Review – Ballet Black, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th April 2019

Ballet BlackAlthough Ballet Black was founded in 2001, I’ve never come across their work before, so when I saw they were having a night at the Royal and Derngate, this had to be the perfect opportunity to see what they are all about.

PendulumIt’s a small company with just seven dancers appearing in the three short works performed in the current tour. I don’t think they’re awash with cash either, so staging and props are kept to the minimum, but that concentrates the mind wonderfully on the quality of the dance and the choreography – and, in this production, some beautifully effective lighting and costumes.

ClickThe programme kicks off with a short work, Pendulum, choreographed by Martin Lawrance, whose work with Richard Alston I have long admired. Originally produced for the company in 2009, it features two dancers, Sayaka Ichikawa and Mthuthuzeli November, probing each other’s character and sizing each other up by means of collaborative dancing together and combative dancing apart. It’s arresting, powerful choreography set to pounding, vibrating abstract beats, which both excites and disconcerts the audience, not least with its surprise sudden ending. Pendulum tests the dancers’ skills to the limit and they gave it all the strength it requires.

Click 3No break, it’s straight into the next dance, Click!, which couldn’t be more different. Choreographed by Scottish Ballet’s Sophie Laplane, this is a mainly light-hearted work that examines the various meanings of the word Click – whether it be summoning attention with your fingers, changing from mood to mood, two people just clicking in a relationship, and so on. It’s a smart idea and is carried off with great panache by the five dancers. What really grabs your attention is David Plater’s superbly stimulating lighting design, bathing each of the dancers in their own strong colour that stays with them throughout the dance, whichever part of the stage they occupy. Isabela Coracy leads the group, like a yellow circus ringmaster, dictating the pace and the activity of the other dancers. There’s a wonderfully witty and quirky routine performed by Ebony Thomas and Marie Astrid Mence to The Mudlarks’ Just the Snap of your Fingers, which brought out all the fun of the dancers’ personalities, as well as a beautiful, emotional pas de deux by Cira Robinson and Jose Alves. I thoroughly enjoyed the different atmospheres conjured up by each of the dancers in the different elements of the dance.

Ingoma 7After the interval, the final dance is a new work choreographed by Ballet Black’s own Mthuthuzeli November – and the first time the company has commissioned a work by one of its own team. Ingoma (which translates as Song or Anthem, in Zulu) was inspired by the stories of the South African Miners’ strikes in the 1940s as well as Gerard Sekoto’s stunning painting Song of the Pick, which depicts a row of miners, each with their pick raised high above their heads, ready to work in unison for the gain of the white, pipe-smoking supervisor who gazes idly by. That particular stance is very effectively replicated in Mr November’s impressive and bold choreography.

IngomaI’d be lying if I said I fully followed the story of this dance, but it’s full of emotional and heart-hitting images and sequences. The dancers rap their rubber boots to create a soft thud that reminded me of their trudging through water; there are stunning tableaux, affecting moments between the miners and their womenfolk; and depictions of grief that have presumably come from the miners’ deaths. It’s a fully charged onslaught of the senses, perhaps made even stronger by the lack of obvious narrative. Scenes from lives over many years, perhaps.

Ingoma 4It’s always enjoyable to discover a new dance company – even if they’ve already been going for eighteen years! This is a satisfying triple bill creating a variety of moods and memories. The tour continues to June, visiting Bristol, Cambridge, Derby, Birmingham, Edinburgh, and the Linbury Theatre at the Royal Opera House Covent Garden. Well worth seeing!

Production photos variously by Rick Guest, Mthuthuzeli November, Tristram Kenyon/The Guardian and Bill Cooper

Review – The Long Walk Back, Underground at the Derngate, 13th April 2019

Chris LewisDo you remember the story about cricketer Chris Lewis? He played in thirty-two Test Matches and fifty-three One Day Internationals for England between 1990 and 1998; was a county cricketer for thirteen years, and came out of retirement to play Twenty 20 matches for Surrey in 2008 – not very successfully. He was also found guilty of smuggling cocaine from Saint Lucia into the UK in December 2008, for which he was sentenced to thirteen years in prison. He was released after six years in June 2015.

