Review – Last Night of the Derngate Proms, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 15th July 2018

Last Night of the Derngate PromsAfter a year’s break, it’s a welcome return to the Last Night of the Derngate Proms, which, as our noble conductor Nick Davies pointed out, is also the First Night, but we shouldn’t let that bother us. We had the pleasure of Mr Davies’ company for the same gig back in 2013, so it’s obviously a job he enjoys. He has a warm, welcoming style and is happy to exchange a bit of banter with the audience, both informative and informal. As if this splendid evening of shameless patriotism couldn’t get any better, Mrs Chrisparkle and I were joined by Lord and Lady Prosecco, who need no lessons in how to enjoy themselves. The ladies of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra were all decked out in their colourful finery, to give a gala feel to the concert; and of course there were plenty of Union Jacks scattered throughout the auditorium to wave during the familiar exciting bits. And if the orchestra seemed a little hasty to get on and off the stage – as Mr Davies confided in us – orchestra leader Duncan Riddell was going on holiday immediately afterwards, and he clearly had a train to catch.

These concerts are always fashioned as a pot-pourri of Classic’s Greatest Hits, so it was particularly rewarding to see the thought and variety that had been considered for the running order this year. We started off with Vaughan Williams’ Wasps Overture, a lively, buzzy piece of music that immediately challenges the orchestra with its various themes and moods. Then we had the Intermezzo from Sibelius’ Karelia Suite, which the older members of the audience would remember as the theme to ITV’s This Week. Even if the music doesn’t give you that extra nostalgia boost, it’s a superb little piece that builds nicely to its triumphant theme. Great work from the strings and a big shout out to M. Nicolas Fleury, leading the French Horns and celebrating his country’s win in the World Cup earlier that afternoon.

Nick DaviesNext up was the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, a rousing, swirling dance that cries out for ballerinas and men in tights. Again, the orchestra members threw themselves into all its majestic jollity, transporting us all into the glamorous ballrooms tucked away in our imaginations. Great stuff. Then a big change of mood – George Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad, an elegant and pastoral piece that I’d certainly never heard before. Fitting for the Last Night of the Proms as it’s a big slice of Englishness, but with a contemplative nature that appeals to the mind as well as the heart.

Next we were introduced to our soloist for the evening, Soprano Katerina Mina. In a stunning blue evening dress she coquetted through Franz Lehar’s Meine Lippen from his operetta Giuditta, which was also new to me – it only had a few performances in the theatres of Vienna and Budapest in the mid-1930s and never reached London or New York. It’s a great little tune and Ms Mina was delightfully knowing and cheeky all the way through. The final piece before the interval was the Prelude to Act 1 of Wagner’s Meistersinger, which you might consider to be the German equivalent of the Pomp and Circumstance of Elgar; a Teutonic pageant of musical masterfulness. A fantastic way to lead you into your half-time Chardonnay.

Katerina MinaAfter the interval we started off with Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla, another fizzy crowd pleaser. There’s an art to composing the perfect overture, and in this concert we had two of them. Then we welcomed Katerina Mina back to sing Vissi d’Arte from Puccini’s Tosca. I know it gets trundled out all the time but I think this is one of the most moving pieces of classical music ever written, and Ms Mina sang it with beautiful eloquence infused with tragedy. Absolutely stunning. Then we had Elgar’s Chanson de Nuit, a rather French title for a rather English composition; a lovely, stately ode to romance with just a tinge of Stiff Upper Lip, again beautifully played by the string section. We ended this sequence of music with a lively Slavonic Dance by Dvorak – No 8 in the first set; impossible not to be both shaken and stirred with this smile-inducing, fast paced dance that constantly switches from major to minor and back again.

That’s when Mr Davies gave us our cue that we could start to “join in”. Henry Wood’s heartfelt but introverted Tom Bowling and the always chirpy Hornpipe from his Fantasia on British Sea Songs got us started with the rhythmic clapping – but the audience started too loudly, as usual; then two verses from Rule Britannia, sung by Katerina Mina in a Sgt Pepper jacket and Napoleonic hat, following straight into Jerusalem (my favourite) and then ending up with Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance No 1 and a rousing double portion of Land of Hope and Glory. We’re here for the music, said Mr Davies, and what’s not to like about that? A very happy crowd went home having wallowed in some of the best classical tunes there are. Huge congratulations to everyone involved!

RPOP. S. I didn’t much enjoy the Last Night of the Derngate Proms two years ago. It followed hard on the heels of the Brexit vote and the jingoistic fervour in the audience was overpoweringly abhorrent. Two years on, things have calmed down a bit and the patriotic fun in this year’s show was just about perfect.

