Review – Kiss of the Spider Woman, Menier Chocolate Factory, 18th March 2018

Kiss of the Spider WomanWhen I saw that the Menier’s next offering was to be Kiss of the Spider Woman, my initial reaction was – great, I’ve always wanted to see that musical. It wasn’t until a day or two before seeing the show that I discovered this is not the Kander/Ebb production from 1992 that starred Chita Rivera. This is a new dramatization by Jose Rivera and Allan Baker of Manuel Puig’s original 1976 novel, set in a Buenos Aires prison, about the developing relationship between window-dresser and film fan, Molina, and left wing political activist Valentin. The novel was originally only published in Spain and was for many years banned in Argentina. Considered Puig’s finest work, not only did it become the aforementioned award-winning Broadway musical, but Puig also adapted it as a play (1983), and it became a film in 1985.

Cast of twoBut I hadn’t seen any of its previous incarnations and I’ve never read the book, so I was completely ignorant as to the story; and, gentle reader, if you plan to see this show and also don’t know the story, then I’m going to break one of my usual rules. I normally outline at least the initial plotline; but this time I’m going to keep you in your blissful ignorance. Because both Mrs Chrisparkle and I found this an absolutely riveting piece of drama; stunning story-telling with multi-layered characters, and visually highly impactful. And it really helped that we didn’t know where the story was going.

Grace Cookey-Gam and Samuel BarnettIt’s always a delight to come to the Menier and walk down into the auditorium to see how they have rearranged everything to suit whatever new show you’re seeing. Unusually, this time, you have to walk up and into the auditorium, and then walk down to your particular row. Jon Bausor’s design for this show hits the mark from The Word Go and there is so much to take in before the play actually starts. Molina and Valentin’s cell is there in a corner; the two prisoners are on stage right from the start, quietly idling through their day. The walls to their cell are broken down and removed so we can see inside; around it, you find the most convincing representation of fresh wet mud you could ever imagine. Behind it, darkness, but which will come into use in the final scene. On a higher level, you see the walkways of the other prison cells, creating a superb, but oppressive setting of harsh, cruel prison life. You can’t imagine the prisoners in the Villa Devoto jail in Buenos Aires playing pool or benefiting from university courses.

S BarnettBut those walkways have an ulterior purpose. Molina whiles away the endless hours in prison, and entertains Valentin at the same time, by re-telling the plots of favourite old films. Andrzej Goulding’s brilliant projection design depicts these stories on the walkways, where silhouette characters act out Molina’s reminiscences. The silhouettes are real enough to fix those stories in our heads, but not so clearly defined that they replace our own imagination of what we’ve been told. It’s both technically impressive and artistically enjoyable.

Declan Bennett and Samuel BarnettAnother of the reasons why I wanted to see this was because it has been directed by Laurie Sansom, ex-Artistic Director of the Royal and Derngate, Northampton, where he created so many memorable and extraordinary works. The last show of his we saw was the huge (in so many ways) The James Plays, where he did his usual trick of creating a seamless ensemble from a large and varied group of actors. Kiss of the Spider Woman only has three characters, so ensemble isn’t really the right word, but what Mr Sansom is so good at is creating a work where his actors have such complete trust, respect and faith in each other. You could see it in the bold relationship he created between Dionysus and Pentheus in his The Bacchae a few years ago. In this current play there are a number of scenes where Samuel Barnett as Molina and Declan Bennett as Valentin have to share a lot of intimacy and there isn’t a hair’s-breadth of awkwardness or artificiality to their stage relationship. As a result, it’s compelling and rewarding viewing; not remotely embarrassing, which would have really killed the semblance of reality.

Samuel BarnettSamuel Barnett is outstanding as Molina. Although at first he entertains us with the character’s short-tempered show-offishness, he quickly invests the character with so much kindness, and so many hidden depths, that you realise you want to find out so much more about their dreams and motivations. Mr Barnett can turn bright, cheeky comedy into sombre tragedy at the flicker of an eye. It’s a bold, funny, moving, elegant performance that stays with you long after curtain down. Declan Bennett is also fantastic as Valentin; sullen, tortured, lost in his own disgrace. It’s a superb portrayal of a powerful and charismatic leader, brought down by institutionalised deceit and corruption, and slowly, blindly, walking into the Spider Woman’s web. The third member of the cast is Grace Cookey-Gam, whose crisp and forthright performance as the warden reveals a more complex role than it might at first appear.

Declan BennettWe saw a preview, so there’s always a chance that they might change something before press night – but that would be bizarre because it works so well as it is. I know I should really wait until after press night before reviewing, but, hey, what the hell. If I can encourage you to book quickly for this stunning production before those who wait for the first night reviews, then I will have done A Useful Thing. It’s a fascinating story, delicately told by a magnificent cast and a creative team at the top of their game. Just a short season until 5th May, but surely this should have a life after Menier? Highly recommended.

