Review – Kiss Me, Kate, Crucible Theatre, Sheffield, 5th January 2019

Kiss Me, KateEvery New Year, Mrs Chrisparkle and I treat Lord and Lady Prosecco to a post-Christmas outing: a weekend in Sheffield (bear with me) to stay at the lovely Mercure Hotel, have some scrummy meals and to see both the Crucible’s Christmas musical AND the Lyceum panto – and we’ve not had a duff experience yet. Over the last couple of years, we’ve taken to seeing the panto in the evening – the weight of a few extra wines and a more end-of-term atmosphere always helps. Which left us this matinee with the prospect of seeing Cole Porter’s fantastic, and now grammatically correct, Kiss Me, Kate.

edward-baker-duly-and-the-company-of-kiss-me-kate.This was one of the Dowager Mrs C’s favourite musicals and I was brought up on a diet of Always True to You Darling in my Fashion and From This Moment On; not a bad way to be brought up, to be honest. But this is only the third time I’ve seen it; once in 1987 at the Old Vic with the redoubtable Nichola McAuliffe, and at Chichester in 2012 where Hannah Waddingham attempted to rule the roost over Alex Bourne. That London production was great; the Chichester one a little disappointing. But I’m going to throw my hat into the ring and say that this new production at Sheffield by Paul Foster tops them both.

edward-baker-duly-and-rebecca-lock-as-fred-and-lillI’m sure you know the story – a touring production of The Taming of the Shrew is the vehicle for an on-and-off love story between the two leads, Fred Graham (playing Petruchio, also the producer of the show) and Miss Lilli Vanessi (playing Katherine, the star attraction). Lilli senses that their romance is back on track (they are already divorced at the beginning of the show) but when she discovers that the flowers she received from Fred were actually meant for cabaret starlet Lois (playing Bianca), she gets into a Katherine-type rage and takes it out on him on stage. He, being not entirely a true gentleman, gives as good as he gets, and she spends most of the rest of the show unable to sit down because – well, because, gentle reader, he gave her a damn good spanking. It happens in Shakespeare, so why the hell not here. Only one way to tame a shrew; women respect it. (That was a joke, by the way.)

dafydd-emyr-as-harrison-howell-and-rebecca-lock-as-lilli-vanessi.Lilli’s plans to abandon the rest of the run are brought to an abrupt halt by the persuasions of two gangsters who (erroneously, as it happens) need the show to be a success so that Fred can pay his dues to their Mr. Big. Her new beau Harrison Howell arrives to take her away – but, will she find true love with him, or with Fred? If you don’t know the answer to that by now, you never will.

dex-lee-centre-and-the-company-of-kiss-me-kate.It’s true; in the current climate, some aspects of this show have dated to become ever so slightly worrying. The physical animosity between Fred and Lilli does border on domestic violence (even though it’s played entirely for laughs) and the subjugation of women’s will to men’s is still as clear as it was in Shakespeare’s day – you have to feel a cringe coming on when Katherine/Lilli sings I Am Ashamed that Women are So Simple. But this is distinctly a period piece, with no attempts (quite right, I think) to update it to the 21st century. Porter’s showtunes are still as 1940s jazz as they can be; the gangsters are still the same Chicago thickos they always were. Porter’s brilliant lyrics anchor the show in his own era; when one of the funniest lines in any of the songs is “he may have hair upon his chest, but, sister so has Lassie”, there’s just no point trying to update it. Provided there are audience members who remember Lassie, the joke works.

layton-williams-and-the-company-of-kiss-me-kate.We’ve been used over the years at Sheffield to seeing the big choreography routines by Alistair David, who made such a mark in shows like My Fair Lady and Show Boat. For this show, the choreography is by Matt Flint, and I have to say I’ve not come across his work before. But he’s terrific! His style is much more intimate and involved; he sets up scenes with so many varied things happening in different parts of the stage all at the same time, then brings them all together for a big impact. The second Act opens with his fantastic staging of Too Darn Hot, led with immaculate artistry and precision by Layton Williams as Paul; it’s one of those classic dance sequences when you know you’re seeing something special and you never want it to end. As an aside, our performance was captioned – a great innovation, imho – and it was fascinating to read the lyrics to Too Darn Hot (as well all the other songs) – it’s easy to overlook just exactly what this song is all about!

cindy-belliot-and-layton-williams.Elsewhere, the show is peppered with memorable moments, mainly involving the big numbers. Paul Foster has concentrated most of his efforts into getting the maximum entertainment out of the songs, so there is no attempt to shorten any of Cole Porter’s mammoth efforts. I guess a downside to that is that if you don’t like the songs much (then why are you here?) you probably won’t enjoy it much. The show opens with (fittingly) Another Op’nin’ Another Show, at first fronted by Lilli’s dresser Hattie (a beautiful, warm-hearted performance by Cindy Belliot) but then it opens out to a wide-ranging musical examination of all the cast and crew arriving at this new theatre, with all the tensions and excitements that can contain – and it’s an exciting and exhilarating start.

joel-montague-and-delroy-atkinson-as-the-gangsters-in-kiss-me-kate.Other highlights include Amy Ellen Richardson’s Lois/Bianca teasing routine with the three suitors for Tom Dick or Harry – one of these, Dex Lee, plays Bill/Lucentio and I always admire his brilliant, acrobatic dancing; Rebecca Lock (a brilliant Katherine/Lilli with a stunning voice) throwing herself around in fits of fury during I Hate Men; Edward Baker-Duly (also brilliant as Fred/Petruchio – I loved his ham, and then even hammier, vocal performance as the stagey actor) ripping through the memories of all those women in Where is the Life that Late I Led; Amy Ellen Richardson’s funny and flirtatious performance of Always True To You Darling in my Fashion; and the simple but oh so effective staging of Brush Up Your Shakespeare by Delroy Atkinson and Joel Montague as the two theatrical gangsters, occupying the spotlights – Mr Atkinson in particular gave a brilliantly expressive physically comic performance. I also appreciated the fact that, for much of the performance, James McKeon’s orchestra was hidden at the back of the set, but for the songs that belonged to Taming of the Shrew, it was on view – a very nice touch, I thought.

