Home Lovin’ Man and It’s So Easy – and neither got an airing. In the brief (too brief?) Osmonds section, my favourite song of theirs, Goin’ Home, was also sadly missing. But we did get a great singalong version of Love Me For a Reason, a funky rock Long Haired Lover from Liverpool and a pyrotechnic Crazy Horses, so that can’t be all bad. From the Andy back catalogue, it was great to hear Jimmy do a fantastic rendition of Happy Heart, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house after his Danny Boy. But Charlie’s Music to Watch Girls By was pretty darn sensational.

jimmy-osmond-moon-river-and-meThis is a high quality, nostalgic, entertaining and thoroughly enjoyable wallow in some great old music and a fitting tribute to one of popular music’s most outstanding interpreters by one of entertainment’s greatest showmen. What’s not to love?! The tour continues throughout the whole of October – enjoyment guaranteed!

Royal and Derngate Theatres Northampton – Happy 10th Anniversary!

10th anniversary partyIt’s been ten years since our spiritual home at the Royal and Derngate Theatres re-opened after their redevelopment, and the Derngate auditorium was born. In those dark days of 2006 we were strangers to Northampton, gentle reader, so I have no recall of the impact of the new complex at the time – although I bet it was major.

FactsYesterday they had a bit of a party to celebrate ten years of achievements – artistic, educational, community-based; and to look forward to the next five years with some special projects they’ve got up their sleeves – more of which shortly. But it was really enjoyable to wallow in the memories of some of those great Made in Northampton productions that Mrs Chrisparkle and I have been privileged to see over the last seven years that we’ve lived locally: the Ayckbourn season (before I started blogging); the brilliant early Tennessee Williams and Eugene O’Neill plays Spring Storm and Beyond the Horizon; the Broadway-transferring End of the Rainbow; the haunting Duchess of Malfi; the hilarious Diary of a Nobody; the stunning Bacchae; the uproarious Mr Whatnot (so funny that we had to book to see it again the following day); the incredible impact of The Body of an American; the gripping King John; the challenging Brave New World; and dozens more besides. The associations with Spymonkey, Figuresthe Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Richard Alston Dance Company. The annual Malcolm Arnold festival. Great musical productions like Oklahoma and Fiddler on the Roof. All the comedians. All the Screaming Blue Murders. The brash and colourful Derngate pantos and the enchanting Christmas plays in the Royal. On top of all this, there’s the creation of the Errol Flynn Filmhouse, No 1 in Northamptonshire’s Fun and Games choice on Trip Advisor. I could go on but it would be self-indulgent.

Facts and figuresAs you would expect, they’re not sitting on their laurels (although they’re continuing to accumulate them at quite a rate.) Plans for the next five years include creating a brand new cinema complex in Daventry – learning from the whole Errol Flynn experience (which is the most comfortable and grown-up cinema I’ve ever experienced; a new school for Northampton which places cultural and creative learning at its heart; and, (and this one excites me the most) being part of a consortium of greats to commission new music theatre, ranging from opera to musicals, to be presented in a festival format using a brand new portable venue called The Mix, which can seat between 200-400 and can pop up in situ in a matter of 48 hours. I’m very excited to see how that evolves. I’m reassured to know that they’re not losing sight of their core activity either and the new programme for next year’s Made in Northampton gems will be coming out in a few weeks – can’t wait.

PartyTo everyone who works at the Royal and Derngate, you play a part in creating the most welcoming and invigorating hub of artistic pursuits and pleasures. We moved into Northampton at the end of 2008 but I don’t think we’ll ever be able to move out – I just can’t imagine not having the R&D on my doorstep. You’ve spoiled us, Mr Ambassador! Royal and Derngate Theatres – so good they named it twice. Here’s to the next five years, ten years, and happy ever after.

Review – Alexandra Dariescu Performs Rachmaninov, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Derngate, Northampton, 15th May 2016

Alexandra Dariescu performs RachmaninovThere’s nothing quite like a classical concert when you’ve been a bit stressed. That old line about music having charms to soothe the savage breast? Darn right. It doesn’t matter if it’s soft and gentle or belting and Wagnerian, music can take the place of a sensual massage any day of the week. I was in the mood for a musical massage, so the timing was perfect! And it’s always a pleasure to welcome back the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to Northampton, the artistic hub of the East Midlands as I like to call it.

Our conductor for this mixed programme of German and Russian music was rising star M. Fabien Gabel, music director of the Quebec Symphony Orchestra, and a handsome and debonair chap to boot. I always like to observe the different ways that conductors work to get the best out of their orchestras. Some get swept away by a veritable tsunami of enthusiasm; others take control with a mere flick of their baton. M. Gabel takes a moderate path, his body lurching at a positive angle towards whatever section of the orchestra he’s addressing. The motion would be enough to send me to the chiropractors – but it certainly works well for him.

