Review – Fiddler on the Roof, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 22nd July 2017

FIddler on the RoofSometimes you look at a theatre’s listings for the season ahead and a show stands out like a beacon of must-seeishness. I’d seen Fiddler on the Roof twice before; once with the late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle in 1983 at the Apollo Victoria, starring the iconic Topol as Tevye, and once with Mrs Chrisparkle at the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, starring Paul Michael Glaser (and damn fine he was too.) Professor and Mrs Plum (who accompanied us on our Chichester weekend) advised us that they’d seen it on Broadway starring Harvey Fierstein. Gosh! I bet he was amazing.

Fiddler - everyoneI’m sure you know the background to this musical. It’s based on the stories of Sholem Aleichem about Tevye and his daughters published in 1894. The author was born in present-day Ukraine, and moved to New York City after witnessing the violence against Jews in southern Russia in 1905. The stories have inspired plays, TV programmes and movies over the years – but none so prominent as Fiddler on the Roof. Tevye is the village milkman, with his own philosophy of life that is heavily based on his deep but informal relationship with God, with whom he chats all the time. An upholder and adherent of Tradition, the musical shows you how Tevye copes having daughters who know their own mind and are not afraid to carve out their own way of life. Will he stick with the time-honoured traditions, or will he bend the rules to accommodate their wishes? And what chance does tradition have when it’s up against the outside world of the Czar’s Russia and the violent pogroms of the time?

TevyeSometimes at a show you get that feeling about ten minutes into it when you say to yourself “Wow, I am really loving this!” Gentle reader, I got that feeling. And once that happens you can just sit back and wallow in the pleasure of the whole thing. With all the traditional hallmarks of his Sheffield successes already chalked up, Daniel Evans’ first big show for Chichester – choreography by Alistair David, set design by Lez Brotherston, and a fantastic band courtesy of Tom Brady – is every bit as good as you could possibly dream it might be.

Sabbath PrayerThat’s not to say that in any way it shies away from the harshness of the reality of Tevye’s life and the village of Anatevka. If anything, this was the least saccharine portrayal of their day to day existence I’ve seen. The disruption to Tzeitel and Motel’s wedding celebration, for instance, stops you dead in your tracks with its mindless cruelty. When the villagers are informed that they will have to leave everything and go away, their desolation is palpable. But so much of the strength of the show comes from that balance of emotions between the sweet and the sour. The strongest moments (and songs) combine that hankering after something you just can’t have (If I were a Rich Man), and making the best of the here and now (To Life). Add to that the blind optimism of Matchmaker, Matchmaker and Miracle of Miracles plus the wistfulness of Do You Love Me and Sunrise, Sunset and you have one of the strongest scores in the history of musicals. Obvious, I know, but it occurred to me that, every time you hear Sunrise, Sunset, you’re just a little – significantly – older than the last time you heard it. My reaction to the stunning performance it receives in this production was to feel remarkably mortal. But when some aspect of a show pulls you up short and makes you question your own reality, you know theatre is doing its job properly.

Rabbinical questionsThe production is notable for some mind-boggling staging moments. The Fruma-Sarah dream sequence is extraordinary, with the spectral old biddy hovering large above the bed like a Jewish Sword of Damocles, the eerie presence of an army of demonic ghosts, and at one stage I thought the entire theatre was going to go up in flames! It’s a breathtakingly brilliant scene. Also stunning, but in a much more reflective way, was how the backstage opened up during the Sabbath Prayer so that you could see the other households in the village all following the same tradition; that was extremely effective and rather moving.

Matchmaker MatchmakerOf course, a huge part of the attraction for this particular production is the inspired casting of Omid Djalili as Tevye. He’s a very accomplished stand-up comic – we’ve loved him both times we’ve seen him – who involves uninhibited physicality as part of his humour. He was always going to be perfect in this role and boy does he not disappoint. From the moment you first see him, he’s got that glint in his eye that says we’ve gotta show to do and we’re all gonna have fun whilst never ever coming out of character or indeed turning Tevye into any kind of pantomime.

Mendel, Motel and the boysIn fact, for a larger-than-life comedian, it’s astounding how ordinary and normal he presents the character – which is great, because it’s so much easier for the audience to identify with him. He is a real man, with real problems but also a real sense of fun. As you would imagine, he absolutely made If I Were a Rich Man his own, and every time he comes on he lights up the stage. Make no mistake; when he disowns Chava for marrying the Christian Fyedka, his face is like thunder and his fury is undeniable – this is a man pushed to the limit and, much as it grieves him, he is determined to stand by his God rather than his daughter. This unfatherly reaction is uncomfortable for the audience. Apparently not every problem can be solved by a show tune. He is desperate to put the past behind them; and we can see him start to soften when he reminds Tzeitel to say “and God be with you” when she and Chava part; but he never gives in. Stubborn? Pious? Simply human? Tevye has complex emotions and beliefs which Mr Djalili explores and expresses magnificently.