P. P. S. Lord Prosecco says he was “just passing” the stage door when he bumped into the beautiful and charming Ms Katerina Mina, still dressed like an extra from Waterloo (the historical movie, not the Abba song). A Facebook selfie was taken to prove it. Not remotely jealous at all. No sirree.

P. P. P. S. Hope Duncan got his train.

Review – Titanic the Musical, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 28th June 2018

Titanic the MusicalWell I’ve seen some examples of dramatic irony but this one takes the biscuit. When the audience knows something that the characters don’t, it’s meant to create a greater sense of tension, or heroism, or humour, or any combination of any number of emotional responses. But I can think of few shows greater than Titanic the Musical where the horror of what lies ahead is so clear to the audience but the characters are blindly oblivious to the danger. When the good ship finally sets sail but one game chap turns up too late, doesn’t get on board, and is furious with himself, not one person in that audience last night didn’t say to themselves “you don’t know how lucky you are.”

Simon Green as IsmayThere is one character who knows what lies ahead, though: J Bruce Ismay, director of White Star Line and therefore owner of the Titanic; in the opening scene we see him ravaged with agony as he looks back at the triumphal launch of the ship, despairing at its complacent captain and self-satisfied designer – a scene which all makes sense when it’s re-enacted at the end of the show, much as the structure of Blood Brothers begins and ends with the death of the Johnston twins, to increase the sense of melodrama. All Ismay can do at the end is look forward to a lifetime of regret; but that’s more than the 1500 people who perished can do. It’s fair to say that this show paints Ismay as a not very likeable man.

Niall Sheehy as BarrettSo how would you spend your last minutes alive on board a ship like the Titanic, if you knew your number was up and there’s no way out? In desperate sadness? In resigned acceptance? Take your own life first? Crack open a bottle of 1898 Cristal champagne? They’re all options. And what you come away with from this show, is an immense sense of respect for everyone on board, even those whose occasional dereliction of duty may have to some extent caused the disaster. The final scene of the show presents the audience with a wall of names of those who died, and it’s a very moving testament.

Dudley Rogers and Judith Street as the StrausesBut although we all know right from the very start that this story only has one, inexorable, tragic ending, this show tells a far from gloomy story. If you’ve ever gone on a cruise holiday, gentle reader, then you’ll know that almost indescribable sense of excitement, bewilderment and curiosity that is the hallmark of those first few hours at sea, and this show captures that thrilling optimism perfectly. And then you have the main content of the show, the several interweaving threads of the lives of individual passengers, all thrown together arbitrarily simply by virtue of having got on the same ship together. It would be impossible to depict over 2000 lives, so Peter Stone’s book and Maury Yeston’s superb music and lyrics present us with just a handful of relationships, from the first, second and third class passengers, as well as the professional relationships of officers and crew. The enduring love affair between Mr and Mrs Straus (first class – owners of Macy’s), the strained relationship between Edgar Beane and his never satisfied, wannabe socialite wife Alice (second class) and the instant cheeky pairing-up of Kate McGowan and Jim Farrell (third class passengers working their way to a better life in America) represent all human life on board, and it works incredibly well.

Philip Rham as the Captain and Oliver Marshall as BrideTechnically it’s a relatively simple show, but that means those special effects that are there have a greater impact than you might otherwise expect. The railings at the top end of the ship move upwards as the ship starts to sink, giving an incredibly effective portrayal of a man hanging on for dear life. The appalling graunching sound of the ship ploughing into the side of an iceberg stops us in our tracks and then strong white lights illuminate both the stage and the audience as if to say we’re all in this together and make us feel equally vulnerable as the characters.

EnsembleMusically I found the show highly entertaining and rewarding, and I felt it gave some nods to a few other shows that are also highly charged with emotion and drama. Apart from the structural framework that aligns it to Blood Brothers, I recognised a lot of The Hired Man in there, not so much in any particular song or scene but in the overall combination of strong individual and clear singing with emotionally charged words and situations, particularly with the third class passengers. Maybe it’s because they share similar themes and both take place in the 1910s. Whilst we’re on the subject of clarity, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a musical show where each word was so beautifully enunciated throughout that it achieved an absolute 100% accuracy-to-ear delivery, and for that alone Titanic the Musical deserves an award.

