Review – The Railway Children, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 19th September 2017

The Railway ChildrenYou know The Railway Children. Everyone knows The Railway Children. Jenny Agutter fluttering her red petticoats, Bernard Cribbins fussing around the station, Iain Cuthbertson slowly emerging from the steam, William Mervyn waving from the train. A Christmas treat for all the family. All, that is, except for Mrs Chrisparkle, who’s never seen it, never read it, and who would never choose E. Nesbit as her specialised subject on Mastermind. I must admit, it’s not my favourite of her books; I always preferred The Phoenix and the Carpet. The Phoenix was such a big-head, he always made me laugh.

TRC6The Railway Children is one of those stories that never goes away. Even though it’s 111 years old now, the film is a classic, an evergreen; voted 66th best ever British film, I understand. The stage adaptations have proved immensely popular for new generations, frequently being staged at railway stations or museums and featuring real live steam trains. This current touring production by the Northcott Theatre Exeter – with Dave Simpson’s 1984 adaptation of the book, the original stage adaptation – doesn’t feature such high-tech authenticity. In fact, it almost makes a selling point of its low-tech approach. When the train goes by in the distance it’s clearly a model being pulled on a string. When the Old Gentleman is shown travelling past in the train, you can see his little feet going nineteen-to-the-dozen underneath the carriage, a la Fred Flintstone. TRC1When the railway station set snaps into place, a free-standing column that’s meant to hold up the station roof ends up swinging in the breeze because it’s too short to reach the floor, like a cross between a hangman’s gallows and a grandfather clock pendulum. When the opaque planes fall into place, onto which are projected all the other countryside, railway and street scenes, the word “fragile” on the bottom right pane is constantly visible as a weird reminder to the stagehands to treat it with care – very bizarre, that one.

TRC4But somehow, none of this matters. It’s the innate strength of the story and the overwhelming decency of the performances that win the day and provide a highly entertaining and truly sweet portrayal of a once well-to-do young family fallen on hard times whilst their father is mysteriously missing. (Why is it that everyone reading it or watching it has twigged that he’s been sent to prison but it never occurs to the kids? Naïve or what!) Whilst this is a show that will obviously appeal to a younger audience, it also has a very nostalgic appeal too – plenty of people in the (albeit rather small) audience for the first night in Northampton were children in the 50 plus age bracket. In the same way that a pantomime can work on many levels, this production also has a few nicely underplayed moments of more adult humour. For example, after the family have already cared for the Russian refugee Szczpansky, and are now also looking after the Old Gentleman’s grandson Jim, Perks, the Station Master (ahh for the Good Old Days) has a knowing look when he reports that yet another young man has taken up residence in Mother’s spare bedroom (wink, wink).

TRC10There’s an amusing running (literally) joke that has the doctor arriving at Three Chimneys, each time more and more exhausted due to the urgency of the call (or maybe it’s the rotundity of his stomach). There’s also some enjoyable class/society interplay, primarily between Bobbie, Phyllis and Peter on the one hand, and Perks’ vagabond son, John, on the other. For every “rather!” and “spiffing!” that Peter utters, he’s riposted by an “eyup” or an “eebahgum” from John, with neither of them realising quite how stereotyped the creative team have made them. Perks Senior, however, never belittles the Londoners for their posh way of talking because respect is his watchword.

TRC3We were surprised how moral and, indeed, socialist, the story is; everyone seems to have read the banned book by Szczpansky (clearly pro-proletariat and anti-Czar) and everyone, even including the Old Gentleman, who’s the archetype of tradition and conservatism (one would have thought) has a good word to say about it. The family are always acting selflessly, whether it’s protecting and nurturing sick individuals like Szczpansky or Jim, or risking their own safety to prevent a terrible train crash. When the children get all the tradespeople of the village to contribute a present for Perks’ birthday, it’s not charity that is their incentive to donate but a sense of a community pulling together to recognise the fine contribution he makes to their society. Even the doctor is willing to make house calls and treat people without any certainty of getting paid for it. If any one character is (gently) mocked, it’s young Phyllis for her petulant refusal to share. It comes as no surprise to discover that E. Nesbit was a Marxist and co-founder of the Fabian Society.

TRC5The production is positively dripping with charming performances. Joy Brook’s Mother is kindness and positivity personified as she cheerfully refuses to eat so that her children don’t go hungry in a scene that’s worthy of I Daniel Blake for the Edwardian era. It’s not hard to see why she would be the perfect mainstay of any family. Millie Turner’s Roberta is a generous and thoughtful young lady, definitely a chip off the old block, with a big heart that doesn’t get in the way of enjoying some adventure too. Katherine Carlton is hilarious as the spoilt Phyllis, truly wanting her cake and eating it; and Vinay Lad makes a terrific professional debut as the hearty young Peter, relishing all his ripping hyperboles like a junior Jay Gatsby.

