Review – Avenue Q, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 19th February 2019

Avenue QAs a special family treat, we were joined not only by Lord and Lady Prosecco but also our nieces Secret Agent Code November and Special Agent Code Sierra (grown up a bit now, you’ll be relieved to hear) together with their Mum and Dad for another revival of Avenue Q. And a jolly good thing too. This is one of those shows, like Matthew Bourne’s Swan Lake, that never really goes away, and why would you want it to?

Avenue Q characters 2019We last saw it in 2011, at this self-same theatre, and looking back at the characters’ photos of the time, some of them have had a bit of a makeover. Princeton has gone yellow; Kate Monster has become more recognisably a person of fur. Lucy the Slut isn’t as pink as she was; Rod is bluer than he was. The Bad Idea Bears are even more insinuatingly attractive. This can only go one way.

The story is as timeless as ever. Princeton still doesn’t know what to do with a B.A. in English, but he’s set himself up with a job and started looking for digs on Avenue A. It’s only when he gets as far as Avenue Q that he can just about afford anything. On Day One in his new apartment the company downsizes and he loses the job. Never mind, he lives next door to the fetching Kate Monster and finds a whole new bunch of friends in his ‘hood. After a dubious meeting with the Bad Idea Bears (buy some beer! Buy a crate!) he takes Kate on a date where the alluring Lucy the Slut is the headline cabaret artiste.

Lawrence SmithDespite the temptation of Lucy’s pneumatic assets, Princeton takes Kate home where they have earth-shattering puppet sex from every conceivable angle with immense, prolonged sustainability. Kate forgets to go to work and is harangued by her boss, the monster-prejudiced Mrs Thistletwat. But Kate and Princeton’s relationship is doomed because of his fear of commitment, so they split up. Lucy comes back on the scene. And it all goes downhill from here.

Meanwhile, we have the on-off friendship/relationship between the closeted Rod and the affable Nicky, the stormy household of Brian and Christmas Eve (yes, real people), and will Princeton ever find his purpose? Plus Gary Coleman. Yes, the one off Diff’rent Strokes. Yes, I know he’s dead. Yes, I know it doesn’t make sense. It didn’t make sense when he was alive, it makes even less sense now he’s dead. Why did the writers include a real-life character? It’s a one-joke idea. Maybe it’s become so outdated that he’s become retro. I dunno.

Cecily RedmanIt’s a lively, bright production, as slick as ever, and crammed with fabulous bad taste that leaves you laughing for hours. The songs are tuneful and jolly, performed with great pizzazz by Dean McDermott’s six-piece band, and have surprisingly witty and incisive lyrics that stay with you, well, forever. In “The Internet is for Porn”, who can forget the immortal phrase, Grab your dick and double-click? There are a few nicely updated moments too; Donald Trump doesn’t get off scot-free.

Tom SteedonBut we’d forgotten how dark the comedy is. It’s all very well that the Bad Idea Bears suggest a beer – we’ve all been there – but they also creep in to your depressed moments to provide a rope so you can end it all; and they do it with such inexorable cheerfulness that you can see how a vulnerable, unstable person could find it an attractive option. Rod’s selfish insensitivity to the needs of his friend means he sees Nicky being passed from pillar to post to sleep on friends’ floors until they have enough of him, and he’s prepared to let his old friend (whom deep down he loves) become homeless and sleep rough. And, although the puppet sex is a comic tour-de-force, basically, Princeton got Kate absolutely rat-arsed in order to take her home; was it really consensual? The comedy is so perfectly done that you laugh at all these situations without realising their potential seriousness. The final song of the show emphasises that life goes on, whether or not you find your purpose; just live for self-satisfaction For Now; long-term ambitions and New Year’s Resolutions can go to Hell.

Megan ArmstrongThe puppetry works incredibly well; by having the puppeteer visible to the side of the puppet, it’s as though each of the puppet characters has two faces – the puppet’s face, that mainly only moves by opening its mouth, and the actor/puppeteer’s face, slightly overacting so as to give additional expressiveness to what the character is feeling. And the vocalisation is extraordinary too. The singing is extremely strong, and the different voices that each puppeteer gives their characters are instantly recognisable and fully unique to their own character. That works particularly well in the few scenes where one actor is required to talk to him or herself. Although this is truly an ensemble show, I thought the performances of the Lawrence Smith (Princeton/Rod), Cecily Redman (Kate/Lucy), Tom Steedon (Nicky/Trekkie/Bear) and Megan Armstrong (Mrs T/Bear/2nd arm) were outstanding.

