Review – Cilla the Musical, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 20th February 2018

Cilla the MusicalOne of the ways in which you can categorise celebrity deaths is whether or not they were expected. In 2015 we said goodbye to Leonard Nimoy, Christopher Lee, Ron Moody, Val Doonican, George Cole, Patrick Macnee and Warren Mitchell, who were all in their 80s or 90s so perhaps they were no shock. But we also lost Keith Harris (and, as a result, Orville too), Errol Brown, and, Surprise Surprise, Cilla Black. I don’t think anyone saw that coming. Cilla, who’d been a huge pop star in the 60s, then the mainstay of Saturday night BBC1 entertainment for many seasons; who then bounced back in the 1980s with Surprise Surprise, Blind Date and many other guest appearances and shows; Cilla, who after a few years never needed to use her surname because everyone knew who you meant; Cilla was dead at the age of 72 following a simple fall at her apartment in Spain.

There have been many stories, both before and since her death, about how down to earth she was (or wasn’t), how genuine her Scouse accent was (or wasn’t), and suchlike. I’m not going to go down that path, as Cilla the Musical takes its own occasional sideswipe at her character. There’s no sentimentalising her professional jealousy of Bobby’s upcoming musical career, or how unnecessarily cantankerous she could be in dealings with – for example – Burt Bacharach. But lives are full of intrigue, and if the story of Cilla didn’t dip into a few less rosy aspects of her character or her career, then it wouldn’t be as interesting as it is.

Cilla the singerBill Kenwright’s production took Jeff Pope’s brilliant TV series about her life (starring Sheridan Smith) as its inspiration to create a musical that tells the story of her early years as a typist, trying to break into music, meeting Brian Epstein, palling up with the Beatles, recording with George Martin, an unsuccessful attempt to break into the US market, and finishing up with her own Cilla BBC TV show. Maybe there’s nowhere else to go with that particular stage of her life and career, but I’m sure I wasn’t the only one who felt the story just stopped a bit too early. It utilises the songs of the time – not only Cilla’s hits (not all of them, mind) but also a couple of Beatles numbers, Gerry and the Pacemakers’ I Like It and the Mamas and the Papas California Dreamin’. It would be wrong to say there isn’t a duff song in the show (those early numbers are a bit weak, and I’m not a fan of Through The Years which rounds it all off) but musically it really packs a punch, with some truly classic hits which really push your nostalgia button.

I loved Gary McCann’s set from the start – a brilliant evocation of the Cavern club, with all those brick archways stretching further and further back; you really get the sense of being in some vibrant, creative basement where extraordinary things could happen. It combines perfectly with Nick Richings’ amazing lighting scheme, which gives vitality to a drab setting transforming it to somewhere genuinely exciting. The big sparkly Cilla sign that heralded in her TV show said everything you needed to know about the dual identity of celebrity – its irresistible flashiness, its essential artificiality.

Cilla the Cavern club performerThe presentation of real-life people on stage is always a sticky wicket. To what extent do you do an impersonation? A half-impersonation? A mere suggestion of the real person? It’s almost impossible to get it right. And this for me is where I have something of a problem with this show. Executive Producer, Robert Willis, Cilla’s real-life son, said “we wanted somebody who wasn’t going to impersonate my mum but someone who could capture her spirit.” Kara Lily Hayworth, who won the open audition to play Cilla, is a splendid singer with a rich, beautiful voice. She also has a great feel for the character, her young cheekiness, her determination; the two moments where she rejects Bobby’s support are so realistically portrayed that they leave you quite breathless with shock. And I think it’s absolutely true – she does capture the spirit of the one and only Cilla.