D Bennett and S BarnettP. S. So, regular readers may well remember, the current trend for “no interval” is one of my pet hates. This show comes in at around 1 hour 40 minutes without an interval, and I do think the story and performances are strong enough to sustain a 20-minute break in the middle just to ensure the audience’s comfort. Those Menier benches aren’t the most luxurious in London and who wants to worry about needing to nip to the loo halfway through and then not being allowed back in to the auditorium?

P. P. S. I noticed Laurie Sansom deep in conversation with some guys as we were leaving. Should I interrupt and say hi, or should I just walk away? Of course, I said a quick hello. I told him it was great. I didn’t get around to telling him we’d be seeing his Nightfall at the Bridge Theatre in May too. One can be too much of a groupie.

Production photos by Nobby Clark

Review – One For The Road, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 6th February 2013

One For The RoadThis revival of the 1985 version (there was a 1979 version too) of Willy Russell’s One For The Road is the first production of this year’s Made in Northampton “Comedy Gold” season and also the last to be directed by the Royal and Derngate’s Artistic Director Laurie Sansom before he goes on to pastures new at the National Theatre of Scotland.

Laurie SansomDammit, we’re going to miss him here. Since we started coming to the R&D in 2010 we’ve seen loads of his work and he is quite astounding. He has two major strengths as a director: the ability to get to the heart of a text and make the words do the work, and an amazing knack of creating an intimate ensemble out of any cast so that they work seamlessly together as one. I did make a plea when we saw The Duchess of Malfi that he should not be allowed to go to another theatre. I quote: “In fact I hope they won’t let him out of the building; well maybe, tagged, and allowed to stray no further than Prezzo’s.” I couldn’t have said it better myself. Oh, it was me who said it anyway. But Mrs Chrisparkle and I do wish him all the best success in his new post, which I am sure he will make into one big creative jamboree.

Con O'NeillOne For The Road is an interesting choice to kick off the season, as it’s one of Mr Russell’s lesser known works and, whilst it is firmly set in its era with very 1980s cultural references – well done for remembering the Wogan TV music by the way – the theme of the play is timeless and its message is certainly relevant to 2013. It’s also interesting to see Russell’s favourite concepts surface in this play and to compare where he has dealt with them, perhaps to greater success, in other plays. It’s Dennis’ fortieth birthday. He’s been reflecting on what might have been, if only things had gone differently; and he’s basically gone into depression at the realisation he’s led a “little life” (viz. Shirley Valentine). He and Pauline have moved out of their terrace and in to the new estate (viz. 65 Skelmersdale Lane in Blood Brothers). It’s Phase II as well, you can’t get any more modern or chic – we should know, we only live in Phase I of our development – and in so doing, have almost caught up with their social climbing old friends and now neighbours Roger and Jane. But not quite; Roger and Jane have embraced their middle class lifestyle with open arms, wallets and prejudices; and whilst Pauline is trying to “better herself” (viz. Educating Rita) mainly for the sake of appearances, Dennis is a fish out of water who despises (no, hates) the fripperies of bourgeoisie, like cooking Hachis au Parmentier and regarding John Denver as a musical divinity. He leads his life guided by insightful song lyrics and still keeps up a bit of self-written poetry but obviously that side of him is becoming extinguished.

To celebrate Dennis’ 40th, Pauline has arranged an ill-conceived dinner party for the four of them, plus Dennis’ parents, clearly old-brigade northerners who can’t find their way round Phase II because all the houses look the same and there are no numbers. The parents never actually reach the house, which leaves even more wine to be consumed, mainly by Dennis, who’s already downed a few sneaky beers, and the evening descends into one of those alcohol-fuelled farces where painful truths are revealed and no one’s life will ever be quite the same again afterwards. How very unlike my own fortieth birthday, which was spent sipping champagne at the Shangri-La Hotel in Kuala Lumpur, or Mrs Chrisparkle’s, which took place in a massive children’s play area/ball park. This wasn’t Pauline’s only bad decision that night. They were expecting six for dinner but only laid the table for four. What’s all that about then?

Michelle ButterlyThe structure of the play means the first half mainly provides the chuckle of recognition and the second half the belly laugh of farce; much better that it crescendoes in that way rather than diminuendoes. Jessica Curtis’ stark set provides an insight into a rather soulless existence, where the only sign of individuality is Dennis’ collection of LPs that takes on the appearance of clutter rather than comfort. It all feels appropriately artificial.

I was very pleased when I first heard that Dennis was to be played by Con O’Neill as he has long been one of my favourite actors. Seeing him on the stage in this production, and hearing again his unique voice with its seemingly fragile timbre, reminded me of why he could reduce grown men to tears as Mickey in Blood Brothers. Again his voice is perfect here for the desperate, broken character of Dennis, and he really gets into all aspects of the character – a full blend of both his punchy/aggressive and vulnerable sides. Technically he’s brilliant too, with faultless prop-handling, timing and a completely believable “very drunk” act. His performance gave the play a deep intensity, so much so that at the end Mrs C felt rather exhausted – but in a good way.

