Review – The Snowman, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 21st November 2017

The SnowmanNothing to do with Raymond Briggs or choirboys singing Walking in the Air, this Snowman is a lot more lethal. Based on Jo Nesbø’s book of the same name, it features his detective Harry Hole as he investigates a series of murders where the killer always leaves a calling card in the form of a snowman. A real one, built from snow, with two sticky twigs as arms. Unsurprisingly, he tends to rest during the summer months.

Michael FassbenderConfession time – but I sense I might not be alone here – I’ve neither heard of Harry Hole nor of Jo Nesbø, and had no idea that he was like the Norwegian version of Inspector Morse. I only decided to book for this film because I saw the trailer at an earlier visit to the cinema and it looked gripping. I also had no idea that it had been universally panned by the critics, with reviews that include “a mystery that feels as mashed together and perishable as its title” and “a leaden, clotted, exasperating mess”. High praise indeed.

Michael Fassbender and Charlotte GainsbourgI have to say, I think they’re rather harsh comments, because, on the whole, we enjoyed the film. In its favour: first, the excellent cinematography, with those enigmatic, snowy, mountainous wastes of Norway looming gloomily in the distance. I’ve never been to Oslo, but I have had the experience of visiting Tromso and the generally depressing Norwegian urban scenes in the film largely reflected my memory of that miserable city. Second, the suspense: about fifteen minutes into the film, a lady is sitting reading in bed and you suddenly hear a snowball being thrown at her bedroom window. Mrs Chrisparkle jolted with shock so much she almost knocked the Pinot Grigio out of the man’s hand sitting next to her. That’s how suspenseful it is. Third, the opening ten minutes or so plunge you instantly into the story, ending with a very strong visual image that I think I will remember for a long time!

Rebecca FergusonIn its disfavour, and it very nearly ruined it completely for me: in the final reel, as it were, there’s Harry Hole, injured and unable to move, prostrate on the floor, with the killer lumbering up to him ready to deal the final blow that will send him to the land of Old Norse. Well, it’s no spoiler to tell you that Harry survives the ordeal – after all he features in another four books after this one so that’s in the public domain – but the reason the killer fails to silence him forever? Risible. And pathetic. And nonsensical. I’ll say no more.

Chloe SevignyOverall it’s a decent whodunit, but as the film progresses, the identity of the killer becomes more and more apparent (well it did to me, at least.) The killer is fairly obviously the boy in the first scenes, now grown up to be a man. There are three characters who might most likely be that person. One gets murdered halfway through, and another is seen to be somewhere else when the next murder takes place – and, lo and behold, that third person does indeed turn out to be the killer. Ah well, sometimes it’s satisfying to guess right.

J K SimmonsI enjoyed Michael Fassbender as Harry Hole; he’s low key and somewhat dour, but then, he is playing a Norwegian. Reading up on Harry’s characteristics in the books and on a synopsis of the novel, I’d say it was a pretty good interpretation of the role; the chain-smoking and alcoholism are certainly clear. Having said that, there are huge, interesting-sounding aspects of the original book that are nowhere near touched on in the screenplay – an opportunity missed, methinks. Rebecca Ferguson is convincing as Katrine, the detective who’s been brought in alongside Hole to keep him in check; Charlotte Gainsbourg is authoritative and serious as Harry’s ex, Rakel; and there are a few surprising cameos in the supporting cast, including Toby Jones as a police investigator and Anne Reid, would you believe, as a nosey neighbour. Plus there’s a very rough looking Val Kilmer as a now dead detective, frequently returning to interrupt the flow of the investigation. He also just so happens to be Katrine’s dad. Curious.

Val KilmerHow come no one ever saw the killer building the snowmen outside his victims’ houses? I think it must be asked. And how on earth did he manage to shape a snowman on the roof of a car? The cops need to focus their investigation on a man with his own stepladder and mittens. Despite all its shortcomings, I still found it entertaining enough to stay awake (that, gentle reader, is something one should never take for granted) and I generally enjoyed it in the way, I think, that the creative team wanted me to – in other words, taking it seriously and not taking the mick. I do sense though that this is a film that is going to sink without trace in the annals of movie history.

