Review – Lettice and Lovage, Menier Chocolate Factory, 21st May 2017

Lettice and LovagePeter Shaffer’s Lettice and Lovage first hit the stage way back in 1987 as a star vehicle for Maggie Smith. I knew that we had seen the play before but I was darned if I could remember seeing la grande dame in the role – I am sure I would have remembered. I can just imagine how she would have grasped it with – well everything you can grasp with.

LAL guidingMove forward another twenty years and none other than Sir Trevor Nunn has directed a spanking new production in the intimate charm of the Menier Chocolate Factory and cast two theatrical favourites – Felicity Kendal and Maureen Lipman. Perfect for this almost two-hander, theatrically genteel boxing match between the guide who embellishes the history of the dullest Stately Home in the country to make it remotely interesting, and the battleaxe from the Preservation Trust who sacks her.

LAL being firedTo be honest, it’s a very slight play and I’m surprised that both Sir Trev and the Menier were that interested in reviving it. It doesn’t do much to illuminate the human condition, although it does appeal to the YOLO generation, as Lettice and Lottie cast care to the wind and become the least likely pals since Margaret Thatcher and Eric Heffer. The play did remind me of the late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle who for several years post-retirement was a room warden at the National Trust’s property at Waddesdon Manor, and who took great delight in finding out as much about the treasures on display as possible – but there’s nothing more challenging than being asked a question to which you don’t know the answer, and having a fertile imagination can make the experience even more enjoyable!

Lettice and LottieFortunately, this production benefits from two totally delightful performances which make the two and a half hours plus absolutely fly by. No linguistic contortion is too strained for Felicity Kendal’s Lettice, as she recollects the dear old days of supporting her mother and father on the stage, an eccentric Bohemienne to her fingertips, concocting potent jugs of 16th century punch distilled from lovage and eye of bat. Similarly, Maureen Lipman wallows in her opportunity to be the frosty frowsy bossy boss, ridiculing her underlings, putting up with no nonsense, but just wondering if it is time to (nearly literally) let her hair down. Maybe the excellence of the two main performances highlights the patchiness of some of the supporting ensemble, not that that spoils your enjoyment of the play.

LetticeSlight, but funny; you won’t talk about the characters’ motivations or the thematic structure of the play on the way home, but you might well crack up reminiscing about Miss Lipman’s wonderful drunk act or Miss Kendal’s heartier-than-thou ham-Shakespearean verbal dexterity. If ever they cast Women Behaving Badly, they need look no further. The entire run is now sold out, but I doubt if this production, unlike some of the Menier’s other recent successes, would warrant a transfer. Sorry guys, if you’re not already booked, you’ve missed it.

LottieP. S. We didn’t see the original production. I remember now – we saw a production in 1997 with two other Dear Ladies who gave it an equally good grasp – yes, Dr Evadne Hinge and Dame Hilda Bracket. And if you can remember what Hinge and Bracket were like in their prime – I can confirm they were really very funny.

Production photos by Catherine Ashmore

Review – Tez Ilyas, Made in Britain, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 20th May 2017

Made in BritainWe have a specific spot we like to sit for the comedy shows at the Underground, gentle reader. They normally have two banks of chairs – three or four rows at the front, then a gap, then the seats at the back. I like to take the back row of the front bank – and sit on the aisle – that way you’re close enough to the action to feel involved but sufficiently far away not to get roped in. Usually. Imagine my disappointment on entering the Underground for Saturday night’s Tez Ilyas show to discover the front bank of chairs was just one row deep. A front row glistening in glamorous isolation. No chance. We instinctively sat on the front row of the back seats. No one sat in front of us.

Enter Mr Ilyas for his welcoming introduction. I knew what he was going to say. Our seating positions as a group were not acceptable. He said he’d turn his back and count from 1 – 10 in Urdu and when he turned around he expected everyone to have moved one row forward. He did so. And so did we! It was a very nice start to our audience/performer relationship: he delivered, we responded. One thing though – it meant we were catapulted to the front row. Dang my breeches!

Tez-Test-Card-We saw Tez when he did Screaming Blue Murder here last October, when he mistook Northampton for Peterborough (ouch!) and then slagged off our cricket team (double ouch!!) – and it’s fascinating to discover that he remembered those schoolboy errors, as though they keep coming back like a nightmare. I reckon Mr I probably keeps a collection of his faux pas in a box under the stairs and takes them out every so often for a happy reminisce – he strikes me as that kind of guy.