Nicola StephensonI very much enjoyed the performance of Michelle Butterly as Pauline, trying to keep up the pretentiousness of her environment, but also failing to conceal her own true background. She’s great at being culturally bullied by her apparently more naturally superior friends and she’s got a very good posh scouse accent!

Nicola Stephenson turns in a wonderfully supercilious performance as the vain know-it-all Jane, patronising her way through the evening with the intent of making everyone else feel small. With an eye for a scandal at any opportunity, she’s keen to fling around suggestions of premature ejaculation without any supporting evidence, and she’s not reticent about forcing herself into Dennis’ locked desk to reveal supposed proof of sexual perversity. When it finally gets opened, I had already guessed what would be in there.

Matthew WaitMatthew Wait’s Roger is a wide-boy made good who’s only partly grown up, with a penchant for playing games and adopting a pompous tone to get his way. His life too could have been creatively more fulfilled but he is satisfied with the self-indulgence that his lifestyle brings. Delightfully smug, and very funny when his world falls down around him.

At the end of the play three of the characters attempt to rewrite history so that they can go back to their comfortable shallow lives; but does Dennis make a break for it, and look upon the dinner party as one last “one for the road”, or does he remain trapped in his middle class misery? You’ll have to see the play to find out. It’s a very enjoyable production, on until 23rd February, with great performances and it’s a fitting swansong for Mr Sansom.

Is it me, or have audiences got really grumpy over the last few months about standing up to let you get to and from your seat if you’re not on an aisle? Mrs C and I have noticed this a lot recently. Not that long ago, an “excuse me, but may I get past” would have been met with a “certainly” and a stand up, which we always reply with a “thank you” to every second or third person we inconvenience; but today you’re likely to be met with an insolent scowl, under-breath muttering, begrudged seat swivelling, or indeed an actual vocalised phrase of annoyance. At a recent performance, one unhelpfully stubborn woman was grabbing hold of a hot drink defensively as if it were an excuse not to move. Mrs C had no choice but to take it out of her hand with an “If I hold on to that you can stand up and let me through”. Theatregoers of Northampton, Milton Keynes, Birmingham and London, you’re all doing it. Just stop it!

Review – The Bacchae, Royal and Derngate at Northampton Chronicle and Echo Print Works, 16th June 2012

The BacchaeAn underground car park – pillars, electrical mountings, side offices, a lift shaft, and a bashed up abandoned old car. Walk through that innocuous looking door at the Northampton Chronicle and Echo old print works and you enter a surprising world. A world where security CCTV systems maintain a regime headed by a spoilt king with a manipulative mother, protected by a Head of Security who can instantly summon a line of hard riot cops to intimidate and overthrow any attempts to subvert the system; but where a new cult frenzy is spreading that has caused all the women of the city to abandon their homes and run freely in the hills, thereby gaining superhuman strength; a fervour whipped up to such an extent that people simply do not know what they are doing but become overpowered by the lure of Dionysus and all he represents.

Alicia DaviesThis modern version of Euripides’ The Bacchae adapted by Rosanna Lowe and directed by Laurie Sansom is presented by the Royal and Derngate as part of the Cultural Olympiad’s London Festival 2012 along with their production of Blood Wedding, with which it plays in repertory. I’m sadly ignorant about ancient Greek drama on the whole, so we thought it would be a good idea to attend the talk “Suppressing the Urge” that took place at the theatre before the performance. Professor Chris Carey is meant to know his stuff; we thought he’d give us a good introduction to the play; and in any case, he’s Mrs Chrisparkle’s uncle, so it would have been rude not to go! It was a very amusing and informative talk – and definitely gave us some pointers to watch out for when we saw the play later on.

Kathryn PogsonI’d seen the production photographs for the Bacchae and they did make it look exciting, but nothing quite prepares you for the astonishing way this production fills this disused industrial space. Takis’ design is one of the most exhilarating adaptations of a space I have ever seen. It’s not warm; it’s not cosy; it’s harsh and hostile. It’s the perfect setting for this smart, highly modern, zippy version of the Bacchae, sacrificing some of the beauty – and rightly so I believe – of the original Greek poetry for convincing hard-hitting modern idiom. There are scenes of comedy and tragedy; music songs and chants; some buttock-clenchingly unsettling discomfort; and some no-holds barred horror that will make you swear to vegetarianism for the rest of your life.

Liam Bergin This production tells its age-old story magnificently well and leaves you with some outstandingly memorable mental images that are hard to shake off even after a few days. It’s also full of extraordinary performances. The company works hard to achieve fine drama in Blood Wedding but here you somehow feel they enjoy themselves much more – energy, intensity and a sparkiness in their performances simply crackle with delight with apparent effortlessness. When it comes to Chaos, Euripides trumps Lorca’s ace. It flows freely from its central character and occupies the landscape and all its inhabitants. Expect the unexpected, as Dionysus warns us on his surprise first entrance. He’s everywhere and he’s got a lot to answer to.

