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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Production photos by Nobby Clark

Review – Upfront Comedy Slam, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 3rd February 2018

John SimmitThis was our second visit to one of these Upfront Comedy nights at the Royal and Derngate; last time we enjoyed it so much that we bitterly regretted not having discovered it before! Our MC again was ex-Teletubby John Simmit, the bad boy turned Dipsy because, let’s face it, who wouldn’t for the money. He’s great at striking up an instant rapport with the audience and setting us all at our ease; although he reckoned we were already well set up before he came on. He got us all (literally) into a rhythm with a bit of in-seat dancing, which I’ve not tried before but was thoroughly refreshing.

andy-whiteOur first act was someone we’d seen twice before, both in Screaming Blue Murder and at The Ark, Andy White. He’s a naturally funny man, with a larger than life persona, a slightly dandyish fashion sense and the ability to make an erotic movie out of the soundtrack of the Flintstones in French. He’s one of those guys where, after you’ve spent a few minutes in their company, you genuinely feel happy inside. His material is full of short stories and observations about his marriage and home life, but often with a quirky twist. It was during Mr White’s set that a recurring problem of the evening started – one or two over-enthusiastic and overlubricated ladies in the second row, who felt that by constantly talking back to the comics on stage they were somehow enhancing their act. Wrong. They were a permanent pain in the arse the whole night long.

Barbara NiceMr W responded pretty well to their chat-up lines and they backed down completely for our second act Stockport’s own Barbara Nice, because she really wasn’t what they were there for. We’d never seen Barbara Nice before, but I’d heard good things about her and I tell you, they were an underestimation. Nice by name and by nature, she is a wonderful comic creation, the kind of northern lady you’d chat to over the garden gate or down the Co-op. She surveyed how many of us read Take A Break (not that many), and how many of us hide from friends and relatives in supermarkets (quite a few). Her set was absolutely jam-packed with brilliant material that just pinpointed our funnybone and stuck there, refusing to budge. She ended up teaching us the moves to a horrendous but hilarious dance routine and we were, quite frankly, wetting ourselves. We’d love to see her again.

Gerry KAfter the interval, John Simmit introduced us to the fearlessly funny Gerry K. An instantly likeable East London lad, he has the true gift of the gab and he really shook us up with his vitality and attack. He’s got loads of excellent material about family life; he’s great at expressing inventive and very funny angles on familiar situations. Again that lady in the second row decided she was in with a chance so started the chatback but Mr K was firm but fair and did his best to close her down. We both thought he was terrific and would also like to see him again.

Kane BrownLast act of the evening, and third in a row of comics that we hadn’t seen before, was Kane Brown. Oh my giddy aunt, if anyone can handle himself on stage Mr Brown can. Fantastic stage presence, riptastic material and a supremely confident delivery means you just sit there and don’t stop laughing until everyone’s gone home. Of course, the lady in front had another go and he just shut her up with savage politeness – and this time she really did finally shut up. Just superb. Mr Brown had some friends in the audience he chatted to when we were leaving the auditorium but I felt compelled to interrupt and shake his hand because he was just too good not to. UpfrontWe’re definitely on the hunt for more of his shows.

It may only be early February but that show really raised the bar for live comedy for this year. Absolutely loved it. There’s another Upfront Comedy show coming in April – better get booking now!

Review – Sofie Hagen, Dead Baby Frog, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 2nd February 2018

Sofie HagenWe’d seen Sofie Hagen once before, at a Screaming Blue Murder back in 2015 and we were most impressed. I’d heard that her Dead Baby Frog show had done well at Edinburgh, and that it was comedy with a challenge (which is always intriguing). I’m guessing that a number of people had heard the same, as the Underground was fully sold out in advance of the show, which is great news for everyone.

Bisha K AliAfter an informative and kindly welcome, where she explained the main part of her show would contain material regarding emotional abuse – a few sharp intakes of breath – Sofie introduced us to her support act for the night. Bisha K Ali has featured on Sofie’s podcasts, and those more knowledgeable people in the audience, who were obviously fans of the podcasts, whooped with delight. She had some excellent material about mother-management (a true skill if you can master it) but the main substance of her part of the show was talking about arranged marriage. Bisha has no problem with arranged marriage – but there are limits, as she discusses how her future husband was almost decided whilst she was still a foetus. Serious issues brought to light with a comedy touch, and we both really enjoyed her set.