amy-ellen-richardson-as-lois-lane-in-kiss-me-kate.The only thing that slightly disappointed me was the staging of one of my favourite songs from the show, From This Moment On. It’s a difficult one. The song was never written for Kiss Me Kate; Porter wrote it for another show from which it was dropped at the last minute, but it was obviously too good to waste, and Cole Porter was an expert musical recycler. From This Moment On appears in the film version of Kiss Me Kate, where it works perfectly as a number between Bianca and her three suitors; but the dramatic usefulness of that has already been taken by Tom Dick or Harry. So nowadays the custom is to have it sung by Harrison Howell and Lilli before he sweeps her away to the magicless life of a military wife – or not. Structurally, it makes perfect sense to have it there; but in practice the characters are too old and the situation too cynical (ouch! Sorry!) for the song to work properly. It’s a young person’s song – a starting out in life song – filled with genuinely great expectations, and I’d prefer to give the song back to Lois and Bill. In characterisation and acting, Dafydd Emyr made an imposing Howell, but, for me, it just didn’t work.

simon-oskarsson-and-the-company-of-kiss-me-kate.But this is one small quibble in an otherwise excellent show that thrilled us all, and we continued to talk about it later that evening and all through the next. One of those productions to savour and recall with happiness for years to come. It’s on until Saturday 12th January. Would be a crime to miss it!

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Fiddler on the Roof, Menier Chocolate Factory, 30th December 2018

Fiddler on the RoofOne of the most successful musicals of all time has made its way to the Menier for the Christmas/New Year slot, and is now sold out for the entirety of its run, right through to March 9th, so it’s got to be doing something right! The familiar old story of Fiddler on the Roof, with the cantankerous but lovable Reb Tevye, his devoted but not uncritical wife Golde, and their five daughters, three of which are of marryable age, has delighted millions since it first appeared on Broadway in 1964; and yes, gentle reader, I was lucky enough to see Topol in the part – although not until an early 1980s revival. Since then, I’ve seen the surprisingly superb Paul Michael Glaser in the role, and the unsurprisingly brilliant Omid Djalili. And now, this new production at the Menier, directed by Sir Trevor Nunn no less, stars Andy Nyman as the poor dairyman/philosopher/wannabe rich man.

andy nyman as tevyeHowever, unfortunately Mr Nyman, who I understand is excellent in this role, was not performing on the matinee of Sunday December 30th, and his understudy Robert Maskell took the part. Because any production of Fiddler relies heavily on this vital, central performance, I’m going to find it difficult to give a useful review of this show, as I sense the performance I saw was possibly quite different from what everyone else has seen.

fiddler on the roofI go to the theatre to have a good time so let’s dwell on the positives. Firstly, if you’ve never seen it before, Fiddler on the Roof is a brilliant show, you can take that as read. Even though all the best songs and scenes come in the first Act, so that the show feels slightly top-heavy, it’s still a strong and engrossing story with many larger-than-life characters. In the intimate environment of the Menier, it’s the music that really takes charge, with a fantastic performance from Paul Bogaev’s band, and absolutely stunning vocals and harmonies from the ensemble cast. It truly is a feast for the ear – if ears can indeed be feasted.

To LifeI always admire lively choreography, particularly when it’s crammed into such a small space as the Menier. Matt Cole’s expressive and inspiring routines work brilliantly intertwined with some of Jerome Robbins’ original choreography, and they were all danced with exquisite knife-edge accuracy. In particular, hats off to everyone involved in the To Life scene, with the great Cossack dancing and its enormous sense of happiness. For me, that was the most enjoyable scene in the show.

evening prayerHowever, much to the surprise of both of us, we were left strangely unmoved by this production. When we saw it in Chichester in 2017, I swear we both had to wipe away the occasional tear. However, in this production, not at all. Despite all the obvious opportunities for an emotional reaction, it just didn’t do it for us. The scene where Tzeitel and Motel’s wedding is disrupted by the first signs of violent oppression by the Russians, came across as simply bad behaviour from some ruffians rather than heart-rending destruction. Similarly, when the end comes, and the pogrom clears them all out of Anatevka, we just didn’t feel the distress or devastation. It felt more like a simple administrative relocation. Sorry, your Anatevka branch has now closed, your nearest branch is now 500 miles away. The only time I felt a true sense of emotion was in that wonderful little and easily overlooked song, Miracle of Miracles, when the ecstatic Motel – Joshua Gannon on magnificent form – can’t get over the fact that he’s finally going to get married to Tzeitel. Even the normally floodgate-opening Sunrise, Sunset only came across as a passive observation of others in love, rather than an overwhelming appreciation of how love carries on from generation to generation. Beautifully sung, but strangely cold.

Judy kuhn and andy rymanSo I’m left to wonder if this lack of emotion came from missing Mr Nyman. You expect – and need – your Tevye to be the most larger-than-life character of all; a big man, with a big heart, and a big voice, and a big load of cheek that he shares with everyone from God downwards. Tevye is a man whom, if you dare to cross him, should make you quake in your boots. That’s why it’s so funny when, having given his approval to Motel and Tzeitel to marry, he worries about what Golde will say – the big boss man, classically under the little woman’s thumb. However, Mr Maskell’s interpretation of Tevye stressed his more lovable side; his is a kindly, softly-spoken, Big Daddy-type of Tevye. When he sings of God’s vast eternal plan (in If I Were a Rich Man) it feels less like an earth-shattering, divisive dispensation of justice and more like a well-maintained Excel document. He was gently amusing, but nothing more, I’m afraid. It’s true, he does have beautiful vocal purity; but shouldn’t Tevye have more raucous power, dominating the proceedings right from the start? For me, his whole interpretation felt like it lacked something.