First Bad Idea BearIn the real world, there’s an energetically comic performance from Saori Oda as Christmas Eve, as un-PC as you could possibly get in the portrayal of an oriental, I mean Asian-American character, but then again, as the song says, everyone’s a little bit racist. Oliver Stanley nicely conveys Brian’s awkward ungainliness, and Nicholas McLean gave us an excellent Gary Coleman, including spot-on facial expressions and a quality song-and-dance vibe.

Second Bad Idea BearBut it’s the puppets you remember: the fallible Princeton; the hopeless Kate; the fraught Rod; the jazz-handed Nicky; the temptress Lucy; the masturbation-obsessed Trekkie; the innocently irresistible Bears. No wonder this show just runs and runs! This is Week Four of a long, twenty-four venue tour, and after its week in Northampton, it goes on to Chester, Basildon, Derby, Bradford, Canterbury, Wirral, Cheltenham, Reading, Ipswich, Dunstable, Dublin, Leicester, Edinburgh, Brighton, Wolverhampton, Cardiff, Glasgow, Nottingham, Sheffield, and ending up in Belfast in August. There is Life Outside your Apartment – highly recommended!

Review – Caroline’s Kitchen, Original Theatre Company, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 11th February 2019

Caroline's KitchenTwo years ago, we saw Original Theatre’s production of Torben Betts’ Invincible, and a jolly fine piece of work it was too. So I was very keen to see this next offering from Mr Betts, produced by the same company. It’s fair to say that both plays have similar themes and subjects. People talking over themselves, pretending to listen but much more interested in what they themselves have to say; people revealing the private emotions that lurk behind a public exterior. There’s even a link between the two plays concerning recent campaigns of war. Mr Betts has a lot to say about the little tragedies that pepper our lives and how they mount up to overwhelm us. He also has a good eye for the surreal, and I can understand why he is spoken of in the same breath as Sir Alan Ayckbourn.

Caroline and CameramanThe play originally saw light of day back in 2016 under the title Monogamy, where it played at the Park Theatre and where it received a variety of extreme reviews. Torben Betts decided to revise the play, presumably enhancing the aspects that went well, and altering or removing those that didn’t. Has he created a sparkling new comedy? Or does it look like something that’s been through the mincer?

CarolineCaroline’s Kitchen is more than just a name of a play; if it was your subject in a game of charades, you’d have to point out that it was also a television programme and a book. Caroline is a TV chef, whose programme is made in her own charming rustic country kitchen in the heart of north London. The first ten minutes of so of the play is an absolute delight, as we see Caroline in full flight, TV camera watching her every move, as she introduces the show, promises us some fabulous recipes and her special guest, the daunting Ingrid from Sweden. Then we realise it’s a rehearsal, and that Caroline has something of a drink problem, which has encouraged some dreadful paparazzi to snap her falling out of a taxi, with only a newt alongside her for comparison.

LeoBut today is a special occasion; son Leo is returning home for a celebratory dinner as he’s just got a First from Cambridge (as Caroline never hesitates to boast about). Caroline’s PA Amanda – a stand-in as her regular PA, Prem, is unavailable – is a 21st century Sloane Ranger with media luvvies stuffed into her phone contacts, and with no idea quite how abrasive and irritating she can be with her pretentious speech patterns. Caroline and Mike’s house is up for sale, and Mrs Minto has booked a viewing that evening, much to Caroline’s annoyance because she doesn’t want the celebration evening spoiled. Handyman Graeme is also on the scene, finishing some little jobs here and there, but wanting a serious word with Caroline. Leo, too, wants a serious word with Caroline. Trouble is, Caroline’s the kind of person who just doesn’t have the time to have a serious word with anyone, apart from God. Add to the mix Caroline’s husband Mike, who manages to be both a boor and a bore, and Graeme’s mentally unstable wife Sally, and you have a recipe for disaster.

