Review – Pinter Two, Pinter at the Pinter Season, The Lover, and The Collection, Harold Pinter Theatre, 20th October 2018

Pinter TwoNo Pinters come along for ages, then, just like buses, seven of them all arrive at once. Well not quite at once; between September just gone and next February. And where better for them to turn up than at the Comedy, I mean Harold Pinter Theatre? Harold Pinter TheatreI guess after this intensive season of mini-Pinter plays I’ll have to start calling it by its new name. Then some other great dramatic hero will die and we’ll have to rename some other fine theatre, eradicating its history in one fell swoop. Ah well… Mrs Chrisparkle said I woke up grumpy today…. Perhaps she’s right.

hayley-squiresAs soon as I saw this season of Pinter short plays was on the horizon, I booked for them straight away. This is a great opportunity to see some much less well known and rarely performed pieces; and who know when that chance will come round again? Alas, prior commitments mean I can’t see how we can squeeze in Pinters Three and Four, but we caught Pinters One and Two on their last day on Saturday and have Five, Six and Seven to look forward to in 2019. Imaginative titles, no?

hayley-squires-and-john-macmillanThey are least practical titles. Pinter Two, which we, perversely, saw first, consisted of two one-act plays I’ve known since my teenager years, The Lover, and The Collection, both of which were, handily, published together in an Eyre Methuen paperback in the 1960s. The first half of the production was The Lover, Pinter’s 1962 quirky and ironic look at marital fidelity and the games people play within marriage. hayley-squiresRichard and Sarah are upbeat about her regular afternoon visits from her lover, but after a while Richard begins to get fed up and hurt about it, and wants to bring the dalliance to an end. However, the lover, Max, also appears to be… Richard. One actor playing two characters? One character with a touch of Jekyll and Hyde? A sexual fantasy for both of them to keep their relationship hot? Or simply delusional fantasy on Sarah’s part? You choose. There are no right and wrong answers.

hayley-squiresJamie Lloyd directs it at a smart pace, with the characters trapped within the featureless, claustrophobic and above all, pink (for romance?) room designed by Soutra Gilmour. John Macmillan – who also appeared in Jamie Lloyd’s production of The Homecoming a few years ago – and Hayley Squires mined all the laughs there are out of john-macmillanthis weird situation; I found Mr Macmillan also rather disturbing as Max. And this must be the briefest appearance on stage ever in Russell Tovey’s career as John the milkman, proffering Sarah his cream at the front door. It’s a clever play, brightly done; but in comparison with everything else we saw that day, feels very slight and insubstantial.

david-suchetAfter the interval we returned for The Collection, first produced in 1961. I remember seeing an amateur production of this in my early teens and I am convinced they managed to perform it without a hint of reference to homosexuality. Either they didn’t understand it; or, more probably, I didn’t. Anyway, there’s no escaping the homosexual overtones in this superb little production, again directed by Jamie Lloyd. Russell Tovey’s Jack-the-Lad Bill lives with David Suchet’s quietly flamboyant Harry, and is disturbed by an accusation from John Macmillan’s James that, whilst in Leeds showing his latest dress collection russell-tovey(he’s a designer) Bill slept with James’ wife Stella (Hayley Squires, and also a dress designer). When Bill denies it, saying he’s not that kind of boy, we believe him. But James doesn’t. Instead, James decides to spend a little more time with Bill john-macmillanto find out a bit more about him…. curious. Did Bill and Stella sleep together? Will Stella and James’ relationship ever be the same again? Will Harry and Bill’s? It’s Pinter, so don’t expect any answers.

david-suchetIt’s a cracking little play, and once again Lloyd and Pinter draw out both the comedy and the menace that lurks underneath. We’re treated to a mini-masterclass from David Suchet, languorously putting up with the “slum slug” Bill for, one presumes, one reason only; affectedly expecting everything to be done for him, mischievously stirring up trouble wherever he can.  russell-toveyAnd Russell Tovey, too, gives a great performance, channelling his inner Ricky Gervais with wide-boy cheek mixed with just a little frosty petulance. John Macmillan gives a deliberately unemotional and rigid performance as the bully who might have got entangled just a bit too far for his own comfort; and it’s left to Hayley Squires to convince us of the truth or otherwise of her story.

john-macmilland-and-russell-toveyA very intelligent and enjoyable production, which went down very well with the audience. Back tomorrow with a review of Pinter One!