The BlameThere were some Sweeney Todd nuances too, with Andrews’ pride and joy in his design reminding me of Todd’s affection for his barbers’ razors; and when, facing death, he’s re-designing his blueprint so the ship can’t sink, the music becomes very reminiscent of Jesus Christ Superstar’s sequence, Take him to Pilate, Take him to Pilate! That reprimanding urgency is also very apparent in the song The Blame, where Captain, owner and architect each point the finger at the other without anyone taking responsibility. You can really imagine that’s exactly how it happened. There was a lot of ambition, power and money at stake. Some important people with big egos playing with other peoples’ lives in order to boost their own fortunes and reputations. You can see it happening in the news today. We never learn.

Greg Castiglioni as AndrewsA large and talented cast bring this story to buzzing life with some superb performances. Simon Green’s Ismay is an immaculate portrayal of a workplace bully, pestering and pestering again until he gets the answer he wants; today he’d be up for corporate manslaughter, coward that he is. At the other end of the power seesaw, Philip Rham’s Captain Edward Smith is a rigid stickler for the old ways of doing things, but torn between his responsibilities for the lives on board and his having to toe the line of his financial paymaster. Constantly showing poor judgment by increasing the speed when he knows it is risky and ignoring iceberg warnings, he’s a complex character given a fascinating portrayal. He really looks the part too – if you ever wondered what happened to the bloke who played The Ghost and Mrs Muir

Victoria Serra as Kate McGowanThere’s a magic partnership between Dudley Rogers and Judith Street as Isidor and Ida Straus, the genteel older couple who’ve first-classed it through many a sea crossing; I defy you to watch them perform the song Still and maintain you kept a dry eye. I also really enjoyed Matthew McKenna’s performance as Mr Etches, the First Class Steward, who keeps a beautifully ordered table and knows how to smooth the waters (sadly not literally) without upsetting the boat (same observation applies).

Claire Machin and Timothy Quinlan as the BeanesThere’s a delightful performance from Claire Machin as the socially ambitious Alice Beane – a little like an American Hyacinth Bucket but not as grotesque – I loved how she felt she had to dress up for going into the lifeboats; and Victoria Serra’s Kate McGowan is full of charm and roguish ambition. Great support too from Kieran Brown as the principled Murdoch, Oliver Marshall as the radioman Harold Bride, and Lewis Cornay as both the Bellboy and entertainer Wallace Hartley. Greg Castiglioni gives a brilliant performance as Thomas Andrews, the ship’s architect, worrying away over his plans, trying to keep up with the powerplay between Smith and Ismay; and, possibly best of all, Niall Sheehy is fantastic as Frederick Barrett, the workhorse employed as a stoker, promising to return to marry his girl, and putting the bravest of brave faces on his ultimate fate.

Barrett the StokerI enjoyed this so much more than I had expected; after the disappointment of Sting’s The Last Ship a few months ago I had an awful feeling that this would be a bad year for anything dramatically nautical. Not a bit of it. This is a powerful, moving, humbling tale immaculately sung throughout. There was a fairly instantaneous standing ovation that I was more than happy to join; and don’t forget to wander down towards the stage after the show to check the names of those who perished. After all, the whole production is done in their honour. After it’s final capsize in Northampton tomorrow, the tour continues to Nottingham, Blackpool, Bromley, Bradford and Liverpool, before enjoying a couple of weeks at the Staatsoper in Hamburg. I’d thoroughly recommend it.

To the lifeboatsP. S. Overheard at the interval; some people behind us were initially disappointed to realise this was not a musical version of the Leonard di Caprio/Kate Winslet movie. No, it isn’t. Fortunately, it’s good enough for them to have overcome their disappointment, which has to be A Good Thing.

Hold on Mr AndrewsP. P. S. It started a little late and we were anxious to get home so as we could watch the recording of England’s game against Belgium before going to bed. At the interval Mrs Chrisparkle noted the majority of musical numbers had already been performed, suggesting that the second act would be considerably shorter than the first (as indeed it is.) Her observation: I guess that shows there is a limit as to how much you can drag the arse out of drowning made me wonder quite how in the zone she was with her sympathies in this show.

Production photos by Scott Rylander

Review – A Night at the Ballet, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 24th June 2018

A Night at the BalletWhoever it is at the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra who has the job of planning the content for their concerts must have an enjoyable but challenging task on their hands. To create an evening purely of ballet works – with such a range to choose from – must have been more endearment than endurance. Their latest concert, A Night at the Ballet, was jam-packed with punchy tunes and glorious melodies; all from the hands of four 19th century men who put ballet music centre stage (or should that be centre stave).

