Review – Cilla the Musical, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 20th February 2018

Cilla the MusicalOne of the ways in which you can categorise celebrity deaths is whether or not they were expected. In 2015 we said goodbye to Leonard Nimoy, Christopher Lee, Ron Moody, Val Doonican, George Cole, Patrick Macnee and Warren Mitchell, who were all in their 80s or 90s so perhaps they were no shock. But we also lost Keith Harris (and, as a result, Orville too), Errol Brown, and, Surprise Surprise, Cilla Black. I don’t think anyone saw that coming. Cilla, who’d been a huge pop star in the 60s, then the mainstay of Saturday night BBC1 entertainment for many seasons; who then bounced back in the 1980s with Surprise Surprise, Blind Date and many other guest appearances and shows; Cilla, who after a few years never needed to use her surname because everyone knew who you meant; Cilla was dead at the age of 72 following a simple fall at her apartment in Spain.

There have been many stories, both before and since her death, about how down to earth she was (or wasn’t), how genuine her Scouse accent was (or wasn’t), and suchlike. I’m not going to go down that path, as Cilla the Musical takes its own occasional sideswipe at her character. There’s no sentimentalising her professional jealousy of Bobby’s upcoming musical career, or how unnecessarily cantankerous she could be in dealings with – for example – Burt Bacharach. But lives are full of intrigue, and if the story of Cilla didn’t dip into a few less rosy aspects of her character or her career, then it wouldn’t be as interesting as it is.

Cilla the singerBill Kenwright’s production took Jeff Pope’s brilliant TV series about her life (starring Sheridan Smith) as its inspiration to create a musical that tells the story of her early years as a typist, trying to break into music, meeting Brian Epstein, palling up with the Beatles, recording with George Martin, an unsuccessful attempt to break into the US market, and finishing up with her own Cilla BBC TV show. Maybe there’s nowhere else to go with that particular stage of her life and career, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who felt the story just stopped a bit too early. It utilises the songs of the time – not only Cilla’s hits (not all of them, mind) but also a couple of Beatles numbers, Gerry and the Pacemakers’ I Like It and the Mamas and the Papas California Dreamin’. It would be wrong to say there isn’t a duff song in the show (those early numbers are a bit weak, and I’m not a fan of Through The Years which rounds it all off) but musically it really packs a punch, with some truly classic hits which really push your nostalgia button.

I loved Gary McCann’s set from the start – a brilliant evocation of the Cavern club, with all those brick archways stretching further and further back; you really get the sense of being in some vibrant, creative basement where extraordinary things could happen. It combines perfectly with Nick Richings’ amazing lighting scheme, which gives vitality to a drab setting transforming it to somewhere genuinely exciting. The big sparkly Cilla sign that heralded in her TV show said everything you needed to know about the dual identity of celebrity – its irresistible flashiness, its essential artificiality.

Cilla the Cavern club performerThe presentation of real-life people on stage is always a sticky wicket. To what extent do you do an impersonation? A half-impersonation? A mere suggestion of the real person? It’s almost impossible to get it right. And this for me is where I have something of a problem with this show. Executive Producer, Robert Willis, Cilla’s real-life son, said “we wanted somebody who wasn’t going to impersonate my mum but someone who could capture her spirit.” Kara Lily Hayworth, who won the open audition to play Cilla, is a splendid singer with a rich, beautiful voice. She also has a great feel for the character, her young cheekiness, her determination; the two moments where she rejects Bobby’s support are so realistically portrayed that they leave you quite breathless with shock. And I think it’s absolutely true – she does capture the spirit of the one and only Cilla.

But Cilla had a unique vocal quality in comparison with the other female performers of her era – the ability to combine the sweetness of the melody with the harsh reality of the lyric. It must have come from her association with George Martin or Lennon/McCartney, because you also see it so clearly in many Beatles’ tracks. Whilst I love (and to be fair, prefer) the big hits of Dusty Springfield or Sandie Shaw, in some of Cilla’s major recordings there is almost an undercurrent of anger, or violence, or utter sorrow moulded into her phrasing and enunciation. Phrases like “loving you the way I do, I take you back”, “love comes love shows, I give my heart and no one knows that I do” and perhaps most of all “when he hears the things that you did you’ll get a belt from yer dad” are all infused with true desperation or sadness; and I’m sorry to say I don’t think Ms Hayworth conveyed any of those emotions at all.

Cilla the guitaristsWe know that she’s not impersonating Cilla, but simply giving a suggestion of her musical performances whilst singing to her own personal strengths and style. That is a fair enough position to take when you’re recreating a well-known real-life person on stage. The trouble is – the Gerry Marsden impersonation was excellent; the Beatles’ impersonations were pretty spot-on; and the Mamas and Papas sequence was fantastic. In his brief appearance as Ed Sullivan, Alan Howell absolutely captured that rather formal, uncomfortable and stilted manner of speaking that Ed Sullivan had; his slightly patronising tone when he was addressing the youth of the day on his TV show. So when the main character isn’t a strong impersonation, but so many of the other performances are, then it leaves a feeling of unbalance.