Ery NzarambaAfter Dionysus has introduced us to his world, and revealed the shrine to his mother Semele, his followers, the Bacchantes appear and use the car park as their base to plot, to worship, to avenge and to plunge the world further into chaos. The acoustics mean you hear absolutely everything clear as a bell, which suits their challenging and aggressive alarums and excursions. They make a really effective chorus. I particularly loved the show-stopping number led by Alicia Davies in fine form, but they were all excellent and linked scenes together with great pace and menace.

Robert BenfieldThere were two remarkable scenes in the play that for me expressed the special degree of trust between the actors that you always get with a Laurie Sansom production. Pentheus’ mother, Agave, played by Kathryn Pogson, quickly becomes entranced by the Bacchantes when she comes down to the basement to see what all the fuss is about. The spirit of Dionysus quickly embeds itself in her and what started as a confrontation becomes a dreamlike dance of rapture, where she is passed from follower to follower, sailing through the air on an enveloping wave of bliss. It’s a beautiful, balletic sequence, and showed fantastically well how the Bacchantes assimilated Agave. It’s also a great symbol for what Dionysus can be, as this beautiful, calm dance sets in motion Agave’s murder of her own son – you can’t get sharper contrasts. The gruesome scene where she slowly realises what she has done, bringing in Pentheus’ flayed head that she is devouring with hedonistic pleasure, is a gripping performance. The horror of realisation fills in to her face, even while she is still chomping on a bit of son, and her subsequent agonised remorse is one of those moments you don’t forget in a hurry.

Jim BywaterPentheus is played by Liam Bergin as a sharp-suited spoilt Mummy’s boy of a king, full of sound and fury but signifying nothing that can overcome Dionysus’ hold. He gives a good account of petulant annoyance at the security lapses and his fury that Dionysus has escaped imprisonment is real and tangible. He may bark angry threats and try to preserve his whining authority but you know from the start he is doomed. Ery Nzaramba’s Dionysus has an electrifying presence, a manipulating god from the start – you even feel uncomfortable in the opening and closing scenes when he is addressing the audience in case he somehow gets into you too. His voice encompasses power, influence and cheekiness. He teases, he cajoles, he mocks; he won’t be silenced. His scene with Pentheus where he undresses the king so he can change his appearance to spy on the women is another of those extraordinary trust-between-actor moments. Mr Nzaramba is calm and controlling, deceptively supportive and encouraging; Mr Bergin’s face portrays the point where agony and ecstasy meet, sweating buckets in intense vulnerability. A creepy, sensual, erotic, frightening, awful moment, and quite brilliant.

Philip Cairns Humour is supplied courtesy of Tiresias (Robert Benfield) and Cadmus (Jim Bywater) a couple of old Bacchanial sots who are happy to worship because of the drink – I always enjoy it when a toy teddy bear comes to life. The play also features an excellent performance by Philip Cairns as Pentheus’ head of security – a self-sacrificing, unquestioning supporter who only functions to protect and obey.

This is one of those productions where you go on thinking and talking about it for days afterwards. Every so often a new thought comes into your head about it – a fresh insight, a sudden realisation, an unexpected appreciation. There’s a lot going on during those 100 minutes of non-stop drama. I think it would be a crime against theatre if this didn’t have some kind of life after this season ends. It should at least be recorded for television or DVD. But the key to the success of this show is the outstanding overall vision of how this classic tale could be brought right up to date, transforming a dead brownfield environment into a place of vibrant artistic excellence. If you enjoy experimental innovation in your theatregoing, you’re going to love this.

Review – Blood Wedding, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 1st June 2012

Blood WeddingBlood Wedding, together with The Bacchae, form the first two thirds of this year’s major “Made in Northampton” highlight, the Festival of Chaos, which is also part of the Cultural Olympiad’s London 2012 Festival. This is no mean achievement, and one of which the Royal and Derngate can truly be proud. The plays (including Hedda Gabler coming later this summer) are Artistic Director Laurie Sansom’s three all time favourites in the whole of drama; so I expect we will see a large dose of his special magic in these productions.

Kathryn Pogson Certainly his creative footprints are all over Blood Wedding. The cast work together as a superb ensemble, which I’ve found is the absolute hallmark of his directing style, and the play has a generally stylised and cultured feel to it. I think Mr Sansom even sneaks into the cast himself as the disembodied voice of the news broadcast on TV. The production has a versatile and useful set – I particularly admired the upstairs landing in the wedding scenes, which seems to exist without any side access – and the whole show is sensibly and properly lit. Dougal Irvine’s specially composed score is frankly gorgeous, played live by a gifted quartet in the orchestra pit, and I could imagine myself seeing the show again, simply to re-experience the music.