P. S. If you’ve always wanted to hear the Norwegian version of Cliff Richard’s Congratulations, your prayers are answered.

Review – Simon Amstell, What is This, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th November 2017

what+is+thisI’d only previously come across Simon Amstell in the fantastic TV programme Grandma’s House, which Mrs Chrisparkle and I used to watch with regular and loyal expectation. Not only for Mr Amstell’s contribution, but also Rebecca Front, Samantha Spiro, Linda Bassett and the late Geoffrey Hutchings were all on brilliant form. Mr Amstell also co-wrote it, so that’s got to indicate that he’s a bright spark. I realised he also regularly indulged in a spot of stand-up but for reasons that are too dull to mention here, we never got around to seeing him – until now.

But I’m running before I walk. As a support act, Mr Amstell has engaged the services of another bright spark, Mawaan Rizwan. As soon as I read that he would be starting the show, I instantly remembered where I had seen him before; he made a very illuminating documentary for BBC3 entitled How Gay is Pakistan? Answer: not particularly. Apparently, he’s most famous for being a Youtube sensation, but of course I wouldn’t know anything about that.

Mawaan Rizwan 2There’s a similarity between Mr Amstell and Mr Rizwan – they’re both gay. However, there the similarity ends; Mr Amstell is lugubriously gay, whereas Mr Rizwan is effervescently gay. If Alka-Seltzer could turn you gay, they would market Mr Rizwan in soluble form. But whereas a large amount of Mr A’s material centres on his life as a gay man, Mr R plucks hilarious, surreal routines out of absolutely nothing, with his sexuality being largely irrelevant to the material. He rendered a full house helpless with laughter by pelting us with baby wipes, each time giving us a perfectly good reason why we deserved the pelting. He has another routine where he tries out new (silly) walks – a John Cleese for the 21st century, perhaps? Mr R’s physical comedy is absolutely first rate. He was joined by the very helpful Matt from the end of Row C who then had to spend the rest of the show nursing a bundle of disparate hardware items – don’t ask. He had some great material about using his boyfriend as a therapist, and he created a lovely callback regarding his previous job; get me being all comedy-technical. He had the entire theatre in hysterics, and I expect the cleaners will be hoovering up glitter for months. I thought he was brilliant.

After the interval we’re back for the main event, Simon Amstell asking What is This; this being life, the world around us, the daily treadmill that governs our waking hours. Can’t remember if he came up with an answer; don’t think he did. Mr A has a very diffident manner of delivering his stand up; he’s quiet and unassuming. Mr R bounded on stage and his body shrieked Hey Look at Me, whereas Mr A sidled on, and his body muttered Hey Please Don’t Look at Me; a very interesting pairing. Mr A’s material centred solely on his life experience, how he realised he was gay, and how his general awkwardness in life doesn’t naturally go hand in hand with his sexuality. He had a lovely story about going to Magaluf with a bunch of mates, and how they got on; a slightly less lovely story about going to Paris to find himself as a teenager, but still with a classic punchline.

Simon AmstellHis recollections and accounts are indeed very funny, but the whole hour in his company felt like one massive group therapy session. It’s as though the NHS has granted him one precious appointment to come on stage and talk about himself, to get things off his chest. Of course, most comedians spend their entire act talking about themselves – because, after all, they’re the people they know best – but with Mr Amstell it does tend to feel somewhat egoistical. Not, in any way, big-headed or arrogant, in fact far from it; more in that it’s totally his experiences, his thoughts, and the way life affects him. If you drew a Venn Diagram on how Mr A and the outside world interact, you’d just have a picture of him in a circle.

I did also feel that he lacks a sense of light and shade in his delivery; it’s all recounted at one pace, and in one tone of voice; very much in the style of the therapeutic confessional. Much of his material turned into an analysis of his relationship with his father, which was fascinating, and wry; but you didn’t feel like he’d welcome you laughing at what he was saying, because it would be quite insensitive. Having said that, there were clearly some stony-faced people in the front row who were unsettling Mr Amstell with their arm-folded frostiness. One of them made the tactical error of getting her phone out. Mr A wasn’t having any of that (and quite right too!)