GoldeThere’s also a tremendous performance by Tracy-Ann Oberman as Golde; funny, wry, spirited, bossy but essentially extremely kind-hearted, holding the household together whilst Tevye’s out working, or chewing the cud with God, or celebrating with Lazar Wolf. And of course she has a stunning voice that comes across so strongly, especially in the beautiful Sabbath Prayer sequence. Simbi Akande, Emma Kingston and Rose Shaloo make a great trio of daughters, presenting their father with challenge after challenge; they give us a fresh and funny Matchmaker, Matchmaker, and Emma Kingston’s Hodel sings a spine-tingling rendition of Far From the Home that I Love.

Motel and TzeitelI barely recognised the wonderful Liza Sadovy as Yente; as always, she gives the role a feisty and humorous characterisation. And I loved Jos Slovick’s Motel performing Miracle of Miracles – a couple of minutes of sheer reckless joy in what you sense is otherwise a fairly joyless life. Louis Maskell’s Perchik has just the right amount of confident and disdainful swagger to impress as the intellectual rebel without being a pain in the backside; and you just know that life is nevertheless going to teach him a thing or two as time goes on. And it was great to see Harry Francis again, as the rabbi’s son Mendel, brilliantly integrating outstandingly skilful dance moves into the big numbers.

Tevye takes them awayIt’s a huge cast, and everyone performs with absolute commitment and a sense of true enjoyment. It’s already been extended by a week, so the show now runs until 2nd September – but that’s surely not going to be the last we see of it? A credit to all involved. We all loved it.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – The House They Grew Up In, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 22nd July 2017

The House They Grew Up InHurrah for our second Chichester weekend of the year! This time Mrs Chrisparkle and I were accompanied by the sophisticated and intelligent Professor and Mrs Plum, who were desperate for some proper erudition and a slap-up fried breakfast in the morning. They weren’t disappointed on either count.

DanielDo you remember a TV programme from a few years ago, gentle reader, called Life Laundry? It was where people who weren’t coping with aspects of their life for whatever reason just started piling up junk inside their houses so that they could barely move? They needed the help of expert advisers to start understanding their problems and then give them advice as to how they could start reclaiming their home. It was fascinating and frequently very moving to watch.

PeppyWelcome to the home of the Angelis family: sister Peppy (short for Penelope), brother Daniel (short for Daniel). By the sound of it, it’s probably in quite a decent area; certainly their slimy neighbour Gareth is interested in expanding his ownership. But it is The House They Grew Up In, and never left; although Peppy went to Cambridge, apparently; to study art, I would imagine. Peppy’s now looking after Daniel as best she can, but he doesn’t help himself, just sitting there, with music constantly going through his headphones, hoping to be fed every now and then. She tells him things but he hardly takes them in because he’s never using his listening ears. He’s probably autistic. His only friend – not that he really thinks of him as a friend – is next door’s boy Ben. He’s only eight, but he takes an interest. Peppy’s not keen. She doesn’t like people coming to the house.

The Police arrive to see DanielAnd the Life Laundry connection? Their house is crammed, top to bottom, with junk. Trying to find anything is a nightmare. Trying to navigate around the living room is nigh on impossible. Designer Max Jones must have had a field day acquiring all the detritus that dominates the set. It really takes your breath away! Not only has the stuff accumulated over the years simply because Peppy and Daniel live such a private, reclusive life – Uncle Manny at Christmas seems to be their only other link to the outside world – but it also reflects the mess that their lives have gradually become; and the mess that gets steadily worse through the course of the play.

LaurenceAlthough it has the now standard format of one interval in the middle of the show, structurally it feels to me like an old-fashioned three act play. Act One is largely scene-setting, getting to know the characters and their way of life; Act Two is them struggling with the outside world imposing itself on them, in a very extreme and unpleasant way; Act Three is the resolution to the problem and the happy ending. Yes, gentle reader, it has a happy ending, and one that will quite possibly make you gasp with approval, as it did on last Saturday’s matinee. And it is a totally brilliant, satisfying, heartfelt, revealing play that will make you laugh and it will make you cry. At times you may wonder if it is ever going to get “really funny”, and the answer is – no. But you do have that happy ending to look forward to. If you arrive wondering why the foyers of the Minerva are bedecked with bunting, you’ll know before you go home.

Peppy and JodyThis fantastic production sports some great performances but none as much as Samantha Spiro as Peppy. She must be exhausted by the end of the play. She’s constantly messing and fiddling and searching for things and begging Daniel to wear his listening ears. You can tell at once there’s something wrong with her but it takes a good while to draw your conclusions as to quite what. It’s an incredible performance because she’s both endearing and irritating at the same time, just as big sisters often are. She absolutely gets to the heart of this nervous, patronising, helpless, frantic, loving soul. You can see her trying to be open and communicative, and then when things get too invasive, or awkward, or deep, you can see her start to close down, and block out the outside world. Simply superb.

Peppy and DanielDaniel Ryan’s Daniel, on the other hand, is in many ways the complete opposite. He appears to be calm and content to be left alone, although he can fly into a flash fury when he can’t express his inner feelings. It’s another excellent performance, full of hidden anxieties and repressed emotions; and he beautifully shows how a person on the autistic spectrum can accidentally fall foul of society’s accepted norms of behaviour. He appears – as you would expect – appropriately devoid of empathy, but he has some great surprises up his sleeve. He also brings the house down with the occasional, simply delivered, hilarious rejoinder – watch out for the reason he no longer goes out gardening. A beautifully controlled, funny and sad performance.