Fabien GabelThe first item on the musical agenda was the overture to Humperdinck’s Hansel and Gretel. I do like a good overture to start the ball rolling, and I was unfamiliar with this piece. It’s a very enjoyable mix of the smooth and the staccato and I thought the orchestra did a terrific job with it – beautifully clear phrasing, excellent precision. And there wasn’t a whiff of Release Me about it.

After the overture, the violins had to form a string huddle in the corner of the stage whilst the big guys wheeled on the super Steinway. I can never decide if this rearrangement procedure helps to build up expectation or just looks a bit silly. Half and half, I guess. Leader of the orchestra Duncan Riddell took his seat only to send one of his chair chucks flying, so there was a little more rearrangement to take place before we were able to greet our soloist for the evening, the officially fabulous Alexandra Dariescu. We had already seen Miss Dariescu here before when she performed Mozart’s Piano Concerto No 21, and had the interval crowd buzzing with excitement afterwards. This time she performed Rachmaninov’s Rhapsody on a Theme of Paganini, which is another RPO favourite – we saw it here three years ago performed by Peter Jablonski.

Alexandra DariescuAfter a minor contretemps between Miss Dariescu’s billowing dress and Mr Riddell’s violin stand (the dress, being the more substantial of the two, won), she sat down at the piano and gave us a most amazing performance, full of excitement, jokiness, passion and irreverence. From where we sit, we get a great view of the pianist’s hands on the keyboard. I can tell you there were times during that piece when they were a complete blur. My eyes could not assimilate all that dexterity, and it’s hard to imagine the brain messages that get processed to tell your fingers to move so quickly and so accurately. It took everyone’s breath away. Her reception was so enthusiastic that she returned for an encore – Ginastera’s Argentinian Dance No 2 – a charming little piece that I’d not heard before but full of South American flavour which flourished under Miss Dariescu’s delicate touch.

After the interval we were treated to a very grand experience – Beethoven’s 5th Symphony. I’m not sure I’ve ever heard this performed live before, and it goes without saying what a tremendous work of art it is. From those initial stabbing chords to the final triumph of its ending, there’s not a note wasted that doesn’t play a vital part in its overall effect and structure. It calls for vigour and bravado in its playing and it certainly got that. There’s so much going on during that performance that it was a wonder M. Gabel kept it all together – but he did. I was caught out by the sudden jump from third to fourth movement and it was only just before the end that I realised we were, indeed, just before the end. A hugely entertaining performance of what must be an extraordinarily demanding work. Thanks again to the Royal Philharmonic for continuing to bring their magic to us here in Northampton – may you never cease!

P. S. We weren’t able to order interval drinks – that’s the policy when there’s only a short time before the interval, half an hour we were told. That timing didn’t quite make sense to me, but hey ho. However, after all the piano shifting and the encore, the first part of the concert ended up being a good fifty minutes. Queueing unnecessarily for interval drinks is one of my pet hates, but I didn’t complain. Much. And actually the Beethoven was over relatively quickly, so I ended up finishing my Shiraz whilst walking home (a route that took me through a no-alcohol restricted zone but don’t tell anyone). I had already decided that if the police stopped me I was going to say “Beethoven made me do it.”

Review – An Evening with Lulu, Derngate, Northampton, 9th March 2016

Lulu TourTime to add another name to the list of people whose music I grew up with and whom I never thought one day I would actually see live on stage. Lulu’s been recording songs for almost as long as I’ve been listening to pop music. Her only UK No 1 single was Relight My Fire which she shared with Take That; she had a No 2 with her Eurovision winning Boom-Bang-a Bang, and a No 3 with her version of Bowie’s Man Who Sold The World. Guess which of those three songs she didn’t perform last night? That’s right. Come closer and cuddle me tight. #mustwriteeurovisionoutofthehistorybooks.

Before we startedBut as Mrs Chrisparkle pointed out, her career really has taken a new direction with her latest album, Making Life Rhyme, and a lot of the early stuff would have sounded out of place on that stage last night. Yes, I confess, I had hoped for The Boat That I Row, Me The Peaceful Heart, I’m a Tiger, Love Loves to Love Love as well as her Eurovision winner; and I am sure the audience would have been very happy to hear those songs again too – in fact, there was a massive sigh of relief when we all realised she was just about to perform To Sir With Love. But I accept that there’s a time and a place for everything and Lulu is currently in Try Not To Mention the 1960s mode. It’s something of a running joke, is it not, that the one thing no one wants to hear when they go to see an act they’ve known and loved for decades is “now I’m going to play some tracks from my latest album”. NOO!! We came for nostalgia! We want to be reminded of when we were slim and still had hair! But to be honest, the second song she played was from her new album and within a minute or so of the band striking up, I knew I had to buy it.

