Review – Jan Mráček Performs Mendelssohn, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 18th June 2017

RPO June 17It’s always a pleasure to welcome back the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra to Northampton – this time, on the hottest day of the year so far; as the concert began we were still basking in 29° sunshine outside so very wisely the gentlemen of the orchestra adopted shirt sleeve order – otherwise they would have found it unbearable on stage.

Martyn BrabbinsOur conductor – new to us – was Martyn Brabbins, whose credits include 120 recordings on CD and who is currently the Music Director of the English National Opera. He’s an avuncular looking chap, a little like Great Uncle Bulgaria’s younger brother, who’s not averse to leaning back on his tippy-toes and then stabbing his baton at full force into the general vicinity of the orchestra if that’s what it takes to get the best out of them.

Two harpistsOur opening piece was Debussy’s Prélude à l’après-mid d’un faune, a beautifully gentle way to start the evening. We were presented with the stirring sight and sound of not one but two harps and harpists, Suzy Willison-Kawalec (who taught my Goddaughter to play the harp) and Emma Ramsdale. You can really hear the difference when two harps are playing side by side, the music is so much more powerful, even when it’s delicate. The orchestra really brought out the fragility of this piece and it was a stunning opener. I was also struck by how similar its first few bars are to Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. Debussy predated it by almost twenty years.

Jan MracekFor our next piece, we welcomed our soloist, Jan Mráček, for a performance of Mendelssohn’s Violin Concerto. You know you are getting older when the soloists are getting younger, and pan Mráček clocks in at 25 years old but with the gravitas of a man much older. He’s already won some kind of award by being the only person in a jacket (poor him) and as soon as he plunged himself into the first movement, we knew we were in for a treat. He played the Mendelssohn with an elegant seriousness but tempered with true enjoyment. He gave it fantastic expression and we were both absolutely wowed by his performance; all from memory, with amazing control and superb finesse. There’s a section where (as it seems to me, in my layman’s terms) the bow has to bounce lightly over all the strings in sequence, and then bounce back, and then back again and back again across the bridge and so on and all that time there wasn’t one moment where the tone suffered – none of those little squeaking or clattering noises you sometimes hear when the playing gets intense, it was absolutely precision perfect. I don’t know how he does it. I read that pan Mráček plays a violin made in Milan in 1758; it may well be that the craftsmanship of the centuries adds to the warmth and passion of his performance.

RPOAfter the interval we welcomed back the orchestra – still with two harps – for Shostakovich’s Fifth Symphony. Written at a time when Shostakovich was persona non-grata with the Stalin government, he was literally composing to save his life – and the power of the symphony really reflects this. Too complex for someone like me to give it any kind of narrative, the Fifth Symphony is full of superb tunes and dramatic explosions, and the whole orchestra gave it so much life and zest. Outstanding for me was a beautiful pizzicato sequence and again the way the harps blended with the celeste was just plain gorgeous.

It wasn’t the largest audience I’ve seen at the Derngate for one of these RPO concerts, but it was certainly an appreciative one as the orchestra gave us a memorable night of exquisite performances. They’re back on 16th July with something a little lighter – a Film Music Gala. Why not come and join us?!

Review – Death of a Salesman, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 14th June 2017

Death of a SalesmanThey say good things come to those who wait… Originally we had tickets to see this on 13th April, but, as you no doubt are aware gentle reader, everything was cancelled due to the sad and unexpected death of Tim Pigott-Smith, who was to play Willy Loman. I can only admire the tenacity and integrity of the cast and creative team for rescuing the production from the jaws of tragedy and creating such a brilliant phoenix to rise from the ashes of a terrible mixed metaphor on my part. The performance is dedicated to Tim Pigott-Smith, whom I only saw on stage once, ten years ago, playing Henry Higgins in Pygmalion at the Oxford Playhouse and damn good he was too.

