Review – Bluelight Comedy Magic, Borjia, Northampton, 27th April 2017

BluelightI’ve discovered a new (to me at least) fixture on the local comedy circuit – the Bluelight Comedy Magic show, which has been going for some time but last night had their first outing at the rather swish and showy Borjia bar in Northampton. All proceeds from the evening went to Rape Crisis to support their important work (and I won a very fine looking bottle of champagne in the raffle into the bargain!)

BorjiaMrs Chrisparkle and I, along with Lord and Lady Prosecco, Prinz Markus von Köln (second in line to the Prosecco family estate) and our hosts for the evening Mr and Mrs Jolly-Japester, took our specially reserved seats across the front row. Not quite sure how we scored that, but I’m not complaining. I think we were five on a bench for three, so only a small portion of my posterior felt the pleasure of the padding, but three pints of Asahi made up for that.

TrixtaOur MC for the evening, and the man behind the Bluelight, although I think he’s now chucked in the blue light for full time comedy and magic, was The Trixta (aka Ashley), who kept everything going at a cracking pace but also left us plenty of time to get our glasses charged – always a vital element of any comedy night.

Chris Randall VegasFirst up, and all the way from Las Vegas – I kid you not – was the fantastic magician Chris Randall. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen such extraordinary magic at really close quarters and yet not have a clue as to how he did what he did; but then I am a sucker for magic. Mrs C always pooh-poohs it as some inferior kind of entertainment until she actually sees it, and then her jaw drops just as far anyone else’s. The thing is, one always itches to know how someone performs a magic trick, but I am so glad that I don’t know how magic works, because if I did, it wouldn’t be magic anymore; so don’t tell me!

Chris Randall cardsMr Randall did a trick with what appeared to be dental floss, pushing it up into his neck so that it apparently went right through the skin; and when he pulled at either end of it, the skin either side of his neck got pulled out too! Made me feel quite queasy but it’s an amazing illusion. He procured two £20 notes from members of the public (including Lord Prosecco) who wrote their names on the notes and which he then made disappear, only to reappear sometime later trapped inside a satsuma! He got me out of the audience and performed a trick where torn bits of paper were strangely re-assembled to create a hat, but what particularly impressed me was that whilst I was onstage with him, he managed to get my watch off me and put it on his own wrist without my noticing. Mrs C is right – I am so unobservant. He did plenty more tricks besides, including ending up with an extraordinary display of cardsharpery. He’s one helluva magician.

Robin BootAfter a break, we next met Robin Boot, armed and extremely dangerous with his guitar and he’s not afraid to use it. If I tell you that, for his opening gambit, he sang – to the tune of Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger”, Toe of the Camel, I think you’ll get his general drift. That song will never be the same again. He’s a really funny guy who blends ridiculous and reasonably filthy humour with his disarmingly enjoyable guitar work to great comic effect. He also achieves a great rapport with the audience and we all loved him. Mr Jolly-Japester was required to exercise his dong during his act. You had to be there.

Dan NightingaleOur headline act for the evening was comic Dan Nightingale. One of those gifted guys who makes it all look so easy, he kept us laughing our socks off for ages. Whether it was about being a Mancunian, with all that accent entails, or being a young father with all that sleeplessness that entails, or having a wife that deleted your only tv appearance off the skybox, with all the resentment that entails, his great material just kept coming and coming. He’s a very likeable guy with effortless style and again, he really went down well with the whole room.

Bluelight in full flowAt only £10 that was fantastic value for money and also hopefully raised bucketloads for Rape Crisis. Apparently, the next show will be in June, so keep an eye on their Facebook page for further details. Brilliant fun, can’t wait for next time! (P.S. You don’t have to look too hard to spot Mrs C and me on this photo!)

