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

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 27th April 2018

Screaming Blue MurderAnother Screaming Blue Murder at the Royal and Derngate which is a good thing because you can’t have too many of them. At first it looked as though we were going to be a little understocked audience-wise, but shortly before it started a cavalcade of fresh punters arrived and filled all the front rows. Good for you guys!

Maureen YoungerWe knew that regular MC Dan Evans was taking a sabbatical this week so who would be our stand-in stand-up host? Step up to the line Maureen Younger, whom we loved last year in the Upfront Comedy Show at the Royal. Maureen certainly knows how to knock a rabble together. She’s delightfully in-your-face, no-holds-barred and takes-no-prisoners when it comes to finding out about the night’s clientele. She concentrated on twin-on-his-own Matt, who had been segregated from the rest of his group, poor lamb, but also encountered posh Chloe, some teachers, Frank the Dutchman, and… Mrs Chrisparkle and me. Dan knows better than to engage us in conversation thank heavens, but Maureen gave us what for in her usual badinage-filled way. Fortunately she got more out of Mrs C than me and ended up likening her to an EastEnders-type bouncer. You had to be there.

Robin MorganFirst up was a new face to us, Robin Morgan, a fresh-faced young chap with bags of vitality and lots of good material about being a new dad, getting married, being the only guy at kiddies’ playgroup – fairly standard comedy fayre but he did it all with great humour and a nice turn of phrase. I loved his stuff about being a meal deal fanatic, and how when you’re planning a family you have to have sex pre-programmed into your phone. He’s bright and funny in a preppy kind of way. Unfortunately Matt’s twin Steve was looking distinctly unamused by one brief sequence, and Mr Morgan allowed himself to be slightly psyched out by his reaction and he never quite regained the room as a result. But he was very good and I would certainly look forward to seeing him again.

Naomi CooperOur second act was someone else we’d not seen before – that never happens! This was Naomi Cooper, who’d just been to see her mum in Bletchley. She also had plenty of good material about dealing with parents, including that thing where they always give you something unexpected and useless when you leave. The majority of her set, though, was about sex and ex-boyfriends; by the sound of it, she’s had a lot of both! An enjoyable gig; there were times when I felt her stage authority just waned a little, but everyone enjoyed it. The somewhat questionable last joke made us feel a little uncomfortable, and we’re no prudes! (I’ll say no more).

Nick DoodyLast up was Nick Doody, whom we’ve seen twice before and is normally a safe pair of hands. He started off a little slowly but when he got into his stride was really top notch. We loved his characterisation of a polyglot Dutch infant – yes, you read that right. Normally audiences don’t respond very well here in Northampton to political humour – we’re not that sophisticated really – but he nailed it with his observations of our Great Beloved National Political Leaders (yeah right). Once he’d finished with politics, he ended up with (and forgive me, gentle reader) wanking, (as a subject matter, I mean) which was absolutely brilliant. He also mercilessly took the mick out of the drunk old lady sat in front of us. That could have gone horribly wrong but was hysterical. A great way to end the evening.

Another really enjoyable night of Screaming Blues! Next one is on 11th May – we can’t go, but that’s no reason for you not to!

Review – The Last Ship, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 24th April 2018

The Last ShipSometime in the late 1950s, obscure East German writer Günther Kähne published the short story Rekord an der Drahtstraße (I know this because I had to study it for German A level), a bizarre tale about a heroic factory worker who put in extra shifts and barely slept in order to achieve the personal highest output of any of his fellow wire-manufacturing colleagues. He did it all purely for the noble cause of working for the communal good of the nation. No thought of pay; no concern about how it affected his health or his family life; it was all to glorify the magnificence of Communist dogma. Well, it was East Germany after all.

Richard Fleeshman as Gideon FletcherForward a couple of decades and observe life in Britain under Thatcher. The country she inherited was in a state; eleven years later she left it in a state, but a somewhat different one. Out went all the manufacturing industries that had been the bedrock of the nation’s economy; one of them was shipbuilding. The programme (and indeed the show) references Nicholas Ridley’s vision of denationalisation and promotion of the free market, which was just another dogma. Countless jobs and the living standards of millions were sacrificed to achieve this aim. Ridley, you’ll remember, was the man who defended the Poll Tax with the words “the squire pays the same as his gamekeeper, what could be fairer than that?” (or was it the Duke and the Dustman? Either way his vision is clear). People were angry – very, very angry.

