Review – Mamma Mia 2, Here We Go Again, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 30th July 2018

Donna and the DynamosWe all know what a worldwide phenomenon Mamma Mia! has become. The stage show is still running in London and no doubt hundreds of other cities; the touring production comes around again and again faster than you can say Chiquitita tell me what’s wrong. The original movie made over $550 million profit at the box office. The only surprise is that it’s taken ten years for this second film to arrive.

Mamma Mia! Here We Go AgainYou’ll remember that Donna Sheridan made her way to a remote Greek Island and converted a ramshackle old farm building into a rather charming hotel. You’ll also remember that over the course of a rather wild few days, she had managed to sleep with three different guys, one of whom won the Lucky Sperm award and helped create little Sophie nine months later. The original Mamma Mia is Sophie’s story of inviting all the potential fathers to her wedding to Sky (Murdoch gets everywhere) in the expectation that she would instantly “know” which was her dad – and of course she can’t identify which one it is, so they all become her dad. Add Donna’s two pals (who made up the group Donna and the Dynamos), sun, sea, sex, and the best of Abba, and it was a dream hit.

Rosie Sophie and TanyaSo Mamma Mia – Here We Go Again is a sequel; yet it’s also a prequel, by employing the cunning tactic of running the story of Donna’s journey from finishing university to chancing upon the farmhouse, alongside the story of Sophie organising a relaunch of the hotel which has gone to rack and ruin, presumably because a year ago Donna died; we don’t know why. Did you know Donna died? By the end you’ll have it drummed into you. Mamma Mia 2 is set in both 1979 and 2018; and with Mamma Mia (the stage show) having been launched in 1999, you basically have reference points to the same story and the same people in the same places over three generations.

Ruby and SophieI know this film has had some great reviews and all my friends who have seen it have been knocked over by its brilliance, several having seen it twice already. So, I ask myself, have I turned into a true Mr Grumpypants – and if so, is Mrs Chrisparkle even more of a Mrs Grumpypants, because she’s more critical of it than me – or has everyone else been drinking from the waters of Lethe and simply lost their senses? I just couldn’t help myself from constantly checking my watch throughout the film, primarily because I was wondering, what is the point of this film and where is it going? The answer, incidentally, as we eventually find out, is the Christening of Sophie’s baby. But basically it tells us a story that we already know, and I’m afraid I didn’t find that particularly interesting. Reconfirming the original tale is like simply baking the same cake all over again. And I have to say, considering Screen 1 of the Errol Flynn was sold out, largely to all female parties who were quaffing plenty of vino, the atmosphere in the room was totally flat. No audible reactions, very few laughs, minimal “seat dancing” – just a bit reserved for Super Trouper at the finale.

Sophie and DonnaDon’t get me wrong – I don’t think it’s a bad film. There are many enjoyable sequences, a few laugh out loud moments, and the music is exceptionally good. In particular, the musical arrangements are superb, and the way some of the songs dovetail into the story and, especially, the setting, is really creative. Hugh Skinner as Young Harry (inspired casting) serenading Young Donna (Lily James) at a Napoleon-themed Parisian restaurant with an outrageous Waterloo routine is very funny. Jeremy Irvine, as Young Sam, singing Knowing Me Knowing You: “Walking through an empty house, tears in my eyes, here is where the story ends, this is goodbye” as he sadly picks his way through the decrepit old building, is a true highlight. Young Donna singing I Have a Dream as she first encounters the old farmhouse, almost bumping into the modern-day occupants as she walks around, was also very impressive. Young Donna and Young BillLily James, again, singing my favourite Abba song The Name of the Game, as Young Sam lies in bed beside her. I’d happily watch all those performances again, although preferably as individual pop videos, rather than sit through the film once more. The boats full of partygoers arriving at the island, all singing Dancing Queen, makes for a spectacular visual image, although I did find it a little old-fashioned. I’m sure there’s a similar scene in The Song of Norway. Mrs C’s reaction was that it merely emphasised what a good song Dancing Queen is. She wasn’t so convinced by the young singers in the film, and felt that they just showed how much better Agnetha and Anna-Frid were than any of them. She wasn’t at all impressed with what she calls Lily James’ X-Factor style singing. Ouch.

Young Donna and Young SamMind you, the film started off badly for me. The first scene: New College, Oxford, 1979 (the caption told us so) and recently graduated Donna Sheridan is invited to give the valedictory address to all her newly graduated colleagues, including her two Dynamo pals, Tanya and Rosie. The setting was, clearly, New College; the girls were larking about in New College Lane; the graduates were all bedecked in their Oxford B. A. gowns (white fur – absolutely accurate), the masters all wearing gowns representing more advanced degrees. Such attention to detail. What a shame, then, that they overlooked the simple fact that 1979 was the first year that women undergraduates were admitted into most of the previously all-male colleges – and New College was among them. If Donna and all her female graduates had undertaken three-year courses then they would have gone up in 1976, when they wouldn’t have been eligible to study at New College. Did nobody realise this? Did nobody question it? As a second-year Oxford undergraduate at the time, all these extra women in town was Big News, believe me. This basic error had me tutting all the way through When I Kissed the Teacher, and prevented me from enjoying it. Even Bjorn’s uncomfortable looks at being sashayed round by the performing girls didn’t make me crack a smile.