Production photos by Marc Brenner

Review – Troilus and Cressida, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 18th October 2018

Troilus and CressidaIt’s hard to imagine, but it’s been 42 years (!) since I last saw a production of Troilus and Cressida. Back in 1976, young Master Chrisparkle got on a train to London to see the National Theatre production at the Young Vic, directed by Elijah Moshinsky, starring Denis Quilley, Roland Culver, Robert Eddison, Mark McManus and Simon Ward. Good grief, all those actors are dead now!

Gavin Fowler as TroilusThis is one of Shakespeare’s hard-to-categorise plays. Traditionally it was always lumped into the comedies, because it’s not a tragedy and it doesn’t fit the usual definition of a history, as it doesn’t concern a British king. But it doesn’t sit comfortably as a comedy either, and the temptation has always been to pretend that it doesn’t exist. According to Wikipedia, so it must be true, there were no recorded performances of this play between 1734 and 1898; that’s pretty extraordinary, considering it’s by our Immortal Bard. Along with Measure for Measure and All’s Well That Ends Well, it’s now considered a “problem play”, which makes it sound like it’s going to be hard work to appreciate.

Amber James as CressidaBut that’s not the case at all. The excellent programme notes (the RSC always do great programmes but this one is outstanding) include extracts from the late John Barton’s old directorial notes from previous productions, and he points out that the strength of this play is in its sheer bloody-mindedness not to fall into any categories. The characters contradict themselves; the relationships between them change unexpectedly, with neither rhyme nor reason; it doesn’t succumb to any set pattern; in fact, it’s just like real life. So rather than trying to make it a one size fits all kind of play, celebrate the fact that it just goes its own way.

Andrew Langtree as Menelaus, Adjoa Andoh as Ulysses, Suzanne Bertish as Agamemnon, Jim Hooper as Nestor and Theo Ogundipe as AjaxGregory Doran’s new production does precisely that, although he has made one imposition on the play – to cast it 50:50 between men and women. As a result, we have a female Agamemnon, Ulysses, Aeneas, Calchas and Thersites, as well as women playing traditionally male servant roles. In one respect, it makes hardly any difference at all; a military woman is pretty much the same as a military man when uniformed and concentrating on strategies and tactics. In another respect, it does shed different light upon the play; it makes you see something familiar with new eyes, creating an excitement and a freshness that you might not otherwise have expected. This is one of many innovations in this production that works really well.

James Cooney as Patroclus, Andy Apollo as Achilles and Adjoa Andoh as UlyssesIt’s a rewarding, surprising play. It deals with themes of honour and betrayal, order and disorder, even celebrity versus mundanity. Achilles, the celebrity warrior, is sick of fighting and just wants to lounge about with his “masculine whore” Patroclus; his reputation sullied, not so much by his debatable sexuality as by what Agamemnon describes him, “in self-assumption greater than in the note of judgement”. It’s only when his Greek warrior colleagues play a trick on him, pretending not to notice him, that his vanity is offended; and not till Patroclus is killed that he is spurred into action.

Andy Apollo as Achilles and Daniel Hawksford as HectorThe Greeks and the Trojans are locked in a military and political impasse, causing them to bicker between themselves, but showing amity between the two parties. “This is the most despiteful-gentle greeting, the noblest-hateful love that e’er I heard of” says Paris, as Aeneas and Diomed confer amicably. Before Hector and Ajax can fight, they choose peace. “The obligation of our bloods forbids a gory emulation ‘twixt us twain”, says Hector; thus honour prevents him from surely killing Ajax. Yet, Achilles, with gross dishonour, sees Hector killed, not by his own hand in glorious war, but, ironically, outsourced to the Myrmidons while Hector is unarmed.