TRC9I loved Andrea Davy as Mrs Perks, another character who only sees the best in people and really enjoys life, no matter what it chucks at you. Neil Salvage is a charming Old Gentleman, although he looks alarmingly like Stinky Pete from Toy Story 2, and there’s great support from Andrew Joshi as the puffed-out physician and Will Richards as Szczpansky and Jim; indeed, anyone who will get looked after in the spare bedroom, really. Callum Goulden displays just the right amount of cheekiness as the boisterous John. But maybe it’s Stewart Wright as Perks who really makes us smile most of all, with all his little narrative asides and startling friendliness; he brought out the child in me and made me want to become a train driver all over again.

TRC2I’d recommend this whole-heartedly if you want a nostalgia trip or are thinking of something to take the kids to see – or the grandparents – or yourself. Sugar for the soul, as Steve Balsamo once said. After its week in Northampton it steams on to Bromley, Leicester, Southampton, Bath and Aylesbury.

TRC7P. S. I feel certain this production would suit a smaller, more intimate theatre much better than the vast expanses of the Derngate auditorium. It’s a shame that the set is (I’m assuming) too wide for the Royal stage, because the show would have been perfect in there.

TRC8P. P. S. I’m not entirely sure Mrs C has the same sentimental heart as other people who have wept buckets over Bobbie’s final reunion with Daddy, her Daddy. “Sent to prison for five years?”, she asked; “what’s the problem? He’ll only do two and a half.”

Production photos by Mark Dawson

Review – Des O’Connor and Jimmy Tarbuck Live, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 17th September 2017

Des O'Connor and Jimmy Tarbuck LiveWhen I saw these two legendary names were appearing together on stage I had absolutely no hesitation in booking straight away. They were among the very first famous people I ever saw on stage as a child. Jimmy Tarbuck played Jack in the London Palladium pantomime Jack and the Beanstalk back in Christmas 1968 – New Year 1969; it was my first visit to a London theatre and my first ever pantomime. The Dowager Mrs Chrisparkle couldn’t wait to get me in the front stalls to see how I’d react to the Palladium environment (which she adored) – verdict, I loved it. But, even earlier, in the summer of 1967, I was taken to my first ever professional stage show; on holiday in Bournemouth, the 7-year-old me had a seat to see Showtime at the Pavilion Theatre, featuring Kenneth McKellar, Jack Douglas and starring – you guessed it – Des O’Connor.

Jack and the Beanstalk 1969 castI’d seen Des O’Connor live just once since then, when I took a young female friend (in the days before Mrs Chrisparkle, c. 1984) to see a recording of Gloria Hunniford’s TV chat show Sunday Sunday – it used to air on Sundays, I kid you not. Amongst the guests was Mr O’Connor. At one point all the lights blew and they had to stop the recording for about twenty minutes. Gloria Hunniford retreated into her shell and wouldn’t make eye contact with the audience. Des O’Connor, on the other hand, got up and did twenty minutes stand-up off the top of his head, and, let me assure you gentle reader, he was absolutely on fire! From that moment, I’ve always had immense respect for him.

Des O'Connor and Jimmy Tarbuck 1I’d not seen Jimmy Tarbuck on stage since that panto, and of course it’s been many years since he’s been a regular on TV; so I was very interested to see how he’s progressed, the young feller-me-lad. Well, I can report that he’s doing very well indeed. He’s 77, but looking at him you wouldn’t place him older than his mid-fifties. He still has that irrepressible cheekiness, a very nice line in occasional self-deprecation, natural confidence and authority, and absolutely immaculate comic timing. It’s true; some of his material isn’t very 21st century. Whilst Mrs C was pleased to note the total absence of mother-in-law jokes, they had been replaced by “ugly women” jokes. To be fair, they were often very funny.

Des O'Connor and Jimmy Tarbuck 4Mr Tarbuck (hereinafter Tarby) still uses that classic structure for many of his showpiece jokes – I mean those that aren’t one-liners. He sets them up with a statement that will end with a certain sequence of words; pause. Then comes another statement, ending with the same sequence of words; another pause, whilst suspense/curiosity/anticipation builds. There might even be a third statement, that ends with the same sequence of words – audience by now making up their own punchlines. Then comes the killer final statement that will take the sequence of words and turn them on their head to potentially devastating comic effect. I remember him doing that in the 70s, and he still does it today – brilliantly.

Des O'Connor and Jimmy Tarbuck 5Mr O’Connor (hereinafter Deso) has quite a close association with our beloved Northampton, as he was evacuated here during the Second World War, worked at Church’s shoes (very posh) and even had a stint playing football for Northampton Town. Today he still has that wicked glint in his eye, and at 85 he can still look down on young Tarby. But he did admit that he wasn’t feeling too well, with an ear infection affecting his balance, and would we mind if he sat down for most of his set; of course not – huge kudos to him for still going on with the show despite his health issue.