But Cilla had a unique vocal quality in comparison with the other female performers of her era – the ability to combine the sweetness of the melody with the harsh reality of the lyric. It must have come from her association with George Martin or Lennon/McCartney, because you also see it so clearly in many Beatles’ tracks. Whilst I love (and to be fair, prefer) the big hits of Dusty Springfield or Sandie Shaw, in some of Cilla’s major recordings there is almost an undercurrent of anger, or violence, or utter sorrow moulded into her phrasing and enunciation. Phrases like “loving you the way I do, I take you back”, “love comes love shows, I give my heart and no one knows that I do” and perhaps most of all “when he hears the things that you did you’ll get a belt from yer dad” are all infused with true desperation or sadness; and I’m sorry to say I don’t think Ms Hayworth conveyed any of those emotions at all.

Cilla the guitaristsWe know that she’s not impersonating Cilla, but simply giving a suggestion of her musical performances whilst singing to her own personal strengths and style. That is a fair enough position to take when you’re recreating a well-known real-life person on stage. The trouble is – the Gerry Marsden impersonation was excellent; the Beatles’ impersonations were pretty spot-on; and the Mamas and Papas sequence was fantastic. In his brief appearance as Ed Sullivan, Alan Howell absolutely captured that rather formal, uncomfortable and stilted manner of speaking that Ed Sullivan had; his slightly patronising tone when he was addressing the youth of the day on his TV show. So when the main character isn’t a strong impersonation, but so many of the other performances are, then it leaves a feeling of unbalance.

For me, Ms Hayworth’s interpretation of Cilla’s songs was simply too pretty, too stylish and insufficiently hard-edged. Singing to a child that he can face physical punishment from his drunk father, with a soft, sweet, optimistic tone, just felt wrong to me. Sometimes I don’t think the very showbizzy arrangements of some of the iconic songs did her any favours. Listen to the original recording of Step Inside Love and feel that haunting and haunted concern at the end where the trailing guitar solo just fades away as if to say… maybe he won’t come back this time. It’s a spine-tingling arrangement by Paul McCartney. In this show, it ends with a triumphant showbiz major key happy ending. That was weird. It wasn’t even as though that’s how they did it on Cilla’s TV show.

Cilla at the PalladiumDon’t get me wrong; Ms Hayworth is a terrific singer and a wonderful new find – I just felt that emotionally she didn’t quite give enough. Mrs Chrisparkle observed that in the very moving scene where Bobby’s and Cilla’s relationship appears to be at an end, their performance of You’ve lost that Lovin’ Feelin’ was notable for the way Carl Au’s Bobby absolutely stole the number, with his passion, regret and sorrow, whilst Ms Hayworth was almost a backing singer in comparison. Talking of whom; Carl Au is superb as Bobby. The cheeky lad down the bar; the hapless negotiator; the guilt-laden son; the self-effacing boyfriend; the nervous prospective son-in-law; the desperate one who eats humble pie and asks for forgiveness. He gets them all perfectly, and is also a fantastic singer; his performance of A Taste of Honey is one of the highlights of the evening.

Cilla the managerAndrew Lancel is very convincing as the enigmatic Brian Epstein, a man who had everything and nothing. Softly spoken, quietly manipulative, full of the sexual repression that is heartbreakingly brought out in the juxtaposition with John Lennon’s You’ve Got To Hide Your Love Away, I thought he really brought the character to life. Tom Sowinski also gives a good representation of George Martin’s extremely polite, business-like but friendly manner. Pauline Fleming and Neil Macdonald are excellent as Cilla’s parents, squeezing every ounce of humour out of their old-fashioned ways. Billie Hardy and Amy Bridges give great support as Cilla’s girl friends and also in a variety of other minor roles.

Hopefully the few snags we saw on the Tuesday night were ironed out for the rest of the run; it was a shame that the emotional scene where Cilla and Bobby hear of the death of Brian Epstein (sorry, spoilers) was almost ruined by frantic running sounds from backstage as cast members tried to get into place for the next scene in time. As it is, when the next scene started, one microphone was swung round too quickly to get into place and hit one of the singers on the nose (I think she may actually have yelped), and some of the solo musicians (very effective brass, by the way) were late getting on to stage so that it all felt a little shambolic. Ah well, first night in a new theatre, and all that.