Liam Bergin The play of course is like a 20th century Spanish Shakespeare – a classic tragedy, which lends itself to all sorts of modernisation and adapting. Lorca’s masterpiece was first staged in 1932 but like Shakespeare its themes of nature, fate and revenge are timeless and can fit in any era, any place. This production is set “sometime in the near future”; a rather surreal world where TV reception is still tenuous, hospital receptionists don’t speak to you until you’ve taken a numbered ticket from the pull-off machine, and you still wash using a Victorian style jug and bowl.

Ery Nzaramba The surrealism is further emphasised in the language. Like much of Shakespeare, the rhythms of the verse lend their own atmosphere, which comes across to good effect in Australian Tommy Murphy’s adaptation. It’s set in southern Spain, but the actors use English North Country accents; and Tommy Murphy includes some down under phrases to the text. “No worries” and “Good-oh” have become reasonably universal but when Leonardo’s wife says she bought something “on special” (instead of “in a sale”) and he describes distances in “klicks”, you are definitely on Terra Australiana. I’m not sure if that was a deliberate ploy or just an accident of idiom; together with all the mother’s anxieties about dust on shoes this could just as easily be the Outback as Andalucia. It all contributes to an intrigue of displacement.

Amanda Wilkin This is extremely stirring drama. From the moment the tale starts to unfold you are locked in. Kathryn Pogson’s Mother, berating Liam Bergin’s Groom about his choice of bride-to-be and her enduring resentment over the Felix family is all very recognisable. Indeed, Mrs Chrisparkle and I saw elements in this opening scene of our very own blood wedding almost 25 years ago; and when the mother finally meets the bride and her father on their own territory, you sense it has all the makings of an acrimonious Scouse wedding reception. (If you’ve ever attended one of those, you’ll know what I mean.) Kathryn Pogson is scarily convincing as a woman just hanging on to her wits, who is emotionally and psychologically scarred by the death of the men in her family, who faces the prospect of her only remaining son leaving her, who scrambles around for reasons to hate her prospective daughter in law, and who wallows in a general disdain for the wider Felix family. Liam Bergin too is excellent as the resolute son toiling on the land all day (partly to get away from his mother, you suspect), exuding a dapper confidence on his wedding day and embodying heroism in his determination to track down the swine who has nicked his bride.

Robert Benfield They are well matched by the pairing of Ery Nzaramba as Leonardo and Amanda Wilkin as his wife. Bitter with his home life, Mr Nzaramba’s Leonardo can barely disguise his loathing for his wife, and gives a great portrayal of someone who is hurting as much as he hurts. The audience should detest him for the way he treats his wife, but his emotionally subtle performance makes your response much more complex. He has a great stage presence in his first scene, when you feel he could lash out with considerable violence at any minute; but this is nicely reigned in for the wedding scene, where he fades remarkably into the crowd so that the abduction of the bride comes as a complete surprise (except that I’ve now told you about it.) I thought Amanda Wilkin was fantastic alongside him – treading a fine line between accepting and resenting her lot, gaining our sympathy for her plight without any mawkish demands for it; perceptive, but powerless; another subtle and fascinating performance.

Rosie Ede The unusual presentation of the character of The Girl – part Shakespearean Fool, part Greek messenger – as a fully adult male in the shape of Robert Benfield works very well. It fits in comfortably with the general surrealism of the production as a whole and also gives the larger than life character more prominence. When she lets loose a tirade of obscenities it makes more sense than if a genuine little girl had said it, whilst still retaining its shock impact. Every time she makes an entrance, she oozes trouble and portent; and her bloodied appearance after the interval, foretelling the death and destruction to come, makes for a very disturbing image.

Jim Bywater The whole cast are excellent, with no weak links at all, but I particularly enjoyed the performances of Rosie Ede as the maid (and particularly as the nosy neighbour), Jim Bywater as the bride’s father – something of a Dickensian self-made man to that characterisation – and Donna Berlin as Leonardo’s mother in law, trying in vain to keep the peace between her warring family. There are some great set piece moments – most notably the machinations at the wedding scene itself, and also later when the wedding party, in pursuit of Leonardo and the bride, enclose and move in on Leonardo and the Groom at their double death scene; that made a very effective and striking tableau. The production takes on the nature themes of the last part of the play – the appearance of the Moon, the living forest, and so on – with some clever modern twists, and the whole vision of the modernised setting holds together extremely well. Despite – or maybe because of – its stylisation, it’s a very engaging production that holds your attention throughout and makes you feel as though you’re witnessing something very special, that magic something that can only happen on a stage.

