Review – Twelfth Night, RSC at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, 9th November 2017

Twelfth NightTwelfth Night is one of those true, perennial crowd pleasers. It lends itself so well to modern reinvention, in new settings and new eras, and when you’ve got a central comedic role like Malvolio it’s a gift for a grumpy comic actor to breathe new life into it. It has songs – so you can make as much or as little of them as you want; it has a girl dressed as a boy making up to another girl on behalf of another boy (that’s bound to lead to trouble); it has drunks and idiots; it has separated twins who dress alike even though they haven’t seen each other for ages; it even has a Fool. If you were to cut up little pieces of all the Shakespeare plays throw them up in the air and then try to put all the most typical aspects back together into one play, you’d come up with Twelfth Night.

Orsino and CesarioChristopher Luscombe’s new production draws inspiration from the late Victorian era. Orsino’s Illyria is a Wildean, Swinburnean palace of decadence, where the Duke paints pictures of pretty young men with few clothes on and despite his protestations of love for his countess seems naturally more attracted to fellas. As a result, the whole Viola/Cesario setup takes on a greater significance. When Viola as Cesario is telling the entranced Duke about how she/he plans to return to Olivia to woo her even more, the Duke gets closer and closer to Cesario until he can’t resist but plant a big sloppy kiss on his/her lips, much to Cesario’s (and ours) dumbstruck surprise. Oh those Illyrians.

Sebastian and ViolaIn more Victorian design, the garden at Olivia’s country estate backs on to a beautifully realised minor extension to the Temperate House at Kew Gardens; and Feste, her jester, here is cast as her munshi ( Victoria and Abdul has a lot to answer for). That reassessment of the role of Feste absolutely makes sense in this setting. Shipwrecked foreigners Viola and Sebastian have clearly travelled from the East Indies or thereabout, with their stunning Maharajan robes looking strangely none the worse for their experience. Britain in the late 19th century was fascinated by all things oriental; it affected their costumes, their designs, their artefacts, even their drugs. Simon Higlett’s magnificent sets and costumes capture both the spirit of that fascination and the general sense of Victorian England, with the train station, garden statuary, Orsino’s studio and so on. I loved the use of the old-fashioned Polyphon player to provide Feste his backing tracks – a really nice touch.

MalvolioAs seems to be on trend at the moment, we opened with Viola’s arrival, off the shipwreck, for the first scene and then went to Orsino’s studio for his music be the food of love scene, rather than the other way around, as Shakespeare had it. Which among us is going to tell Shakespeare he got it wrong? This way round is much better; it somehow allows for a greater understanding of the characters and the opening scenario if we meet the earnest Viola first and then move on to the louche Orsino.

Malvolio crossgarteredAs in virtually every Shakespearean production nowadays there are a few tinkerings with the script or characterisations; and they are all successful and constructive – apart from just one aspect, in my humble opinion. There’s a lot of incidental music; and nine times out of ten it’s either too loud, or the actors’ amplification is too soft. Many speeches are drowned out by the music – Feste seemed to me to be the biggest casualty – and it’s simply too intrusive. On occasion it’s almost as though they’re trying to make it into a musical; that doesn’t work as there simply isn’t enough music to achieve that. Musically, it’s neither one thing nor the other and I was a little irritated at that imbalance. As usual, as Malvolio’s plight develops, we see him as more sinned against the sinning (yes, I know, different play), and Olivia’s final assessment that he has been most notoriously abus’d is quite right. However, this Twelfth Night is totally played for laughs, and the finale involves the whole cast singing all the songs again (really?) so any lingering sadness for Malvolio gets kicked into touch straight away. Maybe the production sacrifices a little of the play’s darker side so that it can end with one foot in the air going oi, oi, which isn’t necessarily for the best.

Sir TobyWhere this production really does come into its own is with some superb performances and truly entertaining characterisations. Let’s start with Malvolio – Adrian Edmondson in that role sounds like a dream come true and will rightly encourage plenty of bums on seats. He’s wonderfully dour as the strict puritan steward, dishing out death stares to reprobates, straightening out the angle of a stationary teapot with pernickety accuracy; and his transformation into a yellow stocking’d, cross garter’d, grinning ninny is very funny and not remotely over the top.

