Review – Simon Amstell, What is This, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th November 2017

what+is+thisI’d only previously come across Simon Amstell in the fantastic TV programme Grandma’s House, which Mrs Chrisparkle and I used to watch with regular and loyal expectation. Not only for Mr Amstell’s contribution, but also Rebecca Front, Samantha Spiro, Linda Bassett and the late Geoffrey Hutchings were all on brilliant form. Mr Amstell also co-wrote it, so that’s got to indicate that he’s a bright spark. I realised he also regularly indulged in a spot of stand-up but for reasons that are too dull to mention here, we never got around to seeing him – until now.

But I’m running before I walk. As a support act, Mr Amstell has engaged the services of another bright spark, Mawaan Rizwan. As soon as I read that he would be starting the show, I instantly remembered where I had seen him before; he made a very illuminating documentary for BBC3 entitled How Gay is Pakistan? Answer: not particularly. Apparently, he’s most famous for being a Youtube sensation, but of course I wouldn’t know anything about that.

Mawaan Rizwan 2There’s a similarity between Mr Amstell and Mr Rizwan – they’re both gay. However, there the similarity ends; Mr Amstell is lugubriously gay, whereas Mr Rizwan is effervescently gay. If Alka-Seltzer could turn you gay, they would market Mr Rizwan in soluble form. But whereas a large amount of Mr A’s material centres on his life as a gay man, Mr R plucks hilarious, surreal routines out of absolutely nothing, with his sexuality being largely irrelevant to the material. He rendered a full house helpless with laughter by pelting us with baby wipes, each time giving us a perfectly good reason why we deserved the pelting. He has another routine where he tries out new (silly) walks – a John Cleese for the 21st century, perhaps? Mr R’s physical comedy is absolutely first rate. He was joined by the very helpful Matt from the end of Row C who then had to spend the rest of the show nursing a bundle of disparate hardware items – don’t ask. He had some great material about using his boyfriend as a therapist, and he created a lovely callback regarding his previous job; get me being all comedy-technical. He had the entire theatre in hysterics, and I expect the cleaners will be hoovering up glitter for months. I thought he was brilliant.

After the interval we’re back for the main event, Simon Amstell asking What is This; this being life, the world around us, the daily treadmill that governs our waking hours. Can’t remember if he came up with an answer; don’t think he did. Mr A has a very diffident manner of delivering his stand up; he’s quiet and unassuming. Mr R bounded on stage and his body shrieked Hey Look at Me, whereas Mr A sidled on, and his body muttered Hey Please Don’t Look at Me; a very interesting pairing. Mr A’s material centred solely on his life experience, how he realised he was gay, and how his general awkwardness in life doesn’t naturally go hand in hand with his sexuality. He had a lovely story about going to Magaluf with a bunch of mates, and how they got on; a slightly less lovely story about going to Paris to find himself as a teenager, but still with a classic punchline.

Simon AmstellHis recollections and accounts are indeed very funny, but the whole hour in his company felt like one massive group therapy session. It’s as though the NHS has granted him one precious appointment to come on stage and talk about himself, to get things off his chest. Of course, most comedians spend their entire act talking about themselves – because, after all, they’re the people they know best – but with Mr Amstell it does tend to feel somewhat egoistical. Not, in any way, big-headed or arrogant, in fact far from it; more in that it’s totally his experiences, his thoughts, and the way life affects him. If you drew a Venn Diagram on how Mr A and the outside world interact, you’d just have a picture of him in a circle.

I did also feel that he lacks a sense of light and shade in his delivery; it’s all recounted at one pace, and in one tone of voice; very much in the style of the therapeutic confessional. Much of his material turned into an analysis of his relationship with his father, which was fascinating, and wry; but you didn’t feel like he’d welcome you laughing at what he was saying, because it would be quite insensitive. Having said that, there were clearly some stony-faced people in the front row who were unsettling Mr Amstell with their arm-folded frostiness. One of them made the tactical error of getting her phone out. Mr A wasn’t having any of that (and quite right too!)