Martin Edwards and Scott Baylis 2It was quite a cause célèbre at the time. Why did he do it? Surely not for the money? Didn’t he have the world at his feet? Dougie Blaxland’s The Long Walk Back goes some of the way to tackle these questions. Only some of the way though, because it also raises just as many new questions as it answers! With just a bunk bed, a wicket and a toilet as the set, Martin Edwards as Lewis and Scott Bayliss as his cellmate (whether real or imaginary is up to you to decide) act out various short scenes – in a rather stylised, non-realistic manner, that show Lewis’ distress at incarceration, his mental self-examination and his resolve to survive the experience.

Martin Edwards and Scott BaylisPersonally, I can’t imagine how I’d cope with being sent to prison. I guess, somehow, I’d manage it, but don’t press me on the details. The play does make you think how you’d behave if you were in Lewis’ shoes, as it shows how imprisonment affects not only you but your wider family and friends. It also reveals how vulnerable you are – indeed, largely at the mercy of your cellmate in order somehow to get through it all.

Martin Edwards and Scott Baylis 3You get greater clarity on Lewis’ motivations and explanations when you actually meet him after a short break for a Q&A session with Rough House Theatre Director Shane Morgan. Charming, self-deprecating, and extremely honest, Lewis comes across as a thoroughly decent man, who’s still looking for the answers himself, and using this whole theatre experience as a way of trying to sort out his head. The play tackles the question of taking responsibility for one’s own actions and it’s clear that he blames no one for what he did other than himself. A question from the audience asked whether or not the player associations should take more responsibility for what players do both during and after their career – and Mr Lewis’ answer was, basically, no.

Long Walk Back Q&AThis is an unusual way to spend a Saturday night at the theatre, and, whilst it didn’t soar to heights of great tragedy or huge revelations about the human condition, it did give you an insight into what it’s like to be someone who had it all, then had nothing, and then slowly turned their life back into something positive. The production continues to tour small venues in Bristol, Birmingham, Bath, Leicester, Nottingham and Greenwich.

Production photos by Lisa Hounsome

Review – Edmond de Bergerac, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 9th April 2019

Edmond de BergeracQuestion: What does Speaker John Bercow say when he sees Cyrano de Bergerac in the House of Commons? Answer: The nose have it, the nose have it.

EDB 5I’d like to apologise for that childish opening, but bear with me, gentle reader. Cyrano is normally all about the nose, but in Alexis Michalik’s Edmond de Bergerac, it doesn’t make an entrance until the final scenes. And that makes sense, because this brilliantly funny account of how Edmond Rostand might have written his famous tragicomedy is all about heart; love for one’s art, whether it be writing or acting, and how you have to suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous theatre managements in order to get your masterpiece on stage. It’s a wonderfully positive piece, where love finds its true course, hopeless wannabes find success, and even the villains are funny. So, really, the ayes have it, and in abundance.

EDB 3Rostand is down on his uppers, but does have a magnificent patronne in the formidable shape of Sarah Bernhardt, who’s still a box-office draw despite edging towards her best-by date. She organises a meeting between him and Constant Coquelin, the famous thespian who’s been having legal wrangles with the Comédie Française. Although he hasn’t written anything for years, Rostand somehow impresses the Great Man, who commissions a comedy from him; first read-through tomorrow.

EDB 9Thus comes the first of many nights where Rostand works round the clock, with encouragement from the manager of the Café Honoré, and support from his actor pal Léo. A serial womaniser, Léo introduces Rostand to his latest inamorata-in-waiting, Jeanne, and it’s through Rostand’s mentoring of Léo’s otherwise useless romantic small talk that he discovers the muse for Coquelin’s commission. But there’s an awful long way between that initial spark of creativity and Cyrano’s first night.

EDB 4Edmond de Bergerac joins that small but very special group of works of art (whether it be play, book, music, etc) that tries to shed light on its own creative process – and they’re always packed with insight. The film of The French Lieutenant’s Woman, for example, intersperses the narrative of the story with scenes where the actors play themselves on set whilst making the self-same film. Elton John’s Your Song and Spandau Ballet’s True take us through the pains and motivations of the songwriter getting the words right. Edmond de Bergerac shows us the individual moments of inspiration that get transplanted into the, as yet, unwritten play; the personal relationships, the overheard arguments, other people’s fantastic one-liners that you just have to steal for your own work. By taking us through the creative process, it also emphasises the truth of what lies at the heart of the new created work. Have I lost you? Sorry, it’s one of my pet favourite things in art.