OliviaI absolutely loved Kara Tointon as Olivia. Her girlish relish at her constant meetings with Cesario is a sheer joy; her facial expressions really share that sense of physical enjoyment! John Hodgkinson puts his height and his vocal power into a strong performance as Sir Toby Belch, making what can be a somewhat tedious character genuinely funny; farting noisily and uncontrollably as he leaves the stage. Michael Cochrane’s Sir Andrew Aguecheek is another genuinely funny characterisation, collapsing through drink whenever it’s necessary, teetering across the stage in a discreet attempt to escape, mangling his words as he juggles dignity with debauchery. There’s a lovely scene where Sir Toby, Sir Andrew and Sarah Twomey’s gutsy scullery maid Fabia have to blend in with the broken statues in Olivia’s garden in order to hide from Malvolio. Simple physical comedy in many respects, but beautifully done.

MariaVivien Parry, last seen as the hilariously over-ambitious Mrs Walsingham in Half a Sixpence, brings a huge dollop of Welsh intrigue to the role of Maria; she couldn’t have been more dramatic (and indeed hilarious) in her account of how Malvolio has fallen for her trick – and it’s a really lovely reading of the part. Beruce Khan’s Feste is suitably mystic and exotic, combining the tradition Fool elements with a little touch of munshi magic. Dinita Gohil brings a natural dignity and nobility to the role of Viola; I really admired her clarity of diction with just that hint of Indian refinement that’s particularly pleasing to my ear. Esh Alladi’s Sebastian is a delightfully straightforward chap who can’t believe his luck with Olivia, and he exudes thorough decency whenever he’s on stage. Hats off to the casting department for uniting Mr Alladi and Ms Gohil in these two roles; with their similar heights and frames you really could believe they were twins. And there’s an excellent performance from Nicholas Bishop as Orsino, overflowing with artiness, always confusing the girl for the boy; a perfectly underplayed Victorian version of a Restoration fop.

Sir AndrewThe press night audience absolutely loved it, and it does fill the theatre with genuine contented vibes and a wonderful sense of good humour. I’d just like them to hold back on the musical intrusions a little; apart from that, what’s not to love?

P. S. Interesting to note from the programme how many of the cast of this show will also be appearing in the RSC’s A Christmas Carol, which opens next month; the two productions being played in repertoire until February. I’ll look forward to seeing that!

Production photos by Manual Harlan

Review – Call Me By Your Name, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 8th November 2017

CMBYNposterWhilst recently on holiday I noticed my friend HRH the Crown Prince of Bedford lamenting online that no cinema in his home town was showing Call Me By Your Name, and that he really (really, really) wanted to see it. It occurred to me that Trip Advisor’s #1 for Northampton Fun and Games, the Errol Flynn Filmhouse, might come up trumps on this one. And I was right. A quick check of the calendar and I saw that we could fit in a midweek matinee easy-peasy.

CMBYN1It’s very impressive how the Errol Flynn has espoused what seems to me the ever-growing range of LGBTQ films. Last month they held a Q-Film Weekender mini-festival with a selection of twelve features, previews, short films and animations marking the fiftieth anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality. And every month they have a special screening in association with Q-Film. Trailblazers indeed! Although Call Me By Your Name definitely comes under the LGBTQ film umbrella, its appeal is universal; a coming-of-age movie where a young person forges their way into adulthood, whichever path they take. We were all teenagers with raging hormones at one point; it’s a time we can all remember and empathise with. I for one am very glad to be a grown-up!

CMBYN2It’s 1983, and 17-year-old Elio lives part of the year with his rather trendy, arty parents in northern Italy, in what appears to be an idyllic lifestyle of constant sunshine, swimming, cycling, lovely Italian food, beautiful countryside and plenty of local girls on tap should he wish to try his luck. Into their lives arrives Oliver, a student intern come to assist Elio’s father who’s a professor of Greco-Roman culture. Oliver’s a strapping chap, quite a lot older than Elio, with attractive self-confidence and definite personal charisma. Elio’s attracted to him from the start; but it’s impossible to tell whether Oliver feels the same way, and their friendship remains chaste for some time before physical attraction just begins to get too much to ignore. Will their developing relationship have a chance of lasting? How long will it remain a secret? How accepting will Elio’s family and the wider community be? You’ll have to watch the film to find out!

In every sense you can imagine, this film reaches out and affects you. The cinematography is stunning, your eyes dwelling on majestic landscapes, and a privileged lifestyle. You can smell the fresh fish, the Mediterranean fruits, the rustic wines. The soundtrack is perfect, featuring evocative guitar and vocals by Sufjan Stevens, and dramatic piano works nicked from the back catalogues of Ravel and Satie. In fact, the combination of the dramatic piano, idyllic country life and a young man growing up strongly reminded me of one of my all-time favourite films, The Go-Between; although long-term I think Elio will grow up to be far better adjusted than Leo could ever hope.