Ship projections by 59 ProductionsSting grew up in Wallsend, home of shipbuilding; saw the devastation of the decline of the industry and, as part of his fantastic career, wrote an album, The Soul Cages, in 1991, following the death of his father. I don’t know the album, but it’s inspired by the local traditions of going to sea and shipbuilding. Many years later it itself has become the basis and inspiration for his musical The Last Ship, which is finally coming in to dock in the UK on its current tour. (Nautical references… more of those later.)

LS Matt Corner as young Gideon and Parisa ShThere’s not a lot of story. On what appears to be no more than a whim, Gideon Fletcher ups and leaves town on a ship at the age of 17 leaving behind girlfriend Meg; he invited her to come too, but she declined. 17 years later he returns to find the local shipbuilding company has nearly finished building the Utopia, but they can’t find a buyer because it’s too expensive. The only solution to keep some jobs in the local economy is for the shipworkers to break it up and sell it as scrap. Offended by this prospect, not only because of the loss of jobs but primarily because they have built a beautiful thing that they can’t bear to see go to waste, the workers go on strike. I know from my own experience in the 1980s that strikes never had a positive outcome under that government, they just let you starve. In the meantime, Gideon discovers he’s a father to a resentful daughter he didn’t know about and a resentful ex-girlfriend who never told him he was a father. Eventually the shipbuilders decide to take matters into their own hands and complete the work on the Utopia for no payment – just so that it can “get launched”. Are you beginning to see the link with the Communist short story I mentioned earlier?!

The Full Cast of The Last ShipThere’s a lot of good in this production. But, for me, there was also a lot that I found hammy and unsubtle, which, in the final balance, considerably outweighed the good. But let’s concentrate on the good. Overall, visually, it’s an amazing spectacle. 59 Productions have created a glorious set that can recreate a ship, a dockyard, a church, and many other indoor locations. Odd thing #1: Projections onto screens turn a blank canvas into a room, a pub, a nightclub; but why were those projections deliberately fuzzy? The indistinct wallpaper in the White’s front room made me feel positively queasy. It also means that some of the actors sometimes had wallpaper patterns on their face. That’s not right, surely?

Marvin Ford Michael Blair Matt Corner Joe Caffrey Richard FleEven more majestic; the music. There’s a terrific, compact little band that ooze the folk traditions of the region. Fantastic to hear a melodeon being played; there’s no instrument like it, and I could have just listened to that all night. Odd thing #2: They’re playing at far stage left, nicely incorporated into the action without getting in the way. So what’s with the huge orchestra pit, sitting there empty, that’s been provided, and that required the removal of the front five rows of the stalls? Someone clearly didn’t get the memo. And the singing voices of the cast. Impeccable. The harmonies are extraordinary. They fill your heart with emotion and joy and carry you away. By the time I was about a quarter of the way in, I had already promised myself that I must buy the cast recording.

LS The Last Ship Frances McNamee as Meg DawsonBut there were other elements that really dogged me. It wasn’t helped that it took me at least fifteen to twenty minutes to get accustomed to the accents. It was fine in the speaking parts, but during much of the singing they could have been reciting la la la for all I could make out. My ears, my bad. I was also very bemused by the way Meg reacted to the return of Gideon. He’s clearly more sinned against than sinning, constantly getting the blame for ignoring the daughter he didn’t know he had. That’s kinda tough. Personally, I thought Meg was rather an unpleasant character, although I think we’re meant to warm to her… so that part of the story didn’t work for me.

Joe McGann as Jackie White +Charlie Hardwick as Peggy WhiteBut my big bugbear was the lyrics. Fair enough, this is a show about the shipbuilding industry in a shipbuilding town, and they’re building a ship. There is no end to the ship analogies, nautical allusions, harbour references, water clichés… No one finishes a plan, they reach their harbour. No one has a success, their ship comes in. No one finds a solution, they cry land ahoy. Are you getting my nautical drift? By the time they were wallowing in it in the second half I was feeling distinctly seasick. WE GET THE IDEA! Other metaphors are available!