Des O'Connor and Jimmy Tarbuck 3I’m going to forgive him for starting the evening with a terrible homophobic joke and put it down to the infirmity of his age, as Regan said of Lear. Moving on, with the aid of a big screen, he reminisced about some of his favourite TV appearances – with Morecambe and Wise (naturally), Rod Hull and Emu, Benny Hill, Bernie Clifton and many more. We sang with him as he accompanied himself on a video of him singing with Neil Diamond (are you still with me?) and bizarrely it worked, as the rafters of the Royal and Derngate rang out to the chorus of Sweet Caroline. Deso also led singalongs to Carole King’s Will You Love Me Tomorrow and Tony Christie’s Is this the way to Amarillo, but, sadly, no Dick-a-Dum-Dum, which I’ve always thought was a truly charming look at Swinging Sixties London. Isn’t always the case that artists never perform your favourite song? It’s an unwritten law of Live Performance.

Des O'Connor and Jimmy TarbuckThere was precious little hesitation in the audience to rise for a standing ovation for these two grand old chaps. For Tarby, he absolutely deserves it for still delivering 45 minutes of cracking stand-up. For Deso, he deserves it in recognition of all the years of happy entertainment he’s provided, even from before I was born. They’re still touring this unique get-together show for a few more dates this year: 7th October in Harlow, 29th October in Reading and 5th November in Newcastle. These young lads deserve your support!

Review – Rules For Living, Royal and Derngate, Northampton, 14th September 2017

Rules for LivingThe curtain rises and straight away you recognise that comfortable setting; Christmas Day, the living room and the kitchen, a half-decorated tree, and two young people perched expectantly on the sofa. Is it going to turn into Alan Ayckbourn’s Seasons Greetings by another name? With surprise artificiality, a device projects the words “Rules for Living” on the roof of the house, as if we’d already forgotten the name of the play. Then another surprise; before anyone says anything, the set divides; the living room heads off stage left, the kitchen swerves stage right, leaving a big empty void in the centre of the stage. It already feels like technology is taking over this everyday suburban Christmas scenario.

RFL1Sam Holcroft’s Rules for Living first appeared at the National Theatre’s Dorfman a couple of years ago, where it got something of a mixed reception: ambitious and funny, but peculiarly stressful seemed to be the gist, and I entirely understand where that’s coming from. In a nutshell, Matriarch Edith is trying to create the perfect Christmas Day lunch (always a disastrous idea) to welcome back her husband Francis from hospital, who’s been suffering with some undisclosed ailment. Sons Matthew and Adam will be in attendance; Matthew with Carrie, the girlfriend he’s been going out with one year, Adam with his wife Nicole and their teenage daughter Emma, who suffers with depression. As you might expect, the relationships between the sons, their other halves and their mother get progressively strained as the day wears on. Francis comes home, more severely afflicted than Edith had let on, and the day degenerates even further.

RFL2But there’s a twist: and it goes back to that artificiality/technology influence felt in the opening moments. Each of the characters (apart from Francis and Emma) has an individual behavioural trait that they use to cope with stressful situations. Matthew, for example, has to sit down in order to tell a lie. We know this, because it’s projected on the walls and roof. So when Carrie asks Matthew if his mother likes her, and he sits down to say yes, we know he’s lying; you get the picture. Nicole must take a drink in order to contradict. As you can imagine, during a typical lively Christmas Day, quite a lot of contradicting takes place so Nicole gets somewhat boozed up to satisfy this particular behavioural need. And so it goes on. There’s an enormous amount of genuine hilarity to be enjoyed recognising how each character meets their psychological responses.

RFL3Sam Holcroft was partly inspired to write the play as a response to her own experiences of CBT – Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. Emma is undergoing CBT, and it makes her question her own response to the various challenges she faces. Nicole would like Adam to accompany her on some therapy sessions but he’s not remotely convinced. Of course, all the behavioural idiosyncracies that the characters display are ripe raw ingredients for a CBT session. The stress of learning a new card game is another new challenge for Christmas Day; Bedlam – that’s the game – where the rules include your requiring to identify others’ behavioural responses, which the characters attempt to do, whilst still having to obey their own. The furore this causes strongly reminded me of Reg’s wretched board game in The Norman Conquests. No wonder Christmas is stressful.

RFL5It’s a really clever construct; but I always felt aware of a greater being influencing the activities of the characters. The unseen writer truly plays the role of the puppet-master, creating a series of individual havocs that her characters must endure, almost at her random will. I guess that’s the case for any writer creating a story – their characters have to comply with the events that the writer chucks in their path. But the artificiality of it all is really emphasised with this play and production. It’s a most unusual experience. A small part of me wondered if it was an easy cop-out; should we be able to see, through the nuances of the writing, how the characters need to follow certain behavioural paths without having their rules of living flashed up so obviously on a colour-co-ordinated screen? Doing it this way certainly means that the rules are in charge, not the people. The characters even stop what they’re doing every time the rules change, then resume their path to their fate, like flies to wanton boys.

