Review – Trial, University of Northampton, Final Year BA (Hons) Acting Students, Isham Studio, Northampton, 1st February 2019

TrialWhen I first heard that the Final Year Acting Students were going to present a devised adaptation of Kafka’s First World War novel The Trial, I was excited by the prospect of seeing a bold and ambitious piece of work. I remember reading it at school and discovering it was an unsettling, murky book; I didn’t like it (I’m sure I didn’t understand it either) but there’s something about it that makes you carry on reading. It leads you down one path only to show you that there’s nothing there after all and that all the action’s down another path. And once you get down the second path, you wonder what it all meant. In a word – Kafkaesque.

Charlie MackenzieSo the medium of an immersive, promenade performance works perfectly for this story, leading the audience up to one part of the acting space to share in one scene, only to then move to another part for the story to continue. In the end, we’re all in a huge circle with the actors enveloped by us, like one massive Ring – a – Ring – a – Roses, and indeed, they do all fall down dead.

Moses GaleBefore that, there is the usual mix of danger and discomfort that is often an element of an immersive show. Even before you enter the studio, an armed, balaclava’d soldier stands at the door, so you sneak past hoping not to make eye contact only to be bellowed at by another soldier for trying to walk in the wrong direction. When you’re not seated in rows but instead are walking around the acting space aimlessly, waiting for the play to begin, it’s surprisingly isolating. Add to the fact that you are required to wear a mask, and that the lighting is turned down very low, you do feel very vulnerable. So when a soldier bellows at you to “f***ing move”, it’s hard not to take it personally. But it’s all part of that dangerous sense of tension and conflict, which the ensemble convey superbly well.

Michael GukasThe programme notes tell us that, rather than being a formal staging of the novel, this adaptation takes the concept of Trial and applies it to the problems faced by young people today; whilst still keeping many of Kafka’s original characters. The protagonist, Joseph K, is played by six actors; and why not? Like Walt Whitman, K contradicts himself; he is large, he contains multitudes. We first see the six of them, inextricably linked, asleep on the floor, slowly waking up in sequence as though in slow shutter speed movement; only to be disturbed by the arresting officers, when they fracture into their six identities and are never reunited again.

Amber KingIt’s a very loose adaptation. I’m sure Donald Trump and Chubby Checker don’t appear in the original – but that’s not to say they wouldn’t if Kafka had heard of them! Characters come together, argue, kiss, have sex and move on with no sense of commitment. A fatuous judge is borne aloft on stage to tell us that she is a judge and everyone else is dead impressed. Some scenes from the book are closely recognisable – like the scene with the court clerk, or in the church with the priest; others are not. Gracious hosts welcome us all to a party with a variety of dance numbers that we can join in with if we wish. I would be lying if I said I understood the relevance of every scene, but it was all done with compelling commitment.

Tonia ToselandIt’s very hard to identify individual performers from this strong ensemble because they’re all part of the jigsaw; if one were to go missing, so to speak, it would disrupt the whole picture. However, I was very impressed with how Charlie Mackenzie swung from sadistic guard to charming party host, Moses Gale’s unctuously threatening priest, and all the members of the whispering mob who chattered behind the judge’s back.

Chris CutlerI love challenging theatre, and I love immersive theatre; so, this production wins on both fronts. At fifty minutes this is perfect fringe festival material and gives you loads to think and talk about on the way home. Great stuff!

Abi CameronP. S. I decided to let myself go during the dance scene. I shared a beautiful moment with Michael Gukas, singing along to Strawberry Fields Forever like two drunken sots; only then to ruin it with my disgraceful, dad dancing rendition of Night Fever. Sorry about that. Don’t have nightmares.

Review – Global Warning, University of Northampton, Final Year BA (Hons) Acting Students, Isham Studio, Northampton, 31st January 2019

globalwarningClimate Change and the lethal waste in our seas are definitely up there among the world’s biggest problems at the moment – and it doesn’t help that so many of the powers that be either don’t take them seriously or, even worse, deny their existence. This group of young actors from the Final Year BA (Hons) Acting Students at Northampton University have collaborated to create their own take on the problem and ways in which some people can help (or hinder) progress.