DaughtersElsewhere in the cast there are some enjoyable performances from Judy Kuhn as the much-tried Golde, Louise Gold as a particularly scatter-brained Yentl, Dermot Canavan as a rather well-mannered and reasonable Lazar Wolf, Harriet Bunton as a spirited Hodel and Molly Osbourne as an enthusiastic Tzeitel. However, despite these good performances and the superb ensemble, I did come away from this show feeling slightly flat and a little disappointed. Sometimes 5 star-hype, such as accompanies this production, only sets you up to being let down. Nevertheless, it’s fully sold out and I heard a rumour of a West End transfer, so what do I know?

perchik says helloP. S. Maybe some of my disappointment at the show could be explained by, once again, being surrounded by some audience members distinctly lacking in the manners department. Again, we encountered a refusal to move when trying to leave or return during the interval (in fact, the woman next to me, when she saw I wanted to pass, actually stood up and blocked my path, so I had to go the longer way across the stage). She spent a lot of the show explaining to her son what was happening in the story (clearly he wasn’t using his listening ears). Another extended family group decided it was a good idea to feed their children a picnic during the performance, with all the rustling, munching, squeaking and chomping that entailed. When they weren’t doing that they were lolling all over the seats or explaining the plot animatedly to their children whilst the actors were performing right in front of them. Sigh. Modern audiences are turning me into a Grumpy Old Man.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Snow White, London Palladium, 29th December 2018

Snow WhiteIt’s the third year that the tradition of the London Palladium panto has been revived, and I nabbed our tickets as early as I could. The last two Palladium pantos have been magnificent with their usual cast recidivists, Julian Clary, Paul Zerdin and Nigel Havers; topped up with Gary Wilmot and Charlie Stemp this year and last year, and a fresh baddie every year – first, Paul O’Grady, next Elaine Paige, and this year, Dawn French. As always, the production department has thrown everything at it – glamorous costumes, lively sets, a glorious orchestra, a superb supporting cast and a very funny script. Are you waiting for me to come up with a “but…..”?

Julian ClaryNo, there’s no buts. This is as exciting, hilarious and downright filthy as you might expect. I’m sure the majority of the children present – and there were surprisingly quite a few for a Saturday night – wouldn’t have understood one word that Julian Clary said; and if they did, then Social Services need a word with the parents. However, hidden within the concoction that is the panto Snow White, there were a few moments that would really appeal to kids: Paul Zerdin as Muddles, with his irrepressible puppet Sam, and Gary Wilmot’s Dame, as ever with a patter song, this time about all the stars that have ever appeared at the Palladium to the tune of I am the Very Model of a Modern Major General. Mr Wilmot had to stop the orchestra, actually, because he left a huge chunk of his list out! One sequence that took me back to my childhood was the appearance of the Palladium Pantaloons, four fast and funny acrobatic guys who took the roof off in the best Charlie Cairoli tradition.

vincent and flaviaKids also like Strictly Come Dancing, and this panto has special guest appearances by Vincent Simone and Flavia Cacace. They perform two enchanting dances, the second of which is an Argentine Tango; it’s their speciality and you can’t take your eyes off them. They play the King and Queen but there’s no real attempt to integrate them into the rest of the plot; they’re just a couple of delightful interludes.

Danielle HopeThere’s also romance, in the form of the charming Danielle Hope as Snow White and the irresistible Charlie Stemp as Prince Harry of Hampstead. I’m sure I’m not risking any spoilers when I tell you that the two of them get married in the end, ahhh. That’s not before both of them have run the gamut of side-swipes from the waspish tongue of Mr Clary, of course. As last year, there were moments when Mr Stemp just couldn’t continue for laughing. His star quality shines through; and Mrs C and I can’t wait to see him in Mary Poppins later this year. And Ms Hope did a devilish thing during a slightly ham-fisted piece of comic business; she accidentally switched off the control button on the remote Sam, so when they were meant to be having a conversation together, Sam just sat there, like the dummy he is. One of the children brought on stage for a singalong at the end announced that that was their favourite moment of the show.

gary wilmotEven though they’re not mentioned in the title, Snow White does have her usual team of cohabitees at the house in the forest, here referred to as The Magnificent Seven. I can only presume it’s a copyright issue but none of them bear the same names as their counterparts in the original Disney film. Like, when did Happy become Cheery? Even Doc has now been upgraded to Prof; he must have been awarded an honorary degree somewhere. They are, of course, an ensemble all of their own, but I must say I do always enjoy seeing Craig Garner (Cheery) on stage; I still have very fond memories of his Tommy the Cat in Sheffield’s Dick Whittington a few years ago.

julian clary and nigel haversAnd of course, there’s Nigel. We know it’s Nigel because he has five big letters on stage around which he cavorts, just like Cilla did in her 1960s TV series. By the way, there’s precious little attempt for any of the performers to hide behind their character names. All the way through it’s Nigel, Dawn, Julian, Charlie etc on stage. This year’s ritual humiliation for Nigel is that he has finally been given a part – that of Julian Clary’s understudy. As you would expect, he doesn’t really come up trumps, but I do love how he allows the production to absolutely rip his credibility to shreds.