Daniel and PeppyFor our matinee, we had Leonardo Dickens in the role of Ben and what a little star he is! Technically perfect throughout, not a fluffed line nor a missed cue, brilliant delivery of his comic lines, and totally at ease with a cast of adults. Even at this young age, he’s got to be One To Watch. I also really enjoyed the performances of Michelle Greenidge as the WPC who arrives at the house thinking it’s just another job and then slowly realises that she’s bitten off more than she can chew, Matt Sutton as the detective who has to question the unpredictable Ben, and Philip Wright as the flesh-crawling chancer of a neighbour, trying to browbeat Peppy into a rash decision.

Daniel and BenIt’s a fascinating play, totally engrossing, brilliantly performed, expertly brought to stage and we all absolutely loved it. This ought to have transfer written all over it. It’s only got a three week run, on until 5th August, and I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

P. S. Sir Derek Jacobi was in the house. He’s looking great. We were only talking about him in the Minerva Brasserie for lunch, and he was there all along. Spooky.

P. P. S. I usually take a photograph of my programme as the first illustration of a theatre review. However, torrential downpours of rain rendered it soggy and no longer fit for purpose. Fortunately I had the wit to take a picture of the poster outside the theatre. I’m sure you won’t mind.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Great Expectations, Royal and Derngate Actors Company, Royal Theatre, Northampton, 15th July 2017

Great ExpectationsI wonder if Dickens might go the way of Shakespeare before long, and prove himself worthy of modern adaptations, where the story is set in a different era and characters who were originally male become female and vice versa. One always associates Dickens with those foggy London streets or bleak Yorkshire Moors; but with Shakespeare, it’s different. It’s been ages since I’ve seen a Shakespeare play that was actually set in the 16th or 17th century and in the locations that Shakespeare specified; and with last summer’s The Tempest featuring (inter alia) a female Prosper, and with Glenda Jackson recently playing Lear, for example, his works are ripe for a spot of gender-bending.

GE1Erica Martin’s production of Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod’s adaptation of Great Expectations for the stage features a female Magwitch. Now that’s something to conjure with. Traditionally he appears as a menacing brute, primarily because of that first, terrifying meeting with the young Pip, where he threatens to cut his throat, and makes him promise to get him food, and a file to cut off the iron chain on his leg, “or I’ll have your heart and liver out”. For sure, those are the words of a brutish man more than a brutish woman, although I had several female teachers in my youth who would have queued up to deliver those lines.

GE3The humiliation that the older Pip suffers when he realises that his financial benefactor has been Magwitch all along, and not Miss Havisham, remains the same; it’s the integrity of the person (or rather lack of it) that offends him, rather than the fact that she’s a woman. However, as Mrs Chrisparkle pointed out, it’s very hard to believe that a convict woman, in the early 19th century, would have made good in New South Wales, as a sheep farmer and stock breeder, and become rich. It may just have been credible for a man, but a woman? Not in those days; it’s hard enough today.

GE4I digress. We’ve seen the Actors Company a few times now and they always astound us with the excellence of their performance. Whether set in today’s times, like The Revenger’s Comedies and Market Boy, or in olden days, like Our Country’s Good or, now, Great Expectations, they take a play full of depth and character and bring it to life with superb conviction. Meryl Couper’s terrific set created a decent acting area at front whilst devoting other parts of the stage to the Gargerys, Miss Havisham’s house, and so on. It provided a suitable sense of Dickensian gloom without being overwhelming; as did the excellent costumes. The lighting was efficient and atmospheric – in fact you wouldn’t know this wasn’t a professional production.

GE5The structure requires that all the actors are on stage more or less the whole time, acting as both chorus and the inner thoughts of Pip, taking alternate lines from the book very much in the style of David Edgar’s adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby that was a huge success for the RSC back in 1980. I like this approach; although you get a lot of information flung at you at first, and it’s hard to take it all in, you get a strong ensemble feeling that everyone is fully involved in the story-telling task. And when different actors are speaking lines that are the thoughts of one character, that also gives the impression of all the different voices that are going on inside his head – a very effective technique. Whilst I felt that there was quite a lot of scene-setting in the first act and that it was maybe a trifle long, the story really gets going after the interval and it was riveting stuff.

GE6Centre stage for much of the final two-thirds of the play is Davin Eadie as Pip (adult version). With a commanding stage presence, and very authoritative vocal delivery, I really enjoyed his performance of this Everyman character with whom we all identify. Ben Webb, as his younger version, employed just the right amount of wide-eyed innocence (in his dealings with Magwitch), trust (with Joe) and vulnerability (with Miss Havisham and Estella). Other superb performances came from Sue Whyte as Miss Havisham, who gave her a splendid gruff grandeur that commanded both fear and respect; Will Adams as the pompous and meddling Pumblechook; Vicky Kelly as a wonderfully terse (when at work) and garrulous (when at play) Wemmick; and Ryan Chambers delightfully over-the-top as the thespian Wopsle.