CMBYN3The screenplay is by that master of decorum and decency James Ivory, and is predictably elegant and beautifully character-driven. In these awful Brexit days, it feels sophisticated, forward thinking and tolerant to have a screenplay switching effortlessly between English, Italian and French. I loved the attention to detail, and those lingering moments on the seemingly irrelevant, all of which contribute to an overwhelming build-up of emotion: like when Elio and Oliver on a bike ride ask an elderly contadina for a drink of water, or when we simply observe two pairs of swimming shorts drying over the same bath. There’s a startling scene when Italian guests come for dinner and argue animatedly over the merits of the films of Buñuel – it bears no significance on the story at all, yet it’s great to watch. I also loved how some things simply aren’t explained. At one stage Oliver asks Elio to forgive him, hoping that he doesn’t think the worse of him – but what for? In another scene Elio walks into the bedroom to find that the two beds had been pushed together. By whom? Many of their more intimate moments are only suggested, rather than clearly portrayed, and I rather liked the fact that the film gives Elio and Oliver their own privacy. Those details are nobody’s business but theirs.

CMBYN4The film benefits from some brilliant performances, none better than Timothée Chalamet as Elio, perfectly capturing that pretending-not-to-care quality that is the hallmark of a true teenager. To be fair, his characterisation is of a young man who’s more bold than bashful, which creates a strong awkward tension in his dealings with Armie Hammer’s Oliver, who brilliantly portrays someone persistently attempting to keep a tight rein on their feelings. There’s excellent support by Esther Garrel as local girl Marzia who would love a relationship with Elio, and in many ways he’d love one with her too. Amira Casar is excellent as Elio’s mother Annella, deeply attached to her son and wanting only the best for him, but betraying an uncertainty as to whether what’s happening is right. Best of all, Michael Stuhlbarg gives a really strong performance as Elio’s father Lyle, subtly steering him in the direction in which Elio will most likely find out about himself. There’s a truly beautiful father-and-son scene towards the end of the film which would tug at the strings of the hardest of hearts; the gentle sobbing sounds emitting from my pal in the next seat told their own story – in fact, read his account of the film here, because he gets and explains the emotions of the film in a more poignant and lucid way than I ever could.

CMBYN5Discussing the film afterwards, HRH said he’d hoped the film would have a happy ending. In my opinion, it’s not that unhappy an ending. True, the last scene, against which the final credits play out, features Elio crying with more and more passion. But those tears have a very eloquent tale to tell. At first, he’s crying through sheer sadness. Then you can sense an element of remorse, maybe regret. After a while they’re tears of defiance, as you realise he’s going to proudly bear whatever scars the experience will leave him with. At the end they’re tears of gratitude for the happy memories he will keep forever.

An excellent film, with something for everyone, as they say. If, like the Buzzcocks, you’ve ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn’t have fallen in love with, this is the film for you. And that’s everyone, right? Moving, charming, elegant, and all done in the best possible taste.

P. S. No peaches were harmed during the making of this film. Well, maybe one. But it’s very, VERY quickly over. Elio may need to work on his technique.

Review – Blood Brothers, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 6th November 2017

Blood BrothersI remember hearing a broadcast on Radio 3 once (I know, get me) where the announcer was introducing a performance of Handel’s Water Music. The question arose: why do we have to hear Handel’s Water Music again, it’s so commonplace and everyone knows it, let’s hear something more experimental? The announcer’s response? “Just remember, every time Handel’s Water Music is played, some young person is hearing it for the first time, and what a beautiful moment that is for them”. That’s so true, and it’s the same with Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers. It’s been around since the early 80s and hardly ever stops touring in some guise or other; surely we’ve had enough of it now? For the answer to that, gentle reader, you only had to hear the shocked gasps from (I would guess) at least half the packed audience at the Derngate on Monday night to tell you that every time a performance of Blood Brothers takes place, someone sees it for the first time; and what emotional nourishment it provides.

Blood-Brothers-group-shotThis was the third time we’ve seen it, and it’s been too long a gap. Our first experience was at the Albery (now Noel Coward) theatre in 1988, with Kiki Dee as Mrs Johnstone and Con O’Neill as Mickey. Our second was in 1995, at the Apollo (now back to being called the New) in Oxford, with Clodagh Rodgers as Mrs J and David Cassidy (yes, the David Cassidy) as Mickey. Of course, the first production had Barbara Dickson in the role; and this current touring version stars Lyn Paul. Honestly, where would Mrs Johnstone be without great recording stars of the 1970s?!