DOAS1I’ve also only seen Death of a Salesman once before, back in 1979 at the National Theatre with Warren Mitchell as Willy Loman. I remember it like it was yesterday, and as you can imagine, Warren Mitchell was all kinds of special. But I do also remember that the production itself was a little iffy; I didn’t believe the characterisations of Biff and Happy at all, and by trying to use up all the large Lyttelton stage, it just all felt a bit thin. No such problem here, with this magnificent production by Abigail Graham, where all Willy’s hopes and aspirations, his past and present relationships with his wife and his sons, his humiliating dismissal by his boss, and his sordid little affair all take place inside a claustrophobic boxed set, which really emphasises what a little person Willy Loman is. The lights may proclaim “Land of the Free”, in homage to Willy’s pursuit of the American Dream, but they have a tendency to short-circuit and fail; and when the Lomans are finally “free” – of their biggest debt of all, the mortgage – Linda’s there to endure it on her own.

DOAS2Like many others, I read it at school; and judging from the number of (very well-behaved) students in the Royal last night, it’s not going to be leaving the syllabus any time soon. You couldn’t describe it as Arthur Miller’s masterpiece; but it’s a very fine piece of writing nonetheless and in Willy Loman he created a memorable figure of the little cog in the big wheel, who regrettably deludes himself into thinking he’s a much bigger cog. A mass of self-contradictions (“Biff is a lazy bum!” “one thing about Biff – he’s not lazy”); blind to the faults of his beloved older son (indolence, kleptomania, law-breaking); ignoring the approaches of his younger son (“I’m losing weight, you notice, Pop?”); intolerant of his wife Linda’s interjections, biting the hand that feeds him, sucking up to a system that has destroyed him, and living up to the maxim that it isn’t enough to be liked, you have to be well-liked – Willy Loman is one helluva creation.

DOAS3Older son Biff, too, is a chip off the old block, although both of them would absolutely deny it. A fantasist, chasing the American Dream in his own, more lethargic way, envisioning a world where he and Hap can work together without actually having to work. Whereas Willy would go away for weeks on end selling as hard as he could, Biff would rather get up late and cross his fingers. They all want the trappings of the American Dream, but only Willy spends his life actively trying to achieve it; and largely failing, as all the HP payments on the various household items seem to be in a constant state of arrears. Happy will go along with anything so long as there are girls involved.

DOAS4If there was ever any doubt that Nicholas Woodeson’s performance as Willy would be under some kind of Tim Pigott-Smith shadow, that doubt is cleared within one nanosecond of Mr Woodeson struggling home from a terrible day at work, through the auditorium, up the stairs, and pausing before walking on to the stage. He immediately grabs our attention and doesn’t let go for the next three hours. Railing against the injustices of the world, this Willy is very realistic, very true-to-life; his flights of fancy and his excursions into reminiscence come across as the early stages of dementia. With the small enclosed set, there’s nowhere for these vivid flashbacks to go other than right in our faces, making them seem even more like reality and less like mere memories. This Willy Loman is visibly captivated by the romance of the American Dream; when his sons outline a possible plan his eyes slowly light up and widen as he grasps the hope it offers with all his mettle. When the grandeur inevitably gives way to the inconsequent, he barks his bitterness furiously like an abused dog. It’s a fantastic performance; very powerful, incredibly moving, totally pathetic (in the best meaning of the word).

DOAS5Watching George Taylor’s performance as Biff made me realise this was the first time I’d really appreciated quite how damaged the character is. He suffers mental fallout following his unfortunate dropping in on his dad and Miss Francis in a hotel in Boston in a beautifully played scene by Connie Walker, refusing to go anywhere without her new nylons, and Mr Taylor, dumbstruck into almost a coma of confusion. Mr Taylor looks like the great American hope with his football prowess and his Uni of Virginia trainers, but strip a layer of veneer away and he’s just the sad case waiting five hours at Bill Oliver’s office without hope of recognition. Mr Taylor takes you on Biff’s journey of self-realisation; you hope it’s not all self-delusion but when it so obviously is, he makes you appreciate what a straightforward no-hoper Biff is. I thought he was superb.