Cilla the signIt’s a feelgood show that overall looks superb and is full of great songs to enjoy. Whilst it’s not quite a singular sensation in my book, it’s still very enjoyable and if you like a dollop of 60s nostalgia to accompany a fascinating biographical storyline, It’s For You. After Northampton, the tour continues to Newcastle, Chester, Bristol, Woking, Nottingham, Aylesbury and Norwich, with further dates to be announced.

Production photos by Matt Martin

Review – Michael Petrov Performs Tchaikovsky, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 18th February 2018

Michael Petrov Performs TchaikovskyI reckon that attending live performances is habit-forming and after a while, if you see enough, you can end up on auto-pilot. That’s the reason that Mrs Chrisparkle and I kept checking our tickets on Sunday to ensure that this visit of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra really was scheduled for 3pm and not the usual 7.30pm. It just didn’t quite feel right to be there in the afternoon! There’s no doubt, however, that the matinee performance enabled several more children to attend the concert which is a great thing, especially as this was by no means a children’s programme – there were four, perfectly meaty, substantial and adult pieces of classical music to enjoy, and I hope any new youthful concertgoers found it as exciting and rewarding as we did.

Rory MacdonaldOur conductor for this concert was Rory Macdonald, whom we’ve seen just once before, when Natalie Clein performed Dvořák’s Cello Concerto in B Minor three years ago. He still doesn’t seem to have aged at all, and I’m more than ever sure that he has a grand selfie mouldering in his attic somewhere. He’s an exuberant conductor, one who likes to reach out on tippytoes to get the maximum out of his musicians. With his sleek black hair and formal attire, I couldn’t get the vision of Mary Poppins’ cartoon penguins out of my head. But he does a great job, so far be it from me to take the mickey.

Our first piece was Beethoven’s Egmont Overture. What a grand way to start a concert, with its compelling tunes and robust orchestration. It’s a superbly muscular and self-confident piece of music – everything an overture should be – and the orchestra rose to the challenge magnificently. I also appreciated the slightly pacier tempo which made its strength and power stand out. A great start.

Next we had two pieces of music that were new to me. Two Elegiac Melodies, Op. 34 by Edvard Grieg. I love Grieg’s music and it was a treat to discover something new by him. All the woodwind and percussion left the stage so that we only had the string players – I say “only”, but the lush sound they produced was sensational for these two pure and sincere reflective pieces. There’s nothing comfortable about the Elegiac Melodies, and I found them strangely disconcerting; but I really loved the performance.

After this, there was some general reorganisation as the rest of the orchestra returned and a platform was provided, centre stage, for our soloist, the cellist Michael Petrov. Amongst all the black evening dresses of the ladies of the orchestra and the formal suits of the men, Mr Petrov strode on to the stage in a white shirt not tucked in at the waist, no collar, no jacket, no tie, but with a calm and creative aura about him. He looked like a benign dentist – the sort who doesn’t complain at you if he suspects you haven’t been cleaning your teeth properly.

Michael PetrovMr Petrov was there to play Tchaikovsky’s Variations on a Rococo Theme, Op 33. This was another piece I’d never heard before and I was instantly taken by it. Tchaikovsky takes a relatively simple theme and wraps it around his little finger with seven variations and an astonishing cadenza from Mr Petrov where you could hear a pin drop, so alert were the audience to the passionate tones he produced from his 1846 J B Vuillaume cello – proving that old is often best. The Variations are a great vehicle to show off a bravura performance and Mr Petrov did that with apparently effortless ease. He brought out the humour of some of the cheekier variations and the solemnity of the andante sections. No sheet music, no grand gestures; just a thoughtful and disciplined performance that held the audience spellbound. We absolutely loved it – and now I need to find a decent recording of this piece for my own music library.

This performance was of the Fitzenhagen arrangement of the Variations; Fitzenhagen was the principal cellist with the Orchestra of the Imperial Russian Music Society in Moscow, to whom Tchaikovsky had dedicated the work, but then who chopped and changed the Variations around, much to the annoyance of Tchaikovsky. But maybe Fitzenhagen knew what he was doing, because it’s such an enjoyable mini-concerto, and it’s usually his version that gets performed.

