Review – Our Lady of Kibeho, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th January 2019

Our Lady of KibehoTime: 1981; Place: Kibeho, a sleepy town in the southwest of Rwanda. 17-year-old Alphonsine Mumureke, student at Kibeho College, receives the first of many visions of the Virgin Mary. Disbelieved by teachers and fellow students alike, she is ridiculed and accused of attention-seeking, or at best hallucinations, until another student, Anathalie Mukamazimpaka also has a vision. Oldest girl in the school Marie Claire Mukangango bullies and taunts the other girls until she, too, has a vision. Perplexed and confused, the local authorities cannot believe what the girls are saying is true, but nor can they account for the obviously otherworldly experiences the girls have, such as acquiring immense weight or floating above the ground in their beds.

olok10Eventually a papal representative makes the journey from Rome to Kibeho to see for himself and test the evidence of the girls. During these visitations, the Virgin Mary has apparently passed on messages to the girls for the attention of both the Rwandan President and to his Holiness the Pope. When all the townsfolk gather together on the Feast of the Assumption to witness a special visitation that the Virgin Mary has promised, she uses the girls to warn of the Rwandan Genocide and the Kibeho Massacre that would take place ten years later.

olok1This is the UK premiere of this superb play by Katori Hall that was first performed in the US in 2014. With elements of The Crucible, but very much its own play, it’s full of beautifully drawn characters, pin-drop hearing suspense, riveting drama and thorough spookiness. It also reveals the dark rivalry and incipient racism between the Tutsi and the Hutu peoples, which spills out into playground violence and of course presages the atrocities to follow. However, it’s also laced with a surprising amount of humour, with the badinage between the girls, the grumpiness of the nun, the cynicism of the bishop and the culturally contrasting Italianisms of the visiting Father Flavia.

olok9But the heart of the story is not only the extraordinary revelations and experiences of the girls, it’s also the reactions and attitudes of the very human and fallible headmaster, Father Tuyishime, who is undergoing his own questioning and misgivings about his faith. He’s the only authority figure inclined to believe the girls; so when they’re doubted and tested, by association, so is he. When the cold-hearted Father Flavia sticks his needle into Alphonsine’s chest to gauge her reaction, you feel him bleed just as much as she does. His journey (yes, it’s J-word time) is the thread that unifies the play.

olok7I don’t know whether it’s the skill of Ms Hall’s writing, James Dacre’s direction or the individual actors’ performances – probably a combination of all three – but what sets this play apart is the range of wonderfully idiosyncratic characterisations. There are so many superb performances in this production that it’s hard to know where to start. Michelle Asante’s Sister Evangelique is more battleaxe than beneficence; long used to the trying ways of teenage girls, no doubt, she shows all the signs of that nun-like cruel to be kindness that convent girls all over the world have spent their lives coming to terms with. She doesn’t care who she’s snappy with – parents, headmaster, bishop, Papal emissary, they’ve all got to do things her way or there’ll be trouble. She’s probably kind too; which makes for a fascinating character blend. Ms Asante’s performance is a total joy; menacing, sarcastic, manipulative but also vulnerable.

olok3Gabrielle Brooks’ Alphonsine is an excellent study of an ordinary girl projected into a position of greatness without seeking it. Confused, resentful even, of the attention of the Virgin Mary, she’s still working out her role in life; for example, to what extent she finds Father Tuyishime attractive, how much she needs to take control of her own situation, must she comply with the demands of the Vatican and the local authorities. Yasmin Mwanza’s Anathalie is a demure, bullyable, unassuming girl, thrust into the religious limelight, surprised by the influence she seems to have acquired. Pepter Lunkuse’s Marie-Clare is a brilliant portrayal of a young person to whom authority comes naturally but with a tendency to abuse it by bullying and hectoring; and when she, too, is visited by the Virgin Mary, she is forced to fall into line with those she has bullied, but still remains a defiant, difficult, bristly person to deal with. It’s a superb performance.

olok4Leo Wringer is outstanding as the beaming and totally untrustworthy bishop; a man with his eyes on the tourism prize, who manages to toe the Catholic line yet still go home to his wife for his creature comforts. We’ve all met authority figures who have carved out a comfortable, hypocritical niche for themselves and get away with murder, and Mr Wringer conveys this brilliantly. Ewart James Walters is also excellent as the parent whose concern is less for the wellbeing of his daughter and more for the consequences on his income, but still wants to be centre stage when the media roll into town.

olok6The ever-reliable Michael Mears is rivetingly good as Father Flavia from Rome; a controlled blend of sardonic mistrust, sadistic ruthlessness and devastated revelation when he hears the words of the Virgin through the mouth of a child. And there are some smart and strong performances from Michaela Blackburn, Ibinabo Jack and Rima Nsubuga as the other girls at the college, and a plaintive, emotional performance from the multi-talented Keenan Munn-Francis as Emmanuel, the local boy who also catches the religious mania.