dawn frenchSo how do the big guns get on in this panto? Julian Clary only has to suggest the whiff of an innuendo and the audience are at his feet. Over the last decade he has become the supreme pantomimier, if there were to be such a word (I’ve just invented it); the arch practitioner who appreciates the combination of apparent innocence and utter filth and understands exactly how far to take it for the best comic effect. He is, of course, supported by the most outrageous costumes imaginable, some of them totally ridiculous. They must weigh a ton, so I reckon he’s stronger than he looks. Dawn French’s Queen Dragonella is, from the start, Dawn French dressed as a regal bully, admitting she hasn’t yet mastered the necessary evil cackle. It’s wonderfully tongue-in-cheek all the way through, from her lascivious (and unsuccessful) chatting up of the Prince, to her final re-emergence as a much more familiar figure. She’s enormous fun (no joke intended) and her obvious lack of scariness is presented as a strength. “You don’t frighten me”, says Mr Clary as the Man in the Mirror, “last year I did eight shows a week with Elaine Paige”. Well, quite.

Paul ZerdinThere are only a handful of seats left for the remaining performances so you’d better get in quick. It’s a feast for all the senses and guaranteed guffaws from start to finish. Can’t wait for next year’s panto!

Nigel HaversP. S. Why do some people have to be so grouchy about letting people in and out of their seats during the interval? We were in the middle of Row G of the stalls and you’ve never met a more unhelpful bunch of surly selfish theatregoers. Beware – if you don’t try to let me through, I may end up stepping on your feet and I am heavy; your risk. Mrs C is much politer than me, but even she was forced to tell the unhelpful youth at the end of the row that she was literally stuck and that he’d have to stand up unless they were both going to stay there all night. Honestly, people, remember your theatre etiquette!

Gary WilmotP. P. S. As we all know, the London Palladium is a theatre of the highest reputation and standing, not only throughout the UK but also the world. On a sold-out Saturday night, I can only imagine the bar takings – they must be tremendous; and that’s good news because all revenue helps keep our theatres alive. Having quaffed a delicious Chardonnay before the show, we returned to collect our pre-ordered interval Chardonnays halfway through. I took my first gulp and it tasted revolting. One look at the liquid and you could tell it was a much, much lighter colour than the wine in the other glass. Could it possibly be that a theatre with the reputation of the Palladium is watering down its wine? We took it to the barman, said it had been watered down and he didn’t deny it – in fact, he quickly and sheepishly replaced both glasses with fresh Chardonnay from the bottle. Buyer beware!

Production photos by Paul Coltas

Review – Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, Sadler’s Wells Theatre, 29th December 2018

Matthew Bourne's Swan LakeFor the record, this was the 7th time Mrs Chrisparkle and I have seen Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake since 1996 – and to be honest, I thought I’d seen it more. There’s no doubt in my mind that this is the finest full-length dance that’s been created in my lifetime, and I don’t know anyone who’s seen it, balletomanes or not, either live or on DVD/TV, who wasn’t impressed with it.

Dominic North as the PrinceIf you haven’t seen it – I can only recommend you try to get a ticket; however, not at Sadler’s Wells, as the entire run is sold out but elsewhere on its tour to Milton Keynes, Birmingham, Southampton, Glasgow and Bristol. You don’t have to have seen an original, classical version of the ballet beforehand, but if you have, there’s the additional fun of working out how Sir Matthew has adapted some of the original characters. But it’s still a superb, stand-alone story of how the young Prince, deprived of maternal affection, is trying to make sense of his life, duty and emotions; and how he finds a purpose with the Swan who may – or may not – be imaginary.

Will BozierI’d love to invite you to read my reviews of when we saw it in Milton Keynes in 2010 and Leicester in 2013 as well, because they show how this dance is constantly evolving. In those blogs I wrote about the changes I had seen from how I remembered it in its early days. Those changes were made sometimes for the better, sometimes not – and once again, in this 2018/2019 tour, there have been further changes, primarily thanks to Kerry Biggin’s re-staging. So much of the meaning of the dance is up to your own personal interpretation of what you see, and your emotional response to it, which also changes over the years.

Prince at SwankThe scene that seems to cry out for constant tinkering is the seedy backstreet disco towards the end of Act One. When we saw it five years ago, I enjoyed how they had created recognisable historical characters like Joe Orton and Quentin Crisp among the attendees – and that the older, tweedy lesbian disco bunny who has always been part of the action was very like June Buckridge from The Killing of Sister George. This time round, the disco scene is more anodyne. Out go the recognisable characters to be replaced by a less charismatic range of dancers; the girls are all in the same glitzy party dresses, the boys are all largely indistinguishable; and they’re all more or less the same age. I missed the sailors on shore leave, who kicked the Prince in the gutter outside the club on the way home. I missed the tweedy lesbian who hovered around the performing female artiste. I missed the schoolboy who sneaks into the disco illicitly, still wearing his school cap.

Swans a swanningSome time ago they changed the opening scene, where we meet the young Prince, getting washed and dressed, and being taken out with the Queen to learn the Art of Royalty. Originally it was a deliberate representation of a child in the role; nowadays it’s danced by the same performer who plays the grown-up Prince. The “child” dancer would also go on to play the schoolboy in the disco scene – which is why I presume he’s now missing. The main problem with that though, is the very final, searingly moving tableau of the show. The Swan always used to cradle the boy in his arms as they look down on the dead Prince on the bed (sorry if that’s a shock). Now he’s just seen with another unknown dancer – who he? – and that final tableau doesn’t particularly make sense anymore.

