Review – Whoopi Goldberg, Stand Up Live, London Palladium, 11th February 2017

Stand Up LiveI only started watching live stand-up comedy in 2009, and I would say the biggest names I’ve seen would probably be Dara O’Briain, Julian Clary, Jimmy Carr, Al Murray, Reginald D Hunter, Jack Dee, Russell Brand, Sarah Millican, and Alan Carr. Splendid chaps each and every one of course, but do they count as International Stars? We saw Trevor Noah a few years ago and he has since made the big time but I certainly hadn’t heard of him when we saw him. For sheer fame, however, the name Whoopi Goldberg rather knocks all these wonderful people into the proverbial cocked hat.

WhoopiI was extremely curious to see what her one-woman stand-up show would be like, and chose to see the late-night show as, we were advised, it would be a little more no-holds-barred than her early evening show. I thought there’s absolutely no point going to see Whoopi Goldberg and opting for the holds-barred version. That would be like going to see Oh! Calcutta! and just concentrating on the recorded music.

WGThere’s no doubt there was an extremely excited buzz to the Palladium on Saturday night. There was a full crowd – naturally. When I was queueing at the bar to take some drinks in, someone asked one of the staff if they knew what the running time was. “The first show lasted ninety minutes, with no interval” we were advised. We took our Merlots in, and started chatting to the guys seated next to us. They were equally excited. “Do you think she’ll talk about Trump?” I asked. “For sure!” they replied, as if she could possibly have considered talking about anything else. Good, I said to myself; I really feel like hearing some intelligent anti-Trump material.

wg1The lights dimmed and on she came, in stripy trousers and a big white smocky top, to a tremendous thunder of applause and an instant ovation, even though she hadn’t done anything yet. She accepted the applause graciously, and after a decent pause told us to sit down because there was a curfew and she had a lot to get through! Her opening – slightly disappointing – gambit was to point out that both the US and the UK had made an enormous f*** up (her words) at the ballot box last year, so let’s just recognise it and admit there’s no point going over old mistakes. So much for that source of material, then.

wg2Instead she told us all about what life is like for a woman of 60+… well perhaps, more specifically, what sex is like for a woman of 60+; a very personal and funny account of the ups and downs of modern existence when you’re just about bus-passable. It was all full of very enjoyable observations, but, as Mrs Chrisparkle and I discussed after the show, we couldn’t really remember any one individual topic of discussion. But that didn’t matter. She has such a powerful stage presence, oozing charisma from every pore, that she could have been reading the shipping forecast, and North Utsire would never have sounded so hilarious. It was all a whirl that we let wash over us, if that isn’t a mixed metaphor.

whoopi-goldbergAfter a while she brought on David. She did explain who David was, but I can’t remember now. Anyway, he asked her a number of pre-posed questions that had appeared on her Facebook page. That’s the modern way of doing stand-up, kids. Whilst the Qs and As threw up a number of entertaining subjects and witty observations, it nevertheless acted as a drain on the accumulated energy of the show up to that point. I enjoyed it, but I also looked forward to this section ending, so that she could go back to some sure-fire stand-up. Unfortunately, it took us through right to the end of the performance, when, in a surprise twist, the show ended with a pair of unnamed twins coming on stage to sing Make You Feel My Love. It reminded me of the finale to Morecambe and Wise’s weekly TV programme, when we would welcome the grand appearance of Janet Webb thanking us for watching her show, even though she hadn’t featured earlier. Charming though the boys’ rendition of Adele’s classic was, it meant the night ended with more of a whimper than a bang.

Still – this was the first time London has seen Whoopi Goldberg do stand-up in thirty years, so it was a thrill to be there, and there’s no doubting her ability to command an audience!

P. S. I subsequently discovered the twins are called Chris and Theo. Well done, lads.

Some photos I took, the others I lifted from Ms Goldberg’s Facebook page!

Review – The Book of Mormon, Prince of Wales Theatre, 2nd March 2013

Book of MormonYou know that thing when there is a huge crackle of anticipation in a theatre before it starts? You can find it in abundance at the moment at the Prince of Wales where The Book of Mormon is currently previewing. We saw the first Saturday matinee preview, so I guess there may still be some tweaks ahead, but to be honest I couldn’t see anything that needed tweaking.