But that’s probably at the heart of why his stand-up is so endearing. He comes across as just a regular guy; no airs or graces, no persona he’s hiding behind – just the real him and as a result you feel as though you really understand him and his life after an hour and a half in his presence. Most other comedians I’ve seen and enjoyed weave imaginary material into their real-life experience to create a funnier version of the truth. But you get the feeling that absolutely everything Mr I says is the truth, and nothing but. Even if it isn’t, and he’s pulling the wool over our eyes, that’s a real gift.

TezI use the word “welcoming” in the second paragraph in two ways; first, it was a general welcome as we’d just arrived, none of us had met and he was being polite and offering the comic equivalent of canapes and cocktails. (No cocktails; alcohol has never passed his lips. Well, almost never…) But his style is also welcoming; he doesn’t ever make you feel uncomfortable, even when he’s talking directly to you (who’s my MP? What am I drinking? What’s my favourite Disney film? Where do I rank ISIS on the scale of despicability? I confessed all) You imagine at home he’d be the most gracious host. He seems genuinely chuffed that we came out to see him.

guz-khanAfter he’d got us at our ease – and we’d played musical chairs – he introduced us to his support act, the fantastic Guz Khan. We’d seen Mr Khan with Johnny Vegas at the Leicester Comedy Festival earlier in the year and he’s a revelation. An ex-teacher, you know with that commanding presence the kids would have sat up and listened (well, I would have). He has brilliant material harking back to his school teaching days; but also really clever edgy observations such as the surprise use for a WhatsApp group and also his unconditional love for all his children. Mrs Chrisparkle and I were genuinely delighted when we realised he was coming on, and he went down a storm. Even if he did say I laughed like Jimmy Savile. (I don’t.)

tez-ilyas-againThe second part of the show was solo Tez, taking us through his life and experiences and opening up a whole new understanding between different racial backgrounds and cultural practices – but underlining that we’re all Made in Britain. He plays with his name; we are his Tezbians, even though at home he is not Tehzeeb; he said it meant the Scourge of Beelzebub or something like that but I Googled it and what he didn’t say is that it’s a girl’s name, so no wonder. He has telling, competitive material about not being mistaken for an Indian – catering industry observations aside. He points out the nonsense (that I’d never considered) that the Jungle Book characters are all voiced with classical western accents (viz. “Shere Khan: How delightful”) – how stupid is that? He talks about his unlikely but ultimately disappointing experience with Tinder and I absolutely get where he’s coming from. And there’s so much more. Primarily you come away with an understanding of how the openly Asian Tez has precisely the same aspirations, foibles and concerns as anyone else – including that tricky subject of how you refer to another race. Personally, I really don’t like the phrase “people of colour” because we’ve all got a colour of sorts, so what the hell does that mean? Tez has his own observations on this and some rather delectably embarrassing examples. But I’m not going to tell you about all his material because a) I can’t remember it, b) it’s not mine to tell and c) it’ll ruin it for the rest of you. Trust me though that the time flies by.

Very likeable, very funny and with instantly recognisable observations about how we all rub along together – or not. Truly the comedy of revelation; you may well come out of this show a different person from the one who went in, and there is no finer compliment I can pay to a performer! There are only a few more dates left in his tour but he’s got a new show coming up in Edinburgh this summer and I’m pretty sure we’ll be catching it. Highly recommended!

Review – The Grapes of Wrath, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 16th May 2017

The Grapes of WrathI bought Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath (intimidatingly big fat book) and Of Mice and Men (welcomingly slim volume) when I was 16 with the intention of improving my mind, and let’s face it, it needed a helluva lot of improvement. At the time I found novels really hard going, so these were always going to be a challenge. They went with me everywhere; I took them to university; I took them to my second university (yeah, I know, you wouldn’t credit it); I took them to my first flat; my first house; my second house; my third house; and when it came to moving yet again, this time we had to downsize and a lot of my books got taken to charity shops. The Grapes of Wrath was one such sacrifice. And I confess, gentle reader, in all that time I never read it. I’ve still never read Of Mice and Men either, but that’s easier to accommodate.

Time to leave OklahomaStill, I’ve read the synopsis on Wikipedia, so that’s a start; and I can confirm that Frank Galati’s stage version, that ran for 188 performances on Broadway in 1990, is very faithful to the original book. It’s a massive tale, overflowing with pathos, with powerful themes of tolerance, injustice, and loyalty; it’s an environment where banks evict you from your property through no fault of your own, you’re lucky if you can get a zero hours contract and where fat cats grow fatter by exploiting the weakest of society. Thus it’s still incredibly relevant for our own time. There’s a large cast of distinctive characters whose dilemmas and reactions intrigue and surprise you. Put all that into a stage adaptation and it’s got to be great, hasn’t it? Hasn’t it?