Amber James as Cressida and Gavin Fowler as TroilusPlonked in the middle of all this is the growing love between Trojan prince Troilus and Cressida, niece to Lord Pandarus, who serves as something of a Courtly Fool. He moves heaven and earth to get the two together, but after one night of connubial bliss, fate separates them; they both, unhappily, accept the fact that the politics of the state are bigger than both of them. They vow to stay true to each other, but that doesn’t last long; another excellent example of how the characters of this play don’t perform as you’d expect. The misleading title suggests that the love affair between the two will be the most important element of this play; but that’s simply not so.

Adjoa Andoh as Ulysses and Suzanne Bertish as AgamemnonThis is a lively, funny, and extremely watchable production with some very creative and entertaining highlights. Oliver Ford Davies’ Pandarus’ hilarious running commentary, explaining to Amber James’ Cressida the benefits (or otherwise) of each of the warriors who parade past them like some military Mr Universe pageant, works brilliantly well. His fussing around Troilus and Cressida’s morning after arrangements, checking for signs of consummation on the sheets, is also superbly done. Pitching Sheila Reid’s diminutive and wretched Thersites side by side with the tall and fit Achilles or Ajax also gives some great physical comedy moments. And I loved the play on words with “The Trojans’ trumpet”.

Sheila Reid as ThersitesAnd then there is the innovative involvement of having Dame Evelyn Glennie as the production composer. If you know Dame Evelyn’s work, it’ll come as no surprise that you can expect percussion – and a lot of it. That’s great for the war scenes, as the drums suggest marching armies and the metallic clashes represent sword on shield or armour against armour. Softer motifs also provide incidental music for some of the characters; again the programme notes tell us how she has orchestrated the two central lovers differently. And no opportunity is missed to fill in any details suggested by the text; when Pandarus is irritated by the sound of music, he’s not the only one. But it’s true, sometimes the excitement and creativity of the background music can overwhelm what’s happening on stage, and we found it difficult to make out some of Ms Reid’s bon mots as she observes the vanities of the warrior classes. That’s a shame, because she clearly gives it some suitably savage characterisation. As the other Fool in this play, the crude and visceral Thersites provides a lot of important context; but it’s no good if you can’t hear it.

Suzanne Bertish as AgamemnonThere are long sequences between the Greek warlords that are very wordy, particularly in the first half of the play. To make them more palatable, Gregory Doran has pantomimed-up the characters into a larger-than-life presence. Thus we have Suzanne Bertish’s Agamemnon, all swirling hair and fighting talk, rather like Anna Soubry MP on acid; Andrew Langtree’s Neanderthal Menelaus, constantly interrupted by Agamemnon to stop him from saying something foolish; Adjoa Andoh’s super-intelligent and manipulative Ulysses; Theo Ogundipe’s estuary Ajax, just about stringing a sentence together; Andy Apollo’s languid, too cool for school Achilles; and Jim Hooper’s dirty-old-man Nestor, taking a peck on the cheek with Cressida too far, to the disgusted, retching reaction of the audience. This outrageous, tongue-in-cheek approach to the characters oughtn’t to work; but it does, tremendously. These are all fantastic performances.

Theo Ogundipe as AjaxGavin Fowler gives his Troilus a nice mix of nobility and naivete; hopelessly hapless with his chat-up lines but dignified in his deference to the instructions of King Priam and valorous in battle. Amber James also invests Cressida with some gutsy personality, not backward in coming forward when Troilus is too tongue-tied to step up to the mark, and suitably flexible when she has to hold her own in the Greek camp.

Oliver Ford Davies as Pandarus, Daisy Badger as Helen and Geoffrey Lumb as ParisA couple of things puzzled me; I didn’t understand the significance of the weird collection of pots and pans and old bits of car that suspended from the ceiling, and shook clankingly every so often; and I wasn’t sure why Helen and Paris made their appearances from inside a pod that dangled down to earth, like a celestial conservatory. But John Barton’s notes had already guided me into not expecting to understand everything.

Andy Apollo as AchillesIt’s a thoroughly entertaining production, and if you haven’t seen Troilus and Cressida before, this is a delightfully accessible and stimulating experience, that I’d totally recommend. Terrific performances from Oliver Ford Davies, Suzanne Bertish, Theo Ogundipe and Adjoa Andoh make 3 hours 15 minutes go by remarkably quickly. At the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until 17th November – don’t miss it!