Young DonnaI’m going to be even more controversial here. I know a lot of people found the film very moving, and I expect the scene that really did it for them was the Christening scene at the end (I’ll say no more, because I don’t want to spoil it for you). My reaction was that it was sweet, but nothing more. Mrs C’s and my pre-prepared packs of Travel Kleenexes stayed firmly in our pockets. But then, I must say, I found the constant references to the now dead Donna rather wearing. It was funny when the references were just designed to make Julie Walters’ character cry (sounds cruel, but this is Julie Walters we’re talking about, she knows precisely how to make a script work). But as the film progressed, Donna’s death, and Pierce Brosnan’s suitably morose expression because of it, just became mawkish. Maybe it would have brought a bit of a spark to the piece if they’d managed to give Harry some gay romance on the island – if you remember, he was outed at the end of the first film – but instead they have him safely dancing alongside women in the big numbers, which I think was probably an opportunity missed.

Young DynamosThe relentless tying together of the 1979 account and the 2018 account of the tale becomes tiresome. It’s fine (I think) to have Tanya just as man-hungry today as she was forty years ago, and for Rosie to be as equally unsuccessful with men now as she was then; those are true character traits. But – for example – the sheer staginess of the repetition of a “wise local” anticipating an unexpected great storm forty years later was too much for Mrs C, who shrank further down into her cinema seat with her head in her hands.

Young Harry and Young DonnaThe only real difference to the sequel element from the prequel element – and I guess you could call it progress – is the sudden unforeseen appearance of Cher as Ruby Sheridan, Sophie’s absentee grandmother, who’s never done anything to forge a bond between her and her granddaughter. She looks immaculate; Mrs C thought it was a shame that as she’d had so much Botox she couldn’t visually emote. But I rather thought that worked in an ironic way; Cher can’t show emotion, and nor can Ruby, so in one respect it’s perfect casting. And I have to say, even though I would never count myself as a Cher fan, I really enjoyed her performance of Fernando.

Harry Bill and SamThe performances are all perfectly good: Lily James looks great and has just the right amount of carefree enthusiasm for a life of adventures to be particularly convincing. Julie Walters and Christine Baranski renew their comedy double act as the two remaining Dynamos and brighten up the screen whenever they’re on. The scenes with the three young suitors are all played with a great sense of holiday romance, and did indeed flesh out (if that’s not an unwise expression) the bare bones of Donna’s fanciful flings across Europe. And there’s a fun cameo from Omid Djalili as a Greek Customs Officer – remember to stay watching right until the very end, after the credits.

DonnaBut the film didn’t move me in any way; it didn’t make me want to dance a sirtaki through the streets of Northampton, I didn’t feel anything “life-enhancing” about it, in the same way that everyone else seems to. It was just there; I watched it; it was fine; and then it finished. And now I don’t need to think about it again. For all you people who loved it, I’m jealous!

Review – Comedy Crate Festival, Northampton, 22nd July 2018

Comedy CrateWe really enjoyed our day at the Comedy Crate Festival in Northampton last year, and needed no hesitation to book again for this year! As last time, we were unable to take advantage of the excellent weekend rate (£30 for both days, so that’s only £3 per show) because on the Saturday we were Otherwise Engaged. But we definitely up for the Sunday schedule.

Charles BradlaughBasically there are two shows on each of two venues all through the day – a show at 3pm, 4.30pm, 6.30pm, 8pm and 9.30pm – and you can mix and match your attendance at either the upstairs bar at the Charles Bradlaugh, or a swanky tent in the garden at the Black Prince. It was a gloriously sunny day (aren’t they all at the moment!) – in other words a perfect opportunity to combine top quality comedy with a bit of a boozy afternoon and evening. Well, you’re only young once. For the most part, the comics were all shaping up their current works-in-progress in preparation for their Edinburgh Fringe gigs next month. This is both a more relaxed way of seeing comedy, as it’s a very informal structure; but it can also be an exciting form of comedy if your comedian suddenly chances on just the right wording or just the right punchline – you can get that feeling that you’re at the birth of some comedy gold.

Black PrinceOriginally I had planned to see all the shows at the Bradlaugh, because they were more Premiership comic contenders, whilst the Black Prince performers were slightly more Championship. But I also didn’t want to be packed in a room which was too full and too hot. So in a last minute change of plan we saw the first two in the Bradlaugh and the other three in the Black Prince. Let’s take them one by one.