Saw startI have to be honest to one of my theatrical mantras which is that I’d prefer to see a brave failure than a lazy success. I love to be challenged in the theatre by off the wall ideas that may not work but you can see how the creative team were maybe trying to subvert material, or question responses. Even if at the end of the day it doesn’t work, it’s much more rewarding than a bland drawing room comedy just phoned in by a complacent cast.

Grandpa being difficultThis, however, is something completely different. It’s theatre, Jim, but not as we know it. I ask myself if director Abbey Wright is trying to obstruct us from simple story-telling, because so much of what happens on stage really gets in the way of the plot. The play opens to a man playing a saw like a cello. To be fair, he does it expertly. The note he plays gets taken up by other members of the band, and it’s just minutely off-key. That sets the tone for the rest of the performance. Discordant, random music that doesn’t in any way please the ear bursts in when you don’t expect or want it. The car salesmen are ludicrously represented by three of the cast on adjustable aluminium stilts. The boy, whose father is dying in the final scene, is wearing a Superman outfit. Another of the nameless travellers the Joad family encounter on the way to California is wearing a T-shirt with the legend “Are we there yet?” (Is that meant to be funny?) and yet another, who’s in charge of one of the camps, is wearing a high vis jacket, very 1930s. The hordes of people all hoping for a better life are standing silently still within a screen looking for all the world like The Girl with all the Gifts’ Hungries, only better dressed. In a scene I found excruciatingly embarrassing, the cast members all perform a ridiculous dance routine, marked by stylised jerky movements and to what purpose? Simply because they could?

Camp tensionImportant scenes take place on a terribly lit stage so you can barely work out who is talking to whom. Perhaps worst of all, the final, moving, image of the dying man being nursed by Rose of Sharon is totally ruined by the clunking of the movement of the set back into position. Surely there could have been some way to avoid this? It was like a phone going off at the vital moment in a funeral. The production is absolutely crammed with these bizarre, jarring intrusions, so I can only assume this is a deliberate form of unsettling the audience, as if the simple story of the Joad family wasn’t unsettling enough. In fact, I feel the production does not give the Joads and their acquaintances the respect they deserve.

Does this look like a helpful stagingAn additional side-effect of the terrible situation they find themselves in, is that the characters are, for the most part, beaten by life, destroyed by circumstances; and, unsurprisingly this knocks the wind out of their sails. The cast convey this devastation very accurately by constantly talking in monotone; and, as a result, it is literally monotonous to watch. There’s very little flexibility to their vocal range – they’re down at mouth and down at voice too. There’s only one scene where there’s any real sense of life, and that’s where Tom, Al and Noah go swimming in the river – admittedly a very nice piece of stagecraft, and you may get splashed in the first three rows.

CasyThere was also a strange disconnect between some of the actors – as though they had rehearsed their speeches alone, independently, and this was the first time they had met and put their lines together. With a few notable exceptions, it very much felt like “A: It is a tough life we have here.” (Pause – over to you, B ) “B: Yes, you are right, extremely tough, don’t you agree, C?” (Pause – expectant look at C) “C: You took the words out of my mouth, B.” And so on. Exceptions to this were a beautiful, thoughtful, flowing performance by Julia Swift as Ma, straining to keep the family together at all cost, and a delightfully wry performance by Brendan Charleson as Casy, the preacher who took the benefits of his position but has now moved on. Daniel Booroff, also, gave some refreshing quirkiness to his characters of Noah and Jim Rawley at Weedpatch.

DanceA compelling tale of human determination done a grave disservice by a clumsy, clunky production. Mrs Chrisparkle wondered if it hadn’t had time to “bed in” yet, but it’s already been to Southampton, Nottingham and West Yorkshire Playhouse, let alone being in its final week in Northampton, so it can’t be that. A brave failure? I’m not sure. I just didn’t get the vision behind the production at all; and of all the 50-odd Made in Northampton plays I’ve seen over the last eight years this is the most “amateur” in the pejorative sense of the word. Gives me no pleasure at all to say that!