Maawan RizwanI don’t want to give the impression that I didn’t enjoy his set, because I did. It’s just that after about half an hour I found that the initial smile and happy countenance that had greeted his earlier material had started to freeze on my face and I discovered that I just wasn’t giving any laughter back. The smile remained, because I enjoyed hearing what he had to say, but despite my pressing F5 in my head, it wasn’t getting refreshed into laughter. There are just a handful of tour dates remaining up to the end of the month, but Mr Rizwan is doing a full work-in-progress show at Contact, Manchester, on 2nd December. If you’re around, that’s a no-brainer.

Review – This Evil Thing, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 14th November 2017

This Evil Thing ProgrammeI have no information about my ancestors’ involvement in World War One. All my grandparents died before I was born. My maternal grandfather was born in 1900 so would have been too young for conscription and didn’t enjoy good health anyway. Of my paternal grandfather I know hardly anything. About World War Two I know a lot more. My father served in the Royal Navy and was totally scarred by his experiences which I researched and wrote about here and here. All I know of my maternal grandfather’s WW2 is that he was stationed at Stirling Castle, saw ghosts and was never the same man again. My mother was in the ATS and told me how she once spent Christmas Day sending out death notices to grieving families. Was she sympathetic to the stance taken by conscientious objectors? Absolutely not. Cowards who made it worse for themselves was her uncompromising attitude; and I’m sure she was in the majority.

TET1As Michael Mears points out, in his exceptionally fascinating one-man play This Evil Thing, in our generation, we have not been tested. If we were called up to go to a war where we’re simply cannon fodder, how would we react? Would we put Queen and Country first? Would we engage in acts of disobedience? It really makes you think hard. If the Falklands Conflict had escalated out of hand and turned into full-scale war between the UK and Argentina, I was the perfect age to be conscripted; and I do remember it being a very active worry.

Michael MearsMichael Mears confesses from the start (if confession is the right word) that he is a pacifist, and he too wonders how strong his resolve would be if faced with the personal challenge in the same way that the brave (there’s no question as to their bravery) conscientious objectors of the First World War. This beautifully constructed work tells us the stories of, amongst others, Bert Brocklesby, schoolteacher and Methodist lay preacher; James Brightmore, a solicitor’s clerk from Manchester; and Norman Gaudie, who played football for Sunderland reserves; they were also CO’s. There were many others like them. We learn how they are abused for their principles, how they were packed off to France, unknown to the British Government, of the methods used to try to persuade them to change their minds, the punishments they received, and what happened after the war to those that survived. We also meet luminaries like Bertrand Russell and Clifford Allen, Chairman of the No-Conscription Fellowship, vigorously campaigning for alternatives to conscription; with Russell dodging both literal and metaphorical bullets in his dealings with Prime Minister Asquith. After 80 quick minutes, you feel so much better informed about this much misunderstood and swept-under-the-carpet aspect of the First World War.

This Evil Thing TextThe production was, by all accounts, a wow at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe, and in many ways it’s the perfect fringe show. A blank stage, with just a few crates and packing cases utilised imaginatively, creates all sorts of settings. I love it when it’s up to the audience to interpret a minimalist set, because not even the world’s finest designers can flesh out the appearance of a stage quite like your own imagination can. It was a charming addition to the staging to have some very realistic props, like the elegant teacup and the incongruous sherry glass, which are brought into sharp focus when juxtaposed with the imaginariness of the set. The text is intelligent and creative, thought-provoking and, from time to time, surprisingly funny. The whole concept of a naked Bertrand Russell addressing Asquith with just a hanky covering his modesty was wonderfully quirky.