 Joe McGann as Jackie WhiteIt was also very preachy. The battle between the bad guys (the shipbuilding company owner and the pompous Baroness from the House of Lords – two excellent performances by Sean Kearns and Penelope Woodman) versus the good guys (everyone else) was seen in very black and white terms. It romanticised the Communist ideals of the workforce and their glorious effort in finishing the Utopia (that name’s not accidental) for free; fair enough, I guess, but, in a direct address to the audience, virtually out of character, the message was spread deeper and wider and I found myself resenting the cast telling me what I should feel about the NHS for example, or other areas of strife in the world. This felt less like a show and more like a rally. I’m a naturally left-wing slanted person, but this preachiness actually made me sympathise with the ruling classes, which isn’t something I’m used to. I hope I’m not turning into Quentin Letts.

mir Orla Gormley Frances McNamee Annie GraceBoth the start of the show, and the start of the second half, begin with cast members wandering onto the stage, waving at the audience, chatting to people about their dress sense, etc. I’m sure it was meant to suggest equality between the cast and the audience, but it felt a bit patronising, a bit smug. There was never any question that we would be required to support the shipbuilders in this story; they assumed right from the start that we would be on their side. What does assume do? It makes an ass out of u and me. Correct.

Joe McGann as Jackie WhiteThe performances were all very good, even if some of the characters were rather irritating. Mrs Chrisparkle didn’t follow one word that Kevin Wathen’s drunken and belligerent Davey uttered all evening. He has the kind of voice that the late Sir Terry Wogan would have described as gargling with razor blades; he seemed almost to be a parody of a hard-nosed, hard-drinking Tynesider. Charlie Richmond gave a good performance as Adrian, but the character was immensely tedious, because every statement he made started with a quotation from literature. Rather like the seaside metaphors throughout, this was another unsubtle element.

Full cast of The Last ShipRichard Fleeshman was very strong in the role of Gideon, and if his acting career ever goes wayward, he can always get a job fronting a Police Tribute Act. Is his singing voice naturally almost identical to Sting’s? Incredible if so. Otherwise it’s two and a half hours of very well-learned impersonation. There are also excellent performances by Charlie Hardwick as Peggy White (superb voice) and Joe McGann (surprisingly good voice) as Jackie White, both Labour-to-the-core old-timers.

Projections by 59 ProductionsShiver me timbers, we never thought the second half was going to stop; talk about dragging the arse out of it. With beautiful melodies, amazing vocals, stunning musical arrangements and a set to die for, they created a both dogmatic and didactic blancmange of romanticised political hoo-ha. Earlier, I’d read a review that likened The Last Ship to Howard Goodall’s Hired Man. Mr Goodall should sue.

P. S. I decided against buying the cast album.

Production photos by Pamela Raith

Review – Lucy Porter, Choose Your Battles, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 20th April 2018

Lucy PorterThis was another of our “we’ve seen them on telly, let’s see what they’re like in real life” punts. To say that Lucy Porter has been around for ages doesn’t sound like a very gentlemanly comment to make but she did intimate during the course of the show that she’s chalking up the years a little, so it was about time we saw her in the flesh. Choose Your Battles is the show she took to Edinburgh last year and jolly well received it was too.

The title comes from the age-old advice not to fight those battles you can’t win (if only the late Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle could have done that she would have been so much happier) but it also points to the fact that Lucy Porter doesn’t like battles. In fact, she’s the least battlish person you’d ever come across. If you drew a Venn Diagram with her in one circle and, say, renowned battleaxe Christine Hamilton in another, not only would they not intersect, they wouldn’t even appear on the same piece of paper.