EDB 1From Honoré’s opening Bonsoir, (to which we all replied) to his final introduction of the curtain call, that fourth wall is always open, and we’re willingly drawn into Rostand’s theatrical world. When an idea comes into his head, he confides it to us. We share in Coquelin’s knife-edge relationship with the law. We love it when the star, who never bothers with stage management’s health and safety warnings, plummets through the trap door. There’s no coincidence, I’m sure, that Rostand is always comparing himself with the ultra-successful Georges Feydeau, because the show is crammed with half farce/half slapstick moments. I also loved the inventive staging suggestions (the train sequences are all hilarious), the over-the-top Frenchy characterisations; and the surprise appearances of the likes of Anton Chekhov and Maurice Ravel. It reminded Mrs Chrisparkle of the fabulously successful revival of Mr Whatnot a few years ago; and with aspects of Noises Off, Kiss Me Kate and Nicholas Nickleby in there too.

EDB 7It’s all performed at fantastic speed and pinpoint accuracy by a hugely likeable and talented cast of fourteen, playing something like fifty or sixty characters. At the still point in the turning world, Freddie Fox is outstanding as Rostand, clearly a devoted family man but unwittingly caught up in what looks like (to his wife at least) an illicit affair. Robin Morrissey is hilarious as the empty-headed matinée idol Léo, and Josie Lawrence uses all her fantastic vocal skills to create a very grande Bernhardt, a grumpy Duenna and a West Country prostitute who saves the day (in a number of ways).

EDB 8Chizzy Akudolu gives great comic presence to the diva-ish Maria, Simon Gregor steals every scene as the camp couturier and the pompous hotel receptionist, whilst Nick Cavalière gives great support in a number of roles including (with Mr Gregor), Coquelin’s creditors, the two menacing Floury brothers. Delroy Atkinson is superb as always as the assertive Honoré and the ham old actor, Harry Kershaw is terrific as the awful actor Jean, David Langham makes for a wonderfully pompous Feydeau, Sarah Ridgeway a kindly, put-upon Rosemonde, and Gina Bramhill a sparkling yet spikey Jeanne.

EDB 6Top of the shop is a superb performance by Henry Goodman as the ebullient and vain Coquelin, the demanding boss who needs his script double quick and insists on a duel scene because he’s quite handy with a rapier. Even though he’s potentially difficult and a nightmare to work with, we support him absolutely in his attempts to see Cyrano on stage. It’s a lovely comic performance but with plenty of serious tinges. But everyone gives a performance of top-quality commitment, and the result is an evening of sheer delight.

EDB 2Michalik’s original production opened in Paris in 2016 and is still packing them in after 800 performances. Of course, Cyrano de Bergerac is second-nature to the Parisien theatregoer; he’s like our Hamlet, but with added proboscis. This short touring production – the play’s UK première – courtesy of Birmingham Rep, in a translation by Jeremy Sams, still has dates at Cambridge and Richmond to follow, and I’m sure will do a lot to raise the profile in this country of not only Cyrano, but also Alexis Michalik. A marvellous tribute to Rostand and a fabulously funny night out. Don’t miss it!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 22nd March 2019

Screaming Blue MurderAnother packed house for 2-and-a-half hours of fun courtesy of the Screaming Blue Murder team – the best value comedy in town. This season’s dates have been rather spread apart which means that when the next show comes around, you’re really in the mood for it. And that was all too evident this week as the audience were really up for a good time and, if I may so myself, as an audience, we were all pretty terrific.

Dan EvansWe welcomed our usual host Dan Evans, his three amazing guests and, as ever, his two sumptuous intervals. This week Dan ended up talking to Liz and John from Earl’s Barton – the crowd couldn’t decide whether to be sniffy about them or jealous of them; the jovial man who runs the Northampton auction house (I recognised him from my auctioning days), and the front row girls who were all one-upping each other (“I’ve got a house” “well at least I’ve got a baby” etc). He handled it all with his usual remarkable bonhomie.

Paul PirieThis was one of those great nights of comedy when you’ve seen all the acts before so you more or less know what’s coming but they were all on such cracking form that they all surprised you with their excellence. First up was Paul Pirie, whom – I have to say – we didn’t really enjoy much when we saw him here way back in 2012. However, this time he was rip-roaring sensational. He bombasts you with a ton of brilliant silly observations with a very powerful delivery, interspersed with some genuinely wacky and funny voices. He’s not one of those comics who give you thoughtful material for your brain to continue to peruse for the next few days; he’s a wham-bam thank you ma’am sort of chap – blame the Red Bull. His set was jam-packed with material, most of which I can’t remember because it was so “of the moment”; although I do remember he said he failed RE at school; which is about as impossible as failing lunch.