Maawan RizwanI don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t enjoy his set, because I did. It’s just that after about half an hour I found that the initial smile and happy countenance that had greeted his earlier material had started to freeze on my face and I discovered that I just wasn’t giving any laughter back. The smile remained, because I enjoyed hearing what he had to say, but despite my pressing F5 in my head, it wasn’t getting refreshed into laughter. There are just a handful of tour dates remaining up to the end of the month, but Mr Rizwan is doing a full work-in-progress show at Contact, Manchester, on 2nd December. If you’re around, that’s a no-brainer.

Review – This Evil Thing, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 14th November 2017

This Evil Thing ProgrammeI have no information about my ancestors’ involvement in World War One. All my grandparents died before I was born. My maternal grandfather was born in 1900 so would have been too young for conscription and didn’t enjoy good health anyway. Of my paternal grandfather I know hardly anything. About World War Two I know a lot more. My father served in the Royal Navy and was totally scarred by his experiences which I researched and wrote about here and here. All I know of my maternal grandfather’s WW2 is that he was stationed at Stirling Castle, saw ghosts and was never the same man again. My mother was in the ATS and told me how she once spent Christmas Day sending out death notices to grieving families. Was she sympathetic to the stance taken by conscientious objectors? Absolutely not. Cowards who made it worse for themselves was her uncompromising attitude; and I’m sure she was in the majority.

TET1As Michael Mears points out, in his exceptionally fascinating one-man play This Evil Thing, in our generation, we have not been tested. If we were called up to go to a war where we’re simply cannon fodder, how would we react? Would we put Queen and Country first? Would we engage in acts of disobedience? It really makes you think hard. If the Falklands Conflict had escalated out of hand and turned into full-scale war between the UK and Argentina, I was the perfect age to be conscripted; and I do remember it being a very active worry.

Michael MearsMichael Mears confesses from the start (if confession is the right word) that he is a pacifist, and he too wonders how strong his resolve would be if faced with the personal challenge in the same way that the brave (there’s no question as to their bravery) conscientious objectors of the First World War. This beautifully constructed work tells us the stories of, amongst others, Bert Brocklesby, schoolteacher and Methodist lay preacher; James Brightmore, a solicitor’s clerk from Manchester; and Norman Gaudie, who played football for Sunderland reserves; they were also CO’s. There were many others like them. We learn how they are abused for their principles, how they were packed off to France, unknown to the British Government, of the methods used to try to persuade them to change their minds, the punishments they received, and what happened after the war to those that survived. We also meet luminaries like Bertrand Russell and Clifford Allen, Chairman of the No-Conscription Fellowship, vigorously campaigning for alternatives to conscription; with Russell dodging both literal and metaphorical bullets in his dealings with Prime Minister Asquith. After 80 quick minutes, you feel so much better informed about this much misunderstood and swept-under-the-carpet aspect of the First World War.

This Evil Thing TextThe production was, by all accounts, a wow at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, and in many ways it’s the perfect fringe show. A blank stage, with just a few crates and packing cases utilised imaginatively, creates all sorts of settings. I love it when it’s up to the audience to interpret a minimalist set, because not even the world’s finest designers can flesh out the appearance of a stage quite like your own imagination can. It was a charming addition to the staging to have some very realistic props, like the elegant teacup and the incongruous sherry glass, which are brought into sharp focus when juxtaposed with the imaginariness of the set. The text is intelligent and creative, thought-provoking and, from time to time, surprisingly funny. The whole concept of a naked Bertrand Russell addressing Asquith with just a hanky covering his modesty was wonderfully quirky.

TET2But what really makes the theatrical experience so vivid is Mr Mears’ brilliant portrayals of over forty characters, each with their own voice and accent, tone and style. He makes us believe those people are really there. We knew that he’s an excellent actor from his previous appearances in A Tale of Two Cities and The Herbal Bed (actually, he was the best thing about both productions), but in This Evil Thing he steps that acting skill up several notches. Mr Mears’ commitment to his own material – and the verbatim testimonies of many of the people involved – is simply a pleasure to behold.