RFL4The cast absolutely pull out all the stops to mine as much humour from the situation as possible, and there are some beautiful moments of physical comedy, classic farce, and an outrageous food fight to enjoy. Jane Booker’s Edith is a superb portrayal of a control freak who needs her own versions of a “little helper” when she’s thwarted. Carlyss Peer turns into more and more of a musical theatre travesty as she shows Carrie’s way of coping with anxieties and rejection. Ed Hughes’ Adam turns from nice guy into sarcastic sod in order to protect himself from his own self-loathing, Jolyon Coy’s Matthew is up and down like the proverbial whore’s drawers reflecting his permanent state of mendacity, and Laura Rogers’ Nicole’s tongue gets loosened by alcohol the more belligerent she gets. It’s almost as though Derren Brown has had a session with them before they went on stage so that they react to individual trigger points. There’s a nice irony in the fact that the physically suffering Francis, a delightful performance by Paul Shelley using only a few words but wicked facial expressions, is the only character who mentally knows precisely what he wants and has no compunction about getting it.

RFL6It’s extremely funny and very thought-provoking; despite its Ayckbournian setting it’s a highly original look at a familiar domestic disaster zone. Abbreviate Rules For Living, add an “o”, and you get RoFL, which rather sums it up. And spare a thought for the stage management team who have to clear that mess up after every performance. If you’re wearing nice clothes, I wouldn’t sit anywhere nearer the stage than the third row! This is a co-production between the Royal and Derngate, English Touring Theatre and the Rose Theatre, Kingston, and after its few weeks in Northampton, it tours to Cambridge, Windsor, Brighton, Ipswich and Kingston. You have to see this one!

Production photos by Mark Douet

Review – Film Music Gala, Royal Philharmonic Orchestra, Derngate, Northampton, 16th July 2017

Film Music GalaWhen it comes to summer entertainment, the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra always treat us to something a little more light-hearted. In the past we’ve enjoyed their Last Night of the Derngate Proms shows, but this year they had a surprise for us – a Film Music Gala, featuring twenty-five short pieces of movie magic music, in a programme full of orchestral highlights.

Our conductor was Gareth Hudson, whom we last saw here a year ago for the Last Night of the Derngate Proms. He has a jolly, sprightly, none-too-serious attitude to taking us through these concerts, whilst still treating each piece of music with absolute respect. Indeed, sometimes he delivers us a mini-lecture, like when he explained how to look out for a typical James Bond theme, spotting its inevitable mixture of major and minor phrases.

Gareth HudsonThe first piece of music – and what a perfect way to start – was the theme to Mission Impossible; loud, arresting, vibrant, and a challenge (as so many of these pieces are) to the percussion; a challenge that they most certainly met. A thrilling opener that everyone loved. Then followed the main theme to Gladiator, which felt a little more introverted, and then The Fellowship of the Ring (from Lord of the Rings), a whimsical and quirky piece that suits the characters that inhabit that story’s landscape. Then we had the simple and beautiful Gabriel’s Oboe from the film The Mission, that lilts you away into a quiet and reflective mood, and which was played with the utmost delicacy.

The next piece of music was I Will Always Love You, from The Bodyguard; not in the Dolly Parton style, which is one of Mrs Chrisparkle’s favourites, but in the Whitney Houston style, which, frankly, both of us find rather tedious. Yes, I know, it’s our problem, we’re the ones out of kilter. Our guest soloist singer was Alison Jiear, whom we had seen as the Fairy Godmother in Cinderella back in 2015. She was an incredibly polite Fairy Godmother and she retains that quiet, self-effacing manner on the concert stage too. She has a powerful but soft, velvety voice that perfectly recreated the Whitney sound.

Alison JiearTwo very different pieces followed: the Jack Sparrow theme from Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, another quirky, jokey arrangement that sums up his character in a musical snapshot; and the main theme from Out of Africa, which really stood out for me as being a superb piece of modern classical music, with sweeping strings recreating a luxurious landscape. The violins played it with absolute mastery. Alison Jiear returned with the first two of the night’s James Bond themes – Moonraker and Diamonds are Forever, arranged so that the second merged rather nicely into the first. Then we had the John Dunbar theme from Dances with Wolves, another heavily violin based piece, before finishing the first part of the concert with two stonking great crowd-pleasers; the magisterial Imperial March from Star Wars: The Empire Strikes Back, and the exciting and dramatic main theme from 633 Squadron.

The second half started with another arresting number, the Overture to The Magnificent Seven, making sure we were all fully alert after our interval merlot! Alison Jiear sang another fusion of two pieces, Alfie, and My Heart Will Go On; and then the orchestra took centre stage again with the majestic Lara’s Theme from Doctor Zhivago. Like Out of Africa in the first half, this really stood out to me as being a truly enduring modern classic. When the orchestra started up the vivid strings opening to The Big Country, the audience breathed an audible sigh of delight; then came the charming and unusual theme to Cinema Paradiso, followed by amusingly orchestrated Domestic Pressures theme from The Theory of Everything.