For me, Ms Hayworth’s interpretation of Cilla’s songs was simply too pretty, too stylish and insufficiently hard-edged. Singing to a child that he can face physical punishment from his drunk father, with a soft, sweet, optimistic tone, just felt wrong to me. Sometimes I don’t think the very showbizzy arrangements of some of the iconic songs did her any favours. Listen to the original recording of Step Inside Love and feel that haunting and haunted concern at the end where the trailing guitar solo just fades away as if to say… maybe he won’t come back this time. It’s a spine-tingling arrangement by Paul McCartney. In this show, it ends with a triumphant showbiz major key happy ending. That was weird. It wasn’t even as though that’s how they did it on Cilla’s TV show.

Cilla at the PalladiumDon’t get me wrong; Ms Hayworth is a terrific singer and a wonderful new find – I just felt that emotionally she didn’t quite give enough. Mrs Chrisparkle observed that in the very moving scene where Bobby’s and Cilla’s relationship appears to be at an end, their performance of You’ve lost that Lovin’ Feelin’ was notable for the way Carl Au’s Bobby absolutely stole the number, with his passion, regret and sorrow, whilst Ms Hayworth was almost a backing singer in comparison. Talking of whom; Carl Au is superb as Bobby. The cheeky lad down the bar; the hapless negotiator; the guilt-laden son; the self-effacing boyfriend; the nervous prospective son-in-law; the desperate one who eats humble pie and asks for forgiveness. He gets them all perfectly, and is also a fantastic singer; his performance of A Taste of Honey is one of the highlights of the evening.

Cilla the managerAndrew Lancel is very convincing as the enigmatic Brian Epstein, a man who had everything and nothing. Softly spoken, quietly manipulative, full of the sexual repression that is heartbreakingly brought out in the juxtaposition with John Lennon’s You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away, I thought he really brought the character to life. Tom Sowinski also gives a good representation of George Martin’s extremely polite, business-like but friendly manner. Pauline Fleming and Neil Macdonald are excellent as Cilla’s parents, squeezing every ounce of humour out of their old-fashioned ways. Billie Hardy and Amy Bridges give great support as Cilla’s girl friends and also in a variety of other minor roles.

Hopefully the few snags we saw on the Tuesday night were ironed out for the rest of the run; it was a shame that the emotional scene where Cilla and Bobby hear of the death of Brian Epstein (sorry, spoilers) was almost ruined by frantic running sounds from backstage as cast members tried to get into place for the next scene in time. As it is, when the next scene started, one microphone was swung round too quickly to get into place and hit one of the singers on the nose (I think she may actually have yelped), and some of the solo musicians (very effective brass, by the way) were late getting on to stage so that it all felt a little shambolic. Ah well, first night in a new theatre, and all that.

Cilla the signIt’s a feelgood show that overall looks superb and is full of great songs to enjoy. Whilst it’s not quite a singular sensation in my book, it’s still very enjoyable and if you like a dollop of 60s nostalgia to accompany a fascinating biographical storyline, It’s For You. After Northampton, the tour continues to Newcastle, Chester, Bristol, Woking, Nottingham, Aylesbury and Norwich, with further dates to be announced.

Production photos by Matt Martin

Review – The Birthday Party, Harold Pinter Theatre, 17th February 2018

The Birthday PartyDo you remember doing your A-levels, gentle reader? If you had the…pleasure…of that experience, you won’t have forgotten it. Staying up half the night cramming in essays on everything left right and centre – well for me it was English, French and German, but that’s not the point. We knew that one of the A level papers in English would have a question on Harold Pinter. Our teacher took us through The Caretaker, and I voluntarily read The Homecoming – but didn’t understand it of course. We also read, in class, The Birthday Party, and our teacher suggested we should write an essay on it for homework, but he wasn’t going to insist on it. We already had enough on our plate.

Birthday PartyBut I was entranced by The Birthday Party and started an essay on it at 7pm which I finished at 1am. I had no idea where I was going with it but I just felt the need to express my reaction to it. I handed it in, hoping that the labour of love would get me some brownie points. But I got more than that. The teacher marked me a straight alpha for it, read it out to all the other classes, and told everyone “here is a man who really loves his subject.” I’ll never forget that. And I got a Grade B in English A level!

TBP Zoe WanamakerThis was Pinter’s first full-length play, originally staged in 1958 when it ran for a dynamic eight performances, no doubt curtailed because of the savaging it received from the critics. Only Harold Hobson in The Sunday Times (always the most reliable observer of drama of his age) recognised Pinter’s talent and saw in the play what others failed to see. Since then it’s had precious few revivals in the UK and I’ve been waiting for a chance to see it for over forty years. Hurrah that Ian Rickson’s production has arrived at the Comedy (I mean Harold Pinter – appropriately) Theatre, and I could not wait to book.

TBP Torturing StanleyHow the memories came flooding back. On the written page it’s very hard to get a feel for this play. Just how menacing is it? (Very.) Just how funny is it? (Surprisingly, quite a lot.) What does it mean? (Now you’re asking….) Here’s the bare bones: Stanley (morose, unkempt, petulant, seedy) has been staying at Meg and Petey’s seaside boarding house for a year now. Petey is a deck chair attendant so is out all day and in all weathers (although who sits on a deckchair in the rain?) which leaves Meg the run of the house, doing the cleaning and the cooking and generally looking after Stanley. He is their only guest. So is he really a bona fide boarding house guest, or just a figment of their imagination, a son figure to complete an otherwise empty family set-up?