RPO3-300x200After the interval we returned for a performance of Mendelssohn’s Symphony No 4 in A Major, Op 40, better known as the Italian Symphony. As soon as its happy and playful major theme strikes up in the first movement, you’re transported away to sunny climates and a lovely Mediterranean lifestyle. Under Mr Macdonald’s enthusiastic direction, the orchestra brought us all the joy of the first movement, then to change dramatically to the crestfallen sound of the second movement, with its connotations of funereal respect, the stately minuet of the third movement and the raucous scampering of the saltarello dance of the fourth. It was all performed with amazing vigour and energy and had the audience on the edge of its seat with excitement at the end.

A fantastic concert that introduced me to some riveting new pieces and a super soloist. And it was all over by teatime! The next classical offering from the Royal Philharmonic will be in April, with a varied programme of Czech, Polish and Finnish music. Can’t wait!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 16th February 2018

Screaming Blue MurderIt was a welcome return last Friday to the effervescent Dan Evans hosting another Screaming Blue Murder with three wonderful acts and two delightful intervals. Another packed house – aren’t they all nowadays? – but with a really strange crowd. I think there was a large party that arrived quite late so they couldn’t all sit together; therefore the room was scattered with people who knew each other very well – which was perplexing to some of the comics but comedy gold too – as you will see…

Dan EvansAmongst the crowd were three baby-faced youths on the front row who admitted to being 19 years old, but I’m not so sure; but they were very good sports as almost everyone picked on them at some point. There was also a lady who worked at John Lewis’; Dan got very excited about the prospects for wheedling discounts out of her until he discovered she worked at the warehouse. Dan was on great form as always and got us in the perfect mood for an anarchic night.

James DowdeswellOur first act was James Dowdeswell, whom we’ve seen here three times before, but there’s been a goodly gap since the last time, so his act was fresh as a daisy to us. With an IT geeky face and a certain degree of west country poshness, he delivers a range of very funny and frequently self-deprecating humour, and struck up an excellent rapport with the audience. He has some great stag-do material, and gets a lot of mileage out of his recent engagement and arrangements for his forthcoming nuptuals. All very enjoyable stuff.

And at some point during James’ routine, at the back of the room, and more vocal than was good for him, came the voice of Reg. Reg is a lorry driver. What kind of goods does he transport? White Goods. Cocaine! shouted half the people who knew him. It wasn’t long before Reg was “the supplier” to the whole audience. Nice work if you can get it. Little did we know how Reg would feature later on.

Kate LucasOur second act, and a change to the advertised programme, was Kate Lucas, who was new to us. Where has she been hiding all this time? Kate’s speciality is comedy songs with a twist – a twist of a neck, that is, as she gets so angry during her songs. They’re really funny and inventive – and because she has the voice of an angel and the charm of a Swiss Finishing School Product, her venom is all the more surprising and effective. She has songs that express the disappointment of how ugly a baby can be; a typical argument between husband and wife; and where you can choose to go to Heaven or to Hell. They’re all super-savage and absolutely brilliant. We even joined in. Everybody loved her!

Russell HicksOur headline act, and someone you can always trust to react to the room, was Russell Hicks. The first time I saw him I was disappointed that he went off tangent so much to react to what was going on around him that I felt like I missed out on his act “proper”. Now I know going off on one is his raison de comédie. He was wearing a rather flash sheepskin coat, of which he was clearly proud until someone said he looked like John Motson. Mr Hicks’ American upbringing meant he never got to watch the beloved Motty on Match of the Day, so he insisted on someone Googling his photo for him. One look at the picture and he threw the coat on to the floor in disgust and declared war on us.