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 21st April 2017

Screaming Blue MurderIt’s been a few weeks since we last went to a Screaming Blue Murder, and when I finally snuck my way through the crowds into the Underground my preferred seat(s) had already been taken. Slightly emboldened by the fact that I knew regular host Dan Evans wouldn’t pick on me, I ventured one row closer to the stage. And what happens? “Ladies and gentlemen, meet your host and compere for this evening, Windsor!” Windsor. Not Dan. We’ve seen Windsor before, he’s brilliant. I knew precisely what was in store.

WindsorLess than 30 seconds into his material he’d ascertained my name and assured me that we’d be working a lot together during the course of the evening. He wasn’t wrong. By the time we’d finished he made me confess our favourite sexual position and had me demonstrate to two other guys the correct amount of pressure to apply to a clitoris. He’s a fantastic host, because, despite all that, he really puts the audience at ease – he was excellent in his interaction with the girls from a certain hotel in West Haddon – and, even if he picks on you, he’s never cruel and I enjoyed the opportunity for a little friendly sparring!

Luke BensonWe’d seen all the three comics before but that didn’t matter because they were all on top form and fresh as daisies. First up was Luke Benson, the gentle, genial Geordie giant, all 6ft 7in of him. As you might expect, he gets a lot of great material from his height; his girlfriend goes up on him, for example. He forms a great connection with the audience, reacts inventively to anything that happens during his set, and he’s absolutely right about how there are some things you just can’t measure in millimetres. He went down really well.

Juliet MeyersOur second act was Juliet Meyers, who I remember always likes to use the C word within her first few exchanges – and once again she didn’t disappoint. She had a lot of new material since the last time we saw her, which was great, including how to cope with a needy dog, and the problems that women face going to the GP. I think she really succeeds when there are a substantial number of women in the audience, as there were last Friday – and she really capitalised on that!

Anthony KingOur headline act was Anthony King, brilliant interpreter of psychopathic crime to music, which is way funnier than it sounds. You wouldn’t be at all surprised to discover he is the inspiration for all the criminals on Midsomer Murders. Sometimes he just can’t quite maintain the straight face which makes it even better. I still feel sorry for the centipede. 100% hilarious.

A really superb night’s comedy, with everyone giving their best – and also, if I may say so myself, we were a cracking audience. Windsor said at the end that the next one will be in May… but one look in my ticket drawer shows that it’s on again next week. So why not come?!

Review – Vinegar Tom, University of Northampton 3rd Year BA (Hons) Acting Students, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th March 2017

Vinegar TomThe last of the three plays performed by the Third Year Students studying Acting at the University of Northampton, gracing the freezing cold stage of the old Royal Theatre in Northampton, was Vinegar Tom, Caryl Churchill’s 1976 play, an examination of 17th century witchcraft trials in England, with a little Brechtian twist. In many ways, it’s the complete opposite of Laura Wade’s Posh, with the majority of the roles for women, and showing how hard life could be five hundred years ago, as opposed to wallowing in privilege today. Brighter minds than me (the Oxford Encyclopedia of British Literature, no less) April Lissimoredescribe it as “a complex and historically expansive investigation of the policing of women’s bodies and desires”. That’s one way of putting it, I suppose. Caryl Churchill, of course, has a substantial reputation as a thoughtful, innovative feminist writer, with her plays Cloud Nine and Top Girls being particularly prized. But Vinegar Tom was completely new to me, and I really had no idea what to expect. For a shallow guy like me, it was simply a growing drama of how the fear of the Devil contaminated society as a whole, so that anyone who did something you didn’t like was branded a witch. Benjamin HamptonThe test for a witch would always be something gruesome, designed to satisfy the warped lusts of the witchfinder general, so that, à la Monty Python, if you survived the experience you must be a witch, and if you died you were innocent – but got a quick route to Heaven, so that’s all good then. And of course, you can extrapolate this situation into the present day, with inequality still an issue, and men in authority still knowing what’s best for a woman’s body, no matter what she may think.