Each Mrs J has her own unique characterisation and approach. Kiki Dee was punchy and aggressive, a true fighter. Clodagh Rodgers had a faux-refinement and aspirations to sophistication which meant she had further to fall at the end. Lyn Paul’s Mrs J is running on empty from the start, with dreary memories of her wretch of an ex-husband, exhausted from looking after all those kids and genuinely despairing at the prospect of another two mouths to feed. By the time the show ends, Ms Paul has wrung all her emotions out and is a defeated husk. That’s probably an extremely realistic interpretation.

sean jonesThis show has always had a special place in our hearts, especially Mrs Chrisparkle’s, as, at the age of five, she, along with her parents and brothers, were rehoused from their flat above Fazakerley Post Office, to 65 Skelmersdale Lane – or at least Flamstead, in Skem. Just like the Johnstones, she remembers the green fields, and the fresh air, and so much space everywhere. Away from the muck and the dirt and the bloody trouble, it really was a Bright New Day for everyone.

Dean ChisnallLooking back now, from the viewpoint of today’s 21st century national austerity, to the strikes, unemployment and poverty of the 1980s, nothing much seems to have changed. After Miss Jones was dismissed from her job, despite being a perfect poppet, as just another sign of the times, I don’t suppose she got another job. The only difference today is that today’s Mr Lyons will be creating his own dismissal letters on Word rather than dictating them to a fetching young secretary. That’s progress. And a wealthy upbringing and education is still much more likely to lead to a successful career than playing on the street, being cheeky with your teacher and becoming factory fodder – or today’s equivalent, zero hours contracts in the gig economy. That’s life, but it’s not progress. The essence of the show is to hold up a mirror of nature against nurture, and value kindness, decency, and friendship. In our land of postcode lotteries, where health, benefits and education can depend on which side of the road you live on, that question why did you give me away, I could have been him? seems more relevant than ever today.

I was very struck this time by how the story is completely infused with elements of superstition all the way through. From the portentous saying that if twins separated at birth learn that they were once one of a pair they will both immediately die, to Mrs Johnstone’s horror at seeing new shoes on the table, to looking a magpie in the eye, to the kids’ games where you can get up again if you cross your fingers, folklore and fear rules the roost. I’d always realised it was heavily melodramatic, starting with the end tableau (although a little more stylised than I’ve seen before), so you know there’s never going to be a happy ending. The gloomy, menacing presence of the Narrator is a constant threat and intrusion on their lives, coming right up close to the characters, like a perpetual harbinger of doom, a bad dream that unsettles and disturbs their waking hours. There is light and shade in this show, but shade wins every time.

Danielle CorlassThe performances are superb throughout. I must confess that, at first, I was not entirely sure about Lyn Paul’s presentation of Mrs Johnstone. Her Mrs J is already thoroughly exhausted by everything that life has thrown at her right at the start of the show, and a vital spark was lacking. But as the show developed, I could see that her quiet, serious portrayal was absolutely correct to the character. And what a voice! It’s so powerful, yet so pure; and so perfectly suited to Willy Russell’s amazing lyrics and melodies. It’s a really wonderful performance.

I was also very impressed with Sean Jones’ Mickey. It’s a role with so many elements and so vital to the success of the show. Willy Russell requires us to love Mickey right from the very start – and we do. Thoroughly believable as that irrepressible eight year old, seeing how high he can spit in the air, never going anywhere without his imaginary horse; then the easily embarrassed teenager at a dirty movie, ashamed of his pubescent body; the enthusiastic young worker, doing the overtime and planning on spending it on great Christmas parties; and then, when the harsh reality of life kicks in, the aggressive, jealous Mickey who realises that his life will lack the texture and depth of his best friend’s; and the broken Mickey relying on medication to keep his brain from dancing. Only Five Ages of Man for Mickey as he dies so young, but Sean Jones nails them all absolutely. We’d all like to have a best friend like Mickey – the younger one, that is; someone who makes you laugh, someone who’ll always be on your side; but isn’t a goody-two-shoes either. No wonder the audience is devastated at the end.