Review – Christian Kluxen Conducts Tchaikovsky, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 14th May 2017

Christian Kluxen Conducts TchaikovskyTime for us to welcome back the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra once again for an evening of Italian, German and Russian music. Our conductor for this concert was the exuberant Christian Kluxen, one of those guys who really gets behind the music and cajoles every nuance out of the orchestra with every flex of his body. We’d not had the pleasure of Mr Kluxen’s company before, so I can only assume the photo on the programme is a little out of date; since then he has grown a full hipster beard so that he now resembles the Fred Sirieix of the Classical Scene.

Christian Kluxen They weren’t accepting interval orders at the bar (sigh) which can only mean one thing – a short first half. Our first piece of music was the famous William Tell overture by Rossini, with its irredeemably nostalgic final movement that reminds patrons of a certain age of the Lone Ranger. It’s easy though to forget the three other sequences that lead up to the finale, with its beautiful dawn opening – fantastic work by the cellos, the dazzling thunderstorm that follows, and the pastoral calm of the third part. But the final section must break through and does so almost before the pastoral has finished, and from there on it’s guns-ablazin’ and horses at the gallop. A delightful way to open the concert and the orchestra absolutely had it nailed.

Martin RoscoeNext was Mendelssohn’s Piano Concerto No 1 in G Minor, Op. 25. A piano soloist on the programme always causes a hiatus as the violins have to scatter to make way for the Steinway to be wheeled on. Meanwhile, the displaced musicians huddle round the back of the stage like they’re sneaking a fag break. It’s a very bizarre sight, but I guess there is no alternative. Enter Martin Roscoe on stage, an unshowy, quiet looking man with a sensible attitude to sheet music (i.e. he has it on display and continually looks at it) but who nevertheless unleashes passion at the keyboard when it’s required. The concerto is full of stunning tunes that Mr Roscoe hones and cares for as he coaxes them off the keys, and he is a true master of his instrument.

Because it is a short piece (and that is why we couldn’t pre-order interval drinks) Mr Roscoe took pity on the assembled crowd and gave us an encore: June, from Tchaikovsky’s Seasons, to whet our appetite for the second half symphony. I’d never heard this before and thought it was absolutely sublime. A simple, haunting barcarolle, I’m going to have to add it to my collection of classical CDs.

RPOAfter the interval (yes we did get our drinks) we returned for Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No 6 (Pathétique). It’s a bold, exciting work with a number of themes that everyone recognises, that build to a dramatic climax. Most people thought the end of the third movement heralded the end of the symphony and started some rapturous applause; but no, the twist in the tale is that there’s a fourth and final movement that disconcertingly trades down from the triumph of the previous movement and ends not with a bang but a whimper. Such a mournful end will always be associated with the fact that Tchaikovsky himself died only nine days after conducting its debut performance. Those last few notes of the symphony were played so movingly by the RPO that the audience was stunned into silence, not wishing to break the moment by applauding. I think we were in a shared state of shock. A fantastic performance by the Royal Philharmonic that has made me go back to my recordings to listen again to some of these pieces and to want to explore anew – and I don’t think there can be any finer recommendation to a concert than that!

The RPO will be back in June with some more Mendelssohn and Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony – should be a blinder!

Eurovision Song Contest, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 13th May 2017

Celebrate DiversityThis was indeed the 62nd annual Eurovision Song Contest and I’ve been waving them on, man and boy, ever since the 12th. Fifty years of Eurovision… I should be entitled to a medal. Well, forty-nine really, as the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle took me on holiday to Cyprus during Eurovision week in 1974, much to my frustration; in those days I didn’t have the ability to record the show, so it all passed me by. Did anyone famous win that year?

ErrolYou may have been forgiven, gentle reader, for thinking that this year’s Euroshindig took place in Kyiv, Ukraine. Not a bit of it. The real action was at the Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton. Mrs Chrisparkle and I, together with Lord and Lady Prosecco, Mr and Mrs Jolly-Japester and Northampton’s own Mr Flying-the-Flag (and Mrs Flag) were in attendance. The sumptuous and (almost) new Screen 2 played host to another evening of wine, women, song, political intrigue, scandal, dubious taste, and snacks.