Florence Rees-WaiteFortunately, the structure of the play is Brecht-lite. Yes, it’s interspersed with hard-hitting, unsentimental songs, and has a brief vaudeville scene that’s just about as opposite from the tough life of the 17th century countryfolk as it’s possible to get; and of course the ceiling full of hangman’s nooses tells you straight away that it’s not going to end well for some of the characters. But it doesn’t have that tedious distancing effect that can sometimes make his works something of a tiresome watch. So that’s great news for the audience. Helena FentonTechnically I think this was the most successful of all three of this year’s student productions, with simple but effective light design, great use of the sides and upstage recesses of the Royal, and it would win the award for most unpleasant use of an upturned plank of wood (you had to be there). All this, and really great madrigal-style songs composed by Tristan Pate, hauntingly well sung. I’d pay a good price to get a cast album so that I could hear Evil Women again!

Jennifer EtheringtonI was instantly enthralled with this piece, from the opening scene between Helena Fenton’s Alice and Benjamin Hampton’s “Man” (one of four roles that he completely makes his own throughout the whole play). It was intimate, funny, honest, teasing, threatening, challenging and heart-breaking all at once. Vocally, I loved the accents that were delivered with total consistency and accuracy; and Miss Fenton really expressed all Alice’s hopes and fears (from the naughty to the demonic) with such conviction that I felt that I was in the presence of someone rather special – she’s definitely going to be One To Watch. But the energy they set up, and the standard they set, permeated through the entire cast and kept going right through the entire 90+ minutes, so much so that I almost didn’t notice there wasn’t an interval. Almost. At my age, I really do need a break after a while!

Jessica BridgeThe whole cast formed a very strong ensemble but each person brought their own touch of magic to the show. Jessica Bridge’s Susan gave us a very emotional and personal insight into the horror of betraying one’s friend because of peer pressure and sheer ignorance. It was a very heartfelt and believable performance. Victoria Rowlands as Joan, Alice’s mother, was a miserable crotchety old whiner but nevertheless she swayed the audience to sympathise with her ultimate fate. She also has a stunning voice! Jennifer Etherington expressed her character Margery’s no-nonsense lack of sentimentality with just the right degree of crispness and harshness.Kundai Kanyama Rachel Graham-Brown superbly conveyed Betty’s primness and natural superiority whilst also letting us see her insecurities and fears; Kundai Kanyama delivered cunning woman Ellen’s insights and bon mots with an entertaining matter-of-factness, as though she were an overworked GP writing out meaningless prescriptions; and April Lissimore was terrific as the witch finder’s assistant, Goody, smugly appreciating the fact that she’s struck it lucky with her job, echoing her boss’s maleficent maxims as she cheerfully helps him pierce the women’s private parts with his witch detector-probe. There’s always someone who lets the sisterhood down.

Lewis HodsonThe men in the cast also gave great support, with a terrific performance from Ruark Gould, as Margery’s husband Jack, fuming that he’s lost his mojo after Alice dismissed his advances; when she grants it back to him, his complacent relief is hilarious. Lewis Hodson is a comedically grim witch finder, Packer, channelling his inner Voldemort, extricating confessions because, I guess, everyone has to have a hobby. He’d be great as the Dentist in Little Shop of Horrors! And Benjamin Hampton, whose opening scene “Man” I’ve already mentioned, gave four excellent characterisations Rachel Graham-Brownfor all his supporting roles, covering a wide range of sophistication (from very to none); his scene with Florence Rees-Waite, where they are both performing on a vaudeville stage as Kramer and Sprenger, the authors of Malleus Maleficarum, the witch hunter’s handbook, was beautifully performed by both. They created a perfect moment of much needed comic relief; they never quite came out with I Say I Say I Say, but you sense it would only be a matter of time.

Ruark GouldSomething that really struck me – I’d seen these young actors before in either Shrapnel or She Echoes, and what particularly impressed me was how nearly all of them took on totally different kinds of characters in this play than they did in the earlier productions, showing great versatility on their parts. These young actors are NOT going to be typecast!