olok12A big highlight for me was to see Ery Nzaramba again, mesmeric as Dionysus in The Bacchae a few years ago; once more he excels, this time as Father Tuyishime. He’s one of those actors who dominates the stage, whose emotions you can see simply by looking at his eyes. You immediately connect with his character, identify with him, and feel all the doubts, concerns, injustices, and defeats that he experiences. You connive with his backhanded comments about Sister Evangelique. You tentatively explore any sexual feelings he might have about touching Alphonsine with him. You try to talk him out of his career decision at the end. To be fair, Ms Hall has written a humdinger of a role, and Mr Nzaramba brings it to life magnificently.

olok2I have no hesitation in calling this play a Modern Classic. The riveting storyline, the dynamic characterisations, the superb writing, the dramatic wow-factor. And I haven’t even mentioned Orlando Gough’s music, Jonathan Fensom’s convincing set design or Charles Balfour’s clever and suggestive lighting. Carling don’t do stage productions, but if they did…. It’s on at the Royal and Derngate until 2nd February and I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

Review – Pinter Six, Pinter at the Pinter Season, Party Time and Celebration, Harold Pinter Theatre, 12th January 2019

Pinter SixSo after a healthy visit to Wagamama, (ok, don’t mention the Sauvignon Blanc… or the White Chocolate and Ginger Cheesecake), it was back to the Comedy, I mean Harold Pinter Theatre for another pre-show Champagne Package experience and then into the delights of Pinter Six, two one-act plays utilising the same cast, both (on the face of it) celebratory in nature, both highlighting social injustice and the politics of class.

party time castParty Time was written and produced in 1991 and presents a party (no surprises there) where people share suggestions, concerns, prejudices, memories; much like any other party really, but there’s an ever-increasing threat outside which we never fully comprehend, but which bursts on stage and disrupts the charming scene right at the end. Jamie Lloyd has created a very stylised production, where all the partygoers are sitting bolt upright, facing us, in semi-darkness, and they step forward and perform in a small space at the front of the stage john simm in party timewhenever we’re overhearing their part of the ongoing conversation. This creates a much less cosy party environment, and a sense that these characters are on display, being judged. It accentuates their individual isolation, as they remain motionlessly unconnected with those speaking unless they’re part of the same conversation; and Mr Lloyd hasn’t positioned couples together, which makes it even more disconcerting.

eleanor matsuura in party timeIt’s a fantastic mixture of the hilarious and the appalling. John Simm’s Terry is rich but lacking in class; trying to impress Phil Davis’ host Gavin with details of the club, and eventually bestowing honorary membership on him, which you just know he’s going to ignore. Gavin golfs, and sails, and hosts parties. Terry dismisses his wife Dusty’s worries about her brother Jimmy, who is part of the outside problem, whatever that is; so whenever she raises concerns about him she makes Terry appear less attractive a prospect for social climbing. party time laughterMeanwhile Fred and Douglas are discussing the use of power to enforce peace, whilst Liz and Charlotte bicker about tarts (not the custard type), and relationships; and Lady Melissa reflects on how life was better in the good old days. Only the sudden arrival of Jimmy at the end, having emerged from the terrible outdoors, breaks the social chit-chat, his body beaten and bloodied, his mental capacity in delusions and darkness. The party’s over.

gary kemp in party timeIt’s a fantastic ensemble performance, from a cast of experienced Pinter practitioners, all immersed in Pinter lore right up to their elbows. We’d seen John Simm in Pinter’s Betrayal in Sheffield some years back; and he, Ron Cook and Gary Kemp all shone in Jamie Lloyd’s production of The Homecoming four years ago; how wise to reunite such a winning team. Mr Simm balances his character’s agreeable façade with his brutal inner emotions on a knife edge, in a gripping and deeply unpleasant portrayal of a worm done good. Mr Davis matches him with a faux-avuncularity that is only wafer-thin; you sense he could snap a body in two with a nod (actually, he wouldn’t do it himself, he’d have trained staff to do it for him). katharine kingsley gary kemp and celia imrie in party timeKatherine Kingsley and Ron Cook make a humorously unlikely couple; and it is left only to Eleanor Matsuura’s Dusty and Celia Imrie’s Melissa to show any element of humanity in this otherwise fake and bitter environment. Party Time may only be 35 minutes long, but its mixture of intimidation and comedy of manners means you’re certainly ready for your interval Chardonnay.