MikeThere are dark comedies, and dark comedies. This is a DARK comedy, especially in the first act, where there is a lot of scene-setting and character-establishing. What primarily came across to me was a sense of watching a middle-class tale of suburban angst strung out amongst the sauté potatoes and garnishes of rosemary. With the drama of Leo rebelling by doing charity work, the flashing of cash in order to pay off his debts and buy him a flat, and above all – gasp – smoking! – there was a teeth-jangling tweeness mixed with the darkness, which is a weird combination. Sadly, at this stage, it had also forgotten that it should be funny. At the interval Mrs Chrisparkle and I agreed that, although the performances were good, the play itself was just about limping along.

Leo, Mike and SallyAfter the interval, the second act was considerably funnier, with a few strong laugh-out-loud moments, and the tweeness was replaced by some more demonic undercurrents. I felt uncomfortable at the comic use of the character of Mike’s latent racism and homophobia; of course, it’s absolutely fine to laugh at someone with bigoted viewpoints, but I just felt we were more being asked to laugh with him, which is a very different matter. This wasn’t the only heavy-handed aspect to the play; symbolic rain outside gets heavier and heavier as the evening progresses, even though when people come on stage from the garden, they weirdly don’t appear to be particularly wet. There is, however, a classic Ayckbournian moment; when preparing to toast Leo’s success with champagne, Mike times the popping of the cork a split-second after Sally lets slip that her brother took his own life. Very nicely done.

AmandaAs the relationships between all the characters continue to decline throughout the course of the night, there is some element of farce, but, to be honest, it could have pushed the boundaries of savagery even further than it did. The rather unoriginal ending was a mash-up of Sam Holcroft’s Rules for Living and Mike Leigh’s Abigail’s Party.

GraemeNevertheless, it is a very good production; the detailed, attractive, fully operational kitchen set strongly impresses when you enter the auditorium, and there are faultless performances from the whole cast; particularly Aden Gillett’s objectionable Mike, and Elizabeth Boag’s tragic Sally. However, I have to confess, I was disappointed with this one. I had high expectations that it only partly met; I was hoping for something funnier, something sharper, something a little more original. Unlike Invincible, there were no characters with whom you feel a connection; they’re all on the spectrum somewhere between ineffectual and unpleasant, so you don’t particularly care about their fate.

Leo and SallyBut you can’t win them all, and I expect I’m out of kilter on this one, because the packed Monday night house really enjoyed it. After its week in Northampton, the tour continues to Liverpool, Cheltenham, Norwich, Eastbourne, Bath, Worthing and Colchester.

Production photos by Sam Taylor

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 1st February 2019

Screaming Blue MurderThe first Screaming Blue Murder of the year is always an excuse for a celebration and by the time we arrived at the Royal and Derngate, the queue to get in to the Underground was already longer than I’d ever seen it before. Fortunately we still managed to get our favourite seats – back row of front section, on the central aisle – which is close enough to feel part of the action and safe enough (usually) not to catch the comic’s eye and thus become part of the act.

Dan EvansOur host was the ever-genial and effervescent Mr Dan Evans, who whips us up into a frenzy so that we’re ready for our acts. As usual, Dan spent some time getting to know the people in the front rows, which included blingy Jo and her drama-teacher sister; front row Brian, who didn’t quite participate to the extent he should have; Frank from the Netherlands who met his wife in a field; and the fresh-faced family from Brackley, who looked like butter wouldn’t melt but ended up revealing themselves as a partner-swapping outfit. The dynamic’s different from week to week but Dan always comes up trumps.

Julian DeaneOur first act was Julian Deane, whom we’d seen once before, when he was Paul Chowdhry’s support act. He has a very dry, subtle style, which means he lulls you into a false sense of security, and when you think you know which way his story is going it suddenly goes off in a different direction that you totally weren’t expecting; for instance, when he tells us he and his girlfriend are not ready for children yet – which really upsets them. He’s especially good at taking an innovative approach to a familiar subject. We’d heard some of his material before at the Paul Chowdhry gig but nevertheless spending half an hour in his company is still a fresh and hilarious experience. I love his line about how it’s wrong to have a favourite child, and the brilliant gag which reveals the difference between dyslexia and paedophilia. Very assured, very enjoyable, and a great way to start the night.