Sarah Jane BuckleyIt’s very difficult to portray the eight-year-old Eddie effectively; he’s so posh and innocent, and so different from Mickey that our instant reaction is to mock him rather than side with him. I thought that Mark Hutchinson’s characterisation of him was so wet, and so soft, that it was very unlikely that Mickey would have taken to him. However, once he becomes Eddie the teenager, that’s when he comes into his own. Shag the vicar! Eddie has one of the most telling songs in the show, the restrained and delicate I’m Not Saying a Word, and I really enjoyed Mr Hutchinson’s performance. One character whom in previous productions I’ve always thought of as a bit of an irritant and easily ignored, is Mrs Lyons, but in this production Sarah Jane Buckley gives such a tremendous performance that she is also equally vital to the success of the show. She brings out all the character’s fears and weaknesses; and you readily agree with the diagnosis of others that she probably needs mental health treatment. Ms Buckley also has an amazing voice and is a true credit to the production.

danny-taylor-sammy-sean-jones-mickeyDanielle Corlass’ Linda develops very believably from a squeaky but spirited little girl into a teenager with a massive crush on Mickey, and then into a smart and positive young woman – a very good performance. Dean Chisnall is the least Scouse Narrator I’ve seen (singing “you know the devil’s got your number” and not “nombare”) but has a strong stage presence and great singing voice; and Daniel Taylor’s Sammy, who was always a bad lot, turns that childhood bully into an adult hoodlum with sadly predictable authenticity.

lyn-paulThat massive gasp of shock when the brothers died at the end said it all. The audience were so enthralled and wrapped up in what was going on that they couldn’t keep their emotions in. It’s an excellent production of a staggeringly good show, among the very best musicals of all time. It’s enjoying a week at the Royal and Derngate, before continuing its tour to Nottingham, Sunderland, Bath, Belfast, Weston-super-Mare, Aylesbury, Darlington, Edinburgh, Cheltenham, Rhyl, Carlisle, Barnstaple, Truro, Wolverhampton, Ipswich, Southampton and reaching Manchester in the middle of May. I can’t recommend it too strongly but do book early because everyone else will!

Review – Jason Manford – Work in Progress (Muddle Class), Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 4th November 2017

Jason Manford WIPLast weekend the Royal and Derngate played host to not one but two major comics trying out new material for their big tours next year. At short notice, in the Underground, Sarah Millican was (presumably) giving great value to a maximum of 160 people in what must have been a very special experience. In the main Derngate auditorium, and on sale for many months and pretty much sold out all that time, we had the pleasure of the company of Jason Manford, testing the water with new material for his 135-date Muddle Class tour which starts in Leeds in January and goes right on to Newcastle in December.

We’ve seen Mr Manford doing his stand-up once before, back in 2013 with his First World Problems tour. He won us over with his easy charm and relaxed attitude. Four years on and that’s still the same; there’s nothing remotely threatening about a Jason Manford gig, you’re never going to run the risk of being humiliated like if you go to see Julian Clary or Russell Brand, nor are you going to be faced with particularly challenging material. In fact, Mr Manford was very proud to say that he would hate it if anyone was ever offended by his act. I reckon that’s quite an unusual attitude; many comics would think that if someone was offended by their material, then they’re probably doing something right. But not Jason; too decent, too much of a family man, too rooted in (and I mean this kindly) a light entertainment approach to doing a gig.

First World ProblemsThe first half of the show was very much work-in-progress; he had his list of topics on a piece of paper and depending on our reaction each got either a tick or a cross. To be honest, I can’t imagine he had too many crosses. Amongst his subjects were those embarrassing times when you say something and someone takes it the wrong way – not a very pithy description there of what was actually some brilliant material. He also told us about what it was like to share an Edinburgh flat with John Bishop (Jase, do you want a smooooothie?), the dangers of hosting the PFA awards and how getting stuck on a waterslide is a good way of discovering you need to lose weight.

After the interval Mr M assured us that the rest of the material was more tried and tested. Well he needn’t have worried, everything up till then was funny anyway. As mentioned above, his new show is to be called Muddle Class, which is the closest to how he can now identify himself in the class system. When you were brought up poor and things were tough, but then you made good and you’re comfortably off, you can’t say you’re working class anymore, but you never felt like you were middle class either. There is some great material about coping with your children when they’re posher than you; in fact, he draws on his now considerable range of children (five kids under the age of eight) for a large chunk of his comic material. To be fair, doing that can alienate (slightly) the non-parents in the audience. However, he is so good-natured and inventive in his comedy approach that you forgive him for slightly overindulging on the family side; and I for one really enjoyed his accounts of living with the weird, scary daughter.

Other topics up for discussion, and which will presumably be honed to perfection when the tour properly kicks off in January, were a common theme running through Disney films (you won’t guess what it is) and how you could use a car to advertise Durex – a really clever and funny routine.