Gavin CreelBut I’m getting ahead of myself. It’s the first time I’ve been to the Prince of Wales in many years and I was absolutely stunned at how beautifully it has been renovated. It was originally built in 1937 and has had a full Art Deco makeover. The bar at the back of the stalls is sensibly massive, and how pleasing it is to see it fully staffed with at least six hard-working people. The toilet provision is much more plentiful than you’d find in the average theatre. And the prices of drinks and merchandise were, I thought, remarkably reasonable. Every single member of staff that we talked to was jolly, friendly, polite and helpful. What a fantastically well-run theatre!

Jared GertnerThe Book of Mormon comes to London with a happy history already behind it, having collected no fewer than nine Tony awards in New York. Written by the irreverent team of Trey Parker and Matt Stone, of South Park fame, and Robert Lopez of Avenue Q, it’s not hard to predict the level of humour and zaniness that will fill the theatre. If anything, it’s far funnier than I expected, because it has none – well, very little – of the grotesqueness of South Park and the stereotypes depicted are actually rather endearing. It’s also less cruel than I had expected, and it has a rewardingly happy ending – all apart from the poor guy who gets shot halfway through. To say it’s irreverent is an understatement; and it is chock-full of subject matter that many people could find extremely offensive; but it is all done with a lightness of touch so that your only reaction is to laugh your socks off; and anything else that isn’t tied down. This really is intensive care funny. Imagine a cleaner-cut version of Jerry Springer The Opera and you’re somewhere in the right area. It goes without saying that it’s shamelessly non-PC; and it’s superbly staged throughout with great sets, lighting and costumes.

If you don’t want to know the story, skip this paragraph, although I’m only really giving you the introduction. Elders are getting paired off to go and spread the word of Mormon on doorsteps around the world. Our hero (or is he?) Elder Price is looking forward to partnering a regular guy just like himself and hitting the joyous streets of Orlando; instead he is paired off with our other hero (or is he?) Elder Cunningham, a needy nerdy fantasist with no mates, and they’re sent to Uganda. Things don’t go entirely to plan – there are no doorbells on the mud huts for one thing – and our heroes join the other Elders already in town in completely failing to make any conversions. But things turn around… and a bizarre success story awaits. I won’t tell you any more as I don’t want to ruin it for you.

Stephen AshfieldIf laughter is the best policy, making tickets available for this show on the National Health would be top of every party’s manifesto. Within ten seconds of curtain up I started laughing, and I barely stopped for the next two and a half hours – excepting the interval, where I stopped laughing long enough to enjoy a Pinot Grigio. After you’ve experienced the first number, “Hello!” you’ll find that you never, ever say the word “hello” again with the same intonation as before. There’s only one way to say it – bright eyed and bushy tailed and with the enthusiasm of a zealot door to door salesman. What the show does brilliantly is to lampoon the more ridiculous ideas of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (every religion has some ridiculous ideas) and make you the audience member step back and ask yourself, “looking at this objectively, could you really believe in all this?” It also shows how religions can get created and develop, and even how a new prophet can be realised. So actually, through the method of humour, it makes some pretty hard-hitting points about the nature of religion.

The cast are a complete joy from start to finish. Gavin Creel, who was great when we saw him in the revival of Hair a couple of years ago, plays Elder Price and he looks absolutely perfect for it – you can’t imagine anyone more bright, clean, and shiny for the role. Mr Creel has a great stage presence and a superb singing voice; he reminds me a little of what a showbiz Greg Rusedski would look like. He also takes Casey Nicholaw’s already amusing and quirky choreography and makes a terrific meal out of it – dancing incredibly athletically and show-offishly, slightly mad dad style, thereby making him look just a little more ridiculous. Elder Price is a bit of a louse in many respects, but because Mr Creel is so likeable on stage you still warm to the character despite his faults.

Alexia KhadimeLikeable in a completely different way is the hopeless Elder Cunningham, played hilariously by Jared Gertner, a little mop-head of neuroses who just wants to be loved, and is thrilled to be best-buddied with the charismatic Elder Price. With his super comic timing and fantastic facial expressions it’s a performance of comedy genius. At odds with his appearance, Mr Gertner is nevertheless a fantastic song-and-dance man which really shines through his performance. Together with Mr Creel their partnership is the classic “Odd Couple”, straight guy/comic guy and it works brilliantly.