After the interval Sofie returned, with another tale of family exploitation and abuse. Born and brought up in Denmark, she spent her childhood in the no-hope-ville of Skamstrup (I think that’s right, apologies if not) which translates, literally as Shame Town. She had three grandfathers (long story) two of which, by the sound of it, were utter bastards. One, the Nazi, died seven years ago – and we hear, amongst other gems, the brilliant story of his funeral. The other, probably also a Nazi, but more importantly a serial emotional abuser, is still going strong; and we hear Sofie’s account of how he inflicted emotional scars on her (never physical) from the age of four.

Sofie Hagen 2This may not sound like a fruitful source of comedy, but you’d be wrong. Ms H has such a winning way about her, with beautifully constructed sentences and mental imagery, and a superb use of English words that belie her Danish heritage, that the hour flies by. She says she is accused of setting up too many callbacks, but I don’t think that’s possible – it all goes to show how the whole show is so very cleverly assembled. She also has a great, natural, story-telling ability, which really helps with a show like this, which is not so much based on sure-fire gags (not at all, in fact) but instead gradually paints a picture for us all to look and wonder at.

Her aim – as stated at the outset – is for us to detest her grandfather as much as we do. I’m not sure she quite succeeds, because I don’t think anyone could detest him quite so much as she does. We do, however, heartily approve of all the progress that has been made into making his life as miserable as possible. This is definitely one of those comedy nights that you file under therapy for the performer, but what I liked about it more than any other of that style of performance that I have seen is, and this may seem a fairly basic requirement, it is actually very funny! Sofie has been touring this show extensively and I think the tour is now coming to an end. But I’d definitely recommend catching her work in the future – to be both challenging and funny is about as good as it gets.

Dead Baby FrogP. S. A few days before the show I received an email from the theatre with a link to a note from Sofie. In that note she made it clear that she wanted it to be an anxiety-free experience for everyone, so that if there was anything she could do in advance, like reserve a seat, or individually tell people more about what the show was about, she would. She also arranged for gender neutral signs on all the toilets, and linked to specific accessibility advice for people with disabilities. I thought that was astounding. Even though none of the issues she raised affected me personally, I nevertheless felt more comfortable, positive and secure about attending the show. For anyone who does have any of those concerns, I could imagine it would be an enormous relief. That’s a really thoughtful thing to do.

Review – Brief Encounter, Playhouse Theatre Northampton, 31st January 2018

Brief EncounterConsidering it’s been around since 1945, it’s a disgrace that neither Mrs Chrisparkle nor I have ever properly watched the film of Brief Encounter. It’s one of those hardy perennials that always emerges at Christmas on some minor TV channel or other. If you notice it in the listings you say to yourself “not that old thing again” and so you don’t watch it, forgetting the fact that you never actually did in the first place. I have, now, seen some of the opening credits, and the final credit, as they frame this production of Emma Rice’s adaptation of Noel Coward’s classic. I’ve also seen some gems of adverts that are shown as a curtain raiser – it’s worth taking your seat early so that you can enjoy them. I distinctly remember the early days of Quosh but have no memory at all of Cephos Powder. And I’d forgotten all about Midland Counties Ice Cream.

Mary O'Brien as LauraOf course, those portentous black and white meetings between Celia Johnson (whom I actually saw on stage in 1972) and Trevor Howard (whom I didn’t) are about as iconic as you can get, an embodiment of wartime stiff upper lip, reserved passion and a regretful acceptance of a less than satisfactory status quo. Showing this classic on the tiny stage of the Northampton Playhouse by a company of non-professionals is, what I believe to be the correct term, A Big Ask. But I was really impressed at the ambition and realisation of the technicality of the project, and overall it worked extremely well.

Jof Davies as AlecThe cast and creative team have gone to town on creating the illusion of a 1945 cinema; in fact, the whole performance is a blend of live theatre and film recreating the outside world. Immaculately coiffured with 1940s hairdos, usherettes with torches control the auditorium, trying to shush our loving couple as they have an awkward contretemps during the Big Feature. At the interval, meat paste sandwiches and Banbury buns are on offer. There’s also a raffle – we won a box of chocolates, so bang goes the post-Christmas diet – again. Specially recorded black and white film sequences show our hero and heroine sat miserably on their trains home; they also beckon a steam train onto the stage or off into the distance; backdrop projections suggest the railway station’s café, or the almost-posh hotel restaurant, where ladies who lunch, lunch. Film also enables conversations between Laura and her kids, spiffingly well played by young Will Foreman and Casey O’Sullivan.