TBP Zoe Wanamaker and Toby JonesShattering the status quo, two mysterious men, Goldberg and McCann, arrive, looking for a place to stay. Meg is unsure at first, but they’re gentlemanly and flattering and win her over with ease. But what of their relationship with Stanley? It seems like he knows who they are. It seems like they know who he is. And what appears to be at first polite, distant dealings with him turn into haranguing, menacing, threatening interrogations that he cannot cope with. It’s also, apparently, Stanley’s birthday (although he denies it) and a party is scheduled for 9pm that night. What could possibly go wrong?

TBP Tom Vaughan-LawlorYou could analyse this play for a year and a day and still not come up with anything like a this is what this play is about statement. But that’s the point. Pinter delights in contradiction and obfuscation. Characters say one thing and do another. They assume several identities. Symbols like Stanley’s missing piano or his toy drum take on a force of their own and challenge you to apply reason to them. But if a clear meaning did emerge, Pinter would have had to go back to the drawing board and start again. The audience is a vital part of the production as they fill in some of the gaps in an attempt to make some sense of what’s going on. But there will always be gaps when watching this play, and my suggestion is simply to revel in them.

TBP Toby JonesThe curtain rises to the Quay Brothers’ meticulously realised set; grimy wallpaper peeling from the walls, dark brown wooden panelling that needs updating, dumpy comfortless furniture that reflects the harsh reality of the household. Their costume design is also perfect for the time, location and characters: Stanley’s soiled pyjama top; Meg’s dowdy pinny and dress; Goldberg and McCann’s formal business suits; Lulu and Meg’s glamorous party outfits. For a play and production that relies on high impact lighting cues, Hugh Vanstone’s lighting design works perfectly, from the effect when Stanley strikes a match, the sunlight that comes in from the door that illuminates Stanley’s profile to the shock of the blackout and its subsequent revelations. There’s so much in the background to admire in this production.

TBP Stephen ManganThen you have six tremendous performances that really get to the heart of the text, two of which come under the “perfect casting” heading. Toby Jones is chillingly good as Stanley, a fantastic portrayal of this lethargic lump of barely concealed neuroses, pathetically pretending to a greater existence in his past whilst all too closely fearing for his own mortality. No one does “wretched” quite like Mr Jones and he was absolutely born to play this role. And Zoe Wanamaker gives a masterclass performance as the under-achieving, suggestible Meg, waxing lyrical about those lovely flakes and affecting shock but actually aroused when Stanley calls her succulent. Like Shirley Valentine, Meg has had such a little life, and Ms Wanamaker makes you feel her character long ago stopped trying to break out of it. Her “belle of the ball” moments are genuinely moving, as is Petey’s attempt to protect her from bad news at the end of the play – some great characterisation from Peter Wight there in what you might otherwise think is just a filler character. No line is wasted in a Pinter play.

TBP Peter WightStephen Mangan and Tom Vaughan-Lawlor are excellent as Goldberg and McCann but a complete contrast from how I would have imagined them. In my mind’s eye Goldberg is almost a stereotype east-end Jew, probably lifted from a not very PC sitcom from the 1970s – very Sydney Tafler-esque (whom I note played Goldberg in the 1968 film which I didn’t even know existed). I’ve always thought of McCann as a thuggish Irish navvy-type; the kind who’d wallop you with a spade and then ask questions afterwards. These imaginary characterisations in my head are so different from the realistic, true to life performances on offer in this production. Mr Mangan gives every one of Goldberg’s lines a weight and resonance that I hadn’t known was there before. This makes the character more sinister and threatening – even before he starts becoming sinister and threatening. You can see in Mr Mangan’s eyes how Goldberg is plotting his every move in a chess game where Stanley can never occupy a safe square.

TBP Pearl MackieMr Vaughan-Lawlor’s McCann is more cerebral than thuggish, in a linguistic fencing match where he forces Stanley into a position where Goldberg can go in for the kill. His newspaper-tearing torture, which I had always felt evoked the sound of bones breaking, is actually more like an attack on the mind than the body and is carried out with such intimidating concentration that it made me feel queasy. The two actors work together so well on their combined verbal attacks on Stanley, with beautifully orchestrated and executed delivery so that the poor man is powerless to protect himself. Completing the sextet is a spirited and likeable portrayal of Lulu by Pearl Mackie, the free-thinking outsider who gets caught in Stanley and Goldberg’s cat and mouse game and pays the price.

TBP Boarding house from hellThis is a simply brilliant production that really brings Pinter’s text to life and surprises you with its humour, its anarchy and its sheer menace. You don’t need to be a Drama or English student to enjoy this one. Seriously impressive and highly recommended.

Production photos by Johan Persson

University of Northampton, BA (Hons) Acting & Creative Practice, Graduates 2018 Showcase Programme, 14th February 2018

2018 ShowcaseI was delighted to receive an invitation to the Dress Rehearsal for this year’s London Showcase for the 2018 Graduates of the University of Northampton, BA (Hons) Acting & Creative Practice course. Last year, when I saw the London Showcase, I had already seen the actors in a number of different roles from their appearances at the Royal and at the Flash Festival. This really helped assess the versatility of the performers, and I was surprised at the range some of them achieved. Because of a change in structure of the courses, I’ve only seen these 2018 Graduates in one previous production, Balm in Gilead. So this was just my second opportunity to see them show off their talents, hopefully to attract the attention of agents and managers and to give their careers a jolly good kickstart.