Nafetalai TuifuaThis show is a sequence of inter-related sketches and scenes that highlight the scale of the problem from many different angles. First, we are introduced to our keen and lively cast who parade on stage and then “assume positions” of varying degrees of artistry, from which they bawl, prance, leap, moan and all sorts of other noisy actions in between; all under the masterful watch of their wonderfully posey and pompous Director, played with dazzling humour by Ryan Greendale. They’re happy, playful little performers who all eventually die due to their contaminated environment. It instantly makes a very forceful point – although if that scene had carried on much longer it might have got a little self-indulgent.

Daniel HuberyThen we meet Gwilym, with his uphill task of keeping his herd of cows in check, as they blunder all over the stage and up into the audience. These devious cattle have a plan to increase methane production by working on their farts. This was a fun sketch, primarily as a result of their having to keep their bovine secret from Gwilym, so that every time he turns up, all untrusting-like, they revert to their traditional mooing. Very nicely done! The next sketch featured some well-meaning broccoli farmers (I assume that’s what they were) being tricked out of their land by the scheming Nafetalai Tuifua and Lyric Impraim in an enjoyable exposure of how simple folk don’t have a chance against Big Business.

Samantha TurnerAnd so the show continued. I won’t go through each and every sketch – I won’t be able to remember them all at any rate! But there were some entertaining running characters who burst forward every now and then. Hannah Magrath’s Doctor keeps a constant eye on the deteriorating double-act of Louise Akroyd’s Mother Earth and Daniel Hubery’s Poseidon (lord of the sea). This somewhat abused couple fight for breath and can’t stop the coughs as their condition gets worse and worse. There’s a highlight when Poseidon, in his snorkel and speedos, leads the cast in a big number about the pollution in the seas. I enjoy and admire how Mr Hubery is not afraid to look ridiculous in order to get the laughs! By the end of the show, Poseidon (lord of the sea) and Mother Earth have frankly given up the ghost – and the future is definitely looking grim.

Ryan GreendaleAnother recurrent character is Trevor, from the Climate Change/World Ecology think tank, a seemingly well-meaning but ineffectual chap with a serious message on how to manage the future. He gets bombarded from the audience with recyclables, and eventually is bribed by Interested Parties with cash to flash to keep his ideas to himself. It’s a good, understated performance from Joseph Mattingley, who connects extremely well with the audience.

Melissa KnottOther sketches include three nature-watchers sailing out to sea in a coffin, who marvel at the destroyed world around them – lovely performances from Fiona Moreland-Belle, Samantha Turner and Simon Roseman; a Tongan hula party brought to life by the immensely watchable Nafetalai Tuifua; and the vegan thugs who beat meat-eaters up with celery sticks. Ms Turner, again, is the ringleader of this green gang and has a quietly authoritative stage presence; she reminds me a little of a younger Jessica Hynes, which is No Bad Thing.

Kieran JamesThere’s one incredible coup-de-theatre, for which everyone should be congratulated; when the stage is transported to the sea with the use of one large sheet of tarpaulin, waving and blowing in the air, being raised over our heads, with the wind rushing and the sense of sea spray on our faces, and making the detritus on the floor look even more disgusting and criminal as a contaminated sea bed. A relatively simple device, but in effect, absolutely breathtaking and beautifully carried out.

Joseph MattingleyAll members of the cast worked their socks off as part of the big ensemble and also in their individual roles. In addition to those I’ve already mentioned I really enjoyed all the contributions made by Kieran James and Melissa Knott who were both outstanding in their stage confidence and all their characterisations; but everyone played a tremendous part in creating an engrossing show. Very enjoyable all round – and plenty to make you think about too!

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 – A Christmas Carol, University of Northampton, Final Year BA (Hons) Acting Students, Isham Dark Studio, Northampton, 13th December 2018

A Christmas CarolAs my fellow blogger Mr Smallmind and I were arriving at the University buildings for this performance of A Christmas Carol it occurred to us how many theatres around the world over these few weeks must be giving us their own versions of this Dickens’ perennial favourite. It’s a very adaptable story; you can make it funny, or sinister, or musical, or quirky. This particular production must fall under the quirky heading.