But we had Reg as part of our ammunition, who, as I intimated earlier, wasn’t backward in coming forward. Mr Hicks unearthed him from the back of the room, made him swap places with Ravi (the most amenable of the 19 year olds) but then Ravi started kicking off. Mr H was clearly beguiled by a lady in an orange dress and spoke of his admiration for her primary colours when we all shouted back that orange isn’t a primary colour (because you can make if from mix red and yellow of course!) Flummoxed that we all knew our primary colours – but having whipped the room into a frenzy of enjoyment – all Mr H had to do was keep jabbing away at our idiosyncrasies and oddities, and his forty minutes just flew by. As he said at the end, this was one of the absolute weirdest sets he’d done but also one of the funniest. An absolute master at running with whatever the crowd chuck at him, I don’t think I’ve ever seen him quite so in control.

A genuinely hilarious night’s comedy. Next Screaming Blue is on 9th March. Don’t miss it!

Review – Daliso Chaponda, What the African Said, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 15th February 2018

Daliso ChapondaThe country knows – and has taken to their heart – Daliso Chaponda from his appearances on last year’s Britain’s Got Talent; but Mrs Chrisparkle and I know him from one of last year’s Screaming Blue Murder shows where he absolutely slayed the audience and I had no hesitation in awarding him the 2017 Chrisparkle Award for Best Screaming Blue Stand-up! Now he’s back at the Royal for one of his first dates in his first ever UK tour, and already he’s selling out (seats, not material) everywhere he goes. And there’s a good reason for this. The man is utterly hysterical.

Tony VinoBut first – a support act. We spent the first half hour in the company of Tony Vino – whom we’ve not seen before – and he’s a very funny guy! He has a lot of nice observational comedy about family life including kids on roller shoes, and dealing with American customs officers’ sense of humour (they don’t have one.) I particularly enjoyed his material about having a vasectomy and sharing surgical memories with other snipped guys in the audience. But best of all was his Lion King finale, ostensibly to create an African atmosphere to welcome Mr Chaponda back for the second half, but really an excuse to get about ten people up from the audience in a hilarious re-enactment of Simba’s Greatest Hour. If you get called up, just go for it, like the Northampton guys last night. It was brilliant.

Daliso-ChapondaBut it’s all about Mr Chaponda. There are few comics who strike up such an instant rapport because they are so genuinely likeable. He is the epitome of cheekiness, with a permanently sunny personality that he uses to enormous effect to deliver sometimes quite serious material. He doesn’t shy away from race; in fact there’s a considerable segment of the show where we’re asked to judge the relative seriousness of examples of celebrity use of the N word. But he frames it all with both irreverence and kindliness, which is a unique mix. He has some killer jokes regarding slavery. He even has a little material that’s based on his being abused as a child, whereat the audience falls silent with shock and empathy; and then he rounds it off with a perfect punchline that had me snorting into my hand.

DalisoThe show is very cleverly structured, much of it spent with his telling us all the times when he thought a joke wasn’t in any way “unacceptable” but then discovering it was – with us hearing the material in order to judge it, of course. And, naturally, it’s inevitably incredibly near the knuckle and absolutely hilarious, whilst he feigns surprise at how this “innocuous” joke could possibly cause offence. He’s very quick-witted and you sense that you could see his show a number of times and you’d get a different slant each time. That said, there was some repetition of his Screaming Blue material from last year, but it’s all brilliant, so it was great to hear it again. I’d forgotten how much I love his visual representation of the problems a shorter man faces when attempting a 69.

DChapondaAs an encore we re-enacted his Britain’s Got Talent audition, with members of the audience as the panel, including a very butch Amanda Holden and a very white Alisha Dixon. It was an appropriate way to end the night, linking it to his best-known TV appearance and delivering a few sure-fire one-liners. Mr Chaponda is pure comedy gold. Thank heavens his history lessons concentrated on Henry VIII so that he just had to move to the UK. His tour continues right through till June so do yourself a favour and book!!