Donna Berlin It was a shame that on the performance we saw, one significant member of the cast got all petulant at curtain call; when the cast moved into the wings before returning for a second call you could see this person mouthing “What, again? Really? Do I have to? Oh for God’s sake” (or the equivalent), returning to the stage with an impatient glare and subsequently hot-footing it back offstage before some members of the cast had even had the time to stand up straight again. Not only did it convey the message to the audience that they didn’t care about how we reacted to the show, it was also disrespectful to their colleagues. A pet hate of mine! I trust it was a stress-induced one-off.

Royal and Derngate Northampton Subscription Season Launch 2012

Made in NorthamptonLast year Mrs Chrisparkle had a “business thing” to attend, and so missed the launch event, which was a shame as it’s an excellent opportunity to whet your appetite for the season ahead, as well as to hob and to nob with the great and the good. Fortunately this year she was able to come too, so we both headed off to the Royal eager with anticipation.

Our host for the evening again was Laurie Sansom, not only Artistic Director of the Royal and Derngate, but also director of, inter alia, such treats as the recent Eden End, Duchess of Malfi and Spring Storm. Thank heavens he shows no sign of wanting to move from Northampton.

The BacchaeStarting at the end of the season, he first took us through the three plays that will make up the Festival of Chaos productions, which will themselves be part of the London 2012 Festival, and part of the Cultural Olympiad. It’s great to have Northampton and the R&D recognised at this level. All three are to be directed by Mr Sansom – as they’re his three favourite plays of all time. A new version of Euripides’ Bacchae is the first of the three, and the first surprise of the evening is that it will be presented at the Chronicle and Echo building, in the disused printing area. Dionysus alongside industrial machinery? Sounds atmospherically intriguing, and I’m really excited about this one.

Blood WeddingThe second Chaos show, if I can call it that, which will be played in rotation with The Bacchae, is an adaptation of Lorca’s Blood Wedding by Tommy Murphy. I’ve never seen a straightforward production of Blood Wedding and I don’t think this will be one either. Mr Murphy wrote “Holding the Man” which came to London a while ago, which I didn’t see, but I understand was both desperately funny and desperately sad, which sounds like a decent mix for Lorca.

Hedda GablerThe third Chaos production is to be Ibsen’s Hedda Gabler, which Laurie Sansom said can be likened to the Female Hamlet. We saw the production at the Oxford Playhouse a couple of years ago which was quite good, with Rosamund Pike and Tim McInnerney. Ms Pike was a miserable presence from the start, which I’m sure is one way of reading the role but I wonder if a Laurie Sansom version might have more light and shade. It’ll be good to have some meaty drama though. These three plays are nothing if not meaty.

Ladies in LavenderWorking back, Laurie Sansom then introduced us to Shaun McKenna who has adapted the Judi Dench and Maggie Smith film Ladies in Lavender for the stage. It’s all about how two rather stale lives are changed by the sudden appearance of a third person – washed up on the beach. This sounds like it should be an extremely classy production, as the second – and most major – surprise of the night is that the Judi Dench role will be played by none other than Hayley Mills. That is some coup. If that wasn’t enough Ms Mills joined us by Skype from New York for a brief interview. If I have a slight concern, I wonder who will play the Maggie Smith role – will the production manage the right balance between the two characters? Time will tell, but on the face of it this looks amazing.

OedipussyAnd bringing us back to almost the present, Emma Rice came on to tell us about the new Spymonkey production, Oedipussy, which opens in February. I’ve not seen Spymonkey before but I think I am going to like them. It sounds like it’s going to be well wacky, and then some. The four Spymonkey actors later came on stage themselves and introduced their idea of the play in their own way within a superbly funny playlet. The impetus to go Greek was apparently as a result of a damning comment by a critic who basically thought they should grow up and do something adult. Gosh, I do hope I like the show otherwise they might wreak their revenge. According to their website, the show contains incest, violence, mutilation, strobes, nudity and chorus work. I’m not certain their clowning backgrounds will help you with your Classics degree – expect more Greeks Behaving Badly.

In other news, there is to be a new friends’ scheme called The Artistic Director’s Circle which gives you enviable access to the backstage world of the theatre; and an encouraging announcement that 2012’s Christmas play in the Royal will be Dickens’ Christmas Carol. I understand it’s currently pre-embryonic in development but I’m sure it will fit perfectly in the Royal environment.

So there it is, 2012’s Made in Northampton season in a nutshell. We’re very lucky to have such a destination theatre in our midst and I am sure it will be a season to remember. Can’t wait!

Review – Alice in Wonderland, Royal, Northampton, 30th December 2011

Alice in WonderlandI heard once that the annual Christmas play in the Royal Theatre in Northampton is more entertaining than the traditional panto in the Derngate. So I thought we’d give it a try. This year (I mean last year) it was Alice in Wonderland. So, surrounded by in-laws and nieces we descended the foyer staircase into Wonderland.