Lyric ImpraimFramed by a narrator who opens and closes the show by blowing the dust off an antiquarian tome, she entices us in to the story-telling fantasy of the miserly old git Scrooge, whom no one likes and who treats everyone with contempt and cruelty; and how he later redeems himself after being confronted with his own selfishness and bitterness. I think we’ve all got a relative like that who we don’t want to meet at Christmas! But Scrooge’s irrepressible nephew Fred has other ideas, and year-in year-out he invites him to dinner; much to the relief of his wife and best pal when Scrooge, inevitably, doesn’t turn up. But you know all this already; as do the enthralled children from a local school who also saw Thursday afternoon’s matinee.

Amy Jane Baker and the Fezziwig PartyWhy quirky? Well, it starts with the cast mingling with the audience, giving out mince pies (which I can heartily recommend), chocolate coins and candy sticks. It was fun observing the kids trying to work out which cast member was standing in front of them, comparing their faces with the photos in the programme. And whilst there were a number of sequences when the action would take place with a backdrop of a particular Christmas carol (I guess the clue was in the title), the second act starts with a live gig from Ebeneezer and the Scrooges, including a rumbustious performance of Fairytale of New York. Dickens might have been turning in his grave; but then again, if he was counting the royalties, perhaps he wasn’t.

Harry OliverI found myself totally carried away with the narrative strength of this production, and thoroughly enjoyed the connection made between the cast and the audience. Musically it is very proficient and successful, with a cast peppered with fantastic voices, bringing us carols both celebratory and haunting. There are a couple of sequences where the whole cast take to the floor for some rather charming and effective dancing, too; congratulations to everyone for cramming 21 people into a tiny space and not bumping into each other.

Chris CutlerOf course, a vital component of any production of A Christmas Carol is the character of Scrooge, here played by Chris Cutler. Like a cross between van Dyck and the early Mick Fleetwood, visually he really stands out and therefore, you would expect, would be perfect to play the outcast role of Scrooge. And whilst I readily believed in the “nice” side of Mr Cutler’s Scrooge, humbly learning the lessons of the Ghosts of Christmasses Past Present and Future, being kind to the Charity lady and so on, I couldn’t quite believe that someone as seemingly mild mannered and naturally kindly as Mr Cutler could be a ferocious, miserly Scrooge; one that Mrs Cratchit would despise or that street urchins would run a mile from. When he was channelling his inner Pogue during the musical interlude, Mr Cutler felt really comfortable on stage. It would have been great if he could express even more vocal dexterity to really stamp his authority on the role of Scrooge. Nevertheless, he has a strong stage presence and is a nifty mover on the side; I sense he would really impress with physical comedy.

Tim MedcalfElsewhere in the cast, there were many examples of terrific stage presence, and also beautiful clarity of vocal delivery which I always admire (I don’t always hear everything!) I loved the beguiling and atmospheric performance of Lyric Impraim as the narrator, who really drew me in to her story – and who is also hilariously cheeky as the urchin who brings back the gi-normous turkey that Scrooge orders. Bethany Ray gives a really strong performance as Belle, Scrooge’s one-time girlfriend, from whom he turns away in his search for wealth; also in her ensemble role, furthering the narrative, I found her superbly clear and full of expression that I really enjoyed. I was also very impressed with Tim Medcalf as Young Scrooge, and in his first scene with Belle I really believed that his heart was bursting for her.

Sarah AwojobiSarah Awojobi has a natural authority as the Ghost of Christmas Past, calmly and clearly imposing all sorts of embarrassments and horrors on Scrooge without turning a hair in her determination. Bethan Medi’s Ghost of Christmas Present stands out with her glorious Welsh accent giving the character a whole new dimension – and making her very different from her ghostly colleague. Harry Oliver portrays Bob Cratchit as to the manner born; the family man supreme, proudly engaging with all his little ones and running the house with as much kind nobility as his wife would allow – all very nicely done. There’s a very funny cameo from Esther Bartholomew as Old Joe (with terrific support again from Ms Impraim) and a very watchable performance from Joseph Mattingley as the constantly upbeat Fred and the jovial Mr Fezziwig. Fiona Moreland-Belle and Shemelia Lewis also have very strong ensemble presences and the stage always brightens up when they come on.