RPOWhen they played the main theme from The Avengers movie, I realised it was the Marvel comic characters rather than Steed and Mrs Peel – I could imagine the RPO really giving that old TV theme a fantastic modern treatment. I believe it was during this piece that there was a superb sequence when it appeared as though the cello was asking questions, and the violin was answering them; and it was beautifully played by Tamas Andras and Richard Harwood. Alison Jiear came back one more time to perform two more Bond themes, You Only Live Twice (my favourite Bond theme) and Goldfinger. The concert was then wrapped up by brilliant performances of two outstanding pieces of music; Vangelis’ Chariots of Fire, and John Williams’ breathtaking main theme to Star Wars. For an encore, the orchestra gave us a rousing rendition of the Rocky theme. That’s the boxer, not the one who’s friends with Bullwinkle.

A very enjoyable concert full of short, easily recognisable themes which pack a greater punch than the time each takes to perform might suggest. Inevitably in a concert like this, you might occasionally wish you could hear something a little longer, and a little more substantial, like a four-part concerto. But that’s not what these gala concerts are all about – they’re designed to stimulate your memories, make you tap your toes, and bring a smile to your face. And this concert certainly achieved that. As Stephen Sondheim once penned, “tragedy tomorrow – comedy tonight.”

Review – Great Expectations, Royal and Derngate Actors Company, Royal Theatre, Northampton, 15th July 2017

Great ExpectationsI wonder if Dickens might go the way of Shakespeare before long, and prove himself worthy of modern adaptations, where the story is set in a different era and characters who were originally male become female and vice versa. One always associates Dickens with those foggy London streets or bleak Yorkshire Moors; but with Shakespeare, it’s different. It’s been ages since I’ve seen a Shakespeare play that was actually set in the 16th or 17th century and in the locations that Shakespeare specified; and with last summer’s The Tempest featuring (inter alia) a female Prosper, and with Glenda Jackson recently playing Lear, for example, his works are ripe for a spot of gender-bending.

GE1Erica Martin’s production of Declan Donnellan and Nick Ormerod’s adaptation of Great Expectations for the stage features a female Magwitch. Now that’s something to conjure with. Traditionally he appears as a menacing brute, primarily because of that first, terrifying meeting with the young Pip, where he threatens to cut his throat, and makes him promise to get him food, and a file to cut off the iron chain on his leg, “or I’ll have your heart and liver out”. For sure, those are the words of a brutish man more than a brutish woman, although I had several female teachers in my youth who would have queued up to deliver those lines.

GE3The humiliation that the older Pip suffers when he realises that his financial benefactor has been Magwitch all along, and not Miss Havisham, remains the same; it’s the integrity of the person (or rather lack of it) that offends him, rather than the fact that she’s a woman. However, as Mrs Chrisparkle pointed out, it’s very hard to believe that a convict woman, in the early 19th century, would have made good in New South Wales, as a sheep farmer and stock breeder, and become rich. It may just have been credible for a man, but a woman? Not in those days; it’s hard enough today.

GE4I digress. We’ve seen the Actors Company a few times now and they always astound us with the excellence of their performance. Whether set in today’s times, like The Revenger’s Comedies and Market Boy, or in olden days, like Our Country’s Good or, now, Great Expectations, they take a play full of depth and character and bring it to life with superb conviction. Meryl Couper’s terrific set created a decent acting area at front whilst devoting other parts of the stage to the Gargerys, Miss Havisham’s house, and so on. It provided a suitable sense of Dickensian gloom without being overwhelming; as did the excellent costumes. The lighting was efficient and atmospheric – in fact you wouldn’t know this wasn’t a professional production.

GE5The structure requires that all the actors are on stage more or less the whole time, acting as both chorus and the inner thoughts of Pip, taking alternate lines from the book very much in the style of David Edgar’s adaptation of Nicholas Nickleby that was a huge success for the RSC back in 1980. I like this approach; although you get a lot of information flung at you at first, and it’s hard to take it all in, you get a strong ensemble feeling that everyone is fully involved in the story-telling task. And when different actors are speaking lines that are the thoughts of one character, that also gives the impression of all the different voices that are going on inside his head – a very effective technique. Whilst I felt that there was quite a lot of scene-setting in the first act and that it was maybe a trifle long, the story really gets going after the interval and it was riveting stuff.

GE6Centre stage for much of the final two-thirds of the play is Davin Eadie as Pip (adult version). With a commanding stage presence, and very authoritative vocal delivery, I really enjoyed his performance of this Everyman character with whom we all identify. Ben Webb, as his younger version, employed just the right amount of wide-eyed innocence (in his dealings with Magwitch), trust (with Joe) and vulnerability (with Miss Havisham and Estella). Other superb performances came from Sue Whyte as Miss Havisham, who gave her a splendid gruff grandeur that commanded both fear and respect; Will Adams as the pompous and meddling Pumblechook; Vicky Kelly as a wonderfully terse (when at work) and garrulous (when at play) Wemmick; and Ryan Chambers delightfully over-the-top as the thespian Wopsle.