celia imrie in party timeThe second half of this brilliant double-bill is Celebration, first performed in 2000 and the last original play that Pinter wrote. This time we’re in an extremely expensive restaurant where Lambert and Julie are celebrating their wedding anniversary in the company of Matt and Prue (who happen to be Lambert’s brother and Julie’s sister). Financially, they’ve obviously done very well for themselves – well enough for their loud and uncouth behaviour not to cause a problem with the Maitre D’ or the restaurant owner. Russell and Suki are also dining; she once had a fling with Lambert, and when he notices her in the restaurant they all decide to sit together. However, for the purposes of this production, ron cook and celia imrie in celebrationrather like Party Time, they’re already sitting together on one long table and it’s only the lighting flashing on and off over different heads that tells you whose table we’re eavesdropping on. As before, this increases a sense of style and artifice; but unlike Party Time, where you had a feeling of isolation, here you feel that people have been forced together – perhaps under duress. Will sparks fly? Or will everything be nicely controlled by the restaurant staff?

tracy-ann oberman in celebrationAgain, there’s an amazing feel for ensemble work, with split-second accuracy of timing between the two “tables” being a vital component of keeping the play moving. Ron Cook, Phil Davis, Celia Imrie and Tracy-Ann Oberman are all delightfully squiffy and embody various shades of grotesque as they gracelessly trample over everything in life from the comfort of their well-stocked dinner table. phil davis in celebrationKatherine Kingsley’s Suki is another of Pinter’s innocents abroad, with a kindly open heart and a thirst for knowledge, but saddled with John Simm’s self-confessed psychopath of a husband Russell, whom she tries to both impress and subjugate herself. They make for a very entertaining couple.

eleanor matsuura in celebrationAdd to the mix, Eleanor Matsuura’s alarmingly honest Maitre D’, Sonia, Gary Kemp’s painfully tolerant restaurateur Richard, and Abraham Popoola’s hilariously delusional waiter, whose gossipy tales of his close association with all the greats from T. S. Eliot to the Archduke Ferdinand you can almost believe, and you have a scintillating sequence of dramatic highlights that meant my smile never left my lips for the entire play. A fabulous, joyfully funny and satisfying piece that works as a perfect accompaniment to Party Time. abraham popoola in celebrationOf all the Pinter at the Pinters that I’ve seen so far, this is the one I most want to see again. It’s on in repertory with Pinter Five until 26th January, and I very warmly recommend it to you!

Production photos by Marc Brenner

Review – Pinter Five, Pinter at the Pinter Season, The Room, Victoria Station, and Family Voices, Harold Pinter Theatre, 12th January 2019

Pinter FiveHaving really enjoyed Pinters One and Two, we regrettably had to miss out on Three and Four due to other commitments and travelling. It’s a hard life, but someone’s got to do it. Nevertheless, we were back at the Comedy, I mean Harold Pinter Theatre for the next two shows in Jamie Lloyd’s innovative and exciting season.

rupert graves in the roomPinter Five for the matinee then, not before enjoying the Champagne in the Ambassador Lounge which you get as part of the Champagne Package that went with Row D Stalls seats. Given that everything is expensive nowadays (sounding like a grumpy old man) the Champagne Package was excellent value and very enjoyable. I’d recommend it!

nicholas woodeson in the roomSo to the matter in hand, and first off, The Room, Harold Pinter’s first play, written and produced in 1957, a bleak one-act drama where the comic fringes lighten the load of the menace that lies beneath. It feels very much a forerunner of his next play, The Birthday Party, with similarities in its setting, characters, violence and other themes. Mrs Rose Hudd prepares a meagre meal for her husband Bert whilst worrying about the cold weather outside and the state of the roads. He has to go out – but says nothing about it – indeed, he says nothing about anything. Landlord Mr Kidd (if he is indeed the landlord) comes to call, to check on the pipes and the plumbing, whilst Mr Hudd takes to his bed. Later, a younger couple, Mr and Mrs Sands, pop by to see if the landlord is in as they want to take a look at a room to rent. colin macfarlane in the roomLater still, a blind man, Mr Riley, visits Mrs Hudd, calls her Sal (we know her as Rose) and has a message from her father to please come home. Mr Hudd returns, sees them together, talks meaninglessly about his experience in the car, and then beats and kicks Riley into a corner. Maybe he kills him, maybe he doesn’t. Rose is left clutching her eyes, saying that she can’t see. Curtain.