Helen BlabyAmong those women was BBC Radio Northampton’s very own Helen Blaby, all bedecked in sparkly sequins. She hosted the evening for us, judging the Fancy Dress contest (the three French girls won) and acting as the Jon Ola Sand of the East Midlands in ensuring our voting procedure took place fair and square. No embarrassing “can we please have your votes;” “I don’t have it” moments for us; although they did run out of Velcro.

julia samoilovaSomeone who didn’t win the Fancy Dress contest was a gentleman in a wheelchair, who said he’d come as Julia from Russia. Nice mickey-taking indeed, although he didn’t get her hair right. You’ll know that wheelchair-using Julia was refused entry into Ukraine by the state officials as she had previously performed at a concert in Crimea without permission – and Ukrainian law states that she could not enter the country as a result. The EBU, who run Eurovision, have no power to override a country’s laws but they were disappointed at Ukraine’s stance. All a ploy by Russia, of course, to make Ukraine look bad; in an attempt to make her performance possible, it was suggested she could perform by satellite from Moscow, but that was dismissed outright by the Russians. Therefore, no Russia this year. In an act of extreme contrition, on the evening of the semi-final where Julia would otherwise have been competing in the ESC, she attended another concert instead – in Crimea. Honestly it’s like putting the Krym in criminal. Julia is already nominated as Russia’s performer for the 2018 contest in Lisbon. Let’s hope she tries to sing the same song and is disqualified on the grounds that it was published before 1st September 2017. As you’ve probably guessed, I’ve no sympathy with Russia on this issue. They should have thought about it before aggressively invading another country.

Moldova SunstrokeThe Errol is a great place to see the contest – it’s so comfortable, with a great sound system, and a great selection of food and drink. We even have our own hashtag – #Errolvision. I love the fact that you can take a proper bottle of wine into the cinema with you. No plastic cups, no trashy junk; it treats you like an adult. For the Eurovision, they do the usual game of “let’s bring out some appropriate food and drink for some of the countries” – so we were treated to (if I remember rightly) falafels for Israel, Babybels for Netherlands, Pinot Grigio (chilled individual bottles) for Italy, Fish ‘n’ Chip flavoured snacks for the UK, Black Forest Gateau for Germany, tzatziki for Greece; there may have been more. And, as hinted earlier on, we also have our own voting procedure where everybody has a douze points sticker and a nul points sticker and they award them to whichever countries they like and dislike most. My douze = Italy; my nul = Croatia; Mrs C’s douze = Germany; her nul = Ukraine (I think). But overall – and this will amuse you gentle reader if you know how this year’s results fell – the Errolvision winner was Moldova (gasp!) and the loser was Portugal (gasp, gasp!)

Francesco GabbaniWhat of the songs themselves? We started with Israel, who got us off to a great start with a song I really like. Mrs Flag said that IMRI of Israel looks just like me. I will love her forever for that remark. Poland and Belarus followed, to no great interest, then Austria, with Nathan sitting on the moon (not the only incident of mooning that night). Armenia – still don’t get it; Netherlands – still too many harmonies; then Moldova and finally we all had something uptempo and flashy to get our teeth into – I’m sure it inspired many episodes of epic sax later that night. Hungary – still sounds morose, then my favourite Italy, which I willed on to do really well and win but… in the end, it just didn’t somehow. There hasn’t been a more obvious runaway winner than Francesco since Alexander Rybak in 2009; so how come it didn’t win? Great tune, clever lyrics, engaging performer, and the naked ape isn’t an out-and-out gimmick, he features in the song. Although making him wear a rainbow bow-tie was silly. That means he wasn’t naked anymore – and that’s just the point.

Jacques HoudekDenmark came and went and then it was Portugal, that slow burner that would either do incredibly well or fade away into obscurity. Salvador’s eccentric delivery made a few people laugh in the Errol, and once they realised it wasn’t going to go uptempo, most people just talked through it. Not what the typical Brit thinks is a typical Eurovision song, therefore they weren’t going to show any interest in it. Did they learn nothing from Jamala? Apparently not. Azerbaijan created some scornful cackling at the horse’s head. As for Jacques from Croatia, the Errol audience burst into hysterical laughter at the pompous and ludicrous delivery of the Z-lister from Zagreb, the homophobe from Hrvatska. Many of them voted for it, thinking it was a comedy number.

Lucie JonesAustralia, Greece, Spain and Norway all came, all went and there wasn’t a lot of interest – apart from the one Australian member of the audience who of course HAD to come down to the front whilst Isaiah was on and wave his wallaby at us. Then it was the UK – and we are of course pre-programmed to hope and expect the best and demand that the rest of Europe will respectfully acknowledge our national superiority and festoon us with high scores. Lucie, as we knew she would, performed brilliantly; I think she heightened expectation by having perfected a superb delivery of that song which made us all forget that the song itself is, basically, quite forgettable; and clearly that’s what the majority of the televoters thought too. Not so bad from the juries though, and it’s always a shame to see your country slowly and inexorably drift back to the right hand side of the screen.