Unusually, we had no soloist to offer us a virtuoso performance of some great dramatic musical landmark; but I guess that’s typical of ballet music. If it’s designed to accompany a stage performance, it needs to be performed by no more people than you can fit into your average theatre orchestra pit; all hands on deck, and no room for a specialist as you might expect in a symphony or a concerto. Instead, we had the Royal Philharmonic on top form, this time under the baton of Nathan Fifield, a conductor new to us; he’s currently the principal conductor with Nashville Ballet and this is his debut performance with the RPO.

Nathan FifieldMr Fifield is a smart, dashing, clean-cut young gentleman (is it me, or are conductors getting younger nowadays) but with a genuine sense of the beauty of the ballet and delivering some well-chosen and thoughtful observations on the pieces that the orchestra were to play. He doesn’t seem to be one of those authoritarian conductors who impose themselves on the orchestra; he seems much more to be one of the lads, albeit with the extra task of being in charge.

Our first piece was the vivacious Dance of the Comedians from Smetana’s Bartered Bride. A fantastic way of getting the evening underway, with its triumphantly upbeat rhythms giving the orchestra a perfect opportunity to show their mettle. As well as the swirling violins, the brass and percussion also made a huge impact. It’s one of those pieces of music that, when you read the title on some paper, you’re not sure if you’ve heard it before; and when you do hear it, you’re full of the satisfied comfort of recognition and wonder why you don’t play it more often.

Next up, Mr Fifield introduced us to Delibes’ Sylvia Suite and Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Suite. He told the story of how Tchaikovsky was so impressed at Delibes’ work (and so unimpressed with his own) that if he’d heard the Delibes before sitting down to write Swan Lake, he’d never have bothered. Fortunately for the rest of mankind, that didn’t happen. I didn’t think I knew any of the Sylvia Suite, but of course I was wrong – this is an evening of Ballet’s Greatest Hits, after all – and the celebrated Pizzicato has been a mainstay of TV and radio adverts since the introduction of Independent Broadcasting. I know where Tchaikovsky is coming from, mind; that Sylvia Suite is a thing of true beauty. The grandeur of its opening and closing movements was stunningly performed by the RPO and the lightness of the Pizzicato is simply impossible not to smile at. But I was most impressed by the almost cumbersome and definitely eccentric Valse Lente, with what seems to have too many notes for its bars; I thought that was really engaging and enjoyable. Again, a fantastic job by the strings.

Mr Fifield said we should compare the Delibes and the Tchaikovsky. Hard to do, because (to me at least) Swan Lake is such a familiar piece of music – possibly one of the most engrossing and gripping works in the musical catalogue of all time. Mr Fifield conducted some parts of it – most notably the Valse and the Scene: Pas d’action – a little more slowly than I am used to hearing it – possibly the pace at which it is most frequently danced. I felt that whilst this enhanced the simple beauty of the melodies and the richness of the orchestra’s performance, it lost a little of the drama. But that’s just me. Daniel de Fry’s harp work was just sensational throughout and I particularly loved the Hungarian dance and the final Mazurka – which I was humming to myself all through the interval.

RPOgroupThe second half started with some more Delibes – this time the Prelude and Mazurka from Coppelia, and again, you are reminded just how famous some of these stonking great tunes are. Another really rousing performance from the RPO; I could imagine the lavishly dressed dancers in my mind’s eye. Next came the item that I had been looking forward to most: Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre. This has been a favourite of mine since I was a very small child and in fact I even learned to play it on the piano when I was about 16 – I just about managed to scrape through it. Duncan Riddell’s magnificent violin playing brought out both the harsh eeriness and the light playfulness of the piece; I also loved the strident xylophone playing. A sheer joy throughout.

For a finale Mr Fifield brought us his own personal favourite ballet music – Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Suite. It sure contains some stunning tunes but I have to say I still prefer Swan Lake! Again Mr de Fry’s golden touch on the harp was magnificent, and the performance by the whole orchestra of the Adagio was absolutely first class. So much so, that it outweighed the rest of the suite’s content, and the audience weren’t really sure that the concert had finished after the performance of the final waltz. Once they were absolutely convinced now was the right time to applaud, they certainly let rip.

It was definitely one of our favourite concerts from the Royal Philharmonic from all the years we’ve been coming to see them. It was just tutu good. Next month – the Last Night of the Derngate Proms, an excuse to get out your nationalist flags. It will also be the same day as the World Cup Final, so if England are still in the tournament…. I just hope no one mentions the B word.