Kiri Pritchard McLean (3pm Charles Bradlaugh)

Kiri Pritchard McLeanOur organisers had kept us informed that Kiri was running late and she eventually appeared at 3.20, a little flustered from the car drive from hell following her brother’s wedding on the Saturday. I’m impressed that she made it all! Shimmering before us in the outfit that Gina G wore for Eurovision (well damn nearly) she explained that this was her third Edinburgh show and the first two had been easy to create, as they were about gender equality and paedophiles. Sometimes it’s hard to get inside the mind of a comedian! And just as she was concerned that she couldn’t think of a subject for her next show, her long-term boyfriend cheated on her; problem solved. So over the next forty or so minutes we heard all about Seymour (not his real name) and Brandy (not hers) with lots of excellent little side details, like the quality of her shoes, the racist tendencies of Kiri’s mother, and Beyoncé’s album Lemonade. Sadly, we didn’t get to see the full hour – and at the moment Kiri decided she had run out of time, she had divulged a big bombshell in her story! There’s definitely an end to that story, and we don’t know what it is! Kiri is a bright, friendly, warm person on stage and I can only suggest that her Edinburgh show definitely looks worth seeing.

Marlon Davis (4.30pm Charles Bradlaugh)

Marlon DavisAmazingly, it’s been eight years since we last saw Marlon Davis at a Screaming Blue Murder show in Northampton. He really impressed me then with his intelligent and slightly quirky style. Eight years on, and he’s still intelligent and quirky, comparing his high pitched natural voice and his gently infantile language structure with his son’s basso profundo directness. It’s typical of Mr Davis’ almost anarchic style that he spends maybe five minutes explaining how work-in-progress shows are very important for a comic to gauge what works and what doesn’t in preparation for their imminent Edinburgh appearance – to then kill his whole explanation with his confession that he isn’t going to be in Edinburgh this year. I think I recognised some of his material from eight years ago, although there’s also a nice running joke about nicking towels from hotels, as well as a funny sequence about his neighbour using their trampoline, and also the rather dark humour of his driving into a tree and being forced into what he calls a pussy coma. His hugely likeable personality means he could get away with just reading the shipping forecast and he would be able to make it funny. Very enjoyable!

Tom Lucy (6.30pm Black Prince)

Tom LucyNext up was a name new to me but I can see that he’s already carving out a great reputation. At the age of 22 Tom Lucy is a very gifted comic with terrific stage confidence and an easy way with banter. He quickly struck up a great rapport, especially with the Ryanair Cabin crew man in the front row. Imagine a South London James Acaster, but less bitter. The main thrust of his new show is all to do with understanding what it is to be a millennial, and he took us through several aspects of this subject and his material was excellent. He wasn’t happy with how it ended though – which is asking the audience at what point they found out that their father wasn’t a superhero. This could work, depending on the person you pick on. If he’d asked me, I’d have to have said that mine died when I was eleven and then it would have been a gloomy end to the show – so it’s a risky strategy. Dating apps, a lovely sequence with a clairvoyant, what constitutes an icon – all played a part in the show. And I’m glad to discover he doesn’t understand the “no socks” thing either. Very enjoyable, and I predict a great future for this chap!

Lloyd Langford (8pm Black Prince)

Lloyd LangfordAnother completely new name to me, but what a find! Mr Langford is full-on attack right from the start, with his quirky delivery and incredibly creative and inventive material. He comes across as totally fearless and will stop at nothing to explore a comic idea to the full. I loved his material about the totally invasive massage that he wasn’t expecting; also the massage chair at Tokyo airport (massages seem to be his thing), his dad’s useless Christmas presents which consist of what he finds on the beach; and the innate danger of balconies. One of those comics where it’s really hard to remember the gist of what they were talking about because they carried you away on a sea of nonsense and you didn’t want to fight it. His Edinburgh show looks like a must, and I’d really recommend him.

Patrick Monahan (9.30pm Black Prince)

Patrick MonahanTop of the Bill at the Black Prince was Patrick Monahan, whom we’ve seen a couple of times in Edinburgh, always as a guest at Spank! He’s another comic with a terrific rapport with the audience; it’s very likely that if he catches your eye you’ll become part of the show but it’s never unkind and always hilarious. He spotted Mrs Chrisparkle for a quick chat and for the rest of his gig she was just the scouser. He wanted to know who thought they had married “up” and who had married “down” – and this got cleverly interwoven in his material about Goals, which is the subject of his Edinburgh show this year. He brings in quite a lot of material about his own relationships, both with his wife and his parents, and his hour just flew by. This was the most polished, and the least work-in-progress of the shows all day, and he’s probably the most accomplished and professional comic that we saw too. Very highly recommended!

So that was it! With a bit of over-running we didn’t leave the Black Prince till after 10.45. There’s great commitment from the organisers and it requires a great commitment from the audiences too. And it really repays the hard work – five excellent performers gave us all a terrific day’s entertainment. Huge congratulations to everyone and I hope we can all do it again next summer!

Review – Last Night of the Derngate Proms, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 15th July 2018

Last Night of the Derngate PromsAfter a year’s break, it’s a welcome return to the Last Night of the Derngate Proms, which, as our noble conductor Nick Davies pointed out, is also the First Night, but we shouldn’t let that bother us. We had the pleasure of Mr Davies’ company for the same gig back in 2013, so it’s obviously a job he enjoys. He has a warm, welcoming style and is happy to exchange a bit of banter with the audience, both informative and informal. As if this splendid evening of shameless patriotism couldn’t get any better, Mrs Chrisparkle and I were joined by Lord and Lady Prosecco, who need no lessons in how to enjoy themselves. The ladies of the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra were all decked out in their colourful finery, to give a gala feel to the concert; and of course there were plenty of Union Jacks scattered throughout the auditorium to wave during the familiar exciting bits. And if the orchestra seemed a little hasty to get on and off the stage – as Mr Davies confided in us – orchestra leader Duncan Riddell was going on holiday immediately afterwards, and he clearly had a train to catch.