Review – Of Mice and Men, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 5th February 2018

Of Mice and MenOnce again, I have to confess my ignorance, gentle reader, and tell you that I have never read John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men. I know that for someone with a degree in English that’s a pretty shoddy state of affairs. Fortunately, Mrs Chrisparkle was also equally ignorant, but that’s A Good Thing Overall when it comes to seeing a dramatization of a well-known story. Experiencing a work of art for the first time, I didn’t know how it was going to end up; so if it is a good story, it ought to keep us spellbound. And it did; eventually. I sensed it was never going to end well – and I wasn’t wrong.

OMAM7I hadn’t even given any thought to the title, but of course it goes back to the old saying that the best laid plans of mice and men often go astray. Or, as the late Dowager Mrs C used to delight in enunciating, gang aft agley; she was always a poetry purist. It’s certainly true that those best laid plans end up pretty worthless in this story of the unlikely friendship between intelligent, savvy George Milton and the simple yet sadly brutal Lennie Small. I like the concept of unlikely friendships; I have many of them myself. On the road, trying to find work wherever they can get it, George and Lennie are expected at The Boss’s ranch to “buck barley” (whatever that is); and they should be fine provided Lennie remembers to keep his mouth shut. Their best laid plan is to get enough cash to buy their own farm somewhere, so that they can live in security and safety; not afraid of hard work but hoping for the benefits that hard work would bring them.

OMAM6However…. at the Boss’s ranch, they meet the wretched little Curley, one of those pint-sized bullies, and her bored and presumably sexually frustrated wife (who goes by the name of… Curley’s wife). She likes to hang around the guys for company, but the only consequence of that is that Curley gets even more annoyed and bullying, as he suspects everyone’s having an affair with her. He decides to take it out on Lennie because it appears that he won’t fight back…. Until he does…

OMAM5You knew all that anyway, gentle reader, and there’s no doubt that it is a good story and maybe even something of a tear-jerker. Even so, I found the first act to be extremely slow and exposition-intensive. It certainly improves with the fight scene, and with the second act things get much more interesting. On the face of it, David Woodhead’s set works well, with the simple evocation of the brushwoods by the river bank, and the various rooms and dorms of the Barn and Bunkhouse at the ranch. It’s a coincidence, I am sure, but the opening scene features a river at the far front of the stage, exactly the same as in last year’s Grapes of Wrath. One wonders if Steinbeck had a thing about rivers.

OMAM4In that production, there was real water in a tank which gave a tremendous sense of reality. Here, though, the river is imaginary, represented only by the sounds of gushing water when Lennie and George sloosh their heads underneath or cup their hands to splash themselves with. I’m normally one to prefer design that works on the imagination more than being obviously “real” – but in this case, I found the artifice of the design rather annoying. You could see there was no water; you could see, in the elaborate fight scene, that none of the punches was landing. The reality came from the sound effects; if you see the show, you’ll know precisely what I mean. It’s not often a simple sound effect can make you squirm in your seat. There were also a few weird incidents offstage that caused the otherwise quite atmospheric lighting to flicker every time someone walked somewhere they shouldn’t. There was even one occasion when someone came on stage, behind the semi-transparent backdrop, hovered for a bit, then wandered off. If this was meant to suggest the world going on around them, it didn’t work. It just looked like someone got their cue wrong.

OMAM2But enough carping. The production is lucky enough to have some excellent performances, none greater than Matthew Wynn as Lennie, a gentle giant if ever there was one. It must be a really tough role to get right; I can imagine it being so easy to pantomime-up the character’s simple nature, or to brutalise down his incredible strength. Mr Wynn pitches it just perfectly and makes him a very believable character; effortlessly portraying Lennie’s emotions that he wears on his sleeve and unnerving us when his demons start to show through. It’s a really superb performance. Richard Keightley is also extremely good as George, not hiding his irritation at how Lennie slows him down and stops him (at least, as he sees it) from getting on well in life. But he is a true friend, and always offers kindness to Lennie, right to the bitter end.

