Review – Comedy Crate Festival, Northampton, 9th July 2017

Comedy CrateI was idly thumbing through Facebook the other day and saw, as you do, that a friend was interested in a local event: The first ever Comedy Crate Festival in Northampton, thirty acts over two days in three venues: The Lab, The Charles Bradlaugh and The Black Prince. How fantastic, and innovative, to create such an event where comics can take a slot for work in progress towards their Edinburgh shows in a month’s time. We’d already booked to see Miss Saigon on the Saturday, but that left the Sunday free… £16 for a wristband allowing you access to see five shows seemed a bargain, although £27 for two days works out at just £2.70 a show if you see everything you can, which is, indeed, top value.

First, some feedback about the venues – we saw two shows at the Bradlaugh, two at the Black Prince and one at the Lab. The Charles Bradlaugh has an excellent upstairs room capable of accommodating a big crowd for a comedy gig; it’s comfortable, has a well-stocked bar, and excellent sightlines; my only criticism would be that it can get too hot, but that’s a common problem in well attended comedy venues! The Lab is a much smaller venue with a nice intimate feel, but the hard chairs are, well, ouch! The bar is rather poorly stocked and when the barmen natter to each other during the show, the noise interrupts the act (just a friendly piece of advice for the future!) The quirky Black Prince was probably my favourite; a medium sized venue with an array of different types of seating from hard chairs to sofa, to stools, so you can take your pick for comfort. It also has a lovely garden for pre- or post-show drinkies.

Each venue had five shows a day, all at the same time, so you basically have a choice of three shows for each comedy slot. We’re lucky enough to see quite a bit of comedy so we’d already seen a number of the acts on show; and I thought, in best Fringe tradition, that it would be a good opportunity to catch some acts we didn’t know. That meant no to Stephen Bailey, Larry Dean, Geoff Norcott and Ed Byrne (and from Saturday’s line up, we would have missed Stuart Goldsmith, Pippa Evans and James Acaster. Didn’t they have some good names?!) So I made my choices in advance, and very nearly stuck to them. Let’s take them one by one.

Tom Toal (3pm Charles Bradlaugh)

Tom ToalWell this is where it gets difficult. Tom Toal’s Edinburgh show is Better Than Before, a rather intricate narrative show about following your dreams. It’s extremely clever, but, after a very welcoming and enjoyable first few minutes, including one great joke, I can’t say that either of us found the rest of it particularly funny. There’s a big setup for a significant callback which relies on the audience recognising, or not recognising, the name of an apparently infamous figure in history. Neither of us knew who this person was, and as a result we felt that we had totally misunderstood the punchline of a long joke. Disheartened, it made us feel a bit stupid, took us out of comedy-mode, and as a result the routine never regained traction with us. Mr T is clearly a likeable guy but this really needed to be a lot funnier than it was. Hey ho, there’s still time, that’s why you have work-in-progress try outs!

Ian Smith (4.30pm Black Prince)

Ian SmithIan Smith seems to have a quiet, unassuming personality, until he lets loose on a flight of fancy, and he’s off like a racehorse! A naturally very funny man, with a great understanding of those bizarre things people do, with which he then confronts you, so you absolutely recognise yourself in his comic scenarios. His Edinburgh show is called Snowflake, and is all about uniqueness – and how it is that we’re all unique yet we’re all the same. Over-running by fifteen minutes (with subsequent knock-on effects for the next show!) he has way too much material, but what to cut out? Because it was all brilliant. Reflections of Tromso including marvellous mental images of shitting huskies, (he found out we’d been there, so at least I added a little something to his act); words that don’t translate into English, but really ought to; googling people with your own name; and getting dismissed via the medium of poetry. The show was frequently interrupted by people wandering in and just standing alongside the stage and Mr Smith did a brilliant job of weaving them into his routine. Extremely funny and I would definitely recommend catching his show.

Jack Barry (6pm The Lab)

Jack BarryWith Stephen Bailey in one venue and Larry Dean in another, I guess Jack Barry was always going to be the least attended gig in this slot – and indeed, there were just seven of us in the audience. Sometimes it happens. But that’s an opportunity for the comic to draw on their resources and keep going, ensuring those seven have a good time – and that’s exactly what Jack Barry did. His Edinburgh show is High Treason, a comedy lecture about the benefits of legalising drugs. This is always going to be something that divides an audience, but Mr Barry does a very good job of keeping everyone onside, and actually he comes up with some clever (and funny) arguments to support his case. He has a very engaging style and a confident, fluid delivery and I thought he was extremely good. I hope his show gets a much better turnout in Edinburgh, because it certainly deserves it!