Victoria RowlandsA production that really gelled together perfectly – a good story, beautifully acted and staged, with exciting and thought-provoking musical interludes and a grand sense of nonsense chucked in for good measure. Thoroughly entertaining from start to finish, but with plenty to unsettle and challenge the audience too. I loved it – congratulations to everyone, great work all round.

Review – Cirque Berserk, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 16th March 2017

Cirque BerserkIt’s not often you go into a show and they tell you to keep your mobile phones on, to photograph and record as much as you like, to tweet and to update Facebook throughout the evening. It wouldn’t happen at the RSC, that’s for sure. But Cirque Berserk is a different kind of theatrical experience – all the fun of the Big Top, but under a Proscenium Arch.

Timbuktu TumblersMrs Chrisparkle has always been a bit sniffy about circuses. When kids like me were dreaming of running away and joining one just like Phineas T Barnum did, she was fantasising about running away and joining an accountancy college. However, over the years, her anti-circus resolve has weakened a little; although I don’t think it’s likely that she would have chosen to come to this show had it not been for the fact that we were taking my brother- and sister-in-law, plus our seven-year-old niece, just jetted in from deepest darkest Australia. TweedyThe perfect show for a little ‘un, we thought. Mrs C had no choice. However, it wasn’t long before she was cheering and clapping along with the best of them, as the all-pervasive charms of the Cirque Berserk troupe broke down her stony heart and at one stage I thought I was going to have to stop her from joining Tweedy the Clown and challenging him to a baggy-pants-falling-down routine.

Jose and GabyAh yes, Tweedy. I’m one of those relative rare people who find clowns funny. Here in Northampton we famously had the scary clown a few months ago, who’d get photographed at weird moments in unlikely locations, sending half the population into a meltdown of fear. Not me. If I’d met him, I’d have tweaked his red nose and squirted water in his ear. But Tweedy isn’t that kind of clown. I love how modern clowning has re-invented The Globe of Deathitself with all sorts of physical comedy skills. He had some wonderful routines; the bicycle that falls apart and gets put back together like a Heath Robinson creation; the stepladder that traps him and that he uses as a walking frame; his getting two beefy assistants out of the audience to help him with his unicycle. He’s incredibly inventive and amazingly skilful and he keeps the show going throughout the whole evening.

Tropicana TroupeThere are some great acrobatic acts too. The Timbuktu Tumblers (I bet they haven’t been to Timbuktu) engage us from the start with great balancing tricks and I really loved their squeezing themselves under the fiery limbo pole. There are also the Tropicana Troupe from Cuba, who, with an enormous amount of slightly hilarious posing, catapult each other from one end of the stage to the other by jumping on an enormous seesaw – a really thrilling act. We also had the delights of Gabriel and Germaine swinging their Bolas Argentinas – very amusingly when his bolas almost get trapped in Gabriel’s big fluffy hair (you had to be there). Germaine is a complete star when it comes to her feet juggling act too.

Lucius TeamYou’ve heard of a ship in a bottle? They have a lady in a bottle! It’s a tight squeeze, but Odka manages it, then she emerges to sharp-shoot with her bow and arrow. There are almost too many acts to mention – Zula, with his Tower of Chairs; Laci, Rosey and Jackie balancing, twirling and acrobating in the air, and the amazing Jose and Gaby, who balance on top of each other just using one hand – an incredible feat of strength and trust. And of course, there’s the high adrenaline of the Motorcycle Globe of Death; the Lucius Team one by one enter the globe and zoom around inside this big mesh ball, with absolutely no scope for any mistiming whatsoever. I couldn’t believe it when one of the ladies joined them, just standing there as they raced around her; how on earth she didn’t end up in A&E I’ll never know.

FinaleSome circuses are all about the art; some all about the thrills. This circus definitely falls into the latter category. The audience adored it and were either on the edge of their seat with excitement, or falling off it with laughter. It would be impossible not to like this show. Truly fantastic entertainment, I couldn’t recommend it too highly. Their current tour continues to Sheffield and Cardiff – go see it!