They’ve done an excellent job in transporting the usual Royal bar area into a fantasy land where you might meet a white rabbit or a mad hatter, have your photo taken as the Queen of Hearts, and enjoy your interval drinks and ice creams at fancy laid out tables or even reclining in a harem tent (perhaps not quite the traditional Wonderland fantasy, but I’ll go along with it!) The nieces enjoyed their chat with the Mock Turtle and Dodo, and I’ll admit it, so did I. I’m such a groupie.

Anyway there was consternation in the auditorium because they had lost Alice! Whilst they were working out where she might be, we had a choice of costumes for her to wear. I went for the sleazy red dress but the audience was disappointingly predictable in the choice of classic Tenniel blue frock. The Mad Hatter was posing for photos at the front of the stage while the Queen of Hearts was knitting from the Royal Box.

Liza SadovyYou might by now realise this is not the traditional recounting of the Alice story. It is instead a hugely fun adaptation which takes all the main elements of the original and creates a totally new tale – that of providing amusement for the Queen of Hearts as part of her birthday celebration. All the characters are required to do their turn, including an initially grumpy and unwilling Alice plucked from the auditorium, or else it’s off with their heads. I guess if you were expecting the standard story, you could be a bit disappointed; but the cast and script are so bubbly and entertaining that you shouldn’t feel glum for long.

Mark McGeeIt’s co-directed by Dani Parr and Laurie Sansom, Northampton’s own Artistic Director. I don’t how the work was shared, but this production has the classic Sansom stamp – a terrific ensemble feel. The actors are so comfortable with each other, interacting seamlessly with each other, tacitly encouraging each other to give of their best. I don’t know how he does it. He must run a great workshop.

Ryan EarlyLiza Sadovy is the Queen of Hearts, a pushy cow who cheats at croquet, who would frame her own son just for the bloodlust of it, but also has a twinkle in her eye that encouraged me (at least) to vote him guilty – it was the promise of a go in her swimming pool that did it. She’s perfectly cast, has great interaction with the audience and clearly has a wonderful time doing it.

Adam BaxterMore favoured by Mrs Chrisparkle and the other ladies of our set, was the roguish charm of Mark McGee’s Mad Hatter, who acts as an everyman-type narrator guiding us through the madness, and whose attraction for the Queen is clearly more than you would expect from your average milliner. He commands the stage with a big show number in the court where he dons a gold glittery suit and top hat straight out of A Chorus Line finale. I covet it. I also loved his and the March Hare’s (Ryan Early) surreal Table of Delights, an almost torturous tea-party where Alice constantly misses out on the victuals. Mr Early also gave a very nice turn as a hard-nosed theatrical agent. Good stuff.

Ngozi UgohAnother favourite was Adam Baxter as Little Bill the heroic lizard, whose speech of tragic bravery after he had been shot out of the caravan (don’t ask) had me guffawing embarrassingly loudly. He did all the physical comedy really well. And Ngozi Ugoh as Dodo Sminkypuffs and the Cheshire Cat gives another excellently spirited performance. We all thought she was great and could be Someone To Watch In The Future. But all the cast were highly entertaining and no one gave anything but a great performance.

Where else might you be required to shout “Pig Baby!” at the top of your voice, whilst chucking numerous of the said babies on to the stage, or get hit by stuffed hedgehogs propelled by flamingo croquet mallets. “First address your hedgehog – Hello hedgehog!” is already ensconced as part of the Chrisparkle family repartee. All this plus the unexpected arrival of the jam tarts! It’s full of colour, entertaining props, funny songs, memorable lines and we all loved it from start to finish.

Review – Eden End, Royal, Northampton, 16th June 2011

Eden EndIt’s been a long time since I’ve seen a J B Priestley play. I think the last one was Stephen Daldry’s Inspector Calls which Mrs C and I saw in London sometime in the 1990s, but we were stuck at the back of the Garrick Theatre in London with the actors so distant they might just as well have been in Cardiff for all that I could connect with them. We saw a production of “I Have Been Here Before” at the Wycombe Swan also in the 90s with Mr Rumbold from Are You Being Served as the mysterious German Doktor. Before then it was just a production of An Inspector Calls at the Shaw Theatre in London in 1978 and a TV adaptation of Dangerous Corner around the same time.

So it was good to have some renewed exposure to this 20th century British stalwart. “Eden End” is not so often performed – perhaps because it doesn’t have the beguiling “time tricks” of Inspector Calls and Dangerous Corner. And maybe it is easy to see why it could have fallen out of favour in this modern age – what could a play from 1934 set in 1912, that doesn’t really have a very strong storyline, have that is relevant to today?

Well you just have to see it to answer that question. Laurie Sansom’s production of Eden End takes a simple tale and makes it riveting. As usual he has brought together a cast that works wonders as an ensemble. You get the feeling that in every performance the actors get a new truth out of the material, so fresh is their connection with the audience. On one level the play is about the return of an actress daughter to the family home after eight years’ absence, and the emotional ripples it creates through those left behind. On another, it reveals the reality of “the other man’s grass is always greener”; how people cope with the knowledge that life could be better somewhere else. And are they right? Very Chekhovian, Laurie Sansom refers to its similarities with “The Cherry Orchard” in the programme; there’s also a lot of “Three Sisters” in there too, as everyone has their own private Moscow.