GE7Salli Belsham had the difficult task of creating a credible “Ann” Magwitch, but as the performance developed I thought she drew out the character’s finer points very convincingly, and the scene where she confronts Pip and Herbert and reveals herself to be the benefactor was one of the best in the play. But for me the stand-out performance was from Stewart Magrath as Jaggers, the lawyer, stabbing out his carefully planned words with a natural authority, conducting his affairs cordially but precisely, appearing to be a friend, but only if he is paid. A very striking and memorable performance.

Some very strong scenes and performances made this a very rewarding production; the Actors Company can chalk up another hit!

Review – Comedy Crate Festival, Northampton, 9th July 2017

Comedy CrateI was idly thumbing through Facebook the other day and saw, as you do, that a friend was interested in a local event: The first ever Comedy Crate Festival in Northampton, thirty acts over two days in three venues: The Lab, The Charles Bradlaugh and The Black Prince. How fantastic, and innovative, to create such an event where comics can take a slot for work in progress towards their Edinburgh shows in a month’s time. We’d already booked to see Miss Saigon on the Saturday, but that left the Sunday free… £16 for a wristband allowing you access to see five shows seemed a bargain, although £27 for two days works out at just £2.70 a show if you see everything you can, which is, indeed, top value.

First, some feedback about the venues – we saw two shows at the Bradlaugh, two at the Black Prince and one at the Lab. The Charles Bradlaugh has an excellent upstairs room capable of accommodating a big crowd for a comedy gig; it’s comfortable, has a well-stocked bar, and excellent sightlines; my only criticism would be that it can get too hot, but that’s a common problem in well attended comedy venues! The Lab is a much smaller venue with a nice intimate feel, but the hard chairs are, well, ouch! The bar is rather poorly stocked and when the barmen natter to each other during the show, the noise interrupts the act (just a friendly piece of advice for the future!) The quirky Black Prince was probably my favourite; a medium sized venue with an array of different types of seating from hard chairs to sofa, to stools, so you can take your pick for comfort. It also has a lovely garden for pre- or post-show drinkies.

Each venue had five shows a day, all at the same time, so you basically have a choice of three shows for each comedy slot. We’re lucky enough to see quite a bit of comedy so we’d already seen a number of the acts on show; and I thought, in best Fringe tradition, that it would be a good opportunity to catch some acts we didn’t know. That meant no to Stephen Bailey, Larry Dean, Geoff Norcott and Ed Byrne (and from Saturday’s line up, we would have missed Stuart Goldsmith, Pippa Evans and James Acaster. Didn’t they have some good names?!) So I made my choices in advance, and very nearly stuck to them. Let’s take them one by one.

Tom Toal (3pm Charles Bradlaugh)

Tom ToalWell this is where it gets difficult. Tom Toal’s Edinburgh show is Better Than Before, a rather intricate narrative show about following your dreams. It’s extremely clever, but, after a very welcoming and enjoyable first few minutes, including one great joke, I can’t say that either of us found the rest of it particularly funny. There’s a big setup for a significant callback which relies on the audience recognising, or not recognising, the name of an apparently infamous figure in history. Neither of us knew who this person was, and as a result we felt that we had totally misunderstood the punchline of a long joke. Disheartened, it made us feel a bit stupid, took us out of comedy-mode, and as a result the routine never regained traction with us. Mr T is clearly a likeable guy but this really needed to be a lot funnier than it was. Hey ho, there’s still time, that’s why you have work-in-progress try outs!

Ian Smith (4.30pm Black Prince)

Ian SmithIan Smith seems to have a quiet, unassuming personality, until he lets loose on a flight of fancy, and he’s off like a racehorse! A naturally very funny man, with a great understanding of those bizarre things people do, with which he then confronts you, so you absolutely recognise yourself in his comic scenarios. His Edinburgh show is called Snowflake, and is all about uniqueness – and how it is that we’re all unique yet we’re all the same. Over-running by fifteen minutes (with subsequent knock-on effects for the next show!) he has way too much material, but what to cut out? Because it was all brilliant. Reflections of Tromso including marvellous mental images of shitting huskies, (he found out we’d been there, so at least I added a little something to his act); words that don’t translate into English, but really ought to; googling people with your own name; and getting dismissed via the medium of poetry. The show was frequently interrupted by people wandering in and just standing alongside the stage and Mr Smith did a brilliant job of weaving them into his routine. Extremely funny and I would definitely recommend catching his show.

Jack Barry (6pm The Lab)

Jack BarryWith Stephen Bailey in one venue and Larry Dean in another, I guess Jack Barry was always going to be the least attended gig in this slot – and indeed, there were just seven of us in the audience. Sometimes it happens. But that’s an opportunity for the comic to draw on their resources and keep going, ensuring those seven have a good time – and that’s exactly what Jack Barry did. His Edinburgh show is High Treason, a comedy lecture about the benefits of legalising drugs. This is always going to be something that divides an audience, but Mr Barry does a very good job of keeping everyone onside, and actually he comes up with some clever (and funny) arguments to support his case. He has a very engaging style and a confident, fluid delivery and I thought he was extremely good. I hope his show gets a much better turnout in Edinburgh, because it certainly deserves it!