Laura and Alec fall inHaving read the synopsis of the film, it seems to me that the adaptation reflects the original pretty faithfully, with the inclusion of a few spirited additions. Stanley, the station dogsbody, and Beryl, the tea room assistant, break through the fourth wall to give us a few reprises of Any little fish can swim, a Noel Coward song from the 1931 Cochran Revue. Myrtle Bagot, the café proprietor, and Beryl give us separate renditions of the famous Mad About the Boy, another Coward hit, from the 1932 show Words and Music. In a production that, by necessity, has a number of relatively slow scene changes (mainly due to the size of the stage), having these interludes is a great way to disguise what’s going on behind the curtain; a song and dance version of a stately swan whose grace and elegance you notice without ever knowing that his feet are going nineteen to the dozen to keep him afloat. Very nicely done.

April Pardoe as Myrtle BagotAt the heart of the play – and indeed heart being the operative word – are the loving twosome of Mary O’Brien and Jof Davies as Laura Jesson and Alec Harvey. They both portray that sense of struggling against one’s better nature extremely well, and they both absolutely look the part. Mr Davies perfectly captured the embarrassment of being caught almost in flagrante by his work colleague at his flat – a delightfully toe-curling scene; and I found his sense of resignation at the end – just being able to put his hand on Laura’s shoulder whilst her irritating friend natters on in complete ignorance – very moving. Ms O’Brien’s clarity of diction is a thing of beauty which really helped her rich characterisation of the troubled Laura. She also shone during those embarrassed meetings with acquaintances who could clearly gauge precisely what was going on, despite which, with true decency, she doesn’t tell any lies.

Helen Kennedy as BerylI very much enjoyed the partnership of April Pardoe as Myrtle and Helen Kennedy as Beryl, sparring in the café; Ms Pardoe’s slightly haughty portrayal of the café owner reminded me a little of the late Doris Speed who used to play Annie Walker in Coronation Street. I was very amused by them both manhandling all the buns and then offering them to the front row. Ms Kennedy’s visual asides at Myrtle’s hectoring were very enjoyable, as were her constant attempts to get away with murder – but Ms Pardoe was having none of it, and quite right too, the young people of today… etc, etc & etc. Adding to this jolly menage a trois is Adrian Wyman as Albert Godby, the stationmaster whose pea in his whistle is aimed firmly at Myrtle. Mr Wyman draws out all the fun of the character as he chisels away at Myrtle’s frosty front until at last, in the immortal words of Daft Punk, he’s up all night to Get Lucky. Gordon Ritchie gives a spirited, cheeky-chappie performance as the impetuous Stanley, and I really liked Beverley Webster’s socially confident and thoroughly insensitive Dolly Messiter, ruining Laura and Alec’s passionate goodbye by dumping her shopping all over their table.

Adrian Wyman as Albert GodbyIn two very amusing vignettes, Ingrid Heymann plays the waitress at the restaurant, teetering on the edge of the stage, precariously balancing two bowls of soup (I’m sure the gentleman next to me who couldn’t resist call out “two soups!” wasn’t the only person this week to have that thought), reflecting the generosity of her patrons’ tips with either a sneer or a surprised pleasure. In another funny scene, Simon Rye and Kevin Evans play Johnnie and Bill, a couple of soldier vagabonds with good-time girls on their arms, arguing the toss with an unflinching Mrs Bagot. Mr Evans threw himself wholeheartedly into his role as a loutish military roué under the influence of a pint of cider. It’s a character part.

Gordon Ritchie as StanleyCongratulations to the excellent cast who were word perfect throughout and worked together seamlessly. Mrs C has a low threshold to amateur dramatics, but she left the theatre with a spring in her step, which is a Very Good Sign. It’s a slightly quirky adaptation that I think would appeal to both purists and avant-garde alike. Performances run till Saturday but if you haven’t booked already, then I think you may have left it too late.