Micky OvermanNext up was Micky Overman – new to us, and she’s a bright, confident, young Dutch lady. Funny material, full of attack; but some of the audience didn’t quite seem to know just how to take her. Maybe she was just a little more sexually aggressive than we’re used to with our young ladies. From the older ones, we expect it; but when it comes from the younger ones, it surprises us more. She had a lot of good stuff about the association of Amsterdam with drugs; and also her friendship with the thirteen-year-old girl she’s been nannying. A strong stage presence and nice interaction with the audience.

Steve BestOur last act – and a fairly last-minute change to the advertised programme – was the one and only Steve Best, whom we’ve now seen five times at Screaming Blues, always doing the same madcap act and always a complete delight. The trouble is, if you don’t “get” his act, you won’t like it, as illustrated by the reaction of the front row drama-teacher who had a face like a ripped trainer throughout. Fortunately, Mr Best didn’t let that slow him down, and his usual set involving a balloon, a red nose, a toilet seat and a blow-up doll went down like the proverbial house on fire. Fast, frantic, slapstick and ridiculous, don’t come to him expecting an evening of intellectual rigour; but if you like your humour ultimately silly, he’s your man.

Next Screaming Blue is in two weeks on 15th February. We can’t go, so let us know how it went.

Review – Sandi Toksvig, National Trevor, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 29th January 2019

no73titlecardDo you remember when you first encountered Sandi Toksvig? My friend the Prince of Pontardulais and I used to watch ITV’s No. 73 when we were students, where Sandi’s (or rather Ethel’s) “daring, dazzling, death-defyingly dull, devastatingly dangerous, delectable, delicatestible, divinely decadent” Sandwich Quiz was a vital ingredient of our Saturday morning sobering up routine. I always thought she’d go on to do good things. And, blow me down, she has.

Why National Trevor? Well, I suppose it’s as close to being called a National Treasure as is decent for a self-penned epithet without becoming big-headed about it; although, apparently, it’s what her neighbour misheard one day. I’ve rarely seen the Derngate auditorium so packed, which does indeed confirm her status as a NT. But Sandi’s new touring show is all about how we’re all National Trevors in our own way; and you get a badge if you can prove it.

sandi toksvigYou couldn’t quite classify this as a stand-up comedy show. There’s light-hearted cosy chat; a comfy chair – perhaps one generation more modern than Ronnie Corbett’s, but providing the same purpose – at the back of the stage, emphasises that aspect of the evening. There are also considerable elements of comedy lecture; the lectern at the front of the stage gives us that clue. It is, of course, de rigueur to have a PowerPoint presentation to accompany one’s lecture, but sensibly she’s broken it down into not too many slides. I was almost tempted to ask for a hard copy at the end of the evening.

It was Mrs Chrisparkle who instantly noticed that her vocal tics and delivery are almost identical to those of Michael McIntyre – although she doesn’t skip about the stage like him. Who’s imitating who? With the greatest respect to Ms Toksvig, she’s (quite considerably) the older of the two, so I can only assume he’s paying tribute to her in his own way. It was also when she told an anecdote about her old friend Alan Coren, that I realised her vocal style has also influenced David Mitchell (Alan Coren’s son-in-law). Or at least they are very similar. But I digress.

sandi-toksvig 2She’s a warm and kind person on stage – and you get the feeling that she’d be awfully fun to know in real life. She’s extremely inclusive, welcomes audience participation and her reactions and interaction with the crowd are never other than extremely respectful. Her evening of comedy isn’t remotely challenging; quite the reverse. It’s warm, fluffy and life-enhancing. Her story of how she tried to get her Women’s Equality Party noticed by illegally projecting an image on to the Houses of Parliament – and the subsequent action by the police – sums up her humour in a nutshell: anything remotely dangerous or difficult will quickly yield to tea and biscuits. Talking of biscuits, who knew how dangerous they are? That’s already one reason to see her show!