JasonManford-MuddleClassProfileHe ended, not with a Q&A as some comics tediously insist on, but with a song. Yes, gentle reader, I did say that he had a light entertainment touch. Mr M has just released an album of show tunes, and he treated us to a rendition of Javert’s song Stars from Les Miserables. Well, if it was good enough for Dickie Henderson, it’s good enough for him. I have to say it felt… unusual… to end a comedy gig this way, but that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. I’m as passionate about show tunes as the next guy. And he did sneak in some nice humour from an unfortunate pairing of words in the lyrics, which won’t ever have occurred to you before, but now you won’t be able to hear that song without giggling like a schoolgirl.

A very enjoyable, friendly, warm-hearted and very funny night’s entertainment. I expect most seats in next year’s 135-date tour are already sold, but I’d definitely recommend booking Mr Manford if you get your skates on!

Review – Rita, Sue and Bob Too, Out of Joint, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 4th November 2017

Rita Sue and Bob TooSome plays quickly date within a few years; others grow in stature and relevance over the years. We hadn’t seen the film of Rita, Sue and Bob Too so all I knew to expect was two young girls/women having an affair with an older man. Andrea Dunbar’s original play dates from 1982, and has been revised and edited by John Hollingworth for a 21st century audience. I was really surprised to discover a robust and daring play that nevertheless treads a delicate balance to reveal the truth about a way of life on a Bradford council estate.

RSB3In a nutshell, Rita and Sue are two fifteen-year old girls who babysit for Bob and Michelle, who, despite going out a lot, enjoy a fairly unhappy marriage. Michelle has retreated, sexually, from the relationship and Bob, who’s (apparently) 27 is constantly on the lookout for alternative sources of nookie. Before the play starts, he’s already been unfaithful – many times over – with another woman. But as Bob is driving Rita and Sue back home after their babysitting stint, he suggests they go visit the moors, which the girls are only too willing to do (they know what he’s up to); and once they’re there, he proposes sex – again with the same response from the girls; and thereby starts an affair with both of them at the same time that lasts a number of months. Will Michelle guess what’s going on? Will the girls’ parents? You’ll have to catch the play to find out.

RSB4With the revelations about such monsters as Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris, we, as a society, have had to re-evaluate our younger days and reconsider what is acceptable behaviour and what is not. The uncomfortable truth is that this play asks us to laugh at, maybe even sympathise with, a serial paedophile. There’s a moment when the girls recognise that they have to keep quiet about their threesome activity, because if the police find out, Bob could go to jail and they could go into care. So they know full well the illegality of what they’re doing; but of course, sometimes added danger and criminality provide an extra frisson. Without giving away the entire plot, it’s fascinating from today’s viewpoint that it appears that no one involved in the story gets a final come-uppance; despite all the immorality and recklessness, in the main there’s actually no harm done at the end of the day.

RSB5So does that make it an immoral play? It was written by a very young woman with first-hand knowledge of living in the Bradford estates, where it takes place; Andrea Dunbar fell pregnant at the age of fifteen, and had two children (from different fathers) whilst still a teenager. She knew that life very well, and wrote these semi-autobiographical accounts to express the reality of life on Brafferton Arbor in the Buttershaw estate. If it is an immoral play, then it’s because it simply reflects an immoral lifestyle. But if that lifestyle is a true depiction of what went on, then is it immoral to tell the truth? I think everyone who sees this play will have their own answer to that.

RSB8It’s a chirpy little production, with its brightness nowhere more apparent than with the opening scene, where all six characters appear, in their own little worlds, getting ready to go out of an evening, to the sounds of Soft Cell’s Tainted Love. They preen in front of the mirror, or sing into their hairbrush; Sue’s mum huffs and puffs in her housecoat, her dad idly dad-dances down the pub. The set behind them shows two blocks of flats with the lights in windows of various rooms and apartments coming on and going off; and in between, what you could almost describe as a 1970s mural of the country moors where the louse Bob will take the girls for their regular sessions of hows-your-father. The regular reminder of some great 80s tunes really does help set the scene, with their false optimism and working-class bravado. When Rita, Sue and Bob too reach the moors, and all agree to have it off, I couldn’t help but admire the stagecraft of the scene. James Atherton gives a very realistic illusion of Bob pounding his member between each of the girls’ legs. It’s a clever combination of slightly shocking, very funny and weirdly hypnotic as they wrapped their white-socked feet around his naked bum.