Michael MearsAnd what of that rhetorical question? If the nations collide again like they did a hundred years ago, would you, a person who respects life and would never commit a crime against another human being, refuse to take arms against your fellow man? Moreover, would you see your friends and relatives die for the nation’s cause whilst you exempted yourself from that responsibility? Brocklesby tosses a coin to help make that decision. I think I’d look at a photo of my dad in his navy uniform and ask his advice. With any luck, it’ll never happen.

This terrific little theatrical nugget is currently on a tour of small theatres, churches and Quakers Meeting Houses in England and Wales. Highly recommended!

Review – Blood Brothers, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 6th November 2017

Blood BrothersI remember hearing a broadcast on Radio 3 once (I know, get me) where the announcer was introducing a performance of Handel’s Water Music. The question arose: why do we have to hear Handel’s Water Music again, it’s so commonplace and everyone knows it, let’s hear something more experimental? The announcer’s response? “Just remember, every time Handel’s Water Music is played, some young person is hearing it for the first time, and what a beautiful moment that is for them”. That’s so true, and it’s the same with Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers. It’s been around since the early 80s and hardly ever stops touring in some guise or other; surely we’ve had enough of it now? For the answer to that, gentle reader, you only had to hear the shocked gasps from (I would guess) at least half the packed audience at the Derngate on Monday night to tell you that every time a performance of Blood Brothers takes place, someone sees it for the first time; and what emotional nourishment it provides.

Blood-Brothers-group-shotThis was the third time we’ve seen it, and it’s been too long a gap. Our first experience was at the Albery (now Noel Coward) theatre in 1988, with Kiki Dee as Mrs Johnstone and Con O’Neill as Mickey. Our second was in 1995, at the Apollo (now back to being called the New) in Oxford, with Clodagh Rodgers as Mrs J and David Cassidy (yes, the David Cassidy) as Mickey. Of course, the first production had Barbara Dickson in the role; and this current touring version stars Lyn Paul. Honestly, where would Mrs Johnstone be without great recording stars of the 1970s?!

Each Mrs J has her own unique characterisation and approach. Kiki Dee was punchy and aggressive, a true fighter. Clodagh Rodgers had a faux-refinement and aspirations to sophistication which meant she had further to fall at the end. Lyn Paul’s Mrs J is running on empty from the start, with dreary memories of her wretch of an ex-husband, exhausted from looking after all those kids and genuinely despairing at the prospect of another two mouths to feed. By the time the show ends, Ms Paul has wrung all her emotions out and is a defeated husk. That’s probably an extremely realistic interpretation.

sean jonesThis show has always had a special place in our hearts, especially Mrs Chrisparkle’s, as, at the age of five, she, along with her parents and brothers, were rehoused from their flat above Fazakerley Post Office, to 65 Skelmersdale Lane – or at least Flamstead, in Skem. Just like the Johnstones, she remembers the green fields, and the fresh air, and so much space everywhere. Away from the muck and the dirt and the bloody trouble, it really was a Bright New Day for everyone.

Dean ChisnallLooking back now, from the viewpoint of today’s 21st century national austerity, to the strikes, unemployment and poverty of the 1980s, nothing much seems to have changed. After Miss Jones was dismissed from her job, despite being a perfect poppet, as just another sign of the times, I don’t suppose she got another job. The only difference today is that today’s Mr Lyons will be creating his own dismissal letters on Word rather than dictating them to a fetching young secretary. That’s progress. And a wealthy upbringing and education is still much more likely to lead to a successful career than playing on the street, being cheeky with your teacher and becoming factory fodder – or today’s equivalent, zero hours contracts in the gig economy. That’s life, but it’s not progress. The essence of the show is to hold up a mirror of nature against nurture, and value kindness, decency, and friendship. In our land of postcode lotteries, where health, benefits and education can depend on which side of the road you live on, that question why did you give me away, I could have been him? seems more relevant than ever today.

I was very struck this time by how the story is completely infused with elements of superstition all the way through. From the portentous saying that if twins separated at birth learn that they were once one of a pair they will both immediately die, to Mrs Johnstone’s horror at seeing new shoes on the table, to looking a magpie in the eye, to the kids’ games where you can get up again if you cross your fingers, folklore and fear rules the roost. I’d always realised it was heavily melodramatic, starting with the end tableau (although a little more stylised than I’ve seen before), so you know there’s never going to be a happy ending. The gloomy, menacing presence of the Narrator is a constant threat and intrusion on their lives, coming right up close to the characters, like a perpetual harbinger of doom, a bad dream that unsettles and disturbs their waking hours. There is light and shade in this show, but shade wins every time.