Ilinca and AlexCyprus: yes okay; then Romania; and the Errol was soon filled with voices reflecting the lilting sound of rapping yodel. We all enjoyed that one. Germany did really well (IMHO), Ukraine had a shocker of a song, Belgium stood like a Brussels sprout left out in the rain, Sweden went on despite saying he couldn’t, Kristian from Bulgaria gave us an absolute belter, and everyone ignored France because by that stage you’re just adding up and working out your votes.

Jamala and the MoonA bright spark in an Australian flag decided to brighten up proceedings whilst Jamala was performing yet another dirge by jumping up on to her podium and revealing his arse to 200 million people. Jamala was a trooper, she didn’t flinch one moment. I expect she’s seen better before. Still at least she got a visual souvenir of the arseholes she sings about in her song 1944. Turns out he wasn’t a drunken Aussie, but a regular Ukrainian prankster by the name of Vitalii Sediuk, and he might be facing a fine or up to five years behind bars, according to the Ukrainian Interior Minister, who goes by the name of Arsen Avakov (you couldn’t make it up).

Salvador SobralPortugal won, massively; with Bulgaria in second place and Moldova in third. Portugal’s first win since they started competing in 1964 has been met with pretty much universal approval, even though there are still plenty of people who Just Don’t Get The Song. Not only Portugal’s first win but the best ever placing for the top three countries; and the winning song is the first to be written exclusively by a woman/women – so maybe they did end up celebrating diversity after all. Salvador peed a number of people off by using his winner’s speech to denigrate throw-away pop, and on reflection I think he spoke out of turn. Maybe if he’d spent longer in the ESC bubble he might have realised how some people would have taken it the wrong way. Still, there’s no disguising his success – and his big reception on return to Lisbon airport proves his current popularity.

keep-calm-and-welcome-to-lisbon-6Mrs Chrisparkle and I had made a secret pact that if either Italy or Portugal won we would almost certainly go to see the show there next year. It will have been three years since the sea of fans in the auditorium in Vienna parted to make way for Mans Zelmerlow to walk through and we were almost trampled to death by big blokes being forced on top of us; just about enough time to forget the pain and fear and endure it all again. Till then, hope you had a great Eurovision season, and don’t get too upset with the Post Eurovision Depression – plans for next year are already afoot!

P. S. I had Portugal at 11/1 win and Moldova at 100/1 each way, and combined with a few little bets about which countries would qualify, that meant I scored a £200 win from those nice people at Skybet!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 12th May 2017

Dan Evans‘Twas the night before Eurovision, and all through the house not a creature was stirring, because we’d all gone out to the Screaming Blue Murder comedy club. Our genial host Dan Evans was on cracking form as usual, sparring ever-so-gently with the people from TCL Landscaping, a 40-year-old birthday boy, a Jumbo-sized guy who dwarfed everyone around him – and Kate. Dan tried to rope Kate into a bit of banter but she wasn’t having any of it. But she didn’t just go coy and sheepish, she went on the offensive and all it went a bit Pete Tong. Sit anywhere near the front in a comedy club and you might end up part of the action. Dem’s de rules. Never mind, better luck next fortnight.

Debra Jane ApplebyOur first act was Debra-Jane Appleby, quite a posh name for someone who isn’t really that posh. We’d seen her here six years ago (gasp!) where she was our commère for the evening. This time we got to see her act and there’s no doubt about it, she’s really funny. She had some brilliant bits of business – like the visual image of your entitlement to a pension getting further and further away, and her material about trying to be gay because you don’t know until you’ve tried it. She’s also great with addressing her weight issues, in which capacity I can definitely feel her pain. A fab start to the evening.

Bobby MairNext up was Bobby Mair, new to us, and once seen never forgotten. A wonderfully warped sense of humour, he delivers his material as though he was your local friendly psychopath. He’s the kind of guy you can trust to say the wrong thing at a funeral. Indeed – he picked one guy at random from the audience and empathised that if his wife were to die, the benefit of it would be that he could at least f*ck a stranger. I loved his material about music festivals and their similarity to refugee camps; but he’s the kind of comic who keeps the material coming at irregular intervals which in itself unsettles you and pulls you up short with a devastating punchline out of the blue. I can say no more. Utterly brilliant.