Queen launchingElsewhere, the First Act dog no longer comedically pulls the soldier who’s taking it for a walk off stage; in the opera house scene, the cast no longer serenely bow to an empty royal box – instead the soldier/courtier rushes in to pick up the girlfriend’s handbag and gets caught in the spotlights. However, there are also many instances where new changes create a superb effect. The lighting, for instance, in this current production, seems to provide extra stage depth in many of the scenes, and the looming shadows cast in the Prince’s bedroom take on a life of their own. The orchestra, under the baton of Brett Morris, played Tchaikovsky’s memorable score with tight excitement and supreme levels of emotion. No change there – I can’t remember a time when the music wasn’t superb.

StrangerBut it’s all about the dancing, isn’t it? Throughout the show it feels like the choreography has been ratcheted up a notch. It’s dangerous, it’s visceral, it’s strenuous. The Act One pas de deux between the Prince and the Queen is thrilling in the near-violence of the Prince’s physical beseeching for attention from his wayward mother. The Prince’s happiness and relief at the end of Act Two as he tears up his suicide note is the most boundless and joyous I’ve ever seen it. The fury of the jealous big-headed Act Three guest who insists that his partner behaves herself, is even more over the top and her dismissing him by chucking her cloak over his head is even more hilarious. The Act Three mocking of the Prince by the Swan and the other guests is even more savage. The general hissing and chattering of the swans, where once they were silent, creates further aggression and hostility; more than ever the swans in this production inhabit a macho environment of competitiveness and antagonism. All the way through the choreography continues to push the boundaries to encourage and enable even more technical brilliance from the dancers and a stronger emotional response from the audience.

Stranger in flightFor our show, we had two knock-out performances from Dominic North as the Prince and Will Bozier as the Swan. We saw Mr North in Matthew Bourne’s Lord of the Flies a few years ago and he still retains those incredibly expressive features that make all the difference when it comes to clear story-telling – in fact, this production of Swan Lake tells its story more clearly and eloquently than we’ve ever seen before. Mr North is an immaculate precision dancer who shines throughout the whole show, whether it be in his dance-based confrontations with the Queen, his rhapsodic joy at being saved by the Swan, or his being manipulated by the Stranger – he was perfect. Mr Bozier is a real find; tall and broad, he makes for a very masculine Swan and an extraordinarily insolent Stranger. Physically he towers over Mr North in their dances together – in a protective way as the Swan and overflowing with arrogance as the Stranger. I’ve not seen Mr Bozier before; he’s a dancer of superb skill and very exciting to watch. I can’t wait to see him in another role in the future.

QueenOur Queen was Nicole Kabera, and, like the rest of the cast, a perfect fit for the role. Superbly man-hungry, you sense this queen will have worked her way through the entire army by daybreak; no wonder she has no time for her pathetic specimen of a son. Ms Kabera has a fantastic stage presence and a very alluring manner; you can really feel that the Prince would be overwhelmingly intimidated by her. Katrina Lyndon’s Girlfriend is a complete hoot who really puts the common into commoner, with her total lack of etiquette but enormous sense of fun; in what I think is a change (or an addition) to the plot, this Girlfriend decides to return the money to the Private Secretary that he had originally paid her for trapping the Prince. And Glenn Graham was our smart and sinister Private Secretary; we saw him dance the Swan five years ago and he still packs a very strong stage presence.

Naughty swansWhat can I say? It’s a devastatingly wonderful production. Mrs C and I were up on our feet at the end with no hesitation. I can’t think of any production better suited to introduce an adult who knows nothing of the genre to the world of dance. However, it was also terrific to see so many children in the audience, both boys and girls, enthralled by it. Twenty-three years ago I knew this show would run and run. It’s showing no signs of stopping yet.

Production photos by Johan Persson

Review – Peter Pan, Richmond Theatre, 27th December 2018

Peter PanAs is our usual practice, Mrs Chrisparkle and I spent a few days in London between Christmas and New Year to do some shopping in the sales, have some nice post-Christmas meals out, and – see some shows! Our first choice might seem a little unusual, but bear in mind three things: 1) Mrs C had never been to the beautiful Richmond Theatre before ; 2) ever since A Chorus Line I’ve followed the career of Harry Francis with great interest and 3) we couldn’t resist the prospect of seeing Robert Lindsay as Captain Hook.

Harry FrancisIt can be difficult to know quite where to pitch a panto. Do you do it purely for girls and boys (Oh no you don’t) or do you do it purely for the mums and dads (can get awkward with the more curious kids) or do you somehow pitch it between the two? This panto was definitely pitched primarily at the kids with a few nuances chucked in for the adults. A very different kettle of fish from Snow White at the London Palladium which we were to see a couple of days later!

Robert LindsayNo sooner does the curtain rise than we see a very adventurous and clean-cut young Peter Pan, played by Harry Francis, breaking and entering his way into the Darling household, as is his wont. Vikki Bebb’s Wendy is a very maternal young thing who’s willing to get into a few scrapes, but not too many because that wouldn’t be sufficiently responsible for her position in the family. Later on, when she wonders more and more whether she has a chance of romance with Peter, it goes right over his head; typical of a boy who never grows up. Mr Francis is on tremendous form, showing us some fantastic pirouettes as only he can, galvanising the audience into childlike excitement, and creating a very likeable and brave hero at the centre of all the action.

Jon Clegg and Robert LindsayWhereas we’d all like to have Peter Pan as our friend, it’s much more likely that we’d end up with Smee instead; a fast and funny performance by Jon Clegg, with some clever impressions and great interaction with the audience. It’s true, we did all want to be in his gang. Such a shame that front-row Georgie never got to kiss his bum (you had to be there).

Rachel StanleyIsobel Hathaway is a spirited Tinkerbell who, appropriately, knows her own mind but also needs rescuing from time to time. Keisha Marina Atwell sings beautifully as Tiger Lily, although unfortunately the script doesn’t give her a lot to do. I also wished Rachel Stanley’s Mimi (The Magical Mermaid) had more involvement in the plot, because she’s a right funny lass who brightens up the stage whenever she’s on. Giving great support there’s also an incredibly good-looking young ensemble who sing and dance their way into our affections as well as creating a lot of nice comic moments too.