Joe ConroyMy friend and co-blogger Mr Smallmind braved the icy cold to trek up to the Maidwell Hall to watch the cast of fourteen assemble a veritable smorgasbord of theatrical delights, either short sketches or extracts from longer works. Some were extremely serious, giving the cast the opportunity to plumb the depths of aggression or bereavement, to create passionate and hard-hitting drama; others were light-hearted and funny, which brings a totally different strength and skillset to the Showcase. It’s human nature to identify with, and moreover like, someone on stage who makes you laugh; so when you’re trying to win the attention of professionals, whom you want to have on your side in the future, personally I think a good dollop of endearing humour can go a long way.

James GraysonThere were some stand-out sketches and performances for me that I thoroughly enjoyed and thought were superbly acted. The best of the more serious fare was a scene featuring James Grayson and Joe Conroy as two antagonistic attendees at a funeral, with Bobbie-Lee Scott caught between them as a grieving mother. All three gave powerful performances, spitting out the venom of their speeches with glee, but I particularly enjoyed Mr Grayson’s ability to convey controlled anger – every insult hit home, each word was deliciously enunciated. Ms Scott also appeared in a very enjoyable sketch with Amber Jade Harrison where she hilariously ridiculed Ms Harrison’s character’s previous choice of boyfriend, outrageously assassinating the poor off-stage chap whilst she herself was horrendously clad in a ghastly sparkly pink shell suit top. Her comic timing was perfect and, despite the brevity of the sketch, we had a very strong understanding of her character.

Dean AdamsAnother sketch that worked very well featured Dean Adams and Rhiannon Flambard loafing around in the great outdoors whilst he fantasises about being a duck. It’s an immensely silly but strangely touching little scene which both actors delivered perfectly; he stood out for his ability to convey the character’s quite childlike ideas, delivered completely straight-faced, which just made it even more funny. He was also excellent in a rather dark scene with Tiana Thompson, which begins with his amusing self-congratulation on how good a lover he had been the night before, but which gets creepier as you realise that his character probably committed rape. Ms Thompson, too, was very strong as his victim, carefully but powerlessly piecing together her recollections of the night and unable to conclude whether there’s anything she can do to put it right.

Bobbie-Lee ScottThere’s a delightfully cringey scene between a painfully awkward Ross Bayliss and a voluptuously forward Freya Mawhinney where she realises, post-party, that she accidentally went off with the wrong bloke; I really liked Mr Bayliss’s self-deprecating persona in both his scenes. Daniel Peace, James Grayson and Jemma Bentley all feature in a part hilarious, part harrowing scene where a menage a trois seems to have gone seriously wrong; and Mr Peace was also excellent in a two-hander (pardon the pun) where he asked Mr Conroy to inspect his undercarriage as he thought he had a lump down there. Both actors really conveyed the awkward humour of that situation superbly.

Jemma BentleyIf I were to be handing out awards for the best performers, then I would say James Grayson, Jemma Bentley, Bobbie-Lee Scott and Dean Adams would probably be jockeying for position with the best chances. But the great thing about this Showcase is that everyone gave a great account of themselves and the standard of performance was very high. The big event is at the Soho Theatre on Friday 16th February and I’m sure the whole group will deliver some outstanding performances!

Review – Canterbury Tales, BA (Hons) Acting Final Year Students, University of Northampton, St Peter’s Church, Northampton, 8th February 2018

Canterbury TalesI think it’s fair to say that you could describe Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales as something of a success story. They’ve been around for more than 600 years and are incredibly adaptable to modern taste – in addition to the original, all-hallowed text, there are modernised versions for children, TV and film adaptations, even a 1960s musical. There’s nothing you can do to the Canterbury Tales to shake their sure foundation.

Alexandra PienaruThe Final Year Students have devised a show based on the Tales, where a group of young people are holed up in a church and tell stories to each other to keep their spirits up whilst the world outside falls apart (from the programme – I’m paraphrasing). Now, I have to make two confessions here. One of the ways you can divide up the general population is those who like to have stories read to them, and those who don’t. On the whole, I don’t. I was the child who didn’t enjoy Jackanory. If someone starts reading a story, it isn’t long before my eyes droop, my mind wanders and, once I realise I’ve lost the thread, I give up. I’m much more entertained by acting out a story than having it read to me. So, for story-telling to grab my attention it has to be really electric. Another confession is – I don’t really like Chaucer. Believe me, I tried. I did a whole term at university constantly companioned with a copy of Chaucer’s Complete Works and it was eight weeks of pure headache. I couldn’t get my head around the language, or the characters, or the conventions of the age. And I did really badly on my Chaucer paper. So Chaucer and I are not really mates.

Anna GallagherFor me, this was a show of two halves: that is, a show of good performances and dull content. At times the staging is also somewhat alienating. At first, when you see the plan of the church and locations marked where each story is told, which helpfully accompanies the programme, I thought we were going to be treated to a performance in promenade, which would have been great. I’d have loved to have followed the actors around the church, Pied Piper-like. Instead, we were seated on one side of the choirstalls for a bit, then the other, and finally asked to move down into the main body of the church. In the choirstalls, the proximity to and view of the action is excellent. But once you’re in the pews, there are considerable areas where the action takes place that are simply too far away, and too obstructed, for you to see. Don’t get me wrong – the use of the space is incredibly inventive; but you can be as inventive as you like but still achieve nothing if your audience can’t see you properly!