Ed Gamble (7.30pm Charles Bradlaugh)

Ed GambleWe had originally planned to see Glenn Wool in this slot at the Black Prince, but for some reason got sidetracked by the prospect of crisps and alcohol at the Bradlaugh as we were walking by. I’d only seen Ed Gamble on TV before so he still counted as “one we hadn’t seen on stage before”. A huge crowd obviously had the same idea, and by the time we’d gone upstairs to find somewhere to sit, our only option was standing at the bar. Still that did give us an excellent view of the stage, and also the opportunity to observe a very serious looking Mr Gamble prowling around the back of the room like an anxious cat, waiting for his moment to pounce on the stage. Once on, he presents a really slick and confident act, absolutely jam-packed full of laughter. Much of the material stems from his running a marathon – including the natural show-offishness that it engenders – and a really funny, if essentially simple, routine on holding in a fart whilst being massaged. There are some wonderful flight of fancy moments, such as treating a tethered priest as if it were a family pet (you had to be there) or how the boys at his posh school would have talked to each other. And there’s a brilliant explanation of how you can tell you’re in a spa. He was cheekily challenged by a guy at the front and I thought his subsequent put down erred on the cruel, so beware of sitting in the front row! But he’s naturally a brilliant comic and this was probably the show during which I laughed the most. Maybe, ever so slightly, a little safe? He’s not one of those comics who will examine a serious situation in an attempt to change the world through the medium of observational humour and surprise revelations. He’s far more likely to make fun of a burp. But he does it so very, very well. His Edinburgh show is called Mammoth and I predict a riot.

Phil Nichol (9pm Black Prince)

Phil NicholIt’s interesting to arrive early at a venue when the comic is still setting up and if he doesn’t mind having a chat with you whilst he’s getting ready. Phil Nichol is one such chap. You can tell right away that he’s a perfectionist, and you suspect that if the show goes wrong he’s really going to beat himself up about it. He looks down at his notes for the show, sighs, makes a few comments about how it’s all designed to find out what works and what doesn’t, looks at his notes again, sighs, and looks at you as if to say, “please don’t hurt me, I’m a lovely puppy.” He has no need to worry. His Edinburgh show, Your Wrong, deliberately, I’m sure, spelt grammatically incorrectly, talks about making mistakes, but primarily gives Mr Nichol a chance to rail against the world with all the power invested in him by his hard-hitting, energetic, excitable style. Much of the material stems from his relationship with his family, where he gives us a vivid and hilarious picture of being brought up in a Brethren household – praise God and pass the butter – and the account of the tragedy that befell his beloved older brother. En route, you get an insight into how Anne Robinson refused to be upstaged by him, and a new explanation for why the chicken crossed the road. “Some people say I should slow down my words a little”, he confessed, shortly before the show began. They’re probably right. But what you come away with is an impression of a man possessed by passion, desperate to drive home his points, and creating a comedy craftwork that both satisfies your desire to laugh and juxtaposes personal tragedy in the context of humour. It really makes you think, and it really makes you laugh. I loved it, and I’m sure it’s going to be an Edinburgh smash.

And that was our day! What a great day it was. Huge congratulations to the organisers and I hope we can all do it again next summer!

The Edinburgh Fringe One-Weeker 2015 – Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo

Edinburgh CastleFor years I have faithfully watched the Royal Edinburgh Military Tattoo on television, broadcast on the August Bank Holiday Monday around teatime but always much more atmospheric if you record it and watch it with a bottle of wine around 11pm when it’s not a school night. East Meets WestThere was always something so respectful and reassuring about the late Tom Fleming’s commentary, and I really miss his voice.

Tattoo seatingSo we are both really looking forward to seeing this at 9pm tonight, Monday 17th August. I booked our tickets way back in December when they first went on sale so I’m hoping I chose wisely – Row N of Section 9. I note that this performance of the Tattoo will be one where the TV cameras will be present, so that adds an extra frisson! The theme of this year’s Tattoo is “East Meets West”, and apparently we can expect “a spine-tingling presentation [that] will include pipers, drummers, singers and dancers as well as one of the world’s most sensational percussion groups, Switzerland’s Top Secret Drum Corps.”

Top Secret Drum CorpsCheck back once it’s all over – not sure how long each show lasts to be honest, but I presume sometime after 11pm. And then you can see where we’ll end up for our late night show.

Update:

Such colour! Such sound! Such spectacle! A really enjoyable and skilful performance, even if the Top Secret guys from Switzerland dropped a drumstick or two. The TV makes it look smaller. Definitely something everyone should see at least once!