GE7Salli Belsham had the difficult task of creating a credible “Ann” Magwitch, but as the performance developed I thought she drew out the character’s finer points very convincingly, and the scene where she confronts Pip and Herbert and reveals herself to be the benefactor was one of the best in the play. But for me the stand-out performance was from Stewart Magrath as Jaggers, the lawyer, stabbing out his carefully planned words with a natural authority, conducting his affairs cordially but precisely, appearing to be a friend, but only if he is paid. A very striking and memorable performance.

Some very strong scenes and performances made this a very rewarding production; the Actors Company can chalk up another hit!

Review – Miss Saigon, Curve Theatre, Leicester, 8th July 2017

Miss SaigonYou might find it hard to believe, gentle reader, but we’ve never seen Miss Saigon before. How on earth could you possibly have missed it out, you might ask? I think it’s because we weren’t overly fussed on Les Miserables when we first saw it (how times have changed) and productions of Miss Saigon – which was written by the same creative team as Les Mis – have always been atrociously expensive; basically, we always thought we’d get more “bang for our buck” elsewhere. But the news of the new touring production, starting life just up the road at Leicester, was too much temptation. So, Mrs Chrisparkle and I, together with our friend Lady Lichfield, decided to take a punt on it.

Red ConcepcionAs you doubtless know, it’s a modern take on the old favourite, Madame Butterfly. GI Chris is out in Vietnam where he falls in love with Kim, a bargirl. They quickly get married but then are separated and he returns to the US without any knowledge of her whereabouts. But she never gives up hope. Three years later, word reaches John, Chris’s wartime colleague, (via The Engineer, the pimp who used to run the Saigon bar) that Kim is still alive – and that she has little three-year-old Tam. Trouble is, Chris has now married Ellen… I won’t tell you what happens next, but if you work it back from the story of Madame Butterfly, then you’ll realise it’s not going to have a happy ending.

Sooha KimMy first reaction was, how could I have let the last 28 years go by and not seen it? It’s not a perfect show by any means, but the story is so believable – this kind of love/separation/fatherless child syndrome must have been very common. This current production is simply magnificent and I was absolutely caught up in it from the start. Our interval Sauvignon Blanc was spent with my being surprised that my theatre companions weren’t enjoying it quite as much as me – not liking much of the music, finding it very samey; to be honest, I thought many of the lyrics erred on the trite side, but I was prepared to give it the benefit of the doubt. But what a second act! It all becomes immense. After the gloopy Bui Doi scene, which made me think of Michael Jackson singing some kind of “we all love the world and all the children” song, the story gathers pace at a bewildering rate. Hope turns to tragedy, and The Engineer has a show-stopping sensational number which takes the American Dream, wrings every ounce of humanity out of it and renders it fabulously gross. And I genuinely don’t think there was a dry eye in the house at the end of the show – certainly not from any of us three.

Ashley GilmourIt was fascinating to note not only the plotline similarities with Madame Butterfly, but also the structural similarities with Les Mis. Huge scene big numbers like The Morning of the Dragon echo the barricades of Revolutionary Paris, with the stark death of Thuy providing a similar shock value as the death of Gavroche; the role of The Engineer has many parallels with Thenardier’s Master of the House; and both musicals end with a nod toward the future, although there’s a stark contrast between the nature of the deaths of Jean Valjean and Kim.

Ryan O'GormanI don’t think I’ve ever seen the huge stage of the Curve theatre used with such impact as with this show. Totie Driver and Matt Kinley’s amazing set intimidates and beguiles; it closes in for the very intimate scenes between Chris and Kim, and backs away to reveal a stage area big enough for twenty-four or more burly-clad lads representing a dancing, victorious, communist army. The musical staging is by A Chorus Line’s very own Bob Avian and you can absolutely see his stamp all over it. The lighting is dynamic and dramatic; the costumes are superb and the fifteen-member orchestra is on superb form. There are two stunning visual effects that take your breath away – the helicopter that takes Chris and the other US soldiers into the sky is so realistically represented you can almost feel the wind from its wings; and the disembodied figure of Thuy’s ghost that comes to Kim in a dream and slowly floats into the set, gains form and then walks down the stairs, is spine-tingling. Here you will find all the usual hallmarks of a superbly crafted, no expense spared, Cameron Mackintosh production.

Gerald SantosAt the heart of the show is the tragic Kim, played by Sooha Kim. She has an extraordinarily powerful voice and sings the role absolutely superbly. She has the ability to mess with your heartstrings and you really feel all the emotions she does – the initial disgust at working in “Dreamland”, the joy of her love for Chris, the devastation of realising he is married, the panic that makes her kill Thuy; they’re all stunning scenes and played with total conviction. Ashley Gilmour plays Chris as a GI a cut above the rest, emphasising the decency and honour of the character, which of course only makes his later plight all the more painful. He and Miss Kim have a great on-stage chemistry together and the intimacy of their love scenes is very convincing – and enchanting to watch. There’s also a stand-out scene where Chris and new wife Ellen are in bed together in Atlanta, singing a trio with Kim in the wastes of Ho Chi Minh City; emotionally gripping, musically stunning.