Rachel Stanley and Robert LindsayBut it was Robert Lindsay whom we were all excited to see, in his panto debut; he clearly loves every minute of it, and his enjoyment transfers across to us in the audience with ease. He’s always been one of the best song and dance men in the business, so it’s rewarding to see him borrowing his Oliver and Me and My Girl appearances in renditions of You’ve Got to Pick a Pirate or Two, Doing the Pirate Walk (Oi) and – best of all, and which the audience really joined in with – Reviewing The Situation. We were grateful when he likened the young actor playing Michael to Jacob Rees-Mogg because he was only saying what we were all thinking. And he must be due some sort of acting award for looking so terrified as he was about to be gobbled up by what must be the fluffiest, cuddliest looking crocodile that stage engineering has ever created; they must have put the word out that it shouldn’t be too scary.

Peter Pan castMy only criticism of the production is that perennial problem of amplification. From where we sat in row E of the stalls the sound was hugely over-amplified, enough to make your ears crackle and make everything sound tinny. Can I suggest every sound engineer in the country to go and see Hamilton to find out how it should be done? Nevertheless, it was still a very enjoyable show and perfect for a family night out. It’s on until Sunday 6th January and I guarantee a good time!

Jon CleggP. S. You never know what will happen at a panto, particularly when you involve children. The most delightful moment came when Smee got four children out of the audience for the Old MacDonald sing-song. Having chatted and sung with them all, they played the old trick of only having three bags of gifts for four children, so as to create that moment of tension/sympathy/injustice, however you like to react to it. But no one was expecting the first boy instantly to give his bag to the second boy because he didn’t want his friend to miss out. A heart-warming lesson of true generosity for these grim times!

India – Shimla

On the road to ShimlaThe journey from Haridwar to Shimla is about 180 miles, but it’s such a slow one. Our route took us via Dendrahen which was just a mass of roadworks that took ages to negotiate. We stopped off at a little café for a rest and a cup of tea thinking we’d broken the back of the journey, but little did I know how the rest of the journey would be a mass of twists and turns as we progressed from the Lower to the Middle Himalayas. This was the first time in decades that I’d felt terrible motion sickness in the car. It was excruciating. All I could do was shut my eyes and try not to see the horizon.

Welcome to the CecilSomehow we managed to reach Shimla without my throwing up, but it was a close thing. Our hotel for the first two days in Shimla was the Oberoi Cecil, a stately pile in the centre of the town and perfectly located for sightseeing. Unfortunately our journey took such a long time – a good ten hours – that we were hardly in a position to enjoy its bounteous pleasures when we got there. But we tried our hardest anyway. Mrs Chrisparkle had to attend a phone business conference as soon as we arrived so I supported her in the only way I knew – I picked up a book and went to the bar and had a bottle of Kingfisher. Hotel Cecil bar from aboveLater we enjoyed dinner in their restaurant, a very grand and regal affair with a marvellous atmosphere of Raj decadence. Looking back, however, both Mrs C and I agree that, overall, this is the least impressive of all the Oberoi hotels we’ve been to. Don’t get me wrong, that means it’s only superb. The bar shut unnecessarily early, and, whilst it was a thoroughly enjoyable stay, it just lacked the touch of Oberoi magic that you find in their other properties. Yes, I’m being incredibly picky.

HanumanThe next day we awoke rested and ready for a day’s sightseeing. Our guide was a very funny and knowledgeable chap by the name of Dinashkumar. First he took us a little way out of town to visit the Jakhu Hill Temple, with its huge statue of the monkey god, Hanuman, who keeps a watchful eye over the town below. It’s not surprising that this temple is dedicated to Hanuman as the area is totally overrun by monkeys, and you have to be very careful not to encourage them because they’re devious little buggers. Dinashkumar equipped us both with what he called a monkey-stick; it had the dual purpose of scaring them (or indeed pushing them) away if they got too close, and also acting as a walking stick to climb the path to the temple.Jakhu Gardens The views are magnificent; this was the first time we’d seen mountainous India, with its fresh air (indeed the lack of oxygen did have a literally breathtaking effect on our respiration), lack of crowds and (relatively) cold temperature. We looked inside the temple and Dinashkumar was very keen that we should have the full Jakhu experience, so he paid for us both to be blessed. It always makes me laugh that a blessing is a financial transaction in India. Hanuman keeps a lovely garden up in the hills above Shimla, and it’s very well worth taking fifteen or twenty minutes to slowly do the rounds and get all the great views.

Clarke’s HotelBack in the car, we descended back to town. A perfect spot for a morning refreshment – indeed, lunch if you fancied it (we didn’t – but I have a great recommendation for you later) – we took a pause at Clarke’s Hotel, the easily forgotten third Oberoi in Shimla. Built in 1898, in mock Tudorbethan style, it sits grandly at one end of the town’s famous Mall Road. We had a reviving pot of Earl Grey tea, and a very pleasant chat with the welcoming manager, Pooja. Her husband, Amardeep, is the manager of the Cecil, so together she said they are known locally as the Oberoi Mafia. The hotel seems like a great place to experience Oberoi service without paying Oberoi prices.