Danielle CorlassThe performances are superb throughout. I must confess that, at first, I was not entirely sure about Lyn Paul’s presentation of Mrs Johnstone. Her Mrs J is already thoroughly exhausted by everything that life has thrown at her right at the start of the show, and a vital spark was lacking. But as the show developed, I could see that her quiet, serious portrayal was absolutely correct to the character. And what a voice! It’s so powerful, yet so pure; and so perfectly suited to Willy Russell’s amazing lyrics and melodies. It’s a really wonderful performance.

I was also very impressed with Sean Jones’ Mickey. It’s a role with so many elements and so vital to the success of the show. Willy Russell requires us to love Mickey right from the very start – and we do. Thoroughly believable as that irrepressible eight year old, seeing how high he can spit in the air, never going anywhere without his imaginary horse; then the easily embarrassed teenager at a dirty movie, ashamed of his pubescent body; the enthusiastic young worker, doing the overtime and planning on spending it on great Christmas parties; and then, when the harsh reality of life kicks in, the aggressive, jealous Mickey who realises that his life will lack the texture and depth of his best friend’s; and the broken Mickey relying on medication to keep his brain from dancing. Only Five Ages of Man for Mickey as he dies so young, but Sean Jones nails them all absolutely. We’d all like to have a best friend like Mickey – the younger one, that is; someone who makes you laugh, someone who’ll always be on your side; but isn’t a goody-two-shoes either. No wonder the audience is devastated at the end.

Sarah Jane BuckleyIt’s very difficult to portray the eight-year-old Eddie effectively; he’s so posh and innocent, and so different from Mickey that our instant reaction is to mock him rather than side with him. I thought that Mark Hutchinson’s characterisation of him was so wet, and so soft, that it was very unlikely that Mickey would have taken to him. However, once he becomes Eddie the teenager, that’s when he comes into his own. Shag the vicar! Eddie has one of the most telling songs in the show, the restrained and delicate I’m Not Saying a Word, and I really enjoyed Mr Hutchinson’s performance. One character whom in previous productions I’ve always thought of as a bit of an irritant and easily ignored, is Mrs Lyons, but in this production Sarah Jane Buckley gives such a tremendous performance that she is also equally vital to the success of the show. She brings out all the character’s fears and weaknesses; and you readily agree with the diagnosis of others that she probably needs mental health treatment. Ms Buckley also has an amazing voice and is a true credit to the production.

danny-taylor-sammy-sean-jones-mickeyDanielle Corlass’ Linda develops very believably from a squeaky but spirited little girl into a teenager with a massive crush on Mickey, and then into a smart and positive young woman – a very good performance. Dean Chisnall is the least Scouse Narrator I’ve seen (singing “you know the devil’s got your number” and not “nombare”) but has a strong stage presence and great singing voice; and Daniel Taylor’s Sammy, who was always a bad lot, turns that childhood bully into an adult hoodlum with sadly predictable authenticity.

lyn-paulThat massive gasp of shock when the brothers died at the end said it all. The audience were so enthralled and wrapped up in what was going on that they couldn’t keep their emotions in. It’s an excellent production of a staggeringly good show, among the very best musicals of all time. It’s enjoying a week at the Royal and Derngate, before continuing its tour to Nottingham, Sunderland, Bath, Belfast, Weston-super-Mare, Aylesbury, Darlington, Edinburgh, Cheltenham, Rhyl, Carlisle, Barnstaple, Truro, Wolverhampton, Ipswich, Southampton and reaching Manchester in the middle of May. I can’t recommend it too strongly but do book early because everyone else will!

Review – Jason Manford – Work in Progress (Muddle Class), Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 4th November 2017

Jason Manford WIPLast weekend the Royal and Derngate played host to not one but two major comics trying out new material for their big tours next year. At short notice, in the Underground, Sarah Millican was (presumably) giving great value to a maximum of 160 people in what must have been a very special experience. In the main Derngate auditorium, and on sale for many months and pretty much sold out all that time, we had the pleasure of the company of Jason Manford, testing the water with new material for his 135-date Muddle Class tour which starts in Leeds in January and goes right on to Newcastle in December.