Review – The Band, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 29th May 2018

The BandIt was just over ten years ago that Mrs Chrisparkle and I went to see the Take That musical Never Forget at the Milton Keynes Theatre. Mrs C has always been a TT aficionado, and I’d always quite liked their songs, so we went along. The show was as dull as ditchwater, with a lousy book; and although the performances were good, the show never ignited until the last ten minutes, when the post-curtain call cast abandoned all the storyline pretences and just did a few songs as a Take That Tribute Act – and they were brilliant.

The Band 1The Band – the new musical based on the songs of Take That, and whose creation TV audiences partly saw with the series Let It Shine to choose the boys who would be in the band – is almost the exact opposite of Never Forget. That dull, poorly written show has been replaced by a feelgood, funny and charming tale of five 16 year old girls in 1992, fantasising about meeting their boyband heroes at a gig, and their adult counterparts 25 years later. Rather than giving us a Take That tribute act, the five boys of Five to Five, the winning group on the TV show, simply become a typical boyband of their own. There’s no point trying to identify which of the guys is Gary, or Robbie, or Jason (or Mark, or Howard…. sorry, Mrs C’s enthusiasm has rubbed off on me a little) because they’re not presented that way. And that, in my humble opinion, is both a strength and a weakness of this new show. Strength – in that it allows the boys and the show to acquire their own unique identities. Weakness – well, if you’re expecting 2 and a half hours of Take That-ery, you’ll be disappointed.

The Band 3Of course, the TV show is now fifteen months in the past, and we couldn’t for the life of us remember any of the winning competitors. All that original pizzazz of the show has gone into making pre-tour sales an enormous success – allegedly this is the biggest selling show in advance of press night ever – but not into making celebrities of the guys involved. I realised a few minutes before heading out to the theatre that, apart from knowing it had Take That music in it, I knew precious little about anything else to do with the show. The head of steam built up by the TV programme has long gone cold. As a result, the show, and especially the boys, have to win you over perhaps a little more than if this was just any old musical based on a pop group’s output (and let’s face it, there are plenty of those to choose from). And if you’re expecting a high impact start from the guys – well think again. The Band in cupboardsThe five boys don’t instantly hit the ground running with a perfect Take That tribute show – in fact, when they first come on stage they crawl out of various parts of young Rachel’s bedroom, giving me a slightly disturbing memory of Helen Reddy’s Angie Baby, if you’re old enough to remember that. That slowish start, not helped by some first night teething troubles, some murky sounds, underpowered microphones for the boys singing and a missed cue from the understudy playing the fifth member of the band, meant that I thought the first twenty minutes or so of the show was, shall we say, a bit scruffy around the edges.

Rachel and the boysBut at some point, everything clicked into place and I ended up enjoying this way more than I expected. It’s actually a very well written and funny show, heavy on pathos but never maudlin, about middle-aged people coming to terms with who they are, especially in comparison with their hopes and their dreams when they were teenagers. It also plays very nicely on the potential double meanings of the word Band. It is, perhaps, not totally original in its concepts; there’s something of the Shirley Valentine about the character of Rachel, who always dreamed of being married but has never been walked down the aisle, even though she’s partnered up with the unimaginative but well-meaning Geoff. When she breaks free from his ideas of how to spend the Boys Keep SingingPrague holiday that she won in a radio competition, and confesses she wants to go with her old schoolmates instead of him and their friends, he can’t grasp it. But she can, and the audience can, and when she turns up at the airport she gets a spontaneous round of applause for her character’s assertiveness. There’s also something of the Mamma Mia about the four forty-somethings behaving badly around Prague, to the sound of classic poptastic hits. There’s even a nod to Joe Orton with the unfortunate scandal of the damaged statue in Prague meeting the same fate as that of Winston Churchill in What The Butler Saw.

The Band 5Personally, I found it unbelievable that the four friends had never been in contact since they were 16. Even as far back as the mid-1990s, there were millions of people subscribed to Friends Reunited. With all the juicy scandals in their past – you’ll have to watch the show to find out what they are – there’s no way that all could have been kept a secret from each other. But it is without question their bond that is the unifying structure of the show – and not the boyband, perhaps surprisingly. In fact, the boys only take centre stage on a few occasions. Most of the time, they represent their own musical earworm; appearing as flight attendants or ground crew; shop salesmen, bus passengers, or even the statues in a Prague fountain. Message balloonsThey are background characters, reflecting the ever-present nature of your favourite group that lives in your head and every so often gives you an unexpected performance of their music. They are a benign, reassuring presence; but distinctly in the background, rather like an old-fashioned chorus in a musical. It’s vital for the structure of the show for the girls and the boys never to meet, for otherwise their imaginary presence in the girls’ lives would become real and all those fantasies would be shattered.