TET2But what really makes the theatrical experience so vivid is Mr Mears’ brilliant portrayals of over forty characters, each with their own voice and accent, tone and style. He makes us believe those people are really there. We knew that he’s an excellent actor from his previous appearances in A Tale of Two Cities and The Herbal Bed (actually, he was the best thing about both productions), but in This Evil Thing he steps that acting skill up several notches. Mr Mears’ commitment to his own material – and the verbatim testimonies of many of the people involved – is simply a pleasure to behold.

Michael MearsAnd what of that rhetorical question? If the nations collide again like they did a hundred years ago, would you, a person who respects life and would never commit a crime against another human being, refuse to take arms against your fellow man? Moreover, would you see your friends and relatives die for the nation’s cause whilst you exempted yourself from that responsibility? Brocklesby tosses a coin to help make that decision. I think I’d look at a photo of my dad in his navy uniform and ask his advice. With any luck, it’ll never happen.

This terrific little theatrical nugget is currently on a tour of small theatres, churches and Quakers Meeting Houses in England and Wales. Highly recommended!

Review – Blade Runner 2049, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 10th November 2017

Blade RunnerI saw the original Blade Runner many, many moons ago. I have a faint memory that I enjoyed it, but I can’t pretend to remember much about it. My friend Lord Liverpool who knows about these things said that he’d seen the new sequel Blade Runner 2049 and described it as a worthy successor to the original. Thus it was that Mrs Chrisparkle and I, together with our friends Mr and Mrs Flying-the-Flag, checked into the Errol Flynn last Friday night to judge for ourselves.

Blade Runner 2049I think there must be such a thing as a Sci-Fi brain. Sadly, I’m not possessed of one. I wish I were, as it would open up a whole new world of literature and entertainment. It would be great to appreciate the comings and goings of Spurgs from the planet Tharg and such like. I don’t think Mrs C, or Mr & Mrs Flag have one either, as after two and half hours of sheer befuddlement we all emerged into the night air with one common question; “what the friggin’ hell was all that about then?” To be fair, Mrs C and Mrs F never had the remotest chance of following it, as they both spent the majority of the film comatose in the land of Nod. Mr F tried to be upbeat about it by saying, “well at least we found out who the father and daughter were”, to which they both replied, “there was a father and daughter?”

Ryan Gosling as KIt’s a shame, because I sense this is probably quite a good film, if only you can fathom out what’s going on. I think it needs to be issued with a set of students’ notes, and then we could sit a test after each sequence to make sure we understood it, with the option of taking a resit before continuing if we’re still confused.

Harrison Ford in Blade Runner 2049There were aspects that I did enjoy. I loved the whole notion of the artificial girlfriend; beautiful, supportive, a great cook – she’s a chauvinist’s dream. Visually, the whole film is very engrossing, and that’s why Mr Flag and I kinda enjoyed it, even though we didn’t have a scooby what it meant. I couldn’t quite work out why everything had to take place against a background of virtual tsunami, when they could just have easily done it on a beach – everything was “virtual” anyway, as far as I could make out, so choose a nice location, why don’t you. There were other aspects I didn’t enjoy. I have a low threshold to violence and it was too violent for my taste. There was a nice girl in white, who suddenly became a horrid, vicious girl in black. Wasn’t sure what that was about.

I can’t really say anything more about it, because I just didn’t get it. You’ll probably love it. Good luck to you.

Review – Call Me By Your Name, Errol Flynn Filmhouse, Northampton, 8th November 2017

CMBYNposterWhilst recently on holiday I noticed my friend HRH the Crown Prince of Bedford lamenting online that no cinema in his home town was showing Call Me By Your Name, and that he really (really, really) wanted to see it. It occurred to me that Trip Advisor’s #1 for Northampton Fun and Games, the Errol Flynn Filmhouse, might come up trumps on this one. And I was right. A quick check of the calendar and I saw that we could fit in a midweek matinee easy-peasy.