We’ve seen Mr Manford doing his stand-up once before, back in 2013 with his First World Problems tour. He won us over with his easy charm and relaxed attitude. Four years on and that’s still the same; there’s nothing remotely threatening about a Jason Manford gig, you’re never going to run the risk of being humiliated like if you go to see Julian Clary or Russell Brand, nor are you going to be faced with particularly challenging material. In fact, Mr Manford was very proud to say that he would hate it if anyone was ever offended by his act. I reckon that’s quite an unusual attitude; many comics would think that if someone was offended by their material, then they’re probably doing something right. But not Jason; too decent, too much of a family man, too rooted in (and I mean this kindly) a light entertainment approach to doing a gig.

First World ProblemsThe first half of the show was very much work-in-progress; he had his list of topics on a piece of paper and depending on our reaction each got either a tick or a cross. To be honest, I can’t imagine he had too many crosses. Amongst his subjects were those embarrassing times when you say something and someone takes it the wrong way – not a very pithy description there of what was actually some brilliant material. He also told us about what it was like to share an Edinburgh flat with John Bishop (Jase, do you want a smooooothie?), the dangers of hosting the PFA awards and how getting stuck on a waterslide is a good way of discovering you need to lose weight.

After the interval Mr M assured us that the rest of the material was more tried and tested. Well he needn’t have worried, everything up till then was funny anyway. As mentioned above, his new show is to be called Muddle Class, which is the closest to how he can now identify himself in the class system. When you were brought up poor and things were tough, but then you made good and you’re comfortably off, you can’t say you’re working class anymore, but you never felt like you were middle class either. There is some great material about coping with your children when they’re posher than you; in fact, he draws on his now considerable range of children (five kids under the age of eight) for a large chunk of his comic material. To be fair, doing that can alienate (slightly) the non-parents in the audience. However, he is so good-natured and inventive in his comedy approach that you forgive him for slightly overindulging on the family side; and I for one really enjoyed his accounts of living with the weird, scary daughter.

Other topics up for discussion, and which will presumably be honed to perfection when the tour properly kicks off in January, were a common theme running through Disney films (you won’t guess what it is) and how you could use a car to advertise Durex – a really clever and funny routine.

JasonManford-MuddleClassProfileHe ended, not with a Q&A as some comics tediously insist on, but with a song. Yes, gentle reader, I did say that he had a light entertainment touch. Mr M has just released an album of show tunes, and he treated us to a rendition of Javert’s song Stars from Les Miserables. Well, if it was good enough for Dickie Henderson, it’s good enough for him. I have to say it felt… unusual… to end a comedy gig this way, but that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. I’m as passionate about show tunes as the next guy. And he did sneak in some nice humour from an unfortunate pairing of words in the lyrics, which won’t ever have occurred to you before, but now you won’t be able to hear that song without giggling like a schoolgirl.

A very enjoyable, friendly, warm-hearted and very funny night’s entertainment. I expect most seats in next year’s 135-date tour are already sold, but I’d definitely recommend booking Mr Manford if you get your skates on!

Review – Rita, Sue and Bob Too, Out of Joint, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 4th November 2017

Rita Sue and Bob TooSome plays quickly date within a few years; others grow in stature and relevance over the years. We hadn’t seen the film of Rita, Sue and Bob Too so all I knew to expect was two young girls/women having an affair with an older man. Andrea Dunbar’s original play dates from 1982, and has been revised and edited by John Hollingworth for a 21st century audience. I was really surprised to discover a robust and daring play that nevertheless treads a delicate balance to reveal the truth about a way of life on a Bradford council estate.