Fantasy and reality are blurred with the brilliant set – ostensibly a traditional drawing room, but with a stylised stage curtain as the back wall and stage footlights around the edge. The fantasy suggests a glittering stage career elsewhere, but does the reality agree with that? If you saw the recent production of “Love Love Love” by Mike Bartlett, it features a daughter character who is bitter at her failed music career because no one told her when she was young that she simply wasn’t good enough. The returning actress Stella also implies that the fantasy of a brilliant acting career was a much more comforting place than the reality of being barely adequate at it.

Charlotte EmmersonStella is played by Charlotte Emmerson, fab when last seen here at the Royal as the Duchess of Malfi. It’s a beautiful performance – combining the apparent starry glamour of her profession with vulnerability in the uncertainty of whom she loves, and the worry of whether she can sustain a career. At one stage, for a little while fantasy reigns as she meets up again with long lost love Farrant; then reality returns in the form of her ex-husband. Charlotte Emmerson wonderfully portrays this movement into the light and then back into darkness.

Jonathan FirthFarrant, played by Jonathan Firth, is also a winning creation. What could easily be just another stock Edwardian stiff-upper-lip chappy with a gammy leg, becomes a real person who overcomes the reservations of the era to tell Stella how he feels. Overflowing with decency, his sense of correctness and his openness are very genuinely acted and I enjoyed his performance very much. There’s an excellent moment when he encounters Charles Appleby. His reactions are simple, but perfectly executed.

Daisy DouglasStella’s sister, Lilian, played by Daisy Douglas, comes across as deeply repressed and embittered, left behind to look after Father, sacrificing her own happiness for the perceived selfishness of her sister. There’s a great scene between the two of them where they challenge each other’s motives for how life turned out. Gripping stuff. You felt some sympathy for her – but also appreciated that she’s a bit cunning. Daisy Douglas puts over the shades of grey with the character very effectively.

Nick HendrixHer brother Wilfred – looking like how you would imagine a 24 year old Gordon Brown to look but don’t let that put you off – is played by Nick Hendrix. Dashing and ineffectual, still patronised by the family retainer Sarah, sniffing (largely metaphorically) at the skirt of a barmaid, wasting his days at home in idleness, it’s a great study of youthful underachievement. It was very rewarding to see that even in 1934 young people couldn’t get the jokes in those old Punch cartoons! His build-up routines to ringing the girlfriend were very nicely done too. According to the programme, Nick Hendrix is fresh out of RADA and this is his first professional engagement. Well we thought he was absolutely first class, and are sure he’s going to have a great career.

Daniel BettsDaniel Betts plays Charles Appleby, Stella’s estranged husband, a bit of a jack-the-lad actor, dressed like you would imagine Max Miller would if he had an office job. Cheeky and charismatic, you could see why Stella might have fallen for him – and after his night out with Wilfred, you could also see why she would have gone right off him. I have to commend Daniel Betts on his brilliant drunk act. Completely credible, nothing farcical or over the top about it; really well observed and very very funny. Mrs C and I were not entirely sure about Charles and Wilfred’s music-hall song and dance act between Acts Two and Three; they did it very well and I can see how it continues the theme of blur between fantasy and reality; but on the whole, we didn’t “get it”. I note that it’s not in the original text.

William Chubb William Chubb’s Dr Kirby was very convincing as the elderly GP father with a care for his community and a gentle cynicism about life as a whole. Sarah was played by Carol Macready and was a subtle reading of the role of the old retainer, both cantankerous and kindly; occasionally wanting to keep hold of her old niche as authoritative nurse with the children, but knowing her power is gone. When, at the end, she is left behind in a very Chekhovian moment, and she realises Stella has gone without the parcel – I confess it brought a tear to my eye.

Carol MacreadyThis is also a production really suitable for congratulating the usually unsung heroes. I’ve already mentioned the imaginative set of Sara Perks, suggesting a balance between reality and fantasy, stability and instability (the traditional room but set on a jaunty angle) and openness and secrecy (the back room that lights up to reveal Lilian desperately alone). I also thought the music by Jon Nicholls accompanied the mood perfectly, never monopolising a scene, gently suggesting more than it explained – lovely quiet sounds of an orchestra tuning up, for instance; so much more subtle than other sound effects we’ve been subjected to recently.

The sad feeling I had at the end of the play reflected how, throughout the whole play, the emotions were strong but beautifully understated. This gave the whole production a surprising additional energy. It’s a quiet gem, and I’m glad it’s going to be touring after its Northampton run. I recommend it highly.