CMBYN1It’s very impressive how the Errol Flynn has espoused what seems to me the ever-growing range of LGBTQ films. Last month they held a Q-Film Weekender mini-festival with a selection of twelve features, previews, short films and animations marking the fiftieth anniversary of the partial decriminalisation of homosexuality. And every month they have a special screening in association with Q-Film. Trailblazers indeed! Although Call Me By Your Name definitely comes under the LGBTQ film umbrella, its appeal is universal; a coming-of-age movie where a young person forges their way into adulthood, whichever path they take. We were all teenagers with raging hormones at one point; it’s a time we can all remember and empathise with. I for one am very glad to be a grown-up!

CMBYN2It’s 1983, and 17-year-old Elio lives part of the year with his rather trendy, arty parents in northern Italy, in what appears to be an idyllic lifestyle of constant sunshine, swimming, cycling, lovely Italian food, beautiful countryside and plenty of local girls on tap should he wish to try his luck. Into their lives arrives Oliver, a student intern come to assist Elio’s father who’s a professor of Greco-Roman culture. Oliver’s a strapping chap, quite a lot older than Elio, with attractive self-confidence and definite personal charisma. Elio’s attracted to him from the start; but it’s impossible to tell whether Oliver feels the same way, and their friendship remains chaste for some time before physical attraction just begins to get too much to ignore. Will their developing relationship have a chance of lasting? How long will it remain a secret? How accepting will Elio’s family and the wider community be? You’ll have to watch the film to find out!

In every sense you can imagine, this film reaches out and affects you. The cinematography is stunning, your eyes dwelling on majestic landscapes, and a privileged lifestyle. You can smell the fresh fish, the Mediterranean fruits, the rustic wines. The soundtrack is perfect, featuring evocative guitar and vocals by Sufjan Stevens, and dramatic piano works nicked from the back catalogues of Ravel and Satie. In fact, the combination of the dramatic piano, idyllic country life and a young man growing up strongly reminded me of one of my all-time favourite films, The Go-Between; although long-term I think Elio will grow up to be far better adjusted than Leo could ever hope.

CMBYN3The screenplay is by that master of decorum and decency James Ivory, and is predictably elegant and beautifully character-driven. In these awful Brexit days, it feels sophisticated, forward thinking and tolerant to have a screenplay switching effortlessly between English, Italian and French. I loved the attention to detail, and those lingering moments on the seemingly irrelevant, all of which contribute to an overwhelming build-up of emotion: like when Elio and Oliver on a bike ride ask an elderly contadina for a drink of water, or when we simply observe two pairs of swimming shorts drying over the same bath. There’s a startling scene when Italian guests come for dinner and argue animatedly over the merits of the films of Buñuel – it bears no significance on the story at all, yet it’s great to watch. I also loved how some things simply aren’t explained. At one stage Oliver asks Elio to forgive him, hoping that he doesn’t think the worse of him – but what for? In another scene Elio walks into the bedroom to find that the two beds had been pushed together. By whom? Many of their more intimate moments are only suggested, rather than clearly portrayed, and I rather liked the fact that the film gives Elio and Oliver their own privacy. Those details are nobody’s business but theirs.

CMBYN4The film benefits from some brilliant performances, none better than Timothée Chalamet as Elio, perfectly capturing that pretending-not-to-care quality that is the hallmark of a true teenager. To be fair, his characterisation is of a young man who’s more bold than bashful, which creates a strong awkward tension in his dealings with Armie Hammer’s Oliver, who brilliantly portrays someone persistently attempting to keep a tight rein on their feelings. There’s excellent support by Esther Garrel as local girl Marzia who would love a relationship with Elio, and in many ways he’d love one with her too. Amira Casar is excellent as Elio’s mother Annella, deeply attached to her son and wanting only the best for him, but betraying an uncertainty as to whether what’s happening is right. Best of all, Michael Stuhlbarg gives a really strong performance as Elio’s father Lyle, subtly steering him in the direction in which Elio will most likely find out about himself. There’s a truly beautiful father-and-son scene towards the end of the film which would tug at the strings of the hardest of hearts; the gentle sobbing sounds emitting from my pal in the next seat told their own story – in fact, read his account of the film here, because he gets and explains the emotions of the film in a more poignant and lucid way than I ever could.