You sense there’s a rebel in there, trying to get out; occasional references to being an early lesbian (her words) and her desperate challenges to us not to switch our phones on but instead to strike up an acquaintance with someone new during the interval – and indeed founding a political party – reveal someone who is prepared to go against the grain. But the truth is that the rebel is now totally an Establishment figure, a doyenne of the intellectual airwaves and unquestioning lover of books. If Sandi were a judge, and you were found guilty in her court, she’d be the only one who would literally throw the book at you – possibly Byron – whilst still calling you my darling. Wisely, she doesn’t delve into the world of politics in her humour; in fact, she must be the only comic/entertainer/stand-up we’ve seen for ages who didn’t mentioned the B word.

sandi-toksvig 3Instead her material consists of quirky facts, amusing anecdotes, recollections of her father (virtually the only person on Danmarks Radio when it started its TV service) and What do you do with a Signed Rolf Harris album? There’s a hilarious story of an embarrassing lunch at the Savoy with a Well-Known Lady Author of Romantic Fiction (Now Deceased); as well as revealing the ins and outs of the least successful leg amputation ever. Towards the end, there’s a Q&A session – I normally don’t like these, but Sandi made it fun. What language do you dream in? In whichever country’s language she finds herself. Who would you most like to have dinner with? Her children (see what I mean about not really being a rebel?) Which famous person would you like to meet? Famous people are overrated.

If there’s one message from her show, it’s simply to have fun. Being alive is the best gift any of us can have – and once it’s over, it’s over, so enjoy it, goddammit. And be nice to people. Why be anything else? The show ends with us all conducting an imaginary orchestra – a lovely idea, and I wish she’d made more of it! There are only a few dates left on her tour – but if you’re in Brighton, Birmingham, Sheffield, Nottingham or Liverpool you know what to do.

Review – Our Lady of Kibeho, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th January 2019

Our Lady of KibehoTime: 1981; Place: Kibeho, a sleepy town in the southwest of Rwanda. 17-year-old Alphonsine Mumureke, student at Kibeho College, receives the first of many visions of the Virgin Mary. Disbelieved by teachers and fellow students alike, she is ridiculed and accused of attention-seeking, or at best hallucinations, until another student, Anathalie Mukamazimpaka also has a vision. Oldest girl in the school Marie Claire Mukangango bullies and taunts the other girls until she, too, has a vision. Perplexed and confused, the local authorities cannot believe what the girls are saying is true, but nor can they account for the obviously otherworldly experiences the girls have, such as acquiring immense weight or floating above the ground in their beds.

olok10Eventually a papal representative makes the journey from Rome to Kibeho to see for himself and test the evidence of the girls. During these visitations, the Virgin Mary has apparently passed on messages to the girls for the attention of both the Rwandan President and to his Holiness the Pope. When all the townsfolk gather together on the Feast of the Assumption to witness a special visitation that the Virgin Mary has promised, she uses the girls to warn of the Rwandan Genocide and the Kibeho Massacre that would take place ten years later.

olok1This is the UK premiere of this superb play by Katori Hall that was first performed in the US in 2014. With elements of The Crucible, but very much its own play, it’s full of beautifully drawn characters, pin-drop hearing suspense, riveting drama and thorough spookiness. It also reveals the dark rivalry and incipient racism between the Tutsi and the Hutu peoples, which spills out into playground violence and of course presages the atrocities to follow. However, it’s also laced with a surprising amount of humour, with the badinage between the girls, the grumpiness of the nun, the cynicism of the bishop and the culturally contrasting Italianisms of the visiting Father Flavia.

olok9But the heart of the story is not only the extraordinary revelations and experiences of the girls, it’s also the reactions and attitudes of the very human and fallible headmaster, Father Tuyishime, who is undergoing his own questioning and misgivings about his faith. He’s the only authority figure inclined to believe the girls; so when they’re doubted and tested, by association, so is he. When the cold-hearted Father Flavia sticks his needle into Alphonsine’s chest to gauge her reaction, you feel him bleed just as much as she does. His journey (yes, it’s J-word time) is the thread that unifies the play.