colin macfarlane in victoria stationAfterwards, Mrs Chrisparkle said that she enjoyed it, but she wished she knew what it really meant. That’s the trouble with Pinter. The change of name (Rose to Sal), the confusion over the position of Mr Kidd, the inability to see (Riley is blind, Rose can’t see at the end), the menace lurking just under the surface. All these things must mean something. But, equally, they could mean nothing; other than that which is self-evidently acted out on stage. It could simply be a slice of life, a series of unrelated incidents that just happen in the same location and to the same person, and any menace that arises is merely what we perceive. Personally, I think the truth is halfway between the two. There’s some symbolism at work there; however, its meaning is what you make it.

rupert graves in victoria stationThe Hudds’ grisly bare room is effectively brought to life in Soutra Gilmour’s featureless and colourless set, and, as you would expect, Jane Horrocks gives a superb performance as the woman trapped in a featureless, colourless life, never betraying any emotions unless they’re based on fear. Rupert Graves’ sullen and taciturn Bert keeps his own counsel mainly, one feels, because he can’t be arsed to reply to his wife’s inanities. But when he returns and unleashes his violence on the defenceless Riley, the savagery is real. Nicholas Woodeson brings some confused humour to the role of Mr Kidd, whom we feel is hiding more than is revealing and Luke Thallon and Emma Naomi as the Sands create a fascinating power-struggle between themselves whilst still – on the surface at least – remaining polite with their temporary host. Colin MacFarlane’s Riley feels like a lamb to the slaughter from the word go. It’s a tough watch, and at the end you feel disturbed and despondent at the way events turned out. But I guess that’s the point.

luke thallon in family voicesAfter the interval, we’re in for some brilliant light relief. Victoria Station, written in 1982, is a short two-hander between a taxi operator control and Driver 274, out and about somewhere around Crystal Palace. The controller wants him to pick someone up from Victoria Station. But he’s never heard of the place. In fact he seems to be in some existential nightmare where he can’t recognise or understand anything, apart from the fact that he’s fallen in love with the passenger on board. The controller tries all sorts of ideas to get 274 to buck his ideas up – but no avail. In the end the controller closes down the office so that he can meet 274 and maybe go to Barbados on holiday together. Or maybe not.

 luke thallon in family voices 1Played for laughs, with immaculate comic timing and expression by Colin MacFarlane as the controller and Rupert Graves as the driver, this is a much-needed eruption of comedy joy. Given that we’re watching what might well be one man’s descent into loneliness/depression/mental illness/hell, the play could easily be performed with much greater seriousness and gravity; but making it upbeat gives it an additional strength all of its own. I loved it; I thought it was hilarious and ridiculous, without being cruel. As a short play, it deserves to be much better known.

rupert graves in family voicesThat led us on to our final piece, Family Voices, originally written as a radio play in 1980. Three characters, only called Voices one, two and three, speak of their sense of dislocation and loss. Voice one, a young man, is surviving on his own in some unspecified shared accommodation and speaks what sounds like a letter home; but voice two, whom we presume is his mother, tells us that she never hears from her son. So maybe these letters are never sent, or never received; or maybe they aren’t mother and son at all. Voice three is his father, speaking from the dead: “I have so much to say to you, But I am quite dead. What I have to say to you will never be said.” Those last lines brought a gulp to the throats of both me and Mrs C as we thought of our own dead fathers. Sad and haunting; but also strangely comforting.

jane horrocks in family voicesOnce again Jane Horrocks was riveting as the abandoned mother figure, and Rupert Graves solemn but supportive as the father. Luke Thallon took us on a moving journey as his Voice One character tried to find his way in life but failed. Three related figures with the will to communicate with each other but lacking the ability or the method. I found it very moving.

luke thallon in family voices 2So with the exception of the fifteen minutes of fun that was Victoria Station, this was a very introspective and hard-hitting programme that took us into some of the darker areas of human existence. Fascinating to experience – and also with some superb performances, Pinter Five continues in the repertory until 26th January.

Review of the Year 2018 – The Ninth Annual Chrisparkle Awards

Welcome again to the glittering excitement that is the announcement of this year’s annual Chrisparkle Awards. The whole team has diligently assessed each and every eligible performance (i.e. I’ve thought hard about them) to create longlists then shortlists and then finally the ultimate prize for some splendid practitioners of their arts. Eligibility for the awards means a) they were performed in the UK and b) I have to have seen the shows and blogged about them in the period 11th January 2018 to 7th January 2019.

Are you all sitting comfortably?

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

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

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

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

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

Classical Music Concert of the Year.

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

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

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

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

Best Entertainment Show of the Year.