DOAS6Tricia Kelly’s Linda is long-suffering, optimistic, and above all, undemanding of any real attention from her husband. When he returns at the beginning of the play, she neither offers nor expects any warmth from him; yet she remains completely loyal to him throughout, in sharp contrast to his affair which we assume she never finds out about. I very much enjoyed her scenes with the sons when she finally starts to bite back at them for their thoughtlessness. Ben Deery is excellent as Happy, always the sidekick in the younger days, now the debonair smoothie setting up the girls for a night on the town. All the minor roles were very well performed, particularly the aforementioned Connie Walker, all barely concealed sexual naughtiness, and Thom Tuck as the self-centred Howard, droning on about his family voice recordings and dismissing Willy without a thought.

DOAS7A superb production – and a true testament to the idea that the show must go on. It’s halfway through its tour at the moment, with Edinburgh, Truro, Guildford and Oxford still to come. A must-see.

P. S. “So how did he die?” asked Mrs Chrisparkle as we walked home afterwards. “Well, he…” I replied, but then stopped short. I cast my mind back. Actually, how did he die? He seemed to just stop, and drop. Heart attack? Arthur Miller has him driving hell-for-leather into a crash in the goddam Studebaker, but there was none of that here. But somehow it doesn’t matter. You know Willy’s going to die from the moment you first read the first word of the title. That’s no surprise. The production takes the deliberate view that how Willy dies is the least important thing in his story. And I’m rather inclined to agree.

Production photos by Manuel Harlan

Review – Upfront Comedy – Comedy Summerslam, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 2nd June 2017

Upfront ComedyA brand new venture for us – going to see the comedy show promoted by Upfront Comedy, in the Royal Theatre. I know they’ve visited a couple of times in the past, and I thought, shall I? shan’t I? and I didn’t. More fool me, because Mrs Chrisparkle and I enjoyed two and a half hours of consistently fantastic comedy from some amazing purveyors of the comic commodity!

John SimmitIt’s hosted by John Simmit, who’s done many great things but the only question anyone asks him about is “What’s it like playing Dipsy?” He has a very funny routine about being offered the job – and talks about the success of the Teletubbies show with deserved pride. He’s a very welcoming host and if he has a specialist subject, it would be comedy dancing, taking us all back to our childhoods. He noted that we were a “mixed” audience; not something I’d particularly thought about but he felt it might bring its own challenges as the night wore on – I hope those challenges were all good ones. I also loved his observations about the other show on at the Royal and Derngate that night – That’ll Be The Day (Lord and Lady Prosecco were in attendance) – and how the foyers were full of 75-year-olds with Elvis quiffs.

Mickey SharmaOur first act was Mickey Sharma; in fact, his was the name on the line-up that swung it for me, as I’d read about him in Edinburgh and he was on our long list for last year’s shows; but didn’t quite make it to the short list. What a funny man! Moreover, what an extraordinary voice he has. Mrs C was sent into a blissful cocoon of velvety warmth and kept on going on about his timbre, whatever that is. I do hope he makes a lot of money from voiceovers.

There is something slightly challenging, slightly edgy about his stage persona; he’s not just your usual chap down the pub like the other comics in this line-up. He’s more thoughtful, more calculating; and that makes for a great routine as you can never predict where he’s going to go next. I loved his explanation of his first name, and how it fits in with the rest of his family; his slightly awkward relationship with his wife – particularly when she asks him about trying a threesome; and his explorations of sexy dancing are hilarious. Late arrival Nick tried to upstage him; foolish boy. Mr Sharma certainly knows how to handle the heckles. We both thought he was brilliant and would definitely see him again.

Aurie StylaOur next act, and billed as “internet viral sensation” (so why haven’t I heard of him?), was Aurie Styla. Funny name – sounds like a small but vital element of an old hi-fi system. But he’s a funny guy; no doubt about it, he comes out on stage, grabs us by the metaphysical throat and doesn’t let go for the full half hour. He has brilliant material about his strict family upbringing in comparison with the wimpy weakness of today’s parents; his characterisation of his mum “dealing” with him is fantastic. He tells us all about his horrendous trip to Jamaica – and I think I’ve changed my mind about wanting to go there. There was a wonderful faux pas laugh from one of the young ladies in front of us when Mr Styla said Baa Baa Black Sheep was all about the slave trade. When she realised what she’d done the poor girl was mortified. Mr S is a really likeable guy and we really enjoyed his set. I met him in the interval and bought one of his DVDs for £5. He had an offer of two for £10 but I declined his generosity.