Karen BayleyNext up, and another favourite, was Karen Bayley. It’s been a few years since we’ve seen Ms Bayley, and, although it’s still largely the same I’m a cougar watch out young man routine that she always gives, the passage of time meant that it still felt fresh and really funny. She did build up a fantastic rapport with the audience – and not just the women this time, which makes an enjoyable change. You sense that though her material is bawdy, deep down she’s probably quite sensitive and polite, which creates a curiously interesting stage persona. Very funny indeed.

Roger MonkhouseHeadlining on Friday night was Roger Monkhouse, whom we’ve also seen a few times now and who has cultivated a young fogey personality. He has a terrifically self-deprecating tone and uses it to great advantage with some rather savage observations about life and relationships, whilst dipping into the inevitable horrors of politics. His material is always solid and on the ball, and he too went down tremendously in the hall.

One of those occasions where it all came together, with host, guests and audience all on top form. Seven weeks to wait until the next one. Seven!! That’s mental cruelty.

Review – Abigail’s Party, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 4th March 2019

Abigail's PartyAhhh, the glory days of 1977. Everything about Abigail’s Party exudes nostalgia. As soon as I saw the set, I remembered when the Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle bought a top-of-the-range fibre optic lamp for the living room. How I loved that thing! I could sit in the dark and watch it change colours for hours, just like Beverly does. Mind you, I don’t miss the endless times when little bits of glass snapped off and stuck to the carpet until, inevitably, they got stuck in my feet. Serves me right for not wearing any slippers. Nostalgia always hurts somehow.

Beverly and LaurenceNostalgia isn’t just the set, either. There’s an interview in the programme with director Sarah Esdaile, where she talks about the link between the character of Beverly and Alison Steadman, who first played her. Ms Steadman was part of the cast who, with the guidance and leadership of Mike Leigh, devised the play back in 1977; indeed, at the time, she and Leigh were married. This is what Ms Esdaile took from her discussions with Mike Leigh, prior to directing the play: “there is no point in wilfully trying to move Beverly away from [Alison’s] voice because her voice is all over it […] Alison is inextricably linked with Beverly’s voice because she has been such a fundamental part of creating that character.”

BeverlyAnd, in performance, that is both a strength and a weakness of this production. In Jodie Prenger’s highly entertaining portrayal of Beverly, she’s emphatically not, I believe, giving us a simple impersonation of Alison Steadman, because that just wouldn’t work. I remember seeing an immensely tedious production of Victoria Wood’s Talent at the Menier ten years ago where the lead actor just pretended to be the late Ms Wood throughout – merely to confirm what we already suspected, that only Ms Wood could do Ms Wood.

The castHowever, Ms Prenger’s voice, channelling Ms Steadman’s, does give you a feeling of nostalgia, and you can’t help but wonder whether you’d have been better off in the comfort of your own home, watching the original BBC Play for Today on DVD? That’s the elephant in the room; can you improve on (or at least do an interesting cover version of) the original, particularly if you’ve seen said original loads of times? Seven years ago we saw Jill Halfpenny in a production at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Her performance was nothing like Alison Steadman’s; she completely made it her own. And it was an irresistible eye-opener: sexy, funny, tragic, brilliant. Far be it from me to tell Mike Leigh how to stage a production of Abigail’s Party, but actually you can leave Ms Steadman at the front door and go your own way.

Beverly and TonyYou also get the feeling that Beverly’s strangulated vowel sounds as expressed by Ms Prenger aren’t entirely natural; and that, vocally, it’s a bit forced, maybe a little bit pretentious. Which is a shame, because the one thing Beverly is not, is pretentious. She lives for pleasure; for booze, for smoking, for Demis Roussos, for beauty products. She dreams of reclining on the beach at Palma Nova; for her, good taste is whatever you enjoy, and she never tries to be what she isn’t. She leaves the pretentiousness to her husband Laurence, whose desperate attempts to force Van Gogh and Shakespeare on their bemused guests eventually lead to his own personal tragedy.