This means anything that doesn’t fall into any other categories – for example pantos, circuses, revues and anything else hard to classify. Very few contenders this year, and it looks remarkably like last year’s awards, but here’s the top three:

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

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

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

Best Star Standup of the Year.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Last year, the Committee introduced a new category; as we continue to see so many stand-up comedy acts in other clubs, such as the Leicester Comedy Festival, Bluelight Comedy, Upfront Comedy Shows and Edinburgh Try-outs in various locations, here’s the Best of the Rest Stand-up Award. Again, a long longlist of nineteen was whittled down to a shortlist of ten, and here’s the top five:

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

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

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

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

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

Best Musical.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best New Play.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Revival of a Play.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best play – Edinburgh

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Individual Performance in a Play – Edinburgh

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

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

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

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

Best stand-up comedy show – Edinburgh

Only eight shows this year gives this top three:

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

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

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

Best of the rest – Edinburgh

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Local Production

This would normally include the productions by the University of Northampton students, the Royal and Derngate Actors’ Company, the Youth Companies, local theatre groups and the National Theatre Connections. However, of these groups, I only saw productions by the University students, so they sweep the board!

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

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

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

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

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

Best Performance by an Actress in a Musical.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Performance by an Actor in a Musical.

Nine performances in the shortlist, producing this top five:

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

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

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

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

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

Best Performance by an Actress in a Play.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best Performance by an Actor in a Play.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Theatre of the Year.

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

Didn’t quite exceed last year’s record number of shows seen but still managed to do quite well with 178 productions in all. Thanks to you gentle reader for continuing to read my theatre reviews. Let’s look forward to another wonderful year of theatre in 2019!

Review – Peter Pan, Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield, 5th January 2018

Peter PanHaving had a wonderful afternoon in the company of Fred and Lilli, Mrs Chrisparkle, Lord and Lady Prosecco and I regrouped after a brief rest to see Peter Pan at the Lyceum. Our annual visit to Sheffield would not be complete without the usual two and a half hours of the sheer joyful childishness of feeling ten years old again. As usual, Damian Williams returned as the fat bloke in a dress (his words), this time as Mrs Smee – we never found out what happened to Smee; I can only assume he suffocated.

damian-williamsWhat sets the Sheffield panto apart from all the rest is its pure energy. There may well be (indeed there are) pantos that are more lavishly produced, with starrier names and with bigger song and dance numbers. But when I’m in the Lyceum, laughing along with a thousand other souls, there’s simply nowhere else I’d rather be. There are, of course, all the usual running gags – the patter sketch which is just an excuse to make puns out of fruit and vegetables, the-castthe constant comparison with the Rotherham panto, and, naturally, the famous Lyceum bench scene, where we constantly shout out It’s Behind You as a ghostie picks off members of the cast one by one till only Mr Williams is left – and we all join in with Well! We’ll have to do it again, then, won’t we? Mrs C and I continue to use that phrase at appropriate moments the whole year long.

damian-williams-and-gemma-huntAs usual Mr Williams is just sensational. His constant asides, his stupid laugh, his magical connection with the audience, his infectious sense of fun, and his determination that every show should be even more enjoyable than the last, means that he is simply the best in the business. That’s why we have to keep coming back!

shaun-williamsonOur baddie this year was Shaun Williamson, who’ll never lose his association with a certain well-known soap opera; indeed, at one point Mr Williams turns to the audience and said You didn’t expect to see Barry from Eastenders doing Taylor Swift, did you? We certainly didn’t. Other things we didn’t expect to see were Mr Williams emerging from the Tardis dressed like the Jodie Whitaker Doctor Who (well, it is Sheffield, after all); Wendi Peters as Mrs Darling singing Not While I’m Around from Sweeney Todd, wendi-petersallegedly as a lullaby but forgetting that it’s originally when Mrs Lovett is trying to track Tobias down so he can be made into a meat pie; or two new characters – Ethel the Overacting Pirate (I don’t know how Emily Watkins kept up that hearty performance for the entire show), and Dave the Don’t Care Pirate (fantastic sulking from Emily McAvoy until Mr Williams deliberately made her giggle).

shaun-williamson-and-damian-williamsMr Williamson grabbed the baddie role with both hands (well, one hand and one hook) and revelled in it completely. He gave a delightfully stagey performance, whilst still being the perfect straight man foil to Mr Williams’ never-ending one-liners. emily-watkinsHe also has a surprisingly good singing voice! Ms Peters, of course, has a fantastic vocal range and enjoyed playing with her characterisations of a very posh Mrs Darling, an Estuary (appropriately) Mermaid and a right-northern Big Chief Squatting Cow.

