Review – Richard Alston Dance Company, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 16th October 2018

Richard Alston October 2018It’s always a pleasure to see the Richard Alston Dance Company on their autumn tour – I’ve been a fan (there’s no point denying it) since I first saw the company in 1998, although I’ve enjoyed his choreography since I first saw Rambert perform Rainbow Ripples back in 1980. The word on the street is that this is his penultimate annual tour before the company closes in 2020 – dark days ahead for contemporary dance lovers; particularly as the current casting of the company has many new fresh-faced young dancers honing their skills, performing great dance and promising even greater things in the future.

Richard AlstonMr Alston introduced the evening with an explanation of the first two items on the menu. Like last year, we began with a curtain raiser featuring young local talent. We watched eight young dancers from Northampton School for Boys performing Lost Child, choreographed by their teacher, Alison Clinton, inspired by the story of Peter Pan. We were genuinely impressed with their commitment, skill and artistry. It was full of character and story-telling, and dotted with many moments of humour; and some terrific leaps too. Above all, you could tell that they really enjoyed it; and that sense of pleasure always communicates itself back on to the audience so that we loved it too. Congratulations team; we were happy to tell a couple of the guys during the first interval how much we enjoyed their performance – and they seemed happy to hear it.

ShimmerMr Alston also wanted to explain the thought process behind the next piece, Mid Century Modern. To celebrate his fifty years as a choreographer, this is like an Alston’s Greatest Hits sequence; six excerpts from dances he has choreographed over the years. They’re not in chronological order, they’re ordered to create a contrasting impact. It’s also an excellent way to introduce us to the company, as two of the pieces are solos, another is a duet, and the rest involve everyone.

DetourWe started with Fever (2001), a showcase for Elly Braund and Nicholas Shikkis, amongst the very finest dancers performing today. They commanded the stage with their immense control and fluidity; totally engrossed with the accompanying madrigal music. Nowhere Slowly (1970) is Mr Alston’s earliest extant piece of choreography, and features the excellent Jennifer Hayes encircling the stage in a deceptively simple action of dance drama. Blue Schubert Fragments (1972), set to a Schubert Adagio from Death and the Maiden, is a charming piece that suggests how peoples’ lives can be interwoven by the same activity. The excerpt from Rainbow Bandit (1977) was danced in total silence and shows how concentration itself can be beautiful – I would have loved to hear the “Rainbow Chuck Bandit” vocal soundtrack again though! The solo from Shimmer (2004) is a monument to elegance, and a perfect vehicle for new company rising star Joshua Harriette. Finally there was a sequence from Signal of a Shake (1999), one of those crowd-pleasing numbers where the story was told twice – the second time at top speed – to the stately sounds of Handel. The variety of styles and the superb execution made this an excellent opener to the Alston programme.

ProverbAfter the first interval we returned for Martin Lawrance’s new work, Detour. Seven dancers react to the highly percussive soundtrack from Michael Gordon’s Timber Remixed, which reminded me of the sound of helicopter wings revolving continually, more frenetically, until the sound was just an electronic blur. Very exciting and mesmerically beautiful, this demands a lot from its dancers, combining speed with elegance as it hurtles towards its final crescendo. The final coupling of Monique Jonas and Joshua Harriette was mind-blowing, with their almost circus-skill balancing act. We both absolutely loved it. Then it was time for Richard Alston’s 2006 work, Proverb, with its intriguing soundtrack of the repeated line “how small a thought it takes to fill a whole life”, embellished and enhanced so that it resembles some form of Gregorian Chant. I particularly appreciated Peter Todd’s costumes – coloured, textured dresses that had been invaded by black down one side, as though in perpetual half-mourning. The full company of dancers all worked together to create an image of interdependence and harmony; a heart-warming message in these rather fractious times.