These concerts are always fashioned as a pot-pourri of Classic’s Greatest Hits, so it was particularly rewarding to see the thought and variety that had been considered for the running order this year. We started off with Vaughan Williams’ Wasps Overture, a lively, buzzy piece of music that immediately challenges the orchestra with its various themes and moods. Then we had the Intermezzo from Sibelius’ Karelia Suite, which the older members of the audience would remember as the theme to ITV’s This Week. Even if the music doesn’t give you that extra nostalgia boost, it’s a superb little piece that builds nicely to its triumphant theme. Great work from the strings and a big shout out to M. Nicolas Fleury, leading the French Horns and celebrating his country’s win in the World Cup earlier that afternoon.

Nick DaviesNext up was the Polonaise from Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, a rousing, swirling dance that cries out for ballerinas and men in tights. Again, the orchestra members threw themselves into all its majestic jollity, transporting us all into the glamorous ballrooms tucked away in our imaginations. Great stuff. Then a big change of mood – George Butterworth’s A Shropshire Lad, an elegant and pastoral piece that I’d certainly never heard before. Fitting for the Last Night of the Proms as it’s a big slice of Englishness, but with a contemplative nature that appeals to the mind as well as the heart.

Next we were introduced to our soloist for the evening, Soprano Katerina Mina. In a stunning blue evening dress she coquetted through Franz Lehar’s Meine Lippen from his operetta Giuditta, which was also new to me – it only had a few performances in the theatres of Vienna and Budapest in the mid-1930s and never reached London or New York. It’s a great little tune and Ms Mina was delightfully knowing and cheeky all the way through. The final piece before the interval was the Prelude to Act 1 of Wagner’s Meistersinger, which you might consider to be the German equivalent of the Pomp and Circumstance of Elgar; a Teutonic pageant of musical masterfulness. A fantastic way to lead you into your half-time Chardonnay.

Katerina MinaAfter the interval we started off with Glinka’s Overture to Ruslan and Ludmilla, another fizzy crowd pleaser. There’s an art to composing the perfect overture, and in this concert we had two of them. Then we welcomed Katerina Mina back to sing Vissi d’Arte from Puccini’s Tosca. I know it gets trundled out all the time but I think this is one of the most moving pieces of classical music ever written, and Ms Mina sang it with beautiful eloquence infused with tragedy. Absolutely stunning. Then we had Elgar’s Chanson de Nuit, a rather French title for a rather English composition; a lovely, stately ode to romance with just a tinge of Stiff Upper Lip, again beautifully played by the string section. We ended this sequence of music with a lively Slavonic Dance by Dvorak – No 8 in the first set; impossible not to be both shaken and stirred with this smile-inducing, fast paced dance that constantly switches from major to minor and back again.

That’s when Mr Davies gave us our cue that we could start to “join in”. Henry Wood’s heartfelt but introverted Tom Bowling and the always chirpy Hornpipe from his Fantasia on British Sea Songs got us started with the rhythmic clapping – but the audience started too loudly, as usual; then two verses from Rule Britannia, sung by Katerina Mina in a Sgt Pepper jacket and Napoleonic hat, following straight into Jerusalem (my favourite) and then ending up with Elgar’s Pomp and Circumstance No 1 and a rousing double portion of Land of Hope and Glory. We’re here for the music, said Mr Davies, and what’s not to like about that? A very happy crowd went home having wallowed in some of the best classical tunes there are. Huge congratulations to everyone involved!

RPOP. S. I didn’t much enjoy the Last Night of the Derngate Proms two years ago. It followed hard on the heels of the Brexit vote and the jingoistic fervour in the audience was overpoweringly abhorrent. Two years on, things have calmed down a bit and the patriotic fun in this year’s show was just about perfect.

P. P. S. Lord Prosecco says he was “just passing” the stage door when he bumped into the beautiful and charming Ms Katerina Mina, still dressed like an extra from Waterloo (the historical movie, not the Abba song). A Facebook selfie was taken to prove it. Not remotely jealous at all. No sirree.

P. P. P. S. Hope Duncan got his train.

Review – Titanic the Musical, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 28th June 2018

Titanic the MusicalWell I’ve seen some examples of dramatic irony but this one takes the biscuit. When the audience knows something that the characters don’t, it’s meant to create a greater sense of tension, or heroism, or humour, or any combination of any number of emotional responses. But I can think of few shows greater than Titanic the Musical where the horror of what lies ahead is so clear to the audience but the characters are blindly oblivious to the danger. When the good ship finally sets sail but one game chap turns up too late, doesn’t get on board, and is furious with himself, not one person in that audience last night didn’t say to themselves “you don’t know how lucky you are.”