gemma-huntNot being a CBBC or Channel 5 Milkshake watcher, I’d never seen Gemma Hunt (Tiger Lily) or David Ribi (Peter Pan) before, but they both threw themselves into the fun of the role; Ms Hunt in particular has a very warm and entertaining stage presence, and I was very pleased to be on her side of the auditorium when it came to the traditional out-singing the other lot number towards the end of the show. (For the record, it was a draw between the two sides. Yet again! How does that always happen?) Jo Osmond was a very punchy Tinkerbell – samantha-dorrance-and-david-ribiI bet she could get you into all sorts of trouble if she was your best friend – and Samantha Dorrance perfect as a very sweet and lovable Wendy; as usual, her enhanced affections for Peter went right over his head. Boys, eh, what are we like? For added thrills and spills this year, we had the very entertaining Diamond Acrobats, all the way from Tanzania; and our children on stage were the Red Team – full of fun and some extremely good acting too!

jo-osmondWith lively music, a cheerful ensemble, a very funny script (of course) and that fathomless energy that the Sheffield panto always inspires, this was another fantastic end to our Christmas season. Cinderella awaits this December – we’ve already booked!

Production photos by Robert Day

Review – Kiss Me, Kate, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 5th January 2019

Kiss Me, KateEvery New Year, Mrs Chrisparkle and I treat Lord and Lady Prosecco to a post-Christmas outing: a weekend in Sheffield (bear with me) to stay at the lovely Mercure Hotel, have some scrummy meals and to see both the Crucible’s Christmas musical AND the Lyceum panto – and we’ve not had a duff experience yet. Over the last couple of years, we’ve taken to seeing the panto in the evening – the weight of a few extra wines and a more end-of-term atmosphere always helps. Which left us this matinee with the prospect of seeing Cole Porter’s fantastic, and now grammatically correct, Kiss Me, Kate.

edward-baker-duly-and-the-company-of-kiss-me-kate.This was one of the Dowager Mrs C’s favourite musicals and I was brought up on a diet of Always True to You Darling in my Fashion and From This Moment On; not a bad way to be brought up, to be honest. But this is only the third time I’ve seen it; once in 1987 at the Old Vic with the redoubtable Nichola McAuliffe, and at Chichester in 2012 where Hannah Waddingham attempted to rule the roost over Alex Bourne. That London production was great; the Chichester one a little disappointing. But I’m going to throw my hat into the ring and say that this new production at Sheffield by Paul Foster tops them both.

edward-baker-duly-and-rebecca-lock-as-fred-and-lillI’m sure you know the story – a touring production of The Taming of the Shrew is the vehicle for an on-and-off love story between the two leads, Fred Graham (playing Petruchio, also the producer of the show) and Miss Lilli Vanessi (playing Katherine, the star attraction). Lilli senses that their romance is back on track (they are already divorced at the beginning of the show) but when she discovers that the flowers she received from Fred were actually meant for cabaret starlet Lois (playing Bianca), she gets into a Katherine-type rage and takes it out on him on stage. He, being not entirely a true gentleman, gives as good as he gets, and she spends most of the rest of the show unable to sit down because – well, because, gentle reader, he gave her a damn good spanking. It happens in Shakespeare, so why the hell not here. Only one way to tame a shrew; women respect it. (That was a joke, by the way.)

dafydd-emyr-as-harrison-howell-and-rebecca-lock-as-lilli-vanessi.Lilli’s plans to abandon the rest of the run are brought to an abrupt halt by the persuasions of two gangsters who (erroneously, as it happens) need the show to be a success so that Fred can pay his dues to their Mr. Big. Her new beau Harrison Howell arrives to take her away – but, will she find true love with him, or with Fred? If you don’t know the answer to that by now, you never will.

dex-lee-centre-and-the-company-of-kiss-me-kate.It’s true; in the current climate, some aspects of this show have dated to become ever so slightly worrying. The physical animosity between Fred and Lilli does border on domestic violence (even though it’s played entirely for laughs) and the subjugation of women’s will to men’s is still as clear as it was in Shakespeare’s day – you have to feel a cringe coming on when Katherine/Lilli sings I Am Ashamed that Women are So Simple. But this is distinctly a period piece, with no attempts (quite right, I think) to update it to the 21st century. Porter’s showtunes are still as 1940s jazz as they can be; the gangsters are still the same Chicago thickos they always were. Porter’s brilliant lyrics anchor the show in his own era; when one of the funniest lines in any of the songs is “he may have hair upon his chest, but, sister so has Lassie”, there’s just no point trying to update it. Provided there are audience members who remember Lassie, the joke works.

layton-williams-and-the-company-of-kiss-me-kate.We’ve been used over the years at Sheffield to seeing the big choreography routines by Alistair David, who made such a mark in shows like My Fair Lady and Show Boat. For this show, the choreography is by Matt Flint, and I have to say I’ve not come across his work before. But he’s terrific! His style is much more intimate and involved; he sets up scenes with so many varied things happening in different parts of the stage all at the same time, then brings them all together for a big impact. The second Act opens with his fantastic staging of Too Darn Hot, led with immaculate artistry and precision by Layton Williams as Paul; it’s one of those classic dance sequences when you know you’re seeing something special and you never want it to end. As an aside, our performance was captioned – a great innovation, imho – and it was fascinating to read the lyrics to Too Darn Hot (as well all the other songs) – it’s easy to overlook just exactly what this song is all about!