Chris JarmanThere’s also a fantastic performance from Stephen Ashfield as Elder McKinley, head of the Ugandan mission. The missionaries already there have a simple way of coping with life’s difficulties and any internal torments they might have – they just switch it off, like a light, and there’s a brilliant song to illustrate it. Mr Ashfield’s portrayal of a guy occasionally drifting into his natural gayness and then switching it back off again is just hilarious, and he really shines in the Broadway-style big numbers. There’s also an incredible coup de theatre in “Turn it off” when the lights go out – I don’t know how they do it, but it takes your breath away. The huge roar of appreciation at curtain call for Mr Ashfield said it all.

Tyrone HuntleyAlexia Khadime plays Nabulungi, the village girl who decides there might be something in this Mormonism. She gives a stunning, tender performance, sings with heart and clarity and very nicely underplays the comedy of her role. She’s quite heart-melting too. Chris Jarman, who was excellent in last year’s Comedy of Errors, is terrific as the ogre General who rules the area with an iron fist and instruments of torture. His hilarious appearance in the final scene completely stops the show. And I really liked Tyrone Huntley, who was very funny in the UK tour of Sister Act, as the hopeless Doctor with an embarrassing medical problem. I’ll stop mentioning cast members now, but they were all absolutely first class.

This ought to run for years and years. If you’re not easily offended, I couldn’t recommend it more strongly. I do hope we get to see it again some time. One of the funniest shows I have ever seen – possibly the funniest. A must-see.

How to entertain two nieces on the Sunday of a Bank Holiday Weekend

Your mission – should you choose to accept it – is to divert and amuse two little girls on a day out in London.

Very well; we accept the challenge.

Subject One: Secret Agent Code November, aged 10. Strengths: sophisticated, gourmand, snappy dresser. Weakness: aversion to exercise.

Subject Two: Special Agent Code Sierra, aged 9. Strengths: analytical, fearless, optimistic. Weakness: prone to get over-tired.

Mission One – morning at the Science Museum.

Rendezvous 10.45am, single yellow lines by Royal Albert Hall. Met with Agents’ female parent, M. Arrival Science Museum, 10.55am. Reconnoitre toilets. Estimated time at Science Museum: 1hr 30mins; aim: to see it all.

Science Museum - FlightFailed on aim completely, as 2 hrs 5 mins later we had still only visited level 3. But it’s an amazing place. Firstly we saw the “Flight” area, which has examples of old aircraft, a cut-through segment of a jumbo jet, a cockpit of an old plane, simulation of Air Traffic Control and much more. Even if you’re not overly interested in aeroplanes it’s still very interesting and kept us all amused and astounded.

Then we went on to “In Future” and had to grapple with difficult subjects like should men be allowed to have babies, and should cars be able to drive themselves. Your answers get fed into a big database and you can see how many people have answered yes or no to a number of modern dilemmas. Fun and interactive, but it didn’t take up too much of our time.

Next was Health Matters, a subject of considerable interest to Special Agent Code Sierra who recently announced she was going to become a “Baby Doctor”. This display area was full of interesting facts about the growth and development of antibiotics, vaccinations and even the contraceptive pill. Didn’t take too long, but very absorbing.

Heat Seeking CameraFinally we ended up in Launchpad, a highly interactive area full of experiments and displays, with which everyone is positively encouraged to play. Mrs Chrisparkle and I peered at each other through two telescopes separated by a brick wall. How did that work? “Have you realised how it works yet?” asked a charming young lady dressed in a red t-shirt with the word “Explainer” on it. “Is it a question of hidden lenses?” asked Mrs C tentatively. “Yes, that’s right” beamed the explainer. “I thought it was Paul Daniels’ magic” I offered lamely. She smiled politely as she is paid to.

Actually the explainers are great. There are loads of them and they are tireless in taking the kids through the experiments and encouraging them to understand the basics of science that the displays reveal. Plastic bottles full of water zooming around the room; electrical circuits being connected and dismantled; positioning building blocks so you could construct a bridge solid enough to walk over; we did all these and more and it was a real wrench to cut short our visit as we had run out of time. Highly recommended, and the Agents made M promise that they would return to the Science Museum another day.

Mission Two – afternoon Thames Rib Experience river speed ride.