Review – Posh, University of Northampton 3rd Year BA (Hons) Acting Students, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 16th March 2017

PoshFrom Pornography to Posh – they are at least in alphabetical order – and the next matinee performed by the Third Year Students studying Acting at the University of Northampton, treading the beloved boards of the old Royal Theatre in Northampton. Would it be two hard-hitting plays in a row?

Ben BartonDespite having written loads of plays that were completely overlooked by producers, Posh was the first play by Laura Wade that was performed in the West End – at the Duke of York’s in 2012. I’ve never seen any of Ms Wade’s work before but I knew of Posh by reputation; a dramatised version of life at Oxford University’s Bullingdon Club, where posh boys will be posh boys and pigs are scared. Benjamin SullivanI attended that much respected university, gentle reader, although it was hundreds of years ago now, and although I may have occasionally got absolutely chateau’d (I confess I use that phrase myself), I never came within a burning £20 note of the Bullingdon Club. So this play is a splendid opportunity to wonder what it would have been like if one had been the right kind of student.

Chris DrewActually, I was a member of the Page 71 Dining Society – probably long since defunct, sadly – but I think the worst we ever did was chuck a few sprouts about, and have one of our members swim naked in Lymington Harbour. Not like the Riot Club, as Laura Wade has named her secret society, where outward shows of gracious dignity quickly degenerate into pushing the boundaries of decency in all directions. The play asks some very searching questions about society as a whole – to what extent can money buy anything, from paying to compensate other people’s ruined evenings to other people’s ruined lives. Connor McCreedyAnd will the powers that be always have the ability to cover up those things that are best left unremembered? What happens at the Riot Club, stays at the Riot Club, comme on dit. Well, maybe. It’s a rich (in both senses of the word), meaty play with plenty to enjoy and some scenes that you watch with your hands covering your eyes as you gasp at the insensitivity of what some people have no qualms about asking. Personally, I didn’t really like the brief opening and closing scenes – the ending especially gives the story a definite outcome that I think it would be best to leave to the audience’s imagination. But that’s a separate issue.

Daniel Ambrose-JonesNevertheless, Laura Wade’s play gives the acting students plenty of opportunities to make the most of their characters; the belligerently fascist Alistair, the lightweight drinker Toby, the seriously over-indulged George, the sexually go-getting Harry, the wannabe diplomatic Leighton. Most of them took to it like the proverbial ducks to water, with Lee Hancock in pole position, completely relishing the true awfulness of Alistair’s Javiar Melhadocharacter, constantly provoking the others, undermining others’ authority, patronising and belittling what he sees as lesser people than himself. Mr Hancock gives an award-winnng, energetic performance, giving full rein to his ample vocal powers and splendidly disdainful expressions. Steven Croydon fills out the role of Toby with Jay Andrewssuperb displays of petulance, intolerance and impatience – also of resignation as he knows he’s going to face the consequences of his previous misdemeanours. He has a very strong stage presence – the kind of actor you watch for a few seconds even when they’re not talking because you know they will be still 100% connected with what’s going on. He performs a wonderful drunk act as his character gets totally smashed during the Dregs game; Jennifer Wyndhamthere’s a beautifully played (and timed) scene where Messrs Hancock and Croydon are leading two different conversations, Mr Hancock strident with his dogma, Mr Croydon wheedling in his inebriation, the one piping up in the conversational gaps left by the other; very funny and very recognisable.

Lauren ScottConnor McCreedy gives a very clean-cut and authoritative performance as President of the Society, Leighton; interpreting the role with great clarity, you can see that Leighton sees himself as the enabler and guide – wanting the other diners to have the best experience but also wanting the best for the Society, which means damping down enthusiasm if he thinks it will keep them out of the papers. I also very much enjoyed Lee HancockBen Barton as Hugo, another naturally authoritative figure, treading a fine line between the decadent and the decent; and Olly Manning made the best of the comic opportunities given by the character of George, relishing everyone else’s puddings with enormous refinedness. Tom Garland’s Ed was an intelligent portrayal of the new boy desperate to fit in and constantly making lame comments; I think we’ve all been there.