Brahms HungarianAfter the second interval we returned for another new piece – Richard Alston’s Brahms Hungarian, a sequence of ten dances to the accompaniment of those famous Brahms’ Hungarian Dances but not, as they usually are, played by a full orchestra, but to the plaintive and delicate notes of Jason Ridgway on the piano. This was a fabulous way to end the evening. The traditional Gypsy rhythms inspired some very grand and formal, yet expressive, choreography; and I admired Fotini Dinou’s swirling floral dresses for the female dancers, matched by stark and smart angular jackets for the men. I think this is the closest I’ve seen Richard Alston choreograph something so closely akin to classical ballet, with the girls on tiptoe (they’d be en pointe if they were in the right shoes) and the men supporting the women in an (almost) traditional pas de deux. It was stunning.

 Brahms Hungarian 2With a number of changes in personnel in the company’s line-up (five dancers from last year’s show have moved on, five remained) I feared there might be some “gaps” in this year’s offering, but not a bit of it. The company is as strong as ever and gave us a truly superb night of dance. Congratulations to all!

Review – The Thirteenth Malcolm Arnold Festival Gala Concert – The Consummate Communicator; BBC Concert Orchestra, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 14th October 2018

Thirteenth Malcolm Arnold FestivalThe annual Gala Concert of the Malcolm Arnold Festival is always a thing of beauty and a delight to the ear. Northampton’s famous son turned his hand to so many different styles of music, that it’s great to cherish this festival. It’s inevitably a source of great fascination to hear some pieces you haven’t heard before, and to admire his mix of quirkiness and solemnity. For this concert by the BBC Concert Orchestra, our conductor was Keith Lockhart, a dapper chap with a spring in his step who let the music do the talking. He spent most of his time perched atop a rather battered wooden podium that looked as though it had just come out of a shed, which didn’t really suit the glamour of the rest of the evening. When Mr Lockhart becomes engrossed in his music, his left foot starts to twitch and bounces around in appreciation of the music. When he gets really carried away, he does a series of jumps. Performance clearly oozes through every pore of him.

Keith LockhartOur first item was Leonard Bernstein’s Symphonic Dances – West Side Story, and, as far as I’m concerned, definitely the best way to hear these uplifting tunes. Somewhere, Maria and I Have a Love dominate these symphonic dances, and the percussion and harp demand to be heard in addition to the usual string and brass instruments. The BCO were clearly in the mood for a lively evening of energetic playing and this piece brought out their showbizzy side; the performance went down a treat with the audience.

Julian BlissNext, we met our soloist for the evening, the brilliant clarinettist, Julian Bliss. We’ve seen Mr Bliss perform at the Royal and Derngate three times before, once with the Royal Philharmonic, and twice with the Worthing Symphony Orchestra as part of the Malcolm Arnold Festival in 2013 and 2014. For this concert, once again he played us something different. First up was a Scherzetto for Clarinet and Orchestra by Arnold, taken from his film score for the 1953 movie You Know What Sailors Are. The film is probably best forgotten, but the scherzetto is a brilliant little musical joke; a tune that cocks its head to one side, pokes its tongue out and saucily lifts its leg up. Mr Bliss played it with all the panache you’d expect.

BBC Concert OrchestraThen he played the more thoughtful and introspective Clarinet Concerto by Aaron Copland – appropriate for this concert because Copland and Arnold were great friends. Two movements are joined by a cadenza, which Mr Bliss attacked with gusto. How he remembers all the nuances of the music – let alone the notes – without any sheet music beats me. It’s an engrossing piece and sometimes you wonder how the clarinet part and the orchestra part mesh together, but they always manage it. A very moving and rewarding way to guide us to the interval.

malcolm-arnoldAfter the interval, we had a short speech from Paul Harris, the Festival Director, giving us a little extra insight into the pieces and the reasons why they were chosen for this concert. After a brief hiatus where the leader of the orchestra forgot to tune his colleagues up until he got a nudge from the violins behind (I have to say, orchestra leaders are getting younger every year) we welcomed back Mr Lockhart and went straight into our final piece, Malcolm Arnold’s 4th Symphony. In 1958, Britain saw race riots which affected Arnold deeply; he was dismayed and upset that such a thing could happen. So when he was commissioned to write a symphony the following year, he decided to involve instruments and rhythms that would have been more associated with African and Caribbean music, but integrating them into the formality of a “western” symphony, to show how the two can happily co-exist.