Christian ReillyOur headline act was Christian Reilly, whom we’ve seen many times before and always puts on a tremendous show of musical comedy, parodying styles and performers, changing their lyrics and always for the better! His Bryan Ferry material was absolutely hilarious and as for his Donald Trump sequence… well yes indeed. He has just the right level of attack and he went down an absolute storm.

Three fantastic acts this week! One more Screaming Blue on 26th May before it hibernates for the summer. You should come!

Eurovision Semi Final Two 2017

So we reconvened at the appointed hour to witness the solemn ceremony of selecting the final ten to go through to Saturday’s Eurovision Grand Finale. Mrs Chrisparkle and I were accompanied in this challenging but ultimately rewarding task by the likes of Lord and Lady Prosecco (true to their name), Mr and Mrs Jolly-Japester (same applies) and HRH the Crown Prince of Bedford (one doesn’t comment on the behaviour of royalty). Again we each chose the ten songs/performances that we most enjoyed, rather than the ones we thought would get through.

Serbia 17Serbia – Just as it was about to start I popped a bottle of prosecco and it went all over my trousers and socks. By the time I’d mopped it off the table, the carpet and my leg, the song had all but finished. I know I don’t like it much though – it’s too much of a steal from other songs. HRH noted there were two topless male dancers. Given Tijana’s see-through dress, I’ll just leave that with you. Four of us (Mrs C, HRH and the Prosecco pair) decided to put it through to the final.

Austria 17Austria – We remember Nathan as a happy chappy from the London party. Interesting staging, giving a whole new meaning to mooning. He delivered it superbly as we expected. But is there something lacking from this whole thing? Apparently not, as we all sent Nathan through apart from a grumpy Lord Prosecco.

Macedonia 17FYR Macedonia – Mr Jolly-Japester thought her name was Jana Bigchester – clearly his Freudian slip was showing. Jana romped around like a sex kitten, all tinsel and Madonna-like, wearing the epitome of f*ck me boots that Mrs C would die for. Unfortunately, with all this, a rather beautiful and charming song got totally lost. Nevertheless, six of us appreciated her splendid effort, with only Lord Prosecco being grumpy again.

Malta 17Malta – Breastlessly? enquired Mr Jolly-Japester, clearly on a roll. Well, not entirely, came the group response. Hurrah for Claudia finally making it to Eurovision, and most of us agreed that it’s a strong song, if a trifle old-fashioned. Five of us gave her the thumbs up, only HRH wasn’t impressed with her cleavage and Mr J-J just got too bored with the song.

Romania 17Romania – It wouldn’t be Eurovision without something totally ridiculous that just might set the world alight. Time then to meet Ilinca and Alex, two lovely people whom you both want to cuddle. Highly impressed with her performance, Mr J-J noted there was no end to what she was capable of with her throat. The song is total rubbish but they give the audience three minutes of sheer delight. One of only four songs that all seven of us put through to the final.

Netherlands 17The Netherlands – I explained to the gathered crowds the story of how this song was written and succeeded in puncturing the mood completely (Google it if you don’t know). The girls are lovely and it’s beautifully staged but for me it’s as dull as ditchwater. Do you remember how they criticised Mozart for having too many notes? For me this has too many harmonies. Nevertheless, four brave souls – HRH, Lord P and the J-Js all gave it the nod of approval.

Hungary 17Hungary – Lord Prosecco drew this in the office sweepstake so we were all very excited for him to hear it. Oh dear. Nice dancer. Nice violinist. Shame about the song. Mr J-J thought it sounded like an ode to constipation. We know a Hungarian who is genuinely embarrassed by this song. As the late Terry Wogan once said (of the Austrian entry in 1977) “different, but not sufficiently different to make a difference.” Only Lord Prosecco (with an eye on his sweepstake) and Mr J-J sent it through to the final.

Denmark 17Denmark – Eurovision by numbers, and quite dull. Anja went to school in Winmalee, New South Wales, where Mrs C’s best schoolfriend works as a teacher. She probably taught Anja. I’m full of riveting facts, me. Halfway through we stopped listening and started talking about Jeremy Corbyn. Only Lady Prosecco selected her to go through to the final.

Ireland 17Ireland – I think this was the time when the level of our conversation truly descended, unlike Brendan’s testicles. Three minutes asking ourselves searching questions like: What is he dying to try? Does it involve the local priest? What on earth is he doing out this late at night? What the hell are Ireland playing at? To be honest, I rather liked his balloon. Only one of us voted for him to go through: HRH, and I doubt it had anything to do with the song.