Lucy PMuch of the show is given over to examples of how conflict-averse our comic heroine is. She gives us an entertaining insight into how she doesn’t like to engage in conflict with the children, so they run amok in posh restaurants whilst she and her husband discuss the niceties of that day’s Guardian opinion piece. She tells us how difficult it was when her mother came to live with them in her old age, because she found it impossible to challenge her on her passive-aggressive note-leaving. She explains how she and her husband never come to blows on anything, but just quietly seethe in voiceless anger because she can never clear the air on anything disharmonious in the relationship. We re-enact with her an unpleasant experience where a driver almost ran over her and her kids on a zebra crossing because he was on his phone – yet he still made her feel it was his fault. Take a bow, Ed from Peterborough, you did a grand job.

This is a beautifully constructed show, packed with material and incident, with some gentle, totally unforced callbacks that create a satisfying climax, if you’ll pardon the expression. Ms Porter has a very genial air about her onstage – delightfully unthreatening, respectful and polite, and you’d never run the risk of humiliation, unless you really, really asked for it. She engages the audience and draws us in to her life and experiences, so that you get the feeling you’re chatting with an old pal rather than watching a fully scripted stand-up gig. Included in the material are a few opportunities to take surveys of the audience to see how conflict-averse we are too, particularly in relation to social media and dealing with trolls. I was surprised to find that I’m not as conflict-averse as most of my co-audience members. So you can even learn a bit about yourself too. You’ll also find out how much it costs to get a new set of keys for a Volvo.

Lucy Porter Choose Your BattlesIt’s not earth-shatteringly challenging, but nor is it in any way bland or vanilla. Two hours of fully recognisable and quite possibly shared emotions and observations. Very enjoyable, and enormously self-assured. Ms Porter may have chalked up a few years, but experience tells!

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 13th April 2018

Screaming Blue MurderYet another packed house for the latest Screaming Blue Murder at the Royal and Derngate, with host Dan Evans on tip-top form again as he brought out the best of us rabble in the audience. Amongst the paying guests whose intimate back-stories he delved into were the assistant psychologist from St Crispin’s whose dementia tests he passed with flying colours; Dan Evanstwo rival soil experts in a relationship; and some noisy crisp eaters seated behind us. When one of the audience confessed to coming from Wellingborough, someone at the back shouted “it’s a sh*thole”, to which Dan observed that the mayor was in.

Diane SpencerWe’d seen all three of the acts before but that did not diminish from the fun of the night – because this was a truly top class night of comedy. First up was Diane Spencer, whom we last saw at the Leicester Comedy Festival in February, but who has also graced us with her presence at Screaming Blues in 2011 and 2015. Ms Spencer has a brilliantly funny stage presence – a delightful mixture of posh and obscene which can really take you by surprise when you’re not expecting it. Amongst her memorable moments on Friday night were re-enacting a rather squeaky, unlubricated pole dance and its unfortunate physical repercussions, what happens when you try to get “Russian slim” and the diplomacy required to rename stepchildren. She was hilarious as always, but what really impressed us was the fact that this was all completely different material from her Leicester appearance. She just oozes natural funniness. A fantastic start to the evening.

Andrew WattsNext up, and in a change from the advertised programme, we had Andrew Watts, a wonderfully dry gentleman who specialises in unladdish behaviour and cricketing analogies but is deceptively streetwise at the same time. We’d seen him here twice before, and he gave us his regular material and indeed memorable punchlines – a couple of which I use myself whenever out clothes shopping with Mrs Chrisparkle – you’ll know the ones if you’ve seen his act. He pitched his material absolutely spot on, and I loved the necrophilia sequence (no, honestly) and the fielding positions set up for the medical team delivering his wife’s baby. He also has this brilliant idea of being the perfect partner for a woman looking for a mediocre night of lovemaking; he’s there to step up to the mark. It may be time for Mr Watts to gather a few more ideas together to enhance his act but, there’s no question about it, he was absolutely hilarious and everyone loved it.

Jonny AwsumFor our final act, we welcomed the return of Jonny Awsum, who just seems to get more awesome every time we see him. Fresh from his appearance on Britain’s Got Talent last year, he attacks the stage with such winning gusto, getting everyone to join in his comedy songs right from the very beginning. He has some fantastic musical parodies; his Take That’s Back for Good is just brilliant, and his Sexy Noises cocks a knowing snoop at the Osmonds’ Crazy Horses. His enthusiasm is such that you cannot help but throw yourself into it. We were howling with laughter. A perfect way to end the night.