Scandal PointAfter a welcome rest, we walked up Mall Road, past a range of small shops – some of them barely one person wide. It has a very relaxing and stressless atmosphere; rather quaint and bijou, a little like how one would expect an Indian Polperro to look like. We had the statutory stop in a pashmina scarf shop; they were promoting a Diwali sale – baby pashmina scarves at two for the price of one. I’ve no idea to what extent it was a genuine sale, but the scarves are very attractive, soft and warm (although, be warned, when you get them home, they moult like crazy!) Dinashkumar pointed out the interesting central sights India flagat a meeting place – the wonderfully named Scandal Point. The scandal in question was the abduction of an English lady by the Maharajah of Patiala in 1892. One thing we did realise as we wandered around – there are so many Brits! Its place in the history of the British Raj in India means it’s enormously appealing to the more intrepid British tourist. Sadly, Shimla is choked with traffic, but nevertheless it’s still absolutely charming, and definitely worth the trek there.

Christ ChurchWe were just too late to visit Christ Church (it closes for lunch) so we thought we’d take the same dining opportunity as the vicar. On Dinashkumar’s recommendation, we went to the Ashiana Restaurant in the centre of the town. It’s located in what was an old British Victorian bandstand. We sat in the outside garden, had superb food, friendly service and a much-needed Thunderbolt beer. On the other side of the street is The Ridge, which consists of a beautiful viewpoint, with a statue of Indira Gandhi, and it’s also the site of Christ Church, a neo-Gothic structure consecrated in 1857, with a chancel window designed by Rudyard Kipling’s father Lockwood. In a rather sweet cross-fertilisation of faiths, you have to take your shoes off to enter the church; I don’t know of any other Christian church where that’s a requirement.

Domino’s PizzaMany of the shops are recognisable from home: Levis, Benetton, Wrangler – even Domino’s Pizza. I bought a thick warm shirt in BlackBerry, which I’ve washed a few times now and I’m very pleased with it; it’s a brand and a shop you can trust. After slowly wandering through the Mall Road area, we headed back towards the Cecil. I made a schoolboy error where the road passes the Army Headquarters. There’s a noble looking sculpture outside of four brave Indian soldiers with a flag, which I photographed, Army Headquartersthen turned around to photograph the entrance to the Army HQ just as a means of identifying where I was. Of course, I was instantly hollered at in no small measure and refused permission to photograph. Daft of me, I know the rules. I just forgot. We reached the Cecil in time for a nice afternoon nap, followed by drinks, dinner and more drinks. The highlight of the meal was a dessert of gluten-free vanilla and choc chip muffins. It may sound like a simple pleasure, but it was heaven to the coeliac in the family.

Viceregal LodgeThe next morning we checked out of the Cecil, although we were still staying in the Shimla region for another two nights. Our first port of call was the Viceregal Lodge, built in 1888 in Jacobethan style for the Viceroy Lord Dufferin. Getting in to the building is something of a bureaucratic challenge, with set visiting times, set queuing locations (which you have to guess at), no photos permitted anywhere, quite a lot of barking custodians – and the first few rooms you walk around are pretty dull. But it comes into its own with its amazing sweeping staircase and it’s actually quite an interesting place to visit. The gardens are also worth your time – very beautiful and immaculately kept.

Deluxe SuiteOnce we’d left the Viceroy Lodge it was no more than a half hour’s drive to our next hotel – the majestic Wildflower Hall in the mountains above Shimla at Mashobra. On arrival we had the disappointing (I jest) news that our Premier Valley View Room had been upgraded to a Deluxe Suite. It’s like having your own apartment overlooking the Himalayas, easily big enough to be your permanent home provided you don’t want to cook and are View from the terraceprepared to do without most of your unnecessary nicknacks. It was one of those places that made your toes curl with pleasure. The building was originally Lord Kitchener’s Himalayan hideaway (although there’s not much there now that he would recognise) and it has an amazing jacuzzi that looks for all the world that you’re at the edge of civilisation and with one false step you could fall into the valley below. Cavalry BarMind you, with that view, what a way to go! There’s a very comfortable bar (The Cavalry Bar) where Rajat will prepare your pre-prandial gin and tonic, and a glorious restaurant (eat outside during the day, inside at night) where our favourite waiter Sachin made us very welcome and gave immaculate service.

Himalayan ViewThe highlight of our next day was the treat of a genuine walk (trek, hike, if you like, but it was really a walk) in the Middle Himalayas. The Oberoi provides their own naturalist guide, Rohini, to make sure you stay safe and on the beaten track, even though it feels like the most glorious adventure. The path we took was once part of an old silk route from Tibet. Rohini pointed out the local plant life, including the four main trees of the area, the Spruce, the Himalayan cedar, the Blue pine and the Green oak. We saw wild garlic, Daphne, Baby’s Breath, and many other fascinating wild flora. We heard a bell tinkling at one point, and discovered a lone pony, lost in the woods. It was slightly disappointing to discover he wasn’t wild; there’s a pony farm nearby and he’d obviously not followed the signposts home.

Himalayan SunsetOur walk covered just short of 3 miles and took about 2 hours 15 minutes, giving us maximum opportunities to take it all in at a very comfortable, holiday-like, pace. Even though the temperatures were no more than about 7 degrees centigrade, because the sun was so strong it didn’t feel cold at all; and sitting outside later, in a short-sleeved shirt, felt like the height of decadence. The Wildflower Hall is perfect for a relaxing break; we loved it and would go back without a moment’s hesitation.

India – Rishikesh and Haridwar

Diwali at the OberoiJust like our 2016 trip, our 2017 trip to India (October 18th – November 1st) started in Gurgaon, so that Mrs Chrisparkle could go to her company’s office there and catch up with all her Indian staff. Once again I had to fend for myself by the pool and the lunchtime buffet. As in the previous year, we stayed at the Oberoi; no grand upgrade this time like last time, but I’m never going to complain at any of the rooms at that hotel. Our Premier Room had a wonderful view of the front pool and was immensely comfortable as always. Our evening was spent relaxing in the Piano Bar; we decided we didn’t need a massive meal that night so we overdosed on their bar snacks and that was more than enough for us! The evening coincided with Diwali, but we were too tired to join any Delhi celebrations; and in fact we were surprised that the hotel itself was so quiet. But it’s always impressive to see the beautiful decorations that they place around the hotel to celebrate the festival.