BBC COThe result is a lively and wide-ranging symphony, given additional depths by the African and Caribbean elements. Mr Harris told us to watch out for Puerto Rican influences too, which is why the West Side Story piece fitted into the evening’s entertainment. I must say, I couldn’t really discern much of a West Side Story vibe, but I’m sure that’s my ears not working properly. Of its four movements, I much preferred the second (vivace ma non troppo) and the fourth (con fuoco – a lot of fuoco in fact.) There was a disturbing calm about the second movement – expressed beautifully by the orchestra– which reminded me of one of Arnold’s English Dances, but as though it had been fragmented, and half the notes removed to leave a ghostly hint of the original. The fourth was full of power and amazingly lush arrangements on which the orchestra truly went to town.

As always, the Malcolm Arnold Festival Gala Concert was a complete treat, and an essential part of the Royal and Derngate’s classical offerings of the year.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 12th October 2018

Screaming Blue MurderAnother Friday night, another sold-out Screaming Blue Murder comedy club night. Last time, our genial host Dan Evans never made it to Northampton as his old jalopy gave up the ghost at Milton Keynes, and Meryl O’Rourke bravely stepped up to the mark. But lightning never strikes twice, etc, so surely he’d be there on time this week….surely…. But a 45-minute delay on the trains meant we were denied the pleasure of Dan’s company until the first interval. I dunno…. beginning to get a complex here.

Joe WellsInstead it fell to opening act and all-round political comedian par excellence, Joe Wells, to act as his own MC warm up before delivering his own 20-minute slot. With Mr Wells, you’re in a very safe pair of hands. We’ve seen him twice in Edinburgh, where you have to queue early to be sure of getting in, such is his word-of-mouth success. Us Northampton comedy crowds aren’t known for our fondness for political comedy, so I did wonder a little how well he would go down. I needn’t have worried. His brilliant political observations, as well as the other gems in his act were as well received as I have ever seen any Northampton audience respond to political comedy. What I love about his material, and his delivery, is the way he swipes the comedic rug from under your feet and sends you hurtling in directions you never foresaw. And hats off to Mr Wells for being complimentary about Northampton. Quite right too.

Dan EvansAfter the first interval Dan finally emerged out of the murkiness that is London Northwestern Railway to give us a slightly belated warm up. He had his hands full with front-row Angie, ebullient and no inhibitions, and they were a pretty good match for each other. There was also Architect Nick with his plans for a million-pound rugby club in Towcester. We weren’t impressed. But we were all aghast at Dan’s tale of the delay at Wolverton station being punctuated by the sight and sound of a guy opposite him in the train clipping his nails; not discreetly into a free newspaper but proudly on to the floor. We all retched.

Susan MurrayNext up was someone we’ve also seen before a few times, Susan Murray – something of a Screaming Blue regular, this was the sixth time we’ve seen her here! She delivers a lot of great material based on accents – as she herself confesses, her Brummie voice isn’t an accent that goes skiing – and there’s a lot of mileage to be gained from her relationship with her strongly Glaswegian parents. She delivered a suitably savage put down to front-row Angie which hit home perfectly. Always very funny and quirky.

Stefano PaoliniOur headline act was someone completely new to us – although he’s been on the circuit for yonks – Stefano Paolini. He truly does have a gift for accents and vocal gymnastics, and we loved his “foreign languages in British regional accents” section, as well as his reminiscences of his interview with the school careers adviser, which were every bit as useless as mine was all those years ago. And he beatboxes – but not just in a show-off way like every other beatboxer, but integrating it into comedy routines which works a treat. He brought the house down and I’d definitely look out for him in the future.

Next Screaming Blue in two weeks’ time. Two questions – will you be there? And will Dan?

Review – Touching the Void, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 9th October 2018

Touching the VoidThis is, by necessity, so full of spoilers that I really should warn you before you read it!

As usual, I discover that Mrs Chrisparkle and I are one of the few people never to have read Joe Simpson’s Touching the Void, nor seen the film, nor even heard of it. For someone who likes to think they have their finger on the cultural pulse, I do sometimes wonder at my own ignorance. Anyway, you, gentle reader, will already know this is an extraordinary true-life account of mountaineer Joe’s very near-death experience as he survived in a glacier with a broken leg with Touching the Void 4neither food, water nor company for three days on the Siula Grande in the Peruvian Andes in 1985. All I knew was that it was a book, written by and about the central character, inspired by his experience. I did not know that it was 100% factual; I thought perhaps it was part true-life, part fiction. So, when everyone else in the theatre knew that, somehow, at the end of the play, he would survive… I didn’t.