Ceara CoveneyI was grateful for the programme because without it I think I would have been totally lost. Some stories get told – or at least represented – more than once, which feels a little odd. Hence we have two prioresses, two millers, three squires and four wives of Bath. No question, each character conveyed the stories differently; indeed, some tale-tellings bore little, if any, resemblance to what we know of the Tales from our English lessons. But repetition is still repetition, and was one of the reasons why – sorry to say – I got bored in this show. Although eleven separate tales are represented in this play, it lacked variety and it lacked oomph.

Oliver FranksDespite my moaning about repetition, two definite highlights of the show were the two adaptations of the Miller’s Tale. It’s the one everyone knows because it’s rude, crude and lewd; and that brief moment of recognition when the audience realises oh yes I know this one is one of the reasons the tale stands out. The first rendition, by Anna Gallagher as a super-cool, hyper-trendy, OMG-type was told with great characterisation and some genuine passion for the story; it was also very funny. In the second rendition, Jake Wyatt recounted it in the only other thoroughly convincing manner – that of a foul-mouthed lad sharing his story with his mates, like they were thirteen year olds passing round a porn magazine. Mr Wyatt bellows out his obscenities with utter relish and does a really fine job of it.

Chloe HoffmeisterMany of the performers assist in the telling of other stories as well as telling their own, and for me, Ceara Coveney, Alexandra Pienaru and Oliver Franks stood out as being great all-rounders. Additionally, I enjoyed Terrell Oswald’s rapport with the audience as the curtailed Cook – clever how he doesn’t finish his tale, just like the original; Chloe Hoffmeister was a very sassy Wife of Bath, and Bryony Ditchburn sang the Franklin’s Tale like an angel. Gemma Leigh, Oliver Franks and Jason Pile told a love triangle version of the Pardoner’s tale very eloquently by mime, and the Samson and Delilah element of the Monk’s Tale was a very dramatic ensemble affair of gouging out the eyes of the menfolk, with the cascades of blood represented by billowing red ribbons; really effective staging.

Canterbury TalesSo, overall, the performances were very good and there were some scenes that entertained, but, sadly, for me, many didn’t and I found a few of the elements of the show rather self-indulgent and overlong. I’m afraid there was no post-show buzz from the audience after the curtain call, and I personally felt like I’d had my energy sapped. But then, I never really liked Chaucer anyway, so what do I know?

Review – Accused, BA (Hons) Acting Final Year Students, University of Northampton, St Peter’s Church, Northampton, 7th February 2018

AccusedIt’s been 54 years since the last person was hanged in the UK, but it was as recent as 2004 that capital punishment was abolished under all circumstances. It’s the ultimate punishment, the ultimate deterrent, and has always been a source of passionate argument either in favour or against, depending on your view. But supposing you knew someone, or had to work alongside someone, or lived with someone, who had committed a crime so heinous that the State had decided their life had to be terminated? Would you loathe them for their crime? Pity them for facing their unavoidable fate? Befriend them in a last chance of human support?

Alexander Forrester-ColesThis devised play takes Oscar Wilde’s Ballad of Reading Gaol as its inspiration, that haunting, haunted work analysing reaction to the death penalty by the prisoners. The condemned man had killed the thing he loved; but each man kills the thing he loves, so it’s a case of There but for the Grace of God. And that’s what the audience feels too; without knowing the crime that our prisoner has committed, we can’t have a truly informed reaction to his plight. And it’s the not knowing that really makes this a curiously intense and thought-provoking drama.

Jac BurbridgeWhen you arrive in the church, you’re disconcerted from the start. Should you sit in the pews? Should you sit in the choirstalls? There are various prisoners loafing their way around the chancel, but a burly guard has his back to you and you wonder, do I dare walk past him and sit down? You do. The prisoners are enjoying (if that’s the right word) their free association time, so you eavesdrop on conversations, games, petty squabbles, and so on. One solitary prisoner seems very uncomfortable in this environment; we later discover that he has a great aptitude for art and an addiction to accuracy –- thus I deduced he was somewhere on the autistic spectrum. Into this melting pot arrives the Accused; a man with a reputation so bad that (almost) all the other prisoners avoid him, swear at him, despise him. Only the autistic prisoner doesn’t avoid him, but only because there’s still 23 minutes of his free time left.

Kate Morgan-JonesThere are four guards, each with a different attitude to the prisoner. One detests him for what he has done, and doubtless will show him no mercy at any time he’s under his tender care. Another treats him like any other prisoner – which is with great kindness as she is the nurturing type. A third is ghoulishly fascinated by him – almost a fan – and wants to know how it feels to have your own death hovering so near. The fourth, whilst naturally an enforcer, is prepared to bend the odd rule to make his last few days more bearable.