Michael GukasBut for me the two most impressive performers, and who I am really looking forward to seeing in future productions, are Amy Jane Baker, whose larger-than-life Mrs Fezziwig bubbles over with enthusiasm and who is also arresting with her story-telling delivery as part of the ensemble; and Michael Gukas, whose Jacob Marley is the epitome of cool despair and doom-laden warning. Mr Gukas can change the mood of a scene with just one exquisitely phrased sentence. A very strong performance.

Very excited to see what all these young actors will do over the course of the next year!

Rehearsal photos by Tomos Griffiths

Review – Aladdin – Adventures in the East, University of Northampton, Final Year BA (Hons) Acting Students, Isham Dark Studio, Northampton, 12th December 2018

AladdinIt’s a tall order – but also a vitally important one – to get the 3rd Year Acting Students to cast away all thought of serious theatre and throw themselves into the panto vibe. After all, it’s a regular source of fruitful employment! I believe last year’s group were the first to be asked to take on such a task when they performed Cinderella to a pack of excitable primary schoolkids. This year I had the pleasure of watching the new students perform Aladdin to more than 70 happy youngsters from Castle Academy, and judging by the kids’ reactions (which has to be your best gauge) they absolutely nailed it.

Amber KingIn fact, the biggest challenge the cast had was trying to work out how to get themselves comfortably back on script to continue with the show rather than allowing themselves to get lost in the children’s enthusiastic responses. That requires some strong stage authority, which I guess comes with experience, but for the most part they managed to get us back on track with the show whilst still allowing that all-important audience participation, without which panto is merely some adults playing dressing up and silly sods.

Samantha TurnerIt’s a brisk, funny script, with just the right amount of stock panto routines to please first-time theatregoers and old reprobates like myself. Total confession time – I am a complete sucker for a panto. I don’t care if it’s only the boys and girls who are meant to shout back at the stage, I can’t resist joining in without any sense of embarrassment at all (I leave the embarrassment to those around me).

Tonia ToselandThis was my first opportunity to see this cast of students at work and I was tremendously impressed. The University has a reputation of creating absolutely first class actors and, from this performance, my initial reaction is not only that that reputation is safe for at least another year but also that there isn’t one weak link in the whole cast. They all came across as extremely likeable (perhaps not Abanazar, but then he’s not meant to be!) with some great instincts for comedy and some excellent stage presence. I can’t pick out only the good names because everyone is good. However, there are some really impressive aspects and performances that I’d like to mention.

Daniel HuberyAmber King’s Sheherazade takes instant control of the show with her dynamic opening appearance, whisking us away to that magical land where panto is real. Samantha Turner is superb as Aladdin, with all that fresh-faced, innocent but impish enthusiasm required of a panto principal boy; and, as his/her love interest, Tonia Toseland is perfect as a dazzling Princess Jasmine, a heart full of goodness cutting a romantic dash as they both navigate their journey on their flying carpet (which I thought was remarkably effective!)

Nafetalai TuifuaOf course, there’s just as much comedy as romance (if not more) and I loved the three-part genie played by Beth Hâf Jones, Abi Cameron and Hannah Bacon in their myriad regional accents and with some enjoyable comic business. Sultan Daniel Hubery and Sultana Katie Glenn made a highly entertaining couple; I could see Ms Glenn as a dark tragedienne in some gloom-filled costume drama, whereas I think Mr Hubery would be a brilliant Baron Hardup! Kieran Jones had the joint pleasure and challenge of giving us his Twankey en travestie; a neat blend of the faux feminine and the wotcher mate that worked very well. Thomas van Langenberg oozed slippery wickedness as the evil Abanazar, and, in a minor role, I did enjoy Tyler Reece’s hard-nosed bouncer guard watching us all with his beady eye.