DarrenBut I’m leaping too far ahead too quickly. The show started on the dot of 7.30pm with an unassuming bearded guy wandering on to the stage with a guitar. Blimey, that Lulu’s sure let herself go, we all thought to ourselves. But no, this was Mr Darren Hodson, one of her guitarists, come out to warm us up with three songs from his group’s latest album. First he gave us The Leaving Kind, then Feels Like Years, then Crash. I’m not normally one for too much of a country sound, but I must tell you, gentle reader, that I really enjoyed these songs. Terrific guitar work, an excellent sense of story-telling and a genuine warmth in his voice. His group’s called The Southern Companion and the album is 1000 Days of Rain. I commend them to you most heartily. Sold.

LuluThen it was time for the main event. The rest of the band members took to the stage; as well as Darren, there were two other guitarists, John-Louis Riccardi and Yolanda Charles, drummer Ricci Riccardi, and musical director and keyboard player Richard Cardwell. Over the course of the next couple of hours, I really grew to appreciate how talented those musicians are. In the middle, all in black, Lulu. She cuts a petite figure, enhanced by an attitudinally perched hat, and, after the interval, a glitzy red jacket and less uncomfortable boots. Now at the age of 67, she’s no longer the bumptious teenager who cheekily grinned her way through her repertoire. Now she comes across as someone who’s had a serious reappraisal of her life, has worked out what it is she wants from it, is still learning from life’s mistakes, and is using song-writing as a way of re-establishing not only her music career but also her identity. No wonder, then, that she comes on stage, mainlining cool, focussed on her performance more than on her interaction with the crowd. Slowly gaining a relationship confidence with us as each number gets a good reaction, it’s part performance, part therapy.

In full flowWe started off with what I would have bet good money would have been one of her encores – Relight My Fire. It didn’t have the party feel that the old Take That single has; I’d say that Lulu (not necessarily the band) was still in warm-up mode for that one – it was good but it didn’t soar. However, that quickly changed with her second song, the brilliant Faith In You from her new album. It’s got such a deliciously funky rhythm, it captivated me from the start, and it really brought out the best from the band. As did the next song, her 1974 hit of David Bowie’s Man Who Sold The World. I’ve always loved that recording, as it’s so slinky and sensual, and was one of those instances when a cover version revealed hidden depths to what was already a superbly recorded song. Vocally Lulu gave it some fascinating rephrasing which made it very exciting to listen to, but the performance was really made by the brilliant guitar accompaniment by Louis Riccardi. He emphasised all the mournfulness and innate beauty of that melody. Even if nothing else that followed were to be remotely as impressive, then the evening would not have been wasted.

Stage in redIt was at this point that Lulu started to open up, and become a little more confident about talking directly to us, and this became the pattern for the rest of the show, introducing each new item from a personal perspective. Her next song was Where The Poor Boys Dance, that she recorded as a single in 2000. I had heard it before – a long time ago – and it’s a refreshingly honest and sincere number, that I really enjoyed. Other songs she performed included a track about obsession, Every Single Day, from her new album, and Cry, for which she was joined – as a rather heartwarming surprise – by members of the Military Wives Choirs.

YolandaAfter the interval, we were treated to a couple of wonderful Bee Gees songs – Lulu having been married to Maurice, of course, recollected a few warm memories of her being with the group and watching their songwriting process just organically grow in her presence. She gave us a beautiful rendition of To Love Somebody, and then a very emotional I Just Gotta Get A Message To You, one of my personal Bee Gees favourites. I ended up singing it all the way home, much to Mrs C’s alarm and critical response – she didn’t comprehend that I was doing the descant. Lulu on StageAmongst other nuggets, Lulu gave us a fantastic version of To Sir With Love – she said that originally on the tour she had performed a reggae version, inspired by the Reverend Al Green. Apparently it hadn’t gone down too well with the fans. So they’ve pared it back to a very plain and simple version, relying heavily (and exquisitely) on Yolanda Charles’ bass guitar contributions, and it was a thing of beauty. There was also a very different version of Hound Dog, the old Elvis favourite, transformed into a kind of love duet, where us the audience would also lose our inhibitions and join in. And with a knowing wink of recognition that she hasn’t completely abandoned her roots, we ended up with a rousing performance of Shout, a song that stands the test of time surprisingly well; even in an evening of cool there’s always room for a little raucous abandon.

Singing awayTo my amateur eye, Lulu’s tour schedule looks absolutely punishing. Last night Northampton, tonight Barrow, day after tomorrow, Grantham. With 34 dates between 2nd March and 20th April, there’s no room to swing a cat let alone sing I’m a Tiger. If you haven’t seen Lulu live before, or only have memories of her 60s/70s youthful output, go along to one of her concerts. You’ll be amazed. We absolutely loved it.