Matt KitsonThere are also three characters totally unconnected with the society, each given fine, strong performances. Chris Drew’s pub landlord Chris is the epitome of the hard-working little man, the kind of person some of these posh boys utterly despise; this “entrepreneur’s society” dinner that he thinks he is hosting is a little Olly Manningdifferent from what he’s used to but he’s still stretching his sinews to make sure they have a good time – until things get cataclysmically out of hand. His daughter and waitress Rachel, played by Jennifer Wyndham, gets subjected to a range of attention throughout the course of the evening, and Ms Wyndham absolutely nails that position of having to balance the customer is always right with I’m not doing that. Steven CroydonAnd Lauren Scott gives a delightful cameo as the high class escort engaged to “entertain” the guests, and who quickly makes us realise that there definitely are services that money cannot buy. As a small criticism, there were a couple of roles where I thought the actors could make even more of their presence and increase the expression and confidence in their voices. Tom Garland There were also a few occasions when many of the actors continued with their next line despite the audience still howling with laughter, so we didn’t catch a word they said – that’s a skill that needs to be mastered! However, that did not stop it from being a very entertaining production of an enjoyable play – congratulations to everyone on creating a true menace of a dinner party.

Review – Pornography, University of Northampton 3rd Year BA (Hons) Acting Students, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 15th March 2017

PornographyIt’s that time again when the Third Year Students studying Acting at the University of Northampton perform three different plays in the hallowed portals of the old Royal Theatre in Northampton. Last year was my first exposure to this triumvirate of excellence, where they took two good plays (and one lousy one) and created three great productions out of them. This year I am back, up front and personal in the middle of Row C to see the sterling efforts of this year’s pre-professionals.

Becky FowlerOn Wednesday’s matinee, we started off with the alarmingly (or promisingly, depending on your point of view) titled Pornography, by Simon Stephens, perhaps best known for his stage adaptation of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time, which has been a huge international success. Pornography first saw the light of day at the Traverse Theatre in Edinburgh in 2007, where it won the Critics’ Awards for Theatre in Scotland award for Best New Play.

Hans OldhamHow 24 hours can change the mood of a nation and of its capital city. On 6th July 2005 – and I remember it well – we were united in exhilaration as the choice of the 2012 Olympic Games went to London. There was a burst of national pride; the exciting prospect that Brits could finally get to see Olympic Games on their home turf for the first time in 64 years. The next morning, as we were digesting the news with our morning papers and media coverage, 56 people would die through bombs on London Underground trains and a bus. Jack JamesThe impact of the huge disaster hit us as a nation hard, let alone the relatives and friends of those who died or were injured. We went from Collective Hero to Collective Zero in the blink of an eye. I remember with particular horror the realisation some time after the event, that the street in Aylesbury where Mrs Chrisparkle and I first set up home in 1987 would later become the home address of one of the bombers, Germaine Lindsay. It was almost a Lady Macbeth What, In Our House? moment.

Jamal FranklinPornography is an askance view of that terrible day seen through events and conversations by ordinary people. Some have an obvious relevance – for example, the scene where the four perpetrators take us through the motions of how they got into position (which, as an aside, was for me by far the most riveting and dramatic), or the woman whose husband is last known to be on a bus in Russell Square. Other scenes seem less relevant, like the woman who ended up begging for some barbecue chicken or the student with too strong a fascination for his teacher. There appears to be little crossover between any of the characters, so each scene/conversation comes across as a mini playlet all of its own; and the strength of the play is gathered from the accumulation of relationships portrayed in the scenes, peppered with some verbal highlights delivered by the individual members of the cast.