Robert BarnesApart from Alexander Forrester-Coles, playing the Accused, and Jake Statham as the cleaner, this is very much an ensemble piece. Mr Forrester-Coles plays the role as the archetypal strong and silent type. He combines the mystery of the man with an essential dignity which was most impressive to witness. His self-protecting barriers are all up; refusing to answer questions, or to rise to the bait of taunting prisoners. But he will attack back if he identifies a weak spot in one of his critics’ characters, and as he gets closer to his death he does open up a little to reveal something of the man behind the mask. It’s a very strong and compelling performance and I was totally convinced by him. Just as the Accused is the man that everyone notices, Mr Statham was also excellent as the man no one notices, the cleaner; an outsider in a different way, talking out of turn to the audience as if we’re his mates, a kind of Everyman character. I would have liked to see more of him as the intensity of the play develops, to get his Everyman take on what’s going on, rather than just having him “bookend” the action. Technically, as not the best hearer in the world, I really appreciated the clarity of his speech which definitely helped his characterisation to shine through; a minor character but a major performance.

Radostin RadevWhat impressed me most about the piece was how extremely high the overall standard of performance was; in previous years, there have always been one or two people whose range and complexity has left just a little to be desired but this cast is the closest I’ve seen to a “dream team” since I’ve been watching these student plays.

Xara ChisanoKate Morgan-Jones stands out as the ringleader of the prisoner ruffians. Belligerent, argumentative, determined; you really wouldn’t want to cross her. Offering a very different characterisation, I thought Robert Barnes was superb as the loner prisoner; again very credible, his delivery was beautifully paced throughout, and you could see the complexity of his thought processes straining to get through his expressions. I also really enjoyed D B Gallagher’s junkie prisoner, responding with quiet desperation to any threat that endangers his access to drugs. Jac Burbidge also excelled in his variety of roles, both as the firebrand guard speechless with horror at having to deal with the Accused, and as the ever-so-helpful priest exchanging pleasantries with the executioner (a delightfully understated performance from Georgi McKie).

Georgi McKieI was very impressed with Radostin Radev as the ghoulishly fascinated guard; he played him with style, assurance and just a perfect touch of eerie nastiness. Xara Chisano’s performance as the fourth guard enabled you to see all her inner conflicts, which created a truly fascinating character from not many words; this was another very assured and realistic performance. And Ellen Tritton portrayed the well-meaning guard with great clarity and simplicity; I loved the way that whenever any of the prisoner’s rejected her help she carried on regardless without ever taking it personally – a very strong characterisation.

Jake StathamEveryone created a very memorable impression of their own characters and their part in the play. You could pick this production up and plonk it down in the middle of the Edinburgh Fringe and it would make good money. I went home full of my own thoughts and responses to the issues raised by the play and the various characters. Exceptional stuff! Congratulations all!

Review – Of Mice and Men, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 5th February 2018

Of Mice and MenOnce again, I have to confess my ignorance, gentle reader, and tell you that I have never read John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. I know that for someone with a degree in English that’s a pretty shoddy state of affairs. Fortunately, Mrs Chrisparkle was also equally ignorant, but that’s A Good Thing Overall when it comes to seeing a dramatization of a well-known story. Experiencing a work of art for the first time, I didn’t know how it was going to end up; so if it is a good story, it ought to keep us spellbound. And it did; eventually. I sensed it was never going to end well – and I wasn’t wrong.

OMAM7I hadn’t even given any thought to the title, but of course it goes back to the old saying that the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray. Or, as the late Dowager Mrs C used to delight in enunciating, gang aft agley; she was always a poetry purist. It’s certainly true that those best laid plans end up pretty worthless in this story of the unlikely friendship between intelligent, savvy George Milton and the simple yet sadly brutal Lennie Small. I like the concept of unlikely friendships; I have many of them myself. On the road, trying to find work wherever they can get it, George and Lennie are expected at The Boss’s ranch to “buck barley” (whatever that is); and they should be fine provided Lennie remembers to keep his mouth shut. Their best laid plan is to get enough cash to buy their own farm somewhere, so that they can live in security and safety; not afraid of hard work but hoping for the benefits that hard work would bring them.

OMAM6However…. at the Boss’s ranch, they meet the wretched little Curley, one of those pint-sized bullies, and her bored and presumably sexually frustrated wife (who goes by the name of… Curley’s wife). She likes to hang around the guys for company, but the only consequence of that is that Curley gets even more annoyed and bullying, as he suspects everyone’s having an affair with her. He decides to take it out on Lennie because it appears that he won’t fight back…. Until he does…

OMAM5You knew all that anyway, gentle reader, and there’s no doubt that it is a good story and maybe even something of a tear-jerker. Even so, I found the first act to be extremely slow and exposition-intensive. It certainly improves with the fight scene, and with the second act things get much more interesting. On the face of it, David Woodhead’s set works well, with the simple evocation of the brushwoods by the river bank, and the various rooms and dorms of the Barn and Bunkhouse at the ranch. It’s a coincidence, I am sure, but the opening scene features a river at the far front of the stage, exactly the same as in last year’s Grapes of Wrath. One wonders if Steinbeck had a thing about rivers.