RSB3In a nutshell, Rita and Sue are two fifteen-year old girls who babysit for Bob and Michelle, who, despite going out a lot, enjoy a fairly unhappy marriage. Michelle has retreated, sexually, from the relationship and Bob, who’s (apparently) 27 is constantly on the lookout for alternative sources of nookie. Before the play starts, he’s already been unfaithful – many times over – with another woman. But as Bob is driving Rita and Sue back home after their babysitting stint, he suggests they go visit the moors, which the girls are only too willing to do (they know what he’s up to); and once they’re there, he proposes sex – again with the same response from the girls; and thereby starts an affair with both of them at the same time that lasts a number of months. Will Michelle guess what’s going on? Will the girls’ parents? You’ll have to catch the play to find out.

RSB4With the revelations about such monsters as Jimmy Savile and Rolf Harris, we, as a society, have had to re-evaluate our younger days and reconsider what is acceptable behaviour and what is not. The uncomfortable truth is that this play asks us to laugh at, maybe even sympathise with, a serial paedophile. There’s a moment when the girls recognise that they have to keep quiet about their threesome activity, because if the police find out, Bob could go to jail and they could go into care. So they know full well the illegality of what they’re doing; but of course, sometimes added danger and criminality provide an extra frisson. Without giving away the entire plot, it’s fascinating from today’s viewpoint that it appears that no one involved in the story gets a final come-uppance; despite all the immorality and recklessness, in the main there’s actually no harm done at the end of the day.

RSB5So does that make it an immoral play? It was written by a very young woman with first-hand knowledge of living in the Bradford estates, where it takes place; Andrea Dunbar fell pregnant at the age of fifteen, and had two children (from different fathers) whilst still a teenager. She knew that life very well, and wrote these semi-autobiographical accounts to express the reality of life on Brafferton Arbor in the Buttershaw estate. If it is an immoral play, then it’s because it simply reflects an immoral lifestyle. But if that lifestyle is a true depiction of what went on, then is it immoral to tell the truth? I think everyone who sees this play will have their own answer to that.

RSB8It’s a chirpy little production, with its brightness nowhere more apparent than with the opening scene, where all six characters appear, in their own little worlds, getting ready to go out of an evening, to the sounds of Soft Cell’s Tainted Love. They preen in front of the mirror, or sing into their hairbrush; Sue’s mum huffs and puffs in her housecoat, her dad idly dad-dances down the pub. The set behind them shows two blocks of flats with the lights in windows of various rooms and apartments coming on and going off; and in between, what you could almost describe as a 1970s mural of the country moors where the louse Bob will take the girls for their regular sessions of hows-your-father. The regular reminder of some great 80s tunes really does help set the scene, with their false optimism and working-class bravado. When Rita, Sue and Bob too reach the moors, and all agree to have it off, I couldn’t help but admire the stagecraft of the scene. James Atherton gives a very realistic illusion of Bob pounding his member between each of the girls’ legs. It’s a clever combination of slightly shocking, very funny and weirdly hypnotic as they wrapped their white-socked feet around his naked bum.

RSB7All six actors give great performances full of character, humour and attack. Taj Atwal’s Rita is a lovely study of someone who’s almost demure and coquettish and a little bit squeamish but rather innocently goes about getting as much sex as possible as though it were an extra bag of sweets or a naughty glass of cider. Gemma Dobson’s Sue is a little more adventurous and manipulative, just sitting and waiting for Bob to come and do the honours, like a diner expects the waiter to bring his food in a timely manner. The two have a great connection between each other, with wonderful comic timing and a really fluid delivery of their lines; you truly believe they are best pals in each other’s pockets all day. The aforementioned Mr Atherton’s Bob is a suitably cocky so-and-so, and if he does feel any guilt to his regular playing away with underage girls, he hides it well.

RSB6Sally Bankes gives a strong performance as Sue’s mum, giving her wastrel husband what-for at every opportunity, dishing out tough love to her daughter and blaming everything on Rita. David Walker also gives a great performance as Dad, trying to rule with a rod of iron and lots of bluster but essentially weak and useless. And I really liked Samantha Robinson as Michelle, unable to stop loving her wretch of a husband despite his infidelities, putting on the bravest of faces when everyone else around her holds her in contempt.