Review – The Deep Blue Sea, Festival Theatre, Chichester, August 20th 2011

Chichester Festival TheatreOur second helping of Rattigan last Saturday was the much acclaimed “The Deep Blue Sea”, originally produced in 1952 in a run that lasted 513 performances. This was a time when Rattigan’s career was really riding high, and in fact many commentators think this is his best play. In “Rattigan’s Nijinsky”, with which we matinéed earlier, Rattigan says “my women are women, and they’re bloody well-written ones”. Hester Collyer, of whom we see a very turbulent day in a rather depressing life, is probably the epitome of this statement. Caught between the devil and the deep blue sea, the play starts with her failed gassing suicide attempt and ends with her again turning the gas on but this time merely to light the fire. The character progression prompted Mrs Chrisparkle to announce that the play was a supreme statement of optimism. I just found it hard to get past the sadness that Hester wanted to commit suicide.

The Deep Blue SeaWhat is notable about this production is the way it faithfully represents the 1950s and presents that rather dark age in a completely ungimmicky and unembellished way. If you look at the photo of the 1952 set, it’s virtually identical to the set at Chichester. The main difference is that the gas fire is now downstage so that Hester more or less has to look the front stalls in the eye when she turns the fire on, whereas before it was more discreetly positioned against the upstage wall. The furnishings are practical rather than comfortable; the costumes reflect the repressed and impoverished surroundings. Philip Franks the director has adhered to the three-act format – morning, afternoon and evening of this rather enormous day – and not caved in to the modern desire for the symmetrical structure of one central interval. You feel as though this is exactly how this play would have been presented sixty years ago.

Amanda RootYou must draw your own conclusions at to the precise reason for Hester’s suicide attempt, but her two options for bliss are current companion Freddie, who was probably once a bit of a wartime hero but is now an idle drunk, and previous husband William, who is willing to accept her back, but as a possession rather than because of love. Amanda Root’s Hester is brave, calm, sometimes in control, often in agonies of despair. As the two men interact with her you see her formulating her views on them, shoring herself up for the future, and gaining strength from every resolve she makes. It’s a very good performance; tugging at the heartstrings at the right times whilst maintaining whatever dignity she can muster as a failed suicider.

John HopkinsJohn Hopkins is Freddie; another good performance combining the roguish charm that presumably first attracted Hester with an irascible post-war self-disappointment which has resulted in his becoming a waster. In the RAF he had been a dashing test pilot; with the benefit of hindsight you would now consider him a prime candidate for Gulf War Syndrome or a possible beneficiary of Help for Heroes. There were times in the first act when I felt John Hopkins rushed and garbled his lines a little – so much so that I found some of his speeches a bit hard to follow. And that’s before the character had had too much to drink. Still he very much looked the part and the agonies that Freddie feels came across as real and disturbing.

Anthony CalfAt the other end of the social spectrum, Anthony Calf’s Sir William Collyer is the embodiment of buttoned-up stiff-upper-lippishness, his ultra-respectability in the rather slovenly surroundings effectively suggesting that their two lives are long past the chance of converging. When he offers to take her back, pointing out that she is devaluing herself by staying with Freddie, there is barely any increase the warmth of his voice, and you know that it’s not a question of love. It’s another very effective performance; I only know Anthony Calf as Strickland in TV’s New Tricks, and I just got a sneaking suspicion that he feels comfortable playing rather cold, authoritarian figures. Was the whole role just a little too easy for him?

Encouraged by the slightly mysterious Mr (Don’t call me Doctor) Miller who attends to her medical needs, Hester’s decision to let both men go their separate ways and to live her life alone is the big positive step at the end of the play. However, despite its forward-looking conclusion, it’s not the kind of play where you bounce out of the auditorium at the end and click your heels jauntily on the way to the car park. It’s a deep, thoughtful and moving play, and this production gives it the full respect it deserves.

I don't believe it!Celebrity news: whilst I nipped to the Gents, Mrs Chrisparkle queued to pre-order interval drinks, and in line in front of her was none other than Richard Wilson. That’s twice we’ve been in the same audience as him. Naturally when she told me later I had to let rip an “I Don’t Believe It”, which is the ordained form of response whenever his name is mentioned. One last piece of advice – if you pre-order tea and coffee for the interval, by the time you get to drink it, it’s cold. Stick to the Chenin Blanc in future.

Review – Rattigan’s Nijinsky, Festival Theatre, Chichester, 20th August 2011

Chichester Festival TheatreFor this year’s Chichester trip, we thought we’d immerse ourselves in the joys of Terence Rattigan’s centenary year. So on a whirlwind day out, we took in a matinee and an evening performance of two different plays, one a Rattigan perennial, the other a more experimental experience, both directed by Philip Franks, and with a number of the same actors in both.