Production photos by Helen Maybanks

India – Dhubela Museum and Orchha

BananasAfter breakfast, we had to tear ourselves away from the luxury that was the Hotel Lalit in Khajuraho; and it was a rift, I can tell you. But Sachun was very keen to get going, and he was right, because we had a lot to cover over the course of the day. The route to Orchha took us first through the town of Chhatarpur, which Sachun wanted to show us because it was where he was born and still lived. He waxed lyrical about it, but as far as I could make out, it was just another town.Chhatarpur Apologies to anyone proud of their relationship with Chhatarpur. We stopped for some bananas from a man with a banana stall, and I agree they were delicious. I’m sure Sachun could have made a case for the finest bananas in the world coming from Chhatarpur, but he stopped short. He pointed out the road where he lived. For an awful moment I thought we were going to have to take tea with his mum, but we continued on.

Shani TempleI’m being unfair, because Sachun’s local knowledge was excellent and he took us to a few places off the beaten track that I expect few tourists get to see. About ten miles north west of Chhatarpur, on the road to Nowgong, we stopped off at a lake. Mr Singh took the car a short way down towards a causeway that led to a little island on which perched the Shani Temple. We walked towards it as far as we could without getting our feet wet. As we got closer, I could see that a priest on the island had decided to wade out to greet us. Would we like to cross the water to see the temple? Not really, to be honest. CausewayWe were happy enough seeing it from afar. The priest seemed a little disgruntled, having got wet for nothing. It is, however, an extremely picturesque location. There were a group of boys wandering down the causeway too. Sachun suggested we had a chat with them, although he thought they would probably be quite embarrassed and tongue-tied. As expected, they were supremely polite, but got very animated when we mentioned cricket.

Hridayashah PalaceWe got back to the car and then just a mile or two later we arrived at a village that Sachun called Mahusanian, but in maps appears to be called Mau-Sahaniya. It’s just on the other side of the National Highway 75. It’s a sleepy little place that leads to another lake, but just before you reach it you find the remains (and I use the word wisely) of the Hridayashah Palace. It was originally built in 1733 for the eldest son of Maharaja Chhatrasal, and work is underway to restore it to some of its former glory. It might take some time – the workmen we saw there were definitely operating at an unhurried pace.

Dhubela MuseumJust a little beyond the palace, you reach yet another lake; a couple of guys had parked up their motorbikes and were having a bit of a wash and a splash, as you do. Adjacent to the lake is the austerely named Maharaja Chhatrasal Interpretation Center. This is nothing to do with language skills, but a museum, which our travel agents referred to as Dhubela Museum. It contains the Maharaja’s cenotaph; and many other interesting artefacts of days gone by. It was opened in 1955 by none other than Prime Minister Nehru. It’s a good displayHall of mirrors of locally found carvings, Jain statues, pillar inscriptions, Nandi bulls and yet more erotic sculptures, a la Khajuraho. There’s a collection of weapons and instruments of torture; and, totally unexpectedly and out of place, a hall of mirrors like you used to get at the funfair that distort your image, making you short and fat, or long and tall, and all other combinations in between. I guess the Maharaja had a sense of humour after all.

Amar MahalAnother drive, and 66 miles later we arrived at Orchha. We checked into our hotel, the Amar Mahal, which our travel agent said was the best they could provide in the town but it “was only 3-star”. You only have to look at the homepage of their website to understand that 3-star can encompass a whole new world of luxury. We were booked into a Luxury Deluxe Room, that offered us more comfort than you could imagine. It’s true – the wifi was patchy, and the restaurant was a little… agricultural in its service, but it was such a splendid setting that you could forgive them anything. Although, I have to say – at breakfast, they offered the most disgusting croissants I have ever had the misfortune to leave on a plate. Don’t go anywhere near them. view from our hotel room doorThere’s a shop outside with an A-board in front of it that genuinely reads: “Ladakhi handicrafts, Tibetan jewellery, Pashmina Yak wool, shawl’s and scarf’s (sic), Cashmere pullovers – visit for more junk”. Well you can’t say fairer than that. We did indeed visit, and Mrs Chrisparkle came away with three more scarves, because she really doesn’t have enough scarves (there are drawers and drawers of the damn things at home.) Always room for more scarves.