The Band 4Musically, it’s a strong show. It’s fascinating to see how well the Take That songs blend into the story-telling; it’s a very natural mix, and surprising just how “show tunes” many of their songs are. John Donovan’s backing musicians provide a great sound and the cast – the younger girls, the older girls, and the boys, all sing really well – in fact, the ladies’ harmonies are pretty spectacular. A couple of the boys – AJ and Curtis – truly excel at dancing too. Hats off to Harry Brown for taking over from the indisposed Yazdan Qafouri as the fifth member of the group.

Rachel and GeoffThere’s something about Rachel Lumberg that makes you just love her on stage. We’ve seen her a couple of times in Sheffield in The Full Monty and This is My Family (also written by Tim Firth, I notice) and she never fails to delight. She has such a warm and honest onstage persona that you really feel she’s confiding just in you. It’s a beautiful performance and Tuesday night’s audience absolutely adored her. There’s also a wonderfully funny and emotional performance from Alison Fitzjohn as Claire, and spirited performances from Emily Joyce as Heather and Jayne McKenna as Zoe. Amongst the 16-year-old girls’ cast, Katy Clayton stands out with her funny and attitudinal performance as young Heather, and Rachelle Diedericks as the kind and tragic young Debbie. There are also some scene-stealing moments from Andy Williams (not THE Andy Williams) as Every Other Male Role which he tackles with a great sense of fun. But everyone turns in a great performance and helps make the show a success.

The Band 2I had few expectations of this show – and was really very pleasantly surprised. There were plenty of TT fans in the audience, who all did the dance gestures along with the cast but it never became so immersive an experience that they forgot they were at the theatre. This is more than mere hen party fodder, more than just a piece of bubblegum pap; the show has interesting things to say about the nature of friendships, fandom, and learning how to let go of your past. A charming story beautifully told. The show has already been touring since last autumn and has almost another year still to go, so there are still plenty of opportunities to catch it. If you think you might like it, you almost certainly will. If you think you won’t, then you may be quite surprised. Worth a punt!

Production photos by Matt Crockett

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 25th May 2018

Screaming Blue MurderIt was a slightly strange Screaming Blue Murder last Friday with which to end the season – as we had three tried and tested terrific acts and Dan Evans, our usual MC par excellence, but for some reason the whole night never quite soared. I blame the new layout. They’ve now placed the stage into the top right corner of the room, so that the first few rows spread out in a circular, sunray like, pattern until we get to the middle of the room, and then the further back rows are still as they’ve always been. Sitting on the third row, directly on the right edge of the aisle, I found I had simply too much space around me, which detracted from that sweaty intimacy that makes a comedy club really work.

Dan EvansNevertheless, Dan was on cracking form as usual, discussing the ins and outs of solar panels with a solar panel fitting team from Irthlingborough (yes, there really is one) and the cost of a boiler installation with a guy in the second row who applied an additional Brighton mark-up in order to fleece those rich south coast dwellers even more. Retired financier Richard, his best mate John and their wives took up the other half of the front row and were, at different times, both comedy-enhancers and joy vampires, depending on the questions they were asked by whoever was on stage. It was ever thus.

WindsorIn a change from the advertised programme, our first act was Windsor. Now, I would have said Windsor was more of a headliner than a first-on, but as he himself explained, this is only his second appearance since recovering from an aneurysm earlier in the year – so that deserves a round of applause on its own for his being so genuinely amazing on a rapid return to form (and indeed to work!) The last time we saw Windsor, he was standing in for Dan as compere, and it was me whom he decided to collar in the front row (we were in the second row but no one sat in front of us). I have to say his ability to banter rude chat with people he’s never met is second to none. So what if he did virtually repeat his entirely same act as on previous occasions, he’s so good you just sit back and watch a master at work. This time it was Richard he chose to describe his favourite sex position, and, rather like I did, he disappointed with his tame reply. One of the solar panel guys suggested the wheelbarrow, which sent Windsor off into paroxysms of joy. If I remember rightly, that was one of the positions in the Vatican Sex Manual, as reprinted in Eric Idle’s Rutland Dirty Weekend Television book in the 1970s; famed for the absolute impossibility of getting pregnant in that position.