CMBYN5Discussing the film afterwards, HRH said he’d hoped the film would have a happy ending. In my opinion, it’s not that unhappy an ending. True, the last scene, against which the final credits play out, features Elio crying with more and more passion. But those tears have a very eloquent tale to tell. At first, he’s crying through sheer sadness. Then you can sense an element of remorse, maybe regret. After a while they’re tears of defiance, as you realise he’s going to proudly bear whatever scars the experience will leave him with. At the end they’re tears of gratitude for the happy memories he will keep forever.

An excellent film, with something for everyone, as they say. If, like the Buzzcocks, you’ve ever fallen in love with someone you shouldn’t have fallen in love with, this is the film for you. And that’s everyone, right? Moving, charming, elegant, and all done in the best possible taste.

P. S. No peaches were harmed during the making of this film. Well, maybe one. But it’s very, VERY quickly over. Elio may need to work on his technique.

Review – Blood Brothers, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 6th November 2017

Blood BrothersI remember hearing a broadcast on Radio 3 once (I know, get me) where the announcer was introducing a performance of Handel’s Water Music. The question arose: why do we have to hear Handel’s Water Music again, it’s so commonplace and everyone knows it, let’s hear something more experimental? The announcer’s response? “Just remember, every time Handel’s Water Music is played, some young person is hearing it for the first time, and what a beautiful moment that is for them”. That’s so true, and it’s the same with Willy Russell’s Blood Brothers. It’s been around since the early 80s and hardly ever stops touring in some guise or other; surely we’ve had enough of it now? For the answer to that, gentle reader, you only had to hear the shocked gasps from (I would guess) at least half the packed audience at the Derngate on Monday night to tell you that every time a performance of Blood Brothers takes place, someone sees it for the first time; and what emotional nourishment it provides.

Blood-Brothers-group-shotThis was the third time we’ve seen it, and it’s been too long a gap. Our first experience was at the Albery (now Noel Coward) theatre in 1988, with Kiki Dee as Mrs Johnstone and Con O’Neill as Mickey. Our second was in 1995, at the Apollo (now back to being called the New) in Oxford, with Clodagh Rodgers as Mrs J and David Cassidy (yes, the David Cassidy) as Mickey. Of course, the first production had Barbara Dickson in the role; and this current touring version stars Lyn Paul. Honestly, where would Mrs Johnstone be without great recording stars of the 1970s?!

Each Mrs J has her own unique characterisation and approach. Kiki Dee was punchy and aggressive, a true fighter. Clodagh Rodgers had a faux-refinement and aspirations to sophistication which meant she had further to fall at the end. Lyn Paul’s Mrs J is running on empty from the start, with dreary memories of her wretch of an ex-husband, exhausted from looking after all those kids and genuinely despairing at the prospect of another two mouths to feed. By the time the show ends, Ms Paul has wrung all her emotions out and is a defeated husk. That’s probably an extremely realistic interpretation.

sean jonesThis show has always had a special place in our hearts, especially Mrs Chrisparkle’s, as, at the age of five, she, along with her parents and brothers, were rehoused from their flat above Fazakerley Post Office, to 65 Skelmersdale Lane – or at least Flamstead, in Skem. Just like the Johnstones, she remembers the green fields, and the fresh air, and so much space everywhere. Away from the muck and the dirt and the bloody trouble, it really was a Bright New Day for everyone.

Dean ChisnallLooking back now, from the viewpoint of today’s 21st century national austerity, to the strikes, unemployment and poverty of the 1980s, nothing much seems to have changed. After Miss Jones was dismissed from her job, despite being a perfect poppet, as just another sign of the times, I don’t suppose she got another job. The only difference today is that today’s Mr Lyons will be creating his own dismissal letters on Word rather than dictating them to a fetching young secretary. That’s progress. And a wealthy upbringing and education is still much more likely to lead to a successful career than playing on the street, being cheeky with your teacher and becoming factory fodder – or today’s equivalent, zero hours contracts in the gig economy. That’s life, but it’s not progress. The essence of the show is to hold up a mirror of nature against nurture, and value kindness, decency, and friendship. In our land of postcode lotteries, where health, benefits and education can depend on which side of the road you live on, that question why did you give me away, I could have been him? seems more relevant than ever today.