Sunset by the GangesIt’s a good six hour drive, even without breaks, from Gurgaon to Haridwar, and to get to our hotel – the Aalia on the Ganges – you have to drive into Haridwar then out the other side and come back down the east bank of the river. When you come off that main road, you really feel like you’re in the middle of nowhere. Driving through farming villages with narrow roads (although in surprisingly good condition) you realise this is genuine Indian countryside, not teeming with people. Eventually our driver Mr Singh found the hotel, and we checked into our River Suite room. It was a comfortable room, with a door leading to a passageway, where the main wardrobes were kept, and then another door to our bathroom. We spent the next two days playing enjoyable games of “chase the gecko” who clung to the bathroom window for dear life.

Bar at the AaliaThe only problem with the room was that the aircon was a) extremely noisy and b) extremely cold. We decided to turn it off the first night but were gasping for breath a few hours later because it was so warm! You pay your money and you take your choice. The benefits of this hotel are not inconsiderable. You can walk down close to the banks of the Ganges and sit under canopies to watch the world go by. There are lots of sports too – but that’s not really our thing. There’s a pleasant, if understocked, bar – the usual problem in India of plenty of gin but no tonic; and the restaurant was extremely good value with delicious food. But it’s very quiet. After you’ve had dinner there’s absolutely nothing to do apart from go to bed.

Arrival in RishikeshThe next morning, Mr Singh drove us in to Haridwar, where we picked up our guide for the day, Satish, and we drove on to Rishikesh. It’s only 20 miles but the route is hilly and full of all kinds of traffic so it took a good hour and a half to get there. I’d always wanted to see Rishikesh, ever since I discovered it was where the Beatles met their guru. It’s a holy city – they all are when they’re on the Ganges – and you quickly realise it’s a magnet for tourists. Not only from the West, but also from all over India. As a result, it has quite a relaxed vibe to it, and is one of those rare places in India, where the locals don’t stare with fascination at a Caucasian face. There’s far too many of those everywhere.

Laxman BridgeSatish took us for a brief walk through the town, down to the first of two major pedestrian bridges that span the Ganges. This is the Laxman Bridge, built in 1929, when I sense there was less pedestrian traffic than today. It’s only six feet wide so you have to have your wits about you when crossing – and indeed pausing to take photographs, as the views are irresistible. At the other side, it’s a 2 kilometre walk to the other bridge, the Ram bridge (1986, bigger than the Laxman Bridge, but even narrower), in order to make a full circuit.

Funny Indian signsRishikesh is charming; full of funny Indian signs, little shops, bathing places; and the main sight along this route is the Parmarth Niketan Ashram founded in 1942. It’s like a cross between an Oxbridge college (Indian style) and a small village. Full of people, gardens, study rooms; there are photographs on the walls of the Pope (understandable), Prince Charles and CamillaParmarth Niketan Ashram (also understandable) and Keith Vaz (perhaps a little surprising.) Alas we did not get to see the Beatles Ashram. Satish assured us that it has been left to wrack and ruin, and I’ve seen pictures of it since we were there and he’s right.

Bhuma Niketan AshramAfter a very brief visit, it was time to return to Haridwar, for a short tour of the town and to spend the evening watching the Aarti ceremony. Our first stop was at a beautiful Jain Temple, Shri Chintamani Parshwnath Jain Shwetambar Mandir, to give it its full name. It was only built in the 1990s, and has all the intricacy and elegance that you would expect. Bhuma Niketan AshramIt’s notable for its lovely circular inlaid floor. We also visited the Bhuma Niketan Ashram; which has all the appearance of a modern temple, and when you go inside, it’s like you’ve discovered its Disneyland equivalent. There are some steps up and a path that goes underneath the surface of the main temple frontage, and shows you scenes from Hindu scriptures in what I can only describe as Disney format. It’s quite incredible!

Ganges at HaridwarSatish then took us back into the centre of Haridwar, where we strolled around for an hour just taking in the street scenes – all the usual shops and mini-industries, market stalls and cows. We stopped at the Hotel Chotiwala – it’s a café really – for some tea and rest. It’s useful that there is a glass frontage separating the diners from the outside scene, as we spent our time there being stared at by monkeys thumping on the windows for attention. It was then just for us to wander round, observe all the pilgrims washing away their sins in the Ganges, and to get a good spot to watch the evening ceremony. One of the more amusing things about being in an area where people bathe in the Ganges, is their care to look decent whilst doing so. As we were wandering around, among the more unexpected items of litter in the area were discarded empty boxes of fresh underpants!

AartiLast year we witnessed the Aarti ceremony in Varanasi, and for scale and sheer showbiz, that one comes top of the game. The ceremony in Haridwar is much smaller; it all takes place on one side of the river bank, and is, as always, an excuse for family outings, picnics, and a general celebration, as well as a holy experience – although you get the feeling that the ceremony itself is nothing like as holy an experience as simply dipping into the Ganges. Eleven priests were involved; a lot of preliminary introductions which finalised in a series of chants to which the crowd replied, and, as it got darker, the priests performed with fire, Aartiand the crowd joined in with the tinkling of bells. It’s quite a moving experience, and despite the inevitable discomfort of finding somewhere lumpy to sit for several hours, the time flies by.

And that more or less was our Haridwar and Rishikesh experience. We returned to the Aalia for drinks, dinner and sleep. Tomorrow was going to be a very long and very tiring drive up into the Himalayas.