Maureen YoungerAfter the aforementioned interval, our next act was Maureen Younger. She’s the only one on the bill whom we’d seen before, at Screaming Blue Murder in the Underground next door four years ago. She’s another really naturally funny person, with plenty of self-deprecating material about her size (formidable) and her preference for the physical over the cerebral. She has a lot of funny things to say about race and sex, in all its shapes and sizes, and she fits into this format like a glove. She gears quite a lot of her material towards the women in the audience – and the women in our audience really appreciated it!

Curtis WalkerOur final act was Curtis Walker; I’ve heard of him, but never seen him; no, we never watched The Real McCoy, sorry. However, it was clear that everyone else in the audience had not only heard of him but adored him – the wave of warmth to greet him was palpable! I’ve no doubt that Mr Walker had a wealth of material up his sleeve but all he had to do was bounce off the audience – and he was hysterical. He met Jermaine, in the front row – and gave us a great visual reminder of why he would have been given that name; he met Lisa, the kick boxer with the older husband (I mean, no! father) (embarrassing, what?) He explained why he was called Curtis – it was his mother’s maiden name. Shortly afterwards, upstaging Nick piped up with the question, was he named after Tony Curtis…? NO! We all said, and Nick got a little shirty after that. Mr W has a warm, natural, but quite mischievous stage presence and he absolutely Upfront-bannerheld us in the palm of his hand.

A sensational night of comedy; we both thought it was outstanding value for money and all the performers were on superbly top form. I hope it’s not long till the next one!

Review – Dispensable, March Theatre Company, University of Northampton Flash Festival, Hazelrigg House, Northampton, 26th May 2017

March TheatreThe soldier: the man on whom everyone relies; his fighting colleagues, his Generals and Field Marshals, his countrymen. The man whom we expect, as a nation, to lay down his life for us if need be. The man who, when he comes home, may face many forms of hardship, both financial and mental. And although the nature of warfare may change over the decades and the centuries, the individual experience of the soldier up close to the fighting remains the same – the ultimate test of strength, will, self-belief, cunning, and sheer brassneck.

Ruark GouldI’m aware that I’ve described my impression of a soldier at war in purely masculine terms; that’s not to decry female soldiers, it’s just that Dispensable is Ruark Gould’s one-man play and therefore depicts the soldier as a man. He is a man of the past, the present and the future; and this play unites all three to convey just some of the emotions and experiences they have to endure.

In the tiny vault in the basement at Hazlerigg House, the audience sat in two rows, traverse style, as we watched the soldier in his natural environment. It could be a dug-out, a cave, an underground office; the acting space and the performance really complemented each other, and Mr Gould made exceptional use of it to play out the characters’ frustrations, agonies, exercises, and indeed, deaths. Our imagination had to do a lot of the work, but it certainly paid off.

DispensableAn intriguing performance, with a fascinating music choice to reflect soldiers of all the ages. Technically, I admired Mr Gould’s weapon handling – although I expect if he’d held the butt of his rifle it would have literally gone through the roof. I also appreciated the excellent clarity of his vocal delivery – I don’t always hear everything (getting on, I guess!) so it’s great to be able to relish every word. Structurally, I felt there were a lot of very short scenes, and maybe the audience would have felt even more involved with fewer, longer scenes, just so that they have time to identify with the soldier and the situation he’s facing. Just a small quibble. But overall, I thought it was fascinating, thought-provoking, and very well performed.

Flash FestivalP. S. I saw this show on Friday afternoon, 26th May and it was the last Flash Festival show for me this year – I saw all fifteen! Thanks to everyone who worked their hardest to make it a success, from the organisers to the performers, the techies and everyone behind the scenes. It was an amazing four days and I saw some superb talent. Best of luck to everyone for your future careers!

Review – Click Here, Stern Mystics Theatre Company, University of Northampton Flash Festival, St Peter’s Church, Northampton, 26th May 2017

Click HereA Parkinsons’ sufferer is drawn into crime against his better judgment simply to receive a drug to alleviate his symptoms; a young loafer is forced to work against his will for his philandering prospective brother-in-law; a neo-Nazi blogger is willingly interviewed about his beliefs, but his own life experience makes him change his opinion. These three separate strands weave together in a play that challenges perceptions of what’s right and what’s wrong, and asks, how far down the line will you go to do the wrong thing in the pursuit of the right?