I was very struck this time by how the story is completely infused with elements of superstition all the way through. From the portentous saying that if twins separated at birth learn that they were once one of a pair they will both immediately die, to Mrs Johnstone’s horror at seeing new shoes on the table, to looking a magpie in the eye, to the kids’ games where you can get up again if you cross your fingers, folklore and fear rules the roost. I’d always realised it was heavily melodramatic, starting with the end tableau (although a little more stylised than I’ve seen before), so you know there’s never going to be a happy ending. The gloomy, menacing presence of the Narrator is a constant threat and intrusion on their lives, coming right up close to the characters, like a perpetual harbinger of doom, a bad dream that unsettles and disturbs their waking hours. There is light and shade in this show, but shade wins every time.

Danielle CorlassThe performances are superb throughout. I must confess that, at first, I was not entirely sure about Lyn Paul’s presentation of Mrs Johnstone. Her Mrs J is already thoroughly exhausted by everything that life has thrown at her right at the start of the show, and a vital spark was lacking. But as the show developed, I could see that her quiet, serious portrayal was absolutely correct to the character. And what a voice! It’s so powerful, yet so pure; and so perfectly suited to Willy Russell’s amazing lyrics and melodies. It’s a really wonderful performance.

I was also very impressed with Sean Jones’ Mickey. It’s a role with so many elements and so vital to the success of the show. Willy Russell requires us to love Mickey right from the very start – and we do. Thoroughly believable as that irrepressible eight year old, seeing how high he can spit in the air, never going anywhere without his imaginary horse; then the easily embarrassed teenager at a dirty movie, ashamed of his pubescent body; the enthusiastic young worker, doing the overtime and planning on spending it on great Christmas parties; and then, when the harsh reality of life kicks in, the aggressive, jealous Mickey who realises that his life will lack the texture and depth of his best friend’s; and the broken Mickey relying on medication to keep his brain from dancing. Only Five Ages of Man for Mickey as he dies so young, but Sean Jones nails them all absolutely. We’d all like to have a best friend like Mickey – the younger one, that is; someone who makes you laugh, someone who’ll always be on your side; but isn’t a goody-two-shoes either. No wonder the audience is devastated at the end.

Sarah Jane BuckleyIt’s very difficult to portray the eight-year-old Eddie effectively; he’s so posh and innocent, and so different from Mickey that our instant reaction is to mock him rather than side with him. I thought that Mark Hutchinson’s characterisation of him was so wet, and so soft, that it was very unlikely that Mickey would have taken to him. However, once he becomes Eddie the teenager, that’s when he comes into his own. Shag the vicar! Eddie has one of the most telling songs in the show, the restrained and delicate I’m Not Saying a Word, and I really enjoyed Mr Hutchinson’s performance. One character whom in previous productions I’ve always thought of as a bit of an irritant and easily ignored, is Mrs Lyons, but in this production Sarah Jane Buckley gives such a tremendous performance that she is also equally vital to the success of the show. She brings out all the character’s fears and weaknesses; and you readily agree with the diagnosis of others that she probably needs mental health treatment. Ms Buckley also has an amazing voice and is a true credit to the production.

danny-taylor-sammy-sean-jones-mickeyDanielle Corlass’ Linda develops very believably from a squeaky but spirited little girl into a teenager with a massive crush on Mickey, and then into a smart and positive young woman – a very good performance. Dean Chisnall is the least Scouse Narrator I’ve seen (singing “you know the devil’s got your number” and not “nombare”) but has a strong stage presence and great singing voice; and Daniel Taylor’s Sammy, who was always a bad lot, turns that childhood bully into an adult hoodlum with sadly predictable authenticity.

lyn-paulThat massive gasp of shock when the brothers died at the end said it all. The audience were so enthralled and wrapped up in what was going on that they couldn’t keep their emotions in. It’s an excellent production of a staggeringly good show, among the very best musicals of all time. It’s enjoying a week at the Royal and Derngate, before continuing its tour to Nottingham, Sunderland, Bath, Belfast, Weston-super-Mare, Aylesbury, Darlington, Edinburgh, Cheltenham, Rhyl, Carlisle, Barnstaple, Truro, Wolverhampton, Ipswich, Southampton and reaching Manchester in the middle of May. I can’t recommend it too strongly but do book early because everyone else will!