Rattigan's Nijinsky A few years before he died, Rattigan was working on a TV screenplay about Nijinsky (not the racehorse) and his relationship with Diaghilev. The story goes that Rattigan pulled it from the BBC production team because of an argument about its content with Nijinsky’s widow Romola. Thus it was never made, performed or even published. “Rattigan’s Nijinsky”, by Nicholas Wright, takes Rattigan’s screenplay – or some of what remains of it – and creates a new play with Rattigan himself centre stage, in a suite at Claridge’s, having meetings with Romola and his BBC director, but principally seeing his screenplay unfold through his mind’s eye; observing the interactions between Nijinksy, Diaghilev, Romola, and his other characters. So there is the challenge for the director – making the reality of the Claridge’s suite and the imagination of the screenplay co-exist on the stage.

In the words of Linda Barker, I thought it worked really well. The occasional change of lighting, and occasional soft sound effect, help separate the two but for the most part, it’s as real on stage as it is real in Rattigan’s mind. Upstage becomes a dance studio or a ship’s deck; centre stage is Claridge’s sofa and champagne, with characters from the hotel drifting in alongside characters from the story. But what’s the purpose behind it all? My original thoughts were that a lot of it was about the vividness of the creative experience – Rattigan imagining the play going on around him – enjoying some of it, finding other parts disturbing, rather like an ordinary member of the audience. Mrs Chrisparkle felt it was more of a drug trip. Rattigan’s declining health is causing a lot of pain and he frequently reaches for a dodgy elixir acquired in Bermuda. The more he drinks this painkiller, the more bizarre some of the apparitions become. On reflection, I think she’s got it right. This raises lots of interesting questions about what is real and what is imagined, and gives the whole play an additional dimension of curiosity.

Joseph DrakeHaving the same actor play Nijinsky and Donald the room-service boy, who wants to provide Rattigan with something distinctly off-menu, (or is that Rattigan’s wishful thinking?) is very effective as characteristics of the one get merged into the other. Joseph Drake puts in two very good performances in what must be a physically demanding two and a half hours, with several costume as well as character changes. Similarly, Jonathan Hyde plays both Diaghilev and Cedric the BBC man. These two characters couldn’t be further apart. Jonathan HydeDiaghilev is eerily elegant, with something of the vampire in his appearance, feasting on easily-led young men, and not used to being thwarted; Cedric is a scruffy laid-back guy, appreciative of Rattigan’s artistry but more concerned with the practicalities of dealing with the BBC hierarchy. Jonathan Hyde captured the essence of both men really well, and despite his affected appearance made Diaghilev a totally believable character.

It’s not all deep and meaningful. The scene with Cedric, for example, is also hilarious, as is the scene between Rattigan and his mother, and much of the play has a very nice undercurrent of humour that keeps it moving along. Personally I thought the second act got slightly bogged down at one stage; Mrs Chrisparkle thought I was being too critical. Chenin Blanc Maybe that was the effect of the interval glass of Chenin Blanc that I can highly recommend. Something we both completely agreed about was a really awful moment early on in the play when Nijinsky as a boy is being taken through his paces by the Ballet Master. The boy is challenged to leap high, over a stick held out by the Ballet Master; which the boy then raises, implying he can leap higher than that. Nice, I thought; shows his confidence and arrogance, and also implies he’s a damn good leaper. But then his leap is represented by them lifting the boy up so that he is held in a tableau pose that I can only say makes him look like Michael Flatley’s love child in some nightmare form of “Lord of the Dance”. It’s ridiculous, unsubtle and a bit embarrassing. I’m sure a talented director like Mr Franks could have found a better way of communicating that to the audience. No criticism of young Jude Loseby playing the nine-year-old Nijinsky who I thought otherwise was rather good.

Malcolm SinclairAt the heart of the play is Malcolm Sinclair’s performance as Rattigan. He’s quite a favourite actor of ours, having been in the wonderful Racing Demon earlier this year – we still don’t understand why that didn’t transfer. Here again he commands the stage with a natural authority, engaging easily with the audience so they are completely on his side; his facial expressions and vocal delivery allowing us to see into the real Rattigan, the one we could never see when he was alive. It’s a great performance – but I also think Nicholas Wright has written a pretty good role too. I confess I was moved to buy the play text afterwards.

Susan TracyIt’s an excellent ensemble, and everyone carried it off well; perhaps an additional mention to Susan Tracy as (inter alia) the elder Romola, full of tight-lipped ire in a superbly well-written scene, and also as Rattigan’s mother, desperately trying to pry into her son’s private life but still never seeing the truth.

It’s an experimental production, and definitely worth the experiment. It gives you much to think about, and is definitely one of those plays you discuss for some time after. I still think a lot of the play is about the creative experience – something I always enjoy in a piece. I also find it satisfying when the characters don’t end up at the same place as where they started – and Rattigan’s character development keeps you on edge, let alone the very active and absorbing story about Diaghilev and Nijinsky. The audience at last Saturday’s matinee was disappointingly small – perhaps half full – but very enthusiastic in its response. There are only three performances left before it closes on 3rd September; if you can get it to see it, I would highly recommend it.