Beverly Angela and LaurenceWhat Ms Prenger does achieve, brilliantly, is Beverly’s physical presence; her self-indulgent loucheness, gin-and-tonic in one hand, cheesy pineapple sticks in the other, puffing at the cigarette that protrudes sensuously from those heavily made-up lips. And, as the night carries on, she subtly re-balances her stance and walk, as she tries to hide how progressively more drunk she has become, still hoping to maintain that ever-diminishing façade of attractiveness.

LaurenceShe also conveys Beverly’s inner sadness and vulnerability extremely well, forcing others to conform to what she wants because she can’t bear the thought that someone else knows better than she does; spitting out her vengeance against the hapless Laurence, who clearly can no longer bear the sight of her and she hasn’t a clue why.

BeverlyDesigner Janet Bird’s 1970s comfortable suburban living room is filled with all the must-have items of the era. Not only the sensational optic lamp, but also a hi-fi to die for, the perfect pot plants, and a plentifully stocked drinks cabinet concealed within the teak room-divider; everything is spot-on. It is a shame that the room-divider masks a brief, but important scene between Beverly and Laurence, where she tries to make up to him and he pushes her away. I can’t imagine anyone in the audience saw it properly at all, and that feels like a basic staging error. The dinky set sits in the middle of the ginormous Derngate stage and just about holds its own there, although it would have been hugely better in the intimate confines of the Royal Theatre instead. By my reckoning, only by sitting in the absolute centre of the rows do you have a chance to see everything on stage. We were in the centre block of Row F, but on the right aisle, and had no idea there was a bathroom off stage on our side of the auditorium. Similarly, those on the left side of the centre couldn’t see the kitchen. It doesn’t hugely matter for the action in this play, but purists might be disappointed.

AngelaApart from Beverly, the rest of the cast bring their own approaches to their characters, stamping a sometimes unexpected individual authority on them. For example, Vicky Binns’ Angela struck me as being more socially adept and good company than in previous incarnations; she’s clearly very fond of Beverly (or at least, in enormous awe of her) and doesn’t really tell her off at the end when she’s getting in the way of her paramedic act. Calum Callaghan’s Tony is extremely non-communicative and sullen, and only once does he give us a facial expression to suggest he might be willing to thrust along with Beverly’s intimate dancing. The bitterness between Tony and Ange is palpable and excruciating; and their final scene, which is pure physical comedy, works a treat. Daniel Casey (totally unrecognisable as Sgt Troy from Midsomer Murders) is perhaps a little over-frantic in his interaction with the guests and hugely patronising when it comes to the subjects of art and literature; but then again he does have to share his house with a philistine.

SueBut it is Rose Keegan’s characterisation of Sue that comes as the big revelation in this production. Normally seen as a dowdy wallflower totally obsessed with what her daughter might be doing at her party, this Sue comes from another planet. Completely aloof and with her mind on much more than just her daughter, you can almost see her words fragment into vacuousness as they leave her lips. She reminded me of a female version of Neil the Hippy in TV’s The Young Ones. Whether it’s a class thing, and she can’t bear to be surrounded by these awful people, or whether she’s on some kind of drug-induced cloud, I’ve no idea. But she’s totally out of it. And – strangely enough – it works incredibly well. I laughed at her performance more than I laughed at anything else in the play.

DancingAnd that answers the question I asked earlier. Despite an assumption that you might know the play intimately, and despite the lingering Steadmanism of Beverly, there’s always something fresh to be discovered in a new version. Yes, a lot of its darker side gets lost in the quest for comedy. Still, for all its occasional faults, I really enjoyed this production. It’s already been touring for a few weeks, and after its visit to Northampton, it goes on to Blackpool, Aylesbury, Liverpool, Dartford, Manchester and Edinburgh in time for Easter. Time for a top-up?

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – The Remains of the Day, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 28th February 2019

The Remains of the DayOften, gentle reader, when it comes to writing about a stage adaptation of a book or a film, I have to confess to having neither read nor seen its earlier manifestations. However, on this occasion, my confession is that I have indeed read Kazuo Ishiguro’s Booker Prize winning 1989 novel (at the time I used to read as many Booker Prize nominees as I could) and even seen the Merchant Ivory film starring Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson. Of course, I can’t remember a thing about either of them – apart from the fact that they were both good. For this current Made in Northampton production (co-produced with Out of Joint and the Oxford Playhouse), Barney Norris (he of Nightfall fame) has adapted Ishiguro’s novel and created a beautifully crafted, elegantly realised play which deftly weaves the story’s two timelines so you can’t see the join.