Jahangir Mahal PalaceOrchha is a charming town, attractively positioned on a rocky island, enclosed by a loop of the Betwa river. Its main sight is the extravagant Jahangir Mahal Palace, built by the Bundela king Bir Singh Deo, and named after the Mughal emperor Jahangir who overnighted there. It’s right in the centre of the old fortified town and dominates the view. The decorations, including the glazed tilework, are stillInside the palace in outstanding condition, and it’s a very beautiful, as well as intimidatingly grand, palace. Wandering around, there are so many little archways, and tiny rooms and nooks and crannies where you can get lost thinking about how it would have looked almost 300 years ago. One side overlooks the river, and gives you stunning natural views all around.Arches It’s noticeable that there are many wild vultures all around, perched at the top of domes, on window ledges, and so on – a little more interesting than the pigeons we’d have in the UK. The vultures are encouraged, as vulture conservation is very important in this area.

River roadOutside the old town, we dropped down to the road level and where it crosses the river. The road, from one side of the river to the other, is extremely perilous and you really wouldn’t want to cross it at night. Even walking across by day was scary, especially if you had to move to the sides to let a car or, even worse, a bus go past. It was getting late too – and by the time we’d walked across the river and back again, Orchha by nightand headed towards the town centre, the lights were coming on and Orchha was moving into night mode. That meant lots of activity at the temple, and Sachun encouraged us to stay out – or go back to the hotel and come out again – to witness what I understood to be some kind of “extreme worship” at this one particular temple. It sounded genuinely fascinating, but we were too tired. A return to the Amar Mahal was a must.

Review – Richard Alston Dance Company, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 16th October 2018

Richard Alston October 2018It’s always a pleasure to see the Richard Alston Dance Company on their autumn tour – I’ve been a fan (there’s no point denying it) since I first saw the company in 1998, although I’ve enjoyed his choreography since I first saw Rambert perform Rainbow Ripples back in 1980. The word on the street is that this is his penultimate annual tour before the company closes in 2020 – dark days ahead for contemporary dance lovers; particularly as the current casting of the company has many new fresh-faced young dancers honing their skills, performing great dance and promising even greater things in the future.

Richard AlstonMr Alston introduced the evening with an explanation of the first two items on the menu. Like last year, we began with a curtain raiser featuring young local talent. We watched eight young dancers from Northampton School for Boys performing Lost Child, choreographed by their teacher, Alison Clinton, inspired by the story of Peter Pan. We were genuinely impressed with their commitment, skill and artistry. It was full of character and story-telling, and dotted with many moments of humour; and some terrific leaps too. Above all, you could tell that they really enjoyed it; and that sense of pleasure always communicates itself back on to the audience so that we loved it too. Congratulations team; we were happy to tell a couple of the guys during the first interval how much we enjoyed their performance – and they seemed happy to hear it.

ShimmerMr Alston also wanted to explain the thought process behind the next piece, Mid Century Modern. To celebrate his fifty years as a choreographer, this is like an Alston’s Greatest Hits sequence; six excerpts from dances he has choreographed over the years. They’re not in chronological order, they’re ordered to create a contrasting impact. It’s also an excellent way to introduce us to the company, as two of the pieces are solos, another is a duet, and the rest involve everyone.

DetourWe started with Fever (2001), a showcase for Elly Braund and Nicholas Shikkis, amongst the very finest dancers performing today. They commanded the stage with their immense control and fluidity; totally engrossed with the accompanying madrigal music. Nowhere Slowly (1970) is Mr Alston’s earliest extant piece of choreography, and features the excellent Jennifer Hayes encircling the stage in a deceptively simple action of dance drama. Blue Schubert Fragments (1972), set to a Schubert Adagio from Death and the Maiden, is a charming piece that suggests how peoples’ lives can be interwoven by the same activity. The excerpt from Rainbow Bandit (1977) was danced in total silence and shows how concentration itself can be beautiful – I would have loved to hear the “Rainbow Chuck Bandit” vocal soundtrack again though! The solo from Shimmer (2004) is a monument to elegance, and a perfect vehicle for new company rising star Joshua Harriette. Finally there was a sequence from Signal of a Shake (1999), one of those crowd-pleasing numbers where the story was told twice – the second time at top speed – to the stately sounds of Handel. The variety of styles and the superb execution made this an excellent opener to the Alston programme.