Touching the void 5To take a book like this and recreate it on a stage takes true vision and bravery, and the whole creative team of writer David Greig, director Tom Morris, designer Ti Green, lighting designer Chris Davey, composer Jon Nicholls and movement director Sasha Milavic Davies have done an extraordinary job of bringing the story to life without actually having to take us to a perilous part of Peru. You very much get the impression of this being a stage representation of a Hollywood Adventure Blockbuster; characters helplessly half-suspended from a hostile snow-covered mountain, with the wind and the rain pounding against them, and, just like you would in the movies, you find yourself chewing your fingers with tension to see how they’re going to get out of this situation – if they can.

Touching the void 9Much of what happens in the play takes place inside Joe Simpson’s head – even if we don’t realise it at the time – so the lines between reality and hallucination are thoroughly blurred. The use of humdrum day-to-day items to represent aspects of the mountain terrain – chairs, pub trays, a Gents sign, even a juke-box, help merge the ordinary with the extraordinary, to create a fascinating contrast. The staging and ideas are very inventive – for example, we both loved the use of peanuts as models! Tom Morris’ direction keeps us guessing on the finer details of the story right until the very end; and David Greig has found a way of staging a Scottish pub alongside a Peruvian mountain, with great delicacy and insight; he’s also fleshed out some fascinating characters, and given them some great lines.

Touching the void 8Ti Green’s central masterpiece – her abstract impression of a mountain and glacier, constructed as a floating frame with white paper and material fixed to it – occupies your mind superbly as you wonder how on earth anyone could navigate through it. One truly thrilling effect is how they have repositioned gravity, so that if anything falls downwards, like a rope, or a man, it actually flies out through the back wall. Touching the Void 12This plays a marvellous visual trick with your brain and gives you an additional sense of the dangers risked by the mountaineers. Jon Nicholls’ haunting and luscious themes swell in to the action not unlike the dramatic background music in a David Attenborough programme – and Joe Simpson’s own Desert Island Discs choices also make themselves felt at odd moments during the play.

Touching the Void 7How often have you been to the theatre and said to yourself, well the second half was much better than the first…. It seems to me that basic dramatic structure requires for an escalation in tension, excitement, humour, farce, horror, whatever, to keep our attention and excitement… and as a result you expect a show to get better as it goes on. This was one of those rare occasions when the reverse is true. The sheer drama and theatrical electricity of the portrayal of Joe and Simon’s tackling the Siula Grande, with their death-defying climbing over the mountain and glacier is edge-of-your-seat stuff.Touching-The-Void-2 Combined with Richard’s thrilling commentary of every step they took, where his microphone becomes more augmented and distorted and more terrifyingly unreal as it goes on, the first act culminates in a truly gripping scene that stays in your mind for ages afterwards. It certainly stopped Mrs C and I having a good night’s sleep that night! So you go into the interval literally speechless at the brilliance you have just witnessed.

Touching the Void 13Here comes the controversial bit. The downside to this, sadly, is that the second act, which mainly consists of Joe’s resilient attempts to stay alive when there is simply no hope, is quite static and repetitive in comparison, and – it grieves me to say this, because I feel really mean-spirited with such a visionary production – I got bored. So did Mrs C. The man next to me who was riveted in the first act, was fast asleep. I don’t think the extra-long interval helps, as the momentum that had been built up certainly weakens. The fact is, there are only so many times you can watch a man slowly crawl on the floor, screaming in agony and making unintelligible “muguhumptftuwumpf” sounds before you begin to drift off. Touching the Void 3I understand this is true to the book and to the film; and if the poor man did spend all that time on his own just surviving through sheer determination, then how else can you depict it on stage? But the truth remains that the huge adrenaline surge you get at the end of the first act just dissipates away during the second. So my reaction at the end of the play was simply “all that…. and he lived??” – which Mrs C said was probably one of the least gracious comments ever to be made about someone’s survival against all odds.