Rehearsal picture1Ryan O’Gorman is a great choice to play GI John, with a great natural authority that gives him absolute credibility in those wartime scenes, as well as the more respectable, mature John who fronts the (still toe-curling) Bui Doi conference in Atlanta, and stands alongside his friend in his hour of need as he comes to terms with finding out about Kim and Tam. Zoe Doano is excellent as Ellen, especially in that painful scene where she and Kim meet in the hotel room and she discovers that Chris has been economical with the truth; and there’s also a fine performance by Gerald Santos as Thuy, both as the wretched North Vietnamese soldier of peasant stock come to take Kim back, and as the clean-cut military commissar out to seek vengeance on those who crossed him. All the ensemble give great performances – I particularly liked the attitude of all those Dreamland girls, very nicely done; but everyone was terrific.

Rehearsal picture2But the show belongs to Red Concepcion as The Engineer – a dream of a role for the right performer and Mr C certainly is that. Manipulating everyone with whom he comes into contact in the hope that he might somehow obtain an American visa, he gleefully doesn’t care who suffers in the process. Deliciously slimy, sexually ambivalent, willing to degrade himself in any way in pursuit of the Yankee Dollar, his highlight comes with the American Dream number where the luscious fruit of his ambition grows disgustingly over-ripe with this mesmerically self-indulgent paean to riches. You’ve never seen a man love a car in the way he does. He’s completely gross and completely brilliant.

Rehearsal picture3Yes, some of the music might be a little generic-musical, and yes, in comparison with the stimulating and intense lyrics of Les Miserables, some of these lyrics are over-simplified and trite; but all this is nothing as to the emotional surge that the story, the setting and the performers provide. I absolutely loved it. This production is only just starting and it has a long national (and international!) tour that goes on till September 2018, visiting Birmingham, Dublin, Cardiff, Edinburgh, Southampton, Manchester, Bristol, Plymouth and Norwich. Get booking now, you won’t regret it.

Rehearsal picture4P. S. It’s great to see the Curve Café used by the cast both before and after the show. I was waiting for my two teas and a cappuccino and was aware that I was standing next to Mr Gilmour and Miss Kim. Mr Gilmour was obviously hungry: “feed me” he implored of the waiting staff; “feed me, Seymour, feed me now” replied Miss Kim, which is precisely the same thing Mrs Chrisparkle and I say when we’re starving. She went on to ask Mr Gilmour whether the plant in Little Shop of Horrors has a name. Neither of them could think of it. I had to stop myself from butting in with “it’s Audrey! Audrey II in fact, because the first Audrey dies early in the show” – because that would have meant I was listening in to their conversation, which of course would have been rude of me.

Rehearsal picture5P. P. S. After the matinee, a number of the ensemble came out and spread over one of the refectory tables, and had lots of well-deserved food and drink. A plucky family from the audience approached one of the cast and asked for selfies and had a chat and the cast member (I couldn’t quite see who it was) was extremely obliging and friendly. And then I saw something I’d never seen before. The lady from the happy family gave the cast member a £5 tip. “Oh no, I couldn’t possibly….” started the ensemble lady, “oh yes, you must”, insisted the happy punter. Well, we do it in a restaurant, why not at the theatre?

Production rehearsal photos by Manuel Harlan

A Beginner’s Guide: Attending a Classical concert at Royal & Derngate

Hey there! Have a read of a blog post I’ve written about attending classical concerts at the Royal and Derngate! You can find the original here!

RPOWhen Mrs Chrisparkle and I moved to Northampton in 2008, she’d never been to a classical concert at all, and I’d only been once, as a teenager, trying to impress a very arty girl I was trying to go out with at the time; I was definitely boxing above my weight. We went to the elegant Wigmore Hall in London; a very grand location, where the music was appreciated reverentially and the less accessible it was, the better. I remember a programme of tedious heavy strings, sombre percussion and plodding piano. It was dismal, tuneless, pretentious nonsense. It didn’t even impress the girl, who later confessed she would sooner have seen Abba The Movie.

RPO1-300x200It was only when we first read about the full range of delights on offer at the Royal and Derngate, that it occurred to us this was a great opportunity to discover what live classical concerts were all about. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra visit about five times a year, each time with a varied programme, which probably consists of a rousing overture, a concerto that calls for an expert soloist, and a stonking good symphony to round the concert off. The theatre also hosts the annual Malcolm Arnold Festival, celebrating the brilliance of our famous local composer. This culminates with a gala concert, which has been performed in the past by the likes of the Worthing Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Concert Orchestra; in 2017 the Royal Philharmonic are taking up this challenge. You don’t have to get on a train down to London and pay London prices for a classical concert experience when world class orchestras come up to Northampton; you can get tickets for as little as £15 – even less if you subscribe to three or more concerts in the season.