ProverbAfter the first interval we returned for Martin Lawrance’s new work, Detour. Seven dancers react to the highly percussive soundtrack from Michael Gordon’s Timber Remixed, which reminded me of the sound of helicopter wings revolving continually, more frenetically, until the sound was just an electronic blur. Very exciting and mesmerically beautiful, this demands a lot from its dancers, combining speed with elegance as it hurtles towards its final crescendo. The final coupling of Monique Jonas and Joshua Harriette was mind-blowing, with their almost circus-skill balancing act. We both absolutely loved it. Then it was time for Richard Alston’s 2006 work, Proverb, with its intriguing soundtrack of the repeated line “how small a thought it takes to fill a whole life”, embellished and enhanced so that it resembles some form of Gregorian Chant. I particularly appreciated Peter Todd’s costumes – coloured, textured dresses that had been invaded by black down one side, as though in perpetual half-mourning. The full company of dancers all worked together to create an image of interdependence and harmony; a heart-warming message in these rather fractious times.

Brahms HungarianAfter the second interval we returned for another new piece – Richard Alston’s Brahms Hungarian, a sequence of ten dances to the accompaniment of those famous Brahms’ Hungarian Dances but not, as they usually are, played by a full orchestra, but to the plaintive and delicate notes of Jason Ridgway on the piano. This was a fabulous way to end the evening. The traditional Gypsy rhythms inspired some very grand and formal, yet expressive, choreography; and I admired Fotini Dinou’s swirling floral dresses for the female dancers, matched by stark and smart angular jackets for the men. I think this is the closest I’ve seen Richard Alston choreograph something so closely akin to classical ballet, with the girls on tiptoe (they’d be en pointe if they were in the right shoes) and the men supporting the women in an (almost) traditional pas de deux. It was stunning.

 Brahms Hungarian 2With a number of changes in personnel in the company’s line-up (five dancers from last year’s show have moved on, five remained) I feared there might be some “gaps” in this year’s offering, but not a bit of it. The company is as strong as ever and gave us a truly superb night of dance. Congratulations to all!

Review – The Thirteenth Malcolm Arnold Festival Gala Concert – The Consummate Communicator; BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 14th October 2018

Thirteenth Malcolm Arnold FestivalThe annual Gala Concert of the Malcolm Arnold Festival is always a thing of beauty and a delight to the ear. Northampton’s famous son turned his hand to so many different styles of music, that it’s great to cherish this festival. It’s inevitably a source of great fascination to hear some pieces you haven’t heard before, and to admire his mix of quirkiness and solemnity. For this concert by the BBC Concert Orchestra, our conductor was Keith Lockhart, a dapper chap with a spring in his step who let the music do the talking. He spent most of his time perched atop a rather battered wooden podium that looked as though it had just come out of a shed, which didn’t really suit the glamour of the rest of the evening. When Mr Lockhart becomes engrossed in his music, his left foot starts to twitch and bounces around in appreciation of the music. When he gets really carried away, he does a series of jumps. Performance clearly oozes through every pore of him.

Keith LockhartOur first item was Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances – West Side Story, and, as far as I’m concerned, definitely the best way to hear these uplifting tunes. Somewhere, Maria and I Have a Love dominate these symphonic dances, and the percussion and harp demand to be heard in addition to the usual string and brass instruments. The BCO were clearly in the mood for a lively evening of energetic playing and this piece brought out their showbizzy side; the performance went down a treat with the audience.

Julian BlissNext, we met our soloist for the evening, the brilliant clarinettist, Julian Bliss. We’ve seen Mr Bliss perform at the Royal and Derngate three times before, once with the Royal Philharmonic, and twice with the Worthing Symphony Orchestra as part of the Malcolm Arnold Festival in 2013 and 2014. For this concert, once again he played us something different. First up was a Scherzetto for Clarinet and Orchestra by Arnold, taken from his film score for the 1953 movie You Know What Sailors Are. The film is probably best forgotten, but the scherzetto is a brilliant little musical joke; a tune that cocks its head to one side, pokes its tongue out and saucily lifts its leg up. Mr Bliss played it with all the panache you’d expect.