olok7I don’t know whether it’s the skill of Ms Hall’s writing, James Dacre’s direction or the individual actors’ performances – probably a combination of all three – but what sets this play apart is the range of wonderfully idiosyncratic characterisations. There are so many superb performances in this production that it’s hard to know where to start. Michelle Asante’s Sister Evangelique is more battleaxe than beneficence; long used to the trying ways of teenage girls, no doubt, she shows all the signs of that nun-like cruel to be kindness that convent girls all over the world have spent their lives coming to terms with. She doesn’t care who she’s snappy with – parents, headmaster, bishop, Papal emissary, they’ve all got to do things her way or there’ll be trouble. She’s probably kind too; which makes for a fascinating character blend. Ms Asante’s performance is a total joy; menacing, sarcastic, manipulative but also vulnerable.

olok3Gabrielle Brooks’ Alphonsine is an excellent study of an ordinary girl projected into a position of greatness without seeking it. Confused, resentful even, of the attention of the Virgin Mary, she’s still working out her role in life; for example, to what extent she finds Father Tuyishime attractive, how much she needs to take control of her own situation, must she comply with the demands of the Vatican and the local authorities. Yasmin Mwanza’s Anathalie is a demure, bullyable, unassuming girl, thrust into the religious limelight, surprised by the influence she seems to have acquired. Pepter Lunkuse’s Marie-Clare is a brilliant portrayal of a young person to whom authority comes naturally but with a tendency to abuse it by bullying and hectoring; and when she, too, is visited by the Virgin Mary, she is forced to fall into line with those she has bullied, but still remains a defiant, difficult, bristly person to deal with. It’s a superb performance.

olok4Leo Wringer is outstanding as the beaming and totally untrustworthy bishop; a man with his eyes on the tourism prize, who manages to toe the Catholic line yet still go home to his wife for his creature comforts. We’ve all met authority figures who have carved out a comfortable, hypocritical niche for themselves and get away with murder, and Mr Wringer conveys this brilliantly. Ewart James Walters is also excellent as the parent whose concern is less for the wellbeing of his daughter and more for the consequences on his income, but still wants to be centre stage when the media roll into town.

olok6The ever-reliable Michael Mears is rivetingly good as Father Flavia from Rome; a controlled blend of sardonic mistrust, sadistic ruthlessness and devastated revelation when he hears the words of the Virgin through the mouth of a child. And there are some smart and strong performances from Michaela Blackburn, Ibinabo Jack and Rima Nsubuga as the other girls at the college, and a plaintive, emotional performance from the multi-talented Keenan Munn-Francis as Emmanuel, the local boy who also catches the religious mania.

olok12A big highlight for me was to see Ery Nzaramba again, mesmeric as Dionysus in The Bacchae a few years ago; once more he excels, this time as Father Tuyishime. He’s one of those actors who dominates the stage, whose emotions you can see simply by looking at his eyes. You immediately connect with his character, identify with him, and feel all the doubts, concerns, injustices, and defeats that he experiences. You connive with his backhanded comments about Sister Evangelique. You tentatively explore any sexual feelings he might have about touching Alphonsine with him. You try to talk him out of his career decision at the end. To be fair, Ms Hall has written a humdinger of a role, and Mr Nzaramba brings it to life magnificently.

olok2I have no hesitation in calling this play a Modern Classic. The riveting storyline, the dynamic characterisations, the superb writing, the dramatic wow-factor. And I haven’t even mentioned Orlando Gough’s music, Jonathan Fensom’s convincing set design or Charles Balfour’s clever and suggestive lighting. Carling don’t do stage productions, but if they did…. It’s on at the Royal and Derngate until 2nd February and I can’t recommend it strongly enough.

Review – The Snow Maiden, The Russian State Ballet of Siberia, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 8th January 2019

Russian State Ballet of SiberiaIt’s always a pleasure to catch some classical ballet from time to time; and as neither Mrs Chrisparkle nor I had ever seen The Snow Maiden, this visit from the Russian State Ballet of Siberia seemed like a golden opportunity. I always say (stop me if you’ve heard it already) that dance done well is the finest thing you can see on a stage; and dance done badly is the opposite! Although we haven’t seen this dance company before, I had no doubt that they were going to do a good job; previous visits to the Royal and Derngate by the Moscow City Ballet were various kinds of exquisite. However, I do recall a time when Mrs C and I saw a production of Swan Lake in St Petersburg – ok, it wasn’t the Mariinsky, but we had high hopes – and it was just appalling. Bored dancers going through the motions with no thought of artistry so that Japanese tourists could take photos. So we’re always a little bit concerned about dipping our pointe shoes into the murky world of lesser known Russian ballet companies.