RPOThe Royal Philharmonic Orchestra: what does that say to you? Three random words, which, when you put them together, make beautiful, must-see music? Or do you think “it’s far too posh for the likes of me, I wouldn’t dare go to a classical concert”. Maybe you might think it would attract an audience full of stuffy old people, all twin-sets and war medals, so you wouldn’t fit in. Maybe you’re worried about concert etiquette and think you will make a fool of yourself by applauding at the wrong time? Maybe you already enjoy going to see the terrific plays that are regularly produced at the Royal and Derngate, but don’t know much about classical music – and think you’d find it boring? Well, if you’ve not been to a classical concert at the R&D before, and are wondering if you should try it – fear not, I’m here with some advice for you!

RPO2-260x300First off – is it a posh occasion? Definitely not. Classical music attracts equally the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate. Old, young, families, couples; groups of friends and relatives; singles wanting to concentrate on the music or indeed find another single person also interested in the classics! All are welcome. Wear what you like – you can be as smart or as casual as you wish, you don’t have to dress any differently from how you would normally for the theatre or the cinema. Everyone fits in – to be honest, the audience are concentrating on the orchestra and are not at all concerned about whether the other audience members are musically trained, public school educated or look smart!

Nigel Kennedy plays BrahmsEtiquette – when should I applaud? Traditionally, you applaud at the very end of each complete piece. So, whether you’re listening to a three-minute overture or an hour-long symphony, you would still applaud when it’s finished – i.e. after three minutes or after an hour. Sometimes it’s hard to work out whether a longer piece, like a symphony or concerto, has finished or not. But there are always clues to watch out for. Take your cue from the conductor. If he’s still facing the orchestra, baton poised in his hand, looking serious, it may well not have finished yet. If he’s relaxed, baton down, and he turns to face the audience – it’s over.

RPO3-300x200I like to play a game with myself, trying to identify the individual movements within a larger piece. If you buy the programme – which is a really good idea, because it’s crammed with information not only about the performers and the composers, but also about the individual pieces that are played – you can find out how many movements there are and try to spot where each one ends and the next one begins. If you know your scherzo from your andante, that helps; but even if not, the programme notes will assist you identify the livelier sections from the quieter sections – and that way you can follow the music as it progresses. It’s really rewarding when you say to yourself, “there’s a change of mood coming up” or “it’s just about to finish” – and you’re right!

English Classics with Julian Lloyd WebberThat also goes to show that you don’t need to know the music in advance in order to enjoy it. It is amazing how many familiar tunes though are lifted from classical works, and it’s fun to suddenly realise “I know this! It’s from that carpet advert!” Many of the pieces that the RPO include in their programmes are very well-known, and you can hear an audible sigh of pleasure when the audience suddenly recognises a tune. Recently they played Rossini’s William Tell overture and not a soul wasn’t thinking about the Lone Ranger.

RPOgroupAnd it’s not just about the music – live performance always has a theatricality all of its own. When you’ve got maybe forty or more musicians on stage, there are always mini-dramas to enjoy. See what kind of a relationship the conductor has with the musicians, whether they’re jokey or serious. See how the soloist reacts to the rest of the orchestra – are they aloof or one of the lads? Watch out for sneaky chatting between the violinists, or the percussionist dashing over to the celeste just in time to play a few notes before dashing back to the triangle, or the tuba or double-bass player making themselves giggle by how low a note they can get their instrument to play. I love watching the interaction between everyone – their mutual admiration for each other’s skills, how they turn each other’s sheet music pages, how they might even look at each other with amusement or horror if something doesn’t go quite right. All sorts of things can happen on that stage, and it’s all part of the live entertainment!

Natalie Clein plays DvořákThere’s often a pre-concert talk which gives you a further opportunity to understand a little bit more about the pieces and what to listen for – I don’t normally get around to seeing the talk, but I have a friend who wouldn’t miss them for the world. I’m more likely to get to the theatre half an hour before the concert starts, order a couple of glasses of Merlot for the interval, study the programme to see exactly what’s in store, make my way to our favourite seats, and then just let it all wash over me.

Last Night of the Derngate PromsOver the years we’ve seen some extraordinary concerts – including great soloists like Julian Lloyd-Webber, Nigel Kennedy, Natalie Clein, John Williams and Jack Liebeck; we’ve heard Ravel’s Bolero, Holst’s Planets, Elgar’s Enigma Variations, the 1812 Overture, Dvorak’s New World Symphony and all the fun of the Last Night of the Proms, RPO-style.

CinderellaThe next concert, on 16th July, is a Film Music Gala and would be the perfect introduction to the Royal Philharmonic concerts for anyone who feels they might enjoy them and wants to dip their toe in the water. We can expect loads of memorable and recognisable tunes, from Star Wars to Titanic; and the vocalist is Alison Jiear, who not only won the nation’s hearts on Britain’s Got Talent, but she also sang like a dream in the R&D’s Cinderella in 2015. She will be singing some of John Barry’s best loved film tunes and I’m sure she’ll make them her own. And of course, it will be a chance for the Royal Philharmonic to show off their livelier and more informal side. I can’t wait, it’s going to be brilliant. Why don’t you book too?