ROTD2In brief (and the plot is simple, so this is indeed brief), Stevens is the butler at Darlington Hall – once the seat of Lord Darlington – but now owned by an American, the ex-Senator Lewis. Lewis gives Stevens a few days off, so Stevens motors down to the West Country to find his ex-colleague, Mrs Benn, who was once housekeeper at the Hall. Of course, in those days, she was Miss Kenton; and Miss Kenton used to hold something of a torch for Mr Stevens. But Mr Stevens was either too cold-hearted to notice it, or too devoted to his Master to allow a third party to intervene in his life. Mrs Benn has written to Stevens to inform him that her marriage to Mr Benn is on the rocks. Will Stevens track her down and whisk her away to a life of bliss in their autumnal years? Or will his natural reserve come to the fore so that he merely seeks to employ her as a housekeeper back at Darlington Hall? I couldn’t possibly say.

ROTD7The play accurately reflects the flashbacks of both the book and the film by having today’s story, of Mr Stevens travelling down to Cornwall, played alongside yesterday’s story, of Mr Stevens and Miss Kenton running the house, with Lord Darlington inviting political bigwigs to the Hall for pre-Second World War negotiations. At first, my companions – Mrs Chrisparkle and the Squire of Sidcup – were both perplexed at the presentation and didn’t know who was what nor what was where. I, naturally, saw through the time travel ploy instantly; a matter of a good education, I guess. Once you do get the hang of the timescale swopsies, it all falls into place very satisfactorily.

ROTD1Lily Arnold’s simple but highly effective design recreates a stately home awash with full length mirrors (and with perpetual rain) by having panels that slide into place to create the illusion of rooms, hallways, and, indeed, the West Country pub where Mr Stevens has to overnight en route. There are mirrors at the back, too, which really come into their own in the very final moments of the play as Stevens walks towards them, having been bombarded by the voices from his past from all over the auditorium; a sound engineer’s dream, it’s like discovering Stereo all over again.

ROTD8At the heart of the production is Stephen Boxer as Stevens; never off-stage, even when he’s not part of the action he’s lurking at the back as the discreet butler par excellence. It’s an immaculate performance, full of reserve and contemplation, discretion and control. Almost imperceptibly, he changes from the formal, upright butler of the past to the slightly more relaxed, aged Stevens of the present; the merest of stoops, the softest of shuffles, a hint of more facial expression, slightly less clipped enunciation – a masterclass. He is matched by Niamh Cusack’s excellent performance as Miss Kenton, the assertive housekeeper who knows she’s good at her job, politely resenting interference and appalled at the growing antisemitism of the age – plus ça change, sadly. Ms Cusack also excels as the Mrs Benn of today, slightly worn down by the experiences of a difficult married life, and with an affectionate fondness for nostalgia. However, she’s not lost any of her assertiveness, as Mr Stevens discovers to his well-concealed shock.

ROTD5The rest of the cast double up to cover many different roles between the two timescales, sometimes transforming from one to another before your very eyes, and with impressive impact. Stephen Critchlow’s saloon bar Harry quickly flips into the square-shouldered, cynical Sir David; Sadie Shimmin’s pub landlady Mrs Taylor adopts class and elegance as Mme Dupont, and Miles Richardson’s formal Lord Darlington becomes the avuncular Dr Carlisle with one twist of the heel. These are all confident, assertive performances. Snappy and impressive, their timescale switches are particularly effective at keeping the narration moving along nicely, especially in the second act. If I’m honest, there were a couple of moments in the first act where plot progress felt a little sluggish, but after the interval the pace picked up with gusto.

ROTD3Additionally, Pip Donaghy brings a lump to the throat as the ever-faithful but increasingly frail Stevens Senior; Patrick Toomey is a prickly Senator Lewis (but one who always has an admiration for Mr Stevens) and Edward Franklin a superbly wet-behind-the-ears young Reginald, for whom Stevens is appointed as official Birds and Bees adviser.

ROTD6Smart, elegant, convincing; this production tells its simple tale with class and clarity and boasts some terrific performances. After its run at Northampton, the tour continues to York, Bury St Edmunds, Southampton, Guildford, Oxford, Derby, Salisbury, Cambridge and Bristol. A neat spin on a traditional format, it’s well worth catching.

Production photos by Iona Firouzabadi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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