RSB2At 80 minutes with no interval, it isn’t quite a full evening’s entertainment and feels more like one element of a day at the fringe; that said, I really admired the tautness of the story-telling, with no scene or speech wasted, keeping the pace and content up throughout the whole show. Its run at Northampton is now over, but the tour continues to Doncaster, York, Derby, the Royal Court, Huddersfield and Mold between now and February. A very strong production of a fascinating, disturbing and funny play. Definitely recommended!

RSB1P. S. The man in front of us really got quite carried away in those early sex scenes. “GO ON MY SON” he shouted; “HE’S GOOD AT IT” he confided (not very quietly) to his lady friend; “I WISH I HAD HIS JOB” was his final analysis of the merits or otherwise of being Bob. There are times when it’s better to think these things privately rather than to share it with the group.

Production photos by Richard Davenport

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 3rd November 2017

Screaming Blue MurderSometimes you think you can predict how a Screaming Blue Murder will go, and sometimes you’re way off the mark… Surprise No 1 last Friday was that they’d changed the stage layout (such as it is) so that it straddled a corner of the room rather than the traditional square to the edge of the room – and I think that different perspective really worked. They’d also studded the backdrop with little lights which looked very jolly and gave the whole thing more of a sense of showbizzy occasion. I hope they keep it that way!

Dan EvansThe audience were quite a weird bunch on Friday night. The front two rows were exclusively taken up by one group of people, celebrating Mark’s 50th birthday (Congratulations Mark). Unfortunately, it meant they were all constantly laughing at things other members of the party were saying, which didn’t mean anything to the rest of us, so there was a feeling of being left out. Mark, you didn’t look 50, but your explanation about your accent went on a bit. The good thing was that our genial host Dan Evans was on cracking form and played off those first two rows beautifully, comparing the comedic value of one man’s heckles against another, and going where angels fear to tread with a lady in a white jumper that looked like she had her finger in the electric light socket.

OlaOur first act was Ola, whom we’ve seen twice before in 2012 and 2013 and I remember him being an absolute hoot. He still is; with his understated and deliberate delivery, slowly setting up situations for him to rip down at his leisure. He used the concept of telling people “it’s your fault” in many different and clever ways, which was much funnier than it sounds. Some lovely observations about race, swingers on wi-fi, and a new definition of a hard Brexit. A real master of his art, and constantly surprising. A great opener.

Joey PageNext up was Joey Page, whom we’d also seen before, back in 2015. He was great that time, so I was expecting something similar – but, unpredictably, somehow he just failed to get into gear. He still has his made-up facts, which are still very funny, and he still comes across as an engaging character but the material just never quite hit the mark. He got a guy from the front row up on stage to assist him in one routine, but this chap was sadly a bit dull. Ah well, it happens sometimes.

Paul ThorneOur headline act was Paul Thorne, who was new to us, and he was pure class right from the start. As he was developing a thread, again unpredictably, somewhere from the back of the room came the sound of a huge wet chunder. Imagine the sound of loudly pouring a full kettle of water onto rubber matting – I know, sorry to be so disgusting. The rather inebriated source of the vomit was quickly ushered out, presumably to spend the rest of the evening on the toilet. Although more than gobsmacked at the interruption, this was a fantastic opportunity for Mr Thorne to guide him through the rest of his set; it’s startling how many ways there are to weave vomit into your comic material. Just brilliant. Additionally, I loved his material about why Theresa May was no good at the Home Office, and his observations on a Taliban Gap Year were genius.

So, all in all, an unusual Screaming Blue, but still extremely funny. There’s one more left in this season, in two weeks’ time – sadly we’re otherwise engaged, so I’ll look forward to seeing more next year!

Review – Legally Blonde, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 16th October 2017

Legally BlondeIt’s been the best part of eight years since I started writing this blog and imparting my words of wisdom (winky emoji) about all the shows we’re lucky to see. And the very first one that I had a crack at was the new (at the time) production of Legally Blonde at the Savoy Theatre with Sheridan Smith as Elle. We enjoyed it a lot.