OMAM4In that production, there was real water in a tank which gave a tremendous sense of reality. Here, though, the river is imaginary, represented only by the sounds of gushing water when Lennie and George sloosh their heads underneath or cup their hands to splash themselves with. I’m normally one to prefer design that works on the imagination more than being obviously “real” – but in this case, I found the artifice of the design rather annoying. You could see there was no water; you could see, in the elaborate fight scene, that none of the punches was landing. The reality came from the sound effects; if you see the show, you’ll know precisely what I mean. It’s not often a simple sound effect can make you squirm in your seat. There were also a few weird incidents offstage that caused the otherwise quite atmospheric lighting to flicker every time someone walked somewhere they shouldn’t. There was even one occasion when someone came on stage, behind the semi-transparent backdrop, hovered for a bit, then wandered off. If this was meant to suggest the world going on around them, it didn’t work. It just looked like someone got their cue wrong.

OMAM2But enough carping. The production is lucky enough to have some excellent performances, none greater than Matthew Wynn as Lennie, a gentle giant if ever there was one. It must be a really tough role to get right; I can imagine it being so easy to pantomime-up the character’s simple nature, or to brutalise down his incredible strength. Mr Wynn pitches it just perfectly and makes him a very believable character; effortlessly portraying Lennie’s emotions that he wears on his sleeve and unnerving us when his demons start to show through. It’s a really superb performance. Richard Keightley is also extremely good as George, not hiding his irritation at how Lennie slows him down and stops him (at least, as he sees it) from getting on well in life. But he is a true friend, and always offers kindness to Lennie, right to the bitter end.

OMAM1Andrew Boyer is excellent as the old retainer Candy, clutching at the straw of potential partnership with George and Lennie, knowing he is powerless to prevent his old dog from being put out of its misery, clinging to the wreckage of memories that are worth so much more than today’s reality. Kamran Darabi Ford does a good job of conveying the aggressive character of Curley, punchy little prick that he is, and Rosemary Boyle is extremely good at balancing that slightly coquettish, slightly come-on look with her protestations that’s she’s a good girl deep down. The other characters are all very well portrayed; I especially enjoyed Kevin Mathurin’s Crooks, annoyed at the others invading his space when he’s not allowed to invade theirs, Darren Bancroft’s feisty Carlson and Harry Egan’s excitable Whit.

OMAM3Right up until the final moment we weren’t sure how the story would resolve itself; that’s a testament to the mastery of John Steinbeck. But I confess I wasn’t sufficiently moved to need to wipe away a tear. For some reason, the production appealed much more to the head than the heart, and I found that thinking about George’s reasons for his actions and why he did it, much more absorbing than any emotional reaction. Having read the synopsis and leafed through my copy of the book, this seems to me to be very true to Steinbeck’s original work, including the occasional use of the N word, which always makes an audience feel uncomfortable, so be prepared. After its week here in Northampton, it goes on to Mold, Glasgow, Salisbury, Brighton, Wimbledon, Tunbridge Wells, Manchester and Swansea.

Review – Barnum, Menier Chocolate Factory, 4th February 2018

BarnumI had a really bad night’s sleep the night before we saw Barnum. And I know precisely why; even though we go to the theatre a lot (I’m very lucky, gentle reader, and I do try not to take it for granted), I couldn’t sleep simply because I was genuinely so excited to see the show again. I saw the original production of Barnum at the London Palladium with the late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle back in 1981. Front stalls seats for £8.50… they charged £99.50 for the same seats for Dick Whittington last month. Michael Crawford was always one of my theatrical heroes, and he’s rarely taken to a role with such positivity and enthusiasm as that of Phineas Taylor Barnum. In 1996 Mrs Chrisparkle and I saw a touring production at the Wycombe Swan starring Andrew O’Connor. I remember enjoying it; that’s all I remember.

Barnum and circus typesThen a few years ago, Barnum was revived at Chichester, in a big top tent in the park, whilst the Festival Theatre was being refitted. A perfect use of the space, and a magnificent setting for the revival. PTB was played by Broadway star Christopher Fitzgerald. Comparisons are odious, but he lacked the showbizzy pizzazz of Michael Crawford, and he couldn’t walk the tightrope. He did, however, invest the part with loads of emotion, so his affair with Jenny Lind, and his bereavement when his beloved Charity dies (oops, spoilers, sorry) were really moving.

Barnum and palsSo now we have a brand new Barnum, in that amazingly versatile theatre space, the Menier Chocolate Factory, which has been jiggered around so that it now feels like a proper big top. First thing: the staging is superb. Even just entering the theatre, you might bump into the ringmaster or some of his assistants; the bar/reception area recreates Barnum’s museum, with suitable pictures and artefacts; on the way out, his mermaid even shows up to direct us towards the egress. It all makes absolutely perfect scene-setting. Inside the auditorium, various cast members play card tricks with the audience, or create balloon animals for children of all ages; it was one of those shows where I was absolutely loving it before it had even begun.

Barnum and CharityInevitably though, with this in the round staging, for every moment when part of the action is right in front of you and you have the best view in the house, there’s another moment when you simply can’t see what’s going on. We sat in seats A 84 & 85, from where you couldn’t see the balcony where Charity often looked down on the action and where (I believe) the blues singer opens the song Black and White. When Tom Thumb’s elephant appears, his right leg completely obliterated the view of the stage so we couldn’t see the final part of Bigger Isn’t Better – and also from that angle, you had no sense of how the theatrical illusion of the elephant worked. So, some friendly and helpful advice: if you haven’t booked yet, and there are still some tickets left for some shows, I’d definitely opt for seats numbers 20 – 36, no matter what row you choose. The Menier is one of the most intimate acting spaces I know, and even if there were a full house for Barnum it can’t seat more than 190 people for one show; so the atmosphere is still magic no matter where you sit.