Review – Sweet Bird of Youth, Festival Theatre Chichester, 24th June 2017

Sweet Bird of YouthWhen they write the history of 20th century American drama (they probably already have, actually) three names will stand out as being the greatest writers amongst them: Eugene O’Neill, Arthur Miller and Tennessee Williams. When I was first discovering theatre In A Big Way in my teens, I acquired the scripts to so many of their plays and totally devoured them. Of course, a play is a very different entity when you see it on stage as opposed to when you read it; and I’m not sure how much of the 16-year-old me would have really appreciated the niceties of Sweet Bird of Youth, just reading it propped up behind the bikesheds at school. My Penguin edition also contains A Streetcar Named Desire and The Glass Menagerie, both of which I saw in my teens and confirmed me as a massive Tennessee Williams fan. It’s taken another forty years for me finally to see a production of Sweet Bird of Youth and I confess to you, gentle reader, I have committed the sin of overlooking this incredible play all my adult life.

SBOY1Lousy gigolo and wannabe actor Chance Wayne is found in bed with formerly great actress Alexandra Del Lago, now hiding behind the soubriquet of Princess Kosmonopolis, in a posh hotel room littered with empty champagne bottles. Wayne’s back in his home town of St Cloud, much to the horror of the local Finlay family and their acolytes, who govern the town with a corrupt iron fist. Wayne’s former girlfriend, Heavenly, is the daughter of Boss Finlay and he’s not happy. In fact, he wants Wayne “gone by tomorrow – tomorrow begins at midnight”. Last time Wayne was with Heavenly, she got “infected”, and the infection had to be cut out, so that now she’s barren. If he stays, the local heavies are going to apply the same treatment to him (nasty). Wayne has this self-delusional idea that Miss Del Lago could get him into the movies (she could probably barely get him into the two-and-sixpenny’s) and that his new-found success will win Heavenly back. But none of this is going to happen. The women are washed-up, the men are corrupt, and hapless Wayne is caught in the middle. The only person in St Cloud on Wayne’s side is kindly Aunt Nonnie, who begs him to leave for his own safety; but Wayne is too much in love with himself to listen. How’s it all going to end? I was going to say, you’ll have to go see it for yourself, but you can’t because we saw the final performance! So you’ll just have to find another production!

SBOY4It’s interesting that it is among the later of his great plays – Glass Menagerie first saw light of day in 1944, Streetcar in 1947, Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in 1955; Sweet Bird of Youth first appeared in 1959. Whereas those older plays were the product of Williams’ fervent youthful imagination – and considerable life experience – of his early to mid-thirties, by the time Sweet Bird hit the stage he was 48, and entering that time of life when it’s traditional to start your midlife crisis. The play is packed full of reminiscence, regret, and harking back to a time of youth. Alexandra Del Lago has lost her youthful attractiveness and box-office power; at 29, the wretched Wayne has only a few years left in him of his wayward lifestyle which showed such promise in his youth; his ex-girlfriend Heavenly is only a shadow of her former self (she was just 15 when Chance “had” her). In addition, local political scumbag Boss Finlay is holding a “Youth for Tom Finlay” rally upstairs at the Royal Palms Hotel, which emphasises the importance of youth and associates it with success; but what we actually see is the youth followers of Finlay beating up an (older) heckler, showing us the violent and destructive side of youth. Finlay has a policy of “southern segregation”, so these beautiful young things are actually supporting a thoroughly ugly concept. Youth may be a sweet bird at first, but it turns into a tough old bird if it doesn’t realise its promise.

SBOY7This is the kind of big play and production that always feels absolutely right on the Festival Theatre stage. Anthony Ward’s brilliant set surprises you, scene by scene, as he creates a decadent hotel suite, the Finlays’ grand mansion, and the bar at the Royal Palms hotel with flowing ease. You get glimpses of the backstage area at the Royal Palms, where the rally is taking place, giving the illusion that the room goes on for miles. That bar scene is particularly effective, with all its bar-room trappings: the lethargic pianist; the vacuous young things laughing whole-heartedly at nothing at all; the well-paid discarded mistress dolled up to the nines; the very well-stocked bar tended by an arrogant young barman. It’s a superbly convincing staging.

SBOY3The marketing for this show was very heavily based on the star performers playing the roles of the Princess and Wayne: Marcia Gay Harden, who’s done loads of films, TV and Broadway work; and Brian J Smith, who’s also done loads of Broadway, films, and Netflix’s Sense8. You know what I’m going to say, don’t you, gentle reader? Yep. Hadn’t heard a jot about either of them. Sometimes I feel we live on a different planet. However – hopefully this marketing did attract the audiences, because I have to say Miss Harden and Mr Smith both turn in incredible performances.

SBOY2Much of the text concentrates on conversations between just the two of them – all of the lengthy first scene, and of course the final scene – and they are mesmeric. In that first scene, they instantly capture the atmosphere of both decadence and failure; Mr Smith in his offensively expensive satin pyjamas, always hovering around the bed but never comfortable in it; Miss Hayden, the opposite; emerging under the sheets in her black nightie that just manages to cover her enough to be decent, making sarcastic demands from the boy so that she doesn’t have to lift a finger. It really conveys the power imbalance within the relationship. Through the course of two and three quarter hours, Miss Hayden lets loose a full range of emotions from wheedling insecurity to provoked anger, and you just can’t take your eyes off her. Mr Smith, too, is fantastic at revealing his character’s catastrophic emptiness, always playing No 2 to those around him, relying on drunken happy-go-luckiness to survive his experience at the Royal Palms bar, understanding in the final scene that he has no more aces to play. It’s a brilliant performance.