Earl OkinOur second act was Earl Okin, whom we’ve also seen before, most recently in 2015. Mr Okin’s musical act, which centres on his being an unlikely sex symbol, all puckering lips and smart spats, is as constant as the northern star, but he’s so delightfully ludicrous that it still remains very funny. Just the three songs – his opening gigolo number, his bossa nova version of Wheatus’ pièce de resistance, and his blues tribute to a fat girl. If you’re in the mood, he’s the perfect act; and I’d say that the vast majority of us were in that mood.

Markus BirdmanOur headline act was the brilliant Markus Birdman, whom we’ve seen many times before and who won the Chrisparkle Award for Best Screaming Blue Standup in 2013. He’s an incredible performer, with so much assurance, so much attack and the ability to surprise you with some really unexpected punchlines and sequences. He’d done some of the material before, but plenty of it was new and sparkled as you would expect. However – and I told you we were a weird audience – when he started reading out some gags from a book (this was part of the act, he wasn’t relying on a crib sheet) the atmosphere fell a little flat and some of the lines just didn’t get a reaction. Mr Birdman was as surprised as anyone, as I’m sure these have been tried and tested up and down the country before. Nevertheless, he’s still a cracking performer and one of the most mischievous and creative on the circuit.

And that’s it for the Spring season… no more Screaming Blues until September. Six shows are scheduled for between 14th September and 16th November so why not get booking now?

Review – Stuart Goldsmith, Like I Mean It, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 18th May 2018

Like I Mean ItIt’s getting to be a bit of habit. This is the third time that Stuart Goldsmith has come to Northampton on a Friday night to give us his last year’s Edinburgh show before trying out some new material for this year’s show. And it’s a habit of which I entirely approve. Northampton seems to love Mr Goldsmith and for the most part he seems to love us back, which makes for a very convivial evening.

He’s an incredibly self-assured performer without ever wandering into the realm of arrogance, which puts the audience at ease right from the start, as you know he’s going to be fully professional and at the same time rather charmingly approachable. He’s not the kind of comic who picks on you a lot – not unless you really, really deserve it – so if you’re uncertain whether to risk sitting in the front, you’re unlikely to come a-cropper unless you make a nuisance of yourself. In our performance, we had a gentleman sitting in the front row, who, two-thirds of the way into Mr Goldsmith’s highly polished Edinburgh show, Like I Mean It, proceeded to take out a bag of crisps and munch them noisily. We’d already encountered this chap earlier in the show as a self-confessed vegan (aren’t they all?) Mr Goldsmith gave him brownie points for being a vegan but then took them away again when he provided the munch-distraction. Mr G decided he couldn’t carry on whilst battling against the noise. Would the gentleman please put the bag down on the floor for 20 minutes? The man didn’t seem impressed. Please? He relented. Rather like a conductor with his baton poised waiting for the orchestra to be completely ready, I reckon Mr Goldsmith would have lasted a long, long time if he had to. Part of that self-assurance means he’s also incredibly assertive.

Stuart GoldsmithLike I Mean It is a further exploration of Mr Goldsmith’s married life with wife and toddler. He packs his material with loads of brilliant observations that vary from the blindingly obvious to the bizarrely surreal. There are funny stories about how he has to sneak back into the house late at night because his wife is not only an insomniac but also a light sleeper – a vicious combination. He regrets how, now he has a child, he can no longer make the adult decision never to go swimming again. He likens their domestic arrangement to the fragile intensity of completing a Crystal Maze game. Being a husband and a father means that, whilst he’s never been happier, he’s also never been more resentful of other people’s happiness, and I’m sure that’s a very common sensation!

After the break he came back with some work in progress nuggets, to try them out on us to see if we liked them. As in last year’s show, his WIPs were equally entertaining as his carefully honed sequences of the first half. Here’s a very nice concept for his new show: he has an older friend to whom he looks up and gets inspiration for doing the right thing, and he also has a younger friend whom he knows does precisely the same to him. He has a great idea of envisioning a whole expedition of people, all leading each other through life and through the generations, each getting closer towards some grand, end-of-life precipice, where they all shout go back, it’s not worth it. Another idea I really liked was how his wife is trying to set him up with a friend of his own age, as though he were eight; which gives way to a discussion on how men don’t make friends after school/university (I do, but I’m an exception, I know!) There are also some great observations about why most men dress really badly, and a toe-curling sequence about how he resolved the problem of going to a mate’s house only to discover it was his birthday and he hadn’t got him a card. Brilliantly painful stuff!

Stu GoldsmithLong may Mr Goldsmith’s association with Northampton continue – he brings a ray of very clever and superbly eloquent sunshine to our otherwise dreary nights! And as for you other parts of the country – his tour is continuing through to the end of June, so you’ll get a chance to see him too. Hopefully by then he’ll be match fit for Edinburgh!

