Review – Film Music Gala, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Derngate, Northampton, 16th July 2017

Film Music GalaWhen it comes to summer entertainment, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra always treat us to something a little more light-hearted. In the past we’ve enjoyed their Last Night of the Derngate Proms shows, but this year they had a surprise for us – a Film Music Gala, featuring twenty-five short pieces of movie magic music, in a programme full of orchestral highlights.

Our conductor was Gareth Hudson, whom we last saw here a year ago for the Last Night of the Derngate Proms. He has a jolly, sprightly, none-too-serious attitude to taking us through these concerts, whilst still treating each piece of music with absolute respect. Indeed, sometimes he delivers us a mini-lecture, like when he explained how to look out for a typical James Bond theme, spotting its inevitable mixture of major and minor phrases.

Gareth HudsonThe first piece of music – and what a perfect way to start – was the theme to Mission Impossible; loud, arresting, vibrant, and a challenge (as so many of these pieces are) to the percussion; a challenge that they most certainly met. A thrilling opener that everyone loved. Then followed the main theme to Gladiator, which felt a little more introverted, and then The Fellowship of the Ring (from Lord of the Rings), a whimsical and quirky piece that suits the characters that inhabit that story’s landscape. Then we had the simple and beautiful Gabriel’s Oboe from the film The Mission, that lilts you away into a quiet and reflective mood, and which was played with the utmost delicacy.

The next piece of music was I Will Always Love You, from The Bodyguard; not in the Dolly Parton style, which is one of Mrs Chrisparkle’s favourites, but in the Whitney Houston style, which, frankly, both of us find rather tedious. Yes, I know, it’s our problem, we’re the ones out of kilter. Our guest soloist singer was Alison Jiear, whom we had seen as the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella back in 2015. She was an incredibly polite Fairy Godmother and she retains that quiet, self-effacing manner on the concert stage too. She has a powerful but soft, velvety voice that perfectly recreated the Whitney sound.

Alison JiearTwo very different pieces followed: the Jack Sparrow theme from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, another quirky, jokey arrangement that sums up his character in a musical snapshot; and the main theme from Out of Africa, which really stood out for me as being a superb piece of modern classical music, with sweeping strings recreating a luxurious landscape. The violins played it with absolute mastery. Alison Jiear returned with the first two of the night’s James Bond themes – Moonraker and Diamonds are Forever, arranged so that the second merged rather nicely into the first. Then we had the John Dunbar theme from Dances with Wolves, another heavily violin based piece, before finishing the first part of the concert with two stonking great crowd-pleasers; the magisterial Imperial March from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, and the exciting and dramatic main theme from 633 Squadron.

The second half started with another arresting number, the Overture to The Magnificent Seven, making sure we were all fully alert after our interval merlot! Alison Jiear sang another fusion of two pieces, Alfie, and My Heart Will Go On; and then the orchestra took centre stage again with the majestic Lara’s Theme from Doctor Zhivago. Like Out of Africa in the first half, this really stood out to me as being a truly enduring modern classic. When the orchestra started up the vivid strings opening to The Big Country, the audience breathed an audible sigh of delight; then came the charming and unusual theme to Cinema Paradiso, followed by amusingly orchestrated Domestic Pressures theme from The Theory of Everything.

RPOWhen they played the main theme from The Avengers movie, I realised it was the Marvel comic characters rather than Steed and Mrs Peel – I could imagine the RPO really giving that old TV theme a fantastic modern treatment. I believe it was during this piece that there was a superb sequence when it appeared as though the cello was asking questions, and the violin was answering them; and it was beautifully played by Tamas Andras and Richard Harwood. Alison Jiear came back one more time to perform two more Bond themes, You Only Live Twice (my favourite Bond theme) and Goldfinger. The concert was then wrapped up by brilliant performances of two outstanding pieces of music; Vangelis’ Chariots of Fire, and John Williams’ breathtaking main theme to Star Wars. For an encore, the orchestra gave us a rousing rendition of the Rocky theme. That’s the boxer, not the one who’s friends with Bullwinkle.

A very enjoyable concert full of short, easily recognisable themes which pack a greater punch than the time each takes to perform might suggest. Inevitably in a concert like this, you might occasionally wish you could hear something a little longer, and a little more substantial, like a four-part concerto. But that’s not what these gala concerts are all about – they’re designed to stimulate your memories, make you tap your toes, and bring a smile to your face. And this concert certainly achieved that. As Stephen Sondheim once penned, “tragedy tomorrow – comedy tonight.”

Review – Cinderella, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 23rd December 2015

CinderellaThree cheers for the Prince Charming and the Princess Starlight! OK, maybe I’m working backwards, but at least that got your attention. Sorry if I’ve ruined the ending for you, by the way; but if that was a surprise then maybe you shouldn’t be allowed anywhere near a computer by yourself. And since when did the Princess Crystal become the Princess Starlight? It’s true that at just 2 hours and 5 minutes the cast fairly whizz through the show – maybe it’s the Starlight Express version? Anyway, here goes: Hip hip, hooray! Hip hip, hooray!… I’m sure we didn’t get a third cheer last night, but by then Mrs Chrisparkle and I had each polished off two large Shirazes, so it’s possible I am mistaken.