London EyeRendezvous: meant to be on easy parking near Embankment Pier in good time for 1.45 pm check in and decking out in fleeces and sou’westers; in effect we couldn’t find any parking until 1.35pm almost a mile away, so we had to walk ultra-fast and indeed run to get there on time. I ran ahead to make sure they didn’t go without us. Got there about five minutes behind schedule and panted “Thames Rib experience, five people, late, gasp, pant” and I was shown where to check in. The lady there didn’t seem too concerned. Anyway I was panting like a dog in a hot car for at least the next 40 minutes. Thought I was fitter than that, dammit.

Thames Rib ExperienceThe good news is we all got on board. The boats take a maximum of twelve passengers and there were eleven of us on ours. The guide tells you about the notable things you see between the Houses of Parliament and The Thames Flood Barrier, which is where you turn around and come back. The difference from your ordinary boat trip is that once you get past Tower Bridge, they open up the speed and it becomes a really exciting fast dash across the waves with some exhilarating tossing and turning, like a scene out of The Persuaders or The Saint, showing my age. I know for a fact I had a fixed smile on my lips the entire 80 minutes, as did Mrs C, M and Secret Agent Code N. Special Agent Code S spent most of the time with her eyes shut. Additional amusement is provided by the guide’s patter which is chock full of jokes, some really funny; and sometimes you pierce the waves to appropriate musical accompaniment, I’ll say no more.

Thames BarrierUnfortunately one of the other passengers wasn’t up for the speed and complained he couldn’t breathe properly so our return journey was a little more stately than we had hoped. Not a lot you can do about that – and it’s of course right that they put their clients’ health and safety first. Wuss -ruining it for the rest of us! The Thames Rib Experience is something I would definitely recommend, and we will certainly go again, maybe even quite soon. It hadn’t occurred to me how little of the river-scape east of Tower Bridge I knew. Greenwich, O2, Thames Barrier, Canary Wharf – all new to me, and the views are astonishing.

Mission Three – picnic in Trafalgar Square.

Couldn’t park anywhere near Trafalgar Square, so we went on to Westminster and found some quite easy parking and picnicked instead in the park adjacent to the Houses of Parliament watched over by the good Burghers of Calais. Another superb river view; late afternoon sunshine; cheese and ham rolls; crisps and cakes. Code November and Code Sierra both voted it a successful day out. Transferred responsibility of young charges over to M, got in the car, drove home, and slept. Woke up just in time to go out for some pub grub. Great day out!

The trials and tribulations of a Coeliac, or how we spent Sunday afternoon in some anxiety and discomfort

Largely tasteless, yet strangely more-ish. If you know us personally, you will probably be aware that Mrs Chrisparkle is a Coeliac. To the uninitiated, it means she must not eat anything containing gluten. Gluten is found in wheat products, so it’s a no-no to wheat flour, ordinary bread and pasta, many thickening agents, much in the way of convenience food, and loads of common or garden meals that you wouldn’t even think of. No worries, she can eat meat, fish, vegetables, rice, cheese, pulses and lots more. It’s been about ten years since she was diagnosed, and about five years since she last accidentally ate something containing gluten. Gluten free Granola. Scrummy.That normally happens abroad, when language confusion can cause misunderstandings and a glutenous ingredient gets unfortunately scoffed. The result? Anything from mild stomach cramps to fainting and violent nausea, usually around 24 hours later.

But fortunately, people are aware of the horrors of food allergies, and chefs and waiting staff know to take it seriously. We tend to eat out a lot at pubs and restaurants, and asking the right questions and choosing sensibly off the menu means a worry-free dining experience.

Cheese Kettle Chips - fabAlas, that was until last weekend. You may have read, dear reader, about our trip to the BBC Proms at the Royal Albert Hall on Saturday evening. Always an entertaining excursion, and it’s a thrill to be at the Royal Albert Hall, so we go the whole hog and enjoy a delicious meal in elegant surroundings at one of the Hall’s restaurants, pre-Prom. So it was that we went to the Elgar Room, and ordered our three course meals and wine.