Review – Art, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 16th May 2018

ArtIt was almost 16 years ago that Mrs Chrisparkle and I last saw Yasmina Reza’s award-winning comedy Art; it was at the Whitehall Theatre (now the Trafalgar Studios) and the constantly changing cast at the time consisted of Ben Cross, Michael Gyngell and Sanjeev Bhaskar. Mrs C adored it; I liked it a lot, but I remember thinking that it lost its way halfway through. So I was keen to see how it shapes up to someone in their latish fifties in comparison with their earlyish forties.Art it's a white picture When I realised it was to be staged in the large Derngate auditorium I wondered if it was a good match; I’d have thought it was much more appropriate for the intimacy of the Royal. But, surprisingly, it works really well on a larger stage; it’s almost as though it gains a grandeur simply by virtue of space.

Art it's still a white pictureIn case you don’t know – modern art fanatic Serge has bought a painting for 200,000 Francs, and it’s a heck of a lot to pay, even for an Antios, from his 1970s period. The trouble is, the painting is just white. There are a few diagonal lines on it, and a little raised texture, but at the end of the day, it’s just white. Serge is enormously proud of it. He shows it to his friend Marc, a connoisseur of Flemish landscapes and portraits, who describes it as a piece of white shit. Art no matter which way you look at itHe shows it to their third friend Yvan, who’s not a connoisseur at all, who also recognises it as a piece of white shit but doesn’t want to offend Serge, so he tries to see in the painting all those aspects that appeal to the more cultured and experienced Serge. Yvan’s deliberate peace-keeping approach annoys the tetchy Marc; and consequently, their mutual friendship falters on the rocks.

Art things are getting heatedIn some regards the play is a fresh slant on The Emperor’s New Clothes, with the problem of whether to tell the pseud Serge that his painting, basically, has nothing on. From such a simple idea, Yasmine Reza (in a beautiful translation by Christopher Hampton) created a very deep and telling play about the nature of friendship, cultural superiority, art versus reason, fact versus fantasy, truth and falsehood, and the power of language. Words like deconstruction become a weapon in the struggle to establish a pecking order between Serge and Marc (Yvan’s already miles behind); the phrase the way she waves away cigarette smoke, for example, becomes a much more interesting sentence than the concept itself.

Art Marc has lost his sense of humourThat all sounds very dry and dusty but the reason this play ran for eight years in the West End is because it is so incredibly funny; and it also lends itself superbly to the strengths of a range of actors, each of whom can develop their characters in a way that suits the individual performer. In a sense (and soz if this sounds pretentious) each character is a blank canvas on which the actor can paint his own personality, providing it falls roughly within the guidelines of Marc = pedantic, Serge = artistically pompous, Yvan = ordinary Everyman. This touring production has a terrific cast, who capture our attention from the start and give three brilliant performances.

Art Serge has made a dreadful mistakeDenis Lawson gives a superb performance as the irascible Marc, with a clipped, no-nonsense delivery and the confident air of someone who always sees things in black and white (white mainly in this play). Nigel Havers is hilarious from the start as Serge, with his brilliant facial expressions and desperate need for approval from the others. Stephen Tompkinson’s Yvan is a wholly recognisable account of a man with the weight of the world on his shoulders who frankly couldn’t give a toss about the painting but does care deeply about his friends. All three work together incredibly well.

Art Yvan's getting marriedThere’s a scene towards the end that really challenges the audience as to how they feel about a) valuable paintings, b) this particular painting and c) to what extent you would trust your friend to do the right thing. When the friend doesn’t do the right thing, the gasp of horror from the audience is deafening. And then, the scene concludes with the biggest belly laugh of the night. Beautifully performed, and masterfully created by Reza/Hampton.

Art Nigel Havers and Denis LawsonSo how did this shape up, sixteen years since I last saw it? I thought it was brilliant. I got much more out of it this time; I’m not sure if that’s because of the performances or my own greater maturity (no honestly), but whatever, I’d really recommend this show. This Old Vic production has already been on a fairly extensive tour and has just three more stops after Northampton, in Birmingham, Cardiff and Canterbury. You must go!

Art by numbersP. S. By the end of the play I realised that I had become rather attached to the painting. There was something about its texture and essential whiteness that resonated within me. Maybe that Antios was on to something. However, I did see it more as a £29.99 job from the TK Maxx Home department than 200k.

Production photos by Matt Crockett