cindy-belliot-and-layton-williams.Elsewhere, the show is peppered with memorable moments, mainly involving the big numbers. Paul Foster has concentrated most of his efforts into getting the maximum entertainment out of the songs, so there is no attempt to shorten any of Cole Porter’s mammoth efforts. I guess a downside to that is that if you don’t like the songs much (then why are you here?) you probably won’t enjoy it much. The show opens with (fittingly) Another Op’nin’ Another Show, at first fronted by Lilli’s dresser Hattie (a beautiful, warm-hearted performance by Cindy Belliot) but then it opens out to a wide-ranging musical examination of all the cast and crew arriving at this new theatre, with all the tensions and excitements that can contain – and it’s an exciting and exhilarating start.

joel-montague-and-delroy-atkinson-as-the-gangsters-in-kiss-me-kate.Other highlights include Amy Ellen Richardson’s Lois/Bianca teasing routine with the three suitors for Tom Dick or Harry – one of these, Dex Lee, plays Bill/Lucentio and I always admire his brilliant, acrobatic dancing; Rebecca Lock (a brilliant Katherine/Lilli with a stunning voice) throwing herself around in fits of fury during I Hate Men; Edward Baker-Duly (also brilliant as Fred/Petruchio – I loved his ham, and then even hammier, vocal performance as the stagey actor) ripping through the memories of all those women in Where is the Life that Late I Led; Amy Ellen Richardson’s funny and flirtatious performance of Always True To You Darling in my Fashion; and the simple but oh so effective staging of Brush Up Your Shakespeare by Delroy Atkinson and Joel Montague as the two theatrical gangsters, occupying the spotlights – Mr Atkinson in particular gave a brilliantly expressive physically comic performance. I also appreciated the fact that, for much of the performance, James McKeon’s orchestra was hidden at the back of the set, but for the songs that belonged to Taming of the Shrew, it was on view – a very nice touch, I thought.

amy-ellen-richardson-as-lois-lane-in-kiss-me-kate.The only thing that slightly disappointed me was the staging of one of my favourite songs from the show, From This Moment On. It’s a difficult one. The song was never written for Kiss Me Kate; Porter wrote it for another show from which it was dropped at the last minute, but it was obviously too good to waste, and Cole Porter was an expert musical recycler. From This Moment On appears in the film version of Kiss Me Kate, where it works perfectly as a number between Bianca and her three suitors; but the dramatic usefulness of that has already been taken by Tom Dick or Harry. So nowadays the custom is to have it sung by Harrison Howell and Lilli before he sweeps her away to the magicless life of a military wife – or not. Structurally, it makes perfect sense to have it there; but in practice the characters are too old and the situation too cynical (ouch! Sorry!) for the song to work properly. It’s a young person’s song – a starting out in life song – filled with genuinely great expectations, and I’d prefer to give the song back to Lois and Bill. In characterisation and acting, Dafydd Emyr made an imposing Howell, but, for me, it just didn’t work.

simon-oskarsson-and-the-company-of-kiss-me-kate.But this is one small quibble in an otherwise excellent show that thrilled us all, and we continued to talk about it later that evening and all through the next. One of those productions to savour and recall with happiness for years to come. It’s on until Saturday 12th January. Would be a crime to miss it!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Fiddler on the Roof, Menier Chocolate Factory, 30th December 2018

Fiddler on the RoofOne of the most successful musicals of all time has made its way to the Menier for the Christmas/New Year slot, and is now sold out for the entirety of its run, right through to March 9th, so it’s got to be doing something right! The familiar old story of Fiddler on the Roof, with the cantankerous but lovable Reb Tevye, his devoted but not uncritical wife Golde, and their five daughters, three of which are of marryable age, has delighted millions since it first appeared on Broadway in 1964; and yes, gentle reader, I was lucky enough to see Topol in the part – although not until an early 1980s revival. Since then, I’ve seen the surprisingly superb Paul Michael Glaser in the role, and the unsurprisingly brilliant Omid Djalili. And now, this new production at the Menier, directed by Sir Trevor Nunn no less, stars Andy Nyman as the poor dairyman/philosopher/wannabe rich man.

andy nyman as tevyeHowever, unfortunately Mr Nyman, who I understand is excellent in this role, was not performing on the matinee of Sunday December 30th, and his understudy Robert Maskell took the part. Because any production of Fiddler relies heavily on this vital, central performance, I’m going to find it difficult to give a useful review of this show, as I sense the performance I saw was possibly quite different from what everyone else has seen.