Tom GarlandI have a theory that all the best works of art, literature, and so on are those where the writer/artist didn’t know where it was going to end up and let his characters decide for him. I got the feeling, as this play progressed, that this was the case with this play. I think perhaps it started with the theme of somehow exploring the dark web and its uses/users but the characters and their relationships were strong and very realistic, and I can imagine they really took control and moved the story on to a very different final place. Whether I got that right or not, I really enjoyed the journey that these actors and their characters took us on; it was fascinating to see which characters would gain redemption, which would be punished for their ills, which would get off scot-free, and so on. I found it really engrossing, and didn’t want it to end.

Tom Garland gave us a very credible characterisation of the decent, if a bit lazy, young man who ends up working for his brother-in-law-to-be only to find out that the latter drops his trousers at the first sight of skirt; but who is basically blackmailed into keeping quiet about it – not that his cantankerous father would believe him anyway. He’s a very good example of someone who is almost too decent for their own good. He also took perhaps the least interesting role, that of the journalist interviewing the neo-Nazi, but maybe it was his straightforward, open nature that allowed his interview subject to open up so honestly.

Matt KitsonMatt Kitson was excellent as the Nazi – spouting off offensive words as though they were mere platitudes – which certainly sounded uncomfortable in the church – whilst still being exceedingly polite and mild-mannered; that characterisation was a really interesting concept. I enjoyed seeing him going through his self-questioning phase, and found his final incarnation, partying with his new eastern European friend to the beat of Polski Pop, both believable and really endearing! He also did an excellent job as the Parkinson’s sufferer’s mate; the opening scene where he is trying to be supportive, despite being rejected by his friend, due to the friend’s own frustrations and anger, was totally credible and indeed I recognised myself in the same situation in the past. A very good performance.

Chris DrewPerhaps strongest of all was Chris Drew, as the guy with Parkinson’s, adopting the symptoms with true accuracy, expressing his irritation and resentment at what the disease has done to him. I loved the way he took us through the character’s trials and tribulations and how we all came out on the other side together. He was also excellent as the volatile father, refusing to listen to sense, and also in the minor roles of the Office Supervisor and the Polish Pal. For each role he adopted a clearly different voice and accent and they’re all superb.

Definitely one of the most absorbing plays in the Festival, combined with three excellent performances. Perhaps this could be developed more and maybe have a new life in the future? I would hope so!

Review – Exposure, Imagine That Theatre Company, University of Northampton Flash Festival, St Peter’s Church, Northampton, 25th May 2017

Dorian GrayImagine That Theatre Company present The Picture of Dorian Gray in the style of the Mischief Theatre Company presenting The Play That Goes Wrong. It’s the age-old story of the picture in the attic that gets witheringly older whilst the dashing Dorian remains his old handsome self. I too am practising this art; sadly, both me and my portrait are ageing visibly so something’s going wrong. Not as much that goes wrong with the Imagine That Theatre Company’s version, of course.

Dorian Gray was never like thisUnlike every other production in the Flash Festival, with the possible exception of The Time Travel Tour, this is the only one that has no pretence to anything serious whatsoever. No sirree. This is played purely for laughs, which is much harder than it looks. Frequently humour emerges organically out of serious subject matter. But to make your audience laugh at what is almost exclusively slapstick or the ridiculous is a tough call, and to write the perfect slapstick vehicle for these five talented actors would probably take ten times as much effort and time than they probably had all year. So, inevitably the play was a little patchy, with some sequences that were genuinely hilarious and some that were borderline tiresome.