Ed Gamble (7.30pm Charles Bradlaugh)

Ed GambleWe had originally planned to see Glenn Wool in this slot at the Black Prince, but for some reason got sidetracked by the prospect of crisps and alcohol at the Bradlaugh as we were walking by. I’d only seen Ed Gamble on TV before so he still counted as “one we hadn’t seen on stage before”. A huge crowd obviously had the same idea, and by the time we’d gone upstairs to find somewhere to sit, our only option was standing at the bar. Still that did give us an excellent view of the stage, and also the opportunity to observe a very serious looking Mr Gamble prowling around the back of the room like an anxious cat, waiting for his moment to pounce on the stage. Once on, he presents a really slick and confident act, absolutely jam-packed full of laughter. Much of the material stems from his running a marathon – including the natural show-offishness that it engenders – and a really funny, if essentially simple, routine on holding in a fart whilst being massaged. There are some wonderful flight of fancy moments, such as treating a tethered priest as if it were a family pet (you had to be there) or how the boys at his posh school would have talked to each other. And there’s a brilliant explanation of how you can tell you’re in a spa. He was cheekily challenged by a guy at the front and I thought his subsequent put down erred on the cruel, so beware of sitting in the front row! But he’s naturally a brilliant comic and this was probably the show during which I laughed the most. Maybe, ever so slightly, a little safe? He’s not one of those comics who will examine a serious situation in an attempt to change the world through the medium of observational humour and surprise revelations. He’s far more likely to make fun of a burp. But he does it so very, very well. His Edinburgh show is called Mammoth and I predict a riot.

Phil Nichol (9pm Black Prince)

Phil NicholIt’s interesting to arrive early at a venue when the comic is still setting up and if he doesn’t mind having a chat with you whilst he’s getting ready. Phil Nichol is one such chap. You can tell right away that he’s a perfectionist, and you suspect that if the show goes wrong he’s really going to beat himself up about it. He looks down at his notes for the show, sighs, makes a few comments about how it’s all designed to find out what works and what doesn’t, looks at his notes again, sighs, and looks at you as if to say, “please don’t hurt me, I’m a lovely puppy.” He has no need to worry. His Edinburgh show, Your Wrong, deliberately, I’m sure, spelt grammatically incorrectly, talks about making mistakes, but primarily gives Mr Nichol a chance to rail against the world with all the power invested in him by his hard-hitting, energetic, excitable style. Much of the material stems from his relationship with his family, where he gives us a vivid and hilarious picture of being brought up in a Brethren household – praise God and pass the butter – and the account of the tragedy that befell his beloved older brother. En route, you get an insight into how Anne Robinson refused to be upstaged by him, and a new explanation for why the chicken crossed the road. “Some people say I should slow down my words a little”, he confessed, shortly before the show began. They’re probably right. But what you come away with is an impression of a man possessed by passion, desperate to drive home his points, and creating a comedy craftwork that both satisfies your desire to laugh and juxtaposes personal tragedy in the context of humour. It really makes you think, and it really makes you laugh. I loved it, and I’m sure it’s going to be an Edinburgh smash.

And that was our day! What a great day it was. Huge congratulations to the organisers and I hope we can all do it again next summer!

A Beginner’s Guide: Attending a Classical concert at Royal & Derngate

Hey there! Have a read of a blog post I’ve written about attending classical concerts at the Royal and Derngate! You can find the original here!

RPOWhen Mrs Chrisparkle and I moved to Northampton in 2008, she’d never been to a classical concert at all, and I’d only been once, as a teenager, trying to impress a very arty girl I was trying to go out with at the time; I was definitely boxing above my weight. We went to the elegant Wigmore Hall in London; a very grand location, where the music was appreciated reverentially and the less accessible it was, the better. I remember a programme of tedious heavy strings, sombre percussion and plodding piano. It was dismal, tuneless, pretentious nonsense. It didn’t even impress the girl, who later confessed she would sooner have seen Abba The Movie.

RPO1-300x200It was only when we first read about the full range of delights on offer at the Royal and Derngate, that it occurred to us this was a great opportunity to discover what live classical concerts were all about. The Royal Philharmonic Orchestra visit about five times a year, each time with a varied programme, which probably consists of a rousing overture, a concerto that calls for an expert soloist, and a stonking good symphony to round the concert off. The theatre also hosts the annual Malcolm Arnold Festival, celebrating the brilliance of our famous local composer. This culminates with a gala concert, which has been performed in the past by the likes of the Worthing Symphony Orchestra and the BBC Concert Orchestra; in 2017 the Royal Philharmonic are taking up this challenge. You don’t have to get on a train down to London and pay London prices for a classical concert experience when world class orchestras come up to Northampton; you can get tickets for as little as £15 – even less if you subscribe to three or more concerts in the season.