fiddler on the roofI go to the theatre to have a good time so let’s dwell on the positives. Firstly, if you’ve never seen it before, Fiddler on the Roof is a brilliant show, you can take that as read. Even though all the best songs and scenes come in the first Act, so that the show feels slightly top-heavy, it’s still a strong and engrossing story with many larger-than-life characters. In the intimate environment of the Menier, it’s the music that really takes charge, with a fantastic performance from Paul Bogaev’s band, and absolutely stunning vocals and harmonies from the ensemble cast. It truly is a feast for the ear – if ears can indeed be feasted.

To LifeI always admire lively choreography, particularly when it’s crammed into such a small space as the Menier. Matt Cole’s expressive and inspiring routines work brilliantly intertwined with some of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography, and they were all danced with exquisite knife-edge accuracy. In particular, hats off to everyone involved in the To Life scene, with the great Cossack dancing and its enormous sense of happiness. For me, that was the most enjoyable scene in the show.

evening prayerHowever, much to the surprise of both of us, we were left strangely unmoved by this production. When we saw it in Chichester in 2017, I swear we both had to wipe away the occasional tear. However, in this production, not at all. Despite all the obvious opportunities for an emotional reaction, it just didn’t do it for us. The scene where Tzeitel and Motel’s wedding is disrupted by the first signs of violent oppression by the Russians, came across as simply bad behaviour from some ruffians rather than heart-rending destruction. Similarly, when the end comes, and the pogrom clears them all out of Anatevka, we just didn’t feel the distress or devastation. It felt more like a simple administrative relocation. Sorry, your Anatevka branch has now closed, your nearest branch is now 500 miles away. The only time I felt a true sense of emotion was in that wonderful little and easily overlooked song, Miracle of Miracles, when the ecstatic Motel – Joshua Gannon on magnificent form – can’t get over the fact that he’s finally going to get married to Tzeitel. Even the normally floodgate-opening Sunrise, Sunset only came across as a passive observation of others in love, rather than an overwhelming appreciation of how love carries on from generation to generation. Beautifully sung, but strangely cold.

Judy kuhn and andy rymanSo I’m left to wonder if this lack of emotion came from missing Mr Nyman. You expect – and need – your Tevye to be the most larger-than-life character of all; a big man, with a big heart, and a big voice, and a big load of cheek that he shares with everyone from God downwards. Tevye is a man whom, if you dare to cross him, should make you quake in your boots. That’s why it’s so funny when, having given his approval to Motel and Tzeitel to marry, he worries about what Golde will say – the big boss man, classically under the little woman’s thumb. However, Mr Maskell’s interpretation of Tevye stressed his more lovable side; his is a kindly, softly-spoken, Big Daddy-type of Tevye. When he sings of God’s vast eternal plan (in If I Were a Rich Man) it feels less like an earth-shattering, divisive dispensation of justice and more like a well-maintained Excel document. He was gently amusing, but nothing more, I’m afraid. It’s true, he does have beautiful vocal purity; but shouldn’t Tevye have more raucous power, dominating the proceedings right from the start? For me, his whole interpretation felt like it lacked something.

DaughtersElsewhere in the cast there are some enjoyable performances from Judy Kuhn as the much-tried Golde, Louise Gold as a particularly scatter-brained Yentl, Dermot Canavan as a rather well-mannered and reasonable Lazar Wolf, Harriet Bunton as a spirited Hodel and Molly Osbourne as an enthusiastic Tzeitel. However, despite these good performances and the superb ensemble, I did come away from this show feeling slightly flat and a little disappointed. Sometimes 5 star-hype, such as accompanies this production, only sets you up to being let down. Nevertheless, it’s fully sold out and I heard a rumour of a West End transfer, so what do I know?

perchik says helloP. S. Maybe some of my disappointment at the show could be explained by, once again, being surrounded by some audience members distinctly lacking in the manners department. Again, we encountered a refusal to move when trying to leave or return during the interval (in fact, the woman next to me, when she saw I wanted to pass, actually stood up and blocked my path, so I had to go the longer way across the stage). She spent a lot of the show explaining to her son what was happening in the story (clearly he wasn’t using his listening ears). Another extended family group decided it was a good idea to feed their children a picnic during the performance, with all the rustling, munching, squeaking and chomping that entailed. When they weren’t doing that they were lolling all over the seats or explaining the plot animatedly to their children whilst the actors were performing right in front of them. Sigh. Modern audiences are turning me into a Grumpy Old Man.

Production photos by Johan Persson