Charming and DandiniBetter than all the presents, all the turkey, all the mince pies, and all the tedious films on TV, Christmas doesn’t get better than a great panto. I love pantos. In fact, now that I have made out my spreadsheet of all the shows I’ve ever seen, I can confirm that in my 48 years of theatregoing I have now seen 21 pantos, only 3 of which were when I was a kid! Those 60s/70s pantos were complete magic to me, especially as they were at the London Palladium, which the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle always instilled in me was The Most Important Theatre In The World (and you didn’t argue with her!) So it’s great to see the tradition continuing today in splendid style and in the hands of some very expert practitioners.

Charming and StarlightThis year’s Qdos Panto at the Royal and Derngate is Cinderella; “the greatest pantomime of them all” boasts the programme. Not entirely sure that’s based on a Yougov poll, I suspect Jack and Dick would have something to say about that. And what about Abanazar? (Bless you). It is, nevertheless, a great show – lavishly mounted with fantastic sets, beautiful and funny costumes (Cinderella’s is beautiful, the Ugly Sisters’ are funny, not the other way round), well-staged musical numbers, many funny set pieces, and a talented and committed cast. Even so, I see David Cameron’s austerity society has reached Hardup Hall – Baron Hardup has been cut! Yes, this panto has no elderly, bumbling, stony broke father figure to make sense of the fact that Cinderella has to do all the hard work and they don’t employ a proper Downton-style staff. There’s no sense of poverty at Hardup Hall – it could just as easily be Money Manor or Cash Castle. Hashtag Just Saying.

Fairy GodmotherJohn Partridge leads the team as Prince Charming, an actor I have admired enormously ever since I saw him as Best Zach Ever in A Chorus Line. He has great command of the stage and has a glint in his eye that says let’s have some fun with this, but not to the detriment of the story. For while he is most definitely at home camping up the Princey character something rotten in the early part of the show, once he has found his Princess Starlight, he plays the loving romantic lead absolutely straight (no pun intended; well maybe a little pun). His voice is spot on and his energy contagious. You may have heard that he has a duet with Alison Jiear (the Fairy Godmother) that stuns you with its power and beauty. For once, you can believe the hype – that duet is very very good indeed.

Off the wallHe swaps identity with Dandini (as you do), in the shape of Sid Sloane from CBeebies, whom we saw in Sheffield’s Sleeping Beauty four years ago. He has a natural ability to get the kids on his side, and always keeps the show moving at a fun pace. Kudos to him (or should that be Qdos?) for getting through the “a shoe” routine with an immaculately straight face. Danny Posthill was our Buttons; despite his success on Britain’s Got Talent he was new to us (if you are my regular reader, hello again, and you’ll know we don’t see much TV – we’re always at the theatre) but he was full of fun and also a great hit with the kids. I really enjoyed his great sulk when Cinderella ditched him for the Prince. He did some excellent impersonations – his John Bishop in particular was absolutely perfect; and when he brought the kids up on the stage for a rendition of Old MacDonald, you could see how overwhelmingly happy they all were. He also trades a lot of joshing banter with Mr Partridge – hard to tell how much of it was scripted or not, but it certainly created a lot of good humoured corpsing. Alison Jiear – my comment heretofore regarding Britain’s Got Talent applies – makes a very traditional Fairy Godmother. In other Cinderellas I have seen, the FG has some kind of gimmick – Sheffield 2012 northern and cack-handed; Northampton 2012 worldly-wise and knowing; and Kettering 2011 Christine Hamilton (say no more). But Ms Jiear looks and sounds like a most respectable and personable fairy, without a foible in the world; she sings like a dream and exudes goodness wherever she goes. A paragon of a fairy.

Ugly SistersI really enjoyed Rachel Flynn’s performance as Cinderella; she’s very bright and charming, sings beautifully and invests the character with genuine emotion, and quite a bit of humour too. Also, crystal slippers look great on her. I absolutely loved the scene between her, Princey and Buttons when they were singing on the wall; beautifully timed humour and slapstick whilst still singing to perfection – that sure takes some doing. Ben Stock and Bobby Delaney play the Ugly Sisters as really funny grotesques; they carry off their wonderfully awful costumes with great aplomb and play out their (understandably) sex-starved fantasies with just sufficient innocence to keep it decent. The scene where the Ugly Sisters forced Cinderella to tear up her invitation to the ball was so well done that I forgot myself and shouted out to Cinderella not to do it – much to Mrs C’s chagrin. The singing and dancing ensemble look, sound and move great – often with nicely pitched comic overtones – and the little babes from the Mayhew School of Dance were full of attitude and charisma and did a great job.

Charming, Dandini and courtSpare a thought for the sound engineer (Sam Poulton I believe), whom I bumped into after the show and who described himself as “thoroughly knackered” (or words to that effect). No live musicians means all the music and sound effects are at the beck and call of his knobs, if you’ll pardon the expression. Over 160 sound cues I think he said. Well there wouldn’t be a show without you, and it all worked seamlessly – so well done to you, sir.

Three ScampsWhat’s not to love? Great fun – we both thought it was among the best pantos we’ve ever seen. Great production values and some terrific performances. Fun for everyone. On until 3rd January, so you’d better get booking rapido.