OMAM1Andrew Boyer is excellent as the old retainer Candy, clutching at the straw of potential partnership with George and Lennie, knowing he is powerless to prevent his old dog from being put out of its misery, clinging to the wreckage of memories that are worth so much more than today’s reality. Kamran Darabi Ford does a good job of conveying the aggressive character of Curley, punchy little prick that he is, and Rosemary Boyle is extremely good at balancing that slightly coquettish, slightly come-on look with her protestations that’s she’s a good girl deep down. The other characters are all very well portrayed; I especially enjoyed Kevin Mathurin’s Crooks, annoyed at the others invading his space when he’s not allowed to invade theirs, Darren Bancroft’s feisty Carlson and Harry Egan’s excitable Whit.

OMAM3Right up until the final moment we weren’t sure how the story would resolve itself; that’s a testament to the mastery of John Steinbeck. But I confess I wasn’t sufficiently moved to need to wipe away a tear. For some reason, the production appealed much more to the head than the heart, and I found that thinking about George’s reasons for his actions and why he did it, much more absorbing than any emotional reaction. Having read the synopsis and leafed through my copy of the book, this seems to me to be very true to Steinbeck’s original work, including the occasional use of the N word, which always makes an audience feel uncomfortable, so be prepared. After its week here in Northampton, it goes on to Mold, Glasgow, Salisbury, Brighton, Wimbledon, Tunbridge Wells, Manchester and Swansea.

Review – Upfront Comedy Slam, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 3rd February 2018

John SimmitThis was our second visit to one of these Upfront Comedy nights at the Royal and Derngate; last time we enjoyed it so much that we bitterly regretted not having discovered it before! Our MC again was ex-Teletubby John Simmit, the bad boy turned Dipsy because, let’s face it, who wouldn’t for the money. He’s great at striking up an instant rapport with the audience and setting us all at our ease; although he reckoned we were already well set up before he came on. He got us all (literally) into a rhythm with a bit of in-seat dancing, which I’ve not tried before but was thoroughly refreshing.

andy-whiteOur first act was someone we’d seen twice before, both in Screaming Blue Murder and at The Ark, Andy White. He’s a naturally funny man, with a larger than life persona, a slightly dandyish fashion sense and the ability to make an erotic movie out of the soundtrack of the Flintstones in French. He’s one of those guys where, after you’ve spent a few minutes in their company, you genuinely feel happy inside. His material is full of short stories and observations about his marriage and home life, but often with a quirky twist. It was during Mr White’s set that a recurring problem of the evening started – one or two over-enthusiastic and overlubricated ladies in the second row, who felt that by constantly talking back to the comics on stage they were somehow enhancing their act. Wrong. They were a permanent pain in the arse the whole night long.

Barbara NiceMr W responded pretty well to their chat-up lines and they backed down completely for our second act Stockport’s own Barbara Nice, because she really wasn’t what they were there for. We’d never seen Barbara Nice before, but I’d heard good things about her and I tell you, they were an underestimation. Nice by name and by nature, she is a wonderful comic creation, the kind of northern lady you’d chat to over the garden gate or down the Co-op. She surveyed how many of us read Take A Break (not that many), and how many of us hide from friends and relatives in supermarkets (quite a few). Her set was absolutely jam-packed with brilliant material that just pinpointed our funnybone and stuck there, refusing to budge. She ended up teaching us the moves to a horrendous but hilarious dance routine and we were, quite frankly, wetting ourselves. We’d love to see her again.

Gerry KAfter the interval, John Simmit introduced us to the fearlessly funny Gerry K. An instantly likeable East London lad, he has the true gift of the gab and he really shook us up with his vitality and attack. He’s got loads of excellent material about family life; he’s great at expressing inventive and very funny angles on familiar situations. Again that lady in the second row decided she was in with a chance so started the chatback but Mr K was firm but fair and did his best to close her down. We both thought he was terrific and would also like to see him again.