That was a fantastic Screaming Blue Murder – and there’s another one coming in two weeks’ time! Dan won’t be hosting this one, so I wonder who we’ll get to accompany us for the night. A show with an already built-in added surprise; you should come!

Review – Alan Buribayev Conducts Chopin, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Derngate, Northampton, 8th April 2018

Alan Buribayev Conducts ChopinOnce again we welcome back the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to one of their satellite venues around the UK here at the Royal and Derngate in Northampton, for an exciting programme of Czech, Polish and Finnish music. Our conductor was the ebullient and hard-working Alan Buribayev, whom we saw here two years ago in a fantastic concert that was the winner of the 2016 Annual Chrisparkle Award for Best Classical Concert. So we knew we were going to be in for a treat. This was also our first chance to see Alexandra Wood as First Violinist for the orchestra.

Alan BuribayevWe started with the overture to Smetana’s The Bartered Bride, his 1866 opera that remains one of his best-known works. The overture was written separately, before the rest of the opera, which possibly explains why it’s such an arresting stand-alone piece of music. The strings of the Royal Philharmonic could not resist the opportunity to launch into a full-scale attack on Smetana’s buzzy, vibrant, compelling arrangement, which gripped the audience instantly like a hundred angry bumble bees and did not let go for six brilliant minutes. A great way to start the concert.

Then it was time for the orchestra to disperse whilst the heavy mob brought in the Grand Steinway for our soloist for the afternoon, Alexander Romanovsky, a (fairly) last minute replacement for the original billing of Mark Bebbington, so we’d hoped he’d had long enough to practice Chopin’s Piano Concerto No 2 in F Minor, Op 21. We needn’t have worried. Mr Romanovsky takes to the stage like a snazzy younger version of Will Self, serious and controlled, seated business-like at the piano awaiting his cues. Whilst he’s not playing he simply looks straight ahead, relaxed but unemotional, almost like a non-participatory observer – but looks clearly can be deceptive.

Alexander RomanovskyIf he gives off an unemotional air, that doesn’t translate to his playing. He has the most exquisite lightness of touch, delicately coaxing the fullest and most resounding note from each deliberately pressed piano key. He’s the perfect exponent for Chopin at his most fluttery, his fingers going nineteen-to-the-dozen up and down the keyboard whilst his expression remains one of swan-like calm. It was an incredible performance; and really drew out all Chopin’s superb melodies that are packed into this vivacious concerto, especially the final movement, which I found particularly exciting. When it was all over, Mr Romanovsky allowed himself to crack a smile, so I guess he was pleased at the result. He certainly should have been.

After the interval we returned for a performance of Sibelius’ Symphony No 2 in D Major, Op 43. I’d not heard this symphony before and, I must confess gentle reader, I found it a real challenge. Whilst some of Sibelius’ music has an instant appeal, there’s also quite a lot that sounds to me rather murky and hard to appreciate on first hearing. The excellent programme notes discuss how the first movement of this piece is like a mosaic, with small fragments of music appearing disparately at first but finally coming together to create a whole. Well, I have to confess I found that rather obscure whole hard to recognise! Of course, the RPO were on great form, and individual moments sounded terrific. But I couldn’t grasp it somehow.

RPOgroupThe second movement felt easier: tempo andante, ma rubato – so, at a moderate pace but not rigidly; flexible, to bring out the emotion, and I thought the orchestra (and Mr Buribayev) achieved this brilliantly. The third and fourth movements seemed so crammed with all sorts of musical ideas, that it came across as a difficult and challenging piece to listen to, exhausting even; but also incredibly rewarding. There were some truly superb passages that really sang out, and I think I need to give the symphony another listen before long to try to appreciate what I missed!

Another superb performance by the Royal Philharmonic; when the audience’s sustained applause brought Mr Buribayev back to the podium for a fourth time, no one was in any doubt the extent to which the whole programme had been appreciated. This was another matinee performance by the RPO; it’s great if that encourages a wider age range of concertgoers, although I still, personally, prefer my classical concerts in the evening. I look forward to their evening of Ballet music coming up in June!