San Marino 17San Marino – Lady Prosecco had already condemned this to oblivion before Valentina and Jimmie had opened their mouths. Valentina was so hyper, Mrs J-J assumed she’d been taking speed. Did I hear the line: “I can see the future is bright, I’ll take your booze away”? Harsh. Very cruise ship; but some cruise ship entertainment is really good. Some. One of two songs that none of us voted for at all.

Croatia 17Croatia – I just can’t take this seriously in any way. I giggled my way all through it, and not in a good way. The ultimate “Look at me, I’m a star” song. I know I’m in no position to comment, but really, a man of his proportions should not wear a leather jacket. Skin tight. Fully done up. Once you’d finished laughing at his duet with himself, there was the blissful hilarity of the duelling strings, the violinist and cellist battling out to the death to see who could leave the stage with any vestige of dignity left. This was the other song that was a nul points from all of us.

Norway 17Norway – After the overweening, overblown musical flatulence that preceeded it, JOWST’s little song whispered in on a light breeze with just a slight whiff of Jarlsberg. Mrs J-J said she got Ed Sheeran vibes; I’ll have to take her word for that. Maybe it was just because it followed two totally dreadful entries, but all of us sent it through to the final.

Switzerland 17Switzerland – Miruna was wearing what I can only describe as an oversized mango smoothie, perched atop an enormous desk caddy, also in fetching mango – thoughtfully they’d removed the pencils. Later on, they wheeled up a pink piano with a pink pianist to provide colour contrast. It was like watching a block of Neapolitan ice-cream. She’s got a great voice – but we hardly noticed the song. The Proseccos and Mrs C put it through.

Belarus 17Belarus – Not Michael Holliday’s version of The Story of my Life, much to Lord Prosecco’s disappointment. Arciom and Ksienija looked like little rays of sunshine. So happy. So lacey (at least, I think that’s what that material is). It took me ages to realise they were on a boat and not merely accompanied by two giant hamster wheels. Their song, in pure Belarussian, was also very happy. And felt much longer than three minutes. Only Mr J-J voted it through.

Bulgaria 17Bulgaria – Kristian Kostov (not, as Mr J-J had it, “Tossed-off”) impressed us all with his superb voice and beautiful song. Well, nearly all. “Am I the only one who thinks this is boring?” asked Lady Prosecco. “Yes,” we confirmed. I thought it was sheer class from start to finish. Will it carry off the Grand Prix on Saturday night? Not sure. Could be a chance of so near and yet Sofia. Only the low boredom threshold of Lady Prosecco prevented it from being a clean sweep of yays.

Lithuania 17Lithuania – From the sublime to the ridiculous, featuring the winner of Lithuania’s Got Talons. When one of our party (who shall be nameless) described Viktorija’s coiffure as a “prickly bush”, we had to halt the recording for some time in order to recover. It was also noted that if Viktorija shoved her finger nail into his underpants, it would have been the longest thing down there. Rubbish song, so who cares? Bizarrely Mrs J-J, in a fit of kindness, voted it through.

Estonia 17Estonia – Two to go, and my second favourite of 2017. Another example of jacket jealousy for me as Koit marched across the stage with enormous authority which crumbled when he gave the camera his “Ed Milliband” look. They were singing about how they’d lost their Verona but they were in each other’s arms and looking happy – had they sneakily found it again but told no one? Loved the harmonies though, and this was another song that we all voted through to the final.

Israel 17Israel – I’d always thought this was a very good underdog this year and IMRI absolutely nailed the performance. Terrific vocals, smart looking guy, and an enjoyable song. I’d be happy to see the contest in Tel Aviv next year. Universal approbation throughout as this was the fourth song that we all voted for.

So how did we all do? We all got a mixture of 5 or 6 right (I scored 6) except Mr Jolly-Japester who scored 8 and thereby wins a cutting of Viktorija’s prickly bush for bedding purposes. By contrast, if I’d stuck with the eight songs that I predicted would stumble at this hurdle in my earlier preview blog, I’d have scored 7/10. Belarus, Netherlands and most particularly (guffaw) Croatia were my stumbling blocks. Ah well. We’ll all be watching the big show from the luxury of the Errol Flynn Filmhouse on Saturday night – and wherever you are, I hope you have a great Eurovision night and may the best song about a dancing naked ape win!