in the frost forestBut there was no need to be worried about the Russian State Ballet of Siberia, or to give them their other name, the Krasnoyarsk State Ballet. They’ve visited the UK sixteen times since their first Christmas season in Cardiff in 2002, so I’m surprised I haven’t come across them before. For their current UK tour they have six full length ballets to tempt us with, three of which were performed during their brief three days at Northampton. They’re clearly a hard-working bunch, with only a few days off during their lengthy tour, details of which will follow at the end.

the-snow-maiden-russian-state-ballet-of-siberiaProduction values are commendable. Their relatively simple but extremely effective and attractive sets, with gently moving images like snowfall or water ripples, actually made our Tuesday night audience gasp with appreciation when the curtain went up – you don’t get that with Rambert. Anatoliy Chepurmoy’s sizeable orchestra gave Tchaikovsky’s tunes plenty of attack; full, live music to accompany a ballet always seems to create a greater sense of occasion, for audience and performers alike.

mizgir regretsOne doesn’t tend to go to the ballet to witness an intricate tale; but, as far as story-telling goes, this company did a very good job. The Snow Maiden runs away from the snowy forest because she wants to live life with real people; doesn’t seem unreasonable. She chances on a village where she is invited to join the youngsters watch a young merchant, Mizgir, choose a bride from the single village girls. He chooses Kupava, and all seems well at first, until the Snow Maiden bursts on the scene and she completely steals his heart, much to Kupava’s distress. If he liked it, then he should have put a ring on it. She runs away (again) and meets her mother Spring (the beautiful and graceful Anastasiia Belonogova), who bestows on her the capacity to love. But Spring warns the Snow Maiden that she must stay out of sunlight. Mizgir finds her, falls in love with her all over again, but as soon as she is revealed in the sun’s rays, she melts away. And the moral of this tale is: never forget your Factor 50.

snow maidenFor our performance, the role of the Snow Maiden was danced by Anastasiia Osokina, who, according to the programme, isn’t a soloist but a member of the Corps de Ballet. If that’s the case, her career is definitely on the up. However, I think that might be a mistake in the programme as she appears to have been dancing with the company since 2003 with many notable roles to her name. Whatever, she’s an exquisite dancer with superb expression (something you can sometimes miss with Russian ballerinas) and a joy to watch. When she first meets Lel, the young shepherd danced by Daniil Kostylev, they shared one or two ever so slightly ropey balance moments which I can only put down to slight lack of rehearsal – unsurprising with their performance schedule – because separately, they were as sure-footed as mountain gazelles.

KupavaWhere the ballet really came alive for me was the extensive pas de deux between Ivan Karnaukhov’s Mizgir and Elena Svinko’s Kupava; partly because that is the most luscious of Tchaikovsky’s tunes in this particular ballet (was it borrowed from another of his works, because I can’t locate it on any recordings!) and partly because Ms Svinko’s elegant displeasure at the Snow Maiden’s butting in and stealing her merchant was gripping! Both dancers filled the stage with their superb technical prowess, Mr Karnaukhov leaping from end to end, and Ms Svinko channelling her emotions in the sumptuous grace of her dance. Mr Karnaukhov was also fantastic in the second Act, where his athletic dancing movingly told the character’s mental agony at the Snow Maiden’s unexpected and puddly departure.

snow maiden1After all those high emotions, next came the appearance of the three clowns, led by Maxim Ikonostasov, who provided an amusing and thrilling interlude before the final scene. Looking at it from a dramatic point of view, it’s ironically amusing how quickly Kupava gets over her disappointment. There are a few disconsolate tableaux, and the inevitable graceful salutary waving of the Corps de Ballet on the sidelines, before Lel makes his mark and takes advantage of being Last Man Standing. Their final pas de deux together was typical of the usual classical Russian Wrap-up of a ballet, with some terrific leaps and pirouettes which really impressed and entertained.