Jenny WatsonThis is a challenging play to present, primarily because of its rather cumbersome and non-dramatic structure, and it’s hard for an audience member to grab onto some momentum to keep them going through the entire two hours. Visually it was quite static, with only a couple of the scenes (those featuring just two characters) giving you a sense of movement or realism. The scenes were played in a different sequence from that in the programme – I don’t know why that should be, or if there had been any last-minute changes to the staging. However, the cast uniformly gave a flawless performance, seamlessly linking between the scenes and clearly very committed to the material.

Jessica BichardWhen the curtain (slowly) rises, we meet Liam Faik and Karr Kennedy having a drink in some featureless bar, and we grow to realise this is a teacher meeting his old student, with some extracurricular activity in mind. The interaction between the two totally filled in the gaps left by the text and the staging and it was an enjoyable and compelling playlet. I love how Ms Kennedy can hold a pause before delivering her line, waiting for exactly the right moment to speak – I reckon she’d be great practitioner of Pinter! Mr Faik was my favourite performer in She Echoes where he showed his great versatility of characterisation and stage combat. In Pornography, he only had this one relatively brief role but he seized it with great gusto and I completely believed his character, from his awkwardness at having to ask for a drink to the awful clumsiness of his attempted assault – a real misreading of the social situation with Ms Kennedy’s character. Both actors have superb stage authority which they used to great effect and this was a very strong start to the play.

Joseph T CallaghanIn the next scene, Olivia Sarah-Jayne Noyce accurately conveyed the neuroses of a middle-class family woman, outwardly secure in her material things but inwardly tormented, letting us into her unguarded secrets with a delightful mix of the mischievous and the embarrassed; and I also enjoyed the support from Hans Oldham as her undemonstrative other half. Personally, I found the writing of this scene the least accessible or rewarding in the whole play, requiring the deepest attention from the audience which it’s not always possible to give, and for me it felt rather heavy despite the best efforts of the actors. I preferred the third scene, a tour-de-force from Joseph T Callaghan, another actor with terrific stage presence, who fixes you with a steely stare and demands that you listen to every word he says. His supporting cast were all first rate, particularly the amusingly dreadful chav played by Jessica Bichard.

Karr KennedyAfter the interval, we had the scene with the greatest impact, where we meet the 7/7 bombers in person, each innocently seated in a row beside their chairs, like some evil perversion of a boyband. They expressed the total ordinariness of their day, saying goodbye to their wives, losing concentration on trains, finding plenty of room on board for their backpacks. Each of the four actors brought something special to this scene; Jamal Franklin expressed the clear planning, tempered with family tenderness; Hans Oldham was quietly resolute and determined in fulfilling his duties; Samuel Littlewood had an open directness and confidence which belied his inner anxiety; and Luke Mortimore really gave you an insight into the kind of mind that could carry out such an atrocity – shocked at the state of humanity to such an extent that it would be better if it were eliminated. Mr Littlewood, incidentally, wins my award for best diction and projection – a technical ability that I really appreciate.

Liam FaikIn perhaps the boldest scene for the actors, Jack James and Becky Fowler gave a superbly convincing performance as the brother and sister reunited after she’s been absent for an unspecified time and reason. Ms Fowler in particular was superb at suggesting the sheer absence of morality of her character, only caring for her own satisfaction and to hell with the consequences; and Mr James was also excellent at showing how easily led astray his much more moral character was. Congratulations to both for the very believable and potentially shocking incest scene, performed without any self-consciousness and obviously revealing great trust between the two actors.

Luke MortimoreThe final scene was Jessica Bichard’s presentation of the rather poisonous elderly lady without a good word for anyone. A difficult scene for the actor, as it’s 90% monologue so lacks the visual dramatic effect of the scene that preceded it. But again her characterisation was strong and you firmly believed in this rather horrid old trout who accidentally betrays a chink in her armour. And there was excellent support from Jamal Franklin as the amusingly bewildered barbecue chef.

Olivia Sarah Jayne NoyceOverall I was a little disappointed at the play itself; in its attempt to encompass all walks of life and only occasionally touch on the bombings it somehow makes itself aloof from its own purpose. And whilst the presentation of the scenes was at times a little static, the cast absolutely nailed it and gave us some very fine performances. Congratulations to everyone involved!