Tyler ReeceBut for me the star of the show was Nafetalai Tuifua as the irrepressible Wishee Washee; he really got under the panto veneer to become the truly playful pal with whom all the kids in the audience would want to be best buddies. I laughed along with all his enthusiasm, and when he proposed to Soapy Sophie (sorry, spoilers) I genuinely felt an emotional pull. Above all, he made me forget that I was an adult, which I reckon is quite a rare gift.

Great promise from this likeable young cast – I look forward to seeing them perform in more shows during the course of the year!

Review – O,FFS, Ytho? Theatre, University of Northampton Graduate Students, Avenue Campus, Northampton, 24th October 2018

Watch out for spoilers in this review!!

OFFSOne of the productions that Mrs Chrisparkle and I weren’t able to see at the Edinburgh Fringe this summer was O,FFS, a devised comedy about office life and the political machinations that take place therein. I’d seen that it had some good reviews, but, as Mrs C always says, you can’t see everything. Normally, if you miss a decent show at the Fringe, you’d be very lucky to ever get a chance to catch it somewhere else second time round. But, as luck would have it, Ytho? Theatre, which consists of four strong alumni from the last couple of years’ pick of Acting Students at the University of Northampton, have brought back their O,FFS to their alma mater so their contemporaries could see what they’ve been getting up to since graduating; and, fortunately, Mr Smallmind and I managed to get tickets for one of the performances.

Jessica BichardIn this children’s charity office, the usual loafers Ben, the IT manager, Gail, the office supervisor and Angela, the chuggers manager, are idling their time away, concerned at the absence of the Max, the office manager. Max has been sacked for uselessness, and has been temporarily replaced by Sasha, who’s tasked with testing the rest of the team to find out precisely how good (or otherwise) they are at their jobs. Naturally paranoia takes over and it’s not long before their early trickery – like deliberately misdirecting Sasha so that she can’t find the HR department – leads on to more wilful disobedience. As things get more and more out of hand, it’s clear this is more than just a normal day at the office. But what will Sasha’s recommendation be – if she survives the day?

Liam FaikThis gifted little cast turn in a smashing performance in this very funny, quirky and surreal play, that sees the story retold from several different points of view – which means that each of the four characters acquire different characteristics and accents, depending on who’s telling the story. It’s performed at breakneck speed, with absolutely no time to pause for breath between individual scenes, so it builds to a tremendous crescendo; and you also appreciate how demanding it is for the cast to constantly switch in and out of character and voice.

Aoife SmythAll four actors create a perfect ensemble, with great trust and respect between each other, which gives you such confidence that they’re going to give you a great performance – and they do. Jessica Bichard tries to be the sensible voice of the team and acts as a kind of spirit level against which you can assess how bizarre everyone else is. Very effective Russian accent too! Liam Faik, as always, gives a fantastically strong performance, vainly milking the double entendres in his sexualised interview with Sasha, and either splendidly manipulative or manipulated in the office politics, depending on whose point of view you’re watching. Aoife Smyth gives Sasha a range of brilliant characteristics, from the kindly, helpful manager we all hope to get or strive to become, to the gangster channelling her inner Frank Butcher.

Helena FentonBut it’s Helena Fenton who steals the show for me, with her brilliant characterisation of the appalling Angela, the kind of person you really hope you don’t have to sit next to in the office. You know the kind; the type who speak their thoughts no matter how in appropriate; the type that invent irritating office rituals like Quiche O’Clock. Her down at heel voice, with hints of Julie Walters, crossed with James Acaster and a pinch of Jane Horrocks, sent shivers down my spine as I recognised in her a combination of people who used to report to me in my old civil service job. Particularly in her one-to-one meetings with Sasha, when she openly debated how seriously she was going to take the meeting – aargh! Painfully recognisable and devastatingly funny!

Well worth keeping an eye out for this company, as I know they are bringing this play to London in December, and I’m sure they’ll be doing some more great comedy plays in the future.