RPOThe Royal Philharmonic Orchestra: what does that say to you? Three random words, which, when you put them together, make beautiful, must-see music? Or do you think “it’s far too posh for the likes of me, I wouldn’t dare go to a classical concert”. Maybe you might think it would attract an audience full of stuffy old people, all twin-sets and war medals, so you wouldn’t fit in. Maybe you’re worried about concert etiquette and think you will make a fool of yourself by applauding at the wrong time? Maybe you already enjoy going to see the terrific plays that are regularly produced at the Royal and Derngate, but don’t know much about classical music – and think you’d find it boring? Well, if you’ve not been to a classical concert at the R&D before, and are wondering if you should try it – fear not, I’m here with some advice for you!

RPO2-260x300First off – is it a posh occasion? Definitely not. Classical music attracts equally the rich man in his castle and the poor man at his gate. Old, young, families, couples; groups of friends and relatives; singles wanting to concentrate on the music or indeed find another single person also interested in the classics! All are welcome. Wear what you like – you can be as smart or as casual as you wish, you don’t have to dress any differently from how you would normally for the theatre or the cinema. Everyone fits in – to be honest, the audience are concentrating on the orchestra and are not at all concerned about whether the other audience members are musically trained, public school educated or look smart!

Nigel Kennedy plays BrahmsEtiquette – when should I applaud? Traditionally, you applaud at the very end of each complete piece. So, whether you’re listening to a three-minute overture or an hour-long symphony, you would still applaud when it’s finished – i.e. after three minutes or after an hour. Sometimes it’s hard to work out whether a longer piece, like a symphony or concerto, has finished or not. But there are always clues to watch out for. Take your cue from the conductor. If he’s still facing the orchestra, baton poised in his hand, looking serious, it may well not have finished yet. If he’s relaxed, baton down, and he turns to face the audience – it’s over.

RPO3-300x200I like to play a game with myself, trying to identify the individual movements within a larger piece. If you buy the programme – which is a really good idea, because it’s crammed with information not only about the performers and the composers, but also about the individual pieces that are played – you can find out how many movements there are and try to spot where each one ends and the next one begins. If you know your scherzo from your andante, that helps; but even if not, the programme notes will assist you identify the livelier sections from the quieter sections – and that way you can follow the music as it progresses. It’s really rewarding when you say to yourself, “there’s a change of mood coming up” or “it’s just about to finish” – and you’re right!

English Classics with Julian Lloyd WebberThat also goes to show that you don’t need to know the music in advance in order to enjoy it. It is amazing how many familiar tunes though are lifted from classical works, and it’s fun to suddenly realise “I know this! It’s from that carpet advert!” Many of the pieces that the RPO include in their programmes are very well-known, and you can hear an audible sigh of pleasure when the audience suddenly recognises a tune. Recently they played Rossini’s William Tell overture and not a soul wasn’t thinking about the Lone Ranger.

RPOgroupAnd it’s not just about the music – live performance always has a theatricality all of its own. When you’ve got maybe forty or more musicians on stage, there are always mini-dramas to enjoy. See what kind of a relationship the conductor has with the musicians, whether they’re jokey or serious. See how the soloist reacts to the rest of the orchestra – are they aloof or one of the lads? Watch out for sneaky chatting between the violinists, or the percussionist dashing over to the celeste just in time to play a few notes before dashing back to the triangle, or the tuba or double-bass player making themselves giggle by how low a note they can get their instrument to play. I love watching the interaction between everyone – their mutual admiration for each other’s skills, how they turn each other’s sheet music pages, how they might even look at each other with amusement or horror if something doesn’t go quite right. All sorts of things can happen on that stage, and it’s all part of the live entertainment!

Natalie Clein plays DvořákThere’s often a pre-concert talk which gives you a further opportunity to understand a little bit more about the pieces and what to listen for – I don’t normally get around to seeing the talk, but I have a friend who wouldn’t miss them for the world. I’m more likely to get to the theatre half an hour before the concert starts, order a couple of glasses of Merlot for the interval, study the programme to see exactly what’s in store, make my way to our favourite seats, and then just let it all wash over me.

Last Night of the Derngate PromsOver the years we’ve seen some extraordinary concerts – including great soloists like Julian Lloyd-Webber, Nigel Kennedy, Natalie Clein, John Williams and Jack Liebeck; we’ve heard Ravel’s Bolero, Holst’s Planets, Elgar’s Enigma Variations, the 1812 Overture, Dvorak’s New World Symphony and all the fun of the Last Night of the Proms, RPO-style.

CinderellaThe next concert, on 16th July, is a Film Music Gala and would be the perfect introduction to the Royal Philharmonic concerts for anyone who feels they might enjoy them and wants to dip their toe in the water. We can expect loads of memorable and recognisable tunes, from Star Wars to Titanic; and the vocalist is Alison Jiear, who not only won the nation’s hearts on Britain’s Got Talent, but she also sang like a dream in the R&D’s Cinderella in 2015. She will be singing some of John Barry’s best loved film tunes and I’m sure she’ll make them her own. And of course, it will be a chance for the Royal Philharmonic to show off their livelier and more informal side. I can’t wait, it’s going to be brilliant. Why don’t you book too?