RSB7All six actors give great performances full of character, humour and attack. Taj Atwal’s Rita is a lovely study of someone who’s almost demure and coquettish and a little bit squeamish but rather innocently goes about getting as much sex as possible as though it were an extra bag of sweets or a naughty glass of cider. Gemma Dobson’s Sue is a little more adventurous and manipulative, just sitting and waiting for Bob to come and do the honours, like a diner expects the waiter to bring his food in a timely manner. The two have a great connection between each other, with wonderful comic timing and a really fluid delivery of their lines; you truly believe they are best pals in each other’s pockets all day. The aforementioned Mr Atherton’s Bob is a suitably cocky so-and-so, and if he does feel any guilt to his regular playing away with underage girls, he hides it well.

RSB6Sally Bankes gives a strong performance as Sue’s mum, giving her wastrel husband what-for at every opportunity, dishing out tough love to her daughter and blaming everything on Rita. David Walker also gives a great performance as Dad, trying to rule with a rod of iron and lots of bluster but essentially weak and useless. And I really liked Samantha Robinson as Michelle, unable to stop loving her wretch of a husband despite his infidelities, putting on the bravest of faces when everyone else around her holds her in contempt.

RSB2At 80 minutes with no interval, it isn’t quite a full evening’s entertainment and feels more like one element of a day at the fringe; that said, I really admired the tautness of the story-telling, with no scene or speech wasted, keeping the pace and content up throughout the whole show. Its run at Northampton is now over, but the tour continues to Doncaster, York, Derby, the Royal Court, Huddersfield and Mold between now and February. A very strong production of a fascinating, disturbing and funny play. Definitely recommended!

RSB1P. S. The man in front of us really got quite carried away in those early sex scenes. “GO ON MY SON” he shouted; “HE’S GOOD AT IT” he confided (not very quietly) to his lady friend; “I WISH I HAD HIS JOB” was his final analysis of the merits or otherwise of being Bob. There are times when it’s better to think these things privately rather than to share it with the group.

Production photos by Richard Davenport

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 3rd November 2017

Screaming Blue MurderSometimes you think you can predict how a Screaming Blue Murder will go, and sometimes you’re way off the mark… Surprise No 1 last Friday was that they’d changed the stage layout (such as it is) so that it straddled a corner of the room rather than the traditional square to the edge of the room – and I think that different perspective really worked. They’d also studded the backdrop with little lights which looked very jolly and gave the whole thing more of a sense of showbizzy occasion. I hope they keep it that way!

Dan EvansThe audience were quite a weird bunch on Friday night. The front two rows were exclusively taken up by one group of people, celebrating Mark’s 50th birthday (Congratulations Mark). Unfortunately, it meant they were all constantly laughing at things other members of the party were saying, which didn’t mean anything to the rest of us, so there was a feeling of being left out. Mark, you didn’t look 50, but your explanation about your accent went on a bit. The good thing was that our genial host Dan Evans was on cracking form and played off those first two rows beautifully, comparing the comedic value of one man’s heckles against another, and going where angels fear to tread with a lady in a white jumper that looked like she had her finger in the electric light socket.

OlaOur first act was Ola, whom we’ve seen twice before in 2012 and 2013 and I remember him being an absolute hoot. He still is; with his understated and deliberate delivery, slowly setting up situations for him to rip down at his leisure. He used the concept of telling people “it’s your fault” in many different and clever ways, which was much funnier than it sounds. Some lovely observations about race, swingers on wi-fi, and a new definition of a hard Brexit. A real master of his art, and constantly surprising. A great opener.

Joey PageNext up was Joey Page, whom we’d also seen before, back in 2015. He was great that time, so I was expecting something similar – but, unpredictably, somehow he just failed to get into gear. He still has his made-up facts, which are still very funny, and he still comes across as an engaging character but the material just never quite hit the mark. He got a guy from the front row up on stage to assist him in one routine, but this chap was sadly a bit dull. Ah well, it happens sometimes.

Paul ThorneOur headline act was Paul Thorne, who was new to us, and he was pure class right from the start. As he was developing a thread, again unpredictably, somewhere from the back of the room came the sound of a huge wet chunder. Imagine the sound of loudly pouring a full kettle of water onto rubber matting – I know, sorry to be so disgusting. The rather inebriated source of the vomit was quickly ushered out, presumably to spend the rest of the evening on the toilet. Although more than gobsmacked at the interruption, this was a fantastic opportunity for Mr Thorne to guide him through the rest of his set; it’s startling how many ways there are to weave vomit into your comic material. Just brilliant. Additionally, I loved his material about why Theresa May was no good at the Home Office, and his observations on a Taliban Gap Year were genius.

So, all in all, an unusual Screaming Blue, but still extremely funny. There’s one more left in this season, in two weeks’ time – sadly we’re otherwise engaged, so I’ll look forward to seeing more next year!