Kane BrownLast act of the evening, and third in a row of comics that we hadn’t seen before, was Kane Brown. Oh my giddy aunt, if anyone can handle himself on stage Mr Brown can. Fantastic stage presence, riptastic material and a supremely confident delivery means you just sit there and don’t stop laughing until everyone’s gone home. Of course, the lady in front had another go and he just shut her up with savage politeness – and this time she really did finally shut up. Just superb. Mr Brown had some friends in the audience he chatted to when we were leaving the auditorium but I felt compelled to interrupt and shake his hand because he was just too good not to. UpfrontWe’re definitely on the hunt for more of his shows.

It may only be early February but that show really raised the bar for live comedy for this year. Absolutely loved it. There’s another Upfront Comedy show coming in April – better get booking now!

Review – Sofie Hagen, Dead Baby Frog, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 2nd February 2018

Sofie HagenWe’d seen Sofie Hagen once before, at a Screaming Blue Murder back in 2015 and we were most impressed. I’d heard that her Dead Baby Frog show had done well at Edinburgh, and that it was comedy with a challenge (which is always intriguing). I’m guessing that a number of people had heard the same, as the Underground was fully sold out in advance of the show, which is great news for everyone.

Bisha K AliAfter an informative and kindly welcome, where she explained the main part of her show would contain material regarding emotional abuse – a few sharp intakes of breath – Sofie introduced us to her support act for the night. Bisha K Ali has featured on Sofie’s podcasts, and those more knowledgeable people in the audience, who were obviously fans of the podcasts, whooped with delight. She had some excellent material about mother-management (a true skill if you can master it) but the main substance of her part of the show was talking about arranged marriage. Bisha has no problem with arranged marriage – but there are limits, as she discusses how her future husband was almost decided whilst she was still a foetus. Serious issues brought to light with a comedy touch, and we both really enjoyed her set.

After the interval Sofie returned, with another tale of family exploitation and abuse. Born and brought up in Denmark, she spent her childhood in the no-hope-ville of Skamstrup (I think that’s right, apologies if not) which translates, literally as Shame Town. She had three grandfathers (long story) two of which, by the sound of it, were utter bastards. One, the Nazi, died seven years ago – and we hear, amongst other gems, the brilliant story of his funeral. The other, probably also a Nazi, but more importantly a serial emotional abuser, is still going strong; and we hear Sofie’s account of how he inflicted emotional scars on her (never physical) from the age of four.

Sofie Hagen 2This may not sound like a fruitful source of comedy, but you’d be wrong. Ms H has such a winning way about her, with beautifully constructed sentences and mental imagery, and a superb use of English words that belie her Danish heritage, that the hour flies by. She says she is accused of setting up too many callbacks, but I don’t think that’s possible – it all goes to show how the whole show is so very cleverly assembled. She also has a great, natural, story-telling ability, which really helps with a show like this, which is not so much based on sure-fire gags (not at all, in fact) but instead gradually paints a picture for us all to look and wonder at.

Her aim – as stated at the outset – is for us to detest her grandfather as much as we do. I’m not sure she quite succeeds, because I don’t think anyone could detest him quite so much as she does. We do, however, heartily approve of all the progress that has been made into making his life as miserable as possible. This is definitely one of those comedy nights that you file under therapy for the performer, but what I liked about it more than any other of that style of performance that I have seen is, and this may seem a fairly basic requirement, it is actually very funny! Sofie has been touring this show extensively and I think the tour is now coming to an end. But I’d definitely recommend catching her work in the future – to be both challenging and funny is about as good as it gets.

Dead Baby FrogP. S. A few days before the show I received an email from the theatre with a link to a note from Sofie. In that note she made it clear that she wanted it to be an anxiety-free experience for everyone, so that if there was anything she could do in advance, like reserve a seat, or individually tell people more about what the show was about, she would. She also arranged for gender neutral signs on all the toilets, and linked to specific accessibility advice for people with disabilities. I thought that was astounding. Even though none of the issues she raised affected me personally, I nevertheless felt more comfortable, positive and secure about attending the show. For anyone who does have any of those concerns, I could imagine it would be an enormous relief. That’s a really thoughtful thing to do.