Samuel LittlewoodP. S. Not sure about the use of the hand-held microphones – it gives a subtle impression to the audience of the world of light entertainment – singing, telling jokes, and so on – which couldn’t be less appropriate to this play.

Review – Raphael Wallfisch Performs Elgar’s Cello Concerto, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 12th March 2017

Raphael Wallfisch Performs Elgar’s Cello ConcertoCircumstances have conspired against our attending the two most recent Royal Philharmonic concerts in Northampton, but on Sunday we were back with a vengeance to see a rousing performance of German and British music. Our conductor this time was Jac van Steen, new to us; an enthusiastic Dutchman who has the air of a kindly dentist; he seems extremely affable and wants you to be at your utmost ease, but if it calls for it, he’d be in for the kill like nobody’s business.

jac van steenOur opening piece was the Prelude to Act One of Lohengrin by Wagner. I was expecting that stirring, arresting introductory brassy tune that puts you in mind of Valkyries and big fat sopranos – but no, that’s the Prelude to Act Three. Act One’s starts far more gently, with violin strings all a-quiver, but nevertheless building up to a major frenzy, perfectly representing the search for the Holy Grail which is what the programme notes said it was about. The orchestra were obviously champing at the bit and it was a very exciting and enjoyable start to the concert. Quiz question: what’s the difference between a prelude and an overture? No, I can’t work that one out either.

raphael wallfischNext it was time to meet our soloist, Raphael Wallfisch, to perform Elgar’s Cello Concerto. We’d seen Julian Lloyd Webber perform the same piece nearly six years ago, but it’s hard to recall one performer’s interpretation of a piece after such a long time. Mr Wallfisch is another avuncular looking fellow, but with a rather serious, workmanlike attitude to his playing that belies the immense passion of the music he produces. Without any reference to any sheet music, he plunges his instrument into the deep gravitas of the opening movement, making his instrument take centre stage so that you watch the bow attacking the bridge of the cello rather than looking at the intent concentration on Mr Wallfisch’s face. In juxtaposition, Mr van Steen is sometimes up on his tippytoes coaxing all the emotion out of the strings, at other times thrusting himself downwards in the conclusion of a bar. There’s an electrically exciting sequence in the second movement (I think – I’m fairly unfamiliar with this piece and the boundaries between the movements were hard to identify) where Mr Wallfisch plays the cello with such vim and vigour that from our seat it looked as though he was whittling down some wood to fashion a set of cricket stumps. I’m not sure it was spiccato, more like old fashioned twiddling. Suffice to say it was an extraordinary performance and it was clear that everyone loved it.

beethovenAfter the interval, we returned for Beethoven’s 7th Symphony. We’d seen the RPO perform this before as well, a full seven years ago, conducted by Garry Walker. Then, as now, I can never remember what that special tune is that dominates the second movement. But as soon as it kicks in I remember why I love it so much. It has a sparse melancholy about it; a sense that happiness may be just around the corner but you’re never quite going to achieve it. And I love how Beethoven gives it just the one proper airing, building from a quiet start to an emotional fulfilment, but never ever going back to it, no matter how much you yearn to hear it again. Mr van Steen had to apply a reverse coaxing mechanism, where, rather than draw the passion out of the orchestra, he actively suppressed it, making those sad echo moments in the movement even softer than usual, creating a despairing exquisiteness to the whole thing. It was just sensational.

Royal Philharmonic OrchestraIn many respects, the symphony is Beethoven’s Greatest Hits, with the brightness of the first movement, the playfulness of the third and the overwhelming victory of the final movement. The orchestra gave it a superb performance, and yes, excitable man in the Upper Circle Box, we all saw you on your feet conducting away to your heart’s content. We were blown away by the sheer vitality and force of the Royal Philharmonic’s performance. A great concert!