Lel and Snow MaidenBritish provincial audiences may not play along with the Russian practice of lengthy rounds of applause after each element of dance, which is why the show comes down earlier than you might expect. But it doesn’t mean we didn’t appreciate it; and the applause at curtain call was sustained and hearty! If you fancy a spot of classical Russian ballet without having to pay Covent Garden prices, I’d really recommend the Russian State Ballet of Siberia. Their UK tour continues until 16th March, taking in – deep breath – Norwich, High Wycombe, Bournemouth, Darlington, Swindon, Wimbledon, Southend, Brighton, Bristol, Wolverhampton, Liverpool, Hull, Leicester, Basingstoke, Ipswich, Sheffield, Edinburgh, Halifax and Oxford. And then they get a day off!

Review – Upfront Comedy, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 4th November 2018

UpfrontHaving basked in the glow of so many happy Screaming Blue Murder nights at the Royal and Derngate, it took us a surprisingly long time to dip our toes into the fun that is the Upfront Comedy shows, set in the perfect intimate atmosphere of the Victorian Royal theatre. Sadly we missed the last one, but we made up for it last Sunday night. The great thing about the Upfront Comedy nights is that you get such a range of audience members, all ages and all ethnicities, and it’s a wonderful melting pot that breaks down barriers by means of comedy.

John SimmitOur host, as usual, was the warm and welcoming John Simmit, who put us at ease with tales of love and affection, Handsworth style. He had a brilliant story about the time when, dressed as Dipsy – for yes, indeed, he did play that particular Teletubby – in Paris, some Smart Alec thought it would be a good idea to give Dipsy a piece of his mind; a typical Rue de Remarques joke really. It sounds as though this gentilhomme was more than a bit surprised when he discovered quite how well Dipsy can take care of himself!

TojuWe hadn’t seen any of the evening’s featured acts before, which is always exciting on a comedy night. First up was Toju, who (apparently) was on Britain’s Got Talent a few years ago. He came out, all guns blazing, with a brilliantly arresting set that challenged everyone and everything! There seemed to be a few almost deliberately miserable people in the front few rows and he did everything he could to make them crack – some he managed, some he didn’t, but the fact that they sat there stony faced against his comedy barrage was hilarious in itself. Toju then turned his attention to the Swiss lady in the front row and to her son, who were very good sports. The row in front of us was completely filled with white people, but with one black guy right in the middle of them. “Blink if they’ve kidnapped you, brother” he exclaimed. Toju is enormous fun, with absolutely no inhibitions, and a perfect way to start an evening of comedy.

Desiree BurchNext up was the only name in the line-up that I recognised, the effervescent Desiree Burch, all the way from LA via South London. She also has hilarity coursing through her veins. I loved her take on labels that might apply to her: she’s proud to be strong, she’s proud to be black, she’s proud to be a woman. But a strong black woman? That means one of two things: “You think you’re gonna get away with that?” or “You think you’re gonna get away with that?” (with menaces). She had lots of brilliant material about sex and fantasies, and a nice observation about how a tattoo can be a turn on – or not. Again, she could have gone on all night, and that would have been fine by us. Great stuff.

John RyanAfter the interval, our next act was John Ryan, of Irish extraction via Hackney. He created a great rapport with the audience, coming across like an Eastenders Mitchell brother but with a degree. A lot of his material came from a warm feeling of inclusivity, showing how we’ve all got much more that unites us than divides us. I really liked his style and he went down very well with the audience.

Drew FraserOur final act came from New York, Drew Fraser. He’s a true wisecracking dude, with plenty of ultra-fast patter and terrific confident delivery. I loved his observations about the trials and tribulations of wearing a Supersized condom, the best way of losing weight (which doesn’t involve the gym) and the considerable difference between vagina and pussy (penis and dick also applies). I’ve seen a few of Mr Fraser’s clips from American TV and I think he’s getting a pretty big reputation out there so it was great to have the chance to see him here in the UK. Oh – and a really charming touch for him to wait outside the theatre as we were all leaving, thanking us for coming – he’s clearly very well brought up.

A terrific night of comedy – and great value too – two and three quarter hours of it for 13 quid, can’t be bad! Looking forward to their next visit. You should come too!