Barnum castIn the title role is Marcus Brigstocke, whom we’ve seen twice doing stand-up and once in Spamalot, and he’s always a total joy to watch. But what would he make of the iconic role of Barnum, the supreme showman? As you would expect, he makes it his own. Wisely, there’s no attempt to impersonate Crawford, or to go over the top on the pizzazz. Mr Brigstocke’s Barnum is not so much the supreme showman, more the supreme businessman – and I don’t mean that unkindly. Much of the story revolves around Barnum’s building up of his circus/museum empire, assessing the benefits of one act over the next, working out how much they should be paid, going into partnerships with various other businessmen; and also getting his work/life balance right vis-à-vis his good lady wife. In these regards, Mr B is absolutely spot on. For the other aspects of Barnum’s character, I found him perhaps a little staid, a little respectable. I’m not sure he’d ever run away to join the circus, but he’d definitely be their Operations Manager. Credit where it’s due though; on the show we saw, he performed the tightrope trick perfectly, so kudos to him for that, given he’s quite a big bloke!

Barnum Political campaignThe character of Barnum has a lot of singing to do, and I’d say that Mr Brigstocke’s singing voice has come a long way since we saw him in Spamalot. Technically, it’s a really demanding role and challenges the performer’s vocal dexterity. For example, he has to enunciate the Museum Song, a patter song with so many words per minute that most people would need a lie down after it. I couldn’t work out whether it was Mr Brigstocke’s performance, or the Menier’s sound system, but quite a lot of it got, shall we say, lost in action. But I’ve no wish to be mean, I really enjoyed Mr Brigstocke as Barnum, he had an avuncular charm and great interaction with the audience; and we got to shake his hand as part of his political rally.

Barnum - Charity's heard it all beforeThe rest of the cast are outstanding, in all departments. Laura Pitt-Pulford is as splendid as you would imagine as Chairy Barnum, with her beautiful singing voice complimenting perfectly the sentiments of The Colours of My Life, I Like Your Style (by the way, how come it became I liked your style?) and my own favourite, One Brick at a Time. She also teased out all the emotion of the role; you could have heard the legendary pin drop – or indeed, her heart break – when she realised that her Taylor was staying behind to play the jackdaw with the Swedish nightingale. Talking of whom, Celinde Schoemaker is brilliant as Jenny Lind; captivatingly beautiful, an extraordinary voice and really expressing that spoilt, demanding and tiresome character that lurked beneath. The staging of Love Makes Such Fools of us All, within a picture frame, was both beautiful and tragic to witness. Tupele Dorgu is an amusingly young looking Joice Heth – almost throwing Barnum’s humbug in our face to think that she could be 160 years old – and I loved her renditions of Black and White and especially Thank God I’m Old, which I reckon is one of the funniest songs in musical theatre. I remember how when I saw the Palladium production, “Thank God I’m Old” really made the late Dowager laugh her head off; which, if you ever knew her, gentle reader, may well come as quite a surprise.

Barnum - Black and WhiteI was delighted to see one of my favourite performers, Harry Francis, as Tom Thumb; having seen him dance his way through A Chorus Line, Chicago and Fiddler on the Roof, I knew he’d bring something special to this show. I bet no other Tom Thumb has ever performed so many perfect pirouettes, executed brilliantly without travelling from the start position. It was also great to see another fantastic dancer, Danny Collins, so amazing as Dr Jekyll a couple of years ago, as Amos Scudder. Dominic Owen plays the ringmaster more like one of the lads than the boss, which is an interesting way of looking at the role, and his curious Mr Bailey at the end was a picture of awe and wonderment at the wonderful world of circus, rather than the hard-nosed businessman I’ve seen before. The ensemble are vivacious and entertaining, with some great circus performers as well as the musical theatre types. Amongst them I reckon young Ainsley Hall Ricketts is going to be One To Watch for the future! I almost forgot to mention Rebecca Howell’s choreography, which would have been most remiss of me. Funny, exhilarating, inventive, joyful; it matched the music and the story perfectly and was a sheer delight.

Barnum - Jenny LindIt wasn’t until the final song – Join The Circus – was starting up that I remembered quite how much significance and emotion I, personally, invest in Barnum the show. Basically, I’d forgotten how much it reminded me of my old mum; she who was an enormous Michael Crawford fan, she who found the character of Joice Heth so hilarious. Never underestimate the power of the theatre to stir the emotions and trigger the nostalgia button; nor ever underestimate the power of a show tune to get the old waterworks flowing. By the time we were putting our coats on to brave the Southwark winter, I found the tears were fair coursin’ down my cheeks, so they were. Now I wasn’t expecting that!

Barnum - Tom ThumbIt wasn’t perfect; few things are. But I can’t tell you how much I enjoyed it. No wonder I couldn’t sleep the night before. If you ever dreamed of running away and joining a troupe of acrobats and clowns, this is the show for you. If you love immersive theatre where the action comes up right close to you, this is also the show for you. It runs until 3rd March and I’d be thrilled to go again, if you’ve got a spare ticket.

Production photos by Nobby Clark