SBOY5The large ensemble company, many of whom have very brief but nevertheless effective roles, are all excellent. Dominating the stage in his own scenes is a superb performance by Richard Cordery as the horrendous Boss Finlay, chomping on and spitting out his cigar with all the finesse of a warthog, shaming his family members because they’re too weak to stand up to him, deluding himself about the existence of Miss Lucy; basically encapsulating everything you’d hate about a Southern Political Baron. And there’s definitely something of the Trump in there. I also really loved Ingrid Craigie as the much put-upon Aunt Nonnie; her scene where she approaches Wayne to encourage him to leave is heartfelt and gently funny – I loved how she goes there full of resolve but then just melts with his charm – totally believable. Emma Amos is a delightful Miss Lucy, fluttering around the bar like a true Tennessee Williams southern belle, relying on the kindness of strangers even though she isn’t in A Streetcar Named Desire.

SBOY6I thought this was a stunning night’s theatre, performed with heart, a sense of injustice and a truthfulness that reveals the horror of life for a number of rather dissolute people. As I mentioned earlier, that was the final performance so I hope you got to see it. For me, Sweet Bird has now definitely taken its place among the great plays of the 20th century. There’s so much to get out of it; so much that’s only hinted at; so much to fear in it, so much to empathise with. Absolutely first class!

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – The Country Girls, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, 24th June 2017

The Country GirlsEdna O’Brien is one of those very famous authors whom absolutely no one I know has ever read. “What play are we seeing for the matinee in Chichester?” asked Mrs Chrisparkle showing surprising interest a couple of hours before curtain-up. “The Country Girls”, I replied, “it’s an adaptation of that book by Edna O’Thingy…” She looked blankly at me, but I don’t think she would have been any the wiser if I’d remembered her surname. “It’s a very famous book” I added, although by then Mrs C was back on the Guardian website.

KateYou are, of course, much better informed, gentle reader, and will be aware that The Country Girls was Edna O’Brien’s debut novel back in 1960 and she’s written around 40 books in all, including short stories, poetry, non-fiction as well as her best-selling novels. The book was banned by the Irish censor upon publication, so it must be doing something right. Set in the West of Ireland in the 1950s, the first act introduces us to Kate and Baba, two girls subjected to the full convent regime of education and repression; we see Kate’s friendship with the young Sister Mary; and the girls’ shameful expulsion when some sexual teasing goes wrong. The second act sees the girls in Dublin, freed from their shackles and finding their own way; meeting unsuitable men and struggling to pay the rent. Whilst the story really builds beautifully in the first act, and you really get to understand the main characters and their motivations very well; for me the play rather fizzled out in the second act, as whatever relationships they had came to nought.

BabaNevertheless, it’s still a very entertaining play, which gives you a very good insight into what life was like in Ireland in the 1950s, and how very different the country and the city life were. Fathers were either kind and helpful or drunk and violent; nuns were either warm-hearted or sadists. Similarly, girls were either like Kate – ambitious and innocent, or like Baba – reckless and sinful; and both were equally entertaining for the audience to watch. Little moments, like when Baba buys an ice-cream when they first arrive in Dublin, speak volumes and paint a much bigger picture than the words of the play alone can do. Isobel Waller-Bridge has composed some very elegant but inevitably sombre music which recurs throughout the piece and for me had the effect of bringing the mood down, as if preparing us in advance for some great tragedy. Call me shallow, but I’d have killed for a little fiddle and a tin whistle.

This could get a girl expelledThe play is dominated, wonderfully, by the brilliant performance of Grace Molony as Kate. From the very first scene she captures your heart and you spend the next two and a half hours willing her to succeed and survive at everything life throws at her. Both as a gullible girl and an out-of-place young woman, Ms Molony expresses so much about Kate’s character without even having to say a word. Her conversations with Mary are charming – a delightful performance from Jade Yourell; and as she opens up to Rachel Atkins’ superbly Germanic Joanna you see her becoming an independent woman, holding her own opinions whilst still being kind and thoughtful. It’s a beautiful performance.

Joanna and GustavGenevieve Hulme-Beaman’s Baba is an amusingly irreverent character; the archetypal naughtiest girl in the school, always chirpy with an answer for everything. She longs to lead Kate astray in Dublin, but when she finds she cramps her style, it’s easy for this Baba simply to dump her. Again, it was a very realistic presentation of a spirited young woman, desperate to make her way without any restrictions, and it was a joy to watch her; even though we thought her re-appearance at the end of the play was rather improbable. The remainder of the cast give a great ensemble performance to suggest the stifling backwardness of the countryside and the diversity of Dublin.

Baba buys an ice creamI’d have liked the story to have a bit more oomph in the second half, but that’s not to say it wasn’t a very enjoyable, intelligent and rewarding piece of drama that leaves you much better informed about Ireland in the 50s. It’s on until 8th July.

Production photos by Manual Harlan