Review – Jason Manford – Work in Progress (Muddle Class), Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 4th November 2017

Jason Manford WIPLast weekend the Royal and Derngate played host to not one but two major comics trying out new material for their big tours next year. At short notice, in the Underground, Sarah Millican was (presumably) giving great value to a maximum of 160 people in what must have been a very special experience. In the main Derngate auditorium, and on sale for many months and pretty much sold out all that time, we had the pleasure of the company of Jason Manford, testing the water with new material for his 135-date Muddle Class tour which starts in Leeds in January and goes right on to Newcastle in December.

We’ve seen Mr Manford doing his stand-up once before, back in 2013 with his First World Problems tour. He won us over with his easy charm and relaxed attitude. Four years on and that’s still the same; there’s nothing remotely threatening about a Jason Manford gig, you’re never going to run the risk of being humiliated like if you go to see Julian Clary or Russell Brand, nor are you going to be faced with particularly challenging material. In fact, Mr Manford was very proud to say that he would hate it if anyone was ever offended by his act. I reckon that’s quite an unusual attitude; many comics would think that if someone was offended by their material, then they’re probably doing something right. But not Jason; too decent, too much of a family man, too rooted in (and I mean this kindly) a light entertainment approach to doing a gig.

First World ProblemsThe first half of the show was very much work-in-progress; he had his list of topics on a piece of paper and depending on our reaction each got either a tick or a cross. To be honest, I can’t imagine he had too many crosses. Amongst his subjects were those embarrassing times when you say something and someone takes it the wrong way – not a very pithy description there of what was actually some brilliant material. He also told us about what it was like to share an Edinburgh flat with John Bishop (Jase, do you want a smooooothie?), the dangers of hosting the PFA awards and how getting stuck on a waterslide is a good way of discovering you need to lose weight.

After the interval Mr M assured us that the rest of the material was more tried and tested. Well he needn’t have worried, everything up till then was funny anyway. As mentioned above, his new show is to be called Muddle Class, which is the closest to how he can now identify himself in the class system. When you were brought up poor and things were tough, but then you made good and you’re comfortably off, you can’t say you’re working class anymore, but you never felt like you were middle class either. There is some great material about coping with your children when they’re posher than you; in fact, he draws on his now considerable range of children (five kids under the age of eight) for a large chunk of his comic material. To be fair, doing that can alienate (slightly) the non-parents in the audience. However, he is so good-natured and inventive in his comedy approach that you forgive him for slightly overindulging on the family side; and I for one really enjoyed his accounts of living with the weird, scary daughter.

Other topics up for discussion, and which will presumably be honed to perfection when the tour properly kicks off in January, were a common theme running through Disney films (you won’t guess what it is) and how you could use a car to advertise Durex – a really clever and funny routine.

JasonManford-MuddleClassProfileHe ended, not with a Q&A as some comics tediously insist on, but with a song. Yes, gentle reader, I did say that he had a light entertainment touch. Mr M has just released an album of show tunes, and he treated us to a rendition of Javert’s song Stars from Les Miserables. Well, if it was good enough for Dickie Henderson, it’s good enough for him. I have to say it felt… unusual… to end a comedy gig this way, but that’s not to say I didn’t enjoy it. I’m as passionate about show tunes as the next guy. And he did sneak in some nice humour from an unfortunate pairing of words in the lyrics, which won’t ever have occurred to you before, but now you won’t be able to hear that song without giggling like a schoolgirl.

A very enjoyable, friendly, warm-hearted and very funny night’s entertainment. I expect most seats in next year’s 135-date tour are already sold, but I’d definitely recommend booking Mr Manford if you get your skates on!