Jimi HendrixIf I’m honest, although the surroundings were great, look – we even shared the table with Jimi Hendrix – the food wasn’t that special. It looked delightful and its textures were beguiling; but as far as taste was concerned, it didn’t register much. No matter; it was an enjoyable experience. For dessert I had the cheeseboard which was genuinely tasty. Mrs C had confirmed with the waiter what she could have, and it was some chocolate and orange moussey thing with honeycomb on top. Mid-dessert, she was explaining to me that it was in fact the tastiest of her three courses when she suddenly stopped and asked me if I would try a mouthful. “Is that not sponge?” was her worrying question. I tasted. “Definitely”, I said. “How on earth do they make gluten-free sponge?” she asked. Erring on the side of caution we called our waiter over again and asked him to confirm with the kitchen.

Gluten free organic pasta. It does taste different from ordinary pasta but it's still perfectly nice. A few minutes later and he returned, flustered and apologetic. Some of the dishes had changed a little recently, he explained. The chocolate and orange moussey thing never used to contain sponge, but now they’ve changed it, and now it does, and no one thought to update the record of ingredients and allergens. Massive apologies ensued, and a free dessert (the somewhat safer strawberries and cream); but it’s shocking that they took such little care with her food. It made Mrs C worry about everything else she had eaten. The cucumber soup, for example, certainly had some kind of thickening agent. Her heart sank. Would there be a reaction 24 hours later?

We were in London, let's do it, let's break the law...So the next day, we were really on guard when it came to ordering food in London. We’d stayed overnight as we were seeing another show on Sunday afternoon. It was 1pm and time for a Covent Garden lunch. We spied the welcoming looking Sussex Pub, occupying a commanding position on the corner of Long Acre and St Martin’s Lane. The tables outside looked inviting in the sunshine, and the menu looked full of nice grub. No indication on the menu as to what was gluten-free but one wouldn’t expect it, so armed with a couple of ideas for a starter and main course, I braved the food counter.

“I’d like to order some food please.”
“Certainly. What would you like?”
“Could you tell me first, are either the Nachos, or the Garlic and Lemon Chicken skewers gluten-free?”
“Ah, that’s a very hard question to answer. It is our policy not to guarantee the content of any of our meals.”
“Oh. Well can we not simply ask the chef, it’ll say on the box of nachos if it contains gluten or not?”
“We don’t guarantee what’s in our meals.”
“But can we not ask the chef though?”
“No.”
“Well if you can’t say what’s in your meals, we can’t order them, can we?”
“OK” came the caring response (with a “wotever” type shrug).

At which point I upped and left, loudly saying how totally ridiculous such an attitude was, (to no one in particular.) I continued my angry remonstrations on the street, with the result that Mrs C had to quieten me down with a “shush dear it doesn’t matter”. But it does matter. Their menu specifically says to discuss any food allergens with the bar staff. Well if they won’t engage in ascertaining what allergens there might be in the food, what’s the ****ing point in that?? To be honest, I wasn’t looking for a “guarantee”, I’m not going to sue them, I just wanted an indication of the likely level of safety.

Fortunately we were able to repair to the sanity and coeliac heaven that is PJ’s Restaurant. We discovered this little gem quite a while ago. Not only do they have an excellent menu, they asterisk the items that are gluten-free.

Covent Garden“Would you like some bread?” asked the friendly Polish waitress. “Yes please” said I, tucking in. “No thank you” declined Mrs C. The waitress was straight in there. “Are you gluten-free?” “Yes!” said Mrs C. “I will get you some crackers” said the waitress. And sure enough, along came a gluten-free rice cracker. I really enjoyed my meal of salad, chicken and ice-cream, but much more pertinent was Mrs C’s experience. To start – Thai Fish Cakes, served with a lovely spicy dressing. I could tell from Mrs C’s rapturous expression that we were on to a winner. Then, Sea Bass in a Spring Roll. Spring Roll? Surely not? But yes, a gluten-free spring roll of epic proportions and of which I had a nibble and it was delicious. Finally, a Toblerone and meringue soufflé. Yes, it was as divine as it sounds. So you see, Royal Albert Hall and Sussex pub, with a little dedication and imagination, you too can provide a proper gluten-free meal.

So what of the gluten that was accidentally consumed on Saturday evening? Well, indeed, it worked its way through Mrs C’s system and by the interval of our afternoon show on Sunday, she felt nausea, giddiness, and an extremely uptight tummy. As a result she had to miss the second half of the show. Thanks, Royal Albert Hall Catering Department, for ruining our weekend. I’ve sent them an email detailing our misadventures with them. I’m yet to receive a response.