Simon Green as IsmayThere is one character who knows what lies ahead, though: J Bruce Ismay, director of White Star Line and therefore owner of the Titanic; in the opening scene we see him ravaged with agony as he looks back at the triumphal launch of the ship, despairing at its complacent captain and self-satisfied designer – a scene which all makes sense when it’s re-enacted at the end of the show, much as the structure of Blood Brothers begins and ends with the death of the Johnston twins, to increase the sense of melodrama. All Ismay can do at the end is look forward to a lifetime of regret; but that’s more than the 1500 people who perished can do. It’s fair to say that this show paints Ismay as a not very likeable man.

Niall Sheehy as BarrettSo how would you spend your last minutes alive on board a ship like the Titanic, if you knew your number was up and there’s no way out? In desperate sadness? In resigned acceptance? Take your own life first? Crack open a bottle of 1898 Cristal champagne? They’re all options. And what you come away with from this show, is an immense sense of respect for everyone on board, even those whose occasional dereliction of duty may have to some extent caused the disaster. The final scene of the show presents the audience with a wall of names of those who died, and it’s a very moving testament.

Dudley Rogers and Judith Street as the StrausesBut although we all know right from the very start that this story only has one, inexorable, tragic ending, this show tells a far from gloomy story. If you’ve ever gone on a cruise holiday, gentle reader, then you’ll know that almost indescribable sense of excitement, bewilderment and curiosity that is the hallmark of those first few hours at sea, and this show captures that thrilling optimism perfectly. And then you have the main content of the show, the several interweaving threads of the lives of individual passengers, all thrown together arbitrarily simply by virtue of having got on the same ship together. It would be impossible to depict over 2000 lives, so Peter Stone’s book and Maury Yeston’s superb music and lyrics present us with just a handful of relationships, from the first, second and third class passengers, as well as the professional relationships of officers and crew. The enduring love affair between Mr and Mrs Straus (first class – owners of Macy’s), the strained relationship between Edgar Beane and his never satisfied, wannabe socialite wife Alice (second class) and the instant cheeky pairing-up of Kate McGowan and Jim Farrell (third class passengers working their way to a better life in America) represent all human life on board, and it works incredibly well.

Philip Rham as the Captain and Oliver Marshall as BrideTechnically it’s a relatively simple show, but that means those special effects that are there have a greater impact than you might otherwise expect. The railings at the top end of the ship move upwards as the ship starts to sink, giving an incredibly effective portrayal of a man hanging on for dear life. The appalling graunching sound of the ship ploughing into the side of an iceberg stops us in our tracks and then strong white lights illuminate both the stage and the audience as if to say we’re all in this together and make us feel equally vulnerable as the characters.

EnsembleMusically I found the show highly entertaining and rewarding, and I felt it gave some nods to a few other shows that are also highly charged with emotion and drama. Apart from the structural framework that aligns it to Blood Brothers, I recognised a lot of The Hired Man in there, not so much in any particular song or scene but in the overall combination of strong individual and clear singing with emotionally charged words and situations, particularly with the third class passengers. Maybe it’s because they share similar themes and both take place in the 1910s. Whilst we’re on the subject of clarity, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a musical show where each word was so beautifully enunciated throughout that it achieved an absolute 100% accuracy-to-ear delivery, and for that alone Titanic the Musical deserves an award.

The BlameThere were some Sweeney Todd nuances too, with Andrews’ pride and joy in his design reminding me of Todd’s affection for his barbers’ razors; and when, facing death, he’s re-designing his blueprint so the ship can’t sink, the music becomes very reminiscent of Jesus Christ Superstar’s sequence, Take him to Pilate, Take him to Pilate! That reprimanding urgency is also very apparent in the song The Blame, where Captain, owner and architect each point the finger at the other without anyone taking responsibility. You can really imagine that’s exactly how it happened. There was a lot of ambition, power and money at stake. Some important people with big egos playing with other peoples’ lives in order to boost their own fortunes and reputations. You can see it happening in the news today. We never learn.

Greg Castiglioni as AndrewsA large and talented cast bring this story to buzzing life with some superb performances. Simon Green’s Ismay is an immaculate portrayal of a workplace bully, pestering and pestering again until he gets the answer he wants; today he’d be up for corporate manslaughter, coward that he is. At the other end of the power seesaw, Philip Rham’s Captain Edward Smith is a rigid stickler for the old ways of doing things, but torn between his responsibilities for the lives on board and his having to toe the line of his financial paymaster. Constantly showing poor judgment by increasing the speed when he knows it is risky and ignoring iceberg warnings, he’s a complex character given a fascinating portrayal. He really looks the part too – if you ever wondered what happened to the bloke who played The Ghost and Mrs Muir

Victoria Serra as Kate McGowanThere’s a magic partnership between Dudley Rogers and Judith Street as Isidor and Ida Straus, the genteel older couple who’ve first-classed it through many a sea crossing; I defy you to watch them perform the song Still and maintain you kept a dry eye. I also really enjoyed Matthew McKenna’s performance as Mr Etches, the First Class Steward, who keeps a beautifully ordered table and knows how to smooth the waters (sadly not literally) without upsetting the boat (same observation applies).