So I’m going to dwell on all the good things! The largely improvised (at least I think it was) opening scene with Lewis Hodson and Lee Hancock as Roger and Colin looking for each other was absolutely brilliant. Mr Hodson has a wonderful po-faced expression that can take on so many different meanings with just a twitch of an eyebrow – a real gift that he used to excellent advantage. How can just idly repositioning the flats and then accidentally screaming at the unexpected sight of an audience be so funny? He makes it so. Lee Hancock too, listens out for a tiny giggle from the audience and then bounds over to them with the biggest intimidating glare to stop them from laughing – so they laugh more, much to his growing fury. Messrs Hodson and Hancock aimlessly chased each other all round the set for ages – probably about ten minutes; totally pointless, absolutely hysterical.

Imagine That castOther good things: I really enjoyed the overall performance of Lauren Scott as she flipped from being the stern Dorian Gray (think Gabrielle Glaister as Bob in Blackadder II) to being herself (or at least the actor playing herself playing Gray. I think.) She was all roister-doister one minute and girly-pearly the next; very nicely done. I also liked the on-off relationship between her and narrator/boss Hans Oldham (or the actor playing Hans Oldham… you get the picture) – including a very nice moment when he’d pushed his luck too far and she wasn’t having any of it. I enjoyed Ben Barton’s performance as the easily hurt and not-very-good stand-in actor from the Local Actor’s Society; his splendidly vacant expression smeared with half-on/half-off lipstick is the stuff of nightmares.

Imagine that cast 2The performance was clearly inspired by the group’s visit to The Play That Goes Wrong, and maybe the whole thing lost a little originality as a consequence. Don’t get me wrong, there was a lot of content in here – comedy idea after comedy idea meant there was possibly too much; the phrase less is more occasionally came into my mind. There was one repeated gag that really got on my nerves, and the whole thing could have done with a punchier ending. However, there’s no doubting it was very funny, the very likeable cast worked their socks off to please us and it was met with virtually maniacal laughter from the audience. This was a hard job but they did it well, and you can’t look back on it without a big smile on your face.

Review – The Powers That Be, Tangled Spines Theatre Company, University of Northampton Flash Festival, St Peter’s Church, Northampton, 25th May 2017

Tangled SpinesI’d never heard of Luke Rhinehart’s best-selling book The Dice Man – so I came to Tangled Spines’ homage to the story without any preconceptions. To live one’s life purely by chance is a most terrifying thing, as Rhinehart’s self-named lead character does; and creates some appalling outcomes that make your flesh crawl. After an initial (and highly entertaining) dance/movement sequence that previews the first part of the story, one of the first things we see Steven Croydon’s Luke Rhinehart do is his to throw the dice to determine whether he will rape his mistress. The die is cast; he notes the result (he doesn’t tell the audience); and the next thing you know he’s calmly and coolly admitting to his victim that he’s going to rape her. She doesn’t appear to object. In real life, this would all be unspeakably appalling; in the context of a theatrical presentation, it’s chillingly fascinating.

As the story develops, you realise Rhinehart is up to his neck in it – and he always seeks the solution by rolling the dice. He ruins his marriage, he endangers his son, he destroys relationships and he commits a helluva lot of crime. Rhinehart’s addiction to the dice becomes his own religious mania, and also shown to be the complete opposite of faith; and I enjoyed the symbolism of Mr Croydon adopting a crucifixion pose lying on the ground. However, I confess I didn’t The Powers That Beunderstand the relevance of the quotes at the beginning of the show from T S Eliot’s Burnt Norton – maybe that’s in Rhinehart’s original.

Mr Croydon’s subtle and rather subversive performance gives you a fascinating insight into Rhinehart’s soul and how black it looks there, sneakily checking the dice in his hand behind his wife’s back, always having the aces up his sleeve; quietly but firmly refusing to give a damn for anyone, including himself. Jack James gives a dynamic performance as his hearty friend and colleague (without a programme I can’t remember the characters’ names, sorry!) and he also transformed brilliantly into his mischievous but very trusting son. Jennifer Wyndham was excellent as the two abused women in Rhinehart’s life – his wife and his mistress – coping admirably with the physicality of the performance whilst being on crutches “in real life” – a great advertisement for The Show Must Go On.

Tangled spines castFast paced, exciting to watch, and compellingly staged in traverse to heighten our involvement; three excellent performances and an intriguing play to keep us enthralled throughout the whole hour. One of the highlights of this year’s Flash Festival.