Touching the Void 11However, there are so many positive things about the extraordinary stagecraft of this production that I couldn’t possibly be grumpy about it. And all the performances are of suitably epic, or near-epic, proportions. Josh Williams gives a wonderfully optimistic and adventurous performance as Joe; you can just imagine that he would be the kind of charismatic guy who would talk you into an adventure where you risk your life just for the hell of it. He doesn’t hold back on expressing the pain and anguish of his injury and his plight. And how on earth does he get in and out of that Act Two sleeping bag without us noticing? Some pretty amazing stage magic there!

Touching the Void 10There’s also an excellent performance by Fiona Hampton as his sister Sarah; belligerently refusing to pander to the bland sympathies of Joe’s mountaineering mates, mockingly acting as the voice in Joe’s head encouraging him to find the strength to survive. Patrick McNamee’s Richard is a mild, well-meaning, unambitious dawdler who knows he’s at the bottom of the pecking order, happy to man base-camp if that’s what the alpha males want; and Edward Hayter’s Simon is also keen as mustard in the planning and mountaineering scenes, Touching the void 6until it all goes horribly wrong, when he retreats into his shell. I did feel, however, that he underplayed the moral dilemma of the “cutting the rope” problem. It’s a fascinating question; you have a choice of both dying, or of saving yourself only – what do you do? If ever a play had a Big Issue, this is the one. But I felt that his remorse, such as it was, was no more than if he’d put the bins out late. I’m sure there should have been a lot of angst there that I just didn’t get.

Touching-The-Void-1If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that I always prefer a brave failure to a lazy success. I wouldn’t by any means describe this as a failure because there is so much going for it – and its bravery is beyond question. You should definitely go and see it for yourself and make your own mind up. After it closes in Northampton on October 20th, the tour continues in 2019 to Edinburgh, Perth, Inverness and Hong Kong.

Production photos by Geraint Lewis

Review – Lads Lads Lads, Sara Pascoe, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 30th September 2018

Sara Pascoe Lads Lads LadsHere’s another comedian whom we really should have seen live on stage before now. So far I’ve only ever caught Sara Pascoe on TV game shows and occasionally on the sofa in The Last Leg. She always comes across as a jolly sort, with plenty of brains in there keeping the comedy coming fast and strong. But she also comes across as more than that; a really genuine person, not afraid to let you in to see the less confident and murkier parts of her personality. So I wondered if that’s how she would structure her live stage act.

Answer: on the whole, yes. She has a wonderfully fluid style, pacing her material perfectly, in quite a relaxed, friendly way. She’s not as self-deprecating as some (indeed, she has no reason to be) and in fact is quietly assertive. She says from the start that she’s not the kind of comedian who does lots of “crowd work”, so if you’re expecting it, sorry, but she won’t. In fact, she goes out of her way to say she won’t pick on anyone, she doesn’t mind if you get your phone out, she completely understands that this is just a show and real life goes on outside. I’d hazard to say that’s possibly a unique statement coming out of a comedian’s mouth.

Sara PShe absolutely crams her act with call-backs, and they start falling into place from a very early stage. For example, she tells us that she’s had a number of relationships with men over the years, and afterwards, they all turn vegan. Interesting fact. And then she winds it back into the material several times over the course of the evening. She tells us about a horrendous wedding she went to recently, giving us the name of the bride and groom which I won’t mention here, obviously, and again, she returns to it from all sorts of odd angles several times during the show. Other enjoyable stories that receive serial referrals include the reaction to an Indian takeaway delivery and how she gets on with her personal trainer.

Why Lads Lads Lads? I’m genuinely not sure. OK, she tells us that she’s had quite a lot of them over the past few years, but that’s it, they don’t really play a part in the rest of her material, which is a series of very funny, nicely near-neurotic stories about how she’s managing as a singleton. There’s a lot of great stuff about her yoga retreat in Costa Rica (which isn’t in Spain, apparently), and some very truthful observations about the importance of men paying the bill on a first date – even with the most fervent feminist.