Claire Machin and Timothy Quinlan as the BeanesThere’s a delightful performance from Claire Machin as the socially ambitious Alice Beane – a little like an American Hyacinth Bucket but not as grotesque – I loved how she felt she had to dress up for going into the lifeboats; and Victoria Serra’s Kate McGowan is full of charm and roguish ambition. Great support too from Kieran Brown as the principled Murdoch, Oliver Marshall as the radioman Harold Bride, and Lewis Cornay as both the Bellboy and entertainer Wallace Hartley. Greg Castiglioni gives a brilliant performance as Thomas Andrews, the ship’s architect, worrying away over his plans, trying to keep up with the powerplay between Smith and Ismay; and, possibly best of all, Niall Sheehy is fantastic as Frederick Barrett, the workhorse employed as a stoker, promising to return to marry his girl, and putting the bravest of brave faces on his ultimate fate.

Barrett the StokerI enjoyed this so much more than I had expected; after the disappointment of Sting’s The Last Ship a few months ago I had an awful feeling that this would be a bad year for anything dramatically nautical. Not a bit of it. This is a powerful, moving, humbling tale immaculately sung throughout. There was a fairly instantaneous standing ovation that I was more than happy to join; and don’t forget to wander down towards the stage after the show to check the names of those who perished. After all, the whole production is done in their honour. After it’s final capsize in Northampton tomorrow, the tour continues to Nottingham, Blackpool, Bromley, Bradford and Liverpool, before enjoying a couple of weeks at the Staatsoper in Hamburg. I’d thoroughly recommend it.

To the lifeboatsP. S. Overheard at the interval; some people behind us were initially disappointed to realise this was not a musical version of the Leonard di Caprio/Kate Winslet movie. No, it isn’t. Fortunately, it’s good enough for them to have overcome their disappointment, which has to be A Good Thing.

Hold on Mr AndrewsP. P. S. It started a little late and we were anxious to get home so as we could watch the recording of England’s game against Belgium before going to bed. At the interval Mrs Chrisparkle noted the majority of musical numbers had already been performed, suggesting that the second act would be considerably shorter than the first (as indeed it is.) Her observation: I guess that shows there is a limit as to how much you can drag the arse out of drowning made me wonder quite how in the zone she was with her sympathies in this show.

Production photos by Scott Rylander

Review – A Night at the Ballet, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 24th June 2018

A Night at the BalletWhoever it is at the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra who has the job of planning the content for their concerts must have an enjoyable but challenging task on their hands. To create an evening purely of ballet works – with such a range to choose from – must have been more endearment than endurance. Their latest concert, A Night at the Ballet, was jam-packed with punchy tunes and glorious melodies; all from the hands of four 19th century men who put ballet music centre stage (or should that be centre stave).

Unusually, we had no soloist to offer us a virtuoso performance of some great dramatic musical landmark; but I guess that’s typical of ballet music. If it’s designed to accompany a stage performance, it needs to be performed by no more people than you can fit into your average theatre orchestra pit; all hands on deck, and no room for a specialist as you might expect in a symphony or a concerto. Instead, we had the Royal Philharmonic on top form, this time under the baton of Nathan Fifield, a conductor new to us; he’s currently the principal conductor with Nashville Ballet and this is his debut performance with the RPO.

Nathan FifieldMr Fifield is a smart, dashing, clean-cut young gentleman (is it me, or are conductors getting younger nowadays) but with a genuine sense of the beauty of the ballet and delivering some well-chosen and thoughtful observations on the pieces that the orchestra were to play. He doesn’t seem to be one of those authoritarian conductors who impose themselves on the orchestra; he seems much more to be one of the lads, albeit with the extra task of being in charge.

Our first piece was the vivacious Dance of the Comedians from Smetana’s Bartered Bride. A fantastic way of getting the evening underway, with its triumphantly upbeat rhythms giving the orchestra a perfect opportunity to show their mettle. As well as the swirling violins, the brass and percussion also made a huge impact. It’s one of those pieces of music that, when you read the title on some paper, you’re not sure if you’ve heard it before; and when you do hear it, you’re full of the satisfied comfort of recognition and wonder why you don’t play it more often.

Next up, Mr Fifield introduced us to Delibes’ Sylvia Suite and Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake Suite. He told the story of how Tchaikovsky was so impressed at Delibes’ work (and so unimpressed with his own) that if he’d heard the Delibes before sitting down to write Swan Lake, he’d never have bothered. Fortunately for the rest of mankind, that didn’t happen. I didn’t think I knew any of the Sylvia Suite, but of course I was wrong – this is an evening of Ballet’s Greatest Hits, after all – and the celebrated Pizzicato has been a mainstay of TV and radio adverts since the introduction of Independent Broadcasting. I know where Tchaikovsky is coming from, mind; that Sylvia Suite is a thing of true beauty. The grandeur of its opening and closing movements was stunningly performed by the RPO and the lightness of the Pizzicato is simply impossible not to smile at. But I was most impressed by the almost cumbersome and definitely eccentric Valse Lente, with what seems to have too many notes for its bars; I thought that was really engaging and enjoyable. Again, a fantastic job by the strings.