BBC Concert OrchestraThen he played the more thoughtful and introspective Clarinet Concerto by Aaron Copland – appropriate for this concert because Copland and Arnold were great friends. Two movements are joined by a cadenza, which Mr Bliss attacked with gusto. How he remembers all the nuances of the music – let alone the notes – without any sheet music beats me. It’s an engrossing piece and sometimes you wonder how the clarinet part and the orchestra part mesh together, but they always manage it. A very moving and rewarding way to guide us to the interval.

malcolm-arnoldAfter the interval, we had a short speech from Paul Harris, the Festival Director, giving us a little extra insight into the pieces and the reasons why they were chosen for this concert. After a brief hiatus where the leader of the orchestra forgot to tune his colleagues up until he got a nudge from the violins behind (I have to say, orchestra leaders are getting younger every year) we welcomed back Mr Lockhart and went straight into our final piece, Malcolm Arnold’s 4th Symphony. In 1958, Britain saw race riots which affected Arnold deeply; he was dismayed and upset that such a thing could happen. So when he was commissioned to write a symphony the following year, he decided to involve instruments and rhythms that would have been more associated with African and Caribbean music, but integrating them into the formality of a “western” symphony, to show how the two can happily co-exist.

BBC COThe result is a lively and wide-ranging symphony, given additional depths by the African and Caribbean elements. Mr Harris told us to watch out for Puerto Rican influences too, which is why the West Side Story piece fitted into the evening’s entertainment. I must say, I couldn’t really discern much of a West Side Story vibe, but I’m sure that’s my ears not working properly. Of its four movements, I much preferred the second (vivace ma non troppo) and the fourth (con fuoco – a lot of fuoco in fact.) There was a disturbing calm about the second movement – expressed beautifully by the orchestra– which reminded me of one of Arnold’s English Dances, but as though it had been fragmented, and half the notes removed to leave a ghostly hint of the original. The fourth was full of power and amazingly lush arrangements on which the orchestra truly went to town.

As always, the Malcolm Arnold Festival Gala Concert was a complete treat, and an essential part of the Royal and Derngate’s classical offerings of the year.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 12th October 2018

Screaming Blue MurderAnother Friday night, another sold-out Screaming Blue Murder comedy club night. Last time, our genial host Dan Evans never made it to Northampton as his old jalopy gave up the ghost at Milton Keynes, and Meryl O’Rourke bravely stepped up to the mark. But lightning never strikes twice, etc, so surely he’d be there on time this week….surely…. But a 45-minute delay on the trains meant we were denied the pleasure of Dan’s company until the first interval. I dunno…. beginning to get a complex here.

Joe WellsInstead it fell to opening act and all-round political comedian par excellence, Joe Wells, to act as his own MC warm up before delivering his own 20-minute slot. With Mr Wells, you’re in a very safe pair of hands. We’ve seen him twice in Edinburgh, where you have to queue early to be sure of getting in, such is his word-of-mouth success. Us Northampton comedy crowds aren’t known for our fondness for political comedy, so I did wonder a little how well he would go down. I needn’t have worried. His brilliant political observations, as well as the other gems in his act were as well received as I have ever seen any Northampton audience respond to political comedy. What I love about his material, and his delivery, is the way he swipes the comedic rug from under your feet and sends you hurtling in directions you never foresaw. And hats off to Mr Wells for being complimentary about Northampton. Quite right too.

Dan EvansAfter the first interval Dan finally emerged out of the murkiness that is London Northwestern Railway to give us a slightly belated warm up. He had his hands full with front-row Angie, ebullient and no inhibitions, and they were a pretty good match for each other. There was also Architect Nick with his plans for a million-pound rugby club in Towcester. We weren’t impressed. But we were all aghast at Dan’s tale of the delay at Wolverton station being punctuated by the sight and sound of a guy opposite him in the train clipping his nails; not discreetly into a free newspaper but proudly on to the floor. We all retched.