LB the girlsAll these years later and we’ve now seen it a second time last night at the Royal and Derngate as the current touring production makes its way to Northampton for a week. Ohmygodyouguys you could feel the excited vibe in the packed audience. We’ve still not seen the film, and if you haven’t either, then let me explain: basically this is the story of pink bimbo Elle, who looks squeakily divine, knows every fashion trick under the sun and lives life like an article in a woman’s magazine. Long term boyfriend Warner has ambitions to become a Big Name in The Law, and plans to go to Harvard Law School to realise his dream. However, Elle is the archetypal pretty vacant girlie, and she’s the wrong image for his ambitious plans; ergo, ditched. To win him back, Elle vows to get accepted at Harvard Law School too. Warner’s horrified to find she’s followed him there – especially as she discovers he’s now going out with serious student and certified bitch Vivienne. Will any of them take it lying down? And does Elle have what it takes to become a successful lawyer, or is her brain as windswept as an aircraft hangar? You’ll have to see it to find out!

LB Elle at HarvardHaving loved the original production, I had high hopes for this new version; and I confess that I was a little disappointed in it. There’s no doubt that this is a good musical, but last night’s show was beset by quite a few problems that I hope get ironed out before any more performances take place. Up until the interval the sound quality was frankly poor. The performers and the orchestra were way over-amplified, resulting in vibrating booming from the pit and unintelligible lyrics from the singers and dancers. This is a real shame, because I remember that the lyrics and book are very witty; but at least half of it came over as garbled and very hard to follow. Some technical whizzkid obviously worked wonders during the interval and the second act was much more pleasing on the ear. Even so, there were still a few rather embarrassing moments, like seeing stagehands run in at the back to hold part of the set in place, having the restaurant scene and one of the hairdresser scenes take place on wobbly platforms, a stagehand smoothing out the edge of the big Irish flag that descended onto the stage, dancers colliding during one of the numbers and a swing boy getting tangled up in the skipping rope during a dance routine. I’m wondering if they were late getting installed because it didn’t feel like they’d done any kind of run through in the new theatre.

LB HarvardWhilst I’m in grumpy mood, we both thought the production looked a little cheap. I’m sure the idea behind the set designs was to create a kind of childish environment – rather than going for reality, they go for full-on cutesy, to reflect the personality of Elle and her UCLA cheerleaders. Accordingly, the library at the Harvard Law School and the court room both have a quirky, slightly fairy tale appearance, as though they’d just evicted the old woman who lived in a shoe. Fair enough I guess; but I didn’t at all like the backdrop they used to suggest the gardens – it was painted in a very lifeless and amateurish style. All it lacked was the pantomime horse.

LB the partyLet’s concentrate on some good things. Once you can actually hear what’s being said and sung, it is a very well-written and funny show, with some great set routines and scenes; such as the party where Elle turns up as a bunny girl, and the whole courtroom, bend and snap, gay or European routine. The audience, who clearly didn’t see it coming, were gobsmacked at the private scene between Elle and Callahan, which has been brought into sharp relevance with the recent Harvey Weinstein allegations.

LB ElleThere are also some very good performances, in particular Lucie Jones as Elle. You might call me biased, gentle reader, but I really admire the fact that her participation in the Eurovision Song Contest for the UK is listed as the top achievement in her programme bio. So many other actors who have performed at Eurovision erase it from their history (Samantha Womack take note). Lucie has a tremendous voice, full of colour and emotion, and she sings the whole show sensationally. She also brings out all the humour to give an excellent comic performance too.

LB EmmettDavid Barrett is also excellent as Emmett, selflessly helping Elle to make the most of her opportunities, coming out of his shell in his sharp suit (which got an ooh from the audience) and showing that the ugly duckling can sometimes go to the ball (if that’s not mixing my metaphorical fairy tales). I was also very impressed with Laura Harrison as Vivienne, deliciously revelling in Elle’s misery until she sees the error of her ways, and Helen Petrovna as both fitness queen Brooke and Vivienne’s catty friend Whitney. There were also a few performances that I didn’t really rate, partly explained by some surprisingly dull choreography, but I’ll leave it there.

LB Paulette and KyleI really wanted to enjoy this show so much, but for me there was too much that wasn’t quite right that stopped it from soaring. Still, I expect it will be way better in a couple of days’ time. Its lengthy tour continues all over the country, right round to next June, so there are plenty of opportunities to catch it.

Production photos by Robert Workman