Mr Fifield said we should compare the Delibes and the Tchaikovsky. Hard to do, because (to me at least) Swan Lake is such a familiar piece of music – possibly one of the most engrossing and gripping works in the musical catalogue of all time. Mr Fifield conducted some parts of it – most notably the Valse and the Scene: Pas d’action – a little more slowly than I am used to hearing it – possibly the pace at which it is most frequently danced. I felt that whilst this enhanced the simple beauty of the melodies and the richness of the orchestra’s performance, it lost a little of the drama. But that’s just me. Daniel de Fry’s harp work was just sensational throughout and I particularly loved the Hungarian dance and the final Mazurka – which I was humming to myself all through the interval.

RPOgroupThe second half started with some more Delibes – this time the Prelude and Mazurka from Coppelia, and again, you are reminded just how famous some of these stonking great tunes are. Another really rousing performance from the RPO; I could imagine the lavishly dressed dancers in my mind’s eye. Next came the item that I had been looking forward to most: Saint-Saens’ Danse Macabre. This has been a favourite of mine since I was a very small child and in fact I even learned to play it on the piano when I was about 16 – I just about managed to scrape through it. Duncan Riddell’s magnificent violin playing brought out both the harsh eeriness and the light playfulness of the piece; I also loved the strident xylophone playing. A sheer joy throughout.

For a finale Mr Fifield brought us his own personal favourite ballet music – Tchaikovsky’s Sleeping Beauty Suite. It sure contains some stunning tunes but I have to say I still prefer Swan Lake! Again Mr de Fry’s golden touch on the harp was magnificent, and the performance by the whole orchestra of the Adagio was absolutely first class. So much so, that it outweighed the rest of the suite’s content, and the audience weren’t really sure that the concert had finished after the performance of the final waltz. Once they were absolutely convinced now was the right time to applaud, they certainly let rip.

It was definitely one of our favourite concerts from the Royal Philharmonic from all the years we’ve been coming to see them. It was just tutu good. Next month – the Last Night of the Derngate Proms, an excuse to get out your nationalist flags. It will also be the same day as the World Cup Final, so if England are still in the tournament…. I just hope no one mentions the B word.

Review – Club Wonderland, University of Northampton Third Year Acting & Creative Practice Students, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 8th June 2018

Club WonderlandI think it’s widely accepted that many children are horrid little so-and-so’s aren’t they? Why else would generations of them have been entranced, scared, perplexed and amused by Lewis Carroll’s eternally popular Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through The Looking Glass? Most of those characters are right shockers. The Queen of Hearts with a beheading fetish. The Duchess who wants to hit children. The belligerent twins Tweedledum and Tweedledee. And Alice herself; a pompous, self-righteous little prig who talks down to others. What on earth is the appeal?

James GraysonIt must be due to the writing. Lewis Carroll is something of a Jekyll and Hyde character, with his dual personality of the engaging writer of children’s fantasy and as Charles Dodgson, the Reverend intellectual of Christ Church Oxford. He was a pioneer of photography, and there is much debate to this day whether his interest in taking photographs of naked young girls was merely a matter of the time – when such photos were considered the epitome of innocence – or if there was a more devious intent lurking underneath. It’s very hard to come to a conclusion from our 21st century perspective.

Jemma BentleyErica Martin has written and directed this fascinating piece for the University of Northampton Third Year Acting & Creative Practice Students. We were met by a white rabbit and taken in a group into the recesses of the theatre – a veritable warren indeed – to enter the world of Club Wonderland. The music is by Josh Bird and is fresh and tuneful and fully deserves a life after this show. With our sophisticated hostess in the shape of Dodo, assisted by more white rabbits than you could shake a stick at, we enjoyed a cabaret show, interrupted by the ominous and troubled presence of The Boss himself, Mr Carroll, who has lost his pen and therefore cannot develop his characters any further; which is why they are all trapped in the club.

Joe ConroyAll we can do is visit individual vignettes, where we become more acquainted with some of the characters who dwell in the books. We saw the creation of the Jabberwocky. We played Blackjack with the March Hare. We gave roses to the Queen of Hearts in her boudoir. We had card tricks and got drunk with Bill. And we took sides in the fight between Tweedledum and Tweedledee. (We were Team Dum). Moving around the hidden back passages of the R&D and discovering little side rooms is a fascinating exercise in intrigue in itself; we had a similar experience a few years ago with their Midsummer Bacchanalia. It really does add an extra dramatic frisson as you wonder where you’ll end up next.

Dean AdamsThis was a superb ensemble work, with everyone absolutely giving their all to make it work. The only people not to be involved in the ensemble aspect – and I felt rather sorry for then as a result – were the excellent James Grayson as Lewis Carroll, and Kalyn Chesney as Alice. I’ve seen Mr Grayson a few times now and he has the amazing ability to create magic out of any role. As Carroll he was menacing and ominous, yet also aloof and vulnerable as he gave us some insight into Carroll’s Modus Operandi. Ms Chesney’s Alice was clearly very fond of her mentor, which made for a slightly creepy but very effective partnership. Also on duty in the club you could find Freya Mawhinney as a very vivacious and stylish Dodo and Jemma Bentley as both a terrified and terrifying Mouse, both of whom helped play the very enjoyable card game with no rules with us.