Susan MurrayNext up was someone we’ve also seen before a few times, Susan Murray – something of a Screaming Blue regular, this was the sixth time we’ve seen her here! She delivers a lot of great material based on accents – as she herself confesses, her Brummie voice isn’t an accent that goes skiing – and there’s a lot of mileage to be gained from her relationship with her strongly Glaswegian parents. She delivered a suitably savage put down to front-row Angie which hit home perfectly. Always very funny and quirky.

Stefano PaoliniOur headline act was someone completely new to us – although he’s been on the circuit for yonks – Stefano Paolini. He truly does have a gift for accents and vocal gymnastics, and we loved his “foreign languages in British regional accents” section, as well as his reminiscences of his interview with the school careers adviser, which were every bit as useless as mine was all those years ago. And he beatboxes – but not just in a show-off way like every other beatboxer, but integrating it into comedy routines which works a treat. He brought the house down and I’d definitely look out for him in the future.

Next Screaming Blue in two weeks’ time. Two questions – will you be there? And will Dan?

India – Khajuraho

KhajurahoThe flight from Varanasi to Khajuraho takes barely an hour and it was shortly before 2pm that we emerged from the airport with our bags packed in the back of the car by our regular driver Mr Singh, and were met by our new guide, Sachun. the sight that greets youSachun was a younger man, ambitious, well-fed; but without the usual carefree attitude that would normally accompany his age. He took excellent care of us, but sometimes you wondered precisely how accurate some of his facts were.

elephantsKhajuraho is a strange place. An entire resort has grown up, with airport, shops, and a large number of hotels, just because of this extraordinary complex of temples that have stayed remarkably intact over a thousand years. Hidden in dense forest for 700 years or more, they were rediscovered by Captain T S Burt of the Bengalmenage a quatre Engineers in 1838, and were awarded UNESCO World Heritage Site status in 1986. 25 temples have been brought back to life; but local tradition has it that originally there were 85 temples, so ongoing excavations continue in the hope of finding more and more.

more elephantsThere was no point checking in to the hotel, we drove straight to the main sight – the Kandariya Mahadev Temple. When you first see it, it takes your breath away, as it’s so huge, so intricate and so perfect. Visitors flock to beautiful carvingsKhajuraho to see the amazing sculpture work on the walls of the temples and when you finally get to see them, they do not disappoint. It may be the erotic sculptures that are the most famous – and when you look at them you realise quite how uninhibited life must have been in India a thousand years ago – big horsebut they all tell a story, make you laugh, bring wonderment, cause admiration. If you had the time, and weren’t concerned about getting sunstroke, you could stand outside these buildings for days just admiring the carvings.

a bit intimateTake a look at these photographs, they explain what you can see here much better than words can. Observe the clothing which depicts people of higher standing, or the voluminous breasts of some of even more intimatethe women; the musicians, the warriors, the lovers, the animals, the servants, the gods. There are a few instances where men get so carried away with their sexual prowess that they get it on with animals – poor horselook away if you don’t want to see a horse surprised from behind. There’s a brilliant carving that depicts that – and an onlooker has to hide their eyes through embarrassment (or horror).

golden raysAs the sun starts to fall a little lower in the sky, the golden rays make the outside surface of the temples even more beautiful. There’s a true richness to the warmth of the colour that really creates a stunning effect. The temples certainly have a different an armylook about them at different times of the day. The majority of the main sights are in the Western group of temples but we were also taken to the Eastern group, where the Jain Parsvanatha Temple is considered one of the most remarkable.

stunningTime defeated us, and we didn’t get a chance to see the Southern group of temples. Instead we drove to our hotel, the Lalit Temple View. It’s a beautiful, elegant, smart but friendly place, with a very attractive bar – the Mahua – and an excellent restaurant, with superb service. Our room was a Luxury Suite; it had a comfortable living room, a lovely bedroom and a really fantastic bathroom. We were made to feel welcome, and special, and it’s a hotel I’d go back to in an instant. The perfect place to while away a relaxing evening and to remember the extraordinary sights of the day.