Sara PascoeIt’s not a long evening out – about 100 minutes including a decent interval. But that’s very comfortably paced and planned, and it is a very funny show with lots to discuss with your other half on the way home. Satisfyingly intelligent comedy but with warmth and plenty of human insights. Ms Pascoe’s UK tour continues until the end of November – catch her if you can.

Review – Screaming Blue Murder, Underground at the Derngate, Northampton, 28th September 2018

Screaming Blue MurderBit of a weird Screaming Blue Murder this week! With an incredible line-up announced in advance, and not surprisingly sold out well before the night, there was only one thing that could go wrong… and that was our genial host Dan Evans being trapped halfway en route, on the motorway in a car that wouldn’t go! A few frantic calls hopefully got him safely home but not via Northampton, where he had a show to compere…! So Meryl O’Rourke, who was scheduled to be our opening act, ended up as MC.

Meryl O’RourkeWe’ve seen Ms O’Rourke a number of times before, both as an act and as a commère, and she’s always superb with jokes that involve vaginas and mingling with the crowd; sometimes literally, sometimes both at the same time. However, at first, her sudden change of role seemed to put her off course as she was no longer comfortable using her prepared material in her MC role. As a result, we were a little under-warmed-up for our first act. However, she made up for it after the interval with some brilliant material that had everyone in hysterics. So kudos to Meryl for sticking with it and coming up trumps!

Ian CognitoOur first act, therefore, was the person who I am sure was meant to be the headline act, which again was cause for a little discomfort – primarily on his part. It was the excellent Ian Cognito, who, despite telling us he’s never won any awards, was the recipient of the Screaming Blue Murder Chrisparkle Award for stand-up of the year in both 2015 and 2016. He did his usual faux-aggressive, rough diamond act, with blisteringly funny observations, many of which go so very near the knuckle. He seemed to find a kindred spirit in front-row Reg, the lorry driver, and he even gave him a Kit-Kat after the interval. Amongst his gems, we discovered a new definition of cockney, what’s got a hundred balls and f*cks rabbits, and a charming new sentiment to be tattooed as a tramp stamp. He’s an irresistibly funny man who never lets the energy drop. Because we had basically lost an act over the course of the evening, Mr C did quite a bit longer than his contracted twenty minutes – probably double. A true trooper indeed.

Robert WhiteOur second act, and by default our headline act, is someone else who always gives brilliant value entertainment, Robert White. Despite his very successful recent appearances on Britain’s Got Talent, he’s still the same, quirky, hilarious and ultimately terrifying comic, with his brilliant off-the-top-of-his-head song lyrics and saucy interplay with the guys in the audience. This time it was good old Reg who got up on to the stage to help Robert with his unique version of I’ll Do Anything. No matter how many times you see Mr White he never fails to render you helpless with laughter, and he was on terrific form.

Next Screaming Blue is on 12th October. Hopefully Dan’s car will be working again!

Review – Kinky Boots, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 19th September 2018

Kinky Boots the TourCyndi Lauper and Harvey Fierstein’s musical has been around for a few years now – we saw it at the Adelphi back in December 2015 – and it’s simply poetic justice that its first UK tour should start at its spiritual home here in Northampton. A massive pair of kinky boots hang suspended over the stalls bar at the Royal and Derngate, as if to prove the point! If you want to know what I think about the show itself, the set, the songs, the characters and the story, I can do no better than to refer you to my original review here.

Charlie and NicolaMrs Chrisparkle and I saw the first preview of the UK tour last Wednesday. So how is it looking, three years on, with a new cast, in a new theatre? Is this going to be a successful tour? You bet your kinky boots it will! It’s looking like a million dollars, I reckon $900,000 of which have been spent on the encrusted diamonds on the heel of a boot fit for a Milan catwalk. It’s still a great show, with its warm and life-enhancing message of acceptance and kindness. You still wonder (well I do) how a mild-mannered guy like Charlie Price ended up with such a ruthless girlfriend as Nicola; anyone who wants to tear down a shoe factory and put dozens of people out of work simply to make money by converting them into flats has got to have a streak of cruelty in there somewhere. I still despair (slightly) that it makes Northampton out to be a much worse place than it is; somewhere you escape from rather than somewhere you turn to. I still try to work out how many of the Angels are played by women… it’s still zero.