Review – Theatrical Knights, Playhouse Theatre, Northampton, 2nd November 2017

Theatrical KnightsLast night was my first visit to the Playhouse Theatre since its recent, fresh redecoration – and I must say, nice work guys, very comfortable and chic! This week’s play is Theatrical Knights, a comedy thriller by Keith Lipscombe. What’s that? You’ve never heard of him? He’s written three plays, but I believe this is the first time any of them have actually been produced on stage – so it’s a true theatrical debut. And that’s not the only debut on offer; the director is none other than local hero and alternative blog source of everything theatrical in Northampton, Kevin Evans, a.k.a. A Small Mind at the Theatre. It was a no-brainer that I would go along to see what the combination of a rookie playwright and even rookier director would come up with.

The betSome plays remind you of others, right? Theatrical Knights was written as an homage to the late Anthony Shaffer, and traces of his classic thriller Sleuth are written through this play like a stick of rock. There’s a clothed dummy, weapons on the wall, a clown’s mask and a slightly curious relationship between an older and a younger man. There are also some slightly spurious details in the programme’s dramatis personae to keep you guessing. However, Theatrical Knights is very much its own play, and if you think you’re going to see Sleuth 2, you’ll be very surprised. The knights in question are writer and luvvie Sir Tom Seymour, a little down on his uppers as his most recent theatrical projects have all collapsed in a heap; and national treasure Sir Anthony Randolph, that rare being who rose through the ranks to become one of our best loved actors, excelling not only in the West End and on TV, but also in Hollywood. We’re truly lucky to have him with us at this discreet little venue.

These two old fellas keep their friendship (such as it is) going by a series of quips, stings and digs and by the rivalry that causes them to bet against each other. When we first meet Sir Tom, he’s clearly had an accident, and has lost his mobile in the back of a taxi the night before, presumably following some kind of crash. Sir Tom rang his own mobile number, the cabbie answered, and they arranged that he would bring it over. Meanwhile, Sir Tony wants to see him, ostensibly to make sure his old mucker is ok, and his visit coincides with the cab driver returning the mobile; so far, so straightforward. However, just before the cab driver arrives, the two knights talk of how this would be the perfect resolution of their bet. Other details as to what that all means are scarce. Sir Tony goes off, to listen in on their conversation; Lou the cabbie arrives with the phone, Sir Tom turns on the charm and full hospitality and insists on Lou having something to eat, to drink, and so on… and then things start to get out of hand. But exactly what and how, I’m not going to tell you, you’ll have to come and see it!

Sir TomI was really impressed by the attention to detail that has obviously gone in to the staging of this play, and creating the illusion that the two knights really are real. The walls are covered with posters of Sir Tom’s greatest theatrical hits; the programme has their extensive biographical details; if you arrive half an hour before curtain up you can see a video of an edition of Letts Talk, where renowned arts critic Fabiana Letts hosts a chat show discussion between the two old geezers, and you can even see an extended clip from one of Sir Tom’s big successes, Laughing Matter. (You can actually watch it here if you like!)

Sir TonyIt’s a well-written play, with plenty of amusing and creative dialogue and it weaves its little intricacies very successfully and surprisingly. The different characteristics of the two knights are nicely fleshed out, giving the two actors plenty of opportunity to revel in their individual personalities. Robin Hillman conveys Sir Tom’s waspish and petulant nature with laconic glee; deep down, I don’t think he’s a very nice chap at all! Adrian Wyman really captures Sir Tony’s hail-fellow-well-met temperament, with some beautiful false modesty and some wonderfully stagey regional accents that only a national treasure would get away with. And then there’s Nathan Stroud as Lou, the cab driver; an innocent abroad caught up in the antagonism between the two older men, but with a few secrets of his own up his sleeve.

Laughing MatterAct Two includes a brilliant little coup de theatre, really well executed by Messrs Wyman and Stroud, which you can’t quite believe happened, even after the actors show us how it was done. If I have a little quibble about the play, I’m not sure that Lou’s explanation of why Sir Tom will be found guilty really holds water; wouldn’t the real murderer’s DNA be traced inside the gloves? And the resolution of the play involves a switch to personal redemption issues and general niceness; and I think the audience might be hoping for something a trifle more maleficent.

Nevertheless, it’s a very entertaining debut all round, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see both Mr Lipscombe and Mr Evans creating more theatrical mayhem in the future.

P. S. Have you watched the clip of Laughing Matter yet? I played the murderer!