Review – Club Wonderland, University of Northampton Third Year Acting & Creative Practice Students, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 8th June 2018

Club WonderlandI think it’s widely accepted that many children are horrid little so-and-so’s aren’t they? Why else would generations of them have been entranced, scared, perplexed and amused by Lewis Carroll’s eternally popular Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass? Most of those characters are right shockers. The Queen of Hearts with a beheading fetish. The Duchess who wants to hit children. The belligerent twins Tweedledum and Tweedledee. And Alice herself; a pompous, self-righteous little prig who talks down to others. What on earth is the appeal?

James GraysonIt must be due to the writing. Lewis Carroll is something of a Jekyll and Hyde character, with his dual personality of the engaging writer of children’s fantasy and as Charles Dodgson, the Reverend intellectual of Christ Church Oxford. He was a pioneer of photography, and there is much debate to this day whether his interest in taking photographs of naked young girls was merely a matter of the time – when such photos were considered the epitome of innocence – or if there was a more devious intent lurking underneath. It’s very hard to come to a conclusion from our 21st century perspective.

Jemma BentleyErica Martin has written and directed this fascinating piece for the University of Northampton Third Year Acting & Creative Practice Students. We were met by a white rabbit and taken in a group into the recesses of the theatre – a veritable warren indeed – to enter the world of Club Wonderland. The music is by Josh Bird and is fresh and tuneful and fully deserves a life after this show. With our sophisticated hostess in the shape of Dodo, assisted by more white rabbits than you could shake a stick at, we enjoyed a cabaret show, interrupted by the ominous and troubled presence of The Boss himself, Mr Carroll, who has lost his pen and therefore cannot develop his characters any further; which is why they are all trapped in the club.

Joe ConroyAll we can do is visit individual vignettes, where we become more acquainted with some of the characters who dwell in the books. We saw the creation of the Jabberwocky. We played Blackjack with the March Hare. We gave roses to the Queen of Hearts in her boudoir. We had card tricks and got drunk with Bill. And we took sides in the fight between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. (We were Team Dum). Moving around the hidden back passages of the R&D and discovering little side rooms is a fascinating exercise in intrigue in itself; we had a similar experience a few years ago with their Midsummer Bacchanalia. It really does add an extra dramatic frisson as you wonder where you’ll end up next.

Dean AdamsThis was a superb ensemble work, with everyone absolutely giving their all to make it work. The only people not to be involved in the ensemble aspect – and I felt rather sorry for then as a result – were the excellent James Grayson as Lewis Carroll, and Kalyn Chesney as Alice. I’ve seen Mr Grayson a few times now and he has the amazing ability to create magic out of any role. As Carroll he was menacing and ominous, yet also aloof and vulnerable as he gave us some insight into Carroll’s Modus Operandi. Ms Chesney’s Alice was clearly very fond of her mentor, which made for a slightly creepy but very effective partnership. Also on duty in the club you could find Freya Mawhinney as a very vivacious and stylish Dodo and Jemma Bentley as both a terrified and terrifying Mouse, both of whom helped play the very enjoyable card game with no rules with us.

Bobbie-Lee ScottIn the vignette scenes there was a brilliant performance from Bobbie-Lee Scott as the Queen of Hearts’ tart, anxious to please, scared of upsetting Her Majesty, and superbly interacting with the guests. Joe Conroy was also unnervingly excellent as the Mad March Hare, carrying on multi-layered conversations with himself whilst still hosting a blackjack tournament (must just say one thing, WHAT A CHEAT) and Dean Adams gave a great performance as Bill behind the bar, with a really effective magic trick and a sorrowful tale which required much alcoholic lubrication. Charlie-Dawn Sadler and Rhianne Brown were superb unwilling adversaries as the Tweedle-twins, in a lively scene that used The Walrus and the Carpenter to great effect. Unfortunately I wasn’t quite so excited by Daniel Peace’s scene as the fortune teller. Whether this was because it was the first of the vignettes that we saw, so we were less confident as an audience group of the format, or because the content wasn’t so interesting, I don’t know, because he created a very intriguing character; and certainly knows how to pierce you with a steely gaze, that’s for sure.

Very atmospheric, thought-provoking, and extremely well performed. Congratulations to all!