Real bootsPerhaps this time around, I realised quite how thin the plot is. Ailing shoe factory changes tack and manufactures kinky boots – in other words, fabulous, glamorous 2 feet 6 items of tubular sex that are sturdy enough to take a man’s weight. They take their product to Milan. Err… that’s it. Of course, it’s the character development that is the most interesting; and that’s the character of Lola, because Charlie is a remarkably bland character for a hero. Lola is a fabulous drag queen by night (and by day if she can wangle it) and she’s learned how to handle the tough times when she’s abused on the street (or, indeed, in the workplace). When she’s not Lola, she’s Simon from Clacton, a subdued, underwhelming husk of a man. She’s only comfortable when she kicks reality into touch and takes on her glossy mantle. But then, as we all know, life is always better when you’re in a musical.

Angels and LolaI hadn’t heard the songs again since seeing the show three years ago and I was impressed all over again; and Patrick Hurley’s nine-piece band spreads the joy beautifully with their amazing playing. However, there were times when the music was just a little too loud for the speech – it seems there’s always room to tighten up the balance just a little bit. And without mentioning any names, a couple of the female voices seemed to me way off pitch at times in the first Act; first night nerves no doubt. Anyway, no need to worry, what can seriously go wrong with a performance of Kinky Boots? It’s not as if the conveyor belts on which they dance froze and they had to stop the show!

Big numberNo, wait… that’s exactly what happened. Halfway through the big end of Act 1 number, Everybody Say Yeah, everybody said stop. It felt wrong when the Angels walked in along the conveyor belts looking rather anxious, rather than being propelled in, and, bless them, everyone tried their utmost to make a go of the scene, but pretty quickly the lights went out, the curtain came down and we were all asked to remain in our seats whilst some backstage guys got their spanners out. Unfortunately, Front of House took this as the cue to bring in the interval ice-creams (there was only a minute or so left of the first half to go) so we had the accidentally amusing sight of punters joining massive queues down the aisle only to be told that the show was just about to re-commence, so that they rapidly had to scamper back to their seats, with or without raspberry ripples. Fair play to the cast, who picked it up again halfway through the show, but I had to laugh at a few of their faces revealing a sense of enormous relief when elements of the set finally worked as they were meant to!

Lola and the AngelsAnd what of our new cast? It’s always exciting when you can say that magic phrase a star is born, although I suspect I may be late to that party already. But, in the shape of Callum Francis, this Lola is truly sensational. For sheer stage presence, as well as fantastic singing and being a great little mover, you cannot take your eyes off Mr Francis the entire night. Every time he comes on stage a little voice inside you goes “hurrah, he’s back!” He wins you over in an instant with his brilliant comic timing, engagingly over-the-top expressions, and the kindness and warmth he exudes on stage. Absolutely superb.

Lauren and CharlieIt must be very hard to hold your own against Mr Francis (if you’ll pardon the expression), but Joel Harper-Jackson does a terrific job as Charlie Price, the rather hen-pecked boyfriend who comes into his own as he starts to take responsibility for the factory. Whilst the show is full of brash and snazzy numbers, it was his performance of Soul of a Man that stood out for me as its defining moment.

LaurenThe rest of the ensemble all give great support – Paula Lane’s Lauren is sweetly excitable, Helen Ternent’s Nicola conveys a strong sense of steely determination, Demitri Lampra’s Don is suitably aggressive and there’s a wonderfully funny turn from Adam Price as the senior employee George finally letting his hair down. And of course there’s a brilliant array of Angels – not even Captain Scarlet was that lucky. But everyone gives it their all and turns in a great performance.

On the conveyor beltIt was one of those instant ovation nights – not a slow, semi-unwilling Mexican wave through the audience, but everyone got up like a shot and stayed up. Even more noticeable, after the cast had finally left the stage, no one in the audience showed the slightest interest in leaving the theatre until the band had finished the final note of their outro. That tells its own story as to how much of a good time everyone had.

I think it’s fair to predict that this tour is going to be a massive success!

Photos by Johan Persson – from the West End 2015 production.