Bobbie-Lee ScottIn the vignette scenes there was a brilliant performance from Bobbie-Lee Scott as the Queen of Hearts’ tart, anxious to please, scared of upsetting Her Majesty, and superbly interacting with the guests. Joe Conroy was also unnervingly excellent as the Mad March Hare, carrying on multi-layered conversations with himself whilst still hosting a blackjack tournament (must just say one thing, WHAT A CHEAT) and Dean Adams gave a great performance as Bill behind the bar, with a really effective magic trick and a sorrowful tale which required much alcoholic lubrication. Charlie-Dawn Sadler and Rhianne Brown were superb unwilling adversaries as the Tweedle-twins, in a lively scene that used The Walrus and the Carpenter to great effect. Unfortunately I wasn’t quite so excited by Daniel Peace’s scene as the fortune teller. Whether this was because it was the first of the vignettes that we saw, so we were less confident as an audience group of the format, or because the content wasn’t so interesting, I don’t know, because he created a very intriguing character; and certainly knows how to pierce you with a steely gaze, that’s for sure.

Very atmospheric, thought-provoking, and extremely well performed. Congratulations to all!

Review – A Servant to Two Masters, Final Year Actors at the University of Northampton, Jacksons Lane Theatre, Highgate, 7th June 2018

A Servant to Two MastersFrom a play held in such high reverence that one dare not tinker with it at all (The Crucible), to the complete opposite! Carlo Goldoni’s A Servant to Two Masters was written in 1746 and keeps coming back in different guises, most notably recently in Richard Bean’s hilarious and amazingly successful adaptation, One Man Two Guvnors. Its characters are largely taken straight from the Italian tradition of commedia dell’arte, with Trufaldino the servant as the Harlequin character, the aged merchant Pantaloon, the pompous Doctor Lombardi, Brighella the keeper of the tavern, and the high-class lovers (here as Clarice and Silvio). The tradition involved a great deal of jokey asides, plenty of interaction with the audience, music and dance.

Doctor, Pantaloon, Silvio and ClariceThis Final Year Students production was directed by the creative and brilliant Mr Frank Wurzinger, whom I still remember as the superb Doctor Zee in Flathampton. I still have his prescription for a vodka shot. I can think of few people more suited to bringing this kind of play to life. There are, however, two aspects of the direction that I think didn’t help the presentation of the show. In the centre of the large acting space of the Jacksons Lane Theatre they created a smaller space – a raised platform where 95% of the activity took place. This was in front of an equally small, closed, proscenium arch curtain. Whilst this may have given absolutely the right impression of a theatrical staging, it also reduced the acting space and made it feel really cramped and claustrophobic. There were also two small trampolines either side of the stage, which the characters/actors had either to bounce on, or bounce off, to enter or leave the acting space. Whilst this initially was an amusing quirk, and I understand it can be a way of creating additional energy with the characters’ entrances, it actually did nothing to serve the purpose of the play other than to reduce the acting space even further. I didn’t sense that the trampolines gave our cast any additional energy. Only Robert Barnes, as the drunken Florindo waiting for his food, used the trampoline entry/exit to additional comic effect with a drunken bounce.

Terrell OswaldIn retrospect, this was always going to be a very difficult play to get right, requiring massively strong ensemble playing and split-second choreographic precision. I had high hopes for this, but I’m sorry to say that didn’t happen. For this to work it needed to be as slick as a tub of Brylcreem, but regrettably much of it was quite slapdash, sacrificing accuracy for madcap. And while half the cast nailed it, the other half spent the evening pulling out those aforementioned nails.

Emilia OwenThe one person who was absolutely supreme on that stage, and gave the best performance I’d seen him give, was Terrell Oswald, who invested the Pantaloon with just the right amount of dignity and pomposity so that when his world turns upside down it’s genuinely funny. A superb stage presence, perfect timing, and, as always with Mr Oswald, an unexpectedly agile physical performance. First rate. My other “personal best performance” award would go to Emilia Owen as Clarice; brilliant facial expressions, an excellent balance of portraying the character’s true emotions as well as fulfilling the commedia dell’arte stock role, and terrific vocal command. A really enjoyable performance.

Robert BarnesRobert Barnes never fails to provide a polished performance and his Florindo was accomplished and technically strong, as he persisted with the serious nature of the role whether he was screaming drunk or made to look ridiculous, covered in a face-pack with accompanying cucumber. And Jac Burbidge played the otherwise dullish character of Silvio with a well-balanced mixture of courtliness and cheekiness that never strayed into self-indulgence. I enjoyed Bryony Ditchburn’s performance as Beatrice but I did get heartily sick of the sock and two apples down the front of the pants. To quote Stephen Sondheim’s I Never Do Anything Twice: “once, yes, once for a lark; twice, though, loses the spark”.

Jac BurbidgeThere was a lot of good in this production, but at the end it felt like it had been bogged down by a ragged end-of-term mentality that I didn’t share. Still, there were plenty of laughs and it went down very well with the audience, so what do I know?